With Friday being the first anniversary of Graham Taylor’s passing, this game took on a greater significance than normal. The Saints being the opposition had an added poignancy for our group of friends as the fixture at St Mary’s had been Toddy’s last away game. That had been a magnificent performance that sent us all home believing that this team could do great things. That belief has been sorely tested over the past few weeks.
I headed into Watford a little earlier than usual so that I could spend some time at the museum, which was presenting the exhibition of GT’s memorabilia again. On entry to the exhibition, I noticed the visitors’ book and was touched to see an appreciative message from Luther after his visit earlier in the week. I had loved my previous visit but, on this occasion, there were a couple of extra little things that I noticed which greatly appealed to me. One was a commemorative cocktail shaker from the Division 4 Championship. Another was a plaque honouring Graham and Rita presented by the disabled fans on the occasion of his retirement. But the one that I kept returning to was in a cabinet with Terry Challis cartoons of both GT and Elton. It was a flag with the message, “Thanks, Gaffa, I enjoyed every minute. Steve Todd.”
While wandering around the museum, I bumped into a familiar face in Steve, a season ticket holder who travels from Swansea for every home game. He had left home at 5:30 that morning and, when I left him, was heading straight for the ground. That is dedication for you.
To the West Herts and I just wanted to hug all of my friends. After making toasts to absent friends, we were having a lovely chat about theatre and a patchwork exhibition in Prague when the peace was shattered by the arrival of the Norfolk Horns. Having seen photos on Facebook, I knew that they had travelled by train and, from previous experience, it was clear that they would arrive in a rather jolly state. As if to prove a point, Russell appeared with a tray of Sambuca shots. It all became rather raucous and, by the time we left for the ground, I wasn’t sure how many of them would be allowed in.
We left in plenty of time to ensure that we were in our seats well before kick-off so that we could join in with the “scarves for GT” display that had been planned by the 1881. I had brought my first scarf with me which, if my memory is not playing tricks, was bought in Peter Percy gentleman’s outfitters in 1979. As this is so precious to me, it was tucked into my bag for safe keeping while I wore my “everyday” scarf. As the build-up to the players’ arrival continued, I noticed that the man who sits next to me had no scarf to raise, so I loaned him one of mine. As Z-cars played, scarves were raised which seemed to cover each stand. It was a magnificent sight that has the hairs standing up on the back of my neck as I write about it. I was rather choked up to see how many Southampton fans also raised theirs. Well done to both sets of fans for a wonderful tribute to GT.
Team news was three changes from the cup win last week with Watson, Richarlison and Gray coming in for Capoue, Pereyra and Deeney. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Wagué, Kabasele, Zeegelaar; Doucouré, Watson; Carrillo, Cleverley, Richarlison; Gray. With emotions running high at Vicarage Road as we remembered GT and the tremendous teams that played for him, these guys needed to put in a very good performance or the crowd was likely to turn on them.
The visitors had a decent chance to open the scoring in the third minute when Long had a shot from close range, Gomes made a good save, but the referee blew the whistle for an offside that had not been flagged by the lino. There was another chance for the Saints as a defensive header from Zeegelaar fell to Cedric who shot over the bar. Nearly 20 minutes had passed before Watford launched an attack worthy of the name and it was a decent one. Camped in the Southampton box, Gray and Carrillo both managed shots that were blocked before, finally, the ball reached Janmaat whose shot from distance was tipped over by keeper. Needless to say, as soon as Watford missed a decent chance, the opposition took the lead. A cross from Long found Ward-Prowse in space and he finished with a shot across Gomes into the opposite corner.
The visitors continued to threaten as Zeegelaar failed to cut the ball out, allowing Tadic to cross for Long whose header had to be pushed to safety by Gomes. At this point, there was the unusual sight of a bloke being escorted out of the SEJ stand. I can only assume that annoyance at the performance had pushed him over the edge. Southampton threatened again as Hoedt spotted Gomes off his line, so tried a lob from distance which looked as though it might sneak in until the Watford keeper rose to tip it over the bar. A rare bit of quality passing by the Hornets allowed Cleverley to break, but he was stopped by a trip from Højbjerg, who was booked for the offence. Cleverley took the free kick launching the ball into the box where it was easily gathered by Southampton keeper, McCarthy. There was another decent chance for the visitors as Long hit a shot from close range and Zeegelaar just got a foot in the way to divert it away from the goal. With ten minutes remaining in the half, Silva opted to make a substitution. The board went up indicating that Watson was to be replaced by Pereyra, but Cleverley spoke with Silva and walked off instead. There were loud boos from the Rookery, but Cleverley had been clutching his hamstring, so this was not Silva’s decision. There was despair on faces around me. We cannot afford to lose Cleverley for any length of time. A rare chance for the Hornets came as a free kick from Watson was met by the head of Kabasele, but his effort nestled on the roof of the net. Gray tried his luck with a turn and shot that was blocked. Then another cross from Janmaat looked as though it would reach Richarlison in a dangerous position, but the keeper was first to the ball. Southampton’s second goal was almost a carbon copy of the first, this time it was Wagué who lost his player, Long crossed for Tadic who laid the ball off to Ward-Prowse to score his second goal of the afternoon. There was a shout from behind me, “GT would be giving you all a bollocking.” I think he spoke for everyone in the Rookery and the half-time whistle was greeted with angry boos.
The conversations at the break all had the same theme. There was no passion being shown by the Watford players, they didn’t look like they wanted to be there. I have to say, I have never heard so many complaints in the queue at the Ladies. Kate was making a rare visit from Saudi Arabia and bemoaned the fact that she had made a huge effort to get there, but the players were doing nothing of the sort. The consensus was that the first half performance had been an absolute disgrace.
Silva made a significant change at half time, bringing Deeney on for Watson and there was an immediate change in the approach to the game with the players demonstrating an increased level of energy and commitment. The Hornets created a chance in the first minute of the half following a cross from Janmaat, unfortunately both Gray and Richarlison went for the ball and the header flew over the target. Gray then fought his way into the box, but was muscled off the ball by Hoedt, illegally in the view of the Watford faithful and you got the feeling that if he had gone down he’d have won a penalty. On this occasion the boos were directed at the referee.
Watford were getting closer to reducing the deficit as Carrillo laid the ball off to Pereyra who curled a shot just wide of the target. Then Deeney played the ball back to Richarlison whose shot was blocked. The goal had been coming and it was Gray who made the breakthrough nodding home from close range after Janmaat’s shot had rebounded off the bar. The fans celebrated wildly, the players just ran back to the centre circle. There was still work to do. The Hornets continued the pressure as a cross from Doucouré was blocked and fell to Carrillo who shot well wide. The first substitution for the visitors saw Davis replaced by Lemina. But still the Watford dominance continued. Gray broke down the left and put in a dangerous cross that was turned wide. From Pereyra’s corner, Wagué rose and headed wide of the target. The visitors had a rare second half chance as Højbjerg headed just over the bar. At the other end, a cross from Janmaat was met by the head of Gray but he was stretching and the effort was well wide of the target. Silva made a final substitution replacing Gray with Okaka. I am not sure I agreed with that one, but it would give the visitors something else to think about. The 72nd minute was greeted with a rousing chorus of “One Graham Taylor”, this time with scarves held aloft. It was very moving. Watford pushed for the equaliser as a Zeegelaar cross was headed back by Deeney to Okaka whose shot was gathered by McCarthy. Southampton had been doing their best to run the clock down all half and, finally, both McCarthy and Tadic were booked for time wasting. There was a brief break in the game as Okaka needed treatment after challenging the keeper for a header in the box and receiving a punch to the face. As we reached the last minute of normal time, Pereyra chipped the ball into the box, it was headed on by Deeney to Doucouré, who bundled it home. I thought at the time that the ball hit his hand, although it didn’t appear to be deliberate (television pictures may tell a different story). I looked nervously at the lino, but there was no flag, the goal stood and the Hornets won a point that was just reward for a tremendous second half performance.
The players left the pitch at the end of the game to warm applause. In a game of two halves like that, it is always preferable that the good half comes at the end. It was hard to believe that those performances had come from the same team, but the introduction of Deeney had been the difference. Apart from his energy and leadership, it made a difference to Gray to have another forward player alongside him. Silva persists in playing one up front, but none of our strikers suit that role. I can only hope that the improvement that was apparent when we played two up front gives him pause for thought.
But this was not a day when the result was the most important thing. The tribute to GT by the fans showed how much he meant to us and it is his legacy that we celebrate. My day was spent surrounded by friends and family brought together by a shared passion. It was a day filled with laughter and tears as we appreciated the friends around us and paid tribute to the absent friends with whom we shared so many happy memories. Graham Taylor and the club that he created in his image have given me so many wonderfully happy times over nearly 40 years, and for that I will be eternally grateful. Thank you, GT.