Where do you start with this game? I guess the best place is the preceding week and how much time was spent staring at the table that had Watford top by a single point with two games to go and then working through all the possible permutations of results and their implications. Whichever way you looked at it, we needed the three points from our trip to Brighton.
Normally I hate early kick-offs, but it was quite a relief to get this game out of the way early doors. I arrived on the platform at Clapham Junction to find it packed with Watford fans who piled onto the Brighton train while I waited for the Lewes connection, which proved to be a smart move as it was relatively quiet. I met up with Pete & Richard at East Croydon. When asked how I was, the answer that I didn’t feel too good was met with concerned looks until I explained that it was just nerves. We were delighted to be joined by Becky and Simon at Haywards Heath as we made our way to Falmer.
By 11:30, the away concourse at the Amex was packed with noisy fans. There is a tradition of wearing fancy dress to the last game of the season but somehow, with the importance of this game, dressing up seemed inappropriate, as if we were celebrating before we’d achieved anything. This was a day for serious concentration on and off the pitch. Brighton had their usual welcoming poster thanking us for travelling 163 miles to the game. It was a little early, but the offer of Harvey’s bitter was one that I had to take up. The guest pie was a breakfast one which contained baked beans and appeared to be a treat too far, so I opted for safe (and incredibly bland) chicken and ham.
Team news was that Jokanovic had made three changes with Connolly, Anya and Ighalo in for Hoban, Layun and Vydra. So the starting line-up was Gomes, Connolly, Cathcart, Angella, Anya, Guedioura, Watson, Abdi, Paredes, Ighalo and Deeney. I could only hope that the players were not feeling as nervous as I was.
The teams emerged to ticker tape, streamers, balloons and various inflatables being thrown around the away end. Before kick-off there was a minute’s silence to mark 30 years since the Bradford fire. On this occasion, the sadness was mingled with anger following the recent stories about the Chairman at the time.
So, how were Brighton going to approach this game, given that they had nothing to play for? I was hoping that they would already be on the beach but an attacking move in the first minute indicated that this was not the case as O’Grady’s shot was blocked and eventually cleared. Soon after, Bruno lofted a ball into the box, but Gomes was there to make a comfortable catch. Watford’s first goal attempt came in the sixth minute as Abdi found Ighalo who juggled the ball which found its way to Deeney whose shot was blocked. At the other end Carayol crossed for Bennett who shot well wide from the edge of the box.
There was a very nervous moment in the away end as Bennett went past Paredes into the box and was knocked down. He went down very easily, but it looked like a foul from where I was standing, so I was mightily relieved when the referee waved play on. Deeney almost latched on to a dodgy pass back to the Brighton keeper, he certainly made Stockdale play the ball. At this point, chants for Sean Murray went up in the block next to us, as the youngster was watching the game from towards the back of that stand. Although I’m not sure that standing for 90 minutes will have been ideal therapy for his knee. Brighton had another chance from a corner, but Halford headed well over the bar. Jokanovic decided to make an early change at this point sacrificing Anya for Tözsér and changing to four at the back and a diamond in midfield. The change had an immediate effect as Watson moved to the left and got a cross in, the ball found its way to Deeney who fired across Stockdale and into the net sparking massive celebrations in the away end. Only an hour to go!! Watford had another chance soon after as Guedioura found Abdi, but Stockdale was behind his shot. We almost shot ourselves in the foot as an attempt by Guedioura to cut the ball out only succeeded in giving the ball away and O’Grady’s shot needed a brilliant save from Gomes to keep it out. With five minutes to the end of the half, Cathcart made a wonderful tackle that allowed Abdi to break but he was taken down by Kayal, who was booked for the foul. As usual, the 44th minute was filled with applause and chants for Nic Cruwys. In time added on, Gomes came to punch a corner clear. There was then a scary moment as Deeney and Gomes got in each other’s way as they went to deal with a ball in the box, thankfully it rolled harmlessly out for a goal kick.
So we reached half time a goal up, but Brighton were making things uncomfortable for us. We all agreed that another couple of goals were needed to settle the nerves on and off the pitch.
Watford started the second half really well as Watson found Abdi in scoring position, but his shot hit Deeney and was deflected wide. Deeney then found Guedioura who should have passed to Abdi, but tried a cross to Ighalo, which was cut out. A free kick in a dangerous position was hit well over by Tözsér. Watford should have had a second in the 53rd minute as a Guedioura shot was blocked, Ighalo was in a great position to turn the loose ball in, but Guedioura got in his way and Stockdale was able to put the ball out for a corner. Odion looked furious with his team mate. From Abdi’s corner, Ighalo headed wide. Brighton’s first substitution saw Watford boy Mackail-Smith come on for Carayol. Watford’s first booking of the afternoon went to Cathcart for a clumsy tackle on O’Grady. Brighton threatened again as a corner was headed wide by Greer. Jokanovic’s second substitution saw Vydra come on for Ighalo. Another Brighton attack was stopped by a reckless tackle from Angella, who saw yellow.
Watford had another great chance to extend the lead as Abdi exchanged long passes with Vydra before shooting over when you would have put money on him burying the ball. Abdi had another chance with a shot from the edge of the area that flew wide. Then Vydra had the ball on the edge of the Brighton box but was crowded out before he could shoot. A long Brighton throw was headed goalwards by Greer, but Gomes caught the header. Another great Watford chance came as a cross from Guedioura was dummied by Vydra and reached Deeney whose shot was deflected for a corner. At the other end, Mackail-Smith tried to break into the box but Gomes gathered the ball with the Brighton man claiming, to no avail, that his run had been impeded. Brighton made a couple of substitutions as LuaLua replaced Forster-Caskey and then Calderon came on for Bruno. Jokanovic’s last substitution was to replace Abdi with Forestieri. Not a move to calm the nerves. Brighton looked to level as a Calderon cross was headed just wide. Then Deeney found Vydra in a great position, but the shot was dreadful and didn’t test Stockdale. Deeney took one for the team as he was booked for taking Bennett down in order to stop a break.
The last few minutes of normal time were torture as, first, a Brighton free-kick was headed over by O’Grady. Then a Calderon cross was met by a shot from Stephens which Gomes dropped to save. Guedioura and Dunk appeared to collide, although the Brighton fans thought that an arm was raised and were calling for a red card, but only yellow was shown. Dunk was down for a while, but was eventually fit to continue for the five minutes of time added on. What happened next had to be seen to be believed. Some brave goalkeeping from Gomes kept Brighton out, the eventual clearance reached Deeney who was breaking down the right wing with Vydra in an acre of space to his left, he played a great pass, but Vydra’s touch to control the ball appeared to allow a defender to catch him. No matter, he belted the ball into the opposite corner of the goal to spark pandemonium in the away end. I am not ashamed to admit that I was screaming like a banshee as I leapt up and down. The bench were equally raucous in their celebrations. It was lovely to see Ighalo run onto the pitch to join in. The final whistle went to rapturous scenes on and off the pitch. We were even treated to the unusual sight of Jokanovic coming over to applaud the crowd. This was a special day indeed.
On the way out of the ground a Brighton fan asked if the ref was from Watford, we were very happy to be able to tell him that he was actually a Luton fan from Bournemouth!
After the game, we decided against indulging in the bright lights of Brighton, instead heading for Lewes where we found a rather lovely pub with good beer and a nice garden. We then spent the next two hours obsessively refreshing the football scores on our phones. It was all going rather well until Norwich scored, then Middlesbrough got a late equalizer against Fulham and we were resigned to another tense week. One more refresh and I couldn’t believe my eyes as Rotherham scored a late equalizer. Another one showed that Fulham had got a winner. It took several more before we saw FT next to those scores to confirm that Watford had been promoted. We were hugging each other while some nice women at a neighbouring table asked what had provoked this outburst of emotion. Football!! When we calmed down (a little) it was time to reflect and remember absent friends. Guy Judge and Steve Brister would have loved the end of this season and we raised a glass to them.
When I got home, it was lovely to see friends posting photos from Watford of them with the players. It is a measure of this team that they hadn’t found some exclusive place to celebrate, they had headed into central Watford to have dinner at their favourite Italian. Who knows what will happen to us in the Premier League. With the support of the Pozzos, we must be better placed to compete than we were on our last two visits. But this is a team that thoroughly deserves their chance in the top flight and I look forward to cheering them on home and away on our next adventure.