Tag Archives: Jose Holebas

A Rock and Roll Night Out on Merseyside

A proper old school paper ticket

It felt like groundhog day when I arrived in Liverpool.  It was just over a week since the futile trip for the postponed game and, after the two away games at the Liverpool clubs and the cup game against Everton, this was my fifth trip to Merseyside for a football match this season.

I dropped my things off at the hotel and picked up a message from Mike suggesting that we meet in the Excelsior, where we had spent a couple of happy hours on a previous trip.  After a quiet pint there, we headed for a pub in the city centre where we had an interesting encounter with some locals.  There was a well-dressed eccentric complaining about the long trip that he had taken to Widnes for a funeral.  I may well have misunderstood what he was saying but he seemed to be unconvinced that he had attended the correct funeral.  Also at the bar, were an elderly mother and son.  The son was very friendly and welcoming, the mother not so much, seeming to resent her quiet whisky being interrupted by Watford fans as she pointedly told us that she supported Liverpool.  Pete had taken the supporters coach and they had arrived very early.  So, after some negotiation with the steward, who didn’t want to let him get off, he made the trip across the Mersey and joined us for dinner.

Mike, Pete and I with Nasher and Prowsey

Mike is friends with Ian Prowse, a brilliant musician who we had seen in concert after the Liverpool game (https://amsterdam-music.com/).  Prowsey is a Tranmere fan so Mike had arranged to meet up with him before the game.  He had told Mike that he was going to the game with his mate, Nasher.  Nasher being Brian Nash from Frankie goes to Hollywood, so we found ourselves in the presence of two Liverpool music legends.  We met for dinner and then caught the Merseyrail for the journey across (under) the river and then caught a cab to the ground.  As there was still some time before kick-off, we went into the Prenton Park pub by the ground.  As we had wine with dinner, Pete and I decided we would continue.  The barmaid looked a little confused but found a couple of long glasses in which to serve our drinks.

We said our goodbyes and headed for the ground and I was rather delighted to see that the turnstiles actually had operators to whom I could hand the huge paper ticket.  Having just said goodbye to Nasher outside Prenton Park, it was a little surreal to hear “Two Tribes” playing in the stadium.  The pre-game playlist also included the theme from “The Rockford Files”, a real flashback to my youth.

The Prenton Park pitch

Team news was that Pearson was putting out a very young team with first starts for Barrett, Whelan, Hungbo and João Pedro.  So, the starting XI was Bachmann; Holebas, Kabasele, Spencer-Adams, Barrett; Hungbo, Quina, Dele-Bashiru, Whelan; João Pedro, Gray.  During the week João Pedro had been complaining about the cold on social media, so I can only imagine what he thought when he emerged from the tunnel to find a very muddy pitch and the ground enveloped in an icy fog.  Although, regarding the pitch, kudos must be given to the grounds staff who had worked very hard to ensure that it was playable, even if a police officer outside had commented that anyone who attempted a sliding tackle was likely to end up in the stands.

Watford started the game brightly and created an early chance when Hungbo escaped upfield and tried a shot from outside the area, but his effort was blocked.  Then João Pedro went on an excellent run before cutting inside and hitting a curling shot that was blocked by Monthe.  The Hornets threatened again as Whelan crossed for João Pedro who could only turn the ball over the bar.

Spencer-Adams and Whelan

Tranmere’s first goal attempt came as a cross-field ball was played to Blackett-Taylor who shot high and wide of the near post.  Then Danns tried his luck but his shot flew wide of the far post.  Nearly half an hour had passed before the first shot on target which came as a deep ball was played to Morris whose effort was blocked by Bachmann, but the ball dropped to Blackett-Taylor, who should have done better with his shot which cleared the bar.  The home side were dominating at this point and a free kick was cleared only as far as Danns who shot high and wide of the far post.  Tranmere took the lead on 35 minutes after the Hornets failed to clear from a corner, there was a scramble in the box before the ball fell to Monthe who fired past Bachmann.  The Hornets had a half chance to restore parity before the break, but the shot from Hungbo was poor and didn’t trouble Davies in the Tranmere goal.

Pearson made a change at the break replacing Dele-Bashiru with Hinds.  The home side won a corner early in the second half, Ridehalgh got on the end of it but his header was easily gathered by Bachman.  Then Watford created a decent chance as João Pedro found himself one-on-one with the keeper, but Davies made the save, the rebound fell to Hinds whose shot was over the target.

Celebrating the equaliser

The first booking of the game went to Jennings for a foul on Hungbo.  The Hornets had another good chance to draw level as a free kick was punched clear and dropped to Holebas who met it with a decent volley that hit the post.  Tranmere made their first change on 64 minutes replacing Ferrier with Mullin.  Watford were almost architects of their own downfall when Bachmann dropped a corner and was a little lucky that the referee adjudged him to have been fouled.  The home side looked to increase their lead when Mullin tried a run into the box, but Bachmann was out to gather.  The equaliser came from Watford’s first corner of the game, the ball fell to Hinds, his first attempt was blocked, but the ball rebounded to him and he finished past Davies.  Tranmere had a great chance to regain the lead almost immediately as Mullin got on the end of a long pass, took the ball around Bachmann but his shot hit the outside of the post.  The Hornets then threatened as Hinds crossed for João Pedro, but Davies intervened to put the ball out for a corner.  Kabasele had a chance to grab a winner when he got on the end of a cross from Holebas but could not find the target.  With 10 minutes to go, Pearson was forced to make a substitution as João Pedro had picked up an injury, Dalby was the man who took his place, another youngster making his debut.  Tranmere were pushing for a winner as Danns tried to break into the box, but he was stopped by a great tackle from Spencer-Adams.  The home side could have won it in time added on after some terrible defending by the Hornets, Holebas knocked the ball into the path of Danns who really should have done better but shot wide of the target.

Dalby and Barrett

So, the game went into extra time.  Gray messed up the kick-off, touching the ball twice and so conceding a free kick on the centre circle.  Very odd indeed.  Andre, who was captain for the night, looked to make amends as he picked up a decent ball, advanced and crossed for Hinds whose header back across goal was cleared.  Whelan then had a chance to put the visitors ahead with a lovely curling shot that was stopped by a great save from Davies.  Holebas, who really did not appear to be enjoying his evening, went on a gorgeous mazy run through the Tranmere defence.  It came to nothing, but it was great fun to watch.  With five minutes to go in the first period of extra time, each side made a substitution with Bennetts replacing Hungbo for the Hornets and Danns making way for Gilmour for the home side.  There was danger for the visitors as the ball was bobbling around the Watford box, Riedhalgh crossed for Morris but the header was wide of the target.  The winner resulted from more poor defending from the Hornets as Hinds had the chance to clear the ball but instead kept it in on the right touchline, the ball fell for Gilmour who put in a cross, Blackett-Taylor flicked it on for Mullin to head past Bachmann to regain the lead for Tranmere.  The home side could have extended their lead just before half time in the added period as a corner was cleared to Morris whose shot flew just wide of the near post.

Bachmann takes a goal kick

Each side made a change at the start of the second period of extra time with Quina making way for Wise (son of Dennis) for the Hornets and Woods replacing Blackett-Taylor for the home side.  Watford never looked like getting back in the game and the home fans were enjoying themselves immensely, with “Tequila” ringing out from the stand behind the goal.  As the final whistle approached, there was an announcement asking the fans not to run on the pitch at the end of the game as they would damage it!  Needless to say, the request was in vain and, as the final whistle went, there was a mini pitch invasion.

The reaction of the Watford fans at the final whistle was mostly resignation, although one lad was walking down the stand shouting angrily at Gray.  The majority politely applauded the players, who responded in kind, and then headed out.  The coaches were waiting outside the away end, so Pete left us there and Mike and I headed back to the Prenton Park where a very happy Prowsey was already at the bar and planning to get tickets for himself and his daughter for the visit of Manchester United.  Mike and I commented that we already had tickets for that tie that we now couldn’t use.  We headed back to the City and the lads bumped into a woman that they knew in the lift at the station.  When she left Prowsey said, “That was Janice Long.”  I hadn’t recognised her.  We had one last drink in a pub that was playing a video of Liverpool icons from the 80s.  So, I found myself in the very odd position of watching the bloke I was chatting with on the telly.

Barrett, Spencer-Adams and Hinds challenging at a set piece

In the cold light of day, while it had been a disappointing performance from the youngsters, it was not unexpected.  They had started brightly enough and there had been a few decent moments, but the Tranmere team were too strong for them and, ultimately, appeared to want it more.  Of the youngsters, Hinds did well when he came on and deserved his goal.  Spencer-Adams has looked promising in both games and Whelan had a decent second half.  Of the first-team players, Kabasele put in a decent shift, Holebas had a couple of very decent chances but looked unhappy to be there and Gray was mostly anonymous, which was very sad to see.

I have to say that, after three games in a week, I was not heartbroken at the thought of a weekend off.  The prospect of playing Man United in the next round had not excited me at all.  Given our precarious position in the Premier League, this extended break will likely be beneficial as it gives the team longer to work together on the training pitch.  The Tranmere fans will love the visit of United and I wish them a lot of luck as they were tremendous at both of the games.

Travelling to two midweek games in one week, both ending in defeat, may not appear to be the most enjoyable way to use my precious holiday from work.  But I have been going to football for long enough not to rely on the game to provide enjoyment and my Thursday night on Merseyside with the rock stars was actually a lot of fun.

An Impressive Start to the New Year

The quiz winners

Last October, the City ‘Orns team won the Watford Quiz Night (I am still not sure how that happened).  Our prize was hospitality for the Wolves game on New Year’s Day.  As I couldn’t find a taker for my season ticket, I released it.  When I received the email acknowledging my ‘non-attendance’, it was all I could do not to respond to tell them that it wasn’t that I wouldn’t be attending, but I had a ticket for hospitality.  Thankfully I was able to convince myself that that may come across as just a little obsessive.

I arrived in Watford at my usual time for a matchday but, unlike the bustle of a Saturday, the town was deserted.  As Thursday was a workday, I decided to stay in Watford, so I dropped my bag at the hotel before heading to the ground.  As I reached Market Street, the crowds increased but they were all wearing Wolves shirts and scarves and I realised that the away supporters’ coaches had arrived.  As I was a little too early for the opening of the hospitality lounge, I went into the Hornet shop.  I was looking for programme binders and searched high and low, but they were nowhere to be seen.  However, I did find some oven gloves.  For someone who rarely cooks and almost never uses the oven, I don’t know why I was so attracted to them, but they were a thing of beauty and I had to have them.  I then found the programme binders, and all was right with my world.  As I approached the till, I noticed the signs indicating “tax free” purchases.  I asked the woman behind the counter if we really have that many tourists visiting Vicarage Road.  Apparently, we do.  What has become of football?

With Tommy Smith

I was not (quite) the first in the Horizons lounge and was quickly joined by Alice, so we bought a couple of bottles of wine for the table (one red, one white) and toasted the new year.  Our party soon gathered.  As well as the quiz winners, Mike Raggett was there celebrating winning the Supporter of the Season.  He had brought Jacque as his plus one, so there was a good number of the West Herts contingent in attendance.

As part of the pre-match entertainment in the lounge there was an interview with Tommy Smith talking about the current squad and being very positive.  When he was finished, he was invited to our table and stayed for a long chat about anything and everything.  I liked his description of himself as a “lazy winger”, not quite the way that I remember him.  He never fancied being a coach or a manager, so went into estate agency and the business seems to be doing really well.  He seems pretty happy with life and is enjoying the ambassador/guest role as a way of staying connected with football.  I still think of Tommy Smith as a youngster, after all we went to the same secondary school, but I left the school the year after he was born.  It was a bit of a shock to realise that he will be 40 in May.

Team news was that Pearson had made two enforced changes with Dawson and Chalobah in for Mariappa (suspended) and Hughes (injured).  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Dawson; Capoue, Chalobah; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.

The Rocket Men banner

We left the lounge in good time to find our seats, but the signs in the Upper GT concourse were somewhat misleading so we wandered around for a while before finding someone who could point us in the right direction.  When we finally found the seats, they were in the front row of the new overhang at the end of the stand right next to the 1881 in the Rookery, so a great spot.  I could see my family sitting in the middle of the Rookery and tried to attract their attention, but they were not looking in my direction and by the time I found my glasses to send a message they were in match mode and concentrating on events on the pitch.

As the teams came out, a RocketMan surfer banner featuring Elton and GT appeared over the centre of the Rookery.  On a normal day, I would have been under it, so it was nice to see the revelation of a new banner for once.  It was absolutely gorgeous.  I was a little late snapping the picture, so it doesn’t do it justice.

We had been told that there was a strict dress code in the lounge regarding replica shirts, but I had brought mine with me anyway and, as we were sitting in a Watford section rather than in the Directors’ area, I decided to put it on to watch the game and felt a whole lot better.

Dawson on the ball

Wolves came into the game having beaten Man City and run Liverpool very close, so my hopes of getting anything out of the game were pretty low, but it would certainly give us an indication of how the team were developing under Pearson.

The first chance of note came in the 12th minute and fell to the visitors as Coady played Doherty in and, with only Foster to beat, he looked odds on to open the scoring, but Ben came to meet him and made the save.  Jiménez then had a great chance and really should have scored, but his shot from the edge of the box flew wide of the far post.  Watford’s first meaningful attack came as Deulofeu played the ball out to Femenía who put in a lovely low cross but there was nobody there to meet it.  The Hornets threatened again as a shot from Deulofeu was blocked, the ball eventually found its way to Chalobah outside the box, his shot cleared the crossbar.  The first caution of the game went to Dawson for a foul on Neto.  The same two players then tangled in the Watford box, this time the referee booked the Wolves man for simulation.  Needless to say, there was a VAR check for a penalty, but the man in Stockley Park upheld the decision.

Celebrating Deulofeu’s strike

Watford had their best chance of the game so far when Deulofeu found Sarr who hit a decent shot which was saved by Rui Patricio.  We were not left to rue that miss for long as we took the lead a minute later.  This time Sarr played in Deulofeu who shot across the keeper into the opposite corner.  Cue mad celebrations in the posh seats.  Watford were in the ascendancy at this point and a lovely move deserved more, but the Wolves defence prevented the shot.  Then, from a throw, Deeney nodded the ball on to Deulofeu who could only shoot over the bar.  There was a great chance to increase the Hornets’ lead just before half time when a lovely flick from Deeney found Sarr but he could only hit the side netting.

The guest at half time was Filippo Galli, but I am ashamed to say that I headed into the lounge for dessert and another glass of wine.  I thought I was keeping an eye on the time, but suddenly the screen next to our table was showing the Wolves players coming back onto the pitch and so we had to make a rapid return to our seats.

Congratulating Doucoure

The visitors started the second half brightly as Neto broke forward but could only find the side netting with his shot.  Then Jiménez tried a shot from distance, but it cleared the bar.  Instead it was the Hornets who scored with their first shot of the half as Deulofeu went on a run and played in Doucouré whose shot took a slight deflection and beat Rui Patricio.  It was lovely to see Abdoulaye score on his birthday, so very kind of him to give us all a present.  My family had received the text with my location, so it was rather lovely to see them turn towards me so we could celebrate the goal together.  The visitors made an early double substitution with Neves and Vinagre replacing Bennett and Jonny.  Then there was disappointment for the home fans as Femenía, who has been brilliant lately, was forced to go off after tweaking a hamstring.  There seemed to be some confusion on the bench regarding his replacement as both Holebas and Masina appeared to be readying themselves to come on.  In the interim, Watford were playing with 10 men and Wolves were looking to pull a goal back.  First Traoré fed Moutinho, who hit a low shot which Foster was down to gather.  Then Vinagre tried his luck but, again, Foster was equal to it.  The Watford fans were yelling for someone to put the ball out so that the substitution could be made and there was a sigh of relief when Kabasele belted the ball into the stand and Holebas finally took to the field.

Troy wants the ball

But, as soon as we were back to full strength, the visitors pulled a goal back, as Neto hit a shot from distance that took a wicked deflection and beat Foster.  Wolves made their final substitution at the midpoint of the half, replacing the goalscorer, Neto, with Jota.  The substitute was soon involved as an attempt to escape upfield was stopped when he was pulled back by Kabasele.  The referee showed a yellow card, but the decision was referred to VAR which indicated that a red card should be shown and Kabasele was given his marching orders.  I have to say that this is the most ridiculous use of VAR.  The on-pitch referee had a good view of the incident and decided to book the player.  The referee in Stockley Park viewed the same infraction and decided it was worthy of a red card.  Had the original decision been a clear and obvious error?  Would the on-pitch referee have made a different decision had they seen the same footage as the VAR?  We have no idea, but the subjective decision of the VAR now overrules that of the man who is supposed to be refereeing the game.  On this occasion they made the mistake of playing footage of the incident on the big screen and this prompted howls of anger from the Rookery.  Interestingly the Wolves fans had been expressing their feelings about VAR while the incident was being reviewed.  They cheered briefly at the decision and then continued with their original theme at which point the whole ground was singing “F*ck VAR”.  Having expressed our frustration, we were then resigned to having 20 minutes left to play with 10 men.

The two goalscorers, Deulofeu and Doucoure

At this point, getting anything out of the game was looking very unlikely.  Thankfully, we passed the first hurdle as the free kick resulting from Kabasele’s foul hit the wall and was caught by Foster.  Unlike the Villa game when Pearson made a bold change after the sending off, his substitution on this occasion was more defensive as Masina took to the field in place of Deulofeu.  As they had in the previous game, a photo of GT was shown on the big screen on 72 minutes, this time with Watford and Wolves badges superimposed.  Many Wolves fans have very fond memories of GT and it had been lovely before the game seeing a number of them having their photos taken with his statue.  The visitors created a great chance after the ball appeared to be going out for a goal kick, but Vinagre belted after it and managed to keep it in play before putting in a lovely cross for Doherty whose header looked sure to level the score but Foster got a hand to it and kept it out.  Vinagre then had a chance of his own to draw the visitors level, but his shot was high and wide.  The Wolves man threatened again with a dangerous looking cross that almost caught Foster out, but the Watford keeper was fouled by Jiménez to relieve the pressure, if only briefly.

Troy holding the ball up as the clock wound down

The fourth official indicated five minutes of time added on.  At this time, it was all hands to the pump.  The Watford faithful were in excellent voice urging their team on as they tried to run the clock down.  Pearson tried to use up some time by making a substitution as Sarr was replaced by Pereyra.  When the board went up, the Watford youngster was near the corner flag between the Rookery and the GT stands so, under the new law, should have left the field on that side of the ground, but Deeney was chatting away to referee which distracted his attention allowing the youngster to amble off at his own pace.  Deeney had been trying to keep the ball in that area and was successful in winning a corner to waste some time.  He was instructing the young ball boy to take as long as possible to return the ball when it went off and took a short corner himself with no attacking intent.  Eventually he attracted the ire of the referee and was booked for his delaying tactics.  With a minute of added time remaining, Traoré was fouled by Doucouré giving the visitors a free kick to the right of the box from our perspective at the other end of the ground.  Capoue threw himself in front of the free kick which went out for a throw.  The visitors tried to get the ball back in play quickly, but were penalised for a foul throw, much to the amusement of the home crowd.  The visitors had one last chance to grab a point, but the shot from Neves flew over the bar and the final whistle went on an unlikely and very hard-fought victory for the Hornets.

The cheers were heartfelt and intense and, as I always do, I made sure to cheer every player off the pitch.

Pereyra makes a late appearance

We returned to the lounge and a celebratory glass or two of wine.  It had been a terrific game and a very impressive win against a Wolves team who are very good indeed.  Femenía had done a tremendous job in keeping Traoré quiet and we were under the cosh a bit after the double blow of his injury and the dismissal of Kabasele, but the team worked hard to keep their shape and were well worth the three points.  Deulofeu appears to be a new player under Pearson, an arm around his shoulder has given him more confidence in both himself and his team mates to the benefit of all of us.  Capoue was magnificent running the midfield and Chalobah put the disappointment of the early withdrawal on Saturday behind him to put in an assured performance.  Birthday boy Doucouré was back to his best and topped it off with a goal.

It is hard to believe that, up until the Saturday before Christmas we were winless at home.  We now have three home wins in a row and, given that the opposition included Man Utd and Wolves, that is very impressive indeed.  Similarly, having been concerned that we were becoming marooned at the foot of the table, we are now only two points off safety and are looking up the table with some confidence.  I have always thought this team were much better than the results indicated, but something was lacking.  Nigel Pearson seems to have given them a confidence in their abilities and a resilience that was too often missing earlier in the season.  There is a sense now that they playing as a team rather than as a collection of individuals and they now have the crowd back onside with them and football is fun again.  It looks like being a very happy new year for the Hornets.

Quique’s Last Stand (Again)

Sarr and Doucoure waiting for a ball into the box

A 5:30pm kick-off in Southampton meant a later than usual departure from home.  The train journey, while easy enough, did require four changes in order to get to the pre-match pub.  The penultimate leg was subject to delays due to problems at Clapham Junction, so I spent more time than was desirable sitting in the cold on Basingstoke station and, on boarding the train to Southampton, it was clear from the animated conversations and the cans of Fosters that I was now on  a “football special”.  I met up with the rest of our travelling party at Southampton Airport Parkway and, having missed the hourly connection to St Denys, we piled into a taxi.

As we entered the pub of choice, there was a large group of Watford regulars gathered at the bar.  After greeting them, we headed for a table at the back.  The pub had a decent menu, so I was rather disappointed that, on a matchday, they only offered hot dogs, burgers, chips and peas.  I have to say that my disappointment was misplaced as the hot dog was excellent and it was served with proper chips, so we left for the game replete and ready for whatever the evening would bring.

Our route to the ground took us on a path alongside the River Itchen.  We have definitely been to evening games here in the past, but clearly not in the Winter as the path was incredibly dark.  Still, we soon emerged and saw the lights of the stadium.

Deulofeu looking animated at a corner, Holebas taking it in his stride

Our seats were at the back of the stand where we met up with Amelia, who had turned down the opportunity for a pre-match pint with her aunt.  As I got my breath back, I was a little concerned when the floodlights dimmed.  When it happened again, I realised that it was in time to the music and we were caught up in a stadium disco light show.  I found it rather off-putting and can only hope that there were no epileptics in the crowd.

Team news was that Quique had made two changes from the defeat to Burnley with Masina and Sarr coming in for Dawson and Gray.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Mariappa; Holebas, Doucouré, Capoue, Femenía; Hughes; Sarr, Deulofeu.  There were some concerns about Quique persisting with a back three, given our paucity of fit central defenders.  In a similar vein it was noted that we had only Foulquier on the bench, should one of the starting defenders succumb to injury.

 

A blurred but happy celebration of Sarr’s goal

The Hornets had a great chance to take an early lead as Højbjerg gave away possession to Sarr, but the youngster took his chance too early and shot straight at McCarthy in the Southampton goal.  The Saints’ Captain had an immediate chance to make up for his mistake when the ball dropped to him outside the Watford box, but his shot flew over the bar.  The home side threatened again as Redmond played a one-two with Ings before shooting from distance, but it was an easy catch for Foster.  At this point, very early in the game, the chants ringing out from the away end were, “You’re going down with the Watford”, “We’ll see you in the Championship” and “We only lost 8-0.”  Quite how that was supposed to spur the Watford players on to victory is beyond me.  On the pitch, a short corner was played to Holebas who put in a cross that was met with a defensive header that dropped to Capoue, he crossed back for Doucouré whose header was weak and easily saved by McCarthy.  The Hornets took the lead in the 24th minute, a lovely ball from Capoue released Sarr who advanced and shot across McCarthy into the net.  It was a terrific goal and prompted wild celebrations and lots of hugs in the away end.  I felt massively relieved, hoping that the goal would calm the nerves and set us up nicely.  Sarr was soon in action at the other end of the field repelling a ball into the box with a strong defensive header.  That’s what I like to see.  He had a chance to double Watford’s lead on the half hour as a deep free kick from Holebas found him in space, he volleyed goalwards, but McCarthy made the block and the ball went out for a corner.  The Hornets had another chance soon after, as Deulofeu broke forward and unleashed a shot that was pushed wide by McCarthy.  At the other end a low cross from Bertrand was blocked by Mariappa.  The home side threatened again as Redmond tried a shot from just inside the area, but his effort was over the target.  The Saints had a great chance to grab an equaliser just before half time when a low cross from Soares was flicked towards goal by Ward-Prowse, but the ball drifted just wide of the target.  The half time whistle was greeted with boos from the home fans, while the travelling Hornets were pretty happy with the state of play.

Doucoure, Cathcart and Masina getting ready to defend a cross into the box

The first action of the second half was a foul by Redmond on Femenía that earned the Southampton man a booking.  Ten minutes into the half Sarr beat a couple of defenders and unleashed a shot from distance which was just over the bar.  Just before the hour mark Southampton made a double substitution with Redmond and Obefami making way for Boufal and Long.  I was glad to see the back of Redmond, who always does well against us, not so glad to see Long coming on.  There was some concern among the away fans when Capoue was knocked to the ground after blocking a shot from Ward-Prowse with his face.  He was initially flat out with his arms outstretched but, once he got his breath back, he was able to continue the game.  Southampton threatened as Djenepo broke forward and crossed for Long who was unable to connect, so the chance went begging.  The Hornets nearly engineered their own downfall as Foster held on to the ball for too long in the box, tried to beat Ings with a Cruyff turn, then both men fell to the ground, I was sure that the referee would point to the spot, so was massively relieved when the outcome was a free-kick.  Needless to say, the relief didn’t kick in immediately as I waited for an intervention from VAR that, thankfully, never came.  With 25 minutes to go, Flores made his first substitution replacing Deulofeu, who had been ineffective, with Gray.  Southampton had their best chance of the game when Boufal cut the ball back to Long (of course) whose shot was stopped by a wonderful save from Foster who tipped the ball onto the bar.  It looked as though Ben’s efforts would be in vain as the big screen indicated that VAR was checking for a penalty for an earlier incident, but the decision was that there was no penalty.  Watford should have scored a second with twenty minutes to go when Gray played a lovely ball back for Sarr who missed the connection and the ball was put out for a corner by Bertrand.  With 15 minutes remaining Quique made a second substitution bringing Chalobah on to replace Hughes who, again, had to leave the field on the opposite side to the dug-out and was given a huge ovation as he walked past the travelling Hornets.

Chalobah back in action

Watford threatened again as Gray ran around the back of the defence and tried to sneak the ball into the net but, instead, hit it straight to the keeper.  Southampton then made their final substitution bringing Valery on in place of Soares.  Southampton should have drawn level when a shot from Ings, that appeared to be going wide, so Foster left it, reached Long who flicked it goalwards but, thankfully, Cathcart was on the line to make the block.  Sadly, Watford’s lead didn’t last much longer as Djenepo advanced and nipped around the back of the defence, as Gray had earlier, but his shot went under Foster and reached Ings who turned it in at close range.  Television pictures showed that Djenepo had used his hand in the build-up (quite an outrageous scoop, if truth be told), but I am not going to complain about VAR in this situation as the goal was a result of poor defending from the Hornets and it felt like it had been coming.  Sadly, at this stage, the confidence drained from both the team and the crowd and none of us believed that we would get anything out of the game.  With less than 10 minutes to go, Flores was lining up his final substitute and my heart sank when I realised that Foulquier was the answer.  To be fair, he was the only defender on the bench and Femenía had picked up an injury, but this was the last straw for a lot of the travelling Watford fans who greeted the decision with loud boos and chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing”.  Prior to the substitution, Capoue had fouled Højbjerg on the edge of the box.  There seemed to be some confusion in the setting up of the wall, or at least the bloke behind me was unhappy with the way that the defenders were lining up.  His concerns proved justified when Ward-Prowse stepped up and curled the free kick over the wall, Foster managed to get his hands to the ball, but could only help it into the net.  At this point, while the home fans celebrated, the travelling Hornets were telling Quique that he would be sacked in the morning.  When the fourth official held up the board indicating that there would be 6 minutes of added time, my only thought was that it was plenty of time for Southampton to get a third.  The Hornets did create a couple of chances in time added on.  First, from a corner, Sarr played the ball back to Gray but he shot wide of the target.  Then one final chance when Foulquier played the ball out to Sarr who took a shot that was pushed over the bar by McCarthy.

Foster up for a late corner

The final whistle went to celebrations among the home fans and total deflation in the away end.  I did have to admire the decency of those among our fans who applauded the players.  My applause was sporadic and half-hearted until Troy came over to thank the crowd.

There was no time for a post-match analysis as I made a swift departure in order to catch the train that would allow me to arrive back in Windsor before 10pm.  Travelling back home on my own, I had plenty of time to think about the game.  Yet again, following a decent first half, the second period had been disappointing, and we had lost to a very poor team.  Once we took the lead, we should have been in control of the game but we didn’t get a second goal and, such is the fragility of the squad’s confidence, once Southampton drew level, we never looked like getting anything from the game.  I always thought that the reappointment of Quique had been an odd move.  While he had a reputation for making us hard to beat early in his first tenure, the final third of the season was a dreadful trudge and that is what we are seeing now.  Despite the injuries, we have enough quality in this squad to be winning more games than we lose.  The fact that we are not has to be down to the coach.  By Sunday morning Quique was gone and I cannot imagine that there were any Watford fans who were saddened by that news.

Gino Pozzo slumming it

Sunday afternoon, at my Dad’s house, it was clear that someone needed to get hold of me.  When I finally answered the call from the private number that I was trying to ignore, I discovered it was someone from FiveLive who wanted to talk about the sacking of Flores.  I told him that I thought it had been an odd appointment in the first place.  He then asked what I thought of the owners.  I had mentioned that I was previously the Press Officer for the Watford Supporters Trust (hence why they had my number) and I assume that he was expecting me to criticise the Pozzos.  But, having been rather too close to the club when we went through those troubled times under the previous owners, I am still incredibly thankful for what the Pozzos have done for our club.  We have a stadium to be proud of with stands named for legends from another era, a team of players of a quality that we have no right to expect and a club that, with ventures like the sensory room and the work of Dave Messenger in connecting with the fans, still feels like a community club off the pitch and not a “foreign-owned Premier League business”.  For that I would still fall on my knees in worship in front of Gino Pozzo.

 

Anti Football Wins the Day

Vicki’s first Watford game

After finally achieving our first win of the season against Norwich, I went into this game feeling uncharacteristically positive.  I had an extra reason to feel positive as my friend, Vicki, was visiting from the US.  I have made it my mission to share my love of Watford with all of my friends, meaning that she first saw the Hornets play in 2010 when she arrived in the UK on an earlier flight than she originally intended in order to take in a pre-season game at Boreham Wood.  This occasion had added significance as it was also the occasion that Toddy bought her first pint in the UK.  Since then she has seen Watford a couple of other times including another pre-season at Wealdstone when she met Lloydy and Mapps.  Her most recent game was in 2013 when, following a midweek win against Doncaster, she made the trip to Barnsley.  I had strongly advised her against going to that game.  No visitor from the US looks at possible destinations in the UK and plumps for Barnsley and we never win there anyway.  She was determined and ended up having a cracking day out with a great pub, fantastic company and a 5-1 Watford win.  This would be her first Premier League game and she was very much looking forward to it.

Capoue plays the ball

I decided not to subject Vicki to the convoluted train journey, especially as there was disruption at Euston, so I drove to the West Herts.  We arrived to find our party at the usual table.  It was a flying visit for a couple of them as Mike had been offered the use of the Community Trust table in the Elton John Suite, so the prawn sandwich brigade had a swift drink and then headed for their posh seats, while we enjoyed a proper football lunch of burger/hot dog and chips.  While we waited for our food to arrive, Glenn appeared with his bag of treats.  Vicki looked sceptical as the bag of pork scratchings appeared on the table but was persuaded to try one.  “Oh, they are really good.”

We headed to the ground at the usual time.  Needless to say, the touts decided to give this one a miss.  Once inside the Rookery, I showed Vicki to our seats and sped around to the GT stand to take a bag of sweets to Don, who had left for the game before Glenn arrived.

Deulofeu lines up a free kick

Team news was that Quique had made three enforced changes from the win at Norwich with Kabasele (suspended), Janmaat and Pereyra (both injured) making way for Mariappa, Femenía and Gray.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Cathcart, Dawson, Mariappa; Holebas, Capoue, Doucouré,  Femenía; Hughes; Gray, Deulofeu.  Deeney was again on the bench, this time accompanied by exciting prospects Ismaïla Sarr and Tom Dele-Bashiru.

Just before kick-off someone observed that Dyche had swapped ends so the Hornets would be defending the Rookery in the second half.  And so the torture began.

Three minutes into the game Burnley were already indulging in time-wasting and Sean Dyche had just had his first rant at the fourth official.  Watford had the first chance of note as a free kick from Deulofeu was met by the head of Dawson, but his effort flew past the top corner.  The next chance for the Hornets came when Capoue released Holebas who crossed for Doucouré at the back post, but the header back towards goal was cleared.  The Hornets won a free kick in a dangerous position when Hughes was hacked down by Tarkowski.  Sadly, Deulofeu curled the set piece into the arms of Pope.

Capoue giving instructions to Hughes

Deulofeu’s next effort was more impressive, he robbed Tarkowski before belting into the box and taking a shot, but Pope made a superb save with his feet.  Burnley’s first attack of note came after 20 minutes when they won a corner.  The delivery from McNeil was deep and flew straight out of play.  The first booking of the game came when Gray went up for a header with Tarkowski, who went down clutching his face and the Watford man was cautioned.  The Hornets won another free kick in a good position after Tarkowski handled the ball.  There were protracted complaints from the Burnley players leading to a booking for Mee.  Deulofeu took the free kick and hit it straight into the wall.  Watford had a great chance to take the lead after Gray broke forward before finding Femenía on the right, Kiko tried a shot but Mee stuck a foot out and managed to turn it back to Pope.  Another decent chance went begging as Deulofeu played the ball back to Capoue whose shot was poor and flew wide of the near post.  A lovely exchange of passes between Hughes and Doucouré finished with a shot from a narrow angle from Will that was blocked for a corner.  Hearing some applause at the front of the Rookery, I looked down to see Jay DeMerit making his way around for the half time interview.  A shot from Cathcart was blocked to shouts of handball from the Watford faithful, but the VAR check confirmed that the block was legitimate.  Then there was some concern as Dawson went down with what appeared to be a head injury.  He didn’t move for quite some time, which is always a bad sign.  Thankfully, he was able to walk off the field, but he couldn’t continue and was replaced by Masina.  This was now the sixth league game in a row in which we have been forced to make a substitution in the first half.  Into the five minute of added time and Deulofeu tried a run into the box that was stopped by a judicious foul by Tarkowski on the edge of the area.  The free kick from Deulofeu was on-target but kept out by a great one-handed save from Pope.  So, we reached half-time goalless, although the Hornets had much the better of the half and would have been ahead but for two excellent saves from Pope.  Burnley had defended well, but their efforts in attack resulted in only one (off-target) shot in the whole of the first half.

Jay DeMerit back at the Vic

The half-time interview was with Jay DeMerit, who had been at Vicarage Road on Friday evening for the European Premiere of a short film, “Game Changer”, which was an episode of the US animated show for children, LaGolda, which encourages kids to accept everyone for who they are and promotes inclusiveness in football and wider society.  This particular episode was in support of LGBTQ youth.  Also in attendance, and being interviewed, was Executive Producer, Judy Reyes.  Both Judy and Jay spoke positively about how the club had allowed them to promote their message of inclusivity, which seemed only too right given that Elton John is such an important part of our club.  They then went and had their photo taken with the children who took part in the half-time penalty shoot-out, who had been playing with a rainbow football.  It was only after the game that I realised that Judy Reyes played Carla in “Scrubs”.  I loved that show and was a big fan of hers.

The first chance of the second half fell to the Hornets when the ball broke to Capoue whose shot was deflected over the bar.  The home side threatened again as a cross from Capoue was headed goalwards by Mariappa, but his effort was blocked.  Mapps was then in action at the other end of the pitch, heading clear while under pressure from Mee.

The return of Deeney

The visitors took the lead from the resultant corner as Tarkowski’s header was blocked, Foster got stuck in the traffic in the box and was unable to intervene as Wood buried the rebound.  The goal was scored in the 53rd minute from the first on-target shot by the visitors.  After the goal the Burnley fans started a chant that I thought was “sexy football” but at a later rendition I heard “anti-football” which was much more accurate.  Flores decided to bring on the cavalry at this point replacing Gray with Deeney who took to the field to a huge ovation.  The Hornets had a chance to break back when they won a free kick in a dangerous position after Tarkowski fouled Capoue on the edge of the box.  Again the Burnley players protested the decision and Westwood was booked for dissent.  Capoue took the free kick himself, but it was a dreadful effort that flew well over the bar.  The visitors had a chance to increase their lead, but Foster blocked the shot from Hendrick and the follow-up from Bardsley was hit over the bar.  Flores made his final sub with a quarter of the match remaining, bringing Sarr on in place of Hughes.  As Pope wasted time retrieving the ball for a goal kick, Deulofeu placed the ball in position on the edge of the six yard box.  Needless to say, Pope wasted more time moving the ball to the other side of the area, much to the annoyance of the fans behind him in the Rookery.

Captain Capoue

Another decent chance for the Hornets came to nothing as Capoue released Holebas who cut inside but shot straight at Pope.  At the other end, a cross was chested down to Barnes who shot over the target.  With 15 minutes remaining, there were chances at both ends of the pitch.  First a corner from Westwood appeared to be heading for the net, but Foster punched clear allowing Deulofeu to break forward, he played Doucouré in, but the shot was high and wide.  Dyche then made his only substitution of the game replacing Wood with Rodriguez.  The Burnley substitute almost made an immediate impact as he hit a powerful shot that came off the underside of the bar, but the ball bounced off the line and was headed over by Cathcart.  The visitors appealed for a penalty when Barnes appeared to run into Holebas, the referee waved play on and the Hornets broke down the other end.  When the ball went out of play, it was announced that VAR was checking the penalty.  When the decision came through, the referee pointed back up the field and the players returned to the Rookery end of the field.  Barnes took the spot kick, Foster got a hand to it to push it onto the post but it bounced back and into the net.  The authorities had said that they would be giving the fans in the stadium more information about the VAR decisions and, sure enough, the big screen showed footage of the challenge which clearly showed Holebas kicking Barnes so, much to my annoyance, it was the correct decision.  To add insult to injury, the visitors scored a third goal when a Burnley free kick reached Tarkowski whose first effort drew a good save from Foster, but the rebound found the net.  The traveling Burnley fans burst into a chorus of “Andre, what’s the score?” while the majority of the home fans headed for the exits.  There was a chance for a consolation goal as a powerful shot from Deulofeu hit the crossbar, but it wasn’t to be and the game finished in a humiliating defeat for the Hornets.  As if that wasn’t enough, Norwich won and Southampton drew so we finished the afternoon back at the foot of the table.

Preparing for a free kick

There wasn’t much enthusiasm at the end of the game, but Troy did his usual lap of the pitch and was warmly applauded by the few who were still in the ground.

Due to the many early leavers, the trip up Occupation Road was somewhat quicker than usual.  When we arrived back at the West Herts, Pete assured me that I didn’t have to write the blog.  That was certainly a tempting thought.  As we muttered miserably about what we had seen that afternoon, the folk from the posh seats joined us.  I have to say that an afternoon of drinking wine in hospitality meant that they were considerably jollier than the rest of us.  On the way home, Vicki was very apologetic about not having brought us luck when it should have been me apologising having subjected her to that game and being utterly miserable all afternoon.

It is very hard to articulate my feelings about that game.  Burnley were dreadful but still managed to beat us 3-0.  The first half performance had been decent with the Hornets totally dominating.  I would bemoan the fact that they didn’t turn the dominance into goals, but we would have been two up but for a couple of excellent saves by Pope.  The loss of Dawson just before half time certainly made a difference.  He had been solid in the middle of the back three and was just what we needed against a team like Burnley.  The second half had started well but once the first goal went in, despite the fact that it was horribly scrappy, the confidence disappeared and we never really looked like getting back in the game.

It is hard to see where we go from here.  We have played a number of very poor teams this season and failed to pick up points from most of them.  We have a squad with a lot of talent but are suffering with both injuries and a lack of confidence.  I am trying to hold on to the thought that this team is too good to go down but, as the weeks go on, it is harder and harder to convince myself that we will survive.

 

Two Goals, Three Points and a Hug from Pat Nevin

Capoue back in action (at a distance)

Another week meant another televised game, although I am not sure that the world was begging to see Watford take on Norwich in a bottom of the table clash.  I left work at lunchtime for the short walk to Liverpool Street and arrived in Norwich mid-afternoon.  The Norfolk ‘Orns were starting their pub crawl for Amy’s birthday eve rather early, but our party had sensibly decided to meet up with them on the last leg of their tour.

The last time we were in Norwich, I seem to recall it was a lovely evening and we sat outside the pub.  No chance of that on this occasion.  The walk to the pub was longer than I remembered but, on arrival, I was pleased to find Pete already there.  The beer menu was interesting.  There were lots of ciders, but the dry offerings were all a bit strong for me, so I went for a pint of blonde bitter.  I was briefly distracted by the rhubarb and custard sour beer.  I was very surprised to hear that it was selling rather well.  I really should have asked for a taste.

Cathcart, Dawson and Holebas getting advice from Dean Austin

Paul had just asked where the Norfolk ‘Orns were when the pub door opened, and Glenn appeared followed by a large number of his compatriots.  The peace was shattered.  They were all very merry already, but had not yet moved on to their traditional sambuca.  When that appears, you know that it is getting very messy.  I was introduced to one of the Norfolk crowd that I hadn’t met before.  Graham had been an apprentice groundsman working under Les Simmons in the early days of the Elton John/GT era.  He had some interesting stories of his encounters with those three great men.  He then started talking about the Norwich fans that they had met earlier in the afternoon and how little confidence they had in their team.  He surmised that we would win the game, based on the fact that our fans were more confident.  I have to say that I wasn’t convinced as my confidence was very low based on my experiences following the Hornets so far this season.

While in the pub, somebody told me that the child of a friend had chatted to (referee) Andre Marriner in the ground.  I heard “in the Crown” and wondered what on earth the ref was doing in the pub before the game, although that would explain some of the refereeing decisions that we have seen this season.

Gathering for a corner

Team news was that Quique had made three changes from the Chelsea game with Holebas, Hughes and the very welcome return of Capoue in place of Masina, Gray and Chalobah.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Cathcart, Kabasele, Dawson; Holebas, Doucouré, Capoue, Janmaat; Hughes; Pereyra, Deulofeu.  Even better news was that Deeney was on the bench.  We have missed him terribly.

We set off in good time to get to the ground for the 8pm kick-off.  But, having only had a toastie in the pub, Pete and I decided to get a pie in the ground, so were cutting it fine as we headed for our seats.  The steps into the stand were blocked as people had stopped to listen to the Last Post.  Once the minute’s silence was over, we were able to move but, when I emerged into the stand, the game had already kicked off.  As I climbed the steps to my seat, the crowd reaction around me indicated that we were attacking.  I turned around in time to see Deulofeu bursting into the box and finishing past Krul, so celebrated that goal by leaping up and down in the gangway.  An early goal was just what we needed to settle our nerves.  We continued positively and another run from Deulofeu resulted in a corner.  The delivery from Holebas was met by the head of Janmaat whose effort just cleared the bar.

Foster takes a goal kick

Pereyra then played a lovely cross-field ball to Holebas who tried a shot from distance which was blocked.  Watford had a great chance to grab a second in the 12th minute as a cross from Janmaat found Deulofeu in the box, but his shot was wide of the target.  The first real threat from Norwich came as Hernández broke forward before cutting the ball back to Pukki, but Cathcart was on hand to make the block.  Then Stiepermann played a dangerous through ball to Hernández, but Foster was out to smother the shot.  Watford had a great chance to increase their lead when the ball broke to Hughes who advanced and shot, but his effort was just wide of the target.  Then Pereyra found himself in a great position but wouldn’t attempt a shot.  Doucouré was more adventurous, but his shot was deflected into the arms of Krul.  Norwich looked sure to level the score when McLean crossed for Hernández but the shot, from point blank range, was saved by Foster, although the flag was up so it wouldn’t have counted anyway.  Watford were forced to make a substitution due to injury yet again, this time it was Pereyra who could not continue and made way for Gray.  Andre almost made an immediate impact as he got on the end of a cross from Hughes, turned and shot but it was deflected wide.  At the other end, a cross from Hernández was met by the head of McLean, but it was an easy save for Foster.  The Hornets threatened again as Holebas played the ball back to Capoue who hit a lovely shot, but it was wide of the target.  At the other end, Pukki cut the ball back to Buendía whose shot was dreadful, flying high and wide of the target.  The home side had a decent chance to draw level just before half time as the ball was flicked to Pukki but the volley was straight at Foster, so the half time whistle went with the Hornets in the lead.

Gray congratulated on his goal

Doucouré had the first chance of the second half with a shot from the edge of the area that was deflected over the bar.  The first booking of the game went to Kabasele who was cautioned for pulling back Hernández.  The Hornets scored a second after 52 minutes.  Deulofeu advanced down the left, his first attempt at a cross was blocked, the second was gorgeous and dropped for Gray who volleyed home.  Suddenly it felt much more comfortable.  The first substitution came on the hour as the home side decided to ring the changes, Buendía and Stiepermann were replaced by Cantwell and Drmic.  The home side had a chance to pull a goal back soon after when Lewis tried a shot from distance that was pushed around the post by Foster.  The resultant corner was met by a Watford head and the danger was over.  My heart sank as Kabasele saw a second yellow card for a silly push on Drmic.  He was on his way to the dressing room before the referee had the card out of his pocket.  It was an unnecessary foul and we would now have to play 25 minutes with 10 men.  The home side reacted positively to having an extra man on the field and we heard the Norwich fans, who are usually very vocal, for the first time during the evening.  There was a very harsh booking for Hughes who was cautioned for colliding with an opponent as he won a header.

Dawson, Janmaat and Kabasele in the Norwich box

Flores then made a tactical substitution.  Having lost Kabasele, he sacrificed Deulofeu for Mariappa.  Norwich had a great chance to get a goal back as McLean unleashed a powerful shot from the edge of the box, but it was met with a great save from Foster.  Norwich youngster, Cantwell, then broke into the box but his shot was blocked.  My nerves were tested when a cross into the Watford box was turned wide of the target by Janmaat.  From my angle, it looked as though he was going to turn the ball into his own net, but he knew what he was doing.  Cantwell’s corner was met by Lewis whose shot was high and wide.  With 10 minutes to go, Norwich made their final substitution bringing Vrancic on for Lewis.  Watford should have ensured the win when Hughes played a cross-field ball to Gray, but Andre had too much time to think about his shot and lifted it over the target.  With five minutes remaining of normal time, a frustrated Vrancic was booked for a nasty foul on Capoue in the Watford box.  Watford’s final change came with 2 minutes left on the clock as Holebas made way for Masina.  By this point the Watford fans, who had been in good voice all evening, were particularly confident and a chant of “We’re gonna win the league” rang out in the away end.  As 5 minutes of time was added, I had everything crossed that we would keep a clean sheet.  Thankfully the only event of note in added time was Masina getting booked for a foul on Aarons.  The final whistle went to great celebrations in the away end and joyful chants of “We’re not bottom any more.”

Holebas and Doucoure Prepare for a Corner

There were smiles and hugs and celebrations among the Watford fans.  We have waited far too long for that victory and it was well deserved.  While the game was not a classic, once Watford took the lead we looked comfortable.  Deulofeu can be very frustrating, but he took his goal brilliantly and his assist for Gray’s goal was a thing of beauty (very reminiscent of the goal against Wolves in the cup semi-final).  It was wonderful to see Capoue back in the team and his presence in the midfield allowed Doucouré to put in his best performance for some time.  The defence was solid, and the lads did very well to keep their shape and organisation with only 10 men on the pitch.  With Capoue and Deeney both returning to fitness, the future is looking a lot brighter and we can go into the international break feeling much more positive about our prospects for the season.

Richard was staying at the hotel attached to the ground, so we all went there for a post-match celebratory glass or two of Malbec.  When the Norwich fans who had been drowning their sorrows at the next table disappeared, they were replaced by a group of youngsters who clearly were not football fans.  When they were joined by an older guy, we realised that they were media types who had been working on the various broadcasts of the match as the older guy was Pat Nevin.  Now I have had a crush on Pat Nevin for decades, so came over all unnecessary at being in such close proximity, but I knew I wouldn’t have the nerve to speak to him.  We sat there for an hour or so trying not to stare (and failing miserably).  As we prepared to leave, Richard took the plunge and said hello to Pat.  The rest of us took a deep breath before joining him and were treated to a good twenty minutes of Pat chatting with us about Watford (too good to go down), meeting Elton John, being a footballer in the days when someone like him was considered to be a weirdo (I’m not a weirdo, they are weirdos), his friendship with John Peel.  He was absolutely delightful company, so warm and interesting.  He told us that he has just completed writing an autobiography (the first of three volumes).  That promises to be a fascinating read and will definitely be on a birthday/Christmas list in the near future.

We have had some tough trips this season, but Friday night in Norwich had 2 goals, 3 points, a clean sheet, great company and a hug from Pat Nevin to finish it off.  What could be better?

VAR Is Not Our Friend

Seeing the new stadium for the first time

Unfortunately, on Friday evening, I turned my ankle walking home from the station.  It was very painful, and I struggled to get home.  On Saturday morning my ankle was swollen and I was finding it difficult to walk, so I had to decide on my plan for the day.  The pub that we were meeting at was a 15 minute walk from the stadium, so I decided that it would be better to go straight to the ground.  I briefly considered missing the match completely, as my hopes were not high.  But the last time I missed a match due to ill health, we beat Chelsea in a terrific game, and this was our first visit to a new stadium, so I decided that I had to go.

I drove to the station for the first time in years and got the train, tube and bus that I needed to get to the stadium.  My journey plan indicated that I would have only a minute’s walk from the bus stop but there were matchday diversions which meant a slow hobble up Tottenham High Road.  The stadium could be seen from a distance and looked very impressive.  Needless to say, I had to walk around the stadium to the away end and climb a flight of steps to the entrance, so was feeling very sorry for myself by the time that I reached the turnstiles.  I had listened to the advice regarding the bag policy and only brought a small drawstring bag.  Thankfully, this passed their inspection and I went through the airport screeners to get in.  I was stopped as my camera was in my pocket and had triggered the alarm, but I was soon allowed to the turnstiles and finally inside the ground.

The rather lovely view of the roof from our seats

Inside, I met up with a lot of familiar faces.  The story of my injury had got around and was met with exactly the level of sympathy that I was expecting (none).  I soon headed for my seat to catch up with the family.  The new stadium is very impressive inside and we had terrific seats.  They have the rail seats that are suitable for safe standing, which was quite a relief as it meant that I had a barrier to lean on during the game.  I did think that the seats were very narrow for a new stadium, but I guess they have to pack the punters in.

Team news was that Quique had made 2 changes from the draw against Sheffield United with Dawson and Chalobah replacing Prödl and Gray.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Kabasele, Dawson, Cathcart; Holebas, Chalobah, Cleverley, Doucouré, Janmaat; Welbeck, Pereyra.  I had checked the kit that we would be wearing before leaving the house and was a little surprised to find that we were in the navy, which meant that we would be wearing the same colour shorts as Spurs.  It seems that the rules regarding colour clash only apply to shirts and socks, so matching shorts are not considered to be a problem.

Talking of odd colour choices, Alice turned up wearing an orange jumper.  I swear she only does it to upset me!

I failed to get a picture of the goal celebrations due to the arms aloft in front of me, so here are Doucoure and Chalobah

The game started with a setback for the Hornets as Danny Welbeck went down with a hamstring injury.  He was treated for a short time but was unable to continue.  He left the field, to boos from the home fans due to his Arsenal history, and was replaced by Deulofeu.  Rather unbelievably, Watford took the lead after 6 minutes.  Cathcart played a gorgeous cross-field ball to Janmaat, who put in a great cross that Doucouré turned home (although the stadium announcer gave it to Cleverley).  My celebration had to be a little muted as I was incapable of jumping up and down.  I made up for it with extra fist pumping and hugging!  The home side had a chance to hit back almost immediately as Sissoko hit a powerful shot from just outside the area, but it cleared the bar.  The first caution of the game went to Sanchez for a nasty tackle on Pereyra.  There was a shout for a penalty from the home side as Danny Rose tumbled in the box under a challenge from Pereyra.  It was right in front of us and was unconvincing.  The referee and VAR both agreed with my assessment and we played on.  The best chance of the first half for the home side came with a low shot from distance from Dele, but Foster made the save.  At the other end, Doucouré broke into the box and put in a lovely cross, but there was no Watford player there to get on the end of it.  My nerves were tested when a ball came into the Watford box and Dawson dived towards it.  I was fearful of another own goal but, thankfully, Foster made the catch.  I had barely caught my breath when Foster was caught with the ball at his feet, Dele came in to make a challenge, but Ben made a slick turn away from the forward and made the clearance.  Watford had a penalty call as Deulofeu went down in the area under a challenge from Vertonghen.  The referee waved play on and, while Deulofeu protested, the VAR check was performed and confirmed the referee’s decision.  Having seen this on television after the game, Vertonghen slid in and had a couple of chops at Geri before he took him down.  I am baffled that this was considered to be a fair challenge by multiple officials.  At the other end, Spurs had a chance to grab an equaliser before half time as Alderweireld crossed for Moura, but the header flew over the bar.

Holebas cherishing the ball before a throw-in

The half time whistle went to boos from the Spurs fans.  The mood among the travelling Hornets was much better than it has been in recent weeks as it had been a spirited performance with some lovely football being played.

After the half-time break, the Spurs players took to the pitch considerably earlier than the Watford men and had made a substitution bringing Son on for Sanchez.  Given how much trouble we have had from the South Korean in recent seasons, this looked to be bad news for the Hornets.  This feeling was intensified when Son blasted a shot that, thankfully, rebounded off the crossbar and out for a throw-in.  The Hornets had a great chance to increase their lead as Deulofeu was in on goal, but the one time I wanted him to be selfish he decided instead to square for Pereyra, who was being shadowed by Aurier who managed to block the shot conceding a corner that came to nothing.  A terrible attempt at a clearance by Gazzaniga let to the ball looping into the air, but Pereyra was unable to capitalise.  Watford threatened again as Doucouré played in Janmaat who went for goal when maybe he should have passed, his attempt was blocked.  Son had another attempt to equalise, this time a shot from a narrow angle, but Foster was able to make the save.

Cathcart waiting to take a free kick

Another great chance for the Hornets as Pereyra went on a brilliant run before crossing for Deulofeu whose shot was wide of the far post when he really should have hit the target.  Just after the hour mark, Spurs made their second change bringing Lamela on for Moura.  The Hornets had another opportunity to increase their lead when Doucouré picked up a loose ball and shot from the edge of the area, but his effort was just wide of the target.  From the opposite end of the ground, a Spurs equaliser looked imminent as Kane got behind the Watford defence, but Dawson was on hand to make the crucial tackle.  Janmaat had another chance to extend Watford’s lead after he received a pass from Pereyra, but he tried to switch feet before taking the shot and the chance was gone.  That was his last contribution to the game as he was also forced to leave the field with a hamstring injury and was replaced by Femenía.  Spurs also made a change as Winks made way for Ndombele.  Spurs threatened with a cross into the Watford box, but Kabasele was imperious, rising to head it away.  Then a lovely cross from Lamela was met with a shot from Dele, but it was an easy save for Foster.  Watford’s next chance came from a poor clearance by Gazzaniga which was picked up by Doucouré who found Deulofeu, but his run into the box was stopped by a foul from Sissoko, who was booked for the challenge.  Our SLO was less than impressed with the intervention by the Spurs man and let all around him know it.  Geri look the free kick himself.  His delivery was on target but an easy catch for Gazzaniga.

Foster prepares to take a free kick

Rose had another shout for a penalty when he went down under a challenge from Kabasele but, again, the challenge was soft, and the penalty was not given.  Into the last 10 minutes and Pereyra had been struggling for a while and clearly needed to be replaced.  As Quique was not getting the message, he went down with cramp and lay in the box for a while with his leg in the air, as the referee insisted that he left the field.  Eventually, he was replaced by Hughes and left the pitch, but not before he had been booked for time-wasting.  The Spurs equaliser was just heartbreaking.  With four minutes left on the clock, Foster came for a cross, failed to deal with it, it dropped to Dele, who controlled it and turned it into the empty net.  There was a VAR check to see whether there had been an offence committed in the build-up.  The referee signalled that the goal stood, and the players went to prepare for the restart.  Then the big screen indicated that the decision was ‘No Goal’.  There were lots of celebrations around me, but the players were still lined up to kick-off again and, sure enough, a new ‘decision’ appeared on the screen indicating that the goal had been given.  It was an utterly ludicrous situation.  It all got a bit heated after that.  First Rose was booked for a foul on Hughes.  Then Dele was taken down and handbags ensued, which finished with Holebas and Dele both receiving yellow cards.  The resulting free kick was hit straight into the wall.  A number around me were voicing my fear that Spurs would go on to win it, but the closest that they came to a winner was a dangerous cross from Aurier that was cleared by Dawson.  My nerves were in shreds at this point and, when a number of the players collapsed on to the pitch, it took me a while to realise that the final whistle had gone.

The Watford players must have been gutted, but they left the field to warm applause from the travelling fans.

Tom Cleverley just brilliant again

Having heard horror stories about the wait to get into Seven Sisters station after the game, and seen the barriers already in place up the street when I arrived, I decided to join the others for a post-match drink, even if, having driven to the station, I was not able to sample the beer.  It was definitely the right decision as the company was great and we caught up with some other friends that we hadn’t seen in the stadium.  The general consensus was that this had been our best performance of the season.  While Spurs had the lion’s share of the possession, the Watford defence were very well organised and Foster barely had a save to make.  All of the dangerous chances had fallen to the Hornets but, as too often this season, we had been wasteful.  A team with more confidence may have taken a couple of those shots earlier and the result would have been different.  But, in contrast to the games earlier this season, this was a gutsy performance with the players working with and for each other and it was a joy to watch.  While all the players played their part, I have to pick out Cleverley, who was absolutely magnificent yet again.  But the highlight for me was the performance of Doucouré.  He has been a shadow of his former self in most of the games this season, but on Saturday he was working hard, snapping into tackles and then starting moves, the misplaced passes that have been all too frequent this season were not in evidence.  While Spurs are on a terrible run, it is still very pleasing to come away from their ground feeling aggrieved that we only took a point.

Dawson looking unimpressed with the referee after the final whistle

I was home in time for Match of the Day and, for possibly the first time this season, I decided to watch it live.  Now I will start by saying that I was very much against the introduction of VAR.  I didn’t see the need for it and using it in a game that flows made no sense to me. Those who argued for the implementation told me that it would rule out errors.  My argument has always been that many of the decisions in football are subjective and will still be subjective when viewed at Stockley Park.  From the footage on Match of the Day it seemed clear that the challenge on Deulofeu should have resulted in a penalty.  But even worse was the equalising goal.  There appeared to be a push on Kabasele in the build-up and it was clear that Dele controlled the ball using his upper arm.  Spurs fans have argued that the ball hit his shoulder, but the footage also shows the player’s face after he scored the goal and he looked haunted.  He knew that he had controlled it with his arm and was waiting for it to be ruled out.  Those reviewing at Stockley Park would have seen all of this and the conclusion should have been that the goal would not stand.  The decision that was broadcast in the ground was that it was not a goal.  What is still not clear to me is whether they sent through an erroneous decision or whether the referee overruled the VAR official and they kow-towed.  Whichever is the case, the involvement of VAR provoked a lot more anger than would have come following a mistake by a referee.  VAR is supposed to level the playing field, but the current feeling is that it is just enforcing the ‘big club bias.’  The decisions today along with the Newcastle goal that should not have stood, but was not reviewed, are leading Watford fans to conclude that VAR is not our friend.

But I don’t want to finish on that note as, for the first time this season, I am feeling really positive.  If we continue to play as well as we did on Saturday, we won’t be in the relegation zone for long.  This was the first time that we have seen a convincing performance from the whole team.  I hope that we bring that into the Bournemouth game and have Vicarage Road bouncing again.  I will certainly ensure that I rest this week so that my ankle is up to bouncing.

A Soggy Stalemate

Welbeck and Gray waltzing with the opposition defenders

Due to evening commitments in London last week, my commuting time was at a minimum, this meant that I hadn’t listened to the “From the Rookery End” podcast.  So, I made it my accompaniment for the train journey to Watford and wished that I hadn’t.  When even the ultra-positive Colin sounds exasperated, and that game at Wolves was enough to try the patience of a saint, you know that we are in trouble.

I arrived at the West Herts later than usual to find my sister at the bar.  She had arrived early for a chat and was somewhat put out to find that I wasn’t there yet.  We joined the usual suspects at our table before the Norfolk ‘Orns made an appearance.  They were on one of their days out, which generally means an early start on the beer and shots in the West Herts.  It has to be said that they were already very jolly when they arrived, but their early start meant that there were no pork scratchings in Glenn’s goodie bag to the consternation of all.

Pereyra preparing for a corner

On arrival at the Rookery turnstiles, I was patted down by a steward, I don’t believe that has happened before.  It was noticeable that, as there was only a female steward at that end of the turnstiles, while I was being searched, the men were streaming past unmolested, which was a source of some irritation.  On arrival in the Rookery, we found, as we had for the Swansea game, a pool of water under our seats.  We asked a steward for assistance in clearing it, his solution was to tell us we could find another seat if any were available.  We had seen one of the cleaning staff with a mop and a bucket further down the stand, so I went and asked him to assist us.  This meant that we missed joining in the “Forza” display prior to kick-off.  Even after the man with the mop had done his (much appreciated) thing, the floor was too wet to place my bag down, so I was relieved when the guy that sits next to me did not appear and I was able to use his seat for my bag.  To add insult to injury, when I tried to take a photograph for the blog, I found that my camera battery was drained.  Thankfully I had a charger with me so was able to remedy the situation and just hoped that there would be something worth photographing.

Team news was that Quique had made 4 changes with Prödl, Kabasele, Pereyra and Gray replacing Dawson, Capoue, Sarr and Deulofeu.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Cathcart, Prödl, Kabasele; Holebas, Cleverley, Doucouré, Janmaat; Pereyra; Welbeck, Gray.

Challenging at a corner

Watford had a great chance to open the scoring in the 8th minute after a terrific run from Pereyra, he put in a low cross for Gray who managed to blast the ball into the Vicarage Road stand when it looked much easier to score.  Soon after, Pereyra won a corner that was taken short but eventually led to a cross by Janmaat that was headed over by Prödl.  There was almost a disaster of our own making at the other end as Cathcart turned a cross from Baldock towards his own goal, but Foster pulled off a smart save to stop it.  The visitors had another chance to open the scoring with a low shot from Fleck, but it was an easy save for Foster.  The Blades threatened again as McBurnie slid in trying to convert a low cross from Basham, but Foster was able to gather.  Doucouré got himself into a great position for a shot, but there was a body in the way of his effort from the edge of the box.  The Hornets had one last chance to take a lead into the break as Prödl met a cross from Cleverley with a header that dropped to Kabasele who tried to turn it in, but Henderson was able to make the save.

It had been an incredibly dull half of football, which had done nothing to improve my mood.  The half time celebrity guest was Alan Smart.  Being reminded of the awful season that he was involved in at this level didn’t help.  The high point for him was scoring the winner against Chelsea.  Unfortunately, the prospect of any similar results this season are currently looking very remote.

Janmaat takes a free kick

The second half started promisingly for the Hornets as a misplaced header dropped to Welbeck who powered downfield with Gray running alongside.  As Henderson came out to meet him, he decided to take the shot himself and it was blocked by the keeper.  From our perspective in the Rookery, passing to Gray looked like a better option but, given his earlier miss, the outcome may well have been the same.  The Hornets had a really good spell, which galvanised the crowd, but they couldn’t fashion a goal attempt worthy of note.  The visitors had the next chance as Robinson volleyed goalwards, but Foster was able to make the save.  Watford made two substitutions in quick succession.  Prödl limped off due to a hamstring injury to be replaced by Dawson, a great shame as the presence of Seb in the back three had been a positive.  Then Gray made way for Deulofeu.  In between the substitutions McBurnie was booked for a foul on Kabasele.  Soon after being cautioned he was replaced by Mousset.  Next there was a break in play due to an injury to Holebas.  José was down for a while being treated but, once back on his feet, he walked off the pitch while giving the evil eye to his assailant, who had my sympathy.

Foster prepares to take a free kick

The visitors made a second substitution, replacing Robinson with Billy Sharp, who was once heralded as “the answer” by a section of Hornet fans.  Flores also made a change bringing Sarr on for Welbeck.  Deulofeu impressed as he ran to keep an impossible ball in play, advanced and crossed, but it was just too high for Doucouré and Henderson was able to make the catch.  Deulofeu created a half chance as he cut in from the left and tried a shot, but it was easy for the keeper.  As the clock struck 90 minutes, a break by Deulofeu was stopped by a foul by Lundstram, who was shown a yellow card for his trouble.  The Hornets had a great chance to snatch the three points when the free kick from Deulofeu was met by the head of Dawson, but Henderson managed to make the save.  There was one final chance for the Hornets as Doucouré was urged to shoot by the crowd, but the shot from distance was woeful and nearly hit the corner flag.  So, the game ended goalless.

As I walked back to the West Herts, I bumped into another regular.  He was very philosophical, reasoning that we’ve both been watching Watford for a long time and have seen a lot worse than this.  He was right, but the current winless streak is still a great cause for concern.

Man of the Match Kabasele calling the shots

The main positive from the afternoon was that this was the first clean sheet since February.  Our defence has been dreadfully leaky and we looked much stronger with three at the back, although this improvement at the back may have been helped by the opposition being Sheffield United.  Still, Prödl had a great game, he is much more of a commanding presence at the back than either Cathcart or Dawson.  Kabasele was immense and was named man of the match by the sponsors and thoroughly deserved it.  The strikers are still struggling, but at least they are making chances and we really should have won this game.  Sadly, I have felt that after most of the games this season, Brighton and Man City notwithstanding.  Most of the teams that we have played this season have been poor to mediocre and yet we find ourselves with only 3 points from 8 games.  The big problem with this team, as many have been saying for weeks is a lack of confidence and leadership.  Troy is badly missed and you can’t help thinking that a scrambled goal or one bouncing off someone would make a huge difference.

So we go into an international break for a much needed breather and the hope that we will soon see an upturn.  My dear friend, Don, always urges us to “Keep the Faith”.  It is becoming increasingly hard.

 

Another Defeat Despite Domination

Statue of Jack Hayward outside Molineux

Having been utterly miserable after the City game, the midweek win against Swansea cheered me up somewhat, so I was in a better mood for the journey to Wolverhampton.  I left London early and met Jacque on the train.  As has been usual for recent trips to Wolves, we were to have our pre-match refreshments in Birmingham.  Our ridiculously early arrival time confirmed that, due to a late decision about where to meet, both of us had booked a train based on its scheduled arrival in Wolverhampton rather than Birmingham.  Still, by the time we got to the pub it was a respectable hour to have a drink.  The pub was actually packed due, in part, to the presence of passengers of a Midland Red bus, that was parked outside.  I assume that they were on a tour of the city and the opportunity to mix with Villa fans having a pre-match pint was too much of a temptation.  Mike met us for lunch, and then we headed back to New Street to get the train to Wolverhampton and take the short walk to the ground.  We met the rest of our party inside where we were regaled with stories of traffic delays for those who had driven.  Luckily (?) they all made it in time for kick-off.

Team news was that Quique had made four changes from the side who were humiliated by Manchester City, with Janmaat, Cathcart, Welbeck and Sarr replacing Femenía, Mariappa, Foulquier and Hughes.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Dawson, Cathcart, Janmaat; Capoue, Doucouré; Deulofeu, Cleverley, Sarr; Welbeck.  The initial reaction was that this was the team that people wanted to see.  But I was rather surprised that Welbeck was included, having played 90 minutes in midweek.  In other news, today would see the first outing of our new away kit.  I hoped that it would be lucky for us.

Holebas takes a throw-in

Watford started well and, in the first minute, Sarr found Welbeck, but the shot was wide of the target.  Wolves also had an early chance as Boly released Jiménez who shot into the side netting.  The Hornets put themselves in trouble when a short corner routine broke down allowing Neto to break at pace and play a low cross for Jiménez who shot wide of the far post.  The home side opened the scoring in the 18th minute when a low cross from Neto was turned in by Doherty.  It was yet another poor goal to give away as the defence were nowhere to be seen.  It feels as though we have seen the same goal scored against us repeatedly this season and still have no idea how to stop it.  Deulofeu tried to hit back as he cut into the box but could only shoot into the side netting.  Deulofeu threatened again from a free kick, but his delivery was headed clear.  Wolves had a chance to increase their lead as Traoré beat Holebas to put in a cross, but no Wolves player could get on the end of it.  Sarr really should have done better after receiving a ball from Deulofeu in the box, but he turned and shot well wide of the target.  The Wolves fans were shouting for a penalty as a cross from Traoré was blocked by Holebas, but the referee was unmoved by their pleas.  Welbeck got into a decent position in the box, but his shot was blocked for a corner that came to nothing.  The end of the half was dominated by a couple of lengthy stoppages for injuries to Wolves players, but there was one final chance for the Hornets to draw level as Cleverley flicked a pass to Sarr in a dangerous position but, yet again, the shot was blocked.

Pereyra takes a corner

The half time whistle went to sighs of resignation in the away end.  It hadn’t been pretty.  Watford had had more of the possession but were ponderous and reluctant to shoot.  In contrast, Wolves were quick on the break and the Watford defence always looked vulnerable. The home side had scored with the only on-target shot of the half.

Looking at things off the field, I couldn’t help but notice that the stand behind the goal at one end and half of the other have been converted for safe standing.  It looked great and it will be interesting to see whether this becomes commonplace.

At the break Deulofeu was replaced by Pereyra.  The Hornets started the second half quite brightly.  Pereyra put in a lovely cross that Holebas met with a header that was blocked by the Wolves keeper, the first time he had been called into action.  The ball dropped to Cleverley, who tried to turn it in, but Rui Patricio was able to get a foot to it and put it out for a corner.  The corner summed up our afternoon as Pereyra’s delivery didn’t even make it onto the pitch before it flew behind the goal line.  Wolves had their first chance of the half as Neto broke forward but shot straight at Foster and was immediately replaced by Gibbs-White.

Waiting for the delivery at a corner

The Hornets had dominated the start of the second half, so it felt cruel when, on the hour mark, a cross from Doherty was flicked on by Gibbs-White, and Janmaat turned it past Foster.  There appeared no way back at that point.  Holebas tried to hit back with a shot through the area that flew just wide of the near post.  It was unsurprising to see José pick up the first booking of the game for a foul on Traoré.  Flores made his second substitution with twenty minutes to go as Sarr made way for Gray.  Andre made an immediate impact and the Hornets had a great chance to pull one back when Welbeck received a ball from Gray and unleashed a shot that required a decent save from Rui Patricio to keep it out.  Wolves had a chance to score a third as Traoré put a deep cross over to Jonny but he could only find the side netting.  Wolves made a second substitution bringing Cutrone on for Jiménez.  The substitute had a chance to make an immediate impact as he charged toward the Watford goal, but was stopped by a wonderful sliding tackle from Foster.  At the other end, Gray made a break into the Wolves box but his shot was poor and straight at the keeper.  Doucouré then tried his luck with a low shot from the edge of the area, but it was an easy catch for Rui Patricio.  There was one last chance for the Hornets as a corner from Holebas reached Welbeck but he could only head over the bar.  Santo made his final change bringing Neves on for Traoré.  There were three minutes of added time, which were rather soul destroying as, despite Hornets having plenty of possession, they just played it around on the halfway line with the Wolves defence happily lined up in front of them.  The final whistle went to half-hearted boos from a few among the Watford following, but most of us just felt as defeated as the team.

Holebas and Pereyra lining up a free kick

As there is nothing to stay in Wolves for, we made a rapid retreat to the station to get the train home and we bumped into a couple of fellow Hornets.  There was a lot of head shaking and failure to understand what is going wrong this season.  Our team still looks great on paper, but we continue to fail to attack with enough intent or defend convincingly.  On the evidence of the games so far, most of the teams in the Premier League are pretty poor (the obvious exception notwithstanding), but we have been unable to beat any of them.  The consensus was that we are desperately missing Deeney as there is no leadership on the pitch, which is a very sorry state of affairs.  It is difficult to see how we will turn this around, but football is a confidence game and maybe we just need a few balls to drop kindly and a couple of shots to creep inside the post for the belief to resurface.

As I left work on Friday, I had a chat with one of my colleagues about our chances for the weekend.  He reminded me that going to football was supposed to be fun.  He is so right and, sadly, the games really aren’t fun at the moment.  I hope that changes very soon.

Capitulation at the Etihad

Captain Mariappa

When I sent out the e-mail to our group asking who wanted tickets for this game, I couldn’t help noticing that there were more apologies for absence than usual.  I can’t say that I blamed them as the memory of the cup final is still rather raw and, given our start to the season, this was not a game that I was looking forward to.

I left London at a reasonable time and was joined on the train by Jacque when we reached Milton Keynes.  One topic of discussion was the no bag policy that we had heard about the previous day.  I don’t know how they expect people travelling for over two hours each way not to bring any possessions with them.  Luckily, I was staying overnight in Manchester, so was able to drop my bag (and Jacque’s) off at the hotel.  Despite it being a warm sunny day, I left the hotel carrying a waterproof coat which had pockets filled with the essentials for the game (notebook, pen, camera, purse, lipstick).  We then headed to meet up with the rest of our party for lunch.  On arrival, I was surprised to see Pete there.  I was sure that he had declined the invitation.  Sure enough, he had made a late decision to travel following the tremendous second half against Arsenal last week.

While enjoying lunch, I realised that I had left my distance glasses in my rucksack at the hotel, so I headed back to retrieve them.  Not the smartest thing that I have ever done.  Once they were in another of my pockets, I joined the others at the pub.  We left plenty of time to get to the ground.  The first tram leaving was packed and there was a father with a young boy on his shoulders standing near me.  I heard the father comment, “Maybe you’ll see six goals.”  I couldn’t help but exclaim, “Oh, I do hope not.”  We then had a chat and, as is usually my experience in Manchester, he was lovely.

Dawson, Capoue and Deulofeu preparing for kick-off

On arrival at the ground, we saw Mick, our Police liaison, and I asked how many bags he was looking after.  It seemed that there had been no issues by that point, which was a relief.  It seemed that the stewards were being pragmatic regarding the policy, so some bags did make it into the away end.

Team news was that Quique had made two changes from the Newcastle game with Foulquier and Mariappa in for Gray and Kabasele.  Clearly the selection of Foulqier, for his debut, in place of Gray was not a direct swap, Femenía was pushed forward and Deulofeu was to play alone up front.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Foulquier, Mariappa, Dawson, Holebas; Doucouré, Capoue; Femenía, Cleverley, Hughes; Deulofeu.  Again. there were some puzzled reactions to the team selection, but the Arsenal game meant that Quique had a lot of brownie points.

When we took our seats in the away end, I noticed that we were very close to the home fans on our left.  I then turned and realised that they were almost as close on the right.  I don’t know how many Watford fans travelled, but it appeared to be a very small group.

Gathering for a rare Watford corner

A couple of seasons ago, a late departure from the pub and a delay on the tram meant that we missed Sterling scoring in the first minute.  On this occasion, we were comfortably in our seats when De Bruyne crossed for David Silva to finish past Foster to open the scoring.  Watford had a chance for an immediate equaliser as Deulofeu ran into the City box, but Ederson saved at his feet.  Deulofeu threatened again, beating Otamendi before dinking a shot that deflected wide off the City keeper.  We weren’t to know it at the time, but that would be pretty much it for our chances.  The second City goal came after 7 minutes.  Mahrez had the ball in the box, he was running out of space and the ball was rolling out for a goal kick, but Foster had committed himself and took him down, so the referee pointed to the spot.  Agüero stepped up to take the spot kick and powered the ball down the middle while Foster dived.  It got even worse on 12 minutes after Doucouré fouled Mahrez on the edge of the box.  The Algerian took the free kick himself, the Watford wall parted, but the ball took a deflection off one of the defenders and beat Foster for City’s third.  At this point I bemoaned the fact that we are not allowed to take hip flasks into football stadia, as I definitely needed a shot of something strong.  The fourth City goal came from a corner which was flicked on to Bernardo Silva who stooped to head home.

Femenia takes a throw-in

We were 5 down after 18 minutes when Agüero put a low cross in for Otamendi to finish at the back post.  It could have been 6 after 25 minutes as Agüero broke forward, but Foster narrowed the angle and the shot was wide of the far post.  When Watford won a free kick after a foul on Cleverley, the travelling Hornets sang “We’ve got the ball.”  Sadly, we didn’t have it for long as Deulofeu’s delivery was straight into the arms of Ederson.  There was an immediate break from the home side, and I feared the worst, but Agüero’s shot took a ricochet off Foster for a corner.  Flores made his first substitution on 33 minutes cutting Foulquier’s debut short as he was replaced by Pereyra.  Fair play to Don Fraser who was still shouting encouragement to the team at this point.  On 38 minutes the Hornets had a rare foray into the City half, Deulofeu’s shot was blocked, the ball fell to Pereyra who could only win a corner that came to nothing.  The home side impressed again as a perfect cross field pass from Fernandinho reached De Bruyne who crossed for Agüero whose header was saved by Foster, Mahrez picked up the loose ball and crossed for Bernardo Silva who headed just wide.  There were three minutes of added time at the end of the half.  Every second was agony, but at least there was no further score.

Abdoulaye Doucoure

At half time, I noted that City had had 6 shots on target and scored 5 of them.  This looked like it could be a record score, although the scoreboard looked as though it couldn’t display double figures, so we could end up back at 0-0.

City made a change at the break bringing Angeliño on for Mendy.  It appeared that the second half would also see a goal in the first minute, but Walker’s shot was high and wide.  Sadly, the sixth goal wasn’t long in coming as, three minutes into the half, the Watford defence went missing yet again and the ball bounced around the Watford box before Bernardo Silva scored his second.  At the break, Pete had come to stand in the row behind us.  I expected the guys who had been there to return, they didn’t and a good few more departed after this goal.  Guardiola made a second substitution as Cancelo replaced Walker.  City should have scored a seventh when they won a free kick in a dangerous position, but the delivery from De Bruyne flew just over the bar.  Flores made his second substitution bringing Sarr on for Hughes.  The Hornets were then shown two yellow cards in quick succession, first Deulofeu was booked after a foul on Rodrigo, then Femenía was cautioned for a foul on Bernardo Silva.

Proof that we had a corner in the second half

The seventh goal came on the hour mark as De Bruyne crossed to the far post and Bernardo Silva finished from close range to seal his hat trick and claim the match ball.  At this point the City fans very reasonably asked, “Why are you still here?”  Pete’s comment was, “For the same reason that you would be.”  City’s final substitution saw Garcia come on for Otamendi.  Mahrez should have scored the 8th with a header that rebounded off the bar.  As City claimed the rebound an exasperated shout of “Get the second ball” came from behind me.  I think that was the least of our problems at this point.  The City fans were having fun with the group to our right taunting the group to our left with, “Where were you when we were sh*t?”  I have to admit that made me smile.  There was a brief moment of quality possession from the Hornets as Sarr found Cleverley who played in Deulofeu but he could only win a corner off the keeper.   Soon after, Gerry was replaced by Gray and you have to ask what Andre had done to deserve being put into the fray.  Just before the substitution the ball had flown into the Watford crowd.  There were shouts of “keep it” and it was a while before it was returned, eliciting boos from the away end.  A chant from the travelling Hornets of “7 nil and you still don’t sing” was countered with “We only sing at 6 nil.”  Ouch!!  De Bruyne, who had been a menace all afternoon, finally got his goal with five minutes left on the clock as his shot from the edge of the area hit the top corner.  He should have had a second soon after as he ran through the Watford defence before shooting just wide.  There was a half chance for a consolation as a Holebas throw was headed goalwards by Gray, but it was an easy catch for Ederson and a goal would have been more than the Hornets deserved.

Etienne Capoue

The final whistle finally went to put us out of our misery.  There were a surprising number of Watford fans still in the ground as the players came over to thank us and the majority of fans applauded them back.  Not for anything impressive in their performance, but more in empathy as that cannot have been any more fun for them than it was for us.  Pete was asked whether he regretted his late decision to attend the game but reasoned that he was much happier to have been there than he would have been if he had listened to it on the radio.

On the way back to the City centre, Ashley was checking the scores in the other games and a City fan asked if he knew the Stevenage score.  It turned out that this lad had managed Stevenage in Football Manager and taken a shine to them.  In a couple of weeks, when City are playing Wolves, he is giving his season ticket to a friend so that he can see Stevenage play in Colchester.  He also consoled us with, “We only scored two more than we put past United.”

As we sat in the pub after the game, it felt more like a support group than anything else.  Between us we could not find any positives to take from the game.  While City had been very good, Watford had been utterly dreadful.  This is a team that has long struggled with confidence and it was clear that it had completely drained from them as soon as the second goal went in.  I still think that we are a much better side than our results indicate, but we need to start showing that against Swansea in midweek and then at Wolves.  Otherwise, I may finally find myself deciding to stay in the pub instead of heading to the ground.

 

Fun in the Sun with Flores

Quique back in the Watford dug-out

I hate it when matches are moved to a Sunday.  It completely changes the pattern of the weekend and is very disconcerting.  However, the change of time for this game did have the benefit that I was able to take up the offer of hospitality for the Ashes game on Saturday.  Although I must admit to checking the fixture list while on the train to the Oval, just to make sure that Watford were not playing.  I was further reassured when I spotted Johnno in the queue for the coffee.  I was desperate to ask him his opinion on the changes at the club but resisted as I didn’t want to spoil his day.

As usual when there is a change in routine, I wasn’t sure what time to arrive in the West Herts.  I aimed for soon after 1pm and was pleased (and unsurprised) to see Don and Jacque already at our usual table.  Needless to say the primary topic of conversation was the change in head coach.  The departure of Javi had seemed inevitable after the Newcastle game, but it was very sad.  He has left us with some very happy memories, not just of the football but of what a lovely man he was.  He will always have a place in my heart.  The return of Flores was a total shock.  He was another lovely chap and his season was a lot of fun, but it had run out of steam in much the same way that Javi’s did, so I wondered what extra he had to offer and had been feeling a bit numb about it all last week.  One benefit of his return was that we wouldn’t have to learn a new song for the head coach.

Rita and GT

There was an added poignancy to the occasion as the game was taking place on what would have been GT’s 75th birthday, so I made the effort to say hello to his statue before the game.

Team news was that Quique had made three changes from the Newcastle game with Holebas, Capoue and Deulofeu in for Cathcart (who was injured), Janmaat and Pereyra.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Kabasele, Dawson, Holebas; Doucouré, Capoue; Hughes, Cleverley, Deulofeu; Gray.  The selection caused some puzzlement among the inhabitants of the West Herts.  The decision not to put Welbeck on the bench elicited a lot of comment.

But, as we took our seats in a packed Rookery to see the teams take the field to Z-cars (hoorah!), the atmosphere was very positive and the crowd was soon chanting the name of Quique Sanchez Flores.

Gathering for a corner

The game started brightly enough for the Hornets who created an early chance as Deulofeu curled a shot from the edge of the box, but it was straight at Leno in the Arsenal goal.  The visitors created their first chance soon after, but Özil’s free-kick was headed clear by Dawson.  Watford had a great chance to take the lead in the 11th minute as Cleverley hit a powerful shot that required a flying save from Leno to keep it out.  From the corner, the ball reached Cleverley again, but his curling shot was easily caught by Leno.  Watford had another chance as a gorgeous cross-field pass found Deulofeu on the wing, he played in Holebas, but the shot was poor.  At the other end, Guendouzi released Pépé who advanced and shot wide of the far post.  The visitors took the lead in the 21st minute.  Hughes appeared to be fouled in the midfield and the Watford players stopped, anticipating the whistle, while Kolašinac broke forward before finding Aubameyang who fired past Foster.  While the Watford players protested, the goal was (presumably) checked via VAR and was confirmed, to loud boos from the Watford faithful.  It was a devastating blow as the goal had been totally against the run of play.  Sadly, as has happened far too often, this seemed to drain confidence from the Watford players and a terrible pass from Kabasele allowed the visitors to attack again, this time the shot from Aubameyang was deflected for a corner.

Handbags

The Gunners were two up after 31 minutes as Özil played in Maitland-Niles, who squared for Aubameyang who had an easy tap in for his second.  It was a decently worked goal, but the Watford defence had gone completely missing and the game looked lost.  Watford had a chance to pull one back as Femenía crossed for Hughes, but the shot was poor and flew wide of the near post.  A mistake from the visitors almost gifted the Hornets a goal, but the shot from Deulofeu was blocked and the follow-up from Gray hit the side netting.  The first booking of the game went to Kolašinac for a poor foul on Hughes.  Sadly, the free kick from Holebas was straight at Leno.  It all looked very promising when Deulofeu went on a dangerous run, but he was pushed wide and ran out of space.  Just before half time, there was a bit of handbags which led to Holebas and Guendouzi being booked.  We could see that José was complaining about an elbow. TV pictures showed that this had come from Pépé, which started the melee, but the instigator escaped without punishment.  The half time whistle went to a chorus of boos aimed at the officials.

At half time, I was feeling utterly miserable.  A friend came for a chat.  She is normally very measured and level-headed, so I was a little surprised to hear her say that we were being cheated out of the game but, judging by the half time boos, there were many that agreed with her.

Doucoure congratulates Cleverley on his goal

I cheered up a little when Jay DeMerit appeared as the half time guest.  He spoke about how the “Rise and Shine” film (on which I am credited as an Executive Producer) had led to a number of ventures including camps for youngsters that combine sporting pursuits with leadership training.  It was lovely to see him back at Vicarage Road.

The second half started with a run from Femenía that finished with a cross that was an easy catch for Leno.  Then Deulofeu found Hughes who, under challenge, put his shot over the bar.  A promising move by the Hornets finished with a dreadful shot from Doucouré, which drifted out for a throw.  The Hornets pulled a goal back on 53 minutes after a dreadful mistake from the visitors.  Leno tried a short goal kick to Sokratis, he was challenged by Deulofeu, the ball broke to Cleverley who finished past Leno to raise the temperature at the (already rather warm) Vic.  Suddenly all was right with the world and there was a new confidence both on the pitch and in the stands.  Immediately after the goal, Flores made his first change bringing Sarr on for Gray.  This would be interesting (we hoped).  There was another caution for the Hornets as Femenía was booked for a foul on Özil.

Pereyra enjoys the cheers from the Rookery

Deulofeu had a great chance to level the game after cutting in from the left, but his shot was just wide of the far post.  Femenía then tried his luck with a shot from the right, but it cleared the bar.  Emery made his first substitution bringing Willock on for Ceballos.  The visitors had a rare second half chance as Aubameyang tried a shot from distance, but it was easily dealt with by Foster.  Just after the hour mark, Flores made his second change replacing Hughes with Pereyra.  There was an absolutely gorgeous chance for an equaliser as Deulofeu played the ball through the legs of Guendouzi to Sarr who turned and shot just wide.  He may have missed the target, but that brought a huge smile to my face.  Femenía then went on a threatening run and put in a great cross, Pereyra met it with a back heel that rolled wide of the target.  Arsenal made a second substitution bringing Torreira on for Guendouzi.  Deulofeu had another chance to level the score, but his shot was deflected wide.  The corner was deep and just too high for Kabasele whose header was wide of the target.  Emery made his final substitution replacing Özil with Nelson.  The substitute almost made the perfect start, but his shot from outside the area was easily gathered by Foster.  There was danger for the Hornets as Doucouré lost out allowing an Arsenal break, but he redeemed himself by regaining the ball with a great tackle in the box.  This allowed the Hornets to mount a break of their own which finished with a shot from Deulofeu but, again, it was straight at the keeper.

Sarr in the Arsenal box

Flores made his final substitution replacing Holebas with Janmaat.  Arsenal had a chance to increase their lead through a powerful shot from Torreira, but Foster was equal to it.  Instead, at the other end, Pereyra was tripped by Luiz and the referee pointed to the spot.  From the middle of the Rookery it appeared that the foul had taken place outside the box, so we held our breath as the referee checked with his mate at VAR headquarters, when he received the verdict and pointed to the spot we cheered, then remembered that Deeney was injured.  Pereyra stepped up and placed the ball on the spot, sent Leno the wrong way and hit the back of the net sending the Watford fans wild with joy.  There were nine minutes remaining at this point and the Hornets were going for the victory as Janmaat played a lovely cross to Cleverley whose shot was blocked before Deulofeu hit the rebound just wide.  Cleverley then received a pass from Doucouré and hit a shot that was deflected over the bar via the head of Luiz.  The corner was played out to Janmaat whose shot was high and wide.  Arsenal had a rare chance as the ball was played to Xhaka at the back post but he couldn’t control.  Cleverley had a shot blocked allowing Willock to break but Capoue pulled him over and was booked for his trouble.  From the free kick, Willock made his way into the Watford box and I had a horrible feeling that all our heroics would be for nothing, but Kabasele was on hand to stop him shooting.  There was one final chance for the Hornets to snatch the victory as Doucouré went on a tremendous run before exchanging passes with Sarr but his shot was low and easily caught by Leno.

Holebas takes a corner

The final whistle went to rapturous cheers.  As the players applauded the crowd, Quique’s name was being sung and he responded with a broad smile and an enthusiastic wave.

There were broad smiles among the crowd who gathered at the West Herts.  It seems that I wasn’t the only one who had been miserable at half time, as Jacque mentioned that she had seriously thought about going home at that point.  Of course, she didn’t and was rewarded with a thoroughly enjoyable game.

The second half had been a sustained onslaught on the Arsenal goal, but I was still surprised to hear that we had 31 shots on goal, something that would have made GT very happy. It was a tremendous performance all round.  Deulofeu, who I often find incredibly frustrating, had a wonderful afternoon and was a constant threat to the Arsenal defence.  Pereyra was another who was on his game and was a joy to watch.  Cleverley was absolutely magnificent, running the show and he deserved more than the one goal.  But it was probably the introduction of Sarr that ultimately changed the game.  He is clearly an incredible talent and his presence meant that there was finally an outlet for the excellent build-up play that has been a feature of most of our games this season.  A couple of his moves were just a joy to watch and I am really looking forward to seeing more from him.

What a difference a couple of weeks makes.  My report from Newcastle was among the most miserable that I have written, but Sunday’s game reminded me why I go to football.  It was a joyous afternoon of football and showed what this team can do.  Despite the slow start, I am now much more confident for the rest of the season.  Well, maybe after we get the Man City game out of the way.