Tag Archives: Ikechi Anya

The Gills Triumph in the League Cup

Guedioura makes amends

Guedioura makes amends

I suspect that I was one of very few people who bought tickets for this game as soon as they went on sale.  My season ticket seat is a couple of seats away from my niece’s.  Since I knew that the guys who sit between us don’t usually attend early League Cup games, I decided to buy their seats instead of mine.  When my sister found out on Monday that she would be able to get leave from work to attend and was able to buy my seat (prime in the middle of the Rookery), it was clear that the attendance at this game would be rather low.  That suspicion was confirmed when the West Herts was relatively empty pre-match and, after Don and Trond left early to go to the ground, I was Franny-no-mates at our usual table.  For this reason, it was a surprise to arrive at the ground twenty minutes before kick-off to see a huge queue at the ticket office.  Sadly, it seems that many fans were not aware that their tickets would not be uploaded to their Season Cards and so faced an irritating and unexpected queue to collect tickets that they thought they already had.

With a new head coach, there is always the question of whether he will make wholesale changes for the early cup games or use them to help the team to gel.  We were given our answer when Mazzarri made nine changes from the Chelsea game with only Guedioura and Deeney keeping their places.  The starting line-up was Pantilimon; Nyom, Hoban, Kabasele; Paredes, Guedioura, Watson, Doucouré, Anya; Deeney and Vydra.  So a chance to see Troy and Matěj teaming up again and it was rather lovely to see Hoban back after so long out injured.

Guedioura on a run

Guedioura on a run

As we waited for kick-off, a lot of balls were flying in to the Rookery, one of which hit a little lad a couple of rows behind me.  I heard applause and then saw Guedioura running up the aisle past us to make sure that the child was OK and give him a ball to take home.  That may well have been the highlight of the evening.

The game started promisingly enough as Anya cut the ball back to Deeney whose snap shot was saved.  At the other end our new defender, Kabasele, made a good start to his debut with a great tackle on Osadebe.  My notes relating to the next twenty minutes tell me that we were making a lot of deep crosses while none of our players were anywhere near the far post.  Watford had a decent chance on the half hour as a shot from Anya was parried and Doucouré hit the rebound from the edge of the area just wide.  Guedioura was the next to threaten the Gillingham goal but, again, shot wide from distance.   Gillingham’s first notable chance came just before half-time but Emmanuel-Thomas fired well wide of the target, so we reached half time goalless.  Watford had been the better side with the majority of the possession, but had rarely tested Nelson in the Gillingham goal.

Celebrating Ighalo's goal

Celebrating Ighalo’s goal

As we started the second half, I had high hopes that we would finally convert our dominance to goals and we started promisingly.  Watson had the first goal attempt of the second period with a shot that flew just over the bar.  Then Hoban met a Paredes cross with a header that was well over the target.  The first substitution came ten minutes into the half as Ighalo replaced Guedioura.  It was an attacking substitution that paid off almost immediately as Deeney chipped a ball over the defence and Ighalo turned it in from close range.  The Hornets should have been two up as Deeney and Vydra combined to find Ighalo in space but his shot was blocked.  That was the Czech’s last action of the game as he was replaced by Capoue.  I felt sorry for Matěj, he had worked hard and was obviously keen to impress.  It had been interesting to see Deeney and Vydra together again.  There were lots of little flicks between them, but they didn’t come to anything and you couldn’t help thinking that Troy was doing his best to help his strike partner to get the goal that he so desperately wanted.  There was very warm applause for Matěj as he left the field which he reciprocated.  Watford should have had a second goal as a header from Hoban was blocked on the line before an attempt at a clearance by a Gillingham defender hit the bar.

Hoban and Kabasele line up for a corner

Hoban and Kabasele line up for a corner

At the other end, a stupid tackle by Nyom on a player who was going nowhere led to a penalty award.  The Rookery started chanting Pantilimon’s name, but he didn’t need to get involved as Dack put the ball into Row Z.  Deeney could have turned the knife with a header from a Paredes cross, but Nelson was equal to it.  Watford were to rue not making the most of their chances as, with eight minutes to go, Byrne hit a shot from distance into the far corner of Pantilimon’s goal.  Watford had a couple of late chances to win the game but Doucouré skyed his shot and then Hoban fired just wide, although the flag was already up for offside.  So Watford had been punished again for dropping deep to preserve a narrow lead and we were to be treated to extra time.

In the first minute of extra time Ighalo should have regained the lead for the Hornets, but his shot was just wide of the near post.  Mazzarri’s second substitution saw Zúñiga replacing Anya and the Colombian could have broken the deadlock but shot just wide.  Against the run of play, it was the visitors who took the lead as the Watford defence failed to deal with a cross, allowing Dack to sneak in to shoot.  Pantilimon appeared to grab the ball but only succeeded in taking it over the line.  This was missed by the linesman but the referee was notified due to the goal line technology and indicated a goal.

Defending a corner

Defending a corner

Watford tried to strike back in the second period of extra time but it wasn’t to be our night as Hoban had another effort cleared off the line and goal machine, Capoue, hit a decent chance high and wide, much to the disappointment of my niece who is a big fan but has yet to see him score.  The final whistle went to a loud chorus of boos.

What is it with Watford and the early rounds of the League Cup?  This is the latest in a long line of dreadful performances.  These games should be an opportunity for fringe players to make a claim for a place but only Kabasele and Hoban really impressed.  Certainly, those who have expressed concern regarding some recent mistakes from Gomes will have derived no comfort from Pantilimon’s showing.  Deeney hasn’t looked himself in the early games this season, although he rarely does when things aren’t going his way.  You can’t help but think that this would have been a good game in which to rest him and give Sinclair a chance to impress.

So we are out of the cup to a League One side and anticipating a visit from Arsenal.  The international break can’t come quickly enough.

 

 

Starting the Season with a Well Won Point

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Last Thursday, I was invited to an evening at the club at which we were charged with tasting the catering offerings for the new season (who ate all the pies?).  We were told that there will be a number of freshly cooked options available including pies, chicken curry and fish and chips.  The only vegetarian option is a cheese and potato pie (veggie food doesn’t sell, apparently) and my question about the continuing availability of chicken wraps and ham baps indicated how often I buy food inside the ground as they haven’t been available for at least a season.  The tasting only included pies and hot dogs and I must say that the boeuf bourguignon pie was excellent, lots of chunks of beef and a very nice pastry crust.  I am also told that the Hornets Ale (a Carlsberg product) was rather good.

Back to the events of Saturday.  On our last visit to Southampton (over which we should draw a veil) our party met at a lovely pub which fell down by taking forever to serve the food on a weekday evening.  We decided to give them another chance and they delivered.  The beer was great, the food was good and was served promptly (and my egg and bacon roll cost less than it would have done from the van outside the ground), the staff were lovely and the company was exceptional.  I was a little concerned when young Matt decided to join us, as his occasional attendance in recent times has inevitably resulted in defeat.  But our late substitute, Adam, told us that he had never seen us lose at Southampton, so that made me feel a lot better about our prospects.

An animated Mazzarri in the dugout

An animated Mazzarri in the dugout

On arrival at the ground, there was a huge queue at the turnstiles, but it moved very quickly and, as we snaked around, we passed friends, so paused for hugs and kisses with some and smiles and greetings with many.  Our catching up was clearly bothering the stewards who told us to move along.  It had been announced during the week that the tickets were being subsidised, so that all would cost £20 (following the FSF Twenty’s Plenty campaign).  Despite the sponsorship already being printed on the tickets, we were charged full price at the time of sale and the rebate was applied by way of envelopes being handed out at the turnstiles.  Call me churlish, but I would have been more impressed if they had just refunded to our credit card accounts as the rebate stunt proved to be an environmental mess as large numbers of envelopes were discarded just inside the turnstiles.  In addition to that, some fans were given the wrong sum, which was fine if you were given a tenner when you had bought a concession ticket, but not so good the other way around.

As we took our place low down in the stand, you couldn’t help but contrast the blazing sun to the torrential rain that we experienced on our last visit.

Celebrating our first goal of the season

Celebrating our first goal of the season

Walter Mazzarri’s first team selection was eagerly awaited and contained a couple of surprises with Amrabat and Behrami, who hadn’t seen a lot of game time in pre-season, being preferred to Anya and Suárez/Watson.  The starting line-up was Gomes; Cathcart, Prödl, Britos; Amrabat, Capoue, Behrami, Guedioura, Holebas; Deeney and Ighalo.

There was a nervous moment for the Hornets early in the game as Gomes did well to keep out a free kick from Tadić, only for Britos to direct a follow-up goalwards.  Thankfully Gomes was able to keep that out as well.  Watford took the lead on 9 minutes through our newly discovered goal machine, Capoue.  It was a lovely goal as well.  A great cross from Amrabat was headed back by Deeney into the path of the onrushing Capoue who buried it past Forster.  The first goal of a new season always feels significant and it was great to see this one go to the Hornets.  Sadly our first goal of the season was greeted with the first smoke bomb, which I didn’t see but the fragrance is unmistakable.  There were few further chances until after the half hour when Long headed a Tadić cross just wide.  Soon after Holebas hit a cross-cum-shot that looked dangerous, but ended up on the roof of the net.  Redmond had a decent chance of an equalizer but he shot just wide.  As the home side threatened late in the half, there was some lovely defending as Prödl put in a great tackle and Cathcart was on hand to clear up.  Southampton had one last chance to equalize in the first half with a shot from Cédric that Gomes did well to push to safety.

Deeney waiting for the ball to drop

Deeney waiting for the ball to drop

At half time the mood among the travelling Hornets was good.  It had been a decent performance with a lovely goal and some solid defending.

There were no changes of personnel at the start of the second half.  Just before the hour mark, a good Watford move broke down allowing Southampton to counter attack finishing with a shot from Redmond that Gomes did very well to keep out.  This was followed by a couple of Southampton corners, the second of which was punched by Gomes but only as far as Redmond who volleyed home.  Watford could have struck back almost immediately as a back pass was played short to Forster, Deeney ran on but the keeper managed to be first to the ball.  The home side also had a chance to increase the lead as Yoshida headed just over.

Mazzarri made a couple of substitutions with Watson coming on for Behrami and Zúñiga making his debut replacing Guedioura.  The Colombian is a wing back but, on this occasion, was used in the midfield.  With 15 minutes to go, an attempted escape by Long was stopped when Watson dragged him to the ground.  There was no surprise when the red card was shown and the Hornets faced a challenging end to the game.  From that point on, it was mostly one way traffic with Watford mounting a rearguard action.  When Watson was dismissed, it was commented that it ended Vydra’s hopes of any game time and, sure enough, Mazzarri’s final substitution saw Ighalo replaced with Anya.  Into the last five minutes and it appeared that Southampton had taken all three points as Redmond again beat Gomes, but the goal was ruled out for what I was reliably informed was the first offside of the game.

Thanking the travelling Hornets

Thanking the travelling Hornets

At the final whistle, a number of the Watford players collapsed to the floor and, I must admit, that I wanted to follow suit as I had been exhausted watching that second half from the stands.  The players came over to thank the travelling fans.  They were not joined by Mazzarri, but that is not meant as criticism as he did give the crowd an appreciative wave before disappearing down the tunnel.  He is rather animated in the dugout and could bring us some entertainment on that score this season.

At the end of the game most Watford fans were happy with the point and impressed that we’d managed to hold out with ten men.  The positives in the game were that we defended well and the goal was a thing of beauty.  The negative for me was the irritation that I felt in the second half every time we played a ball forward in hope rather than expectation that inevitably was cleared causing us to have to defend again.  We have a very difficult few games coming up, so the Watford faithful will have to be patient as any points during this period will be a bonus.  Still, it is always good to start the season with a point and Matt is now welcome to come to future games, so it’s all good.

 

Lorient visit the Vic

Mazzarri in the Watford dugout for the first time

Mazzarri in the Watford dugout for the first time

When I saw my niece on Friday night, I found that she had completely forgotten that we had a game on Saturday (she was thrilled when she was told) and, when she asked who we were playing, her Dad (a Hammer) told her it was Leyton Orient.  I pointed out that our friends from East London had an appointment in the league, so we were actually playing a French side.

The walk to the West Herts for our first game in August always puts a spring in my step.  When I arrived, it was lovely to see a gathering of familiar faces plus a special guest appearance of “Tim from Norway” who had secured his seat due to the kindness of someone on WML.  There is always that comforting feeling of being home again.

On arrival at the ground, I headed for the Hornet Shop, which was crowded, but I managed to buy the new shirt (it is growing on me).  The frontage for the new shop on the corner looks impressive and should ease congestion such that I may even, on occasion, go in there on the day of a first team league game.

Cathcart on the ball

Cathcart on the ball

It was rather strange to be entering the turnstiles of the SEJ stand.  In contrast to the £3 that was being charged for programmes at Loftus Road last week, we entered the ground to find people handing out free programmes.  There wasn’t much in the way of content, but it was a nice touch and included an introduction to the new signings.  When the starting line-up was announced, I was a bit surprised to see that, again, it was the old faces included.  The starting XI was Gomes, Cathcart, Prödl, Britos, Anya, Watson, Guedioura, Capoue, Holebas, Deeney and Ighalo.  Again we started with a 3-5-2 formation.  The lads emerged from the tunnel into bright sunlight and, as he took his place in the dugout, our new head coach, Mazzarri, waved to the fans and was warmly applauded.

The game started brightly enough for the Hornets who had a couple of early chances without testing the Lorient goalkeeper.  First Deeney headed the ball down for Capoue who unleashed a shot that flew over the bar.  Then Capoue played in Ighalo whose shot was blocked by Touré.  Off the pitch, Harry Hornet was spotted trying to get the empty Rookery and GT stands singing.  It loses a lot in translation, but it was very funny.

Celebration after Deeney's penalty

Celebration after Deeney’s penalty

Just before the half hour mark, there was a drinks break for the players.  I must admit that, with the sun beating down on us in the stand, I was rather envious as we could have done with one ourselves.  As play resumed, Cathcart was replaced by Success and the formation changed to 4-3-3 with Anya and Holebas dropping into the defence and Success joining Deeney and Ighalo up front.  After the restart, the visitors had their best chance of the game so far, as Moukandjo latched on to a through ball and hit a shot that required a good save from Gomes.  Success had his first sight of goal as he cut in from the left but shot straight at Lecomte.  The French side should have broken the deadlock with a cracking shot from Cafú but he directed it straight at Gomes who blocked with his hands.  By this point, the danger from the sun had led to neighbours in the stand sharing sun cream.  Factor 50 was liberally applied.  On the pitch, Capoue had another shot from outside the area, this one was on target, but was easily saved.  Watford’s breakthrough came in time added on at the end of the half as Holebas tried to break into the box and ran into a defender.  I thought he played for the penalty, but the referee pointed to the spot.  Deeney stepped up and blasted the shot into the top corner and we went into the break with the Hornets a goal up.

At half time much of the crowd headed for the concourse to get out of the sun.  Those of us who stayed in the stand were treated to a lovely and very welcome cooling breeze.

Ighalo delighted at scoring

Ighalo delighted at scoring

Watford had a decent chance to increase the lead early in the second half as Success went on a run down the left and put in a lovely cross which, sadly, evaded all of the players in the box.  But the Hornets were two up soon after as Capoue played a gorgeous through ball to Ighalo who only had the keeper to beat.  I was a bit concerned that Odion had a bit too much time to think about his shot, but he finished brilliantly with a chip over the keeper.  The visitors pulled one back soon after from a free kick.  As they lined up to take it, there was a comment from behind me that “if this goes in, it’ll be a good goal.” He wasn’t wrong, the apparent taker ran over the ball allowing Touré to arrow a shot past Gomes.  It was an excellent strike that was applauded by everyone in the ground.  Lorient equalized on 69 minutes as Mesloud played a ball over the Watford defence for Philippoteaux to run on to and prod past Gomes.  Late in the game, Vydra was introduced to replace Deeney to rapturous applause from the Watford fans.  The Hornets had a late chance to win the game with a cracking shot from Doucouré that was saved by Lecomte, but pre-season was to finish with honours even.

Success strikes

Success strikes

It had been an enjoyable game, without setting the World alight.  Success had the best game that I had seen from him, probably due to the fact that he was playing upfront rather than in the midfield.  The guys sitting next to me were impressed and commented that he should start, but they were shouted down by a youngster in front who angrily told them that Success should be brought on to change the game.  An interesting perspective, but I agree with the first opinion.  It was also good to see Ighalo score.  He is a player that feeds off confidence, so that lovely goal can’t have done him any harm.  Special mention must also go to Emma Saunders who did a tremendous job with names of the Lorient team and substitutes.

The season starts next week at Southampton.  It will be very interesting to see whether Mazzarri starts with a 3-5-2 or the 4-3-3 that looked more promising in this game.  We have a very hard start, so I can only hope that Watford fans will be patient and get behind the team.  If they don’t, the next few weeks will be very trying indeed.

More Joy from Rattigan than the Hornets

Gomes in a kit reminiscent of Steve Sherwood

Gomes in a kit reminiscent of Steve Sherwood

As much as I love both pre-season games and Austria, the late announcement of the fixtures, the fact that they were in the middle of nowhere and a date with the Galway Arts Festival meant that I decided against travelling, so it has been a couple of weeks since I last saw Watford play at Stevenage, a game that was very enjoyable indeed.

On our last visit to Loftus Road, it took a huge diplomatic initiative to get our party into a pub near the ground.  Apart from Pete and Julie who, when asked to produce a QPR season ticket, looked baffled and said they just wanted to have lunch and were escorted to the bar.  So, for this visit, we decided on a venue further back along the Hammersmith and City line.  It was a lovely pub with a pleasant beer garden, decent beer and food.  But I doubt that we will return due to the terrible service at the bar and the meals attracting a 12.5% service charge for someone to deliver the plates to the table.  It was a good thing that the company was so delightful.

I have stopped buying programmes at away games, but usually make an exception for non-league or lower league clubs who could do with the cash.  QPR don’t fall into that category but, had I been tempted, the fact that they were charging £3 for a few pages would have confirmed my decision.

Suarez on the ball

Suarez on the ball

Given the number of new players that have been drafted in over the Summer, I was a little surprised that only Doucouré was included in the starting line-up which was Gomes; Nyom, Cathcart, Britos; Anya, Doucouré, Suárez, Capoue, Holebas; Deeney and Ighalo.  This was my first opportunity to see the players wearing the new home shirt.  I can’t say that it appealed to me on first viewing.  It is very yellow, which is no bad thing, but rather shapeless, so making some of our more stocky players look as if they have been over indulging during their break.  I saw a couple of fans wearing the shirt and it just didn’t look new or original.  But the most interesting talking point of the day regarding kit was the fact that the QPR goalie, Smithies, was in all black, as were the referees.  I was rather confused when I first saw the referee pick up the ball.  Since when has that been allowed?

The game did not start well for the Hornets who could have been two goals down in the first five minutes.  First, Britos lost the ball to Gladwin, who blazed over the bar, provoking chants of “That’s why you’re Championship” from some among the Watford crowd who may have had some pause when, a minute later, Polter headed against the bar.

Juan Camilo Zuniga

Juan Camilo Zuniga

A shot from Chery that flew wide of the near post provoked more derision from the Watford fans, but they were silenced on 20 minutes as Polter hit a lovely shot from just inside the box that beat Gomes.  The goal spurred the Hornets to their first decent goal attempt as Holebas cut the ball back to Deeney, but a QPR defender put him off enough to ensure that he shot past the near post.  On the half hour, there was a rare moment of quality from the Hornets as Doucouré found Capoue who curled a shot wide of the far post.  In the dying minutes of the half, Ighalo met a cross from Anya with a header that flew over the bar and, almost immediately, the Nigerian had another chance with a shot that was cleared off the line.

Despite the late burst of action from the Hornets, the half time verdict was that it had been a shocking display.  Thankfully my mood was improved by bumping into Olly Wicken and having a chat about his new Hornet Heaven podcast.  A request by this Luddite for download instructions was granted and followed up with a link in a tweet, so I now have all four episodes lined up for my commute to work this week (https://audioboom.com/boos/4865618-s1-e1-the-turnaround).

Christian Kabasele

Christian Kabasele

At the start of the second half, we had the opportunity to see a couple of the new recruits as Kabasele and Zuniga joined Amrabat in replacing Nyom, Doucouré and Anya.  There was a lovely move between Amrabat and Zuniga at the start of the half that finished with a cross that was cleared just before Deeney could connect.  But it was a false dawn as we never really looked like getting an equaliser.  The introduction of Pantilimon, Prödl, Watson, Success and Guedioura during the second half had little impact on the proceedings.  The home side increased their lead on 82 minutes as the Watford defence went missing allowing a corner to fly across the box before it was headed home by Washington.  The Hornets finally got the pulses racing in the last minute of the game as Guedioura jinked into the box and unleashed a shot that took a decent save from Smithies to keep out of the net.  Deeney connected with the rebound, but Smithies caught his header.  The final whistle went to some boos in the away end that were as half-hearted as the Watford performance.

At the end of the game, more than one person wished me luck in finding anything to include in a report.  While the results of pre-season games are irrelevant, you do hope to see a team and plan for the upcoming season start to emerge, but this game was totally uninformative.  In fact, we seemed to have gone backwards from the performance against Stevenage, even taking the better quality of the opposition into account.

So back to the pub to meet up with a couple from our party who had left early and so missed the best Watford move of the game.  After the post-mortem I went on to the National Theatre to see The Deep Blue Sea.  The fact that a tale of heartbreak and betrayal lifted my spirits after the match tells you all you need to know about both performances.

Capoue Breaks His Duck

A welcome to Stevenage in the Ladies

A welcome to Stevenage in the Ladies

Pre-season continued on Thursday night in Stevenage.  I was delighted when my final meeting of the day finished early, so I was able to make a quick getaway.  Not so pleased to find that my card wouldn’t work in the ticket machines and the trains were delayed.  Thankfully, a late running train left at the time that I had intended to leave and I was in the pub in Stevenage in plenty of time to meet my companions and have a swift pint or two.  After a dissection of last season and the Euros, we left for the ground.  Having thought that we had left plenty of time before kick-off, we were a bit shocked to arrive at the turnstiles to see huge queues and realize that having pre purchased our tickets was not going to speed our entry to the stadium.  I hate being outside the ground and hearing the whistle go for kick-off, but we were soon inside and took our place in a packed away stand.

Catching up on the team news, I noted that the conspiracy theorists would have been pleased (disappointed?) to see Deeney in the starting line-up replacing Vydra.  The starting XI was Gomes, Nyom, Britos, Hoban, Amrabat, Capoue, Suarez, Berghuis, Holebas, Deeney and Ighalo.

The first half was standard pre-season fare, although Watford did create the best of the chances.  Ighalo had a couple of shots cleared off the line, one of which had he and Deeney in a long discussion with the referee trying to convince him that a hand had kept the ball out of the net.  Capoue also had a couple of decent chances but, in usual fashion, the shots didn’t trouble the goalkeeper.  The referee was allowing the players to get away with some rather robust tackles, which had the consequence that the challenges were getting worse and worse as the half went on, culminating in a nasty looking scissor challenge from Berghuis on Fox that resulted in a spot of handbags.  It was the home side that had the last chance of the half with a shot from Godden that flew just over the bar.

Capoue congratulated on his first goal for the Hornets

Capoue congratulated on his first goal for the Hornets

Watford made four changes at the start of the second half, bringing Arlauskis, Anya, Doucouré and Guedioura on for Gomes, Amrabat, Suárez and Berghuis.  The visitors opened the scoring early in the second half.  I was quite glad that I wasn’t sitting behind the goal at this point as seeing Capoue shape to shoot would likely have meant that I would have ducked and missed the goal.  Instead I was in prime position to see him curl a gorgeous shot past Jones in the Stevenage goal.  The hearty rendition of his song stumbled a bit when it got to “Quique’s man”, but we recovered.  The second half was terrific entertainment.  Watford had chances to increase the lead as Ighalo hit the bar and Deeney was left smiling ruefully as his shot came back off the far post.  Sinclair went on a lovely run before crossing for Deeney, who was frustrated again as Chris Day, who had come on as a substitute, blocked the shot with his feet.  Finding out that Chris is now a veteran of 40 makes me feel very old indeed.  I remember a very young Chris presenting me with a cheque on the pitch when I won the Hornets lottery.  It is very hard to believe that was nearly 20 years ago.  It wasn’t all Watford and Pett had a decent chance to level the score with a shot from the edge of the area, but Arlauskis was equal to it.  The Hornets made certain of the victory in the last minute of the game when Sinclair headed home a lovely cross from Abdi.

Mazzarri expressing his frustration

Mazzarri expressing his frustration

So a perfect pre-season game.  A very entertaining performance on a lovely Summer evening with a couple of goals to savour and a chance to become more familiar with some of the new boys.  The more I see of Doucouré, the more I like him.  He has described himself as a box to box midfielder, which was every apparent in this game and he has a lovely touch.  Sinclair again looked lively and, this time, found the net.  But man of the match was Capoue who put in a typically assured performance topped off with a lovely goal.  Now that he has broken that duck, I hope he is a regular on the scoresheet.  It is early days but this team is shaping up to be quite formidable, which bodes well for the new season.

Mazzarri Braves the Wilds of Woking

Troy and Don discussing pre-season

Troy and Don discussing pre-season

I know that a lot of people have no interest in pre-season friendlies, but I love them.  It is a chance to catch up with old friends, get familiar with current players’ new hair styles and have a first look at any new players.  It is also a chance to watch your team in a game when the result doesn’t really matter, so you can just enjoy yourself.

When I checked Woking FC’s website for directions to the ground, I was a little perturbed to see a statement in bold text stating that, for personal safety reasons, they recommended that ‘unaccompanied women and children’ did not attempt the 15 minute walk from the railway station to the ground but took a taxi instead.  I pondered the danger while remembering walks back to hotels in Burnley and Doncaster after evening games and decided that I would take my chances in Woking.

I am pleased to say that my walk through leafy Surrey passed without incident and, on arrival at the ground, I heard my name called and turned to see Dee and Mike who had just arrived.  When we passed through the turnstiles we spotted Don, Trond and Gavin and all was right with the World.  Prior to kick-off, Don and co. were joined by Troy Deeney who Don quizzed about the pre-season tour.  Troy was not playing because of a knock but said he’d done three training sessions that day.  As always, he was very willing to chat and pose for photos.  One guy asked if he was going to stay.  “I’ve just signed a new contract, what more can I do?”

Poke saving from Britos

Poke saving from Britos

Before the teams were announced, I wondered how many players I would recognize, but the starting line-up contained no newcomers and no new hair styles as Gomes, Nyom, Britos, Hoban, Anya, Capoue, Suarez, Berghuis, Amrabat, Ighalo and Vydra, lined up in a 3-5-2 formation.

We were stationed in the large stand behind the goal that Watford attacked in the first half and, after a quiet start to the game, there was suddenly a flurry of activity in front of us as Britos twice met Berghuis corners with headers, the first of which was cleared off the line, the second saved by the Woking keeper, Poke.  Suarez then tested the keeper with a volley from distance which required a decent save to deny the Spaniard.  Ighalo was the next to threaten from a corner, but I watch goalbound headers from Ighalo more in hope than expectation, so was not surprised to see Poke make the save.

Congratulating Berghuis on his goal

Congratulating Berghuis on his goal

The Hornets took the lead on 20 minutes as Anya cut the ball back to Berghuis whose shot took a deflection and ended up in the back of the net off the gloves of Poke.  It had been all Watford to this point so it was slightly irritating when the home side equalized soon after.  They won a free kick in a dangerous position, Gomes got his hand to the initial shot, but the loose ball was turned in.  I must admit that, at the time, I was rather distracted by the beautiful Red Kite that was soaring over the field, I hope that the same was not the case with the Watford defence.  The visitors had an excellent chance to regain the lead as Ighalo played a one-two with Capoue but his shot was well over the target.  The pitch had been cutting up rather badly so we were then treated to the sight of Capoue on groundsman duty, replacing the divots.  Les Simmons would have been impressed.  Ighalo tried to meet a Berghuis cross with a spectacular shot and missed completely.  In the last minute of the half, Woking had another free kick in a dangerous position but, with no Kite to help, it missed the target.

Suarez, Hoban and Britos

Suarez, Hoban and Britos

The start of the second half saw six substitutions with Arlauskis, Guedioura, Watson and Oularé coming on and a first chance to see Doucouré and Sinclair in Watford shirts.  Sinclair made a lively start as he turned in the box and forced a save before heading a cross from Anya over the bar.  Then Doucouré had a chance with a shot from distance.  Mazzarri made further substitutions during the half with Holebas coming on for Amrabat and Hoban replaced by Success.  The enthusiasm to see the young Nigerian play was slightly tempered by the fact that he was wearing Lloydy’s no 12 shirt (sob!)  Arlauskis was called into action to deal with a cracking shot from Kretzschmar that he parried with both hands.  An assured save that was in contrast to much of his performance.  His tendency to come charging out of goal to intercept balls that the defence is already dealing with was not doing my delicate nerves a lot of good.  Late in the game Britos made a great saving tackle that prevented a goal opportunity for the home side.  Soon after, the final substitution saw the Uruguayan replaced by Charlie Rowan.  The last action of the game was a weak shot from Thorburn that was easily saved by Arlauskis and the game ended in a draw.

Oulare and Doucoure

Oulare and Doucoure

It had been a game of two halves.  The first had been very enjoyable with Watford peppering the Woking goal and being frustrated by a combination of a decent performance from Poke and the 11 men lined up to stop them.  It was a shame that we didn’t make more of the chances, but it was a good run out.  In contrast, the second half was scrappy featuring a number of players who had only met the previous Monday and it showed.  Of the new players, Sinclair looked lively and fashioned a couple of chances.  Doucouré also showed up well, although a few times when he appeared to have an opportunity to shoot, he passed to Success instead.  The Nigerian was given less time to impress and, given that the overall performance was somewhat chaotic when he came on, it was difficult to form an impression.  It was lovely to see Tommy Hoban back in action.  Ighalo and Vydra were both in frustrating mode, although Ighalo had the better of the chances that were created.

As we left the ground, the players who had played in the first half were milling around the car park.  It was a chance for photos with a group who were all on good form.  Ighalo was in a particularly good mood, although his footwear was decidedly dodgy particularly as it was in Luton colours.  After a while, the second half team emerged to get on the team bus.  Last to emerge was Mazzarri, who I was surprised to see surrounded by stewards although a “Welcome to Watford” was greeted with a smile and “Thank-you,” which was repeated by the man that was identified as his translator, just in case I hadn’t understood the first time.

And so the build up to the new season starts.  Who knows what joys and sorrows we have to come, but I am really looking forward to finding out.

Norwich Down but No Thanks to Watford

The teams emerge

The teams emerge

In contrast to the blazing sunshine of Sunday, I arrived in Norwich on a very muggy afternoon.  I had a quick wander around the town and then headed for the pre-match pub to meet up with our much depleted party and the Norfolk ‘Orns.  The pre-match beers in the sunshine, were very enjoyable and we had the added pleasure of cheering the team bus as it passed on its way to the ground.  I must admit that, of the three teams still under threat, Norwich were my first choice for the drop, but I did have to feel sorry for the bloke in the pub who was begging Watford fans for mercy.

When we reached the turnstiles, we encountered a sniffer dog.  I know that it is a no-no, but the hound was so adorable that I asked the handler whether I could pet it.  She asked me, in return, if I would do her a favour and give the dog something to find.  She explained that, when the dogs don’t find anything for a while, they get a bit bored and she wanted to make sure that her charge was still paying attention.  So I was given a scent to put in my pocket and asked to come back in again.  Once I was assured that this plant would not lead to my arrest, I did as she asked and, sure enough, the hound leapt up at me, identified the scent and was suitably rewarded and I got a doggy cuddle.

Team news was only the one change with Nyom coming in at right back and Prödl making way for Cathcart in the centre of defence.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Anya, Cathcart, Britos, Nyom, Jurado, Watson, Suarez, Abdi, Deeney and Ighalo.  It was not a selection to quell the doubts of those calling for Quique’s head.

Celebrating the first goal

Celebrating the first goal

The travelling Watford fans started goading their counterparts early on with chants of “We are staying up.”  And the game started rather well for the visitors as Troy had an early shot from distance that the Norwich keeper, Ruddy, just kept out.  We took the lead on 11 minutes as a long ball from Britos was headed down by Deeney to Ighalo, Ruddy smothered his shot, but the ball broke to Deeney who finished into the empty net.  At this stage, it looked as though Norwich could be in for a comprehensive defeat to send them down.  That couldn’t have been further from the truth as, a couple of minutes later, an innocuous looking Norwich attack finished with Redmond exchanging passes with Naismith before scoring through the legs of Gomes.  The home fans started singing “The Great Escape” at this point.  Unbelievably, the home side were 2-1 up soon afterwards as Watford failed to clear the ball allowing Redmond to hit the post and the rebound was buried by Mbokani.  Watford tried to hit back with a ball into the box that was gathered by Ruddy with Deeney challenging.  There was an immediate counter attack which finished with a shot from Redmond that flew just wide.  More lax defending from Watford allowed Redmond to hit the post again, on this occasion the follow-up from Olsson was kept out by a smart save from Gomes.  At this point, there were boos ringing out in the away end.

Watson on the ball

Watson on the ball

Watford gifted Norwich a third in the 37th minute as Watson gave the ball away, Jurado failed to tackle when given the chance and Nyom slipped allowing the ball to run through to Hoolahan, whose cross looked unlikely to trouble the defence until Cathcart intervened to power it past Gomes.  You’d have thought that the Watford team had a bet on Norwich to stay up.  But, soon after the goal, it became apparent that that was out of their hands as a chant of “1-0 to the Sunderland” went up in the away end indicating Sunderland’s breakthrough against Everton.  This was followed by “We are Premier League”.  Hmm, not on the evidence of tonight’s showing.  Watford attacked again as Watson crossed for Deeney but his shot was saved by Ruddy, and the flag was up anyway.  The travelling Hornets continued to console themselves by goading the opposition.  This time with “Burton Albion on a Tuesday night,” which sounded rather appealing to me.  Norwich had a couple more chances before half time.  First Hoolahan played a through ball to Naismith whose shot was saved by Gomes.  Then the Watford keeper was called into action again to stop a long range shot from Hoolahan.  The half time whistle went to boos from the away end.  I never boo my team, but this was one occasion when I had sympathy with those who did.

At half time, I went to chat with Don.  You know that things are not going well when even Don can’t find anything positive to say.  Although he did manage a complaint about the ref, so I knew he was OK.  Our summary of the first half was that the majority of the Watford players were on the beach.

Deeney crosses for the second Watford goal

Deeney crosses for the second Watford goal

Flores made a change at half time bringing Aké on for Nyom.  There was a bright start to the second period as Anya played a ball down the wing to Deeney who cut back for Igahlo to score his fifteenth league goal of the season, which was also his first in the league since January.  The Watford fans greeted the strike with, “We’re gonna win 4-3.”  Flores made his second substitution to loud cheers as Jurado made way for Berghuis.  Norwich nearly did us a favour as a long ball from Abdi was headed back towards Ighalo by Deeney and Bennett’s attempt to clear flew just over the bar.  As it happened, it wouldn’t have counted as he was deemed to have been fouled by the Nigerian.  Norwich scored their fourth just before the hour mark as Redmond played a through ball to Mbokani, who dinked it over Gomes.  The Norwich fans were doing an impressive job of supporting their team despite knowing that Sunderland were three goals up against Everton, so their fate was sealed.  Watford attempted to hit back as Berghuis found Abdi but the shot was just wide of the far post.  Watson was booked for a frustrated tackle on Naismith and, soon after, made way for Guedioura.  While Norwich’s first change saw Brady coming on for Hoolahan.  The home fans continued their impressive support with a chant of “One Alex Neil”.

Berghuis, Guedioura and Abdi discuss a free kick

Berghuis, Guedioura and Abdi discuss a free kick

An extended period of possession for the Hornets finished with Abdi exchanging passes with Berghuis before hitting a volley straight at Ruddy.  I thought that Norwich should have been awarded a penalty as Naismith was tripped in the box, but the referee waved play on.  Soon after, the Scotsman was replaced by Odjidja-Ofoe and Jarvis came on for the excellent Redmond.  Late in the game, Aké was booked for a stupid tackle on Mbokani.  There was a great chance for Watford to strike back after Abdi was fouled on the edge of the box.  But the ball was placed considerably further back for the free kick and Guedioura hit it into Row Z, summing up the evening.  A cross into the Norwich box was met by the head of Anya but he could only direct it back to Ruddy.  Then Deeney had one last chance to cut the deficit with a shot from outside the area that Ruddy spilled towards the goal, but managed to recover.  In the last minute I, again, thought that we had conceded a penalty, but the trip was outside the area and the free kick was straight into the Watford wall.  It was a relief when the final whistle went.

Ighalo

Ighalo

I usually take defeats in my stride and try to take positives from any game.  But my patience ran out last night.  The dedicated souls who travelled to Norwich took time off work, spent a lot of money on travel, tickets and, in many cases, hotels and were rewarded with an abject performance from a bunch of lads who looked like they were on holiday.  I can take being beaten by a better team, but not such a sub-par performance from players who are so much better than that.   I was so irate that, as Britos came over to offer his shirt to a fan I found myself shouting “It’s your pay packet you should be giving us, not your shirt”.  To be fair, the young girl who went home with the shirt was very happy indeed.  The most shocking aspect of the evening was the performance of the defence, which has been excellent for most of the season, but played like clowns on the evening.  Even Gomes had a very rare off day.  Deeney was the only player to come out of the game with any credit.  I’m sure I will calm down by Sunday and, of course, I will be at Vicarage Road to support the lads in the last game of what has been a very successful season.  I just hope they end on a high.

A Better Performance at Anfield

Justice for the 96

Justice for the 96

Liverpool’s progression to the semi-final of the Europa League meant that our trip to Anfield was delayed to Sunday.  Thankfully, I had bought refundable train tickets, so was able to reschedule with no hassle.  It also meant that I had a Saturday afternoon free to see The Caretaker at the Old Vic which I had missed (slept through) after watching the U18s lose in their play-off a couple of weeks before.  The play was marvellous, Timothy Spall absolutely brilliant, and it made a lovely start to the weekend.

The train journey north seemed overly leisurely with a number of stops at intermediate stations to remain on schedule, so I was happy finally to arrive in Liverpool.  Even better to find that the pre-match pub was pleasantly empty, so I joined the advance party and was soon happily sat with good beer, a nice lunch and wonderful company.

The build-up to this match was oddly devoid of discussions of the home game against Liverpool, which seemed like a distant memory.  That was an amazing game and, sadly, our league form since has been rather poor, meaning that the achievements of this season have been overshadowed by the recent disappointments.

Team news was that Flores had made one change from the Villa game, bringing Prödl in for Paredes, meaning that Cathcart moved to the right back position.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Anya, Prödl, Britos, Cathcart, Jurado, Watson, Suarez, Abdi, Deeney and Ighalo.  The inclusion of three centre backs did not go down well with many in the pre-match pub, but I’d trust Cathcart anywhere across the back.

The Kop pre-game

The Kop pre-game

We got on the bus to the ground with some friendly Liverpool fans and were dropped off to meet the rest of our party who had driven directly to the ground and visited the Fan Zone to pass the time.  As we waited at the away turnstiles, we saw the East Anglian Horns with a banner celebrating the final achievement of justice for the Hillsborough 96.  Well done to all involved in the banner for paying tribute to their fellow fans.

Prior to kick off, the rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” made the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.

Watford had the first shot on goal as Ighalo made an audacious attempt to lob Mignolet that was only just over the bar.  The visitors had another chance to take the lead as Ighalo played the ball out to Anya who crossed for Abdi whose shot was disappointingly over the bar.  I noticed, at this point, that the entire Kop was sitting down.  It puzzled me for a minute as it was such an unusual sight but, of course, Liverpool fans are passionately anti standing following the Hillsborough disaster.

Ighalo challenges for the ball

Ighalo challenges for the ball

Liverpool’s first chance came on 11 minutes with a shot from Coutinho that was deflected just wide.  At the other end, a cross from Abdi flew just over the head of Jurado.  For the home side, Moreno’s shot from just outside the area flew well over the bar.  Then Anya broke forward and tried a shot from a tight angle which flew over.  There was a very odd interlude as Coutinho prepared to take a free kick.  The referee marked the spot the kick should be taken from with his spray.  The player chose his spot and was told to move the ball.  But, as the referee walked away to mark the line for the defence, Coutinho picked the foam spot up and moved it and the ball to where he wanted to take the kick.  Bizarre.  A ball over the top reached Ighalo in the box, but it was taken off his feet by a defender who conceded a corner.  The corner was cleared to Abdi whose shot was blocked on the line.  Suárez conceded a free kick when he tripped Ibe just outside the box.  Benteke hit both the set piece and his follow-up into the wall.  Liverpool opened the scoring soon afterwards and it was a poor goal to give away.  A cross from Coutinho was knocked down by Benteke into the path of Allen and he finished past Gomes.  Watford almost hit back immediately as Anya found Jurado on the wing, his cross was headed just wide by Ighalo.  It was Watson’s turn next as he made up for his initial mis-kick with a better shot that was blocked.  At the other end Coutinho had two chances: first a shot from distance that was saved by Gomes, then a shot that was blocked by Prödl.  There was a shout for a penalty from the Hornets faithful as Skrtel appeared to be on Deeney’s shoulders in the box, but nothing was given so the Hornets went in at the break a goal down.  Despite the moans at the team selection, it had been a much better performance than of late and we were unfortunate to be behind.  In particular, Ighalo had been much livelier and I lived in hope that he would find his shooting boots in the second half.

Abdi lines up a free kick

Abdi lines up a free kick

The home side had the first chance of the second period as Coutinho played the ball out to Benteke before receiving a return ball which he put wide.  The Brazilian had another chance soon after, but this time his shot was easily saved by Gomes.  Ojo made a dangerous break before shooting high and wide.  Flores made his first substitute on 52 minutes bringing Guedioura on for Suárez.  Ighalo had a great chance to equalize as Anya crossed from the left and Deeney dummied leaving the Nigerian to hit a sweet shot that was heading for the top corner when Mignolet got his fingertips to it to push it behind.  Guedioura was the next to try his luck with a shot from distance that flew high and wide.  Flores made a second substitution replacing Jurado with Berghuis.  Britos was the first to find his way into the referee’s book, although he was a bit unfortunate as he was swinging his leg at the ball when Benteke came running in and was kicked.  Liverpool’s first change came on the hour as Firmino replaced Coutinho.  The substitute tried his luck immediately but his shot was comfortably saved by Gomes.  A promising Watford move was stopped by a cynical foul by Flanagan on Abdi.  The Kosovan had a decent chance soon after as, with the Watford fans chanting his name, he hit a free kick just over the bar.  That was his last contribution to the game as he was replaced immediately by Amrabat.

Britos lines up a free kick

Britos lines up a free kick

Deeney did brilliantly to keep the ball while being challenged, his cross reached Ighalo, but the Nigerian couldn’t convert.  Deeney played the ball out to Berghuis whose shot was straight at Mignolet.  The Dutchman was then booked for a late tackle on Ibe.  It had been a lovely spell of play for the Hornets, so it was a great disappointment when Anya gave the ball away and it reached Firmino whose shot beat Gomes, who got a hand to it but couldn’t keep it out.  Again the Hornets tried to hit back as a shot from Ighalo was deflected into the side netting.  Britos met the corner from Berghuis with a header that flew over the bar.  Amrabat crossed for Ighalo who didn’t catch the ball properly, so the shot looped into the keeper’s arms.  At the other end a cross from Benteke was gathered by Gomes.  The home side could have increased their lead as Firmino’s cross drifted along in front of goal and Ibe met it with a powerful shot that came back off the post.  At this point, there was an announcement over the tannoy for the Watford supporters thanking them for their support for the 96 and particularly the banner and wishing us a safe journey home.  This was met with warm and lengthy applause from the travelling Hornets.  There was one last chance in time added on and it fell to the home side with a cross that Benteke somehow turned over the bar when it would have been easier to score.

Flores consoling Deeney

Flores consoling Deeney

So the final whistle went to a 2-0 defeat which was met with a chant of ‘3-2 on aggregate.’  It had been a much better performance, let down by a couple of mistakes which led to goals, and poor finishing from a Watford perspective.  Ighalo had the best game he has had for months but, earlier in the season, would have converted at least two of his chances.  After the final whistle we stayed behind to applaud the team.  Troy is normally the last player to come to the away end after he has completed his captain’s duties, but this afternoon was different.  I saw him standing talking to Flores, he had his head down and looked distraught.  Flores spoke to him for a while and then they came towards us together to take the plaudits.

As we left the ground we were wished a safe journey home by some of the nicest stewards that I have encountered all season.  That was also the most positive that I have felt after a defeat for some time.  It is hard to believe that there is only a week left of the season.  It has flown by and, at this stage, our only relegation concerns are regarding where we will be visiting next season.  That makes me very happy.

 

Mathematically Safe at Last

Abdi and Paredes

Abdi and Paredes

The week before this game was dominated by feelings of disappointment following the FA Cup semi-final at which our team really didn’t do themselves justice.  I had a clear indication of my level of disillusion after that game when I realized on Tuesday morning that I had completely forgotten to buy tickets for the trip to Norwich the previous day.  Normally I buy my tickets for away games as soon as they go on sale.

In the wider football world, the main news of the week had been the final verdicts in the Hillsborough inquest.  Those of us who went to football in the 80s were all too aware of the conditions that we faced at grounds and the attitudes of the authorities towards us.  What happened at Hillsborough could just as easily have happened to me and my family and friends and the vilification that the victims and their families have endured over the past 27 years has been shocking beyond belief.  I am very thankful that the truth that was so evident to anyone without an agenda in the 80s is now a matter of record.  Well done to the families for never giving up their fight for justice.

Miguel Britos

Miguel Britos

On the train to the game, I was reading the BBC football website and the responses to their request for people to comment on what they were looking forward to from the day’s football.  One comment stood out.  “Does anyone care about Watford vs Aston Villa? #deadrubber.”  It was hard to argue with that viewpoint although, even though I have felt that we were safe ever since we hit 37 points, Watford were not yet mathematically safe from relegation.  When we took our seats in the Rookery, I was very impressed with the number of Aston Villa fans who had made the journey from Birmingham for this fixture.  Although the mood among them did not seem particularly positive as, with good reason, they booed when the name of their captain, Lescott, was read out.

One other story dominating the Watford press during the week concerned the strong rumours that Flores would be on his way during the Summer.  Speculation regarding his future seemed grossly unfair given that he had achieved the aim of keeping Watford in the Premier League with the added bonus of an FA Cup semi-final.  The reaction to these rumours on the social media that I bother with had been mixed, so it was pleasing to see the 1881 display a flag bearing Flores’ face prior to kick off.

Flores in the dugout

Flores in the dugout

Team news was that there were four changes from Sunday with Gomes, Paredes, Anya and Suárez in for Pantilimon, Nyom, Aké and Capoue.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Anya, Britos, Cathcart, Paredes, Jurado, Watson, Suárez, Abdi, Deeney and Ighalo.  The Watford players all took to the pitch wearing black armbands which I assumed were in honour of Ighalo’s father who passed away last week, but I am happy to be contradicted on that one.

The support for Flores from the Watford fans continued after kick off as his name was chanted non-stop for the first 15 minutes of the game.  Watford started well and fashioned an early chance as a cross from Abdi reached Jurado who played the ball out to Suárez whose shot was over the bar.  Then Deeney got his head to a Jurado cross, but his connection was not solid and the ball flew wide of the Villa goal.  Jurado went on a promising run which finished with a cross that was too far in front of Ighalo.  Then Ighalo did well to beat a couple of defenders in the box, but his shot was blocked for a corner while Deeney was in space.  At this point Troy let his strike partner know in no uncertain terms how unhappy he was with his decision making.  A chant of “Championship you’re having a laugh” emanated from the away end and I could only assume this was aimed at their own players who had been woeful to that point.

Abdi and Suarez line up for the free kick that led to the goal

Abdi and Suarez line up for the free kick that led to the goal

Deeney made what looked like a terrible tackle on Bacuna who, thankfully, got up unharmed and there was no punishment for Deeney beyond the award of the free kick.  Paredes found Abdi on the overlap, his cross reached Ighalo at the far post where his shot was blocked by Bunn sticking a foot out.  At this point, half way through the first half, the Rookery crowd were yelling “shoot”, every time a Watford player got the ball anywhere near the Villa box and they were rewarded when Watson blasted a volley from distance that crashed off the crossbar.  Villa’s first goal attempt came on 26 minutes and it was a dreadful shot from distance by Ayew that flew well over the target.  This prompted the travelling Villa fans to jump up and down celebrating as if a goal had been scored while chanting “We’ve had a shot”.   So it was a shock to everyone in the ground when the visitors took the lead two minutes later as Clark met a Westwood corner and headed it past Gomes.  The Villa fans celebrated properly and followed up with “Easy, easy” and “We scored a goal.”  Watford looked to hit back through Deeney who latched on to a ball over the top and won a corner off Toner.  Jurado’s delivery was headed on by Britos to Abdi who should have done better with the shot, but he directed it way off target.  Villa threatened again with a cross from Hutton, but Cathcart was on hand to head clear.

Celebrating Abdi's strike

Celebrating Abdi’s strike

The Villa fans continued their continuous singing with “There’s only one Graham Taylor”, which was lovely and I was very disappointed that the Watford fans didn’t join in (I seemed to be on my own).  The first caution went to Bacuna for a trip on Anya.  Watford’s next chance on goal came when Deeney met a cross from Suárez with a hopeful header that flew wide.  The visitors nearly extended their lead with a header from Ayew that hit the post.  Watford had a decent chance to equalize as Ighalo met a cross from Abdi with a header, but Lescott was in close attendance and the ball bounced off him and safely to Bunn.  In time added on at the end of the half, when a large number of fans were already in the concourses queuing for their half time refreshments, Gueye was booked for a foul on Abdi just outside the box.  Almen stepped up to take the free kick himself and took the perfect free kick, hitting it up and over the wall and into the net past Bunn.  Having got my camera out to capture Deeney’s penalty at West Ham, I felt like I had jinxed it, so the camera was left in my pocket as Abdi stepped up I was rewarded with a goal.

Challenging at a Watford corner

Challenging at a Watford corner

On the balance of play, Watford deserved to go in to the break level.  We had been much the better side in the first 20 minutes and towards the end of the half, but heads had gone down after Villa took the lead and we had been poor in that period.

At half time, the U18s were given their trophy and medals for winning the Professional Development League 2 South.  The presentation took place in front of the SEJ stand, so they had their backs to those of us in the Rookery and I was disappointed that there was no lap of honour.

At the start of the second half, I realized that my notes on the first period had omitted any comment on the performance of the visitors.  As I looked up from writing “Villa dreadful” I saw Ayew running towards us with no Watford player anywhere near and he beat Gomes to restore the lead for the visitors.  That’ll teach me for tempting fate.  Villa threatened again as Ayew and Westwood broke forward before finding Gestede who shot high and wide prompting boos from the Rookery.

Cathcart and Deeney

Cathcart and Deeney

Flores made his first substitution just before the hour mark and, when the board went up showing that it was Paredes who would make way, there were loud cheers from the Watford fans.  He was replaced by Berghuis, who had impressed at West Ham.  More of the same please, Steven.  Watford had a great chance to draw level again as a Jurado corner was met by a header from Deeney that was cleared off the line.  At the other end, a free kick from Westwood was met with a header from Toner that went wide of the target.  Berghuis tried an audacious shot from distance which was deflected, taking the pace off it and ensuring it was easy for Bunn to deal with.  The 1881 had clearly lost patience with their team at this point as there were chants of “Are you Villa in disguise.”  Never good to hear fans getting so negative towards their own players.  Flores made a second substitution replacing Jurado with Amrabat.  Watford had an opportunity to equalize as Watson released Anya who went on a tremendous run down the middle of the pitch and was clean through on goal when Cissokho took him down on the edge of the box.  The Villa man was shown a red card for preventing a goal scoring opportunity.  Abdi’s free kick came back off the wall and the chance came to nothing.  The Villa keeper, Bunn, was booked for time wasting in an incident in which Ighalo lost patience with him delaying a kick, so decided to take it himself.

Gomes takes a goal kick

Gomes takes a goal kick

Watford threatened again as a Berghuis cross to the far post was blocked before it reached Deeney, it fell to Amrabat whose cross was headed wide by Ighalo.  There were hopeful appeals for a penalty when Britos went down under a challenge as a cross from Abdi came into the box, but the referee waved play on.  Frustration built further among the home fans as a series of crosses into the Villa box were met by defenders’ heads.  As the game drew to a close, Watford were pushing for an equalizer as a cross from Amrabat was palmed out by Bunn and then a powerful shot from Berghuis flew just wide.  The young Dutchman turned provider as the clock reached 90 minutes with a cross that was headed home by Deeney.  The Rookery went wild and, as Troy had been given constant abuse from the Villa fans, he appeared to enjoy his goal celebration at their end very much indeed.  The Watford fans followed the goal with a chant of “That boy, Troy Deeney, he hates the Villa.”  The announcement of five minutes of added time was greeted with loud cheers from the Watford faithful and they were rewarded three minutes into injury time as Ighalo knocked the ball down to Deeney who powered it past Bunn to win the game for the home side.

Abdi takes a throw-in

Abdi takes a throw-in

Just like the game at Villa Park earlier in the season, it was an unconvincing performance from the Hornets and we were very fortunate to come away with the three points.  Deeney had not looked happy during the game, but he was the hero of the day after hitting the two goals to secure the win.  As at West Ham, Berghuis had put in a very lively performance when he came on.  It was great to see him run at players.  He didn’t always succeed in beating them, but kept the ball on enough occasions to make you want to see him do it again.  The three points ensured that we remained in 12th position and were now mathematically safe from relegation.  I never thought that would be the case with three games remaining in the season.

We were listening to 3 Counties in the car on the way home and, given a lot of the anti-Flores stuff on social media during the week, I found it interesting that both the presenter and the majority of those sending in messages believed that Flores should still be the Watford manager next season.

It is all down to expectations.  I expected Watford to struggle this season and I suspect that my tolerance of the performances that I have seen lately is down to the fact that they are more in line with what I was expecting for this season.  The fact that we have also been treated to some very entertaining football and some historic wins means that Flores and his players are still in credit as far as I am concerned.

 

So Near and Yet So Far

The Watford singing section at Wembley

The Watford singing section at Wembley

I woke up on the day of the semi-final feeling very nervous.  Most weeks I don’t get my hopes up and don’t take defeats too badly as there is always next week, but we have only reached the FA Cup final once in our history so the result of this match mattered ….. a lot.  Getting ready to leave for the game takes on ridiculous levels of obsession with tiny details.  Is this an appropriate top to wear?  Have my Watford socks with the mismatched colours at the top been lucky or unlucky?  Did I start wearing my warm coat before our form dipped?  So many questions with inconclusive answers.  In the end, the most important things were to remember my ticket and my yellow shirt, but the sartorial decisions nagged at me.

As most of our group were not travelling through Watford, we decided to meet in the Marylebone area which began to look like a very bad idea when the tube filled up with Palace fans at Green Park and they all piled off at Baker Street, which was teeming with people dressed in red and blue.  For the second cup game in a row, the choice of pre-match pub was a failure.  This time it was closed completely.  We ended up in a fine dining establishment that was happy to accommodate those who wanted only to drink.  I must say that I consumed what was probably my most expensive pre-match meal ever, but it was delicious.  On the walk to the station, it was disappointing to be taunted by a young child about what happened three years ago.  He was wise to hide behind his father’s legs

Deeney leads the team out at Wembley

Deeney leads the team out at Wembley

A game at Wembley really should end with the presentation of a trophy, I am not a fan of using it as a venue for the semi-finals.  So even entering the ground had a sense of anti-climax.  Earlier in the day, mention had been made of friends who had to miss the game for various reasons and someone expressed the opinion that it wasn’t such a huge deal as, if we lost, you wouldn’t want to have been there and, if we won, there would be another trip to Wembley for the final.

A key question regarding the team selection was the choice of goalkeeper.  I would have picked Gomes, who has been immense this season, but Flores chose to keep faith with Pantilimon who played in the earlier rounds of the cup.  So the starting XI was Pantilimon, Aké, Cathcart, Britos, Nyom, Jurado, Watson, Capoue, Abdi, Deeney and Ighalo.

As we gathered in the concourse before the game, it was lovely to see one of my all-time Watford heroes, Nigel Gibbs, was also in attendance.

Prior to kick-off, there was a great display of red and blue foils in the Palace end,  they do that sort of thing so well, but we are fortunate that a sea of yellow shirt is always striking.

Challenging for a corner

Challenging for a corner

Following complaints about the lack of atmosphere among the Watford fans at the play-off final, a singing section had been designated in the lower tier behind the goal and it was great to see them bouncing early doors.  Sadly Palace took the lead on 6 minutes as a corner was flicked on to the far post where Bolasie headed the ball past Pantilimon.  At that point it already felt as though this was going to be a long afternoon.  But Watford rallied and a nice passing move finished with Jurado trying a shot from distance that was blocked.  Then Ighalo laid the ball off to Deeney who tried a shot more in hope than expectation and it flew well over the bar.  Another nice attacking move saw Jurado find Abdi whose shot was blocked.  During our pre-match discussions, John had commented that our third most prolific goal scorer of the season was ‘OG’ and we nearly benefitted again as Ward almost turned a cross from Nyom past Hennessey but it went just the wrong side of the post.  At the other end a cross from Cabaye was punched clear by Pantilimon.  The same player threatened again with a free-kick that was comfortably caught by the Watford keeper.  Before the half hour mark, Capoue went down with an injury that required a long period of treatment.  He tried to continue, but soon collapsed and had to be taken off on a stretcher, which is always sad to see.

GT in his role of pundit at half time

GT in his role of pundit at half time

Despite it being clear for some time that Capoue would not be able to continue, there was a delay between him being carried off and his replacement taking the field, which was odd as Suárez had pulled on his shirt but remained sitting in the dugout rather than being ready on the sidelines.  Watford continued to attack without really threatening the Palace goal as a Watson free kick reached Deeney who moved it on towards Ighalo but a defender made the block before the Nigerian could reach the ball.  Jurado turned and fired goalwards but, again, it was blocked, this time by Delaney who was knocked to the ground by the force of the shot.  The first caution of the game went to Jurado for a foul on Zaha.  Nyom whipped a lovely cross into the Palace box, but Hennessey caught the ball before Ighalo could get to it.  Watford were lucky not to concede a penalty just before half time as a cross from Zaha hit Ake’s arm but the referee was unsighted and signaled a corner.

So we reached the interval, a goal down.  It was interesting to read my notes again as they indicate that Watford had a lot of the play in the first half and, following the early goal, there had been little threat from Palace.  But the mood among the Watford fans was dark as, despite our possession, we had never looked like scoring.  Our attacks had been ponderous and ineffectual while the Palace wingers, when they did attack, looked very dangerous.  It felt like 2013 all over again.  However, we have had a number of games this season in which we improved considerably after the break and I clung to the hope that this would be one of them.

Celebrating the equalizer

Celebrating the equalizer

Watford made a promising start to the second half with an early chance from a Nyom cross which Deeney headed over the bar under challenge.  But that was followed by a scare at the other end as Bolasie rode a tackle from Britos and it took a good save from Pantilimon to prevent him from increasing the Palace lead.  A Watford free kick was taken short by Abdi to Watson whose shot was deflected off the wall for a corner.  This led to our equalizer as Deeney met Jurado’s delivery to head past Hennessey and send the Watford fans wild.  You could see how much it meant to him as he ran to our corner to celebrate.  All of a sudden both spirits and voices rose among the Watford fans and Flores reacted by replacing Abdi with Guedioura.  Abdi had been wasted out on the wing, so this felt like a positive change.  Sadly, we were only level for six minutes.  Souaré was the first to try to restore the Palace lead with a shot from outside the box that was high and wide.  But the man from Senegal turned provider crossing for Wickham who lost Aké and rose to head home.  Watford tried to strike back again as Guedioura crossed for Ighalo, but the ball flew over his head to Hennessey.  Deeney found himself in space and really should have tried a shot, but hesitated allowing the defence to regroup so he passed to Jurado, who found Suárez, whose shot was blocked.

Watson lines up a free kick

Watson lines up a free kick

Pardew’s first substitution saw Bolasie make way for McArthur.  The big screen announced the substitution and illustrated it with footage of the first goal.  Thanks for that.  Jurado crossed for Deeney, but his header back across goal was easy for Hennessey.  Then a dangerous run by Zaha into the Watford box seemed to spell disaster, but the defence closed him down before he could shoot.  The second substitution for Palace saw Sako come on for Puncheon.  The Hornets had a great chance to equalize as Deeney flicked a header on to Ighalo but the Nigerian’s shot from close range flew over the bar.  Flores made his final change with 7 minutes remaining bringing Anya on for Nyom.  Jurado fashioned another chance as a corner was cleared to him but Hennessey was equal to his shot.  Palace’s final substitution saw Adebayor on for Wickham so, again, we had a replay of a goal plus the prospect of Adebayor scoring against us again.  It was nearly game over as Guedioura gave the ball away to Zaha but, thankfully, he shot into the side netting.  The announcement of five minutes of added time was greeted with cheers and encouragement from the Watford fans and boos from the Palace end.  The first minute of time added on saw Ighalo directing a cross from Jurado out to Guedioura whose shot was agonizingly just wide of the target.  Watford had one final chance as Guedioura tried to find Ighalo in the box, but he was unable to connect and Palace booked their place in the final.

Deeney put in a captain's performance

Deeney put in a captain’s performance

It was a frustrating afternoon.  Palace’s run in the second half of this season has been as poor as ours so this was a very winnable tie but we struggled in the first half with the early goal sapping spirits on and off the pitch.  There was an improved performance in the second period but, apart from a short spell around the time the equalizer was scored, we never looked like winning the game.

The queue to get into the station after the game was immense and slow moving and it took forever to get on a train, which I then had to share with Palace fans as I travelled south.  I put my shirt and scarf away and tried to block out their chat about going to the final, but I was very glad finally to get on my train home.

Generally I try to take positives from games, but it is hard on an afternoon like this.  I can take a defeat if we have given our all and were beaten by a better team, but I came away from Wembley thinking that, given the talent in our squad, we should have done better.  If you had told me in August that we would retain our status in the Premier League and reach the FA Cup semi-final, I would have been thrilled.  But that defeat will hurt for some time.