Liverpool’s progression to the semi-final of the Europa League meant that our trip to Anfield was delayed to Sunday. Thankfully, I had bought refundable train tickets, so was able to reschedule with no hassle. It also meant that I had a Saturday afternoon free to see The Caretaker at the Old Vic which I had missed (slept through) after watching the U18s lose in their play-off a couple of weeks before. The play was marvellous, Timothy Spall absolutely brilliant, and it made a lovely start to the weekend.
The train journey north seemed overly leisurely with a number of stops at intermediate stations to remain on schedule, so I was happy finally to arrive in Liverpool. Even better to find that the pre-match pub was pleasantly empty, so I joined the advance party and was soon happily sat with good beer, a nice lunch and wonderful company.
The build-up to this match was oddly devoid of discussions of the home game against Liverpool, which seemed like a distant memory. That was an amazing game and, sadly, our league form since has been rather poor, meaning that the achievements of this season have been overshadowed by the recent disappointments.
Team news was that Flores had made one change from the Villa game, bringing Prödl in for Paredes, meaning that Cathcart moved to the right back position. So the starting line-up was Gomes, Anya, Prödl, Britos, Cathcart, Jurado, Watson, Suarez, Abdi, Deeney and Ighalo. The inclusion of three centre backs did not go down well with many in the pre-match pub, but I’d trust Cathcart anywhere across the back.
We got on the bus to the ground with some friendly Liverpool fans and were dropped off to meet the rest of our party who had driven directly to the ground and visited the Fan Zone to pass the time. As we waited at the away turnstiles, we saw the East Anglian Horns with a banner celebrating the final achievement of justice for the Hillsborough 96. Well done to all involved in the banner for paying tribute to their fellow fans.
Prior to kick off, the rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” made the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.
Watford had the first shot on goal as Ighalo made an audacious attempt to lob Mignolet that was only just over the bar. The visitors had another chance to take the lead as Ighalo played the ball out to Anya who crossed for Abdi whose shot was disappointingly over the bar. I noticed, at this point, that the entire Kop was sitting down. It puzzled me for a minute as it was such an unusual sight but, of course, Liverpool fans are passionately anti standing following the Hillsborough disaster.
Liverpool’s first chance came on 11 minutes with a shot from Coutinho that was deflected just wide. At the other end, a cross from Abdi flew just over the head of Jurado. For the home side, Moreno’s shot from just outside the area flew well over the bar. Then Anya broke forward and tried a shot from a tight angle which flew over. There was a very odd interlude as Coutinho prepared to take a free kick. The referee marked the spot the kick should be taken from with his spray. The player chose his spot and was told to move the ball. But, as the referee walked away to mark the line for the defence, Coutinho picked the foam spot up and moved it and the ball to where he wanted to take the kick. Bizarre. A ball over the top reached Ighalo in the box, but it was taken off his feet by a defender who conceded a corner. The corner was cleared to Abdi whose shot was blocked on the line. Suárez conceded a free kick when he tripped Ibe just outside the box. Benteke hit both the set piece and his follow-up into the wall. Liverpool opened the scoring soon afterwards and it was a poor goal to give away. A cross from Coutinho was knocked down by Benteke into the path of Allen and he finished past Gomes. Watford almost hit back immediately as Anya found Jurado on the wing, his cross was headed just wide by Ighalo. It was Watson’s turn next as he made up for his initial mis-kick with a better shot that was blocked. At the other end Coutinho had two chances: first a shot from distance that was saved by Gomes, then a shot that was blocked by Prödl. There was a shout for a penalty from the Hornets faithful as Skrtel appeared to be on Deeney’s shoulders in the box, but nothing was given so the Hornets went in at the break a goal down. Despite the moans at the team selection, it had been a much better performance than of late and we were unfortunate to be behind. In particular, Ighalo had been much livelier and I lived in hope that he would find his shooting boots in the second half.
The home side had the first chance of the second period as Coutinho played the ball out to Benteke before receiving a return ball which he put wide. The Brazilian had another chance soon after, but this time his shot was easily saved by Gomes. Ojo made a dangerous break before shooting high and wide. Flores made his first substitute on 52 minutes bringing Guedioura on for Suárez. Ighalo had a great chance to equalize as Anya crossed from the left and Deeney dummied leaving the Nigerian to hit a sweet shot that was heading for the top corner when Mignolet got his fingertips to it to push it behind. Guedioura was the next to try his luck with a shot from distance that flew high and wide. Flores made a second substitution replacing Jurado with Berghuis. Britos was the first to find his way into the referee’s book, although he was a bit unfortunate as he was swinging his leg at the ball when Benteke came running in and was kicked. Liverpool’s first change came on the hour as Firmino replaced Coutinho. The substitute tried his luck immediately but his shot was comfortably saved by Gomes. A promising Watford move was stopped by a cynical foul by Flanagan on Abdi. The Kosovan had a decent chance soon after as, with the Watford fans chanting his name, he hit a free kick just over the bar. That was his last contribution to the game as he was replaced immediately by Amrabat.
Deeney did brilliantly to keep the ball while being challenged, his cross reached Ighalo, but the Nigerian couldn’t convert. Deeney played the ball out to Berghuis whose shot was straight at Mignolet. The Dutchman was then booked for a late tackle on Ibe. It had been a lovely spell of play for the Hornets, so it was a great disappointment when Anya gave the ball away and it reached Firmino whose shot beat Gomes, who got a hand to it but couldn’t keep it out. Again the Hornets tried to hit back as a shot from Ighalo was deflected into the side netting. Britos met the corner from Berghuis with a header that flew over the bar. Amrabat crossed for Ighalo who didn’t catch the ball properly, so the shot looped into the keeper’s arms. At the other end a cross from Benteke was gathered by Gomes. The home side could have increased their lead as Firmino’s cross drifted along in front of goal and Ibe met it with a powerful shot that came back off the post. At this point, there was an announcement over the tannoy for the Watford supporters thanking them for their support for the 96 and particularly the banner and wishing us a safe journey home. This was met with warm and lengthy applause from the travelling Hornets. There was one last chance in time added on and it fell to the home side with a cross that Benteke somehow turned over the bar when it would have been easier to score.
So the final whistle went to a 2-0 defeat which was met with a chant of ‘3-2 on aggregate.’ It had been a much better performance, let down by a couple of mistakes which led to goals, and poor finishing from a Watford perspective. Ighalo had the best game he has had for months but, earlier in the season, would have converted at least two of his chances. After the final whistle we stayed behind to applaud the team. Troy is normally the last player to come to the away end after he has completed his captain’s duties, but this afternoon was different. I saw him standing talking to Flores, he had his head down and looked distraught. Flores spoke to him for a while and then they came towards us together to take the plaudits.
As we left the ground we were wished a safe journey home by some of the nicest stewards that I have encountered all season. That was also the most positive that I have felt after a defeat for some time. It is hard to believe that there is only a week left of the season. It has flown by and, at this stage, our only relegation concerns are regarding where we will be visiting next season. That makes me very happy.