Tag Archives: Jose Holebas

Tears, Hugs and a Wonderful Win at Wembley

The pre-match display at Wembley

My build-up to the semi-final had been less than ideal as I had woken up in the middle of the night after the Fulham game with a streaming cold and felt rotten for the rest of the week.  For this reason, it seemed sensible to have a quiet Saturday at home to prepare for the game.  Big mistake.  I don’t know how many times I checked the fixture lists to confirm that the game wasn’t actually on Saturday and I was missing it.  I felt jumpy all day and settling down to watch the other semi-final didn’t help.  Sadly, that game was a non-event.  City scored early and that was it.  It was a very dull game but provided confirmation that we would be playing for the chance to meet City in the final.  My viewing on Saturday evening had to be carefully chosen and I opted for “I Believe in Miracles” the documentary about Clough’s Forest and their run to becoming European Cup winners.  It was just brilliant and set me up nicely for the next day (after I watched the segment on the Premier League show featuring Gracia, Deulofeu and Luther).

So, finally, the day of the FA Cup semi-final dawned, and I was up bright and early and facing the dilemmas that come on the day of an important match.  What top should I wear under my replica shirt?  What mug should I use for my coffee?  I was tempted to use my Hornets mug, but eventually plumped for the Luther8 one.  It seemed only right.  On social media in the morning there was a lovely exchange between Nigel Gibbs and Tony Coton about going to the game and the fact that they had bought tickets to be in with the fans.  Legends, both of them.  It had also been heart-warming to see Woking FC wishing us luck.  It was where the journey began.

The 1881 Singing Section

After ensuring that my (regulation size) bag was packed with everything that I would need (don’t forget your tickets) and that my lucky seashell from Woking was still in my pocket, I left to catch the train to London.  On the first leg from Windsor to Slough I noticed a guy looking at me, but assumed it was my loud scarf that had attracted his attention, so didn’t take much notice.

On arrival at Paddington, I spotted a flash of yellow, turned and realised it was actually the old gold of Wolves, so walked on.  My journey to our meeting place took me past Marylebone, which was surrounded with Wolves fans.  The first Watford scarves that I spotted were outside the designated pre-match pub and worn by the friends that I was meeting.  We had arrived before opening time and quite a crowd was gathering, so we were thankful that Richard had booked a table for us.  As we waited, some Wolves fans appeared and were absolutely lovely.  None of us was confident of a win, but all thought that it would be a good game.

As our group gathered, it was an occasion to remember absent friends.  Dee and Toddy were both with us on our last visit to Wembley and their absence was keenly felt.  We hoped that the lads would do them proud.

Gomes and Deeney

After we had been fed and watered, we left in plenty of time to get to Wembley as I had one final ticket to drop off and, after an easy journey, we were outside Entrance P.  I immediately bumped into Adam to hand over the ticket and then saw that the rest of our party, who had come from the Watford direction, were all in the queue just in front of us.  At this point, all was right with my world.

As we took our seats, Farzana handed out the A4 bags that she had made from Watford FC curtains and we draped the Rocket Men and Golden Gomes banners in front of our seats.  She had also knit Gomes and Deeney dolls, but sadly they were too large to bring into the stadium so had been left at home.  As we waited for kick-off, it was lovely to see our Emma and Tim on the pitch representing Watford.

We then got to see the pre-match displays.  The one planned by Wolves had been advertised the previous day and it had looked as though it would be impressive.  When we got to our seats, we found yellow flags.  I was concerned that they were a little too much on the amber side and it wouldn’t be a match for what Wolves had planned.  Then the Watford crowd started waving the flags and the yellow, red and black display with the movement was absolutely fantastic and the energy meant that the Wolves display looked far too static.

There had been a lot of discussion about the possible team selection, especially the goalkeeping position.  When the starting XI was announced, we found that Gracia had kept faith with Gomes and had decide to bring Gray in for Deulofeu after his terrific performance against Fulham.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Gray, Deeney.

Gathering for a corner

The game started brightly for Wolves who had their first chance on 23 seconds with a shot from Otto that flew over the bar.  Watford won an early corner, but Ruddy was up to punch it clear, Pereyra picked up the ball and put in a cross, but Ruddy made the catch.  Wolves then won a free kick in a dangerous position after Hughes fouled Otto.  Moutinho stepped up to take it and it landed on the roof of the net, much to my relief.  The first booking of the game went to Saïss for a foul on Pereyra.  Wolves threatened again as a cross from Otto was touched on by Jota, but they couldn’t get a shot away.  Neves was the next to go into the referee’s book, again for a foul on Pereyra.  Holebas took the free kick, but Hughes met it with a dreadful mishit shot that sent the ball ballooning away.  Some nice passing between Gray and Pereyra led to the ball reaching Deeney on the edge of the area, but his shot was high and wide of the target.  Watford should have taken the lead on the half hour as Deeney flicked the ball over to Gray who, with only Ruddy to beat, got his foot under the ball and it looped over the bar when it looked easier to score.  That miss looked all the more costly as Wolves took the lead soon after.  A shot from distance from Dendoncker was tipped over by Gomes.  The resulting corner was played short to Jota who crossed for Doherty to head past Gomes.  Wolves had their tails up now and threatened again as Boly found Jota who advanced and, thankfully, shot just wide.  Watford then had a corner which they also took short, but Femenía’s cross was a comfortable catch for Ruddy.  Gray had a chance to grab an equaliser just before half time, but this time Coady made the block when Gray looked sure to score.  So we reached half time a goal down, feeling rather hard done by after what had been an even half of football.

Heurelho Gomes at Wembley

Luther was the Watford representative at half time.  I still look back with sadness at seeing him walk around the pitch before the 1984 Cup Final, which came at the end of his gap year.  We passed our time in the stands enjoying half-time samosas to keep our strength up for the rest of the game.

Wolves nearly had a great start to the second half as Saïss played a ball over to Jiménez, who beat the defence, but not Gomes who was down to make the block.  Watford created an opening as Femenía crossed for Doucouré, but the Frenchman couldn’t make a firm connection, so his header looped wide.  Jota then beat Cathcart (I know!!!) before crossing for Jiménez, but the shot was easy for Gomes.  Deeney then got the ball just outside the box and played a low cross, but it was too heavy and flew past Gray and wide of the target.  The first booking for the Hornets went to Cathcart for a foul on Jota just outside the box.  Neves took the free kick which flew well wide of the far post.  Watford then had a free kick in a dangerous position, Pereyra’s delivery reached Deeney who headed just wide.  Watford had another decent chance to equalise as Pereyra played a through ball to Gray, but the shot was poor and over the bar.

Pereyra takes a free kick

Holebas received his booking of the afternoon for stopping a break by Jota.  From the free kick, Jiménez took the ball down and poked it past Gomes to put Wolves two goals ahead.  So frustrating to concede again after a really good spell for the Hornets.  There was still half an hour to go, but it wasn’t looking good for the Hornets.  We hadn’t taken our chances and it looked as though we would be punished for it.  Gracia made his first substitution bringing Deulofeu on for Hughes.  Soon after, while waiting for a throw-in, there was an announcement that a VAR check was underway for a red card.  Nobody had any idea what this related to until my brother-in-law, who listens to the commentary during the game, said that it was due to Deulofeu putting his head into Moutinho’s face.  It had looked rather innocuous from where we were sitting and, thankfully, the decision was not to show a card.  There was another identical announcement soon after, I have no idea whether it was related to the same incident, but it was extremely irritating.  Watford threatened again when Gray got on the end of a cross from Femenía, but again it was headed over the bar.  There were then a number of half chances for the Hornets.  Deulofeu put in a cross which Ruddy gathered under challenge from Doucouré.  Holebas crossed again for Doucouré, but his shot was blocked.  It had been a good spell, but we just didn’t look like we would get the breakthrough.

Deulofeu goes to celebrate with Deeney after the penalty

Then a throw-in from Holebas was knocked back to Deulofeu, it didn’t look particularly dangerous for the opposition until Gerry nonchalantly lifted the ball into the top far corner.  It was a gorgeous goal out of nothing and suddenly it was game on with 10 minutes remaining.  Watford’s next chance came from a corner, the delivery from Holebas was good, but it was headed behind for another corner.  This one was flicked on by Deeney to Holebas, but his shot was blocked.  Wolves made their first substitution as Bennett replaced Neves.  Watford threatened again with a great cross from Kiko, but Ruddy just got to it.  Then the ball fell to Holebas in a great position, but he blasted it over the bar.  It wasn’t going to be our day.  As Wolves made a late substitution, replacing Jota with Cavaleiro, I prepared myself for defeat.  But, when the four minutes of added time was announced, I joined with my fellow Watford fans in roaring our encouragement to the team.  Then, just as the four minutes were almost up, Deeney got the ball in the box and fell under a challenge from Dendoncker.  Referee Oliver continued his habit of awarding late, dramatic penalties, but this one had to wait for the VAR review.  I was beside myself at this point.  After what seemed like an age, VAR confirmed the referee’s decision.  Luckily, I was able to take a seat to watch it, as my legs were jelly.  Troy’s weren’t, he stepped up and the ball hit the net in front of us and the crowd went properly wild.  Screams and hugs and tears greeting the goal we thought would never come.  The game restarted, but the whistle soon went for the end of normal time and we had earned ourselves another 30 minutes.

Holebas prepares for a corner

I have to say that we thoroughly deserved that.  A draw seemed like a fair result, and surely the Hornets would have the momentum going into extra time.  However, it was the Wolves side who had the upper hand in the early exchanges and the first goal opportunity came from a decent shot from Otto that Gomes managed to tip over.  There was some bad news for Watford as Holebas went down injured.  He tried to carry on, but eventually limped off to be replaced by Masina.  I was concerned at this point as Holebas had been terrific.  There was another booking for the Hornets as Capoue was cautioned for a foul on Dendoncker.  Santo made another substitution as Traore came on for Moutinho.  Then, in the last minute of the first period of extra time, Watford broke forward, Gray released Deulofeu who beat a defender before shooting into the far corner past Ruddy to send the Watford fans wild again.  Wolves tried to hit back immediately, but their break was foiled by a great tackle from Mariappa.  The resultant corner was easily gathered by Gomes.   There was a substitution for each side as Vinagre replaced Otto for Wolves and Femenía made way for Janmaat for the Hornets.  Wolves had a chance to level the game but the header from Jiménez flew wide of the near post.  Then the goal hero, Deulofeu, picked up an injury and had to be replaced by Sema.  Watford tried to consolidate their lead as Deeney got into the box and tried to lay the ball off to Doucouré, but the pass was intercepted.  Then Traore tried a shot from a tight angle, but it was an easy catch for Gomes.  Wolves had one last chance to take the game to penalties, and it was a great one, as Cavaleiro beat Mariappa and rounded Gomes, but Heurelho did enough to put the Wolves man off and he lost control of the ball allowing Mariappa to clear the danger.  The whistle went to euphoria mixed with disbelief in the Watford end.  There was a lot of tearful hugging among our group.  I couldn’t quite believe what I had seen.  Amelia was the clearest thinking as she commented that maybe they should rethink the Man of the Match award (that had been given to Jiménez some time before the end of normal time).

The family at the semi-final

After the game, there were rapturous celebrations both on and off the pitch.  We stayed in the stand to cheers the lads on and witness their joy.  It was lovely to see that this meant as much to the players as it did to us.  The cheers of the fans who had remained in their seats were finally rewarded as the players came together to rush towards the crowd behind the goal.  It was just joyous.  We seemed to be there for an age, but it still took us a long time to leave the ground as we kept bumping into friends for more hugs and expressions of disbelief.

A number of us headed back to central London for a celebratory beverage and to raise a glass to Dee and Toddy who would have loved the day.  There was nothing but pride in the team and what they had achieved against a very good Wolves side.  The Wolves fans that we had met before the game had returned to the pub and, as they left, wished us well.

I stayed rather longer in the pub than was sensible, so missed the last train from Slough to Windsor.  As the taxi dropped me off at the end of my road, I heard a voice.  “Excuse me.  Were you at Wembley today?  Is that your car with the Watford stuff in the back?”  It was the guy that I had seen on the train this morning.  Turns out I am not the only Hornet in my small street in Windsor.  Who knew?

Golden Gomes

A day later and I have still not quite come to terms with what I witnessed yesterday.  To come back from two goals down against a team like Wolves shows the tremendous spirit in this team.  They seem to be a group of players who love each other and the manager and that love has transmitted to the fans.  This has been the best season that I can remember for decades and it will end with an FA Cup final at Wembley.  As someone who has supported an unfashionable team for 40 years, I find it amazing that in that time I have been to six FA Cup semi-finals.  On 18th May, I will attend my second FA Cup final and will be accompanied by a large group of family and friends.  I have met so many lovely people while following the Hornets and it is really special to share these great times with them.

When Watford lost the Play-off final in 2013, my niece Amelia was in tears and I was devastated.  Yesterday she was in tears again, but they were tears of joy and it made the day all the more special.  Her Mum and I were at Villa Park for the semi-final against Plymouth and at Wembley for the final against Everton.  Now we will all be at Wembley for this year’s final and we can dare to dream.  Whatever the outcome, this season will live long in the memory.

Ole, Andre

Cathcart and Capoue

Having had to work on a planned day off last week, I decided to recoup some of that time by leaving early for the game.  On checking into the hotel in Watford, the manager commented on my scarf, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there was a match in town that evening.  The bar man, a fellow Hornet, joined in the conversation and said that he was sacrificing this game in order to be able to go to the semi-final.  It seemed like the right choice to me.  We had a chat about our prospects at Wembley and then I headed to the West Herts.  I arrived to see that Don’s car wasn’t in its usual place, which caused me a momentary panic, until I saw him sitting in his usual place inside.  Some interloper was in his space when he arrived.  Poor show indeed.  I settled down with a pint and to anticipate the evening ahead.  This was an odd prospect as, playing struggling Fulham, it should have been a game to enjoy, but every moment would be analysed with Sunday in mind.

On the walk along Vicarage Road, we found ourselves among Fulham fans who, given that a defeat would relegate them, were chanting, “The Whites are going down … and now you’re gonna believe us.”

Pre-match speculation was that certain key players would be rested, possibly to be brought on during the game if needed.  Needless to say, Gracia did the unexpected with the four changes from Saturday being the entire back four reverting to what most would consider to be our first choice.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenia, Cathcart, Mariappa, Holebas; Doucouré, Capoue, Hughes, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney.  I had everything crossed that there would be no injuries.

Celebrating Doucoure’s goal

As it is the 25th anniversary of the formation of Kick it Out, tonight was Watford’s game dedicated to the cause and the “No room for racism” message was all over the hoardings.  Sadly, recent events show that this message is needed now more than ever.

The first chance of the game went to the visitors as Mitrović got his head to a cross and diverted it wide of the target.  At this point, the Fulham fans were in very good voice indeed.  The first chance for the Hornets came on 15 minutes as Pereyra tricked his way into the box, but his shot was blocked.  The visitors had a great chance to take the lead as Babel played a lovely ball over to Sessegnon in the box, but the Fulham youngster was unable to connect.  Some rushed play from the Hornets allowed the ball to reach Mitrović whose shot was easily gathered by Foster.  Watford then had a great chance to break the deadlock as Femenía broke forward before crossing for Deeney but the header was wide of the near post.  The Hornets took a somewhat undeserved lead on 23 minutes as Doucouré picked up the ball, ran to the edge of the box and hit a sweet strike into the near corner of the Fulham net.

Holebas prepares for a corner

The next action of note came 10 minutes later and was an equaliser for the visitors as Sessegnon found Babel who rounded the onrushing Foster to score.  It was frustrating, but no more than the visitors deserved.  The Fulham faithful greeted the goal with “We are staying up” followed by “We’ve f*cking scored”.  Fair play to them.  This was greeted with a round of applause from the Rookery, as we’ve all been there.  The visitors threatened again as a bit of head tennis in the Watford box led to the ball falling to Babel whose shot was blocked.  Sessegnon had a great chance to grab the lead after a break, but his shot was easy for Foster.  The visitors looked sure to take the lead after Deulofeu overplayed and gave the ball away allowing them to break but, when he looked sure to score, Mitrović totally mishit his shot which flew high and well wide of the near post.  The first booking of the game came late in the half as Mariappa was booked for a foul on Mitrović.  The half time whistle was greeted with boos from some Watford supporters.  Granted it had been a poor half of football from the Hornets, but all of our minds were on the semi-final on Sunday, so it was a ridiculous reaction.

The half time guest was Marco Cassetti, who immediately apologised for giving away the penalty in the play-off final against Palace.  There was another penalty that he didn’t need to apologise for, given what it led to.  Knockaert’s dive was shown from multiple angles before we got to enjoy the terrific goal from the play-off semi-final.  He said what a great memory that was and how it makes him smile.  He seemed a bit baffled when the conversation turned to the subject of his beard.  It was lovely to see him back to hear how much he enjoyed his time with us.

Gracia made a double substitution at the break bringing Janmaat and Gray on for Pereyra and Deulofeu.

Will Hughes has his eyes on Babel

Janmaat’s first contribution was to earn a booking for a foul on Cairney.  Watford had an early chance to regain the lead when a cross from Holebas was headed on towards his own goal by Chambers and Rico had to stretch to tip it over and save his teammate’s blushes.  Holebas caused more problems for the Fulham defence, winning a free kick that he took himself which had to be punched clear by Rico.  A lovely exchange of passes between Janmaat and Gray ended with the Dutchman bearing down on goal, but Rico came out to smother the ball and was injured in the process.  Babel came to complain to the referee, trying to get Janmaat booked, which seemed harsh as he had every right to go for the ball.  Doucouré had a chance to grab a second goal, but took too long to take the shot and it was blocked.  Gray was the next Watford player to try his luck, but his shot from distance deflected wide.  My neighbour in the Rookery had been nervously bemoaning the fact that the players were acting as though they had already won the game.  His nerves were eased somewhat when a corner was headed clear to Hughes who belted a volley past Rico from outside the box.  It was a terrific goal and very welcome.  Fulham had a half chance to break back as an awkward header from Mitrović had to be tipped over the bar by Foster.

Celebrating Deeney’s strike

On 69 minutes, Watford made the scoreline a bit more comfortable as Gray broke forward before cutting the ball back for Deeney to score Watford’s third of the evening.  It may have been Deeney who applied the finishing touch, but the crowd was chanting “Olé, Andre.”  Harry the Hornet’s goal celebration was a little too enthusiastic and led to some repairs being needed for the corner flag.  At this point, the visitors made their first substitution replacing Ream with Seri.  Watford could have increased their lead as Doucouré found Holebas whose shot was pushed around the post by the keeper.  I swear that, as he walked in front of the Rookery to take the corner, Jose was smiling.  With 15 minutes remaining, Gray turned provider again, this time for Femenía, who scored Watford’s fourth and surely confirmed Fulham’s relegation.  Despite the comfortable lead, the home side continued to attack and Hughes got into a great position, but chose to tee up Gray whose shot was deflected wide.  At this point, Gracia made his final substitution bringing Quina on for Capoue.  Needless to say, every time the youngster got the ball there were shouts for him to shoot.  The visitors had a chance to pull a goal back as Mitrović found Seri whose close range shot was stopped by a brilliant save from Foster.  There was a second substitution for the visitors as Babel made way for Schürrle.  Watford threatened again as a lovely cross from Janmaat was met by the head of Doucouré, but Rico was equal to the effort.  Scott Parker made a final change with McDonald coming on for Cairney.   Gray had another chance to add a goal to his assists, but the keeper was down to make the save.  As the clock reached 90 minutes, Holebas earned his inevitable booking.  I am not sure whether it was for the foul on Sessegnon or his reaction to being penalised, but he risked further censure by refusing to speak to the referee.  Eventually Deeney had to take him over and make the peace.

A group hug among the goal scorers

The full time whistle went to terrific celebrations from the Watford faithful.  It was a testament to his contribution after coming on that Gray was named the man of the Match, a decision that went down well with the home crowd.  At the other end of the ground, a banner announcing “Fulham Relegation Party” was being waved.  I must admit to some regret at our relegating Fulham as it is a club that I like and I love going to Craven Cottage, but the win was needed both to keep up our fight for seventh place and to give us some momentum before the FA Cup semi-final on Sunday.

It was an odd game.  After a poor performance in the first half that seemed to result from the players not wanting to get hurt, they went for it in the second half and we were royally entertained.  Gray was everywhere, with the two assists and plenty of chances to score himself.  It was a very positive performance indeed.  At the same time Wolves were beating Man Utd, so also going in to the weekend on a positive note.  Sunday will be a very interesting game.  Two evenly matched teams who both play decent football.  It should be entertaining, whatever the result.  But I am really hoping that it is a repeat of our performance at Molineux, which was superb.  I am also hoping to get at least a few hours sleep between now and the game, but that is not guaranteed.

We have to be loud and proud on Sunday.  This is our best chance of reaching a cup final since 1984 and I would love my youngest sister and nieces to experience that as Rose and I did all those years ago.  These are the days that we dream about.  They should be savoured and I, for one, with endeavour to enjoy every minute.

Heurelho Helps Us to Wembley

The GT Stand before the game

I had to travel to the US for work again this week.  Leaving after the City game and returning on Thursday morning, meant I didn’t have too much time to prepare for this match.  The crucial thing was not forgetting the paper ticket that had been sent out.  This was taken with me to the US as I was scared that jet-leg would lead to me leaving it in a drawer.

Due to the early kick-off, I decided to stay in London overnight on Friday.  On waking, and before I had really had time to think about my plans for the day, the nerves had already kicked in.  I caught the 9:24 from Euston to Watford and settled down with a coffee while noting that others on the train had already started on the beer.  Contemplating which podcast should accompany me, I decided to have another listen to the previous week’s From the Rookery End.  If I needed any more inspiration for the day, the rallying cry from the Parkin men, Mike and Arlo, certainly did the job.  As I passed Wembley on the train, I stared at the arch.  The new stadium hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for us, but that has to change one of these days and I wanted the chance to return (although I wish it wasn’t for a semi-final, those should be at Villa Park).  When the train emptied at the Junction, as it often does, it made a nice change to see that those disembarking were fans of football rather than Harry Potter.

Heurelho Gomes

I reached the West Herts a few minutes before the doors were due to open at 10 and there was already quite a crowd waiting.  When the doors opened, we took up position at ‘our’ table and were soon enjoying a pint and a bacon roll.  Breakfast of Champions.

Just to spite us, the clock there was running 30 minutes slow, but we noticed early enough to ensure that we left in plenty of time.  As we walked along Vicarage Road among the crowds, the anticipation built.  I noted that Wolfie had already sold out of programmes and hoped that my usual lady still had some left when I entered the ground (she did).  As we turned the corner into Occupation Road, I glanced over at the statue and knew that I had to greet GT.  I went over and took his hand, knowing that today would be a day he would have savoured.

The 1881 had put incredible efforts into making sure that there would be a tremendous atmosphere.  When we took our seats, the ground was already full of people waving flags.  The big screen was showing footage of earlier quarter-finals.  I enjoyed watching John Barnes lobbing Tony Coton in 1984, but it is the Arsenal game in 1987 that always comes to mind.  I loved that day out at Highbury.

Jose Holebas on the ball

The Palace fans had been given their required allocation, no more, no less.  Due to problems with segregation in the Vicarage Road end, this meant that the Palace fans were housed in two blocks in the stand with a netting area between them and a banner wishing the Hindu community Happy Holi India for their festival on Thursday this week.  It was an odd sight and one that had infuriated the visiting fans.

Team news was that Gracia had chosen what most would consider to be his strongest team with the exception of Gomes coming in for Foster for what would probably be his last game at Vicarage Road.  What a game to go out on.  It was interesting that Femenía had been chosen in place of Janmaat, who had done well recently.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney.  The major news for Palace was that Zaha would miss the game through injury.  While he is undoubtedly a very talented player, he often seems to go missing.  So I wasn’t sure that his absence would have a major effect on the game, although it may have changed Harry Hornet’s game plan.  Of course, the lovely Ray Lew was back at Vicarage Road in the opposition dug out.  He managed us through times of penury, but still took us to an FA Cup semi-final.  He will always be a legend to me for that.

As the teams came out, the flags waved in the home stands, there were streamers and the Legends banner was unfurled from the Upper GT stand, meaning that Nigel Gibbs found himself sitting under his picture.  That had to be a good omen.

Doucoure and Pereyra

My niece, Maddie, had enjoyed the Leicester game so much that she made a late decision to come to this one.  Her seat was in a part of the Rookery away from the rest of us, but she hung around just in case one of the seats in our section remained unoccupied.  That didn’t happen, but the crowd in the Rookery forgot to sit down, so the extra person in our row was not apparent and we were able to enjoy the match together.

The game kicked off and the Rookery were in good voice singing “Is that all you take away” to the Palace fans, before launching into “Heurelho Gomes baby” for our veteran keeper.  He was in action early in the game as the first goal chance fell to the visitors as Townsend played the ball back to Milivojevic whose shot was saved by Gomes, although it was off target anyway.  Watford’s first action of note came from a free kick, Holebas floated it into the box where McArthur took Hughes down, but the referee. Kevin Friend, waved away our appeals for a penalty.  After a quarter of an hour, there was a break in play as the players burst a number of red and blue balloons that were invading the pitch in the corner in front of the Family Stand.  Having found a pitchfork somewhere, Harry joined in with some enthusiasm.

Capoue giving thanks for his goal

Watford’s first chance of the game came as Deulofeu burst into the box and shot from a narrow angle, but the Palace keeper, Guaita, stood tall and blocked the shot.  Palace won a free kick in a dangerous position, but Gomes rose to make a comfortable catch.  Watford then had a spell when they were in and around the Palace box, but couldn’t fashion a shot on target.  Instead we won a series of corners and, as each one was repelled, I hoped that we wouldn’t regret missing those chances.  Then, from yet another corner, the ball fell to Capoue and he knocked it into the net to send us all crazy.  Just what we needed to settle the nerves a bit.  The Hornets could have had a second as Deulofeu advanced into the box and hit a gorgeous shot but Guaita did brilliantly to get a hand to it and keep it out.  The first booking of the game went to Milivojevic for a foul on Hughes.  Watford had another great chance to increase their lead as Deulofeu hit a free kick over the wall, but Guaita was down to make the save.  Palace made a rare foray into the Watford half as Townsend broke forward, but was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Holebas who was injured in the process.  Thankfully, he was able to continue after treatment.  Palace had a chance to equalise just before half time as Wan-Bissaka chipped the ball to Meyer but the shot was weak and easily gathered by Gomes.  The visitors had one last attack in time added on but Deulofeu was back to make a superb tackle on McArthur and avert the danger.  An unexpected and very welcome showing in defence from young Gerry.

Holebas and Pereyra line up a free kick

So we went into half time in a deserved lead.  It had been a dominant performance from the Hornets, who were not giving their opponents any space to play.  We should really have been further ahead, but I was happy with what I had seen.

Half time and the first talking point was a hornet onesie that was being worn by a woman in the Rookery.  It was an interesting fashion choice.  Back to the official entertainment and the special guest was Tommy Smith who was asked about his appearances in previous cup quarter finals.   His goal from the game against Burnley was shown, I couldn’t help remembering that Ray Lew then left him out for the semi-final after Chopra’s heroics in another game against Burnley.  Tommy had also played in the game against Plymouth in 2007 (as had Mariappa).  I had forgotten that game, until he mentioned it.  It was truly dire.

 

A tremendous showing by Femenia

Watford had to make a substitution at the break as Holebas was unable to continue, so was replaced by Masina.  The Hornets had the first attack of the second half as a poor goal kick from Gomes was rescued and flicked on to Deulofeu who put in a decent cross, but nobody was on hand to connect with it.  Then a Palace corner was flicked goalwards by Meyer, but Gomes pulled off an excellent save to deny him.  Masina was booked after taking Meyer down soon after executing another robust challenge.  Townsend took the free kick and it was on target, but Gomes tipped it over the bar.  Batshuayi should have done better when he received a ball from Schlupp, but he knocked it wide of the near post.  He did much better soon after as Mariappa dwelled on the ball instead of clearing it, the Palace man nipped in to dispossess him and shoot across Gomes into the opposite corner to draw the game level.  It was a howler from Mariappa, who would have been devastated given his history at Palace.  At this point, the nerves set in with a vengeance again.  Surely Palace wouldn’t snatch this from us.  Watford had a chance to regain their lead as Deeney played the ball back to Deulofeu but his shot was straight at the keeper.  The Hornets had another great chance as Guaita punched a cross from Masina only as far as Pereyra, his shot was saved but Doucouré could only put the follow-up over the bar.

Deep in conversation after Gray’s goal

Gracia then made his first unforced substitution bringing Gray on for Hughes.  I dare not say it out loud, but my mind was screaming “super sub!”  A lovely exchange of passes deserved a better finish than a cross from Doucouré that was too heavy and went out for a goal kick.  The second goal for the Hornets was a thing of beauty as Pereyra dinked a ball over to Gray who finished past Guaita sending the Watford fans crazy again and also giving us the opportunity to see a Gomes celebration in front of the Rookery for what may well be the last time.  With 10 minutes remaining, I was hoping that we would hold on, but the visitors then won a free kick in a dangerous position.  I held my breath as Milivojevic stepped up to take it, my joyous shout of “into the wall” may have been stating the obvious but it indicated my profound relief.  Hodgson made a substitution at this point, replacing McArthur with Benteke.  Watford could have grabbed a third, but Deeney’s powerful shot was parried by Guaita and Wan-Bissaka managed to clear as Deulofeu closed in on the rebound.  The Hornets had another great chance as Cathcart met a corner with a header that was cleared off the line by Milivojevic.  Gracia made his final change bringing Cleverly on for Deulofeu who left the field to an ovation and some laughter as, when the referee went over to tell him to speed up his departure from the pitch, he innocently turned and shook his hand.  As the clock reached 90 minutes, the visitors had a chance to take the game into extra time when a corner reached Tomkins, who seemed to be taken by surprise and turned it wide of the near post.  Late into time added on and the visitors really should have been level as the ball fell to Wan-Bissaka and we watched despairingly as his shot appeared to be heading for the opposite corner before rolling wide.  I noted something in my notebook at this point, but my hand was shaking so much that it is totally illegible.  When the whistle went to confirm our place in the semi-final, Vicarage Road erupted with joy.

Harry Hornet in his Superman cape

I was distracted at the sight of Harry Hornet running on wearing a Superman style cape, so missed the moment when Gracia warmly embraced Gomes.  The keeper was then hugged by Deeney and it was apparent that he was in tears.  The crowd were cheering him on and he was very emotional in his response.  It was lovely to see the mutual respect between the player and the crowd.  Finally, as he always used to, he brought his sons on to the pitch to enjoy the applause with him.  While this was going on, the tannoy had Que Sera Sera playing and the Watford crowd were singing along with gusto.  It was all fabulous.

Normally we stay to applaud the last player off the pitch, so the stands are empty by the time we leave (everyone is in Occupation Road).  It is a mark of how much this win meant that when the pitch emptied the stand was still full and, for the first time in years, we had to wait to leave our row.

As we reached the Hornet shop we noticed that they already had t-shirts commemorating the semi-final in the window.  Being a sucker for that sort of thing, we all went in and bought the shirts.  Then came out and had a family photo with GT.

A family photo with GT

When I finally got back to the West Herts, my group were happily sitting outside celebrating the victory.  It is hard to analyse a game when the result is all that counts, but it had been a great performance from the Hornets and the win was well deserved.  Deeney may not have scored, but he had put in a great Captain’s performance which was noted by us all.  I have to say that I had almost forgotten how good Femenía is, he had a tremendous game and certainly justified his inclusion.  While enjoying our celebratory beers, I had a quick read of the BBC online match report and was a little taken aback to see a comment to the effect that the win mean that we had reached “only” our sixth semi-final.  Actually it is our seventh, but we are a small town club and to have reached seven semi-finals is actually a tremendous achievement.  I am still pinching myself.

When I finally decided to head for home, the walk through the town centre to the station was to the sound of Watford fans singing Que Sera Sera.  It was a lovely feeling.

The draw for the semi-final took place when I was in the car driving home this afternoon.  When Alan Green announced that Watford were playing Wolves, I screamed with relief.  They will not be easy opponents, they are a very good side.  But at least we go into the game knowing that it is winnable and that is all that you can ask at this stage.  Troy has been on the losing side in a previous semi-final at Wembley and he will certainly not want to repeat that experience.  It should be a great day out.

I am still buzzing after that win.  Over the past 40 years, I have many wonderful days following the Hornets, but also some very miserable ones.  We go week in, week out, sometimes travelling a long distance to see our team badly beaten, but days like this make it all worthwhile.  There is a tremendous spirit around the club at the moment, so I hope that we can sell out our allocation and roar the boys on to a cup final.  That would be a fitting end to what has been a wonderful season.

40 Years On

Gerard Deulofeu

I am normally pretty irritated when our games are moved to stupid times for television, and it has to be said that there is no more stupid time for football than midday on a Sunday.  However, on this occasion, I was actually quite pleased as it meant that I would attend a game on the 40th anniversary of my first matchday at Vicarage Road.  On that occasion, Chesterfield were the visitors for a third division game.  My friends and I went to the Wimpy for lunch before the game (a great treat in those days), we won the game 2-0 with goals from Ian Bolton and Ross Jenkins and I was officially hooked.

Work commitments in the US meant that I was unable to go to Liverpool for the midweek game.  I must say that, as I followed the game from afar and the goals started going in, my regret at not being at Anfield dissipated a little.  This is only the second league game that I have missed this season, in those games we have failed to score while conceding nine goals.  I will do everything within my power to ensure that I am ever present from now until May.

Etienne Capoue

Given the early start, I decided to forego a pre-match beer and head straight for the ground.  All the more time to spend with the family, a particular pleasure on this occasion as my niece, Maddie, was making a rare visit to Vicarage Road.  I had given her my season ticket seat and intended to sit in the vacant seat of a friend who couldn’t make it, but one of our neighbours kindly moved and we were able to all sit together.

Leicester’s decision to dispense with the services of Claude Puel and appoint Brendan Rodgers meant that this was the third home game in a row in which we would face a former manager.  It also ensured a better atmosphere than may have been expected on a Sunday lunchtime as Mr Integrity returned to Vicarage Road.

Team news was that Gracia had made just the one change with the return of Holebas from suspension meaning that he took the place of Masina.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart, Mariappa, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu and Deeney.  After the away team was announced, Tim Coombs asked the Watford fans to give a big welcome to our former manager, which had the predicted response of a loud chorus of boos.

Deeney looks pretty happy to have opened the scoring

The Hornets started brilliantly and should have taken the lead in the second minute when Mariappa met a Holebas free kick with a shot from close range that Schmeichel did brilliantly to stop, the follow-up from Deulofeu was deflected wide.  But the Hornets were not to be denied for long and in the fifth minute Deeney rose to meet a free kick from Deulofeu and head past Schmeichel.  That certainly settled the early nerves.  Our first indication that we would have a typically torrid time with Jon Moss came in the 13th minute when the referee deemed a challenge from Mariappa on Vardy as deserving of a yellow card.  Vardy then found himself in the wars again as he and Foster came for a free kick and collided heavily.  They were both down for a while with Foster taking the longer to recover.  When Ben finally sat up he looked into the television camera that was directly in front of him and stuck out his tongue.  I breathed a sigh of relief at that point.  Leicester then had a dominant spell but the only chance of note came as Ricardo played a ball across the penalty area for Chilwell to cut back for Barnes who shot high and wide of the target.  Watford had a good chance to score a second goal, as Capoue released Deeney who put in a decent cross for Doucouré, but the Leicester defenders stopped the shot.  The Hornets fashioned another chance as Pereyra found Deulofeu who went on a run into the box but could only shoot straight at Schmeichel.  At the other end Ricardo put in a low cross that looked dangerous until Mariappa met it with a powerful clearance that went out for a throw.  Watford had the last chance of the half as a long pass released Pereyra who crossed for Deeney, but there were two Leicester defenders in attendance who stopped him getting a shot in.

Holebas takes a free kick

So the half time whistle went after a really decent half of football that was quite unexpected as Sunday lunchtime television games are not exactly known for their entertainment value.  The game had gone in waves of possession, but Foster had yet to make a save.

The players had warmed up for the game wearing shirts showing the Man of Men which is the symbol for the Prostate Cancer UK charity.  Mike Parkin of the From the Rookery End podcast was on the pitch at half time talking about the charity.  Last year he did the March for Men, which I did a couple of years ago, in order to raise funds for research into prostate cancer, a disease that has affected his father as it has friends and family of mine so it is a cause very close to my heart and I was delighted to see the efforts at this game to raise awareness of a horrible disease that affects so many men.

 

Deeney waiting for the ball to drop

The visitors had the first chance of the second half with a shot from distance that was straight at Foster.  The first chance of the half for the Hornets should have led to them increasing their lead as Pereyra played the ball out to Doucouré on the edge of the box, he hit a gorgeous shot that needed a brilliant one-handed save from Schmeichel to keep it out.  Jon Moss was increasingly attracting the ire of the Watford fans as he blew up for a series of innocuous looking fouls (by the Hornets) while waving play on for infringements from Leicester that looked far more obvious.  The annoyance was compounded when he booked Capoue for a nothing foul.  At this point, the Leicester fans decided to serenade Troy with a chorus of “Troy Deeney, what a w*nk*r.”  Troy just laughed and applauded them.  There was another clash of striker and goalkeeper, this time a ball was played over the top to Deeney, Schmeichel came out to clear and they collided.  Troy was booked which seemed harsh as he had every right to go for that ball.  Both teams made their first substitution within minutes of each other and, in each case, a player called Gray took the field, in the place of Barnes for the visitors and Deulofeu for the Hornets.  Gerry looked very unhappy at the decision.  Leicester came close with a speculative shot from Ndidi that rebounded off the crossbar.

Doucoure, Hughes and Cathcart gathering for a free kick

Watford fans were shouting for a free kick as Deeney was fouled, at least I believe a big defender leaning on your back is a foul, Jon Moss clearly does not, so waved play on allowing Tielemans to release Vardy who broke forward and chipped Foster to get the equalizer.  At this point the nerves really set in and I was sure that Leicester would get a winner.  Rodgers made a double change with Tielemans and Vardy making way for Mendy and Iheanacho.  The visitors having drawn level, Moss relented and finally awarded a free kick to the Hornets and booked Pereira for a foul on Deeney, decisions that earned the referee an ironic standing ovation from the Watford fans.  The visitors threatened to get a winner with a dangerous looking cross from Chilwell, but Foster was down to make a comfortable save.  They had another decent chance as Morgan met a cross from Maddison but the header was wide of the target.  Gracia made a final change bringing Cleverley on for Hughes just as the fourth official held up the board indicating that there were four minutes of added time.  Following the equaliser, Leicester had looked the more likely winners, but it was the Hornets who snatched a late goal as Deeney played a lovely ball through to Gray and, with the Rookery screaming encouragement, he shrugged off the attentions of the defender and finished past Schmeichel to send the home fans into a wild celebration.  Our little group were bouncing up and down in a lovely family group hug.  Gray was booked for taking his shirt off.  It was worth it.  My heart was pounding for the remainder of the added time, but the final whistle went and the celebrations started again.

As the referee left the field, he was roundly booed by the home fans.  It was no more than he deserved, but it annoyed me as we should have been cheering our lads after that win.

A family of Watford fans

Back to the West Herts for a post-match pint.  I had been warned that, prior to the game, “our” table had been taken over by a group of Scandinavians.  It turns out that this was a large group of Norwegians who were old friends of Don, who had met them on a pre-season tour of Norway in the early 80s, which was when he had first met his good friend, Trond (now a Watford resident and season ticket holder).  One of the visitors had been to our match at Kaiserslautern, so these were not tourists jumping on the Premier League bandwagon at Watford.

Consensus after the game was that we would have lost that one last year … and the year before … and probably the year before that.  Leicester had more possession during the game, but the Watford defence had been steadfast, restricting their shooting opportunities such that, the goal apart, Foster wasn’t tested.  The Hornets played some lovely football and it was Schmeichel who had made the more impressive saves.  Deeney put in a superb Captain’s performance that was capped with his goal and assist.  What has been particularly pleasing this season is that the second half slump has not materialized.  We continue to be challenging opposition for (almost) all of our opponents.  We now have 43 points and look likely to surpass all of our previous premier league totals making this a season to remember and cherish.

The forty years that I have been watching the Hornets have provided me with some incredible experiences.  Our small town club has punched above its weight for most of that time and given us a team to be proud of.  I have met many lovely people, made great friends and have so many happy memories.  But one of the loveliest things is to see the next generation of fans coming to games.  So many of my friends and those who sit around me in the Rookery are now bringing children and grandchildren to games and sharing the joy with them.  Our family group is one of those and the highlight of this game for me was seeing our Maddie celebrating the goals.  She may not go very often, but she is definitely a Watford fan.  It proves the adage that you can take the girl out of Watford, but you can’t take Watford out of the girl.

Winners in the South Oxhey Derby

Celebrating Forster’s goal in the U23 game

 

I was still at work when the draw for the fifth round of the FA Cup took place.  When Chelsea were pulled out of the bag to play at home, I was convinced that we would be the next to be drawn.  When the next ball was Man Utd, I celebrated almost as much as I did when we were paired with Portsmouth/QPR.  I was thankful that the office was almost empty at this point.  I would have been happy to play either team.  Both are clubs with passionate support and are great grounds to visit.  But QPR won the replay to set up what I am told is called the South Oxhey Derby.

But, before the visit to Loftus Road, I took the afternoon off work to travel to Finchley to see the U23s play Charlton.  As the U23 games are played in the afternoon, I haven’t managed to make it to the new venue, so this was a great chance to do so.  It was a gorgeous afternoon and I made the most of the opportunity to stand on the side of the pitch, although I had to shade my eyes to see the left hand goal.  It was a disappointing afternoon for the youngsters.  They went one down early on, but Forster got an immediate equaliser and it looked very positive until the visitors scored a second before half time.  Watford never looked like getting back into the game and Charlton scored two in the second half, one of which was a cracking shot from distance.  I left the Maurice Rebak Stadium hoping that would be the only defeat that I witnessed that day.

Lucky cup sea shells

Due to the pubs in the vicinity of Loftus Road nearly all demanding to see a QPR home ticket before allowing you in, our party met at a pub near Edgware Road in order for me to hand out the tickets.  You have no idea how many times I checked my bag to ensure that I hadn’t misplaced those precious tickets.  Having done my Stan Flashman bit and had a nice glass of Malbec, I was ready for the game.

Team news was that Gracia had made five changes with Gomes, Kabasele, Britos, Cleverley and Gray coming in for Foster, Mariappa, Cathcart, Doucouré and Deulofeu.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Janmaat, Kabasele, Britos, Holebas; Hughes, Capoue, Cleverley, Sema; Deeney and Gray.  This looked to be a very good side and one that should be more than able to beat QPR.   But this was a cup game so all bets were off.  It was also Gomes 38th birthday, so I was hoping that, having to work on his birthday, he would have something to celebrate.

After taking our seats in the upper tier, Pete, Alice and I retrieved the lucky shells that we had been given at Woking for a group photo.  These things are important.

Prior to kick-off there was a minute’s applause for Gordon Banks who passed away this week.  It has to be said that nobody waited for the referee’s whistle to start the tribute.

Birthday boy Gomes in front of an advertisement for Pepe’s Chicken on Watford High Street

The first notable incident of the game was a clash of heads between Britos and Smith.  Both players were down for a while, so it didn’t look good.  Thankfully, both recovered after treatment, Smith returning with a bandage around his head.  There was nothing even resembling a goal chance until the 24th minute and that was a horrible scramble in the Watford box that ended with Kabasele being hit in the face, thankfully he was able to recover and the ball was cleared.  QPR threatened again from a free kick, but Gomes emerged from the crowd to claim the ball.  Watford’s first chance came when Janmaat, unrecognisable due to a very severe haircut, broke into the box and tried to play a one two with Sema, which didn’t quite come off but the ball broke back to him and he hit a shot that flew just over the bar.  An ill-advised back pass led to Gomes conceding a corner, which he came out to punch clear, but it fell to Luongo who shot just wide of the target.  QPR had another chance to take the lead as a cross into the box was headed wide by Smith but the flag was up anyway, so it wouldn’t have counted.  Kabasele then came to the Hornets’ rescue blocking a dangerous looking shot by Smith.  With five minutes to go until half time, QPR had the best chance of the game so far as a sloppy pass from Holebas was intercepted by Freeman who ran upfield before flicking the ball to Wells whose shot had to be tipped around the post by Gomes.  Rather surprisingly, the Hornets took the lead in time added on at the end of the half.  Sema played a short corner to Holebas who crossed for Cleverley whose horrendous mishit turned into an assist as it found Capoue who shot into the far corner.  The celebrations of the travelling Hornets were joyous, but still not a patch on the celebratory run from Gomes.  I have missed seeing his goal celebrations this season.

Deeney and Gray in position at a set piece

So we reached half time a goal to the good after a half that had been short on excitement.  Watford had completely dominated possession, but had spent most of the half passing around the midfield without threatening the Rangers goal.  QPR had been more attacking, but they had also only managed a single shot on target.

The home side had a great start to the second half creating a couple of early chances, but both shots flew well wide of the target.  There was a let off for the Hornets as a terrible clearance from Kabasele went straight to Wells but his shot was wide of the target.  Sema then provided some entertainment, demonstrating silky skills on the left of the box before finally winning a corner.  The delivery was headed out but only as far as Cleverley whose shot was well over the target.  QPR made their first change on 71 minutes bringing Hemed on for Wells.  Watford had a great chance to score a second when Deeney played a lovely through ball for Gray who had rounded the keeper when he noticed that the flag had been raised, he put the ball in the net anyway.  The offside decision looked marginal at the time and television pictures suggest that the goal should have stood.  The first booking of the game went to Luongo for a foul on Sema.

Cleverley lines up a free kick

With 15 minutes remaining, Watford made a double substitution with Mariappa and Doucouré coming on for Sema and Gray.  Mariappa’s first act of the game was to get booked for a foul as he obstructed Freeman.   QPR made a second substitution bringing Eze on for Wszolek.  Watford threatened to increase their lead with a deep free kick from Holebas, but Kabasele could only knock it wide.  Each side made a final change with Quina coming on for Cleverley for the Hornets and Osayi-Samuel replacing Hall for Rangers.  The Rangers substitute went on a good run that was stopped by Doucouré who was booked for his efforts.  The professional foul was nearly in vain as, from the free kick, Furlong played the ball along inside the box to Leistner who really should have scored the equaliser, but managed to miss the target.  As the clock ran down to full time, Deeney gave us all a smile as he dribbled down the wing and ended up having to run around the lino in his efforts to keep the ball in (which he did).  The four minutes of added time passed without incident and the final whistle went confirming that the Hornets were through to the quarter finals.

As a game it wasn’t a classic, but in the cup all that matters is the result.  Watford were livelier in the second half and the introduction of Doucouré added a dimension that we had been missing.  But, discounting the disallowed effort from Gray, there was no on-target shot from either side in the second half.  So, in the end it looked like job done from the Hornets.  We haven’t been playing great football recently, but we are not conceding many goals and so are proving hard to beat.

We headed back to Baker Street for a celebratory glass of wine.  We are now in the quarter final of the FA Cup with a great chance to progress further given a favourable draw.  Sitting in the top 8 of the Premier League and now in the last 8 of the FA Cup, this is proving to be a very good season indeed.

The Return of Silva

Deeney versus Keane

The return of Marco Silva to Vicarage Road had been hotly anticipated, although his recent on-field problems had led to many Watford fans being concerned that he may be sacked before they played us.  There had been some negative reports in the press relating to a fans forum that had taken place in a London pub during the week.  These related to some very innocuous comments that Deeney had made when asked whether the players knew what the Everton game meant to the fans.  He basically said that the fans shouldn’t have a go at Everton as it would motivate them, but that the players would do the job (I’m paraphrasing here).  He was also very positive in talking about Richarlison, saying he had done nothing wrong.  Sadly the language that he had used was a little ripe, so the reports built his comments into an attack that provided a rallying cry for Everton, which was a shame as it was nothing of the kind.  On the subject of that forum, Scott Duxbury, Fillippo Giraldi and Troy Deeney came along to a London pub on a Wednesday night to answer questions fired at them from a crowd of fans.  This took place in a crowded bar and I have to give credit to them all for coming along and answering all of the questions openly and honestly.  It was a tremendous evening.

Saturday and we were back to the West Herts for our only home game in February.  While we may be only occasional visitors at the moment, it is always lovely to gather at ‘our’ table and the beer and jerk chicken were both excellent.

Holebas takes a throw in

Team news was that Gracia had made just the one change from the Brighton game with the welcome return of Doucouré in place of Cleverley.  I must admit that I was a bit disappointed to hear that Femenía hadn’t even made the bench.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart, Mariappa, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Sema; Deulofeu and Deeney.  This would be Holebas’s 100th appearance for the club.  Everton’s starting XI included Richarlison, the announcement of whose name was met with a mixture of boos and applause.  Emma Saunders then welcomed Marco Silva back, which elicited only boos.  On the way into the ground I couldn’t help noticing how many fans had turned up with plastic snakes.

As the teams came out, the “Audentior” banner was raised over the middle of the Rookery.  We were under this when the announcement was made of a minute’s appreciation for Emiliano Sala, which was honoured with applause from those of us under the flag.

Deulofeu orchestrates proceedings

Watford had a great chance to take the lead in the 10th minute as Janmaat crossed for Deeney who chested the ball down to Capoue but the shot from close range was turned over the bar by Pickford.  At the other end a dangerous cross from Richarlison was headed clear by Mariappa before it could reach Tosun.  Richarlison went down rather too easily (nothing new there) to win a free kick.  Digne’s effort reached Keane who headed goalwards, but it was an easy save for Foster.  The visitors had another chance as Zouma latched on to a cross from Digne, it was a much better header but Foster was equal to it.  At the other end a cross from Hughes went straight to the keeper.  Watford then made problems for themselves as a misplaced pass, while trying to clear the ball, led to Tosun gaining possession, thankfully his powerful shot was stopped by Foster.  Watford then had a chance as Deulofeu crossed towards Hughes, but Zouma intervened and headed over the bar.  Deulofeu threatened again, this time his shot was blocked.  Watford could have taken the lead in the last minute of the half as Pickford dropped a free kick, but they couldn’t capitalise on the mistake so the half ended goalless.

Steve Sherwood was the guest for the half time draw.  He will still have nightmares over a certain game against Everton, so it was very gratifying to see the incredible reception that he was given as he walked along the front of the Rookery.  He looked very happy as he applauded the fans back.

Goal celebration with Chalobah very happy for Gray

At the start of the second half, Gracia replaced Sema with Gray, a positive move.  Everton had the first chance of the second half with a shot from Sigurdsson that hit the top of the crossbar.  Holebas then tried his luck with a shot from outside the area that flew wide of the far post.  A deep corner from Holebas caused Pickford some concern, but the ball bounced off an Everton player for a corner which wasn’t given as the referee believed there had been a push on the keeper.  Just after the hour mark, the visitors made their first change bringing Walcott on for Gomes.  Watford had another decent chance with an angled shot from Holebas that flew just wide of the target as Deeney was bearing down on goal but couldn’t quite reach it.  The goal came on 65 minutes and started with a gorgeous pass by Cathcart to Hughes who put in a low cross for Gray to power past Pickford from close range and send the Hornets fans wild.  Marco Silva was then serenaded with a chorus of “Sacked in the morning.”  Before the restart, Richarlison was replaced by Bernard and left the field to a chorus of “50 million, you’re having a laugh.”  I must say that I felt sorry for young Ricky.  He had started brightly enough, but soon found himself in Holebas’s pocket and was reduced to falling over looking for sympathy which quickly elicited the opposite reaction.  Deeney received the first booking of the game for a challenge on Zouma.

Doucoure and Janmaat taking a breather

Watford had a chance to grab a second when a Holebas corner was cleared to Mariappa whose shot cleared the bar.  Silva made another change with 15 minutes remaining, bringing Calvert-Lewin on for Sigurdsson.  Everton attempted to hit back as a cross from Walcott found Tosun, but his shot flew wide of the target.  Gracia made his second substitution bringing Cleverley on for Deulofeu, who had had another frustrating afternoon.  Holebas received his 10th booking of the season for a push on Walcott.  It was needless and means that we will lose him for two games, just when he is in such tremendous form.  The resultant free kick rebounded off the top of the crossbar, but it had never looked likely to trouble Foster.   Zouma wrestled Hughes off the ball in midfield, which was completely within the laws of the game according to Lee Probert, so he was allowed to break upfield and cross for Calvert-Lewin who, thankfully, headed wide of the target.  Gracia made his final change in the last minute of normal time, bringing Chalobah on for Hughes.  There were four minutes of added time during which Everton had a couple of chances to gain a point.  First a free kick from Digne was headed goalwards by Calvert-Lewin, but Foster was behind it.  In the last minute of added time, Bernard crossed for Tosun whose header looked as though it was flying in, so there were a lot of very relieved Hornets when the ball cleared the bar, although Tosun was in an offside position so any goal would have been disallowed, but we didn’t know that as our hearts raced.

Deeney, Cathcart and Capoue gather for a corner

The final whistle went to tremendous celebrations among the Watford fans, who belted out “Javi Gracia, he’s better than you,” with a renewed vigour.  Mariappa came over, as he usually does, and gave his shirt to a young fan, before a tremendous fist pumping celebration that showed exactly what this win meant.  As icing on the cake, Zouma, who had been a niggly and unpleasant presence during the game, had words with the referee after the final whistle and earned himself two yellow cards and a sending off.

As we walked along Vicarage Road away from the ground, we could see something going on by the Everton coaches.  There was a crowd by the cemetery wall looking in and first reports were that there had been a stabbing, although that was proved wrong after the game.  But two Watford fans were hospitalised, one with a nasty head injury.  As someone who started to go to football matches in 1979, these scenes were seen on a weekly basis in those days but had become a rarity in recent times.  I really hope that it remains that way.

That was a sad end to what had been a good day.  It hadn’t been a classic game by any stretch of the imagination, but the Marco Silva factor meant that there was an edge to the game that spurred on both the crowd and the players.  The second half had been much better for the Hornets.  The introduction of Andre Gray made a difference, he was linking up well with Deeney and took his goal very well.  The defence had been superb.  Both Cathcart and Mariappa were assured and solid.  Holebas was magnificent, giving Richarlison no room to play.  And Janmaat was excellent, making my pre-game disappointment at the absence of Femenía look rather foolish.  The return of Doucouré was very welcome, he makes such a difference especially as he allows Capoue to shine.  So, not a brilliant performance, but still very pleasing and a deserved win against a team that were thought to be a step up for Marco Silva last season.

We go into the FA Cup weekend comfortably in 8th place.  It will be very interesting to see what the team is next week, but we have to give of our best as, for a team in our position, a cup run can only be a positive thing.

The Ballad of Jose’s Gloves

Captain Troy Deeney

On Saturday, Watford played their third away game in 8 days.  Thankfully, this was the second with an easy journey, this time to the south coast.  I changed trains at Clapham Junction where I bumped into Jacque.  As we sat on the train, Pete appeared looking for Richard, who was also supposed to have been on that train, but had left an hour earlier so was already in Lewes.  As we disembarked on arrival, there were a lot of familiar faces who had also chosen this as their pre-match meeting place.  On the walk to the pub, I admired the pretty town of Lewes that I only ever visit fleetingly on the way to Falmer or Glyndebourne, and determined to make a proper visit to take in their football ground, the wonderfully named Dripping Pan.

We have very happy memories of the pub in Lewes as we were there the day that Watford won promotion to the Premier League, attracting quizzical looks from the others in the beer garden as we cheered and hugged following the confirmation of the final scores from around the country. The pub had recently undergone a refurbishment, and it has to be said that the food and the beer were both excellent.

After lunch we took the short journey to Falmer and, on arrival at the ground contemplated the best way to head to the away end (which is about half way around the ground).  A helpful local pointed to the left and I had to agree that the gentle slope is definitely preferable to the flights of steps at the other side (we had enough of those at Newcastle).

Sema, Cathcart and Capoue looking quizzical

Team news was that Gracia had made just the one change from the Spurs game in mid-week with Sema in for Pereyra, who had picked up a knock in training.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart, Mariappa, Holebas; Hughes, Cleverley, Capoue, Sema; Deulofeu and Deeney.

The concourse at the ground has the appearance of being huge, so it always baffles me that it is always so packed and you have to fight through the crowd to get to your seat.  The game kicked off on an icy afternoon and took a while to get going, so I wasn’t moved to retrieve the notebook from my bag until the 17th minute when Janmaat crossed for Deeney whose header was just wide of the target.  Brighton’s first chance of note was a shot from distance from Bissouma that flew high and wide.  The next chance fell to Groß who shot wide of the near post.  Locadia was the next to try his luck, but his shot was high and wide.  Brighton threatened again from a free kick, but the header from Dunk was wide of the target.

Holebas preparing for a free kick without his gloves

The most entertaining moment of the first half came on the half hour as Holebas battled with March on the wing and ended up giving away the first corner of the game.  In typical Jose manner he then walked towards the goal to defend the set piece, looking furious as only he can.  He was looking for someone or something to blame, and suddenly focussed on his gloves which were ripped from his hands and thrown behind the goal line.  I realise that this loses a lot in translation, but it caused great amusement to the Holebas fans in our party.  Thankfully, for Jose’s blood pressure as much as anything else, the corner came to nothing.  Brighton had another chance to take the lead as a free kick reached Pröpper at the far post but he fired wide.  Foster, who had been a spectator to this point, was then called into action to claim a cross from Locadia while under challenge from Murray.  The first shot on target came in the 41st minute as a lovely cross from Groß was met by the head of Locadia, Foster did brilliantly to push the ball clear.  And that was it for a very dull first half.

Janmaat launching a throw-in

Brighton started the second half with a dangerous looking corner from March that Foster tipped over the bar, but he was being fouled at the time so won a free kick.  Watford had a rare goal attempt as a long ball was headed down by Deeney to Hughes, whose shot was poor and going wide when Ryan dropped to make the save.  The Hornets created a better chance as Janmaat crossed for Sema but his header was just over the target.  It had been the brightest spell of the game for the Hornets but Ryan didn’t have to make a save worthy of the name and it was very short lived.  Normal service resumed as Brighton attacked with a Groß free kick that was headed wide by Murray.  With 20 minutes to go, each side made a substitution as Gray replaced Deulofeu, who had another disappointing game, for the Hornets, and Murray made way for Andone for the Seagulls.  The next goal attempt was a good reflection of the quality of the game as Locadia’s effort went out for a throw in.  His next effort was considerably better, the header appeared to be goalbound until Foster pulled off another brilliant save to keep it out.  The resulting corner was flicked on by Dunk to Duffy who tried an overhead kick that was blocked on the line by Foster.  Gracia made another change as Sema was replaced by Quina, presumably to inject a bit of pace into Watford’s game.

Adrian Mariappa (still wearing his shirt)

The Hornets really should have taken the lead during a scramble in the Brighton box.  It was right in front of us and there seemed to be a number of opportunities to get a shot in, but each time another pass was made.  Hughes and Gray were both in the box and you felt that one of them had to score but, bizarrely, the ball then spent some time motionless between the legs of a defender before it was finally cleared without the keeper having to get involved.  Brighton threatened again as Andone advanced into the Watford box, but Foster was out to clear.  It was end to end at this point and the Hornets had a decent chance when Capoue found Hughes but the shot was from an acute angle and hit the side netting.  Andone had another chance to snatch a winner as he turned and unleashed a shot that cleared the bar.  The home side had one last opportunity to take all three points but Bissouma’s shot from distance flew just wide of the target and the game ended goalless.

After the final whistle, as is their habit, Deeney and Mariappa came over to give their shirts to fans.  On seeing that Mapps was not wearing an undershirt, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “You’ll catch your death!!”  However, the shirts were a distraction from the real prize which was Jose’s gloves that were still lying by the goal where they had been discarded.  Unfortunately we were too far back to claim them and some lucky fan alerted an official who retrieved them and handed them over.  I was green with envy.

Magnificent Ben Foster

On the way out of the ground, we walked past the celebratory banners.  When the ground was first opened, these were of heroes from Brighton’s history, but they have been replaced with a series celebrating last season’s Premier League campaign, which was rather interesting but not a patch on Norman Wisdom.

We headed back to Lewes, although nearly missed our stop as nobody on the station had bothered to mention the fact that the doors in the rear carriages of the train would not open, this meant that there was a rather extended stop at Lewes station as the majority of the passengers in the rear four coaches left the train through the same door.

We headed back to the pub for the post game analysis, although there was little to discuss.  It had been a very dull game in which Watford failed to manage a shot on target.  The defence had again been impressive and restricted the opportunities for the home side who, any time they did manage to break through, were faced with the barrier that is Ben Foster, who put in yet another man of the match performance.  But, despite the lack of entertainment on the pitch, results mostly went our way, so we remain eighth in the table with a decent cup tie to come.  When these dull games have been forgotten (they almost have already), this will be remembered as a good season to have followed the Hornets.