When the television schedule was announced for the Christmas period, it was a source of some irritation that, despite the fact that none of our games would be televised, Man City’s game being moved to New Year’s Eve meant that our bank holiday game was now to be played on the evening of the 2nd. This meant a very brief return to work on Tuesday morning, with just time to wish everyone a happy new year before catching a train to Manchester. There had been an early indication that the away following would be reduced when I received a set of replacement tickets with a letter explaining that, to maximise attendance, the Watford fans would all be located in the lower tier. There was a further indication on the day, when the club announced that all of the fans travelling to the game would be given a voucher for £10 towards food and drink on entry to the stadium.
When I arrived at the designated pre-match pub, the Happy Valley Horns were already there in force. The table next to us was populated with Man City fans and we were a little taken aback to hear a loud cheer from one of them before he exclaimed in triumph that De Bruyne was starting. Did he really think they needed him? At this point in the evening, I had started to feel rather ropey and, given the excellent quality of the pie and pint that I had sampled, could only put this down to nerves at what I was about to witness on the football field. City had put 6 goals past us when we were playing well, so this could prove to be an absolute annihilation.
Apparently I wasn’t the only person of a Watford persuasion who wasn’t feeling at their best on Tuesday evening as Okaka and Cleverley were both missing from the starting XI due to illness, Gray and Capoue were the replacements. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Wagué, Kabasele, Zeegelaar; Doucouré, Watson; Carrillo, Capoue, Richarlison; Gray.
A late realisation that the clock in the pub was very slow and the group of City fans next to us were not going to the game meant that we left for the ground later than intended. The persistent rain persuaded us to forego the half hour walk and take a tram but, having just missed one, we arrived at the Etihad very close to kick-off and the detour that we were forced to take to reach the away turnstiles meant that we heard the game kick off while still being searched. I had just reached the turnstiles when I heard a roar that signalled the opening goal. As I emerged into the concourse, I was greeted by Dave Messenger, handing out the promised vouchers, who confirmed that the goal that I had missed hadn’t been scored by a Watford player. When I reached my seat those of our party already in position confirmed that the goal had been scored straight from kick-off and that no Watford player had touched the ball before it hit the net. Having been treated to a replay at a later point I now know that Sané crossed for Sterling to tap in at the far post.
My first view of the game was of all the players still camped in the Watford half and it wasn’t long before City had another decent chance from a Sané cross but, on this occasion, Stones blazed the shot over the bar. Happily, Watford launched an early attack as Gray latched onto a ball over the top but Ederson smothered the shot. City threatened again as Sané sent a low cross in front of the goal, but nobody was there to apply the finishing touch. The second City goal came on 13 minutes as De Bruyne crossed towards Agüero, Kabasele intercepted, but could only turn the ball past Gomes. At this point the crowd just to my left erupted and I realised quite how few Watford fans were actually in the stadium (588 according to the Watford Police twitter). The travelling Hornets greeted this new set back with a chant of “We want more vouchers.” A young lad behind me then tried to set a positive tone with “We’re gonna win 3-2.” Soon after, City won a free-kick on the edge of the box, and he reconsidered, “We’re gonna win 4-3.” Thankfully, De Bruyne’s free kick came back off the crossbar and the follow-up header from Stones was caught by Gomes. The unusual sight of the Watford players in possession was celebrated with “We’ve got the ball.” Sadly, it wasn’t long before it had to be modified to “We’ve lost the ball.”
Watford’s second goal attempt came just before the half hour mark as Janmaat hit a shot from distance well wide of the far post. This proved to be a good spell for the Hornets as Gray broke forward and called Ederson into action to push his shot around the post. The rolling banner around the ground was displaying facts relating to the two teams and I really could have done without being informed that City had won the last 7 meetings with an aggregate score of 24-3. Watford had something to cheer in defence as Wagué pulled off a great saving tackle on Agüero in the Watford box just as he was about to shoot. Silva was the next to try his luck, but his shot was over the bar. A dangerous cross from De Bruyne reached Agüero in the box, Gomes fell at his feet to pull off a brave save, but was hurt in the process. Hearts sank at the thought that he may have to be replaced by Karnezis, but he just needed a breather and was soon back on his feet. It wasn’t all one-way traffic, though, and the next chance fell to Capoue, who found space for a shot, but it was easily gathered by Ederson. The home side had another chance to increase their lead soon after with a curling free kick from De Bruyne which flew just wide. The home side launched one final attack in time added on at the end of the first half as De Bruyne crossed for Agüero but the shot was easily gathered by Gomes. So we reached half time with City only leading by two goals. After the way that the game had started, that was a bit of a relief.
By half time I was feeling rather better than I had been at kick-off. Then the players came out for the second half and I felt distinctly unwell again. It was clearly the thought of the football that was making me ill.
The first chance of the second half came from the usual source as a cross from De Bruyne was met by the head of Agüero, but his effort was well wide of the target. City fans were shouting for a penalty when Agüero broke into the box and appeared to be taken down by Wagué, it looked nailed on from our vantage point at the other end, but the referee waved play on. From a short corner, De Bruyne crossed for Otamendi who should have increased City’s lead but directed his header wide of the target. Marco Silva made a double substitution just after the hour mark with Watson and Capoue making way for Pereyra and Cleverley, who was roundly booed by the home fans, presumably for his history at United. City’s third goal came soon after as a cross from De Bruyne was spilled by Gomes and Agüero poked the loose ball home. I was really fed up at this point and found myself bizarrely muttering abuse at the image of Agüero on the big screen that they used to celebrate the goal. City also made a couple of changes as, first, Danilo came on for Stones, then Touré replaced Fernandinho. De Bruyne threatened again, playing a one-two with Sané before taking a shot that was deflected into the side netting. Thankfully for our goal difference, that was his last action of the game as he was replaced by Bernardo Silva. I did have to join in the applause as he left the pitch as he was truly excellent. There was an unexpected treat as Watford pulled a goal back, a cross from Richarlison was punched clear but only as far as Carrillo who crossed back for Gray to finish. The goal was celebrated with considerably more gusto in the stands than on the pitch. The final substitution for the Hornets saw Richarlison make way for Sinclair. Gray had a chance to further reduce the deficit as he received a through ball from Zeegelaar, but he was stretching and poked the ball just wide of the target. There was one final chance for the home side with a shot from Sterling, but Gomes was equal to it. In time added on, Pereyra tumbled in the box under a challenge from Otamendi. There were howls for a penalty from the travelling Hornets, but I must admit that I wouldn’t have given it, so was not surprised when the referee waved play on.
Given my pessimism prior to kick-off, which had been compounded by the early goal, I was oddly relieved at a 3-1 defeat. I would have taken that before the game. There was a feeling that City had taken their foot off the pedal, they certainly were not as relentless as they had been at Vicarage Road. But the Hornets had given a good account of themselves in the second half and the game had not damaged the goal difference unduly.
At the end of the game, Gomes came over to the away end and gave his shirt to a young fan. Richarlison also came over, but was very particular about the recipient of his shirt, it turned out to have been presented to his Dad. At this point I must mention the fans who travelled to the game. There were not many of us, but those in attendance were singing until the final whistle, so did their team proud.
We retired to the hotel bar for a post-match drink, trying to avoid the highlights of the game that seemed to be showing on a loop on the televisions around the bar. Our last visit to this hotel had been for a game against United and the bar had been packed with foreign tourists sporting brand spanking new red shirts. On this occasion, the only City fans were old fellas whose scarves had accompanied them for many a year. As we relaxed, we reflected on why we travel around the country on days like this when the likelihood of a positive result is so low. The fear of missing something and the delightful company were both mentioned, but in the end there was no rational explanation, we just do.