I was supposed to be going to the theatre on Wednesday evening, but the announcement of a pre-season friendly at Clarence Park put paid to that. I know that there are varying schools of thought about pre-season games, with many regarding attendance as pointless, but I love them. It is a chance to ease yourself gently back in with games whose results don’t matter, to get an early look at new signings and to catch up with your football friends.
We stationed ourselves outside the Sponsors’ Lounge and there was a different vibe from previous games at the same venue with the visit of Premier League opposition attracting a different class of visitor. I don’t think I have ever seen glasses of white wine being drunk on the perimeter of a non-league pitch before.
Our position turned to our advantage as I looked up to see our new manager approaching. I took the opportunity to welcome him, for which he thanked me. He was followed by the coaching staff and then the players. I was impressed that Vydra didn’t look the least bit scared when I greeted him with “At last you are ours.” Inside, he smiled and said, “At last.” As the last of the players passed us, I wondered where Deeney was and then saw that he was having photos taken with fans. He was running late behind his teammates, but still took time when he saw us ask how we were and to shake Don’s hand and give me a kiss.
Crowds had flocked to the game but, as the scheduled kick-off time drew near, many were still outside the gates so kick-off was delayed for 15 minutes. That must be a first for a Watford pre-season game.
Quique Sanchez Flores named a very strong starting line-up: Gomes, Pudil, Cathcart, Angella, Anya, Capoue, Watson, Ighalo, Abdi, Forestieri and Deeney. I must admit that, since I always struggle to identify players in pre-season while writing my match reports (new hair-cuts usually do for me), I was happy that only one unfamiliar face was on show.
Prior to kick-off, as the players formed the line for the ‘respect’ handshake, they were joined by the Mayor of St Albans. I don’t remember that happening when we played in the Football League.
Watford had an early chance as Deeney headed the ball down to Ighalo but the ball ran away from the Nigerian and the chance was gone. Then Capoue released Pudil on the wing, he crossed for Deeney who couldn’t connect. Forestieri played a low cross to Deeney who cut it back to Abdi, but the Professor’s shot was straight at the Saints keeper. The first goal attempt from the home side was put out for a corner which Gomes punched in the direction of a Saints player but Forestieri was on hand to block the follow-up. Watford resumed their attacks as Deeney passed to Forestieri, who found space for a shot but it was a bit soft, so easily saved. An attempt by Deeney to reach an Abdi ball over the top to him in the box was stopped by a push, but there was no penalty appeal. Deeney then shaped for a scissor kick, but a defender blocked the ball before he could connect.
A lovely Abdi corner should have been converted but Capoue’s header was mistimed and the ball went sailing past him. Pudil found Forestieri who cut inside and shot into the side netting. It had been mostly one way traffic in the first 25 minutes, but St Albans threatened as Cathcart was pushed off the ball and the cross reached Hilliard whose shot cleared the bar. It was then Angella who lost out to Hilliard but the striker again shot over the target. At the other end, an Abdi free kick was easily gathered by Jones. The home side threatened again as a cross from Bishop was headed clear by Angella while Hilliard’s follow-up shot flew wide of the far post. Watford took the lead in the 32rd minute as a cross from Anya was turned back by Pudil to Ighalo who powered the ball into the net. We were two up very soon afterwards as Capoue played a one-two with Anya before very generously feeding Ighalo who finished. It could have been three goals within five minutes as Deeney hit a lovely half volley that just cleared the bar. So we went into the break two goals up after a half that was thoroughly entertaining. The new boy certainly impressed and there was a lot of lovely passing and not tiki-taka stuff, but Bolton-esque crossfield balls.
I expected wholesale changes for the Hornets at half-time, but there were only five substitutions with Arlauskis, Prödl, Hoban, McGugan and Vydra replacing Gomes, Angella, Pudil, Watson and Ighalo. The home side also made a number of changes. Connor Smith soon joined the fray replacing Capoue, who had a very good first game in a Watford shirt. Almost immediately, Deeney was bearing down on the St Albans goal but Jones came off his line and put him off so he shot over the bar. The next change was Lloyd Dyer (no, I didn’t think I’d see him in a Watford shirt again either) replacing Forestieri. For the home side, Ngoyi shot wide of the far post, although the whistle had already gone for a rather harsh offside decision. On the hour Abdi shot just wide. Another unexpected face returned as Belkalem came on for Cathcart. Dyer played a one-two with Vydra before putting in a cross that was turned out for a corner from which Prödl’s header over the target. Dyer was instrumental in the third Watford goal as he rounded the keeper and hit a shot which was cleared back to him so he squared for Deeney to blast home. Watford’s next substitution saw young professional Dennon Lewis replacing Abdi. The first time Arlauskis was called into action he impressed, blocking a close range shot and then saving the follow-up.
Watford’s next chance was a McGugan free-kick which flew over the bar. There was a further substitution as Anya was replaced by Paredes. The home side hadn’t given up and a shot from Medlock was saved by the legs of Arlauskis. At the other end a chance for Deeney was slightly scuffed and went straight to the keeper. Dennon Lewis broke into the box, but his shot was saved. The final substitution saw the last of the starters, Deeney, replaced by Byers. Watford’s fourth came in the 87th minute as a cut back from Paredes was met with a shot from Smith that took a wicked deflection to fly over Jones in the St Albans goal. There was one last chance for the Hornets but McGugan’s shot was saved so the visitors ran out 4 goal winners.
Those who shun pre-season games missed a treat. It was a very good performance on a gorgeous Summer’s evening. The new boys all looked impressive, the old boys played their part, there were four goals and I got a kiss from the Watford captain. All in all, a very good evening.