Monday’s game against Spurs was a very odd experience. Going to Wembley for a normal league game just didn’t seem right. The crowd looked very sparse despite there being over 52,000 there. Unlike normal away games, the concourse pre-match was very quiet indeed. As for the match, the Hornets put in a very decent performance but, as so often this season, made a couple of mistakes at the back and failed to make the most of their attacking chances, so ended the game on the end of a 2-0 defeat. One that wasn’t unexpected, so didn’t leave me too dispirited.
It was lovely to be back at Vicarage Road for the last home game of the season. Unusually for a bank holiday weekend, the sun was shining brightly. There was a great turn out in the West Herts. The call had gone out that there would be a game of Soccer Dice. Boys versus Girls in the ToddDee challenge. Fittingly, Toddy’s son, Chris was in attendance and enthusiastically joined in. Soccer Dice is a simple game as you throw a set of dice, one at a time, following the instructions until a goal or a miss is thrown. This may sound like quite a sedate pastime but, as it always does, it quickly descended into rowdiness and accusations of cheating. The boys won 9-6, but I suspect there were some nefarious activities involved in that victory. Dee and Toddy would have both loved it.
The crowd on the way down Occupation Road seemed larger than usual and there was a tremendous atmosphere. As usual, I bought my programme from the woman just inside the Rookery concourse and wished her a happy close season. Then to my usual seat for the last time until August. There was a flag just along from me that wasn’t being used, so I took possession and waved it. I then realised why I don’t usually try as I am so cack-handed that the guys in the row in front appeared to be under attack. Thankfully, they were uninjured in the process.
Team news was three changes from Monday with Janmaat, Pereyra and Deeney coming in for Mariappa, Femenía and Richarlison. So the starting line-up was Karnezis; Janmaat, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deeney and Gray, lining up in a 4-4-2 formation, much to the joy of many Watford fans. After our recent run of results, and knowing that we could do with the points to make absolutely sure of safety, I went into this game feeling rather tense.
The game kicked off and, thankfully, the team were not as nervous as I was and started quite brilliantly with Deeney and Gray combining before finding Doucouré who played a lovely square ball to Pereyra, who finished from close range. 1-0 up after two minutes in glorious sunshine and all felt right with the world. Watford continued to attack as Gray played a through ball to Pereyra, his shot was blocked but rebounded to Deeney, whose shot was also blocked, then Capoue tried his luck and the shot was deflected for a corner, but it was all very positive. Watford continued to dominate, but didn’t test the keeper again until the 26th minute when Capoue won the ball in midfield. He stopped, apparently thinking that there had been a foul, when he finally played on he found Deeney who passed the ball out to Gray on the right, from where he unleashed a terrific shot that Dúbravka did well to save.
But Gray wasn’t to be denied for long as he received a lovely cross from Pereyra and headed home to put the Hornets two goals up. Newcastle then had their first chance of note as Gayle played the ball back to Shelvey whose shot was stopped by a terrific block by Doucouré. When Gray broke into the Newcastle box, he appeared to have won a corner, but the lino was flagging frantically and the referee pointed to the spot. Deeney stepped up to take the penalty but hit a low shot that was easily saved by Dúbravka, Troy reached the rebound but, again, the Newcastle keeper denied him. I hoped that we wouldn’t end up rueing that miss, as a third goal would surely have finished the game off. The first booking of the game went to Pérez for kicking the ball away after the home side had won a free kick. So the Hornets reached half time two goals up after a very impressive performance indeed.
At half time, the award for the Academy player of the season was presented to Lewis Gordon. Let us hope that he goes on to become a first team regular. The presentation was made by Tommy Hoban, who has had yet another season out due to injury. So sad for such a great prospect and a lovely lad.
The final of the half time penalty shoot-out was between Holy Rood and St Pauls. It has to be said that there were some excellent penalties and Holy Rood ran out deserved 4-2 winners.
Watford started the second half brightly as a free kick from Holebas was plucked out of the air by Dúbravka. Then Gray’s attempt to latch on to a ball over the top from Deeney was frustrated by a shoulder barge that was deemed fair. The first substitution was made by Benitez as Ritchie came on in place of Murphy. Watford continued to threaten as a free-kick was headed clear to Pereyra whose shot from the edge of the box flew over the bar. The visitors pulled a goal back 10 minutes into the half as a counter-attack finished with a deep cross from Manquillo that was turned in by Pérez. At this point, my pre-match nerves returned with a vengeance. Gracia immediately made a change as Deulofeu replaced Pereyra. The substitution was a little surprising as the Argentine had a great game. The Spaniard had a ropey start, his first action being to pass the ball back to Gayle, thankfully the shot was blocked.
The first card for the home side was awarded to Kabasele for blocking a run by Pérez. Deulofeu then played a lovely ball to Gray who cut the ball back from a tight angle, but there was no Watford player there to capitalise. Gracia’s next substitution was even more baffling than the first and was greeted with boos, as he replaced Deeney with Mariappa, which, much as I adore Mapps, seemed incredibly negative with only a goal in the game and half an hour remaining. Mariappa was nearly on the scoresheet at the wrong end as he met a cross from Manquillo with a header that needed a decent save from Karnezis to keep it out. Manquillo was then replaced by Yedlin. Watford’s next goal attempt came from Capoue who tried a shot from distance that was headed out by Dummett for a corner. At the other end, there was a worrying scramble in the Watford box before the ball was finally cleared. Holebas was the next player to be cautioned after taking too long to take a throw-in. The Newcastle fans thought they had scored an equalizer as, from a corner, Shelvey played a low cross to Pérez but the shot hit the side netting. Gracia’s final substitution saw Gray replaced by Richarlison. There was a half chance for the Hornets as a free kick from Holebas was met by the head of Kabasele, but the effort was easily gathered by Dúbravka. Then Doucouré appeared to play a lovely through ball for Richarlison, but the young Brazilian broke too early and was flagged offside.
The final Newcastle substitution saw Merino come on for Diamé. The visitors threatened again as Yedlin went on run down the right wing and pulled the ball back for Merino, but Mariappa made the block to avert the danger. Another decent-looking move from Watford came to nothing as Richarlison broke forward, but his pass was too far in front of Deulofeu and the chance went begging. Into four minutes of added time and we were counting down the seconds as Pérez whipped in a cross that was gathered confidently by Karnezis. Fair play to the Hornet fans at this point as we chanted “Watford FC” with all our might, encouraging our team to hold out as all the play was around the Watford box. Finally the ball was cleared and Richarlison tried to escape and was pulled to the ground. At this point, the referee blew the final whistle and the Watford fans celebrated a win that finally guaranteed the safety that we felt that we had for months. The Watford players all collapsed to the ground. It had been a very hot afternoon and they had given their all.
We waited around after the final whistle for the players to do their lap of honour. Knowing that they had guaranteed another season of Premier League football at Vicarage Road, it was all smiles. They then presented a couple of the end of season awards. The Community Ambassador award went to Christian Kabasele, whose presentation was slightly delayed as his little ‘un was entertaining the Rookery trying to score a goal. As he carried the ball over the line I reflected that he may be a rugby player in the making. Then the Players’ Player was presented to Abdoulaye Doucouré, a very popular choice who, when given the mic and a bit of encouragement from Tim Coombs, joined in with his song, which was fabulous.
So it was back to the West Herts, with a mixture of joy, relief and frustration. That game was Watford’s season in microcosm. A first half in which we played some gorgeous football, were clearly the better team, but missed a penalty when we could have finished the game off. The second half was much more nervy as the players tired and, while they defended decently enough, allowed the visitors too much time in our half so my nerves were in shreds. Again, the opposition scored with their only shot on target. Thankfully, on this occasion, it only affected the goal difference. So I spent the last post-match gathering of the season sitting in the sun with dear friends, reflecting on a win while drinking beer, eating Drummy’s jerk chicken and watching the West Herts cricket team win. Just perfect.