Tag Archives: Hector Bellerin

Lucky, Lucky Arsenal

Watford fans invading Highbury

During the week, I received an email from a Watford friend who lives in one of the apartments at the old Highbury stadium inviting our party for a pre-match tour.  As arranged, we met outside the main entrance which is part of the old East Stand facade and were taken into the marble hall to see the bust of Herbert Chapman and the Arsenal insignia that adorn the floors.  Then out to “the pitch”, which is now a communal garden.  We stood on the centre circle, noted the spot at which GT had his altercation with Steve Williams in 1987 and admired the memorial bench that has been added in memory of all the Arsenal fans who had had their ashes scattered at Highbury.  It was all rather lovely, and pleasing that so much of the façade has been retained.  Apparently, you don’t have to be an Arsenal fan to live there, but a couple of residents who turned up after a game wearing their West Ham shirts found that they could not get past security, so they do have some standards.

From there we made our way to one of the few pubs around the ground that allows away fans in.  It wasn’t the most salubrious of venues and the selection of beer was limited and not particularly appealing, it certainly reminded me why we usually have our pre-match pint further afield.

As expected, team news was that Gracia would make his first change to the starting XI this season, with the enforced omission of the injured Janmaat who was replaced by Navarro.  Thankfully, the red card shown to Kabasele during the week had been rescinded, so he was available for selection.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Kabasele, Cathcart, Navarro; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes; Deeney, Gray.

Pereyra and Holebas preparing for a free kick

Watford started the game brightly, but had an early scare as Lacazette burst into the area, he was tripped by Kabasele but stayed on his feet and shot wide.  I suspect that if the Arsenal man had gone to ground, the referee would have awarded a penalty, so we were grateful to him for his honesty.  Watford then had a terrific chance to take the lead as Deeney headed a cross from Holebas back to Hughes but the shot was just wide of the target.  The hosts then had a great chance as Lacazette robbed Cathcart in midfield and advanced towards Foster, he lifted the ball over the keeper, but it drifted just wide of the target, much to the relief of the travelling Hornets.  At the other end, Deeney found Hughes whose shot was deflected over, but the flag was up for an infringement anyway.   The first caution of the game went to Deeney for a foul on Monreal.  A free kick from Holebas caused some concern in the Arsenal defence, but Cech was able to make the block as Kabasele challenged, before also blocking the follow-up from Deeney.  At the other end, Xhaka tried a shot from the edge of the area, but Foster was down to gather.  The first card for the home side went to Torreira, who was booked for a foul on Deeney.  Arsenal were forced to make a substitution in time added on at the end of the first half, when Cech pulled a hamstring while taking a free kick and had to be replaced by Leno making his debut in the Arsenal goal.

I must admit that at the end of the half, I felt that Arsenal had more of the play, which may have been due to my position low down in the stand at the end which Arsenal were attacking. Although, I seemed to have been unduly intimidated by their attacking prowess as others around me were bemoaning us not taking our chances and feeling that we should have had the lead.

Deeney and Success ready for a ball into the box

The first chance of the second half fell to the home side as a corner from Özil was headed over the bar by Holding.  There was a much better chance for the Hornets as Deeney met a Holebas free kick with a shot that was heading for the bottom corner until Leno made a great save to put it out for a corner.  At the other end, an Arsenal breakaway finished with Lacazette heading wide of the target.   Mustafi was booked for a protest and then Emery made his first unforced substitution bringing Iwobi on for Ramsey.  Watford threatened as Gray latched on to a through ball from Deeney, but Leno was out to block the shot.  Leno was called into action again soon after, gathering a cross from Holebas.  Then Pereyra had a terrific chance to open the scoring, cutting inside Torreira before shooting just wide of the far post.  Gracia made his first change with 20 minutes to go, bringing Success on for Gray.  The substitute made an immediate impact as he received a pass from Deeney and took a shot that was blocked by Holding.  Watford threatened again as a Holebas free kick broke to Cathcart who poked the ball goalwards, it was blocked and his follow-up was caught by Leno.  Success should have given Watford the lead when he broke into the box, but he aimed for the far corner and the shot bounced agonizingly off the post.

Deeney passing instructions to Pereyra

At this point the voice of Cassandra could be heard behind me, “We know what will happen now.”  Arsenal’s final substitution came with quarter of an hour remaining as Aubameyang made way for Welbeck.  Then the normally mild mannered Doucouré went into the book for a protest.  With nine minutes to go, Cassandra’s prophesy came true as Iwobi crossed for Lacazette and Cathcart’s intervention only served to deflect the ball into the net.  So irritating.  Watford had had their best spell of the game and looked totally in control, but the home side were ahead.  Watford had a chance to break back as Pereyra played the ball out to Doucouré who shot well over the bar.  But it wasn’t to be and insult was added to injury as Arsenal scored a second two minutes later after another quick break as Lacazette exchanged passes with Iwobi before sliding the ball to Özil who side-footed home. Watford made a second change with Femenía coming on for Navarro.  At this point, the Arsenal fans could be heard for pretty much the first time all afternoon with a chant of “Deeney, what’s the score?”  The visitors had a couple of late chances to reduce the deficit.  First, Pereyra went on a run before firing over the bar.  Then Doucouré met a cross from Holebas with a header that flew over the bar.  Into time added on and the final chance of the game fell to the home side, but the shot from

Herbert Chapman in the Marble Halls

Lacazette was just wide of the far post.

It was a cruel finish to the game.  Watford had been the better side for most of the second half and had considerably more shots on goal, but the hosts made the most of those that they had and it was the finishing that proved the difference between the teams.

Still, it was difficult to be too upset.  It had been another terrific performance with the Hornets yet again showing themselves to be easily the match of one of the top six.  On the evidence of the performances so far this season, we have little to fear when facing the majority of the teams in this division and I never thought that I would be saying that when we were first promoted.

 

Silencing the Gunners

Richarlison inspired by a cuddle from my niece

My niece was unwell last week, so was home from university for a few days to recuperate.  She decided to make a trip to St Albans and found herself captured on Heurelho Gomes’ Instagram live.  A cuddle from both Richarlison and Gomes certainly helped hasten her recovery, the photos with them were gorgeous and made her aunt smile.  I don’t have a photo with Richarlison yet!

The evening kick-off on Saturday meant that I was arriving in the West Herts at the time that I am usually leaving for the ground.  An odd and unsettling feeling, but the other Watford fans in the bar reassured me that I hadn’t misunderstood the kick-off time.  Given the two away games and the international break, this was the first home game since Toddy passed away, so it was a sombre crowd that gathered.  There was a huge contingent of Norfolk Horns in attendance and Toddy’s son, Chris, came along, which was just lovely.  I doubt he has ever been hugged so much before.  Glasses were raised, happy memories exchanged and there was a determination to sing our hearts out for Toddy as well as the lads.

Team news was three changes with Britos, Pereyra and Gray coming in for Capoue, Carrillo and Deeney.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Kabasele, Mariappa, Britos; Femenía, Doucouré, Cleverley, Holebas; Pereyra, Gray, Richarlison.  A change in formation to 3-4-3.  The Watford connection at Arsenal came in the shape of former loanee, Hector Bellerin.

Holebas preparing for a throw-in

We arrived in the Rookery to find that the large flag was already in place.  It certainly looked magnificent in the photos.  Well done, yet again, to the 1881 for a fantastic display.

The first action of the game anywhere near the goal came as an Arsenal cross was missed by the head of Lacazette before being headed clear.  At the other end a cut back from Richarlison was blocked by Mertesacker before it reached Gray.  A better chance for the Hornets came as Holebas found Doucouré on the left, he delivered a decent cross that was headed just wide by Pereyra.  Twenty minutes into the game, there was more action in the stands than on the pitch as it appeared to kick off for the second time in the Rookery, presumably due to the presence of away fans in the home stand.  I hoped that the Arsenal fan who was sitting next to me would get the message about making his allegiance obvious.  Back on the pitch, Femenía crossed for Richarlison, but the ball was too far in front of the Brazilian and he was unable to apply the finish.  Then Richarlison got his head to a ball in the midfield before racing towards the penalty area, but Bellerin was able to get back to stop him from shooting.

Mariappa, Pereyra and Richarlison in the box

Arsenal’s first goal attempt came just before the half hour as Elneny tried a shot from distance that flew just over the bar.  Then Welbeck received the ball in the box in a dangerous position, but was stopped by a terrific block from Holebas.  The visitors came closer as Iwobi tried a curling shot, but Gomes was equal to it.  At this point the bloke behind us, who spends 90 minutes loudly spouting drivel, commented, “You’ve got to be more intelligent.”  Oh, the irony!   Watford threatened as a cross was met by Richarlison, but the header was poor and flew wide.  Some good work from Holebas led to a corner, the delivery from Xhaka was met by Mertesacker who was allowed a free header which he hit past Gomes to put the visitors in the lead.  Arsenal had their tails up now as Xhaka tried a shot that was blocked, Bellerin shot wide from the follow-up.  Xhaka threatened again, but this time his shot was caught by Gomes.  In time added on at the end of the half, Pereyra crossed for Richarlison, he crossed back in to the box, but Cech gathered.

It had been a fairly dull first half, the goal being the only shot on target.  Arsenal were slightly fortunate to have the lead, but had made the most of their chance from a set piece.

Celebrating Deeney’s penalty

Watford started the second half well and Richarlison was the first to threaten as he cut in from the left and curled a shot just wide of the target.  A lovely ball over the top from Cleverley to Gray deserved more than to be cut out by Mertesacker.  A cross from Holebas had to be tipped wide by Cech as Doucouré was challenging.  Wenger made the first personnel change on the hour, bringing Özil on for Welbeck.  There were shouts from the Rookery for a penalty as there appeared to be a handball in the box, but the referee blew up for an earlier free kick.  Silva then made a tactical change bringing Deeney and Carrillo on for Gray and Mariappa, who had been excellent yet again, and changing to 4 at the back.  Arsenal had a great chance of a second goal as a shot from Iwobi was flying in until Gomes made a fingertip save to keep it out.  Arsenal’s second change saw Giroud come on in place of Lacazette.  Özil really should have scored a second for the visitors as he found himself in space with only Gomes to beat, but the Watford keeper kept him out.  At the other end, Richarlison broke into the box where he was tripped by Bellerin and the referee pointed to the spot.  My Arsenal-supporting neighbour didn’t do himself any favours at this point by indicating that he thought it was a dive.  I may have made him feel less than welcome.  Deeney stepped up, sent Cech the wrong way and levelled the scores.

Another mad celebration with fists in the way

Watford had a great chance for a second soon after as Richarlison broke into the box again, but his shot hit the side netting.  A dangerous looking Arsenal attack was stopped by Britos who calmly came away with the ball.  Silva made his final change as Pereyra, who looked exhausted, was replaced by Capoue.  The Frenchman was soon in action with a shot that came off the head of Mertesacker and rebounded off the post.  The last substitution for the visitors saw Holding replace Koscielny.  Richarlison had another decent chance as he received a throw from Holebas, turned and volleyed over the bar.  Richarlison then found Carrillo whose shot was also too high.  A rare second half chance for Arsenal came from a corner, Britos headed the ball clear but only as far as Monreal who, thankfully, shot over the bar.  But the momentum was with the home side and when the fourth official indicated 4 minutes of time added on, the Vicarage Road faithful roared their encouragement.  The winner wasn’t pretty, but who cares.  There was a bit of pinball in the box as a series of shots were blocked before the ball fell to Cleverley who powered it into the roof of the net causing total pandemonium in the Rookery.  There were screams and hugs and smiles.  The Arsenal fan redeemed himself as he said that we deserved it as we’d been the better team in the second half.  The visitors had a chance to grab a point as a cross from Özil was met by the head of Giroud, but Gomes gathered safely and the final whistle went to confirm the win for the Hornets.

Doucoure and Mariappa

There were joyous scenes at the final whistle.  Phones were out with the Premier League table displayed showing Watford in the heady heights of fourth.  There were breathless discussions, heads shaking and “How good was that?”  The people that sit around us have been there for more years than I care to remember and we have suffered some very bad times together, so it is lovely to see all these people smiling and enjoying the football as much as we are.

We were being driven home by an Arsenal fan, who did his best to bring us down by telling us that the television verdict was that Richarlison had dived and could well face a retrospective ban.  I have to say that hadn’t been my view from behind the goal and the footage on Match of the Day certainly appeared to show contact.  It may have been a soft penalty, but it seemed legitimate.  When we arrived back at my sister’s she told us that Troy had given his shirt to a little lad who looked absolutely delighted (I have seen the footage on Twitter and the boy and his Dad couldn’t have looked happier).  We then listened in interest as Troy spoke with great honesty and insight about the game and his career.  I was highly amused to hear that his son, Myles, had texted that he hated him after scoring against his team, Arsenal.

Carrillo

It was a magnificent performance.  Yet another last minute goal, the third in successive games, underlines the resilience of this team.  The football is a joy to watch and the players are all working as a team.  It is hard to pick players out, but Cleverley has been a rock for weeks now and it was lovely to see him get a goal to crown an impressive performance.  Deeney also deserves praise.  He could have sulked being left out of the team, but he came on and made a difference, Arsenal found his physical presence hard to cope with and he wasn’t going to miss that penalty.

After we lost to Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final in 2007, I was invited on to Radio Five for a programme that featured Rogan Taylor, on which I bemoaned the fact that the young Watford fans of today would never experience the highs that I had following the Watford team in the early 80s.  It turns out that I was wrong and I couldn’t be happier.

Pereyra Strikes in a Game of Two Halves

Defending a corner

Defending a corner

As I boarded the train at Euston on my way to the game, I assumed that it was standing room only as the vestibules were packed with blokes holding cans of beer.  Not at all, the Arsenal lads were starting the day as they meant to go on but were very polite as they moved to let the tutting old woman through to take her seat.  I thought I had timed things perfectly this week, but still managed to arrive at the West Herts before the doors opened.  There had been a recent change in their catering that meant, on the last two visits, all food was delivered in styrofoam cartons with plastic cutlery.  The horrors of adding to landfill meant that I bought lunch on the way to the game, only to find that they had reverted to using plates and metal cutlery.  Hoorah!!  Even better, after the brief loneliness of Tuesday evening, all the usual suspects were back in position.

Team news was that there were two changes from the Chelsea game.  Both in defence and both enforced (Cathcart had a groin injury and Britos’s partner was about to give birth).  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Kaboul, Prödl, Kabasele; Amrabat, Guedioura, Capoue, Behrami, Holebas; Deeney and Ighalo.

Guedioura and Kaboul

Guedioura and Kaboul

The first notable action of the game was a foul by Amrabat on Sánchez in the box.  It was an age before the referee pointed to the spot which provoked fury among the home fans.  It has to be said that, even from our vantage point just behind the goal, we didn’t really see the challenge and it appeared that the dramatic reaction by the Arsenal player had influenced the referee, but footage of the incident showed that it was the correct decision.  Cazorla stepped up and sent Gomes the wrong way giving Arsenal an early lead and the Hornets a mountain to climb.  Kevin Friend, the referee, didn’t endear himself to the home crowd as Walcott appeared to run into Prödl and the Austrian was shown a yellow card.  Arsenal could have been two up as a cross from Bellerin was cleared off the line, then a shot from Walcott was saved.  Watford’s first goal chance came following a break from Amrabat whose cross was almost turned home by Koscielny but Cech managed to keep it out.  Deeney’s follow-up was just wide.  Soon after, a shot-cum-cross from Amrabat landed on the roof of the net.  Mr Friend had been very quick to blow his whistle for anything remotely resembling a challenge on an Arsenal player, so there was annoyance when Amrabat was knocked to the ground with no consequences.  This was compounded when the next challenge on Nordin, which looked powder puff, was punished with a free kick.  Watford had had a really good spell around the half hour culminating with a corner from Capoue that was headed just wide by Kabasele.

Capoue takes a corner

Capoue takes a corner

At the other end, Sánchez broke into the box and shot, but Gomes saved with his feet.  Against the run of play, Arsenal increased their lead with five minutes of the half remaining, as Sanchez met a cross from Walcott, the shot appeared to have been cleared off the line but, for the second game running, the goalline technology indicated that a goal had been scored.  The visitors could have been further ahead as Walcott had a shot from a tight angle saved by Gomes.   The third goal came in time added on at the end of the half as Özil appeared out of nowhere to head a Sánchez cross home.  It was a quality goal, but the scoreline was very harsh on the Hornets who had made a game of it once they had gone behind.  My reaction at half time was “Please make it stop.”  Most others among the home fans were booing the referee.

At the start of the second period we saw the introduction of Pereyra in place of Guedioura.  The lad who sits next to me remarked, “Unless he can walk on water, I’m not sure that he can live up to these levels of expectation.”  Soon after, the less heralded Janmaat replaced Kabasele.  Watford had a great chance to pull one back after some great work from Ighalo who beat a couple of challenges before passing to Amrabat who found Capoue whose powerful shot was saved by Cech.

Congratulating the new boy, Pereyra, on his goal

Congratulating the new boy, Pereyra, on his goal

Watford finally made the breakthrough on 57 minutes as a shot from Capoue was blocked, but the ball dropped to Pereyra who beat Cech to score with his first shot for the Hornets.  The home side could have pulled another one back when a lovely cross from Janmaat was met by Holebas whose shot required a good save from Cech to keep it out; Ighalo’s follow-up was blocked.  Watford had another great chance as a throw was headed on by an Arsenal player to Ighalo whose overhead kick was only just over the bar.  Amrabat’s last action of the game was a foul on Wilshere.  As he was about to be substituted he ran off the pitch and had to be recalled from the depths of the dugout to be shown the yellow card.  Well it made me smile.  Success was the player who took his place, and he almost made an immediate impact as he met a corner from Capoue with a header that flew just wide.  Pereyra, who had made an impressive debut, turned provider as he laid the ball off to Behrami who shot just wide.  At the other end, there was a rare second half chance for the Gunners as a mistake from Kaboul allowed Sánchez a shot on goal, but a flying save from Gomes stopped it.  As we reached time added on at the end of the second half, Arsenal received their first booking of the game as Wilshere was punished for a foul on Capoue.  This was met by loud, ironic cheers from the Rookery faithful.  In a game that was far from dirty, Watford had managed to amass 6 yellow cards while, Sánchez, who stats showed had committed the most fouls in the game, remained card-free.

An attacking corner

An attacking corner

The game finished to applause for the second half performance and boos for the officials.  As the players congratulated each other, it was interesting to see Gomes and Cech deep in conversation and then swapping shirts.

It had been a very encouraging performance from the Watford lads, especially in the second half.  Some commented that Arsenal were already three up at the start of the half so didn’t have to do much, but that seemed rather churlish and unfair to the guys who worked so hard and didn’t let their heads drop when 3 goals behind.  Amrabat and Capoue continue to perform well and the new guys all looked good.  If Pereyra didn’t actually walk on water he certainly showed why he is so widely admired within the game.  I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do once he gets to know his team mates.  Ighalo also had an encouraging game creating a couple of decent chances, which was pleasing to see.

Sadly, there was also confirmation of the news that Vydra had moved to Derby, so those that believed he was saying goodbye as he was substituted on Tuesday were proved correct.  This was rather disappointing if not surprising.  I must admit that, while I have very fond memories of that stunning half season, I have been a little surprised at the hero’s welcome that he has had on every appearance this season.  It is a real shame that he never built on the great start that he had.  He has a chance of a new start at Derby.  I wish him well and hope that he finally realizes his potential.

After the international break, we have the last of our run of nightmare games to start the season and it will be in the following run of games that we see what this team is capable of.  On the basis of this performance, I am very much looking forward to it.

A Day to Forget at the Emirates

Welcome to the Clock End

Welcome to the Clock End

Groundhog Day.  Three weeks after the trip to the Emirates for the FA Cup match, we were back in the league.  We arrived for pre match drinks to see a couple of early arrivals and, as time went on, others arrived and we gathered a good group before leaving for the game.  My niece, Amelia, was present for the pre-match festivities and I looked at her surrounded by all the old folk and commented, “This is the worst part of your day.”  How wrong I was.

On the tube to Arsenal, I met a former colleague.  After catching up on our career moves since last we met, he asked my prediction for the game.  “We won’t win.”

Arsenal’s new home is a bit of an oddity.  As you emerge from Arsenal station, it feels like a proper old school ground with narrow streets and lots of food outlets, as well as the requisite ticket touts.  Then you turn a corner and are faced with the bright shiny new stadium, which is an estate in and of itself.  As you walk past the statues and the celebratory cladding on the stadium, you have to weave in and out of the tourists taking selfies, something that would never have happened when we were regulars in the 80s.  We made our way to the away turnstiles to be greeted with a sign welcoming us.  Again, I couldn’t help thinking that wouldn’t have happened in the 80s.

Daddy and mascot Myles

Daddy and mascot Myles

As we found our seats in the stand, one immediately apparent difference from the cup game was that, due to the smaller allocation, we were only allocated seats in the lower tier, which has very shallow raking and would not be my choice.  Our one benefit was that we were near the corner flag so at least had some view of the game.

Team news was that Flores had made three changes bringing Prödl, Watson and Abdi in for Britos, Behrami and Jurado.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Aké, Cathcart, Prödl, Nyom, Suárez, Watson, Capoue, Deeney, Abdi and Ighalo.  Former loanee, Hector Bellerin, started for the Gunners and it has been a delight to see him establishing himself in the first team as that has been a rare experience for our former loanees from the ‘Top 4’.

As the teams came out I didn’t see the Watford mascot and it was only as they were kicking about that it was apparent that Myles Deeney had accompanied his Dad on to the pitch.  I was a bit disappointed that the only photo that I had was of the two of them walking away from me for the coin toss.  The disappointment disappeared when I saw the photo of Myles with “Daddy 9” on his shirt.  How lovely.

Ake takes a throw

Ake takes a throw

The Arsenal onslaught started in the first minute with the first real threat on goal being an early cross that was taken off the head of Welbeck by Cathcart.  But the Gunners were ahead on 4 minutes as a cross from Iwobi found Sánchez in space, Gomes saved the header but Alexis buried the rebound.  It was not a good start but, even that early in the game, it had been coming.  Watford spirits rose briefly as Suárez went on a run but his cross went begging as there was nobody in the box to meet it.  Arsenal had another decent chance, but this time Monreal headed a cross from Sánchez over the bar.  Then Welbeck broke into the box but his shot was between the legs of Nyom, which slowed it, allowing Gomes to gather easily.  Arsenal could have been two up when Welbeck played the ball back to Iwobi but his shot was stopped by a terrific save from Gomes who tipped it clear.  Arsenal had yet another chance as Özil played the ball back to Welbeck whose shot was deflected just wide.  So, with 15 minutes gone, the home side could have been three goals ahead.  Watford finally had an attempt on goal as Deeney connected with a cross from Nyom, but the shot was straight at Ospina.  Arsenal threatened again from a free kick that Sánchez curled over the wall and Gomes had to push to safety.  Just before the half hour, Suárez found Deeney who played a ball over the top to Ighalo but the Nigerian was offside.

Watson lays the ball off to Guedioura

Watson lays the ball off to Guedioura

At the other end, Welbeck squared a ball for Sánchez, but Cathcart was on hand to clear.  A rare foray into the Arsenal half saw Nyom cross for Abdi who was stretching to meet the ball and couldn’t manage a shot.  Arsenal had completely dominated the half but, just as it appeared that we would reach half time trailing by a single goal, Sánchez received the ball in space in the Watford box before cutting it back to Iwobi who buried the ball past Gomes.   Watford did try to strike back but Watson’s header down to Deeney found the striker in an offside position.  Flores made a substitution just before half time as Anya replaced Capoue who, due to his history with Spurs, left the field to boos from the home fans.  Arsenal had a late chance to increase their lead but Iwobi’s shot from outside the box was easy for Gomes.

It had been a terrible half for the Hornets who had shown next to nothing, but were being taken apart by an excellent Arsenal team.  Last Tuesday I joined Jeff Stelling’s Men United March for Prostate Cancer UK, where we walked from Kenilworth Road to the Vic via Clarence Park.  The From the Rookery End guys had arranged to meet me for an interview at half time so I had little time to brood.

Waiting for the ball to drop

Waiting for the ball to drop

Due to the interview, I missed the start of the second half.  As I returned to my seat, I witnessed Anya winning a corner, but it was a poor delivery from the normally reliable Watson.  Soon after Amrabat, who had replaced Ighalo at the start of the half, went on a decent run but shot wide of the near post.  The home side then increased their lead as a shot from Bellerin took a nasty deflection to beat Gomes.  The Gunners had a great chance to increase their lead further a couple of minutes later but Iwobi’s shot came back off the crossbar and Özil put the rebound wide.  Gomes was in action again soon after as, first, a shot from Özil was saved by his feet, then a curling shot from Sánchez was parried, finally a header from Welbeck that flew straight into the keeper’s arms.   There was a brief respite for Watford fans as Suárez found Amrabat, but he was at a narrow angle when he shot so it drifted out for a throw.  Watford’s best chance of the game came on 56 minutes as Deeney met a Watson free kick with a header on to Prödl whose header was cleared off the line by Monreal.  The clearance fell to Aké whose shot was wide of the far post.  The first booking of the game went to Nyom for a kick on Özil that was borne of frustration.  There was a substitution for each side on 69 minutes as Abdi made way for Guédioura while Giroud replaced Welbeck.  The Arsenal substitution provoked the comment from the guys behind me that it wasn’t getting any easier.

Guedioura taking a corner

Guedioura taking a corner

Almost immediately there was another decent chance for the visitors as Aké crossed for Deeney who turned and unleashed a shot that required a good save from Ospina to keep his clean sheet.  At the other end, an Arsenal corner was met by a header from Giroud, but Gomes was equal to it.  Wenger made another change bringing Walcott on for Iwobi.  Another brief moment of positivity from the visitors as a cross from Aké was met by an overhead kick by Deeney which Amrabat was just unable to reach and so the ball went out for a goal kick.  Arsenal’s final change saw Campbell replacing Sanchez.  Watford had been brighter since the break and Amrabat came charging into the Arsenal box with Anya alongside him, but his pass was disappointingly short and went out for a goal kick.  Elneny stopped a break by Amrabat and was booked for his trouble.  Watson played the free kick short to Guédioura whose shot was deflected wide.  From the corner, Guédioura hit a shot from distance that went just wide of the near post.  Another Watford chance went begging as a cross fom Amrabat reached Anya, who opted to head back across goal instead of trying to hit the target and the ball was cleared.  Arsenal scored their fourth goal on 90 minutes as Campbell crossed for Walcott who finished past Gomes.

Ake on the wing

Ake on the wing

It was a relief for the travelling support when the final whistle went and, despite the poor performance, the players were applauded off with chants of “Wemberley” ringing in their ears.  It is hard to critique a game like that as, bad as Watford were, they were playing an Arsenal team who were on fire and, we were never going to be able to compete with that.  Arsenal had shown plenty of skill in our cup game, but there had been a lack of organisation and leadership.  In this game, they fought for everything and their passing was incisive, meaning we had no chance.  As an Arsenal fan, you would have to ask why they couldn’t have put that performance in during the cup game, which was their last realistic chance of silverware.

We walked back down the Caledonian Road to convene for our post match drinks.  The game had not been fun to watch, but it was never one that we would expect to win so there were no recriminations.  It was the first real tonking that we had experienced and that fact alone makes this season a success so far.  I was also interested to note that, despite complaints of recent relegation form (and it has been awful), there are still three teams below us in the table who have a worse record over the last 10 games.  So, while we can’t be complacent, relegation still looks highly unlikely and we have a cup semi-final to look forward to.  However you look at this, it remains our most successful season since the 80s.

 

Beating the Blues

Ekstrand on the ball

Ekstrand on the ball

When this game was rescheduled due to our meeting with Man City, I realised that it would coincide with a visit by colleagues from the US.  It goes without saying that everyone who works with me is aware of my passion for Watford FC and I try to share the joy by dragging inviting them along.  An e-mail went out to each of them and I had four affirmative answers, so I left work yesterday with a full car hoping that my team would put on a good show.   First stop was the West Herts where the strangers received a very warm welcome from the locals who helped with advice on how to get served at the bar.  We had also ordered food, which took an age to be served, so we had a rapid walk to the stadium, but timed our entrance perfectly as we took our seats in the Upper Rous just before kick-off.  Although a regular in that row lived up to the UR stereotype by tapping his watch and asking what time we called this.

Team news was Murray making way for Merkel, and Pudil replacing the injured Anya.  So the starting line-up was Almunia, Ekstrand, Cassetti, Angella, Pudil, Merkel, Battocchio, Tözsér, Faraoni, Forestieri and Deeney.  Captaining the opposition was one of Watford’s favourite sons, Paul Robinson.

Forestieri defending

Forestieri defending

The first chance of the game fell to the visitors as Ekstrand lost out to Macheda, the ball reached Burke who tried a cross that Almunia had to stretch to keep out.  From the resulting corner, Martin shot wide.  In Watford’s first attack, Battocchio found Deeney who tried a through ball to Forestieri, but Birmingham keeper, Randolph, was first to the ball.  Soon after, Deeney headed down to Merkel whose shot was wide of the target.  Birmingham had a great chance to take the lead on 11 minutes as a powerful shot from Caddis careered back off the crossbar.  As Rusnák tried the follow-up he appeared to be felled in the box by Faraoni, but the referee waved the penalty appeals away.  Then Forestieri won the ball in the middle and played a through ball to Deeney who was tackled by Packwood, but the offside flag was already up.  Birmingham won a free kick in a

Battocchio lining up a free kick

Battocchio lining up a free kick

dangerous position, which Huws delivered but it was an easy catch for Almunia.  There was an early substitution for Watford as Ekstrand left the field, presumably due to injury, to be replaced by the wonderful Lloyd Doyley.  Watford threatened as Merkel passed to Battocchio who headed down to Deeney but his pass was too far in front of Forestieri.  Then a good corner from Tözsér was headed wide by Angella.  On the half hour, Battocchio flicked the ball to Forestieri who appeared to be fouled by Robbo in the box, but the referee was having none of it.  Watford went ahead on 32 minutes as Forestieri found Deeney on the edge of the box.  His first attempt to connect missed the ball

Goal!!

Goal!!

completely, but he recovered and buried it at the second attempt.  Not the most elegant of goals, but they all count.  It went a bit quiet after that until, on the stroke of half time, Deeney found Forestieri on the edge of the box, but his shot was disappointing flying well wide of the near post.  At half time, one of my colleagues, looking to enhance her knowledge of the rules of ‘soccer’, asked whether you were only allowed to keep possession for a certain amount of time before giving the ball to the other team.  I had to laugh, but I thought that summed up the quality of the passing in the first half quite beautifully.

Lloydy moving so fast he is blurred

Lloydy moving so fast he is blurred

At the start of the second half, Birmingham made a substitution bringing on Reece Brown for Rusnák.  This caused me some confusion as I thought one of our players had defected without any publicity but, apparently, this Reece Brown is a 17 year-old from Dudley.  Early in the half, a free-kick from Huws was headed out by Angella who gave the resulting corner the same treatment.  The next corner was punched clear by Almunia.  Then Deeney found Forestieri close to the bye-line and, with a defender in attendance, he did really well to flick the ball up the line to Merkel whose shot from distance was poor and well wide.  For the visitors, Huws took another free-kick that was gathered by Almunia.  Then a shot from Macheda was straight into Almunia’s arms.  From a corner, the ball broke to Burke whose pass found Howard whose shot was weak and straight

Huws lining up a free kick

Huws lining up a free kick

at Almunia.  Ten minutes into the half, Watford launched their first attack of the second period.  A shot from Forestieri was blocked, Doyley did well to win back possession and return the ball to Forestieri who shot straight at Randolph.  Just before the hour, Forestieri fed Battocchio who went on a great run but, instead of shooting, he passed to Deeney who was, sadly, in an offside position.  Sannino made a further substitution as Battocchio was withdrawn and replaced by Murray.  On 67 minutes, there was a most bizarre incident.  Forestieri was off the field for what seemed to be an age as he waited to come back on after receiving treatment for an injury.  The referee finally indicated that he could come on, but there was a Birmingham player just in front of him and he immediately launched in to a tackle.  This seemed to infuriate the referee who stopped play and was reaching for a card before he realised that the error was his and the game restarted with a drop ball.  Faraoni should have done better soon after as he headed wide

Robbo unimpressed with the ref

Robbo unimpressed with the ref

from a Tözsér free kick.  With quarter of an hour remaining, Lee Clark made his remaining substitutions as Løvenkrands and Novak replaced Howard and Adeyemi.  Watford should have scored a second as a corner from Tözsér was met by a Forestieri header that was cleared off the line.  With 8 minutes remaining, Sannino made his final substitution replacing Merkel with Bellerin.  The young Spaniard’s first act was to control a clearance from Almunia with his hand and earn a yellow card for his trouble.  In the last minute of normal time, a ball in to the box from Bellerin was being shepherded out by the defender, but Deeney fought to keep it in and crossed back in the general direction of Forestieri, but it was too far away for him to connect.  In time added on, Forestieri ran into trouble allowing the visitors to counter, Løvenkrands broke into the box but the ever reliable Doyley was back to clear.  Forestieri received a silly yellow card after a blatant hand ball in the centre circle which he followed up with a run and a lob over Randolph.  As Birmingham were lining up the free kick, Caddis clearly felt that Forestieri was too close so walked up and pushed him back.  When Randolph finally took the kick, Packwood met it with a header that, thankfully, flew into the side netting so we preserved the clean sheet and put another three points on the board.

Applauding the crowd

Applauding the crowd

As welcome as the win was, that had been a horrible game to watch and I was a bit embarrassed that I had subjected my poor colleagues to it, so I was delighted when they told me how much they had enjoyed the experience.  During the game, they had admired the effort and enjoyed the chanting.  You don’t really get the latter at US sports.  But what made my evening was to hear my visitors talk about the wonderful welcome that they’d had from all the Watford fans that they had met and how they couldn’t imagine experiencing something similar in the US.  So the football may have been disappointing, but the lovely Watford community made me very proud indeed.

Another Home Defeat

Pre game handshakes

Pre game handshakes

After a poor display at Bristol last week, I wasn’t really looking forward to this game. However hearing my dentist, a Reading season ticket holder, tell me in the week that he was thinking of giving up going to the Mad Stad as they were so awful gave me some encouragement.  Also,the addition of Merkel to the squad and the return of Bellerin and Pudil meant that we weren’t trying to fit square pegs into round holes.  The starting line-up was Almunia, Ekstrand, Angella, Doyley, Pudil, McGugan, Merkel, Murray, Bellerin, Fabbrini and Deeney.

New boy Alexander Merkel

New boy Alexander Merkel

Reading gave us a fright in the first minute as McCleary whipped in a cross that Almunia had to come and palm out.  At the other end Murray played a through ball to Deeney, a defender got a touch which only helped it into Troy’s path but the lino was flagging for offside.  Watford went a goal down in the fourth minute.  Bellerin headed a cross from Obita out for a corner.  Obita took the corner himself and Gorkss rose to head the ball past Almunia.  The next two chances came from players who seem to inspire similar reactions in the Watford crowd.  First McGugan hit a shot from distance that went past the far post.

Ekstrand on the ball

Ekstrand on the ball

Then McAnuff intercepted a pass from Merkel, went on a run and shot across goal with the ball again going just past the far post.  On 17 minutes, Watford won a free-kick which was delayed as Adam Le Fondre repeatedly stood over the ball while critiquing the make-up of their wall.  He was eventually booked for time wasting.  McGugan took the free kick which flew up off the wall and was easily caught by McCarthy.  On 19 minutes, Deeney was beaten to a cross from Bellerin but the ball was cleared only as far as Merkel whose shot was straight at McCarthy.  Reading continued to threaten as a free-kick from McAnuff was met with a powerful header by Pogrebnyak that went over the bar.  On 37 minutes, Merkel fed Bellerin whose cross was headed wide by Angella.  Then Fabbrini passed to McGugan who shot across the goal.  A minute later McGugan and Fabbrini combined to get the ball to Pudil who also hit a ball across the six yard box but there was no Watford player to connect with it.  Just before half-time Merkel was booked for a foul on Pogrebynak.  The free-kick was taken by Obita and Pogrebynak headed it over.  It had been a disappointing half for Watford fans.

Second half kick-off

Second half kick-off

Five minutes into the second half, Deeney got on the end of a cross by Bellerin but headed it straight at McCarthy.  Bellerin then went on another run, but McCarthy was first to his cross.  Le Fondre was the next to threaten, hitting a knock down from Pogrebynak well over the target.  Ten minutes into the half, Forestieri replaced Bellerin, the formation changed to a 4-3-3 and the game became a lot brighter for the home fans.  Akpan received the first yellow card of the second half after clipping McGugan’s heels.  It seemed a bit harsh.  The resulting free-kick was headed out by Gorkss.  McAnuff was the next to enter the referee’s book as he took Fabbrini down when the Italian tried to break forward.  On the hour mark, Forestieri tried a shot from distance that went way over the bar.

Waiting for Almunia to launch the ball

Waiting for Almunia to launch the ball

Next McGugan back-heeled the ball to Forestieri whose low cross reached Pudil on the other side of the box, he turned it back in to Deeney whose close range shot was tipped over by McCarthy.  Then a Fabbrini through ball reached Deeney who crossed to Forestieri who should have scored, but got under the ball and his shot flew over the target.  McGugan then tried a shot from distance that flew wide of the far post.  Next a Fabbrini shot was blocked, the ball fell to Doyley who ignored the Rookery’s pleas to shoot instead cutting the ball back to Deeney who shot over the bar.  Then a ball from McGugan towards the near post was turned into the side netting by Angella.  On 72 minutes, Battocchio replaced Murray.  Soon after, Forestieri broke forward and tried to play Deeney in but McCleary put the ball out for a corner.  As the corner was taken, Deeney’s shirt was being pulled to the extent that it was half way up his back, but the referee gave nothing.

McGugan takes a free-kick

McGugan takes a free-kick

Then, from a Pudil throw-in, Forestieri  unleashed a wicked shot but McCarthy was equal to it.  At this point Doyley made way for Faraoni.  Soon after, we were fortunate not to concede a second as a dangerous cross from McCleary was headed wide by Pobrebnyak.  At this point Blackman replaced Akpan.  The referee was quick to show his card again as Forestieri tried to run into the box, was blocked by two defenders and fell down but was adjudged to have dived and was very harshly booked for his “offence”.  Reading made two further changes with Cummings and Taylor replacing Obita and McCleary.  Taylor was immediately involved, putting in a cross for Pogrebnyak who headed over.  Then Merkel fed Forestieri, who had plenty of time to control the ball and shoot but, infuriatingly, decided to go for the spectacular option instead and volleyed well over.  In time added on, Faraoni tried a shot from a narrow angle which went wide of the far post.  Then Merkel went in for an idiotic sliding tackle on Blackman in the middle of the pitch and was shown a straight red.  A number of Watford fans applauded him off.  I’m sorry, but that level of stupidity does not deserve applause no matter how good the performance that preceded it.  Blackman then took his revenge on Angella with a very similar tackle, but was only shown a yellow.  The final card of the game, the third in time added on, went to Pudil who protested when the referee blew the final whistle without allowing us to take a corner.

Full time

Full time

It had been another frustrating afternoon for the Hornets.  The second half was a vast improvement on the first, but we are far too wasteful in front of goal and there seems to be no real understanding between the players.  Having seen the way the U-18s interacted and worked as a team the night before, it was disappointing to see that their senior colleagues could not do likewise.

A Good Point Against Rangers

Pre-match huddle

Pre-match huddle

Despite the tremendous performance and result against Millwall on Boxing Day, the visit of QPR would be a completely different prospect and I approached the game with some trepidation.  The derby nature of this match was indicated by the increased Police presence at the Junction and the huge Met Police van in Shady Lane, which I assume had brought the horses to town.  Pre-match we heard rumours of trouble in the town centre pubs and I was told that there were QPR youngsters chanting in the Rookery concourse but, fortunately, I didn’t witness any trouble either inside or outside the ground.

Team news was of injuries to Anya and Forestieri, so the starting line-up was Almunia, Ekstrand, Angella, Doyley, Bellerin, McGugan, Thorne, Murray, Cassetti, Fabbrini and Deeney.

Fabbrini receives a pass

Fabbrini receives a pass

It was the visitors who had the first shot on goal, in the 6th minute, although I use that term loosely as Kranjcar’s attempt almost hit me as it flew into the Rookery.  The Croatian was responsible for the next two shots that I noted: a curler that was easily gathered by Almunia and then another that went wide of the far post.  Watford’s first goal attempt came on 21 minutes as the ball broke to Fabbrini who fed McGugan, but his shot was wayward and didn’t come near to troubling Green.  Then a cross from Cassetti was chested goalwards by Deeney, but was easily caught by Green.  At the other end Hoilett put in a cross which flew over the heads of all gathered in the Watford box.  Soon after, the ball was given away to Kranjcar, but his shot was wide of the target.  Then Fabbrini attempted a

McGugan lines up a free-kick

McGugan lines up a free-kick

run into the QPR box but was met with a robust, but fair, tackle.  Just before the half hour came Watford’s best move of the game so far as Bellerin passed to Deeney who exchanged passes with Murray as they advanced towards the QPR goal.  Murray shot from just outside the box but Green was able to gather the ball safely.  Then there was danger at the other end as Thorne gave the ball away to Hoilett who exchanged passes with Kranjcar who found space to shoot between two Watford defenders, but his shot was just wide.  Next Phillips skipped through the defence but shot wide of the near post.  On 38 minutes, Angella was booked for knocking Kranjcar over in the centre circle.  With five minutes remaining, Carroll delivered a dangerous cross into the box which Almunia parried, the ball bounced about dangerously in the resulting melee and was cleared after which Almunia required treatment.  There was one final goal chance in time added on as Phillips played a low cross in from the right towards Hoilett, but Doyley was on hand to stop the shot, the ball reached Carroll on the left, who crossed it in again, but Hoilett could not connect and we reached half-time goalless.  It hadn’t been pretty, but both teams were defending effectively.

Angella on the ball

Angella on the ball

At the start of the second half, Thorne released McGugan, who was battling the attentions of two defenders as he shot from distance way over the bar.  Almunia was called into action to punch a shot from Phillips clear.  On 51 minutes, Deeney and Fabbrini exchanged passes, the Italian shot goalwards but Green was down to gather the ball.  On 58 minutes, there was a great move down the pitch ending with Deeney putting a through ball to Cassetti who hit a cross off Assou-Ekotto to win a corner.  Angella connected with McGugan’s corner, but his header was over the bar.  On the hour, Phillips was booked for a foul on Fabbrini.  It was good to see the referee take some action at last as he had let a lot go, including some ridiculously blatant pushes.  Barton was then booked as he took Thorne down, although from the other end of the ground it appeared that Thorne

Acuna's appeals fall on deaf ears

Acuna’s appeals fall on deaf ears

fell over him and that booking looked rather harsh, even if it was Barton.  With 20 minutes to go, Johnson replaced Carroll.  On his first foray into the box, he was accompanied by Angella and Doyley who gave him no space to cross or shoot so the ball went out for a goal kick.  Benayoun was then replaced by O’Neil.  Johnson was on the attack again soon after as he ran on to a through ball from Kranjcar, but he was flagged offside.  More substitutions followed as Acuna replaced Fabbrini and Hoilett made way for Traore.  Soon after, McGugan attempted an audacious back heel, but Deeney wasn’t expecting it and stopped his run so the chance was gone.  Then Murray unleashed a long range shot that took a deflection, but Green was behind it.  Acuna was then booked for what appeared to be

Jostling for position at a corner

Jostling for position at a corner

a tame foul.  A spell of attack and counter-attack finished with a back header by Phillips that was well wide of the target.  Then Johnson met a cross from Phillips with a header that flew wide, but the linesman had his flag raised anyway.  With 4 minutes remaining, Battocchio replaced Murray.  In time added on, a free-kick by Barton was deflected into the side netting.  The resultant corner was punched clear by Almunia.  The final action was a cross from Deeney on the run which flew well wide.

It has to be said that this game did not deliver much in the way of entertainment, but it was a very pleasing point and I came away immensely impressed by our defensive efforts against a team that will likely win automatic promotion this season.

Zola’s Last Stand

After two good away points married to decent performances, we returned to Vicarage Road in good spirits for the visit of Sheffield Wednesday.  Apart, that is, from certain of our party, who will remain nameless, who had carried on the festivities after the Christmas Lunch with GT et al at the club the previous day, and were feeling a little the worse for wear.

Deeney and Thorne ready for kick-off

Deeney and Thorne ready for kick-off

Team news was that Hall would replace the suspended Ekstrand with Cassetti and Murray in for Pudil and McGugan.  Having recovered from recent illness & injury, Almunia returned to the squad, but Zola kept faith with his young deputy so the line-up was Bond, Faraoni, Nosworthy, Hall, Cassetti, Bellerin, Thorne, Battocchio, Murray, Anya and Deeney.

The first action of note was a ball over the top to Anya, who advanced and put a low ball across the goal but no Watford player was anywhere near.  On 7 minutes a Murray corner was met by Cassetti who headed over the bar when he really should have done better.  Soon after, Bellerin showed a lot of skill to flick the ball past a defender, he advanced down the wing, but his cross was straight at the keeper. 

Hall back in action

Hall back in action

Then Deeney exchanged passes with Bellerin and crossed into the box for the inrushing Anya, but Martinez was first to the ball.  On 20 minutes, Anya had a great chance as he received the ball with his back to goal, turned and curled his shot just wide.  By the midpoint of the first half, Sheffield Wednesday had failed to launch an attack worthy of the name.  Then Wickham won a free-kick and hit it over the Watford wall and past the reach of Bond for the visitors to take the lead.  A couple of minutes later, Murray played a cross-field ball to Deeney whose pass into the box was too far in front of Battocchio.  Next Anya went on another run, but his cross was headed out for a corner.  Nosworthy met the deep corner with a header which

Anya on the ball

Anya on the ball

was cleared.  On the half hour, the Wednesday fans were shouting for a penalty.  Maghoma appeared to have escaped from Nosworthy, but Nyron recovered to make a last ditch tackle on the edge of the box, and the referee waved play on.  Anya then had another chance at goal but his shot from distance was well over the bar.  With five minutes remaining in the half, Deeney played the ball across to Anya who buried it.  Sadly the celebrations in the home stands were cut short by the linesman’s flag, although those with a better view than I had suggested that the Scot was onside.  Wednesday threatened immediately as a cross from Hélan was cut out by Cassetti before it reached Lee.  Then a ball over the top by Cassetti was headed out to Murray whose shot was straight at Martinez.  Just before half time, a cross from Faraoni was cut out but reached Murray whose shot from distance was parried to Anya but the follow-up shot was also blocked by Martinez.  So we reached half time a goal down to Wednesday’s only shot on target.  I braced myself but, thankfully, there were only a couple of boos from the home stand.

Watford on the attack

Watford on the attack

At the start of the second half, Faraoni picked up an injury and was replaced by Fabbrini.  Just before the hour, Murray took a free-kick that was cleared by Martinez.  Then a shot from distance by Maghoma was easily gathered by Bond.  On 64 minutes, there was an almighty scramble in the Wednesday goal mouth with half a dozen shots blocked.  It just wouldn’t fall for us.  Since coming on, Fabbrini was spending a lot of time on the floor and both Lee and Wickham were booked for fouls on the Italian.  In between these offences, Battocchio was replaced by Forestieri.  With 15 minutes remaining, a cross from Cassetti was missed by Forestieri and Anya, who probably thought that Fernando would get on the end of it.  Then Fabbrini fed Murray whose cross-cum-shot was wide of the far

Thorne challenging

Thorne challenging

post.  With 10 minutes to go, McGugan replaced Hall.  In the 83rd minute, there was another goalmouth scramble as first Murray’s shot was blocked, then his through ball to Fabbrini was met with a shot, but the Italian was flagged offside.  In the last minutes of the half, Bellerin fed Forestieri whose cross reached Deeney, but he couldn’t get the header on target.  Then Forestieri was flattened in the box, but the referee waved play on.  In time added on, Thorne passed to Fabbrini who chested the ball down to McGugan who was closed down before he could shoot.  Then we had a fantastic chance to level the game as Fabbrini played a perfect through ball to Forestieri but, with the way the afternoon had gone, there was a certain inevitability in the way the Argentine’s shot flew agonizingly wide.

There were loud boos at the final whistle.  I don’t boo a team that has put in an effort and I believe that these lads were trying, but it wasn’t working for them.  Who knows what would have happened if Anya’s goal had been allowed to stand.  But it wasn’t and we were faced with our fifth successive defeat at home.  In the post-match analysis in the pub, we agreed that it was hard to see what could be done to turn it around as different combinations and formations had failed to address our woeful home form.  Sadly, Zola’s subsequent resignation indicates that he was also at a loss.  While the news was not unexpected, it left me saddened and feeling rather empty.

Zola in happier times

Zola in happier times

The first time I saw Zola in person was at a tribute match for Mike Keen at Wycombe a few years ago that I attended because Malky and Alec were playing.  I lived abroad during the time that Zola played in England, so had no recollection of ever seeing him in action before.  I have to say that he was mesmerizing and had the crowd on their feet on more than one occasion.  But what impressed me most on that day was when he was substituted and greeted with a crowd requesting autographs and photos, he responded with a huge, warm smile and took the time to satisfy all the demands.  When he came to Watford, he brought us some of the best football that I have seen in nearly 35 years of watching the Hornets.  Like others, I will never forget that tremendous finish to the Leicester game and the wonderful goal against Huddersfield but another thing that will remain with me is Zola’s off-field presence.  He was a delight at the At Your Place events.  A warm, funny man, who was passionate about football, but also cared about the people that came to watch his team.  Anyone who was lucky enough to meet him came away with an increased respect for the man.  He is a football genius and an utter gentleman.  I’ll miss him greatly.

 

Six Goals at Elland Road

A kind welcome

A kind welcome

This was an expensive week for the travelling Hornets with two away games up North.  After an encouraging performance against Burnley midweek, I travelled with a better spirit but, knowing that Leeds have been on a decent run, my expectations were not high.  Our pre-match pub in Leeds is a good ‘un.  The cider was lovely, the pie was tasty and the company was excellent.  The top deck of the shuttle bus to the ground was inhabited by a group of Leeds fans who were loud and obnoxious, so I was glad to reach Elland Road to escape the racket.  As we entered the stadium, we were greeted by posters thanking us for traveling 179 miles to attend the game.  Rather a nice touch, I thought.

Team news was that Pudil and Anya were in for Cassetti and Murray.  If I hadn’t seen his midweek post on Twitter, I would have struggled to recognize Anya as he has shaved off his Afro.  A big mistake to my mind, I hope he grows it back very soon.

A minute's silence for Mandela or Bremner!

A minute’s silence for Mandela or Bremner!

Before kick-off, the minute’s applause for Nelson Mandela was announced.  Much as I am a admirer of the great man, I questioned the wisdom of such a gesture at a sporting occasion in the UK.  Clearly, the Leeds hierarchy had similar questions, so they announced that it was also to mark the anniversary of the passing of Billy Bremner, which meant that the applause was accompanied with chants of Bremner’s name which rather defeated the object.

The starting line-up was Bond, Faraoni, Nosworthy, Ekstrand, Pudil, Bellerin, Battocchio, Thorne, McGugan, Anya and Deeney.  There were no Watford alumni in the Leeds line-up, but it cannot be forgotten that one of Watford’s favourite sons, Nigel Gibbs, was on the Leeds bench.

A new-look Anya

A new-look Anya

Leeds started brightly, and in the second minute, Smith headed a cross from McCormack straight at Bond. The next Leeds attack was a free-kick by McCormack into the box which was headed over by Zaliukas.  Then Bellerin intercepted the ball in midfield, his pass was deflected back to Battocchio who crossed for the young loanee to head the ball wide of the far post.  Then a low through ball reached Austin whose shot was parried by Bond to Murphy whose follow-up flew wide.  Watford were immediately on a counter attack as Faraoni put a ball through to Anya, who ran into the box but his shot was parried.  On 11 minutes Watford took a rather surprising lead. McGugan exchanged passes with Bellerin, tried a cross which bounced back to him off a defender so he played a languid through ball which Deeney tucked between Kenny and the near post.  It

Leeds line up a free kick

Leeds line up a free kick

had been so long since we last scored that I half convinced myself that the ball had hit the side netting, so my celebration was a bit hesitant, but finally got going once I realized that we had actually scored!  We had the next decent chance on 23 minutes when a McGugan through ball reached Anya, but Kenny narrowed the angle and Ikechi’s shot was just past the far post.  Leeds then threatened with a dangerous cross from Austin, which looked as though it may have snuck in if Bond hadn’t caught it at the near post.  Then McCormack latched on to a pass into the box.  Bond ran out and dived at his feet to make a great save, so it seemed unfair that the ref pulled play back for a free kick as he’d previously played advantage that the home side had not been able to capitalise on.  McCormack took the free kick, which bounced off the wall for a corner.  Then McGugan played a lovely defensive move as a Leeds player, whose number I didn’t note, ran into the box.  I was concerned that he would draw a penalty, but McGugan coolly shepherded the ball out for a goal kick.  Then a dangerous ball came in towards Smith in the box, but Nosworthy stuck out a foot to deflect it for a corner.  From the corner, there were loud shouts for a penalty from the Leeds fans as Smith went down in the box, but the ref made the right decision.  On 29 minutes, a shot from McCormack bounced off Ekstrand and rebounded to

Celebrations after the second goal

Celebrations after the second goal

Smith, whose follow-up shot was just wide of the far post.  On 37 minutes, Smith latched onto a ball in the Watford box, Bond pulled off a fantastic save, but must have been frustrated again to see that his efforts were unnecessary as the forward had been flagged offside.  On 43 minutes, Nosworthy seemed to think he had all the time in the world to control a ball in our box, Pugh came up behind him and threw himself over Nyron trying to win a penalty.  Fortunately the referee was having none of it and all he won was a yellow card, but Nosworthy had taken a huge risk.  As the clock reached 45 minutes, Mowatt took a free kick from a dangerous position to the right of the Watford box.  Bond came out to punch the ball clear and it reached Bellerin, who ran the length of the pitch then squared for Battocchio, who took a couple of touches and seemed to have lost his chance, but found space between two defenders to fire the ball past Kenny.  This time I celebrated immediately and chants of “We want six,” rang out from the travelling Hornets. In injury time, McGugan took a shot that went straight into Kenny’s arms.  As the half-time whistle went, Anya was on the ball running up the left wing and he kept on going, not wanting to stop!

It had been a cracking half.  We were slightly fortunate to take a two goal lead in at the break and well aware that there was still a long way to go in the game.

A defensive header from Ekstrand

A defensive header from Ekstrand

Leeds came out like a rocket at the start of the second half.  Within a minute of kick-off, a Bellerin pass up the wing was intercepted and the counterattack finished with a header from Smith tipped over the bar by Bond.  From Mowatt’s corner, it was Smith again, but this time he headed over the bar while climbing on Thorne.  Leeds’ first goal came in the 49th minute and had an element of fortune as a clearance hit Thorne and dropped to Pugh who beat Nosworthy and slipped the ball past Bond at the near post.  The Watford heads didn’t drop as Faraoni audaciously nutmegged a Leeds defender to get into the box, but his cross was blocked. However, ten minutes into the half, Leeds were level as Peltier robbed Anya as he tried to dribble the ball across the middle of the park, he passed to McCormack on the wing who crossed for Smith to power a header past Bond.  Straight from the restart, Battocchio freed Bellerin, but he couldn’t quite reach the return pass in the box and the chance was cleared.  Leeds carried on threatening the Watford goal.

Gibbsy on the wrong bench

Gibbsy on the wrong bench

First Austin broke in to the box and Bond stood tall to block his close range shot.  Then, from a corner, Mowatt’s shot came crashing back off the crossbar.  There was some relief for Bond as Watford launched a counter attack with Anya finding McGugan whose shot from distance was pushed wide by Kenny.  Soon after, Smith shot straight at Bond.  Then a Thorne ball over the top reached Deeney, who shot wide but had been in an offside position anyway.

On 65 minutes Murray replaced McGugan, seven minutes later Faraoni made way for Cassetti.  Soon after, Cassetti failed to challenge Smith whose header reached McCormack who turned the ball into the net, but his celebrations were cut short by the linesman’s flag.

Faraoni down the wing

Faraoni down the wing

However, Leeds were to take the lead a couple of minutes later as McCormack got on the end of a pass from Murphy, outran Nosworthy and shot past Bond.  Watford almost hit back immediately as Battocchio shot from inside the box and Kenny had to drop smartly to gather the ball.  With 10 minutes remaining, Murray jinked into the Leeds box and curled a shot just wide of the far post.  On 85 minutes, while Forestieri was on the sidelines waiting to come on, Anya went on a run down the wing and crossed for Thorne whose shot was parried by Kenny, but Deeney was on hand to pick up the loose ball and grab the equalizer.  With a couple of minutes to go, Mowatt played a through ball to

An attacking throw-in

An attacking throw-in

Smith whose shot was over the bar, but he was flagged offside anyway.  After the equalizer, Forestieri had returned to the bench and the final Watford substitution was Hall replacing Battoccio.  In injury time, Anya and Bellerin combined on a counter attack, and the young Spaniard won a corner which came to nothing as Ekstrand was booked for a foul on Zaliukas.  But it was the Swede who could have won the game for the Hornets as Deeney received a pass from Cassetti and squared the ball but Zaliukas was on hand to make a great tackle and prevent Ekstrand from shooting.

Applauding the crowd

Applauding the crowd

At the final whistle, there was a lot of shirt swapping on the field and rapture from the stands.  It had been a thrilling game of football and I think all the fans were happy to leave with a point.  Watford had played some lovely stuff, but gave the ball away a little too much by getting caught in possession and our defence was vulnerable in the second half when Nosworthy tired, but it is churlish to criticize after such a thoroughly entertaining afternoon.  It has to be said that Anya’s pace made a difference and some of his interplay with Bellerin was excellent.

How the mood has changed in the past week with two terrific points from difficult away games.  Hopefully, this will make Monday’s fans’ forum a more positive occasion and we can take this spirit back to Vicarage Road for the visit of Wednesday.  It is fun being a Watford fan again.

A Gutsy Performance at Turf Moor

Lighting my way

Lighting my way

The trip to Burnley is not high on my list of favourite away days.  When the game falls on a Tuesday night, it makes it even less appealing.  Given our recent run of form, I found myself questioning my sanity in taking a day and a half off work and spending a small fortune on train and hotel.  Still, there is always that niggling feeling in the back of your mind that it could be 7-4 again and you’d kick yourself if you were sitting at home.

The first challenge in planning the trip had been where to stay.  The hotel at which I’d stayed on a previous visit had closed down and hotels in central Burnley were conspicuous by their absence from the usual booking websites.  But then I found a boutique hotel located a short walk from Manchester Road station.  A boutique hotel in Burnley?  That I had to see.  When I arrived, I was delighted to find a characterful place with lots of art on display including a print of one of Matisse’s blue nudes.  Very pleasant indeed.

Welcome to Burnley

Welcome to Burnley

Pre-match there wasn’t a lot of confidence among the Watford faithful, but the team news indicated a switch in formation to 4-5-1 with Faraoni coming in for Pudil and Battocchio replacing Forestieri.  As the Burnley manager emerged from the tunnel, it was great to see Sean Dyche turn and applaud the Watford fans behind the goal and receive a warm reception from the travelling Hornets.

Burnley started strongly with an early foray into the Watford box that was smothered by Bond.  Then Bond was in action again, coming out to punch a free kick clear.  On 7 minutes, Treacy had a shot from distance but it was straight at Bond.  The next attack saw the young keeper come out of his penalty area to take the ball down on his chest and clear.  It was a confident move that was a sign of things to come.  On 8 minutes a corner by Stanislas flashed across the Watford goal, but there was no Burnley player near enough to apply the finishing touch.

Pre-match huddle

Pre-match huddle

On 10 minutes, Watford had their first attack with Murray passing to McGugan whose shot was blocked.  It has to be said that there were some pretty robust tackles coming in from the Burnley boys, but the ref let those go while he seemed to blow up for the slightest infringement by a Watford player.  On 14 minutes, the ball fell to Arfield on the edge of the box, but his shot flew well over the crossbar.  Then McGugan put a dangerous cross into the Burnley box, but Heaton reached the ball just before Battocchio.  On 19 minutes, Burnley won a free-kick for a minor infringement, Trippier took the kick and hit it straight at Bond.  Soon after, the referee blew up to penalize a Burnley player for climbing.  A decision that was met with ironic cheers from the travelling Hornets.

A Brace of Watford Managers

A Brace of Watford Managers

On 26 minutes, a string of lovely passes across the pitch finished with Faraoni beating the defender on the right and whipping in a cross that was blocked.  Then Trippier crossed for Arfield, whose shot was easily gathered by Bond.  Another cross from Trippier reached Jones, whose shot was blocked and put out for a corner which was headed over by Shackell.  At this point, I was distracted by an advertisement on the big screen.  On previous visits, I have marvelled at the unlikelihood of a “Clarets Wine Club”, so imagine my delight at the iPie advertisement.  Yes, Burnley have an app with which you can order your half time pie with a ‘click and collect’ service.  Will the wonders of technology

Thorne and Arfield wait for the ball to drop

Thorne and Arfield wait for the ball to drop

ever cease?  On 40 minutes, Burnley should have been ahead as Arfield met a cross from Stanislas with a close range header, but Bond leapt to his left to keep it out.  Then McGugan and Murray combined to feed Faraoni whose shot was wide of the far post.  Treacy then went on a run across the top of the area and unleashed a stinging shot that Bond first parried and then caught.  Just before half-time, Battocchio intercepted a ball in midfield and advanced on the Burnley goal, but his shot was blocked.  Then Cassetti won a free-kick close to the bye-line.  McGugan put a deep cross into the box which was met with a defensive header back to Heaton.  The half-time whistle went and, for the first time in weeks, the Watford players left the pitch to applause from their fans and chants of “Johnny Bond” and “Yellow Army” following them down the tunnel.  Burnley had been the better team in the half, but there was a pleasing resilience to Watford’s play and Bond had been superb.

Pre-corner jostling

Pre-corner jostling

A Burnley fan came to chat to us at half time to hear our opinion of our team and ask whether we thought Zola’s position was in danger.  He said that we had been the best passing team that they’d seen last season.  We said that we could still pass, but we were lacking the pace and penetration we had last season.  He said that they have a first eleven and then a bench full of kids so their current position was unlikely to be maintained at the end of the season.

We started the second half brightly.  An early shot from Battocchio went just past the far post.  Then a Burnley shot was met by a bicycle kick from Deeney to clear.  On 53 minutes, Battocchio went on a run down the wing, his cross was cut out and Burnley launched a counter-attack, Arfield shot goalwards and Bond had to drop smartly to gather.  Then Murray

Bond takes a goal kick

Bond takes a goal kick

broke into the box, but was closed down and lost the ball.  On 54 minutes, we had a great chance to take the lead as Battocchio passed the ball to Cassetti on the left and the Italian’s cross was met with a shot from close range by McGugan that Heaton did very well to keep out of the bottom corner.  Then a ball over the top reached Deeney, he passed it out to Murray whose cross was just missed by the leaping Bellerin.  Next Bellerin headed the ball down to McGugan who crossed for Murray to shoot, but again the shot was blocked.  Then a dangerous cross into the Watford box by Trippier was put wide by Mee under the attentions of a defender.  He was injured in the process and, after a spell of treatment on the pitch, went off and changed his shirt and came back numberless.  On 63 minutes, McGugan lifted a pass in the direction of Ekstrand, but the Swede did not react and Stanislas intercepted the ball but his shot was deflected for a corner.  Then a Watford shot from distance was deflected wide.  From McGugan’s corner, the ball bounced up and hit a defender’s hand, but the shouts for a penalty from the travelling ‘Orns fell on deaf ears.  On 66 minutes, a Murray cross was, again, too high for Bellerin but the ball fell to McGugan whose shot was cleared off the line.  From the throw-in, Murray fed Bellerin, but the Arsenal

Ready to defend a corner

Ready to defend a corner

youngster’s header was easy for Heaton.  On 68 minutes, our friend from half-time’s claim that they had the youth team on the bench was contradicted as Kightly replaced Treacy.  The former Watford loanee was involved in the next attack as he received a ball from Mee, but his shot landed on the netting on top of the goal.  On 74 minutes, Murray battled to keep the ball, he was tripped, fell over, got up still with the ball at his feet and was finally taken down to win a free kick.  At this point, he was replaced by Fabbrini.  McGugan took the free-kick which was deep into the box, but cleared.  Then Fabbrini passed to McGugan whose cross was headed out for a corner.  He took the corner which reached Faraoni who put the shot wide.  With 10 minutes remaining, Hewitt replaced Stanislas and Pudil came on for Cassetti.  Soon after, a deep shot straight at Bond did not test the young

Post-match congratulations

Post-match congratulations

keeper.  I have to say that our defence were doing a great job of closing the Burnley players down and restricting their shooting opportunities.  In the 87th minute, a cross from Trippier was met by a clearance from Fabbrini for a corner.  From the corner, the shot went harmlessly wide.  Then Fabbrini brought the ball down on his chest, went on a great run, but when he released the ball his pass was too far in front of Bellerin and the attack broke down.  It had been a frantic last five minutes, but the game remained scoreless.  At the start of the 4 minutes of injury time, we were taking time over our set pieces and Nosworthy, who’d shaped to take a free kick and then left it for Bond, was booked for time wasting.  We almost snatched the win in time added on as McGugan and Deeney exchanged passes and the former Forest man’s shot was deflected into the side-netting.  Pudil got a head to the resulting corner, but the ball was cleared and the game ended with honours even

This was such a contrast to Saturday both on and off the pitch.  Gone were the on field nervousness and the hostility from the stands.  Instead we had a brave, committed performance on the pitch which was cheered on enthusiastically by the 274 travelling Hornets.  The players spent some time on the pitch at the end thanking the fans for their support.  Zola looked a lot happier than he did at the weekend and must have been gratified to hear his name chanted again.  As a final gesture of thanks, Daniel Pudil removed his shirt, climbed over the advertising hoardings into the disabled enclosure and handed it to Gavin Ricketts.

All in all, it had been a very enjoyable evening and a timely reminder of why I go to these games.