Having endured the international break and then missed the Man Utd game due to work commitments, I was very happy to be going to a football match again. On the train to Birmingham, I spotted a familiar face so was graced with delightful company for the journey. The pre-match pub was a good one and even featured a blackboard offering “a match made in heaven” which was perched atop some gold and red baubles. Was this a good omen? A couple of the usual suspects were accompanied by Villa fans who, along with the locals, were prophets of doom for their team’s chances. That always worries me as, in many years of following the Hornets, the bankers have never been those that we win.
Team news was that Flores had made two changes from the Man United game bringing Aké and Paredes in for Anya and Jurado. So the starting line-up was Gomes, Aké, Cathcart, Britos, Nyom, Watson, Capoue, Abdi, Deeney, Paredes and Ighalo.
The first chance of the game fell to the visitors as Ighalo played in Deeney on the edge of the box, but he hit the ball over the bar. This bright start was followed by a longish spell of Villa pressure. Ayew was the first to threaten the Watford goal as he broke forward and crossed, Gomes parried and Cathcart cleared. Then, from a corner, a Sinclair header rebounded off the bar to safety. Another Villa corner was met by Cathcart who cleared over the bar. On 13 minutes, the young lad behind me complained that we should be winning. That level of expectation is always worrying as it stops the crowd getting behind the team when they need them most. Thankfully, he was placated 3 minutes later as Watford took the lead against the run of play. Ighalo got into the box and manoeuvered into position for a shot, which was saved, the ball fell to Watson on the edge of the box, his shot was blocked and the ball rebounded to Ighalo who was in front of the Villa defence and made no mistake with his finish. As we celebrated, the Villa players were calling for an offside decision. Clark came over to question the lino on our side of the field, but was sent packing and the Hornets were a goal to the good. The mood in the away end improved and there was even a spell of bouncing. Watford looked to increase their lead but Deeney’s cross was cut out by Richards who had Ighalo lurking behind him. Villa broke straight down the other end to win a corner from which they really should have scored, but Ayew shot wide from close range when it looked easier to hit the target.
Another Villa corner was headed clear by Watson. At the other end, Deeney played a lovely through ball to Capoue, who had the goal at his mercy but shot straight at Guzan giving him an easy block. Pete commented that maybe Capoue should get the odd half chance, because he never buries the easy ones. A long ball from Britos was cleared by Richards with Deeney challenging. Then Sánchez gave the ball away to Deeney, who probably should have tried a shot but instead tried a pass to Ighalo that was intercepted by Richards. At the other end, a ball into the Watford box was cleared as far as Gueye who curled a shot just wide. Villa had a great chance to equalize on the half hour as Ayew’s shot was parried by Gomes. Sinclair should have done better with the follow-up, but hit it straight at the Watford keeper. Sinclair then had a much better effort that required a really good save from Gomes to keep it out. There was frustration for the visitors as Ighalo was prevented from reaching a lovely ball from Abdi by a tug on his shirt that was missed by the referee, much to his and our annoyance. At the other end, the home side had another great chance to equalize as a corner reached Clark in the 6 yard box and he slid the ball wide from close range. Villa threatened again as a Gomes punch went to Sánchez who, kindly, returned it to the Watford keeper. With 10 minutes to half time, Villa won a free kick. There were a lot of complaints in the away end about the distance that the referee pushed the wall back as it seemed considerably more than the required 10 yards. The kick was taken, Richards had a free header and the game was level. If truth be told, it was no more than Villa deserved as the visitors had been hanging on for some time. The home side had a chance to take the lead just before half time, but Ayew just failed to connect with Sinclair’s ball across the box.
So the game was level at half time, but it had been a poor half from the visitors. The weather which was windy with rain showers may have had an effect on the players, but it was certainly affecting the crowd. Those who had priority booking for this game were housed in the lower tier. My party were fortunate as our seats were far enough up that we had the protection of the roof, but half time saw the concourse packed with those from the seats at the front taking shelter from the rain.
There was a lively start to the second half as a Watson corner was met by a back-header from Deeney that was cleared. Another corner was met with a side foot from Deeney that was cleared off the line. On the hour, Gomes parried a cross and, while we missed seeing his collision with Cathcart, it was soon apparent from our vantage point in the stands that he was in a lot of pain, holding his head. Heurelho was down having treatment for a considerable time, which is always a worry. During the long break in play, the Villa fans decided to goad Deeney and the Watford fans responded with “Troy Deeney, Watford’s Number 9”. I think it was also during this period that a moron in the Watford crowd decided to throw a flare onto the pitch. They were identified and arrested so no more away days for them. Heurelho was finally put into a neck brace and carried off on a stretcher, a sad sight. But I was very impressed to see the Villa fans all rising to stand and applaud him off. That is the way that it should be, but it was still really nice to see. He was replaced by Arlauskis who came on wearing a short sleeved shirt on a cold day. At the same time, Anya came on for Paredes, who had not had the best of games. For the home side Adama Traoré replaced Gil.
Very soon after the game restarted Watford regained the lead. A ball into the box from Deeney just seemed to drift into the Villa goal. I couldn’t see who applied the final touch but it was put down as an own goal by Hutton. Villa tried to bounce back from a corner, but the ball was turned just wide by Watson. Then Nyom exchanged passes with Capoue on the right wing and hit a cross that was just a little too far in front of Ighalo. Traoré had been menacing the Watford defence with his pace since he came on and soon drew a foul from Capoue that earned the Watford man a yellow card. With 10 minutes remaining, Guedioura, the man with a permanent smile on his face, came on for Abdi. Watford had a decent chance to further increase their lead as a lovely ball over the top from Cathcart was met with a volley by Deeney which flew over the bar. Villa’s next substitution saw Gueye replaced by Gestede, which was a bit of a worry as I feel that he has done well against us in the past. Arlauskis’s first involvement was not impressive as he dropped a cross from Traoré but, luckily, a defender was on hand to welly the ball clear.
Watford were given a welcome cushion as a shot from Ighalo was blocked and looped up for Deeney to head home in front of the Holte End. Judging by his reaction, I think Troy enjoyed that goal as much as, if not more than, we did. The next contribution from Arlauskis was as worrying as his first, as an easy ball into the box that appeared to be falling straight into his arms was fumbled and dropped. Thankfully he was alone in the box so had time to recover. Villa pulled a goal back with a couple of minutes of normal time remaining as Ayew got the ball in the box turned and hit a terrific shot past Arlauskis to set up a nervous end to the game for the travelling Hornets. From the restart Guedioura went on an impressive run and unleashed a shot that Guzan pushed around the post. There was no surprise when the fourth official indicated 10 minutes of time added on but we could have done without it. However, the first chance of time added on fell to the Hornets and it was Guedioura again but, again, Guzan was equal to his shot. Aké was the next to get in on the act, hitting a shot from the edge of the area that was deflected wide. Then a long ball flew over the head of Sánchez, as Deeney ran on to it the travelling faithful were screaming at him to shoot, but he took his time and his shot was blocked for a corner. Deeney had another run on goal, this time instead of shooting he passed to Capoue whose cross was blocked for a corner, which was a good opportunity to waste a bit of time and the full time whistle went for a Watford win, provoking huge cheers in the away end. In the post-match celebrations Flores blew a kiss to the crowd, while Deeney was beaming and couldn’t stop himself from gesturing (although not in a vulgar manner) to the home crowd. They had given him enough grief that they deserved a little back. Apart from that, there were very few of them left and it amused us greatly.
This wasn’t a great performance from the Hornets. Our defence has been masterful this season, but was challenged more than might have been expected by a team that are struggling. Deeney frustrated me as he seemed reluctant to shoot at times. But we left Villa Park with three points and Deeney had scored his fourth goal in five games, so it seemed churlish to complain. I couldn’t help harking back to our last visit to Villa Park for a league game when we went down to a harsh defeat at a time when we already felt doomed. On this occasion, it was the home fans that were bemoaning their fate on the way out of the ground. On the train back to London, we were sat opposite a Villa fan travelling with his son. He had been very impressed with our movement and was much more positive about our performance than we were. He said that he had a soft spot for Watford, probably because we had shared a manager (and what a manager). He said that he had travelled on the local train to the ground surrounded by Watford fans and had been impressed by their spirit and conversation. He then bemoaned what he was doing to his son by encouraging him to follow Villa when he could have chosen to support Chelsea or Man Utd. Richard and I both assured him that his parenting skills were spot on in that regard.
We are now 14 games in to the season in 11th place and with 19 points on the board. So just over a third of the way through the season with a points total that is almost halfway to safety. I was sceptical about our chances following promotion, but I am loving this mid-table obscurity.
Of course the icing on the cake was the news that Gomes had been given the all clear and was able to travel home on the team bus. He even tweeted to say that he just had a stiff neck. What a relief.