The quarter-final of the Premier League U21 Cup saw a young Watford side travelling to Southampton. The game had been rescheduled from the previous week due to the Saints’ involvement in the FA Youth Cup, so I found myself torn between a visit to the Royal Court to see Maxine Peake in a new play or to St Mary’s to see the young Hornets. I opted for the latter.
On arrival in the stadium, our lads were warming up and I noted a couple of very young looking boys were taking part. Jon Marks very kindly informed me that these were U13 players who had been rewarded for hard work with the chance to travel with the U21 team, which was a nice touch. There were only a handful of Watford fans in the crowd so we all acknowledged each other and I made the acquaintance of a couple of other WML members, which was rather lovely.
This was the youngest U21 team that I have seen this season, with all the outfield players within the age group. The starting line-up was Gilmartin, Doherty, Savic, Johnson, Young, Byers, O’Nien, Martin, Folivi, Lewis and Mensah.
The game started disastrously for the young Hornets as Djuričić, recently arrived on loan from Benfica, played a through ball to Sinclair who timed his run perfectly so had only the keeper to beat, which he did with a casual dink. The goal was timed at 70 seconds. At this point, I was regretting my choice of entertainment for the evening but it soon improved immensely. Our first chance came from Luke O’Nien who tried to chip the keeper from distance, but the ball cleared the crossbar. There was a frantic spell around the Southampton box as first Folivi was stopped from shooting, then Mensah’s cross was blocked, finally the ball came out to Martin whose shot was wide of the near post. Soon after, Martin broke forward and tried to find Mensah in the box, but his pass went behind his team mate. Mensah then turned provider for Martin but the shot was blocked. Next Folivi played a high ball to Mensah in the box which he couldn’t control. At the other end Hesketh found Seager who blazed his shot over the bar.
Johnson played the ball out to Lewis whose cross was blocked and flew out for a corner. From the set piece, Savic got under the ball and directed his header over the bar. The dangerous Djuričić broke forward and ran the length of the pitch before passing to Sinclair whose shot was blocked by the feet of Gilmartin. Mensah tried a looping shot that fooled the keeper who could only put it out for a corner. Savic, again, got his head to the delivery but Gazzaniga caught it comfortably. A lovely passing move found Doherty on the left but his cross was cut out. On the half hour, Hesketh played a through ball to Gape whose shot hit the side netting. The visitors were level on 34 minutes as Folivi played Mensah in, he beat the defence and finished coolly. It was no more than the young Hornets deserved as they had been excellent since the goal. The Saints fans were shouting for a penalty soon after as O’Nien, who was on the ground at the time, appeared to use his arm when clearing the ball but the referee didn’t agree. Folivi made a good run, but was stopped by a robust challenge on the edge of the box. Into time added on at the end of the half, Hesketh shot from the edge of the box but Gilmartin was equal to it. At the other end Byers released Folivi whose shot was straight at Gazzaniga.
So, honours even at half time. It had been a terrifically entertaining half with a lot of attacking play from the young Hornets and the home side mostly restricted to counter attacks.
The second half started in the same manner as the first as Seager broke down the right, his cross was parried by Gilmartin but fell to Djuričić whose first shot was blocked on the line by Jorell Johnson, but the Serb made no mistake with his follow-up. It was harsh on the Hornets who now had to start again. They responded well as Young played the ball to Folivi whose cross was just a bit too high for Mensah in the box. A cross-field pass reached Mensah on the right, he played it back to Martin who showed too much of the ball to the defender and the chance was lost. Djuričić had the ball in the net again, but the flag was up. Lewis played a deep cross to Mensah but the young forward headed over the bar. Martin cut inside to get himself into a great scoring position, but his shot was weak and wide of the near post. Martin’s next attempt to break was stopped by Gape, who was booked for the offence. Byers took the free kick which was firmly held by Gazzaniga. On 67 minutes Young made way for Obi and the Hornets went to three at the back. Soon after Djuričić made way for Little, much to the relief of the visitors.
With 10 minutes remaining on the clock, the Saints increased their lead as Sinclair broke forward before playing the ball to Hesketh who squared for Sims to slide the ball past Gilmartin. The scoreline didn’t reflect the balance of play. Just before full time, Sims appeared to have scored a fourth for the home side but, again, the flag was raised. Watford grabbed a consolation in time added on as Doherty fed Folivi who shot past Gazzaniga. The 3-2 final score was a much fairer reflection of a game in which the young Hornets had put in a great performance that was let down only by slow starts to each half. They should certainly hold their heads high after what was a thoroughly entertaining evening’s football, which was well worth missing the theatre for.