At the start of the season, I doubt that any Watford fan would have believed that if we came into the last game of the season with nothing to play for, it would be because we had already secured safety. This should have been a reason for celebration. But the excitement of the first half of the season has been contrasted with a rather dull second half. It seemed that, once we hit 37 points, the players switched off. Despite that, Flores made few changes and often played players out of position, although I would argue that he chose his best team as, when alternatives were drafted in, they rarely added anything (apart from the odd Berghuis cameo). It has to be said that when the transfer window came and went with no competition brought in for Ighalo and Deeney, and an embarrassment of riches in central midfield, the second half of the season was rather inevitable. But the sad consequence of this was that, after stories emerged before the semi-final casting the future of Flores into question, it was finally announced on Friday that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season. Despite the fact that this announcement was expected and that I was still annoyed after the non-performance at Norwich, this news upset me greatly. Pre match discussions indicated a split in opinion among the fans regarding the departure of our head coach. However everyone wished Flores well and wanted to give him a good send off.
There was some idle speculation that Flores would go for broke in the last game, but I found it rather reassuring that he stuck with his usual suspects. He had made three changes from Norwich with Prödl, Aké and Guedioura in for Nyom, Anya and Suárez and was playing Cathcart at right back. So, the starting line-up was Gomes, Aké, Prödl, Britos, Cathcart, Jurado, Watson, Guedioura, Abdi, Deeney and Ighalo.
When I arrived at the ground, my sister told me that Deeney had been in the crowd near them. A ball that he had kicked in the warm-up had hit a young girl so immediately he came into the stand to make sure she was OK and give her a shirt. A really lovely thing to do.
Pre-match there were 1881 banners for Quique, Gino Pozzo and Troy Deeney, but I still don’t know which one was over my head. The crowd were enthusiastically chanting for Flores, which was very pleasing.
There was a wonderful move early in the game involving Deeney, Ighalo and Abdi which finished with Almen shooting just wide of the far post. Soon after Jurado found Ighalo who just missed the target. Abdi threatened again, evading defenders while dribbling along the top of the box before curling a shot wide. From a corner, Prödl’s header was blocked, the ball broke to Abdi but, again, the shot was blocked. Jurado then tried his luck with a shot from distance that was caught by Pickford in the Sunderland goal. Sunderland’s first venture into the Watford box came on the half hour and was nearly a disaster for the Hornets as a cross from Watmore was met by Britos who turned it over the bar when it looked as though he may have threatened Gomes in goal. Ighalo received a ball from Abdi before executing a trademark scoop but, sadly, he shot wide of the far post. Abdi had a shot blocked before Ake’s follow-up was saved by Pickford. There were shouts for a penalty as Ighalo was wrestled in the box, but nothing was given.
As we reached the last 10 minutes of the first half, Sunderland had their first real chance of the game as Rodwell shot just wide of the far post. The visitors took the lead a couple of minutes later as Prödl slipped allowing Lens to shoot, Gomes pulled off a decent save, but the ball wasn’t cleared and Lens was able to cross for Rodwell to tap in at the far post. It seemed unfair for the Hornets to go behind following Sunderland’s first real shot of the game and it nearly got worse a couple of minutes later as Watmore latched on to a through ball from N’Doye and finished under Gomes but, thankfully the linesman had raised the flag for offside. At this point the Sunderland fans were chanting “Leicester City, we’re coming for you.” We seemed to want to put ourselves in trouble as Jurado gave the ball away and N’Doye went on a run but he was stopped by a great tackle from Prödl. There were boos at half time, which was harsh as Watford had dominated all but the last 10 minutes of the half.
At half time, there was a very emotional presentation as Gina Van Dort, who survived the Tunisia terrorist attack in which her husband, Chris Dyer, was killed, made an appearance on the pitch. Her words were read out by Tim. She said that this was her first game of the season and she was determined to make it as she had attended a game every season since she and Chris became season ticket holders. This was their wedding anniversary and they have a brick in the lower GT stand that commemorates the date. She appreciated all the support that had been given to her since the attack. She then said a few words of thanks herself and was greeted with a tremendous ovation for her bravery.
Flores made a trademark substitution at half time bringing Paredes on for Cathcart. The Hornets equalized three minutes into the half as a corner from Guedioura was headed home by Prödl. A cracking strike just in front of us, which cheered us up no end. Sadly the good mood in the home stands was short lived as Deeney was flattened following a corner, play was waved on and the counter attack finished with Watmore finding Lens who finished past Gomes to restore the lead for the visitors. Watford came close to getting an equaliser soon after as Aké unleashed a shot that had to be tipped to safety by Pickford. From the corner Britos headed just over the bar. Then Jurado found himself in space but his shot was awful. The Spaniard turned provider as he cut the ball back to Guedioura who shot over. There was another scare for the Hornets as a free-kick was headed home by N’Doye but, again, it was disallowed for offside. Watford’s fortunes improved when Paredes crossed for Deeney, he headed the ball back to Jurado who was sandwiched between two defenders and the referee pointed to the spot. Having learned my lesson at West Ham, I put my camera away as Deeney stepped up and was delighted to see him send Pickford the wrong way as he buried the ball to the keeper’s left.
Watford’s second substitution saw Abdi make way for Suárez. There was a very promising move by the Hornets as Jurado intercepted and played a lovely through ball for Deeney who was tripped on the edge of the box. Kevin Friend consulted his linesman and waved play on. A terrible decision. While there was a break in play due to an injury to Yedlin, Troy went to pick up a water bottle from the side of the pitch and seemed to be having a discussion with the lino about recent decisions. The Rookery helpfully sang ‘Knock him out.’ Troy laughed and shook his head. After play restarted, Jurado released Aké whose cross was too close to the keeper. The only booking of the game went to Guedioura for a clumsy challenge on Honeyman. With 10 minutes to go, Flores brought Amrabat on for Jurado, who left the field to cheers after putting in a good performance. Suárez had a chance to take the lead for the Hornets, but his shot was well over. Ighalo battled well on one flank to keep the ball before crossing for Guedioura who also beat a couple of players before putting in a really disappointing shot. Sunderland had a good chance to regain the lead, but Gomes came off his line to stop Watmore. Watford looked the most likely to steal the three points in the final minutes but were unable to test the keeper. The best chance came when Suárez found Ighalo in the middle of the box, but his first touch was poor, and when he turned and shot there was a Sunderland defender in the way. There was a final chance when Watson found Guedioura, but his volley was wild and way off target.
The final whistle went signalling a draw in an entertaining game. It would have been nice to send Flores off with a win, but the draw meant that we retained 13th position. When we had our prediction competition at the start of the season, my entry was 15th, but that was me being ultra-positive. We waited behind to cheer the players on their lap of honour. For a few weeks now, people have been asking whether Flores was waving goodbye at the end of the game. He does that every week but, on this occasion, he was waving goodbye, which saddened me greatly. But you couldn’t help wondering who else had been seen for the last time in a Watford shirt. Certainly, as Deeney videoed the crowd singing his name, I couldn’t help but wonder if he would be on his way. The final word at Vicarage Road this season went to Troy who said, “This is all about these guys <the fans> and the gaffer.” That sums it up for me. This has been an incredible season of ups and downs. There are moments I will never forget with the home games against Liverpool and West Ham and the FA Cup tie at Arsenal being high on that list. It is very sad that the season has ended on such a low note, but I am still eagerly writing the pre-season games into my calendar. When are the fixtures out??!!