Tag Archives: James McArthur

Heurelho Helps Us to Wembley

The GT Stand before the game

I had to travel to the US for work again this week.  Leaving after the City game and returning on Thursday morning, meant I didn’t have too much time to prepare for this match.  The crucial thing was not forgetting the paper ticket that had been sent out.  This was taken with me to the US as I was scared that jet-leg would lead to me leaving it in a drawer.

Due to the early kick-off, I decided to stay in London overnight on Friday.  On waking, and before I had really had time to think about my plans for the day, the nerves had already kicked in.  I caught the 9:24 from Euston to Watford and settled down with a coffee while noting that others on the train had already started on the beer.  Contemplating which podcast should accompany me, I decided to have another listen to the previous week’s From the Rookery End.  If I needed any more inspiration for the day, the rallying cry from the Parkin men, Mike and Arlo, certainly did the job.  As I passed Wembley on the train, I stared at the arch.  The new stadium hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for us, but that has to change one of these days and I wanted the chance to return (although I wish it wasn’t for a semi-final, those should be at Villa Park).  When the train emptied at the Junction, as it often does, it made a nice change to see that those disembarking were fans of football rather than Harry Potter.

Heurelho Gomes

I reached the West Herts a few minutes before the doors were due to open at 10 and there was already quite a crowd waiting.  When the doors opened, we took up position at ‘our’ table and were soon enjoying a pint and a bacon roll.  Breakfast of Champions.

Just to spite us, the clock there was running 30 minutes slow, but we noticed early enough to ensure that we left in plenty of time.  As we walked along Vicarage Road among the crowds, the anticipation built.  I noted that Wolfie had already sold out of programmes and hoped that my usual lady still had some left when I entered the ground (she did).  As we turned the corner into Occupation Road, I glanced over at the statue and knew that I had to greet GT.  I went over and took his hand, knowing that today would be a day he would have savoured.

The 1881 had put incredible efforts into making sure that there would be a tremendous atmosphere.  When we took our seats, the ground was already full of people waving flags.  The big screen was showing footage of earlier quarter-finals.  I enjoyed watching John Barnes lobbing Tony Coton in 1984, but it is the Arsenal game in 1987 that always comes to mind.  I loved that day out at Highbury.

Jose Holebas on the ball

The Palace fans had been given their required allocation, no more, no less.  Due to problems with segregation in the Vicarage Road end, this meant that the Palace fans were housed in two blocks in the stand with a netting area between them and a banner wishing the Hindu community Happy Holi India for their festival on Thursday this week.  It was an odd sight and one that had infuriated the visiting fans.

Team news was that Gracia had chosen what most would consider to be his strongest team with the exception of Gomes coming in for Foster for what would probably be his last game at Vicarage Road.  What a game to go out on.  It was interesting that Femenía had been chosen in place of Janmaat, who had done well recently.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney.  The major news for Palace was that Zaha would miss the game through injury.  While he is undoubtedly a very talented player, he often seems to go missing.  So I wasn’t sure that his absence would have a major effect on the game, although it may have changed Harry Hornet’s game plan.  Of course, the lovely Ray Lew was back at Vicarage Road in the opposition dug out.  He managed us through times of penury, but still took us to an FA Cup semi-final.  He will always be a legend to me for that.

As the teams came out, the flags waved in the home stands, there were streamers and the Legends banner was unfurled from the Upper GT stand, meaning that Nigel Gibbs found himself sitting under his picture.  That had to be a good omen.

Doucoure and Pereyra

My niece, Maddie, had enjoyed the Leicester game so much that she made a late decision to come to this one.  Her seat was in a part of the Rookery away from the rest of us, but she hung around just in case one of the seats in our section remained unoccupied.  That didn’t happen, but the crowd in the Rookery forgot to sit down, so the extra person in our row was not apparent and we were able to enjoy the match together.

The game kicked off and the Rookery were in good voice singing “Is that all you take away” to the Palace fans, before launching into “Heurelho Gomes baby” for our veteran keeper.  He was in action early in the game as the first goal chance fell to the visitors as Townsend played the ball back to Milivojevic whose shot was saved by Gomes, although it was off target anyway.  Watford’s first action of note came from a free kick, Holebas floated it into the box where McArthur took Hughes down, but the referee. Kevin Friend, waved away our appeals for a penalty.  After a quarter of an hour, there was a break in play as the players burst a number of red and blue balloons that were invading the pitch in the corner in front of the Family Stand.  Having found a pitchfork somewhere, Harry joined in with some enthusiasm.

Capoue giving thanks for his goal

Watford’s first chance of the game came as Deulofeu burst into the box and shot from a narrow angle, but the Palace keeper, Guaita, stood tall and blocked the shot.  Palace won a free kick in a dangerous position, but Gomes rose to make a comfortable catch.  Watford then had a spell when they were in and around the Palace box, but couldn’t fashion a shot on target.  Instead we won a series of corners and, as each one was repelled, I hoped that we wouldn’t regret missing those chances.  Then, from yet another corner, the ball fell to Capoue and he knocked it into the net to send us all crazy.  Just what we needed to settle the nerves a bit.  The Hornets could have had a second as Deulofeu advanced into the box and hit a gorgeous shot but Guaita did brilliantly to get a hand to it and keep it out.  The first booking of the game went to Milivojevic for a foul on Hughes.  Watford had another great chance to increase their lead as Deulofeu hit a free kick over the wall, but Guaita was down to make the save.  Palace made a rare foray into the Watford half as Townsend broke forward, but was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Holebas who was injured in the process.  Thankfully, he was able to continue after treatment.  Palace had a chance to equalise just before half time as Wan-Bissaka chipped the ball to Meyer but the shot was weak and easily gathered by Gomes.  The visitors had one last attack in time added on but Deulofeu was back to make a superb tackle on McArthur and avert the danger.  An unexpected and very welcome showing in defence from young Gerry.

Holebas and Pereyra line up a free kick

So we went into half time in a deserved lead.  It had been a dominant performance from the Hornets, who were not giving their opponents any space to play.  We should really have been further ahead, but I was happy with what I had seen.

Half time and the first talking point was a hornet onesie that was being worn by a woman in the Rookery.  It was an interesting fashion choice.  Back to the official entertainment and the special guest was Tommy Smith who was asked about his appearances in previous cup quarter finals.   His goal from the game against Burnley was shown, I couldn’t help remembering that Ray Lew then left him out for the semi-final after Chopra’s heroics in another game against Burnley.  Tommy had also played in the game against Plymouth in 2007 (as had Mariappa).  I had forgotten that game, until he mentioned it.  It was truly dire.

 

A tremendous showing by Femenia

Watford had to make a substitution at the break as Holebas was unable to continue, so was replaced by Masina.  The Hornets had the first attack of the second half as a poor goal kick from Gomes was rescued and flicked on to Deulofeu who put in a decent cross, but nobody was on hand to connect with it.  Then a Palace corner was flicked goalwards by Meyer, but Gomes pulled off an excellent save to deny him.  Masina was booked after taking Meyer down soon after executing another robust challenge.  Townsend took the free kick and it was on target, but Gomes tipped it over the bar.  Batshuayi should have done better when he received a ball from Schlupp, but he knocked it wide of the near post.  He did much better soon after as Mariappa dwelled on the ball instead of clearing it, the Palace man nipped in to dispossess him and shoot across Gomes into the opposite corner to draw the game level.  It was a howler from Mariappa, who would have been devastated given his history at Palace.  At this point, the nerves set in with a vengeance again.  Surely Palace wouldn’t snatch this from us.  Watford had a chance to regain their lead as Deeney played the ball back to Deulofeu but his shot was straight at the keeper.  The Hornets had another great chance as Guaita punched a cross from Masina only as far as Pereyra, his shot was saved but Doucouré could only put the follow-up over the bar.

Deep in conversation after Gray’s goal

Gracia then made his first unforced substitution bringing Gray on for Hughes.  I dare not say it out loud, but my mind was screaming “super sub!”  A lovely exchange of passes deserved a better finish than a cross from Doucouré that was too heavy and went out for a goal kick.  The second goal for the Hornets was a thing of beauty as Pereyra dinked a ball over to Gray who finished past Guaita sending the Watford fans crazy again and also giving us the opportunity to see a Gomes celebration in front of the Rookery for what may well be the last time.  With 10 minutes remaining, I was hoping that we would hold on, but the visitors then won a free kick in a dangerous position.  I held my breath as Milivojevic stepped up to take it, my joyous shout of “into the wall” may have been stating the obvious but it indicated my profound relief.  Hodgson made a substitution at this point, replacing McArthur with Benteke.  Watford could have grabbed a third, but Deeney’s powerful shot was parried by Guaita and Wan-Bissaka managed to clear as Deulofeu closed in on the rebound.  The Hornets had another great chance as Cathcart met a corner with a header that was cleared off the line by Milivojevic.  Gracia made his final change bringing Cleverly on for Deulofeu who left the field to an ovation and some laughter as, when the referee went over to tell him to speed up his departure from the pitch, he innocently turned and shook his hand.  As the clock reached 90 minutes, the visitors had a chance to take the game into extra time when a corner reached Tomkins, who seemed to be taken by surprise and turned it wide of the near post.  Late into time added on and the visitors really should have been level as the ball fell to Wan-Bissaka and we watched despairingly as his shot appeared to be heading for the opposite corner before rolling wide.  I noted something in my notebook at this point, but my hand was shaking so much that it is totally illegible.  When the whistle went to confirm our place in the semi-final, Vicarage Road erupted with joy.

Harry Hornet in his Superman cape

I was distracted at the sight of Harry Hornet running on wearing a Superman style cape, so missed the moment when Gracia warmly embraced Gomes.  The keeper was then hugged by Deeney and it was apparent that he was in tears.  The crowd were cheering him on and he was very emotional in his response.  It was lovely to see the mutual respect between the player and the crowd.  Finally, as he always used to, he brought his sons on to the pitch to enjoy the applause with him.  While this was going on, the tannoy had Que Sera Sera playing and the Watford crowd were singing along with gusto.  It was all fabulous.

Normally we stay to applaud the last player off the pitch, so the stands are empty by the time we leave (everyone is in Occupation Road).  It is a mark of how much this win meant that when the pitch emptied the stand was still full and, for the first time in years, we had to wait to leave our row.

As we reached the Hornet shop we noticed that they already had t-shirts commemorating the semi-final in the window.  Being a sucker for that sort of thing, we all went in and bought the shirts.  Then came out and had a family photo with GT.

A family photo with GT

When I finally got back to the West Herts, my group were happily sitting outside celebrating the victory.  It is hard to analyse a game when the result is all that counts, but it had been a great performance from the Hornets and the win was well deserved.  Deeney may not have scored, but he had put in a great Captain’s performance which was noted by us all.  I have to say that I had almost forgotten how good Femenía is, he had a tremendous game and certainly justified his inclusion.  While enjoying our celebratory beers, I had a quick read of the BBC online match report and was a little taken aback to see a comment to the effect that the win mean that we had reached “only” our sixth semi-final.  Actually it is our seventh, but we are a small town club and to have reached seven semi-finals is actually a tremendous achievement.  I am still pinching myself.

When I finally decided to head for home, the walk through the town centre to the station was to the sound of Watford fans singing Que Sera Sera.  It was a lovely feeling.

The draw for the semi-final took place when I was in the car driving home this afternoon.  When Alan Green announced that Watford were playing Wolves, I screamed with relief.  They will not be easy opponents, they are a very good side.  But at least we go into the game knowing that it is winnable and that is all that you can ask at this stage.  Troy has been on the losing side in a previous semi-final at Wembley and he will certainly not want to repeat that experience.  It should be a great day out.

I am still buzzing after that win.  Over the past 40 years, I have many wonderful days following the Hornets, but also some very miserable ones.  We go week in, week out, sometimes travelling a long distance to see our team badly beaten, but days like this make it all worthwhile.  There is a tremendous spirit around the club at the moment, so I hope that we can sell out our allocation and roar the boys on to a cup final.  That would be a fitting end to what has been a wonderful season.

Honouring GT at Selhurst Park

Meeting GT

Saturday marked the second anniversary of GT’s passing, so my early morning perusal of social media was full of my Watford friends paying tribute to our hero.  All the happy memories and lovely photos brought both a tear to my eye and a smile to my face.

On the train travelling to the game I usually have noise-cancelling headphones on and listen to a podcast, the choice on the way to Selhurst Park being the previous week’s Danny Baker show.  On arrival at Twickenham, I was distracted as a familiar looking woman boarded the train and sat in the row in front of me.  I took my headphones off in order to hear her speak and, as I had thought, it was Jane Horrocks.  I am going to see her in the Pinter plays at the theatre of the same name on Monday, so was curious to hear any backstage gossip.  Sadly the conversation seemed to revolve around cold sores and tight boots.  The glamour of the actor’s life.

Deeney, Mariappa, Cathcart and Capoue

I arrived at the designated pre-match meeting place rather early, so I had it all to myself.  It was a café rather than a pub and, as my late arrival at the station on the way to game meant that I hadn’t had a coffee yet, I was immediately drawn to the coffee with cinnamon and chili that was on the menu.  My first instinct that this may be a little brutal on an empty stomach went out of the window when I asked for a whisky to be added.  The lovely woman serving me said that she had already had someone in who had whisky in their hot chocolate, so I didn’t feel like a complete lush.  Anyway, when my innocent-looking cafetiere arrived, my choice was vindicated.  It was warming and gorgeous.  As the others in my party arrived, all started with a tea or coffee, but we soon moved on to a bottle of Georgian red wine (really), which was rather sweet so had to be washed down with some merlot.  This was accompanied some rather delicious Polish food (the others went for the beef stew, I had the mixed pierogies).  All rather lovely.  From the café it was a short walk to Selhurst Park, a ground that I rather like, while being very aware that opinion is shared by a very small minority of away fans.

Team news was that Gracia had made one change from the Bournemouth game with Hughes in for Sema.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Capoue, Pereyra, Doucouré; Deulofeu and Deeney.  Crystal Palace had the unloved ex-Watford loanee, Townsend, in their starting line-up and the much-loved Ray Lew in their dugout.

Ben Foster launching the ball upfield

As we were taking our seats, which were at the front of the stand, I was a bit surprised to see that there was a group of young lads standing on the steps at either side of the gangway, blocking the way.  This looked like a recipe for trouble, but I assumed that the stewards would notice and clear the access.

Watford fans had been encouraged to bring scarves to the game in honour of GT, and these were raised in tribute as the teams came out.

The game started brilliantly for the Hornets who should have taken the lead in the third minute when Deulofeu broke into the box and unleashed a shot which hit the post, Pereyra looked sure to score the rebound, but his shot also hit the post.  The first chance for the home side fell to our old friend, Zaha, who cut inside before shooting straight at Foster.  At this point, I was distracted by the sight of Javi having a very animated conversation with the fourth official.  He appeared really unhappy about something, which seemed to be out of character.  This may or may not have been related to the subsequent appearance of two Watford physios on the pitch when there did not appear to be an injury.  They were there to take off a very reluctant Hughes.  We speculated that he must have a cut that needed attention, but it seems that he had taken a blow to the head and was showing signs of concussion.  So, 20 minutes into the game, he was replaced by Sema.

Troy Deeney

Palace then had a couple of chances to take the lead.  First Milivojević crossed for Ayew but the header was over the bar.  The next to try his luck was Kouyaté with a shot from distance that also missed the target.  Watford’s next chance to open the scoring came on 34 minutes as Deeney met a cross from Holebas with a header that flew just over the bar.  At the other end, Palace had a decent chance from a corner, it appeared that the header from Tomkins had missed the target, but Foster had got a touch to it, so the home side were awarded another corner.  From the set piece, there was an almighty scramble which ended with Doucouré blasting the ball off Cathcart into the net.  Foster got a hand to the ball to push it away, but it had clearly already crossed the line.  Not a good way to concede.  The Palace fans started goading us with “It’s just like Wembley.”  The only similarity being the poorness of the game.  When Palace score there is a call and response with the tannoy announcer naming the goal scorer and then repeating the first name so that the crowd can yell the surname.  They did something on this occasion but I must have been mistaken in thinking that they shouted ‘Own’ with the crowd shouting ‘Goal’!  Watford tried to break back immediately as Deulofeu went on a run before shooting wide of the near post.  In the last minute of the half, Palace were forced to substitute their goalkeeper, replacing Guaita with Hennessey.  The home side had a chance to increase their lead before the break as a shot from outside the area by Milivojević took a couple of deflections, but Foster was equal to it.  Watford then had a free kick in a dangerous position, but the delivery was dreadful and we went into the break a goal down.

Pereyra and Deeney preparing for a free kick

So the football had been pretty awful, but the behaviour among the away fans was even worse.  We were sitting near the front, just behind the area that I assumed had been designated for those less able to stand.  A couple of men, one right at the front, were standing at the start of the game and were politely asked if they would sit so as not to block the view of those who did not wish to/were not able to stand.  The reaction of both of them was aggressive and abusive.  One eventually moved, but the other, who was mostly seated, still spent the whole game arguing with the elderly couple sitting behind him.  It was a very unpleasant distraction and made it difficult to concentrate on the game.  At half time, I noticed another row going on in the block next to us and friends who had braved the concourse at half time said that there were arguments going on throughout the stand.

Palace had the first chance of the second half as Zaha broke clear, but he couldn’t beat Foster.  Watford then had a decent chance as Capoue fired through a crowd, but his shot was deflected for a corner.  A cross from Doucouré only needed a touch from Mariappa to draw the Hornets level, but he couldn’t connect.

Cool Craig Cathcart doesn’t want congratulations after scoring. We have a game to win.

Just before the hour mark there was a flypast of parakeets from behind our stand.  As we were wearing our green away kit, I was hoping that this might be a good omen.  The first booking of the game went to Femenía who ran into Zaha to stop a break.  It was a stupid foul.  Palace should have increased their lead as Milivojević hit a volley from distance that took a superb save to keep it out, although it looked as though Foster’s good work would be in vain as the ball broke to Ayew who found Zaha with an open goal in front of him, but young Wilf managed to miss, much to the amusement of the travelling Hornets.  He must have been mightily relieved that the flag was already up for offside.  The second caution for the Hornets came after Townsend robbed Sema and tried to escape but was knocked over for his trouble.  On 67 minutes, the Hornets drew level as a deep corner from Holebas found Cathcart rising to head past Hennessey and cancel out his unfortunate own goal earlier on.  Needless to say, the lads who had been gathering in the gangway took the opportunity to bundle down to the front.  This would surely be an indication to the stewards that some action was needed and a group of stewards gathered and walked up the steps of the gangway, but made no effort to move anyone who was standing blocking the way, which seemed ridiculous.  Gracia made a second substitution at this point with Sema (who was a substitute himself) making way for Cleverley.

Cleverley getting a well deserved smacker from Capoue

The home side should have regained the lead almost immediately as a low cross from Zaha only needed a touch from McArthur to beat Foster, but the Palace man managed to miss.  At the other end, Deulofeu went on a great run before cutting the ball back to Deeney whose shot was cleared off the line.  Watford took the lead on 74 minutes when Cleverley hit a half volley into the net.  It was a fantastic strike and I couldn’t quite believe that we were in the lead.  But the joy of our goal celebration was cut short as the bundle for this one was worse than the first as others got in on the act and people located on the end of rows were being knocked flying.  It was dangerous and unpleasant.  Palace made two late changes bringing Benteke and Schlupp on for McArthur and Ayew.  Watford looked to increase their lead as Deulofeu went on a great run that was stopped by Milivojević, conceding a free kick on the edge of the area and earning himself a yellow card.  Palace had a great chance to equalise in the last minute of normal time as a cross from Townsend led to a scramble in the Watford box but, on this occasion, the ball ended up in Foster’s arms.  Another chance for Palace was thwarted as a dangerous looking break by Zaha was stopped by a gorgeous tackle from Femenía.  Gorgeous and brave as he was on a yellow card at the time.  Into the four minutes of time added on and Pereyra was booked for time wasting and, soon after, replaced by Masina (to waste some time!)   Cleverley was booked for a clumsy foul on Wan-Bassaka and we held our breath as Palace took the free kick and exhaled when it came to nothing.  The last action of the game could have seen the Hornets increase their lead as Deulofeu found Doucouré whose shot hit the stanchion.  The final whistle went and there were great celebrations in the Watford end, although the over-exuberance among some of the youngsters made this quite unpleasant for a number of the older fans.  As the players came over to celebrate with the fans, we greeted them with “One Graham Taylor” as the scarves were held aloft.

Deulofeu studying the ball

After the game we headed back to our café where we found that they were almost out of red wine (oops), all that was left was an open bottle.  So we had that to fuel our post-match deliberations.  It had been a dreadful game of football, but a win over Palace brought a smile to all of our faces.  After we went behind it had been a gutsy performance and one that GT would have enjoyed.  Given how wonderful Craig Cathcart has been this season, it seemed unfair that he had been unwittingly responsible for the Palace goal, so I was delighted that he got the equaliser.  I was also thrilled that Cleverley grabbed the winner.  He has had a hard time with injuries, so it is great to see him back playing and contributing.  I hope that he is soon a regular starter.

So we are now seventh in the table with 32 points.  Before the game Pete had commented that 32 points might be enough this season and, if you assume that Newcastle will not improve their current points per game tally over the rest of the season, it will be.  But, given how disappointing we have been after new year in recent seasons, I really hope that we continue to impress and maybe we can achieve our highest points tally and position since the 80s.

Back home watching Match of the Day I notice, during the interview with Javi Gracia, that he is wearing a Graham Taylor matchday badge on his jacket.  I must admit that made me cry.  Javi has been a joy since he arrived at Vicarage Road.  His football is enjoyable and his conduct is exemplary.  I think that GT would have loved him and, from me, there can be no higher praise.

 

When Harry met Wilf

Lovely Ray Lew

The build-up to this game was all about Harry Hornet who, in answer to a question from a journalist, had been branded a ‘disgrace’ by Roy Hodgson for an incident two years ago that I doubt Hodgson had actually ever seen, when Harry collapsed behind Zaha while the post-match handshakes were happening.  Sticking up for your player is all well and good but Roy lost all credibility when he claimed, with a straight face, that Zaha didn’t dive.  Sorry, Roy he gets booked for it, which was what provoked Harry’s action.  You couldn’t help but feel that Roy’s words would come back to haunt him.

For the second weekend running, travel plans had to be adjusted due to the closure of Euston, although the switch to the Met line wasn’t too much of a hardship.  When I boarded at Finchley Road, I was happy to spot Swansea Steve, so was treated to delightful company all the way to the West Herts.  Like many others, I arrived before the doors opened, so joined Don in his car to shelter from the rain which was chucking it down by this point.  When we got in the warm, the jerk chicken and rice certainly hit the spot.

Holebas on the attack

Unsurprisingly, the team news was that Gracia was sticking with the team who started both previous games: Foster; Holebas, Kabasele, Cathcart, Janmaat; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucoure, Hughes; Deeney, Gray.  The Palace line-up included unlovely former loanee, Townsend, and the very lovely Ray Lewington was in their dugout.  When the teams were announced, Ray was welcomed back by Emma and given a warm ovation by the crowd.

The game started well for the visitors, although the first action of note was a booking for Capoue for a foul on Zaha.  It has to be said that this looked like a soft challenge from the stands, so was greeted with “Same old Zaha, always cheating,” and “One Harry Hornet.”  The television pictures showed it to be a nastier tackle than had been apparent at the time and one atypical for Capoue.  The first chance fell to the Hornets as a Janmaat cross was met by a looping header from Deeney that was easily caught by Hennessy.  The next into the referee’s book was Zaha for a foul on the saintly Holebas.

Foster launches a kick upfield

Palace should have taken the lead in the 12th minute when a cross from Townsend was met by a fantastic header by Benteke, which looked to be flying in until Foster pulled off a magnificent one handed save to keep the game goalless.  Foster saved the Hornets again soon after as McArthur broke into the box and was one-on-one with the keeper who spread himself and blocked the shot, another excellent save.  Watford then had a half chance as Hughes tried a shot that flew wide of the far post.  There was a much better attempt soon after as Janmaat’s cross was volleyed goalwards by Pereyra, the shot deflected over the target.  Another Janmaat cross ran through a couple of dummies to Pereyra, this time Hennessey pulled off a low save.  McArthur broke into the Watford box again, this time he was stopped from shooting by a great tackle from Holebas and Foster was able to gather the ball.  Some niggle between Zaha and Janmaat while waiting for a throw-in lead to the Watford man being booked while his equally culpable counterpart was allowed to walk, presumably as the referee did not want to show a red card.  Watford were having more of an impact late in the half as a shot from the edge of the area by Doucouré was blocked.  Then Gray played in Janmaat whose shot was just wide of the far post.  At the other end Benteke was released and looked sure to break the deadlock when Kabasele made a wonderful saving tackle to avert the danger.  So we reached half time goalless after an even 45 minutes of football.

Congratulating Pereyra on the first goal

During the break, they announced that there would be a reunion of the boys of 1999 at Shendish in December.  Micah Hyde was on hand to talk about those days and to see him walking around the pitch with Richard Johnson afterwards made my heart sing.

Watford started the second half on the front foot as the Palace defence failed to clear a cross from Janmaat and the ball fell to Hughes whose shot was blocked.  Doucouré then did well to win the ball and play a one-two with Deeney, but his final shot was disappointingly wayward.  Doucouré then turned provider laying the ball back to Pereyra whose shot was over the bar.  Watford took the lead in the 53rd minute with a superb goal as Capoue picked the ball up in the Watford half, ran half the length of the field beating a couple of men on the way before finding Pereyra who curled the ball past Hennessey into the bottom corner.  It all went a bit quiet for a while until Benteke tried a curler but his was wide of the far post.

Congratulations for Holebas. I swear he is smiling

Then a ball was played out to Holebas who crossed the ball over Hennessey and into the top corner.  It came out of nowhere.  I’m sure that made him smile, it certainly did us as we were roaring with laughter.  Each side then made a substitution with Watford bringing Sema on for Gray and the visitors replacing Schlupp with Meyer.  Palace pulled a goal back with 12 minutes to go as Zaha snuck along the byline and shot from a tight angle through Foster’s legs to give the Hornets a very nervous end to the game.  Watford could have sealed the points as a Holebas corner was met by the head of Kabasele, but the header was wide of the target.  Palace made a further change bringing Sørloth on for Benteke.  Pereyra then picked up a silly booking for pulling Ward back.  Watford’s final substitution saw Success come on for Deeney who handed the captain’s armband to Sema.  The substitute had a chance to finish the game off in the last minute of time added on, but his shot was weak and easily saved by Hennessey.  Unfortunately this allowed Palace a great chance to level the game as a corner from Milivojevic reached Ward who looked sure to head it past Foster, but instead it flew the wrong side of the post (for them) and Watford secured the three points and kept their 100% record.

Challenging at a corner

It was no classic, but it had been a decent battling performance by the Hornets who deserved the win.  This is really looking like a great team and it was pleasing to see Kabasele given the man of the match award after a very solid performance at the back.  Foster deserves plaudits for the two early saves that kept Watford in the game.  But it was a team performance and the celebrations at the final whistle were mighty, indicating a very happy and cohesive group of players.

But what about the main man?  Harry was on his best behaviour.  Chants of “he’s gonna dive in a minute” from the 1881 were met with a shake of the head and a slapped wrist gesture.  That is, until the final whistle had gone and the players had left the pitch when he went full Klinsmann along the ground to cheers from the crowd.

For a brief moment after the game, Watford were second in the table to Liverpool which was a flashback to our most successful season.  I don’t think we will finish anywhere near as high as that, and we have a couple of difficult games coming up against Spurs and Man Utd, but those are free hits.  All we want from this team is to carry on putting in solid performances and winning points off the teams that will be around us at the end of the season.  So far so good on that front and long may that continue.

 

An Entertaining Goal-less Draw

Dee and Toddy in typical pose

As I approached Watford on the train, I could see a huge queue of cars on Waterfields Way.  I didn’t take much notice until I saw the traffic at a standstill on both the ring road and Ricky Road.  When I arrived at the West Herts, it was very quiet indeed and John, the manager, mentioned that some of his staff were still stuck in the traffic, apparently the result of a fire in the Lower High Street and a domestic incident near Upton Road.  Needless to say, Don was in his usual position at ‘our’ table, so we had a good catch up.  When the rest of our party gathered, it was time to toast our absent friends, Dee and Toddy, who both had birthdays this weekend.  They are greatly missed.

Team news was three changes from last week with Kabasele, Holebas and Okaka in for Prödl, Janmaat and Femenía.  So the starting line-up was Karnezis; Mariappa, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes, Capoue, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney, Okaka.  So Gracia was finally granting many wishes by starting with two up-front and all I could think was that Okaka may breathe on Zaha and all would be lost.  As the teams were announced, young Wilf was given a less than cordial welcome from the Watford fans.  In contrast, when Emma welcomed back Ray Lew, our former manager was given a tremendous reception.

After the terrible game at Huddersfield, I was hoping that there would be more entertainment on show this afternoon and it all started very promisingly with an early chance for Hughes whose shot across goal flew wide.  There was an even better chance a minute later as Okaka met a cross from Deeney with a header that rebounded off the crossbar.

Mariappa takes a throw-in

The next goal attempt didn’t come until the 19th minute when a cross from Deeney was turned towards his own goal by Ward and Hennessey just managed to get down to keep it out.  Ward’s afternoon didn’t get any better as he was booked for a foul on Pereyra.  Then, from a corner, Cathcart had two chances to break the deadlock, the first a header that was blocked, the second a shot that Hennessey saved.  Watford threatened again as Okaka played the ball back to Pereyra, whose shot was well over the bar.  The first booking of the game went to the Hornets as Doucouré was penalised for a foul on Loftus-Cheek.  Palace’s first shot on goal came after 34 minutes as a free-kick was met by Tomkins, but his downwards header gave Karnezis an easy save.  This incident was missed by a couple of guys who had taken seats in the row behind us and were clearly not Watford fans.  When challenged, they claimed to be scouts who had been given seats at the front of the Rookery and had moved back so they could get a decent view.  It sounded improbable and, soon after, they were invited for a chat by a couple of stewards and we didn’t see them again.  Back to matters on the pitch and a corner from Holebas was met by a Palace head, the clearance fell to Hughes who shot over the bar.  Late in the half, Zaha made his first run into the Watford box with Kabasele challenging, so the Palace man, inevitably, went down.  The referee waved his appeals away, but Doucouré reacted with fury, pushing Zaha, and was very lucky not to get a second yellow for his trouble.  As the clock reached 45 minutes, Deeney played a one-two with Okaka, before trying a shot through legs that ended up being an easy catch for Hennessey.  The final chance of the half came from a long throw that found its way to Mariappa whose shot was deflected wide.

Pereyra leaves the free kick to Holebas

It had been a thoroughly entertaining half of football.  Watford were a completely different team from last week, playing positively and battling for everything.  We had managed 11 shots on goal, but without really testing Hennessey.  The Watford fans were also putting in a good performance, loud and proud in support of their team, which was essential as Palace usually bring a very noisy crowd with them.

At half time, there was an interview with Jóhann Gudmundsson , whose time in a Watford shirt had been completely forgotten by all around me (my excuse was that I was living in the US at the time).  There was also a parade of young players from the various Watford Ladies age groups, who were given a tremendous reception.

The first action of the second half involved Zaha who, while going for a ball in the box, kicked Karnezis in the stomach.  It was a nasty tackle and, needless to say, the Rookery were shouting for him to be sent off.  The referee decided that a talking-to was sufficient, which seemed very lenient.

Hughes on the ball

The first substitution was enforced as Pereyra picked up an injury and had to be replaced by Richarlison.  It was a great shame to see the Argentine leave the field as he was having another great game.  There was then a booking for Mariappa for a slight pull on Zaha’s shirt, which seemed rather harsh after Wilf’s assault on Karnezis went unpunished.  Palace then had their best chance so far after Zaha was tripped on the edge of the box.  Milivojević stepped up to take the free kick and it rebounded off the crossbar then bounced around the Watford box until Karnezis was finally able to clear.  Zaha went on another run into the Watford box, before falling … again.  When the referee blew his whistle, my heart sank, until he pointed back up the pitch and booked Zaha for simulation.  At this point, I celebrated as if we had scored.  Ironically, Wilf had a good shout for a penalty on that occasion, but he goes down so easily and so often, always looking for the foul, that he tries the patience of referees as much as of opposition fans.  Palace looked sure to take the lead from a corner, as a Tomkins header hit the post, the rebound dropped for Sakho in the six yard box, but Deeney was on hand to clear before the Palace man could make contact.

Capoue takes a free kick

With 20 minutes to go, Gracia made his second substitution, replacing Okaka, who had a decent game, with Femenía.  Watford continued to threaten as Hughes played Richarlison in, the young Brazilian’s first shot was blocked, his follow-up curled wide of the far post.  Watford’s final change saw Gray come on in place of Hughes.  The home side had another good chance as Deeney played the ball out to Richarlison whose shot needed a decent save from Hennessey to keep it out.  Deeney then tried a shot from a good position, but didn’t quite catch the ball right and it went over.  Palace made their first substitution with 10 minutes to go, bringing Benteke on for McArthur.  But Watford had the next goal attempt as Richarlison tried a looping shot that was easy for Hennessey.  The youngster then intercepted the ball in midfield and tried to release Gray, but the pass was just too long.  There were two late bookings as Tomkins was cautioned for a foul on Richarlison and Cathcart for stopping Zaha.  Palace’s last chance to grab the points came when Zaha crossed for Townsend whose header was wide of the target, but the flag was up for offside anyway.  Watford had one final chance in time added on when they won a free-kick on the edge of area, but the delivery from Holebas rebounded off the wall and the game finished goal-less.

Karnezis takes a free kick

As 0-0 draws go, that was actually an entertaining game.  Both teams were up for it and Watford completely dominated the first half before a fairly even second period.  Palace are always tricky opposition and have a good record against the teams in the bottom half, so I was happy with a point, especially as that deprived them of a further two as they tried to catch us.

There were some good performances.  Pereyra continues to impress and gave Ward a torrid time on the wing.  As with Cathcart last week, Kabasele impressed on his return, so I look forward to him entertaining on the pitch as much as he does on Twitter.  The two up front led to us creating more chances and Okaka had one of his good games, but he blows so hot and cold that you never quite know what you will get from him.  As for the pantomime villain of the day.  I was interested to hear Roy Hodgson on MotD saying that rumours that Zaha is a cheat lead to the crowd’s reaction, completely missing the point that we have witnessed his gamesmanship over many years.  I can’t bear him.  Players do not gain a reputation like that without reason.

Well, with 3 games to go Watford are still mid-table and, if they continue putting in battling performances like that, I will finish the season with a smile on my face.

Shooting Ourselves in the Foot at Selhurst Park

Dann warily eyeing Mariappa and Prodl

On Tuesday evening my office Christmas party was taking place.  I work for a very small company, so all day there was a subtle build-up with people coming in wearing party clothes and the box of presents for Secret Santa filling up.  Late afternoon, we had a company meeting to reflect on the achievements of the year and everyone was in party mood as they contemplated an evening of celebration.  Meanwhile, I was heading to Selhurst Park.

There had been a late decision by our pre-match party to forego a trip to the pub we usually frequent for an establishment closer to the ground.  This meant that, despite a meeting that finished just before 6pm, I was able to join them in plenty of time for a couple of pints and a plate of mixed pierogies, which were absolutely delicious.  From there it was a short walk to the ground to take our “seats”.  I do love Selhurst Park but, due to the people standing in front of me, spend a lot of the game with no view of the play, particularly at the far end on our side of the pitch.  I comfort myself with the fact that the lack of view is compensated by an increase in atmosphere.  But it doesn’t do my nerves any good when something crucial is happening and I am relying on the reactions of the crowd to tell me whether it is good or bad from a Watford perspective.

Goalscorer Janmaat

Team news was that Silva had made two changes bringing Prödl and Holebas in for the suspended Zeegelaar and Pereyra.  So, the starting line-up was Gomes; Mariappa, Prödl, Kabasele, Janmaat, Cleverley, Doucouré, Holebas; Carrillo, Richarlison; Deeney.  Palace’s starting XI included former (very short-term) loanee, Townsend.  But, as on Saturday, the most significant ex-Watford connection was in the dug-out in the person of the utterly wonderful Ray Lewington.

There was applause before the game for Julian Speroni, who was making his 400th appearance for Palace.  I was gratified that I wasn’t the only Watford fan to applaud him as I have always liked Speroni.

The game started brilliantly for the Hornets as Richarlison crossed for Janmaat to head home to give the visitors the lead in the third minute.  The Dutchman threatened the Palace goal again soon after, but his cross was too close to Speroni.  Watford looked sure to score their second on 10 minutes after Carrillo found Richarlison, but the shot was headed off the line by Tomkins.

Gomes ready to launch the ball

There was some concern for the young Brazilian soon after following a clash of heads with Deeney, but nobody had pointed a gun at him, so he was fine to continue.  Palace’s first shot of the game came from Fosu-Mensah whose effort was wide of the near post.  Watford had another decent chance to increase their lead, but Janmaat’s shot was deflected for a corner that was delivered straight to Speroni.  Richarlison impressed again, nipping in to the box before shooting just wide.  Palace then launched a counter-attack that finished with a shot from distance from Townsend that was well over the bar.  Janmaat was impressing in both boxes after meeting a cross from Cabaye with a good defensive header.  The resulting corner was headed wide by Dann.  I was just complaining about Doucouré, who never gives the ball away, giving a lie to that statement when a Palace player did the same, Deeney picked up the loose ball and played it out to Richarlison who played a return pass to Troy who somehow fashioned a miss from a yard out, leaving the Watford fans holding their heads in disbelief. 

Challenging at a corner

The travelling Hornets had been baiting Zaha for most of the game and, as he was challenged while running into the box, a voice near me said that he would go down.  He did, the referee waved play on and, when he finally got back to his feet, he was giving Gomes a mouthful, presumably as the Watford keeper had called him out for his theatrics.  Palace had a half chance as a free kick was headed goalwards by Dann, but Gomes was able to gather.  The home side were presented with a great chance to equalise just before half time as the referee penalised what looked like a great tackle from Kabasele on the edge of the box.  Thankfully, the free-kick rebounded straight back off the wall, allowing Richarlison to break upfield, but Speroni gathered his cross.

So, the Hornets went into the break with the lead, which should have been considerably more comfortable.  We had a few very good chances that should have been converted and, while Palace had a decent share of the play, they had yet to test Gomes.

Holebas prepares to take a throw

The first chance of the second half went to the home side, but Mariappa did well to block the shot from Loftus-Cheek.  From a Watford throw-in, there was a bit of a scramble before the ball was cleared to Janmaat on the edge of the box from where he shot over the bar.  The first card of the game went to Milivojevic for what looked like a fairly innocuous tackle on Doucouré.  It seemed an odd decision, as there had been some pretty robust challenges that had escaped punishment.  Watford had a superb chance to finish the game off when Janmaat crossed for Richarlison but, with the goal at his mercy, he shot straight at Speroni.  Hodgson made a couple of changes at this point as Townsend and Fosu-Mensah made way for van Aanholt and Sako.  Silva’s first substitution saw Pereyra come on for Carrillo.  Sako’s first contribution was impressive with a dangerous cross from the left that Gomes did brilliantly to palm away from danger.  Palace made their final substitution bringing McArthur on for Cabaye.  Watford’s first card of the evening came when Cleverley took McArthur down to prevent a break.  Silva made a second change with 10 minutes to go, bringing Gray on for Deeney, who hadn’t had the best of evenings.  Zaha had a decent chance to grab an equaliser but his shot was just over the target.  Silva then made his final substitution bringing Femenía on for Richarlison.

Waiting for the ball to drop

A minute later, it appeared that we would live to regret using our final substitute as Pereyra went down after a nasty tackle from van Aanholt, who was booked for the offense.  Just when it appeared that Watford would leave South London with a comfortable three points, Cleverley had a moment of madness.  The ball fell to him just outside the area, he swung at it, missed and lost possession.  In his desperation to win the ball back, he made a clumsy challenge on Schlupp and was shown a second yellow card, so the Hornets were down to 10 men (again), or 9 as Pereyra was still struggling.  Cleverley was barely down the tunnel when Zaha tried a shot, which was saved by Gomes, the ball fell to Sako whose first shot was blocked, but he buried the follow-up sending the home fans, who had been very quiet up to that point, into ecstasy.  The fourth official indicated six minutes of added time and it went from bad to worse as Zaha crossed for McArthur to grab the winner.

 

Deeney kept in check by Schlupp

There was disbelief among the Watford fans at the end of the game.  We had been so clearly the better team and had made some excellent chances, so there was no way we should have been leaving South London with no points.  Cleverley’s sending off was stupid and gave Palace the momentum, but a second goal earlier in the game would have killed off the Palace threat and there was frustration that this Watford team seem unable to do that.  I couldn’t help a wry smile on seeing the message from Watford Police on twitter after the game which reported that “apart from a few disgruntled fans” there was no trouble, which rather nicely summed up the evening.

Adding insult to injury, we had to walk back to the station among jubilant Palace fans, one of whom was overheard saying that we were the best team that he’d seen this season, which only added to the frustration.  As I travelled back from the game I started to wonder whether I would have been better to have opted for the work Christmas party.  One of my colleagues had sent a photo with the message “where are you?” at about 9:45.  On reflection, knowing that was around the time that the game was thrown away and what sort of mood I would have been in on hearing that news while with my colleagues, I made the right decision.

So we go again on Saturday for the visit of Huddersfield and I can only hope that we will see a game in which the result reflects the performance.

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.

Palace Victors on The Box

Abdi in action

Abdi in action

We haven’t faced Palace since the play-off final two years ago and there is a lingering resentment that we were mugged that day.  While Palace’s spoiling tactics made for an unpleasant game, too many of our players didn’t turn up and we didn’t really deserve anything out of the match.  In all honesty, I am delighted that we had a couple more seasons in the Championship and were promoted at a time when we were better prepared for survival in the top division.

The late kick off on Sunday ensured that I had time for lunch with my Dad before the game.  Neither roast pork nor a glass of Malbec play any part in my usual pre-match ritual, so maybe what ensued is all my fault.

The usual suspects were gathered in the West Herts when I arrived and there was time for a pint of ale and a resumption of proper pre-match stuff.  While there we were entertained by the sight of Diego Fabbrini scoring for Middlesbrough (he fell over while doing so).  I must admit to having a soft spot for Diego following a sterling performance in a Herts Senior Cup game on a freezing cold night in Royston a couple of years ago, so I was glad to see that he is doing well at the Riverside.

Cathcart and Nyom

Cathcart and Nyom

It was a gorgeous afternoon and as we walked down Occupation Road, it was lovely to see Lloyd Doyley with his son, even if he was wearing a Jeter shirt.  I was (pleasantly) surprised then to see a smiling Matej Vydra, although it is a shame that he is not available for selection.

Team news was that there were no changes from Newcastle so the starting line-up was Gomes, Anya, Prödl, Cathcart, Nyom, Watson, Capoue, Jurado, Deeney, Abdi, Ighalo.  The Palace substitutes included the lovely Adrian Mariappa, whose name was greeted with warm applause from the Hornet faithful.

In his programme notes, Troy Deeney made mention of the sterling efforts of the 1881 and they were on top form pre-match putting on a show for the cameras.  As the teams emerged from the tunnel, the Legends flag was unfurled in the Rookery (or should that be upfurled as it went up the stand and over our heads).  I’m sure it looked amazing from the other stands and on TV.

Anya and Jurado

Anya and Jurado

Watford had a lively start to the game without threatening the Palace goal as a Capoue shot from outside the area and a Prödl header following a corner from Abdi were both wide of the target.  Hennessey’s first involvement came when Anya played the ball out to Deeney but Troy’s shot caused the keeper no problems.  Palace had a great chance to take the lead as Hangeland met a Cabaye free kick with a powerful header that was stopped by a great save from Gomes.  There was then a break in the game while Watson was treated for what appeared to be a dislocated thumb.  While I was concerned because Ben was clearly in a lot of pain, the loud bloke who sits a couple of rows behind me was more interested in speculating on why a penalty hadn’t been awarded, as he’d clearly handled in the box!  Palace threatened again as Cabaye blasted a free kick into the wall, the ball rebounded to Puncheon who shot wide of the target.  At the other end, Jurado played the ball out to Anya who dribbled along the by line before putting in a cross that Ledley headed out for a corner.  A cross from Jurado was then safely headed back to the Palace keeper.  The Hornets had a decent spell of pressure around the Palace box, but the nearest they came to threatening Hennessey was a Nyom shot that was blocked.  On the half hour Jurado found Abdi on the right, his first cross was blocked and came back to him, the second was headed tamely wide by Deeney.  Palace broke again as Sako muscled past Anya on his way towards goal, but his shot was straight at Gomes.  The first booking of the game was earned by Abdi for a late tackle on Bolasie that prompted a chant of “Dirty Northern Bastards” from the away fans.  The resultant free kick from Cabaye flew wide of the far post.  Bolasie, who had caused us problems all half, outpaced the defence to run on to a ball played over the top, Gomes came out to meet him and launched the ball over the SEJ stand to cheers.  Ighalo did really well to battle past a couple of robust challenges before the ball reached Anya by way of Jurado but the cross was cut out by Hangeland before it reached Ighalo who had made a run into the box.  In time added on at the end of the half, Ighalo won a free kick on the edge of the box.  Abdi took the set piece which was deflected for a corner.

Jurado takes a free kick

Jurado takes a free kick

The half ended with both sides having had just a single shot on target.  It had been a disjointed half constantly interrupted by the referee’s whistle as the Palace players tumbled under the slightest challenge.

The best chance of the game so far came at the start of the second half and fell to the home side as Jurado hit the crossbar with a free kick, Deeney met the rebound but headed it over the bar.  Watford put together another good move as Deeney fed Ighalo who chested the ball down to Abdi whose shot was saved.  There was a scare for the Hornets as a free-kick from Sako was deflected just wide of the target.  And another as Gayle bore down on goal, but the attentions of Cathcart ensured that the shot hit the bar and rebounded safely into the arms of Gomes.  Around the hour mark, there was a substitution for each side as Zaha replaced Sako for the visitors and Berghuis came on for Abdi.  The Palace substitution proved to be the decisive one as Zaha fell in the corner of the box under a challenge from Nyom and the referee pointed to the spot.  It was a very soft penalty and one of those that irritates as it was given for an offence that certainly didn’t prevent a goal scoring opportunity.  In the aftermath, Jurado was booked for his protests.  Cabaye stepped up to take the spot kick which went in off the post.  There was a spirited reaction to the goal, both on the pitch and in the stands.  The Rookery were on their feet chanting while Deeney headed the ball down to Ighalo who was tackled before he could shoot.

Gomes with a Watford legend in the background

Gomes with a Watford legend in the background

Watford’s second substitution saw Nyom make way for Aké.  The first booking for the visitors came as Cabaye took down Jurado as he bore down on goal.  Palace threatened to increase their lead as Zaha crossed to the back post where Bolasie headed the ball down to Gayle who shot wide of the target.  A free kick from Puncheon flew over the wall, but was comfortably caught by Gomes.  The Palace midfielder was then booked for sending Watson flying well after the ball had gone.  That was Ben’s last involvement in the game as he was replaced by Ibarbo.  A counter attack from the visitors finished with a shot from Gayle which was well wide and soon after he was replaced by Campbell.  There was a lovely exchange of passes between Ibarbo and Aké on the wing, the ball was crossed for Deeney who headed down to Ighalo but the Nigerian was being wrestled away from the ball which was permitted on this occasion, rather bizarre given the referee’s previous sensitivity to challenges of any kind.  Puncheon threatened with a run along the by line, but Gomes was there to snuff out the danger.  There was a flurry of activity in injury time.  First the ever-threatening Bolasie had a decent chance with another break and a shot that flew just over the bar.  Then Anya crossed for Ibarbo whose shot was turned around for a corner.  Just before the final whistle there was a bit of a scramble in the Palace box, but each of the attempts to shoot was blocked.  There were late shouts for a Watford penalty as Prödl went down in the box, but the referee (correctly) gave the free kick the other way.

Lining up a free kick

Lining up a free kick

It was a disappointing loss, but Pardew had got the tactics right particularly through the Palace wide men who had given Anya and Nyom a torrid time.  One plus point was a considerably improved performance from Jurado who showed what Flores sees in him, although his set pieces still leave something to be desired, but he is not alone in that regard.

As the only game played on Sunday we were, of course, the featured game on Match of the Day.  I wondered whether to bother watching, but was glad that I did as the montage that they showed at the start of the game featuring Blissett, Barnes, Callaghan and co. brought the smile back to my face.  I look back on those glory days with great fondness while being well aware that they must have featured frustrating days like today.  I can’t help wondering which of today’s team will achieve legend status.  Based on performances to date, I feel it will be the majority.