Tag Archives: Jack Rodwell

A Pre-season Double-header

A lovely present from the club

Although I tend to make the most of my Summer break from football, it is always good when pre-season comes around.  Unusually, the first games for the first team were on the pre-season tour, which I didn’t make this year due to work commitments that also prevented me from making the trips to Welling and Hemel to see the U23s.  So my first chance to see the lads was to be the trip to Stevenage.

Oddly, Watford had arranged two games in two days that both appeared on the first team page, so a lot of fans stayed away on Friday night thinking that it would be a run out for the U23s.  My attendance was also looking a little in doubt as technical difficulties meant that the 4pm meeting at work started 15 minutes late.  That and disruption on the East Coast line had me a little nervous about making it, but I arrived at King’s Cross in time for the planned train which was running on time, so I was in the pub not long after 6 enjoying my first pre-match pint of the season.

After the heatwave, most of which I have spent stuck indoors (partly through choice), there was an irony in the fact that my return to football watching coincided with a thunderstorm.  It started rather gently, so we decided to stay outside in the beer garden but were persuaded to take shelter when the forked lightning appeared.  The walk to the ground was in a downpour, but after the oppressive heat that we have had, the soaking was rather lovely.

Masina and Sema join the fray

Team news was that Gracia had picked a very strong first XI which would give us a chance to see some new faces as the starting line-up was Gomes; Navarro, Prödl, Mariappa, Masina; Hughes, Rodwell, Wilmot, Sema; Jakubiak, Deeney.  Pete and I had turned up wearing the lovely new green away kit.  Mine had arrived by special delivery the week before in a presentation box with a letter from Troy thanking me for attending all 19 away games last season.  A really lovely gesture from the club that made me feel appreciated after turning up on a Wednesday night in Stoke.  We had assumed that it would get a run out, especially when we saw the officials warming up in yellow kits, but the lads emerged from the tunnel wearing the home stripes to confound us.

 

 

Ben Wilmot

Watford started the game very brightly with Wilmot almost opening the scoring against his old club after some good work from Sema on the wing, but his shot was just wide of the target.  The Stevenage goalkeeper, Farman, then pulled off an excellent flying save to keep out a shot from Hughes.  From the resulting corner, Farman again did very well to save a header from Prödl.  Watford continued to dominate without creating much in front of goal until near the half hour mark when Jakubiak found the side netting.  Hughes was the next to threaten the Stevenage goal, but Farman pulled off another decent save and was then out to frustrate Jakubiak as he bore down on goal.  The home side didn’t test Gomes until just before half time when Nugent rose to meet a free kick with a powerful header that the Brazilian stopper did well to keep out.

So we reached half time goalless, but it had been a decent showing from the Hornets who had been unlucky to find the Stevenage keeper in top form.  At the other end of the pitch, it was pleasing to see that Gomes was being shown a lot of love by the Watford fans who had made the journey.

Congratulating Gray after scoring the winner

At half time, Gracia must have been alone in the dressing room as all the substitutes appeared to be warming up and the first half team warming down, but there were actually no changes for the Hornets at the break.

Stevenage were much the brighter team at the start of the second half and had a great chance to take the lead with a header from Revell, but Gomes did brilliantly to keep it out.  On the hour mark, Gracia made nine changes bringing Janmaat, Britos, Cathcart, Holebas, Charles, Capoue, Pereyra, Success and Gray on to join Hughes and Gomes, who would play the entire 90 minutes.  The Hornets got back on top after the substitutions and should have opened the scoring when Pereyra unleashing a lovely curling shot, but Farman was again equal to it.  Just as it seemed that the night would end goalless, Farman made his first mistake of the evening allowing Pereyra to cross for Gray to head home from close range and the Hornets left Stevenage with a slightly fortunate win.

Challenging on the goal line

It was a game of two halves.  The first half had been all Watford with some lively play that should have given us a comfortable lead, if it wasn’t for the performance of the keeper.  The second half was less convincing, but improved after the substitutions.  I liked the look of the new players although I have yet to put a name to most of them.  One bizarre aspect of the evening was the involvement of Kabasele, who took no part in the game but was doing timed sprints on the sidelines.  I swear he ran as far as some of those who actually played.

After a restful night’s sleep, I had a Saturday lunchtime trip to West London to see the Hornets play at Brentford.  In contrast to the previous evening, we found ourselves sitting in a pub garden in blazing sunshine.  Our choice of pre-match establishment wasn’t one of the four on the corners of the ground, but it was rather lovely, if very partisan, with the staff wearing Brentford shirts and flags up all around.  I wondered whether it was a good omen when one of the flags fell off the door.  Oh the straws we clutch on to as fans.

Janmaat and Charles waiting for a throw-in

Pete and I thought we had left in plenty of time to get to the ground for kick-off and there wasn’t much of a queue outside, but it took an age to get through the turnstiles as, instead of just taking your tenner, they then grabbed a ticket which was scanned and the counterfoil torn off before you were permitted into the ground.  With the choice of sitting or standing, we opted for the terraces and took our place at a crush barrier behind the goal.

As was expected most of the starting XI were those that had played the last half hour at Stevenage.  So the line-up was Foster (GK); Janmaat, Kabasele, Britos, Holebas; Pereyra, Charles, Capoue (C), Sema; Success, Gray.  Foster was given a tremendous welcome by the Watford fans with chants of “Foster’s coming home.”  My main concern with the line-up was that Kabasele would be worn out after the workout that he was given on the sideline the night before.

Pete and I had persisted with wearing our green shirts so were happy to see the team were also resplendent in the emerald.  Unfortunately, it had taken so long to get through the turnstiles that we missed kick-off, but arrived on the terrace behind the goal in time to see Foster parry a free-kick from Marcondes, it dropped to Watkins who finished to give the Bees an early lead.  Watford had a chance to break back almost immediately, but Success undid the good work of his run by shooting straight at Bentley in the Brentford goal.

Pereyra takes a free kick

There was a better chance for Pereyra whose cheeky flick bounced off the top of the crossbar.  Gray then had a decent shot that just cleared the bar.  The opening goal came on 25 minutes as Pereyra tried a shot, the keeper was equal to it but Dalsgaard mishit his clearance which found the net to draw the visitors level.  Ten minutes later, the Hornets took the lead as Gray finished from the edge of the area.  I am ashamed to say that I missed the goal as the substitutes were walking in front of the away terrace and I was distracted by how blond Prödl seems to have gone this Summer!  I sensed I wasn’t the only one to miss the goal as there soon followed a chant from the kids to the right of me of “Let’s pretend that we have scored.”  The Hornets had a chance to increase their lead before half time, but this time Gray’s shot was just over the bar.

At half-time Masina replaced Holebas then, on the hour, Gracia made wholesale changes bringing Navarro, Prödl, Rodwell, Wilmot, Mariappa, Deeney and Jakubiak on to replace Janmaat, Kabasele, Britos, Charles, Capoue, Sema and Gray.  Soon after the substitutions, Success had a great chance to increase the lead for the Hornets but, as too often, a tremendous run finished with a terrible shot.  Watkins had a couple of chances to restore parity for the home side, first with a shot across goal and then with a long range shot that was caught by Foster.  The Hornets had the ball in the net on two more occasions, once from a Pereyra header, and then a shot from Deeney who got ahead of the defence before poking home, but both were adjudged to be offside, so the game finished with a narrow win for the visitors.

It had been a typical pre-season game.  A run out that gave few clues to what we can expect for the rest of the season, but it was an enjoyable enough afternoon.  Bizarrely, the atmosphere in the away end was livelier than I am used to at pre-season games, although the chanting was dominated by anti-Luton songs, being delivered by kids who, if I am any judge of ages, are too young ever to have seen Watford play them up the road.

Post-match it was back to one of the pubs on the corner to confirm that none of us was any the wiser, but the beer was good.  Some wonder why we bother with pre-season games.  Personally, I enjoy getting back in the swing of things with the chance to see the new players or the new hair cuts on the old players and to have an afternoon out with friends knowing that the result won’t make much difference to the enjoyment of the day.

 

Back to Winning Ways

Kaboul

Despite the poor showings on the pitch in recent games, a week off for the international break meant that I travelled to Watford with renewed enthusiasm for seeing a match.  When I arrived at the West Herts, the external door was open, so the early arrivals had piled into the lobby waiting for the inner door to open, which was baffling as it was an absolutely gorgeous day, so I loitered in the sunshine for a little longer.  This meant that I saw a couple of roadie friends who wished me a very enjoyable pre-match as the pleasure from what would follow could not be guaranteed.

My low confidence regarding the game had not been helped by the news that there were fitness doubts over Deeney and Prödl and, sure enough, Mazzarri made four changes with Holebas, Doucouré, Amrabat and Okaka replacing Prödl, Janmaat, Behrami and Deeney.   So the starting line-up was Gomes; Cathcart, Kaboul, Britos, Holebas; Doucouré, Cleverley, Capoue; Amrabat, Okaka and Niang.

Capoue on the ball

It was certainly good to see Amrabat back in the starting XI and he made an immediate impact with a dangerous cross towards Niang that was headed out for a corner.  As the sun shone at Vicarage Road, I couldn’t help but note that Sunderland’s away kit had a touch of Real Madrid about it, which would have appealed to Kate who, on a visit from Saudi, was back in her seat in the Rookery.  Gomes was forced to make the first save of the game as he pushed a shot from Januzaj around the post for a corner.  Watford had a couple of great chances after Capoue broke forward and found Niang by way of Doucouré, the shot was parried by Pickford, the ball returned to Doucouré and Pickford had to pull off another smart save to keep the game goalless.  Okaka was the next to threaten the Sunderland goal, going on a lovely jinking run beating a couple of defenders before shooting, but Pickford was down to block the shot.  Doucouré had the next chance as a corner was headed out to him, but his shot from distance flew wide.  Okaka should have done better when he met a cross from Capoue, but his header flew over the bar.  Just before the half hour, Niang went on a wonderful forward run but, after doing all the hard work his shot was straight at a defender.  As the play returned to the other end of the pitch, he just ambled around.  I wondered whether he had an injury, but it soon became clear that he just needed a sit down after his exertions.

Holebas and Cleverley prepare for a corner

A lovely passing move from the Hornets ended with Capoue exchanging passes with Okaka before curling a shot just wide of the far post.  Late in the half, there was a break in the game to allow Kaboul to be treated for an injury after he stretched and appeared to pull his hamstring.  The players gathered on the touchline for refreshments and words of encouragement, most of which seemed to be coming from Troy Deeney.  Unfortunately Kaboul was unable to continue so was replaced by Janmaat who came on to a chorus of boos from the Sunderland fans.  Sunderland had a rare chance with a Januzaj shot that took a deflection for a corner which led to a break by Amrabat who played a lovely cross field ball to Niang whose shot was pushed wide by Pickford.  Cleverley’s corner was headed goalwards by Cathcart, but Pickford again made the save.  As the clock reached 45 minutes, there was a half chance for the visitors after Okaka failed to clear allowing the ball to fall to Koné, thankfully his shot was wide of the far post.  The final chance of the half fell to the home side with a shot from Britos that was straight at Pickford.

Holebas takes a corner

The half time whistle went and, for the first time in a while, I felt throroughly entertained.  The Hornets had put in an attacking performance and were unlucky not to be ahead, although a lot of that had to do with the very impressive Jordan Pickford in the Sunderland goal.  During the interval, I caught up with Saudi Kate who expressed surprise at the level of impatience in the crowd around her during what was a decent performance from the Hornets.  It was also gratifying to see a report on the big screen featuring Stacey and Troy Deeney talking about their new charitable foundation’s project at Garston Manor School.  So lovely to see them making a difference in the local community.

At the start of the second half, Success was running down the touchline and the guy next to me commented that he was starting his 20 minute warm-up.  The visitors’ hearts must have sank as Defoe went down needing treatment.  It felt disloyal, but I was actually pleased when he got to his feet and was fit to continue.  The first chance of the second half fell to the Hornets but Niang’s cross flew just wide of the far post.  Success made an appearance rather earlier than usual as he came on after 53 minutes to replace Amrabat, who looked disappointed to be substituted.  You can only think that Mazzarri was saving him for Tuesday.

Celebrating Britos’s goal

Watford’s next chance fell to Holebas who cut inside and shot wide.  His reaction was typical Holebas, he looked furious at someone, but who??  A Cleverley corner was punched only as far as Success, whose shot was deflected wide.  Watford took the lead from the subsequent corner as Okaka’s header was deflected on to the crossbar, Cathcart headed the ball towards the far post where Britos rose above the defence to head home, finally beating Pickford.  My only thought as the game restarted was, please don’t defend for 30 minutes.  Watford should have increased their lead soon after as Okaka played a lovely through ball to Success who looked certain to score, but Pickford saved with his feet.  The ball found its way to Doucouré but his shot was also blocked.  The visitors had a rare chance when Borini tried a shot from the edge of the area, but Gomes was equal to it.  They had a better chance soon after when Ndong cut the ball back to Januzaj but his shock was weak and straight at the Watford keeper.  Holebas had a wonderful chance to increase the lead with a lovely shot that just took a deflection and cleared the crossbar.  Having heard boos from the away end for a former Newcastle player, it was a bit surprising when their own player, Januzaj, left the field to even louder boos when he was replaced by Khazri.

Britos, Cathcart and Okaka gathering for a corner

The first booking of the game went to Jones for hauling Success back when he was about to escape.  The Nigerian had the next chance of the game, holding off Jones to make space for the shot, but it was a disappointing effort, straight at Pickford.  Watford were almost made to regret not making the most of their chances as Borini hit a shot from the edge of the area but Gomes made a decent save to preserve the lead.  Mazzarri’s final change was to bring Zuñiga on for Niang, who had a decent game although his end product was disappointing.  I must admit that I was disappointed that Deeney wasn’t given a few minutes to extend his uninterrupted run of games.  Okaka had a chance to make the points safe as he met a cross from Janmaat with a header but, yet again, Pickford made the save.  In the last minute of added time, Cleverley fouled Khazri in a dangerous position, and I’m sure every Watford fan was holding their breath as the Sunderland man prepared for the free kick.  I think I celebrated as if we’d scored when the shot hit the wall and the final whistle was blown to confirm a precious, and very well deserved, three points for the Hornets.

Holebas lining up a free kick

As the players did their lap of honour, Cleverley and Cathcart were walking together and the Rookery sang Tom’s name in acknowledgement of his new contract.  I couldn’t help feeling sad that Cathcart, who has been consistently good, does not have a song, so his contribution appears to be unappreciated by the crowd.  It really isn’t.  The last player to pass the Rookery was Gomes, who was in super-animated mode which elicited a positive reaction from the crowd.  You just have to love him.

On the way out of the ground I heard someone say, “I think I’ll watch Match of the Day tonight,” which summed the last few week up perfectly.  It was a much better performance than of late.  Many players who have been substandard in recent games put in a much improved showing.  Of note was Capoue, who has attracted ire from many in my group, who had his best game in ages.  Niang was impressive, if disappointing in front of goal.  Doucouré put in a very good performance, Okaka led the line well and it was great to see Amrabat back, he certainly adds something.

So I will go into Tuesday’s game against West Brom in a much better frame of mind.  Another win or two and we can relax and look forward to taking up our recently renewed season ticket seats for another year of Premier League football.

Goodbye Señor Flores and Thank-you

Deeney apologises to girl in the Rookery

Deeney apologises to girl in the Rookery

At the start of the season, I doubt that any Watford fan would have believed that if we came into the last game of the season with nothing to play for, it would be because we had already secured safety.  This should have been a reason for celebration.  But the excitement of the first half of the season has been contrasted with a rather dull second half.  It seemed that, once we hit 37 points, the players switched off.  Despite that, Flores made few changes and often played players out of position, although I would argue that he chose his best team as, when alternatives were drafted in, they rarely added anything (apart from the odd Berghuis cameo).  It has to be said that when the transfer window came and went with no competition brought in for Ighalo and Deeney, and an embarrassment of riches in central midfield, the second half of the season was rather inevitable.  But the sad consequence of this was that, after stories emerged before the semi-final casting the future of Flores into question, it was finally announced on Friday that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season.  Despite the fact that this announcement was expected and that I was still annoyed after the non-performance at Norwich, this news upset me greatly.  Pre match discussions indicated a split in opinion among the fans regarding the departure of our head coach.  However everyone wished Flores well and wanted to give him a good send off.

There was some idle speculation that Flores would go for broke in the last game, but I found it rather reassuring that he stuck with his usual suspects.  He had made three changes from Norwich with Prödl, Aké and Guedioura in for Nyom, Anya and Suárez and was playing Cathcart at right back.  So, the starting line-up was Gomes, Aké, Prödl, Britos, Cathcart, Jurado, Watson, Guedioura, Abdi, Deeney and Ighalo.

When I arrived at the ground, my sister told me that Deeney had been in the crowd near them.  A ball that he had kicked in the warm-up had hit a young girl so immediately he came into the stand to make sure she was OK and give her a shirt.  A really lovely thing to do.

Cathcart challenged

Cathcart challenged

Pre-match there were 1881 banners for Quique, Gino Pozzo and Troy Deeney, but I still don’t know which one was over my head.  The crowd were enthusiastically chanting for Flores, which was very pleasing.

There was a wonderful move early in the game involving Deeney, Ighalo and Abdi which finished with Almen shooting just wide of the far post.  Soon after Jurado found Ighalo who just missed the target.  Abdi threatened again, evading defenders while dribbling along the top of the box before curling a shot wide.  From a corner, Prödl’s header was blocked, the ball broke to Abdi but, again, the shot was blocked.  Jurado then tried his luck with a shot from distance that was caught by Pickford in the Sunderland goal.  Sunderland’s first venture into the Watford box came on the half hour and was nearly a disaster for the Hornets as a cross from Watmore was met by Britos who turned it over the bar when it looked as though he may have threatened Gomes in goal.  Ighalo received a ball from Abdi before executing a trademark scoop but, sadly, he shot wide of the far post.  Abdi had a shot blocked before Ake’s follow-up was saved by Pickford.  There were shouts for a penalty as Ighalo was wrestled in the box, but nothing was given.

Deeney on the ball

Deeney on the ball

As we reached the last 10 minutes of the first half, Sunderland had their first real chance of the game as Rodwell shot just wide of the far post.  The visitors took the lead a couple of minutes later as Prödl slipped allowing Lens to shoot, Gomes pulled off a decent save, but the ball wasn’t cleared and Lens was able to cross for Rodwell to tap in at the far post.  It seemed unfair for the Hornets to go behind following Sunderland’s first real shot of the game and it nearly got worse a couple of minutes later as Watmore latched on to a through ball from N’Doye and finished under Gomes but, thankfully the linesman had raised the flag for offside.  At this point the Sunderland fans were chanting “Leicester City, we’re coming for you.”  We seemed to want to put ourselves in trouble as Jurado gave the ball away and N’Doye went on a run but he was stopped by a great tackle from Prödl.  There were boos at half time, which was harsh as Watford had dominated all but the last 10 minutes of the half.

At half time, there was a very emotional presentation as Gina Van Dort, who survived the Tunisia terrorist attack in which her husband, Chris Dyer, was killed, made an appearance on the pitch.  Her words were read out by Tim.  She said that this was her first game of the season and she was determined to make it as she had attended a game every season since she and Chris became season ticket holders.  This was their wedding anniversary and they have a brick in the lower GT stand that commemorates the date.  She appreciated all the support that had been given to her since the attack.  She then said a few words of thanks herself and was greeted with a tremendous ovation for her bravery.

Congratulating Proedl

Congratulating Proedl

Flores made a trademark substitution at half time bringing Paredes on for Cathcart.  The Hornets equalized three minutes into the half as a corner from Guedioura was headed home by Prödl.  A cracking strike just in front of us, which cheered us up no end.  Sadly the good mood in the home stands was short lived as Deeney was flattened following a corner, play was waved on and the counter attack finished with Watmore finding Lens who finished past Gomes to restore the lead for the visitors.  Watford came close to getting an equaliser soon after as Aké unleashed a shot that had to be tipped to safety by Pickford.  From the corner Britos headed just over the bar.  Then Jurado found himself in space but his shot was awful.  The Spaniard turned provider as he cut the ball back to Guedioura who shot over.  There was another scare for the Hornets as a free-kick was headed home by N’Doye but, again, it was disallowed for offside.  Watford’s fortunes improved when Paredes crossed for Deeney, he headed the ball back to Jurado who was sandwiched between two defenders and the referee pointed to the spot.  Having learned my lesson at West Ham, I put my camera away as Deeney stepped up and was delighted to see him send Pickford the wrong way as he buried the ball to the keeper’s left.

Ighalo congratulates Deeney after the penalty

Ighalo congratulates Deeney after the penalty

Watford’s second substitution saw Abdi make way for Suárez.  There was a very promising move by the Hornets as Jurado intercepted and played a lovely through ball for Deeney who was tripped on the edge of the box.  Kevin Friend consulted his linesman and waved play on.  A terrible decision.  While there was a break in play due to an injury to Yedlin, Troy went to pick up a water bottle from the side of the pitch and seemed to be having a discussion with the lino about recent decisions.  The Rookery helpfully sang ‘Knock him out.’  Troy laughed and shook his head.  After play restarted, Jurado released Aké whose cross was too close to the keeper.  The only booking of the game went to Guedioura for a clumsy challenge on Honeyman.  With 10 minutes to go, Flores brought Amrabat on for Jurado, who left the field to cheers after putting in a good performance.  Suárez had a chance to take the lead for the Hornets, but his shot was well over.  Ighalo battled well on one flank to keep the ball before crossing for Guedioura who also beat a couple of players before putting in a really disappointing shot.  Sunderland had a good chance to regain the lead, but Gomes came off his line to stop Watmore.  Watford looked the most likely to steal the three points in the final minutes but were unable to test the keeper.  The best chance came when Suárez found Ighalo in the middle of the box, but his first touch was poor, and when he turned and shot there was a Sunderland defender in the way.  There was a final chance when Watson found Guedioura, but his volley was wild and way off target.

Goodbye and Thank you, Senor Flores

Goodbye and Thank you, Senor Flores

The final whistle went signalling a draw in an entertaining game.  It would have been nice to send Flores off with a win, but the draw meant that we retained 13th position.  When we had our prediction competition at the start of the season, my entry was 15th, but that was me being ultra-positive.  We waited behind to cheer the players on their lap of honour.  For a few weeks now, people have been asking whether Flores was waving goodbye at the end of the game.  He does that every week but, on this occasion, he was waving goodbye, which saddened me greatly.  But you couldn’t help wondering who else had been seen for the last time in a Watford shirt.  Certainly, as Deeney videoed the crowd singing his name, I couldn’t help but wonder if he would be on his way.  The final word at Vicarage Road this season went to Troy who said, “This is all about these guys <the fans> and the gaffer.”  That sums it up for me.  This has been an incredible season of ups and downs.  There are moments I will never forget with the home games against Liverpool and West Ham and the FA Cup tie at Arsenal being high on that list.  It is very sad that the season has ended on such a low note, but I am still eagerly writing the pre-season games into my calendar.  When are the fixtures out??!!

 

A Snowy Day in Sunderland

A distraction on the stairs to the away end

A distraction on the stairs to the away end

This game was the first that I looked for when the fixture list came out as it would be my only opportunity to visit a new ground in the league.  Most of my away travelling was done in the late 80s and in the last 10 years, so I have not previously had an opportunity to go to the Stadium of Light.  My abiding memory of a game away to Sunderland is of sitting in a hotel room in San Diego looking at a stunning view of the Pacific with tears running down my face as I wished I was in Sunderland with my sister for the FA Cup game with the twice taken Tommy Smith penalty.

I had booked a ridiculously early train to Sunderland via Newcastle and thought I would probably be alone, but that was far from the case as I saw a number of yellow clad people at Kings Cross.  I had arranged to meet the Hebden/Bradford massive for pre-match drinks in Newcastle, but arrived too early for the pub of choice to be open so I went for a walk into town until the cold rain drove me into an alternative hostelry for an early lunch.  At opening time, I headed across the road to join the queue (of 3) to get in and grab a comfy berth.  Needless to say, it was considerably quieter than when Newcastle are at home, but all the locals were friendly and wished us a lovely afternoon and to leave Sunderland with 3 points.  The pub had a proper record player on the bar on which they started playing some Christmas tunes, but soon got bored and reverted to some 60s classics, which made me very happy indeed.

The pre-match huddle

The pre-match huddle

The trip up to Newcastle had been in rain but, as we left the pub to get the metro to Sunderland, thick snowflakes were falling and there was some questioning of whether the game could be in jeopardy, the conclusion being that undersoil heating meant that was unlikely.  After entering the Stadium of Light we found several flights of stairs to an away end that is not quite as high as Newcastle’s but not far off.  The trip up was made easier by the entertainment provided by a string of football related quotes.  For Watford interest, there were references to GT, Ronnie Rosenthal and Jason Lee.  It made me smile through the exhaustion.

Team news was that there was one change from the win against Norwich as Abdi came in for Anya.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Aké, Cathcart, Britos, Nyom, Watson, Capoue, Jurado, Deeney, Abdi and Ighalo.

 

Celebrating Ighalo's goal

Celebrating Ighalo’s goal

Watford had the perfect start to the game, taking the lead after 4 minutes.  In real time, I thought that Ighalo had missed Nyom’s cross and the keeper had turned it in, but I was doing Odion a grave disservice as the ball had been poked goalwards and what I saw was it going through the goalie’s legs.  Whoever had provided the final touch, it was Ighalo’s battling presence that led to the goal.  Happily there was some early bouncing in the away end.  Watford continued in this positive manner as a cross from Aké dropped to Abdi, whose shot was blocked for a corner.  I am still shaking my head at why the next passage of play didn’t result in a goal.  Ighalo got into the box and beat O’Shea before hitting a shot that was blocked, his follow-up appeared to be going in but was cleared off the line, then Abdi tried a shot that was blocked, finally Jurado’s shot hit the post.  There were heads in hands in the away end.  We had started the game very well.  Apart from the goal, the lads had been playing the ball around in a very composed manner.  It was looking very impressive, but why weren’t we two up?!  The home side had their first shot on goal in the 14th minute, but it didn’t trouble Gomes as Jones wellied the ball high and wide.  Their next chance came soon after and was much more dangerous.  Deeney lost the ball to M’Vila who played a lovely ball to Borini, but his shot flew wide of the far post.  Sunderland made an early tactical substitution replacing Yedlin with Rodwell.

Watson and Capoue all smiles as our midfield generals

Watson and Capoue all smiles as our midfield generals

Watford’s impressive play continued with a lovely cross-field passing move which resulted in Nyom having the ball in space on the right, he started to advance upfield but got bored and launched a shot from a mile out that was well over the target.  I love you, Allan, but Why???  Ighalo nicked the ball in the midfield and passed to Abdi who crossed for Capoue whose curling shot required a good save from Pantilimon.  Then Abdi lost the ball in midfield, but he and Watson were soon back to snuff out the danger.  Another dangerous break by Sunderland was briefly interrupted as Aké was back to block the cross for a corner.  Gomes came to meet the corner, but his punch reached Borini who shot well wide.  The home side had a great chance to equalize just before half time as a M’Vila free-kick appeared to be flying in when Gomes made a really good save to keep it out.  I was puzzled at half-time to see that Sunderland had no shots on target, until I found out that the ball had been flicked on by Britos.  The last action of the half was another chance for the Hornets.  Jurado appeared to be in a good position to shoot, but passed to Deeney who needed time to position himself and shot wide.

At half time, Watford were well worth the lead but there was frustration that we hadn’t got a second goal.

Heurelho Gomes kept us in the game

Heurelho Gomes kept us in the game

The first action of the second half was a shot from van Aanholt that flew wide of the target.  Watford also had an early chance as Ighalo got on the end of a cross from Nyom to head goalwards, Pantilimon made the save, but the flag was up anyway.  The positive part of that move was seeing Ighalo beat his man, as he had spent a lot of the first half being frustrated by the attentions of the Sunderland players.  At the other end a Cathcart clearance only went as far as Fletcher, but the Irishman redeemed himself getting into position to block the shot.  Gomes was then on hand to punch a shot from Rodwell.   There was another substitution for Sunderland as former Watford loanee, Adam Johnson, came on to replace Borini.  He was booed by many in the away end and then received sustained abuse relating to his upcoming trial.  The only yellow card of the game went to Rodwell who was booked for a nasty tackle on Watson.  Just after the hour mark, the home side’s decision to take a free kick quickly backfired as the ball was passed straight to Ighalo but the Nigerian was knocked over before he could do any harm and the referee, who I credit with letting the game flow, didn’t see a foul.

Ake on the ball

Ake on the ball

Rodwell got the ball on the edge of the Watford box but his shot was high and wide.  The home side took a very poor corner and the ball broke to Ighalo, who went haring up field but the break came to nothing as he played a poor pass towards Nyom.  Watford’s first substitution saw Guedioura come on to replace Abdi.  The nerves in the away end became even more frayed as Allardyce made his final substitution replacing Fletcher with Defoe.  He almost made an immediate impact as he latched on to a through ball from Johnson and fired it past Gomes.  Thankfully the linesman raised his flag and the goal was disallowed.  Flores made a second substitution replacing Jurado with Anya.  New graduate, Watmore, came close to scoring an equalizer with a shot that curled just wide.  Watford broke forward again as Aké released Ighalo, but a defender was snapping at his heels as he ran into the box, which was enough to put him off his shot so Pantilimon was able to block.  At the other end, Gomes was called in to action pulling off a great diving save to keep out a shot from Defoe.

Jurado on the attack

Jurado on the attack

With 10 minutes remaining, Capoue released Ighalo but Coates got back to block his shot.  Despite the early goal, it was looking like it just wasn’t Odion’s day.  At the other end, a cross from van Aanholt was touched just wide by Defoe to the great relief of those in the upper tier behind the goal.  Gomes then added to the jangling nerves by delaying picking up a ball into the box, he didn’t see the Sunderland player approaching and ended up having to grab it.  Watford nearly killed the game off as Anya played the ball back to Guedioura who hit a lovely curling shot that was pushed clear.  There was another assault on the Watford goal that finished with Johnson shooting wide of the far post.  Then Guedioura advanced down the wing and played the ball back to Capoue who moved it on to Deeney whose shot was deflected for a corner.  As we approached time added on, it baffled me to see so many Sunderland fans leaving.  I was far from confident that we would win the game.  There was a final scramble in the Watford box that finished with a block from Gomes and then Watson making a strong clearance.  The final attack of the game came from the visitors as Deeney released Ighalo, who appeared to be a mile offside, but we were not to have another late goal as the shot was saved.  When the final whistle went, it was clear that the relief on the pitch matched that in the stands.

On the way out of the ground most of the conversation was about how Deeney and Ighalo had both had off days.  There had been plenty of positives about the performance but the two of them seemed to be muscled out of the game.  That was followed by the reflection that successful teams are those who win when they are not at their best.  The third stage was the grins as we reflected that we were seventh in the table and had already exceeded our points total from 99/00 after 15 games.  When my friend showed me the table at the end of the game, my initial reaction was that the table at 5pm on Saturday can be misleading.  I am writing this after the games on Sunday and we are still seventh and go into the Liverpool game above them in the table (and above Everton, West Ham and Chelsea).  Wow, just wow!!  We now go into a difficult run of games, but we can go into them with some hope of points and, if the worst happens, we have a decent cushion to tide us over.  Who knew the Premier League could be fun!

Testing Ourselves Against the Best

 

The Maine Road Chippie

The Maine Road Chippie

When I heard the draw for the fourth round of the cup, my heart sank.  Such is the gulf between teams like City and those battling a division below that an upset seemed impossible.  I’ve heard the argument that if you want to progress you need to test yourself against the best.  That is fine if you are ready for the test.  But nothing that I have seen from my team this season suggests that we are and there is nothing worse than seeing your side given a footballing lesson.  Our tie against the same opposition last season saw an arguably stronger side play well and still lose 3-0 to a City team that didn’t get out of second gear.   Listening to the pundits before the game didn’t help my mood.  On Radio 5Live, there was talk of Kidderminster getting a result at Sunderland, while we were given no chance.  Equally, on breakfast television on Saturday morning the suggestion from a presenter that Watford may get a result was countered with the comment that this was the game which was least likely to see an upset.

The Pre-match Handshakes

The Pre-match Handshakes

Our time in Manchester didn’t start well as our pre-match pub of choice refused entry to Southerners so we decamped to a less interesting hostelry to numb ourselves.  The texts from Toddy informing me that the U18s were 3-0 up in their cup game helped to enforce the notion that I had chosen the wrong match to attend.  Given that City had scored 106 goals and an average of 4 a game so far this season, more than one Hornet mentioned their hope that we would keep the score down to single figures.  When we reached the Etihad, which is an impressive stadium, I enjoyed the sight of the Maine Road chippie and hair salon opposite.  It seemed to be positioned to remind the Etihad where they had come from and bring it down a peg or two.  Before we were permitted entry to the ground, there was an impressive search procedure.  Bags were searched, we were all patted down to ensure we had nothing illegal concealed about our person and, a first for me, a friendly sniffer dog was set on me, presumably to see whether I was concealing any flares. When the team was announced, we had made 5 changes.  To be honest, it was difficult to work out what the formation was, but at least the much discussed midfield included some midfielders.  Our starting line-up was Bond, Ekstrand, Angella, Doyley, Pudil, Anya, Murray, Battocchio, Faraoni, Forestieri and Deeney.

Waiting for a Free-kick

Waiting for a Free-kick

We started brightly and, some gallows humour from my companions encouraged me to make a note at 1 minute and 40 seconds that City hadn’t got out of their own half.  In the second minute, Forestieri was felled on the edge of the box.  He took the free kick himself, hitting it straight at the wall but the ball fell to Battocchio whose shot was high and wide.  In the sixth minute, we had a shout for a penalty as Forestieri found Anya in the box where Pantilimon brought him down, but Kevin Friend waved the appeals away.  At the other end Richards went down after being tackled on the edge of the box.  While waiting for the free kick, there was a bit of pushing between Dzeko and Angella in the box that earned the City player a yellow card.  On 10 minutes, Bond was called into action for the first time as a shot came in following a free-kick, which he blocked and then dropped to

Forestieri congratulated on his goal

Forestieri congratulated on his goal

claim the ball.  Soon after, a corner from Navas was met with a header by Kolarov which flew across the box, but nobody was able to get a touch.  Then Murray and Deeney combined to feed Anya whose cross was caught with Forestieri challenging Pantilimon.  At this point the City fans started up a chant of “You’re just a stop off at Wembley.”  Good one!  On 15 minutes, City finally showed a glimpse of their quality with a lovely move that finished with a shot from Toure that was blocked.  Watford continued to threaten as Forestieri broke downfield and fed Faraoni whose shot was straight at Pantilimon.  In City’s next attack Angella was on hand to intercept a cut back from Navas.  On 20 minutes, Watford went one up as Forestieri ran on to a through ball from Deeney and

It's official

It’s official

shot into the far corner.  The celebrations in the away end were a mixture of joy and disbelief, but there was no doubt that the goal was well deserved.  Soon after, Rodwell tried a shot that was deflected into Bond’s arms.  Then Aguero received a pass from Toure and, despite the attentions of Angella, managed to shoot but Bond turned it around the post.  Watford were then on the attack again.  Forestieri picked up the ball from a throw-in and shot just wide of the near post.  Then Sean Murray played a cross-field ball to Anya who found Deeney who slipped the ball between Pantilimon and the post.  If the first goal celebration had been joyous, this one was properly mental.  Thirty minutes in to the game and Watford are 2-0 up at the Etihad.  The disbelief was palpable throughout the stadium.  Watford continued to attack as Murray again found Anya who passed to Forestieri,

Celebrating Deeney's goal

Celebrating Deeney’s goal

but his cross was cut out.  A chant of “What the f*ck is going on” started.  For the life of me I can’t remember which stand it came from, but both sets of fans would have been equally justified in singing it.  Towards the end of the half, Kolarov tried a shot that Bond bravely came to gather.  Then a shot from Anya was blocked, the rebound fell to Faraoni who shot wide of the far post.  Next it was City’s turn with a Lopes shot that went wide of the near post.  In the last minute of the half we could have been three up as a lovely Watford move ended with a Pudil shot that hit the side netting.  I almost passed out at this point.  Just before half time Kolarov had another attempt that was wide of the far post.  Then a Lopes break was stopped by a tackle from Murray, who had been totally fearless all afternoon.  Very impressive for such a young player. 

The half-time score

The half-time score

At half time, the concourse was full of song.  Although most people that I spoke to either wanted to know when they’d wake up or to go home, because surely we couldn’t keep this up. As the players came out for the second half, Kompany and Zabaleta had replaced Rodwell and Richards.  The tannoy announcer originally stated that Zabaleta was on for someone “as yet unknown”.  Given the size of Richards, I would have thought he was pretty hard to miss.  The substitutions indicated that our first half performance had rattled Pellegrini.

A second half corner

A second half corner

Early in the second half, Pudil was booked for a tackle on Navas that had looked decent from our vantage point.  On 53 minutes, a Murray corner was cleared and fell to Anya, but his shot was weak and easy for Pantilimon to deal with.  Then Deeney found Anya, whose cross was cut out by Lescott.  On 55 minutes, Aguero passed to Navas who found Dzeko whose shot was pounced on by Bond.  At this point young Lopes was replaced by Jovetic.  From a City corner, we twice cleared but the ball came back and finally fell to Jovetic who hit the shot wide of the target.  On 58 minutes, City pulled a goal back.  Kolarov crossed into the box, Bond did well to save Dzeko’s shot, but Aguero pounced on the loose ball to score.  It had taken City an hour to breach the Watford defence and suddenly the home crowd could be heard.  Soon after, Watford made their first

Sannino wanting to join the action

Sannino wanting to join the action

substitution as Cassetti replaced Forestieri.  Aguero threated again almost immediately, getting on the end of a cross from Kompany but Doyley was on hand to block the shot.  Doyley also foiled the next attempt as Dzeko got on to the end of a cross from Toure, but Lloyd’s attentions ensured that he headed wide of the target.  A great rear-guard action by the Hornets couldn’t stop Kompany getting in a cross, but Dzeko’s shot was straight at Bond.  On 75 minutes, Abdi replaced Murray, who had been excellent.  Soon after, City were level as Navas advanced and passed to Aguero who struck an exquisite shot into the top left-hand corner.  I have to say that we’d done brilliantly in matching them to this point but, gutting as that goal was, you couldn’t help admire it.  Into the last 10 minutes and Cassetti got his customary booking, sticking out a foot as Kolarov attempted to run past him and then doing that look of horror at the injustice that we love so well.  On 84 minutes, Fabbrini

Battocchio on the ball

Battocchio on the ball

replaced Faraoni.  With five minutes to go until we’d earned a replay, disaster struck.  Kolarov hit a speculative shot from outside the box.  Bond dropped and appeared to have caught it, but the ball squirmed through his legs and into the net.  That was a cruel way to go behind and Bond didn’t deserve that based on his performance.  Neither did the travelling fans, but we were not downhearted and launched into loud chants in support of our team.  On the pitch we battled on, as Deeney played a through ball to Anya but his shot on the run was high and wide.  Anya broke again and played a through ball to Fabbrini, but the Italian was offside.  Then Toure fed Navas whose initial shot rebounded back to him and Bond caught the follow-up.  In time added on, City added a fourth as Aguero claimed his hat-trick with a header from a Navas cross.  Straight from kick-off, Angella tried his luck with a shot from distance that was well wide of the target.  The final whistle went and there was no upset, but every Watford fan in attendance left the stadium with their head held high as our lads had given City a game and, despite their second half dominance, the Premier League high-fliers were flattered by the score.

Applauding the travelling fans

Applauding the travelling fans

At full time, Deeney went to swap shirts.  Since the first player he approached didn’t take his, he ended up with two City shirts.  Pudil and Doyley came over and handed their shirts to kids in the crowd.  I then saw Deeney reach down the front of his shorts and my imagination went in to over drive about quite what he was going to throw into the crowd, so I was relieved when he extracted the two City shirts that he had placed there for safe-keeping as he applauded the fans. When I arrived home, I turned on the news and heard the newsreader talking about “an amazing comeback by Manchester City.”  That was certainly not what anyone had expected on Saturday morning, but that is what keeps us going to games like this.  Despite the final score, we were magnificent.  Hell, we even won the first half and that made me very happy indeed.