Tag Archives: Kiko Femenia

Deprived of Sleep and Entertainment

A kind welcome in the concourse

I had to be on the East coast of the US for work on Friday.  Travelling overnight to attend a football match felt like old times as I did that frequently when I lived there.  I was thankful that the flight was on time and I managed to get a few hours sleep so didn’t feel too bad on arrival.  Before I went to sleep on the flight, I took one last chance to watch the Match of the Day highlights of the Liverpool game.  I needed that positivity before a trip to Selhurst Park.  I was home just after 9am, so had plenty of time to shower, change and pack my bag for the football before heading for South London.

Having taken the wrong exit out of East Croydon station, I was somewhat disorientated, but finally found the pub and was pleased to find Jacque and Richard already there, we were later joined by Mike.  As we were readying to leave for the game, Mike had a sudden realisation that he had not brought his match ticket with him.  He contemplated returning home and, hopefully, making it back for the second half, but after a few panicked texts, he secured a replacement and so was able to see the whole game.  Whether that was a positive thing is open to question.  On the platform waiting for the train to Selhurst, we met a very friendly and pleasant Palace fan who engaged us in conversation.  He was full of praise about our performance against Liverpool last week and far from confident about his team’s prospects for the game.  We were appreciative of the praise but also shared his lack of confidence regarding our chances.

Femenia takes a throw-in

Team news was that Pearson had made just the one enforced change with Pereyra replacing the injured Deulofeu.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Femenía; Hughes, Capoue; Pereyra, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.  While there were no ex-Watford players in the Palace team, they do have the lovely Ray Lew in their dugout, which means that I find it hard to wish them ill.

The first attack of note came from the Hornets as Hughes broke down the right and succeeded in reaching the penalty area where he was frustrated by a great tackle from Kouyaté.  Watford had a decent chance to take the lead after quarter of an hour when Doucouré beat a couple of defenders before shooting from a tight angle, but Guaita in the Palace goal was equal to his effort, Sarr latched onto the follow-up but his shot was blocked and deflected wide.  There was a rather strange incident as Hughes was fouled, but the ball broke for Sarr so the referee allowed advantage to be played.  However, Sarr was then flagged offside and, instead of bringing play back, the free kick went to the home side.  A baffling decision that was rightly protested by Watford’s players and fans, but the referee wasn’t moved.

Doucoure on the attack as Deeney and Capoue look on

The Hornets threatened again as Doucouré and Sarr broke forward while exchanging passes, but the resulting shots were blocked allowing the home side to break down the other end where Foster came out to head a lofted ball clear.  Watford had another chance to break the deadlock as Hughes cut inside and shot just wide of the far post.  The first chance for the home side came as Zaha found van Aanholt in the box but his cross was blocked by Foster and bounced off the Palace man for a goal kick.  It had been all Watford, so it was incredibly frustrating when the home side scored on 28 minutes after a counterattack, McArthur found Ayew on the edge of the box and he shot between two defenders and past Foster’s outstretched hand.  The defenders in question, Cathcart and Masina, really should have done better.  Kabasele had been down injured after a challenge during the attack that led to the goal, so VAR was invoked but the goal stood and, thankfully, Christian was able to continue after treatment.  The first booking of the game went to Femenía for pulling Zaha over.  Watford had a decent chance to hit back when Masina played a lovely ball over the top to Pereyra but he couldn’t position himself to take advantage and Guaita gathered the ball.  Zaha was then booked for a pull on Capoue.  The Palace man then went down very easily under a challenge from Hughes, which infuriated the Watford players.  The decision went against Zaha who was fortunate to avoid a second yellow.

Hughes readies to take a corner

So, we went into the half time break a goal behind to Palace’s only real shot of the half.  The Hornets were also unfortunate in the half time penalty shoot-out.  Although young Lucy from Watford was a star, scoring and impressing the commentator by celebrating with a cartwheel.

The first incident of note in the second half was a prolonged period of handbags after Capoue fouled Zaha.  There was a VAR check for a possible red card but, in the end, there were just cautions for Capoue and Kouyaté.  The game restarted with a free kick for Palace in a dangerous position which came to nothing as van Aanholt’s delivery was headed over by Ayew.  The next caution of the game went to Doucouré after pulling Zaha back.  Zaha was the next to create a scoring chance but Foster stood tall and the shot bounced off him.  The Hornets had a chance of their own as a free kick from Pereyra dropped for Deeney whose shot was blocked.  Then a lovely passing move from the Hornets finished with Pereyra shooting straight at Guaita.  There was another booking as Benteke was cautioned for a foul on Sarr having caught the youngster’s heel as he tried to escape.

Ignacio Pussetto

There was a half-chance for the Hornets as, from a Sarr cross, a mix up in the Palace defence almost allowed Hughes in but, eventually, Guaita gathered the ball.  Midway through the second period, Watford had the best chance of the half so far when Deeney tried a shot from distance that required a smart save from Guaita to tip it over.  There was another decent chance soon after when Sarr chipped the ball into the box for Doucouré whose looping header looked to be going in until Guaita pushed it around the post.  From the resulting corner, the ball reached Hughes whose shot from the edge of the area was blocked.  With 20 minutes to go, Hodgson made his first change, bringing Milivojevic on for McArthur.  The home side had a decent chance to increase their lead as Benteke tried a bicycle kick that hit the side netting.  With 15 minutes remaining, Pearson made a double substitution replacing Pereyra and Deeney with Pussetto and Welbeck.  The Hornets created a half chance as a long ball found Pussetto, who delivered a low cross for Sarr, but Guaita was the first to the ball.  Pearson made his final substitution bringing Gray on for Hughes, who left the field in front of the travelling Hornets and was warmly applauded.  There were five minutes of added time, but the only action of note was a chance for the home side to increase their lead as Benteke found Ayew, but Foster dived at his feet to avert the danger.

Masina takes a free kick

So, after the euphoria of last week, this was an unwelcome return to what has been the reality of most of this season.  It was a very disappointing game.  The Hornets had been the better team for most of the first half but, as so often this season, did not make the most of their chances and the home side scored after a counterattack.  Once they were ahead, Palace defended well and, apart from a brief spell in the second half, Watford never really looked like winning the point that their performance deserved.  Thankfully results elsewhere meant that we stayed out of the relegation zone on goal difference, but it felt like a wasted opportunity and, again, I worry that we won’t get the points that we need from the upcoming “winnable” games.

Another disappointment was the away crowd.  Last season, one of our party had made complaints when the gangway next to us had filled with fans who celebrated aggressively and caused injury to someone in our group.  The complaint had been referred to Croydon council, so we hoped to see an improvement in the stewarding on this occasion.  It was not apparent early in the game as a number of Watford fans started to take up positions in the gangway.  The stewards made some attempts to move these lads on, but most of their efforts led to complaints which meant that, for periods of the game, my view of one of the few sections of the pitch that I could otherwise see was blocked by stewards arguing with fans.  I have often said that I enjoy visiting Selhurst Park, but I realise now that this came from a time before our promotion when there were always a loads of spare seats in the away end and you could choose where to sit.  In those days I took up a place in the wooden seats at the back that were usually populated by those who wanted to stand and sing.  Nowadays everybody stands which means that, if you need to sit, you have no chance of seeing the game.  Added to that, even if you stand, if you are 5’6”, as I am, you won’t see a lot of the action

Our post-match analysis was to take place at Richard’s.  He lives in South London and he and his lovely wife had kindly invited us back for dinner and drinks.  When the football is as poor as it was on Saturday, a lovely evening with friends is all the therapy that you need.

 

Thrashing the Would-be Invincibles

Sarr about to escape the attentions of the Liverpool defence

As always when we have a late kick-off, my pre-match routine was completely messed up.  Due to the late finish time of the game and an appointment in Hertfordshire on Sunday, I had decided to stay over in Watford so I drove over and arrived at about 2:40.  Despite knowing that the kick-off was at 5:30, this seemed to be cutting it a bit fine in the event that the kick-off time had been changed back at short notice (I know!!)  But the lack of people in Watford shirts on the Rickmansworth Road convinced me that I hadn’t got kick-off time wrong.  I checked in to the hotel before walking to the West Herts and managed to get caught in a nasty hailstorm on the way, so was very glad to arrive in the warm and find the usual suspects at ‘our’ table.  I was greeted by a very apologetic Glenn, who had promised pork scratchings but arrived at the butcher to find that they only had scraps left.  He needn’t have worried as there was just enough and they were gorgeous, although it gave us another excuse to complain about Sky Sports.

We spent the afternoon cheering on the opponents of the teams around us and could have done without West Ham beating Southampton.  Liverpool came into this game looking to make it a record 19 Premier League wins in a row and to continue their unbeaten run in the league this season.  A couple of very optimistic Watford fans said that they fancied us to get something from the game but, based on our recent form, I couldn’t see us getting anything other than soundly beaten.  Richard was one who thought that we might get the win, but when he left early “to soak up the atmosphere”, we said our goodbyes as he wouldn’t be back in the West Herts after the game.  Knowing that he never comes back after defeats made his positive prediction appear rather shallow.

Masina and Hughes

Team news was that Pearson had made two changes, and what very welcome changes they were, as Femenía and Sarr came in for Dawson and Pereyra.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Femenía; Hughes, Capoue; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.

The game kicked off and the first chance fell to the Hornets as Deulofeu cut inside and shot wide of the near post.  The home side also created the next chance of note as Doucouré fed Deulofeu, but the shot was just over the bar.  The same players combined again soon after, this time Deulofeu played the ball back to Doucouré, whose shot was blocked by van Dijk for a corner that came to nothing.  Despite having a lot of the play, Liverpool’s first chance didn’t come until the 20th minute when Oxlade-Chamberlain chipped the ball over to Salah in the box, he was in a great position but could only find the side netting.  Just after the half hour mark, Deulofeu went down under a challenge from van Dijk.  It looked pretty innocuous at first and I had just shouted “Get up, Geri” when I saw the referee waving to the bench for medical treatment.  It was soon obvious that the injury was bad and, after treatment, he was stretchered off.  This was so sad for the lad, and for us, as he had been having a superb game.  He left the field to the sound of his name being sung from the home stands and was replaced by Pereyra.

Deeney and Lovren in the customary pose as Doucoure breaks through

Deeney could have been in trouble after a robust challenge on Alexander-Arnold.  Troy went over and helped the lad to his feet and the referee was happy that no action needed to be taken, but the Watford captain may have been a bit lucky there.  The visitors created a half chance as a cross reached Mané, but his body position was wrong and the ball bounced off his head.  As it happened, his position on the field was wrong too as the offside flag was up.  Sarr created a much better chance trying a shot from the edge of the area that was over the target.  In time added on, there was the joy of a superb tackle from Masina on Alexander-Arnold.  Tackles don’t get as much coverage as (even poor) goal attempts, but sometimes they are things of beauty and this was one of those.  Watford could have taken the lead in time added on at the end of the half when, from a free kick, Alisson made a mistake allowing Deeney in, but the Liverpool keeper recovered to make a save and Deeney could only knock the follow-up wide.

So, we reached half time with the game goalless.  Liverpool had most of the possession, but the Hornets had created all of the noteworthy chances.  It had been an impressive performance but, as so often this season, I just worried that we would regret being so wasteful in front of goal.

Etienne Capoue

The half time guest was Heiðar Helguson who was a man of few words but seeing some highlights of his time with us was just a joy.  As would be expected, he was given a tremendous reception and appeared to appreciate it.

The Hornets started the second half as they had finished the first as Pereyra played a lovely ball through to Sarr whose shot was kept out by a one-handed save from Alisson.  At the other end, there was a bit of pinball in the Watford box, but Foster was finally able to gather the ball.  The Hornets took the lead on the 53rd minute as, from a Masina throw, the ball reached Doucouré who played the ball back to Sarr who finished from close range sparking mad celebrations in the home stand.  I have to admit that, after last week, my celebration was slightly delayed while I assured myself that VAR wouldn’t intervene.  I normally have a chance to grab some sort of photo of the players celebrating.  On this occasion, we had only just stopped hugging each other as Sarr reached the centre circle for the restart.  Lovely as the goal was, it felt far too early in the game to have any confidence in the lead, Liverpool had plenty of time to strike back.

Celebrating the third goal

The Hornets had a decent chance to grab a second soon after when Deeney got his head to a Hughes free kick, but his effort was wide of the target.  Watford did not have long to rue that miss as Hughes played a lovely back heel down the line to Deeney, he released Sarr who bore down on goal before lifting the ball over Alisson.  It was another lovely goal and the Liverpool players looked rather shocked.  I did get a photo of the celebration for this one, but my hands were shaking so much that it is just a yellow blur.  Klopp made a change before the restart bringing Lallana on for Wijnaldum.  The visitors had a chance to hit back almost immediately with a free kick in a dangerous position, but the delivery from Alexander-Arnold was woeful and flew well wide of the near post.  Hughes had a chance to make it three for the Hornets, but his shot hit Sarr and was cleared.  Klopp made a second change replacing Oxlade-Chamberlain with Origi.  Liverpool had a great chance to pull a goal back when a ball into the Watford box was headed clear to Lallana who hit it well, but his effort rebounded off the outside of the far post.  Sarr should have grabbed a hat-trick when he got on the end of a cross from Masina, but he tried to hit a volley and ended up mishitting the shot which flew wide of the near post.

More players join the celebration of the third goal

The third goal came from a Liverpool mistake as Sarr intercepted a backpass from Alexander-Arnold, he coolly held the ball up before playing a gorgeous pass to Deeney who lofted a beautiful shot into the empty net.  It was a fantastic goal and the celebrations were suitably manic.  Thankfully, this time I got some lovely shots of the players celebrating.  But, when my brain engaged again, all I could think was “Tranmere”.  As those around me were singing rather rude things about “invincibles” I was muttering that there was just under 20 minutes to go so it was far too early to be celebrating.  With 10 minutes remaining, Klopp made his final substitution replacing Firmino with Minamino.  Meanwhile I was trying to keep calm, but my heart was racing.  Sarr then had a superb chance to score a fourth goal as he received a lovely through ball from Capoue but the shot was just wide of the target.  That was his last action of the game as Pearson replaced him with Pussetto.  I have to say that I was a little disappointed that he was denied the chance to get a hat-trick, but it was a sensible decision given the lack of game time that he has had of late.  With 5 minutes to go the Rookery was rocking with a chant of “Can we play you every week,” while I was still shouting “too early”.  Liverpool had a chance to pull one back as Salah crossed, but it was an easy catch for Foster.  Then van Dijk tried his luck from distance, but his effort was well over the bar.  Pearson made his second substitution on 89 minutes replacing Doucouré with Chalobah.  All eyes were on the fourth official as he held up the board indicating that there were 4 minutes of added time.  Those four minutes were mostly played in Watford’s half, but every poor pass from the visitors and the odd catch from Foster was loudly cheered.  It must have been the 93rd minute when I finally believed that we would win the game.  The final whistle went to joyous scenes in the home stands.

Masina prepares for a throw-in

After the celebratory hugs, we all just stood looking incredulously at each other.  I don’t think any of us could believe what we had just witnessed.  Michael in the row in front suggested that was possibly the best game we have ever played.  It was certainly up there with the best.  As we gathered in the concourse, Rose got a message from Amelia (her season ticket holding daughter who was unable to make the game) saying that last time we beat Liverpool 3-0 I had cried, and she hoped that we were all crying with joy.  We assured her that we had been.  The atmosphere in the concourse was a little muted.  Usually after games like this the concourse is noisy as songs are being belted out.  On this occasion, I think everyone was a little stunned.

We emerged onto Occupation Road to find a huge crowd, a sign that nobody had left early.  I left my family at the school car park and bumped into a West Herts regular with whom I waxed lyrical about the performance.  As I entered the bar the first person that I saw was Richard.  My enquiry as to what he was doing there was met with a broad smile and the offer of a drink.  The post-match analysis was joyous.  We all agreed that every one of our players had been magnificent.  The stats showed that Liverpool had enjoyed 71% of the possession, but the Watford defence had restricted them to only a single shot on target.  Deeney, Deulofeu and Pereyra had all been disappointing at Old Trafford, but had been superb in this game with even Pereyra working his socks off.  The performance of Femenía showed how much we had missed him.  What was really impressive was that, after two months out, he looked as though he had never been away.  Similarly with Sarr, who frightened the life out of the Liverpool defence, the only disappointment had been that he didn’t get his hat trick.  The midfield three of Hughes, Capoue and Doucouré had worked tirelessly and been incredibly solid.  Sometimes it is the silly things that give you immense pleasure and one of the memories that I will take from this game involved Capoue.  I love him as a player, but he can blow hot and cold.  Watching him when he is enjoying himself is utterly joyous and there was a point in the game when he sprinted from one side of the pitch to the other and back again, frustrating the Liverpool midfield and it was one of those moments that has me clapping my hands in glee.

Confirmation that it really happened

At the end of the day, we had beaten the team who are running away with the League.  Their recent performances have not been perfect, but they have continued to grind out results and were proving very hard to beat.  The fact that this Watford team not only beat them but did so convincingly was just amazing.  Although there is still a part of me waiting to wake up to find out that we have lost 6-0.

I was back in the hotel just in time to see the highlights on Match of the Day.  Any fears that the pundits would focus on how poor Liverpool had been were dispelled as they gave our lads the credit they deserved for their performance.  I was also gratified to get a message from a Scouse friend who congratulated us on a brilliant performance commenting that we were impressive all though the team.

Obviously, one win doesn’t keep you in the division, but we went on a great run after our impressive performance at Anfield.  I can only hope that this even more impressive performance at Vicarage Road gives the lads the confidence that they need to start playing with the quality that they know they have and getting the results that they deserve.

What a difference a week makes.  I love football again.

 

An Impressive Start to the New Year

The quiz winners

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

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

With Tommy Smith

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

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

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

The Rocket Men banner

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

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

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

Dawson on the ball

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

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

Celebrating Deulofeu’s strike

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

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

Congratulating Doucoure

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

Troy wants the ball

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

The two goalscorers, Deulofeu and Doucoure

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

Troy holding the ball up as the clock wound down

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

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

Pereyra makes a late appearance

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

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

Ending the Decade on a High

A festive Hornet shop

I left home bright and early aiming to be at the West Herts at midday.  Unfortunately, a signalling problem at West Drayton meant that the train that I had planned to catch from Slough was cancelled and I ended up on a train that had made an unscheduled stop due to congestion and kindly opened its doors to let the stranded passengers on.  It was slow progress and I finally arrived in the West Herts nearly three hours after leaving home and just in time to see Don leaving for the ground.

Most of our usual crowd were gathered at ‘our’ table with the addition of Jacque’s colleague, Adam, who is a Villa fan and was not relishing the prospect of the game, while the Watford contingent were fired up with some newfound optimism after the last couple of results.

The decision about what to have for lunch is usually quite simple but, on this occasion, I was in the horns of a dilemma.  I do love the jerk chicken but, for some reason, I had ordered sausage and chips before the Man United game, so that now qualified as the lucky lunch and had to be my order.

Capoue barking instructions

My sister had been unable to buy a ticket for the game, having left it late before finding that it was (surprisingly) sold out.  Luckily a friend wasn’t using hers and kindly offered to lend it to her.  We had arranged to meet Pete outside the Red Lion to pick up the spare ticket and I had handed my ticket to my sister so that she could sit with her daughter, so I left the West Herts not having a ticket for the game on my person, which induced a ridiculous mini panic until I spotted Pete and had Julie’s ticket in my hands (thank you, Julie).

Team news was that Pearson had made only one change with Chalobah making way for Doucouré on his return from suspension.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Capoue, Hughes; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.

I tried to take a spare seat in my usual row to sit with the family, but the lad who usually sits there turned up just after kick-off so I belatedly made my way to the back of the Rookery to sit with Pete and experience a different (elevated) view of the field of play.

Celebrating Troy’s first goal

The Hornets started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead as a corner from Hughes was headed on by Deeney to Kabasele whose shot was stopped by a reaction save from Heaton in the Villa goal.  Then Deulofeu played a cross-field ball to Sarr, whose shot was blocked by a defender for a corner that came to nothing.  There was little more action of note until the 26th minute when Villa launched a counterattack, Hourihane crossed for Wesley who looked to have scored with a header from close range, but a brilliant save from Foster kept him out.  The visitors had a shout for a penalty when Wesley went down in the box following a challenge by Cathcart.  It was an age before the VAR check came up on the big screen and there were loud cheers when the referee indicated that we were to play on.  The Hornets fashioned another chance when a free kick from Hughes was punched clear by Heaton, but only as far as Doucouré whose shot was well over the bar.  Soon after, a free kick from Deulofeu was met by the head of Sarr but the ball ended up on the roof of the net.  Then Mariappa released Sarr who played a lovely low cross into the box but there was no Watford player to meet it, so it was easily gathered by Heaton.  Hughes was the next to try his luck with a shot from distance, but it was well over the target.  A lovely cross-field ball from Capoue found Sarr who cut into the box, but his shot was deflected for a corner.  Watford nearly broke the deadlock from the set piece when the ball dropped to Deeney, but he hit his shot straight at Heaton.  Watford finally took the lead in the 42nd minute when Villa gave the ball away, Doucouré tried a shot that was parried by Heaton to Deeney who put the ball under the Villa keeper and into the net.  So the Hornets went into half time with a narrow lead.  It was well deserved as, apart from the early shot from Wesley, it had been all Watford.

Gathering for a corner

The half time guest was Bill Shipwright, who played for Watford in the 50s so was way before my time and I couldn’t hear the interview.  There was also the added bonus of Christian Battochio who was on ticket duty for the 50/50 draw.

Pearson was forced to make a substitution at the break.  Hughes had picked up an injury towards the end of the first half and was replaced by Chalobah.  Villa also made a change bringing El Ghazi on for Jota.  The Hornets started the half in a positive manner with a shot from Doucouré that was deflected for a corner.  Watford threatened again as Capoue crossed for Sarr whose shot was blocked.  The first booking of the game went to Mariappa for a foul on Grealish.  Chalobah then had a chance to extend the Watford lead with a shot from distance that cleared the bar.  Disaster then befell the home side as Mariappa was shown a second yellow for a supposed foul on former Watford loanee, Lansbury.  From my vantage point it appeared that Lansbury ran into Mariappa (who doesn’t have a bad bone in his body), but pleas to the referee fell on deaf ears and the Hornets were reduced to 10 men with over half an hour of the game to go.  Pearson immediately made a change and you had to feel for Chalobah who was sacrificed for Dawson.

Sarr and Capoue are under there somewhere

Just as the nerves were starting to jangle, Deeney ran into the box and was brought down by Luiz.  It looked a bit soft from behind the goal but, having seen it later from another angle (as the VAR did), it was nailed on as Deeney was shoved to the ground.  There was a delay before the spot kick could be taken as Targett had been down injured.  There were some complaints from Villa players that the Hornets had played on around him, but they had had the opportunity to put the ball out of play when he first went down and had not done so, so their complaints were unwarranted.  Targett was replaced by Guilbert before the penalty could be taken.  Then Troy stepped up and blasted the ball down the middle to put the Hornets two goals up and ease my nerves somewhat.  The nerves were properly calmed on 70 minutes when Deeney released Capoue who played a gorgeous cross for Sarr who sped into the box to meet it and shot past Heaton.  My heart sank when VAR was invoked for a possible foul in the build-up and I begged for that gorgeous goal not to be disallowed.  After an agonising wait, the referee pointed to the centre circle and I punched the air again.  On 72 minutes, GT’s face came up on the big screen adorned with both Watford and Villa badges and the great man’s name was sung with gusto as I wiped a tear from my eye.

Capoue, Doucoure and Femenia prepare for a free kick

The visitors made a final change bringing Kodja on for Lansbury.  The referee’s card was out again as Capoue was booked for an altercation with Grealish.  On 77 minutes, Villa had their first on-target shot of the half as Hourihane tried his luck from the edge of the area, but his shot was straight at Foster.  There was another booking for the Hornets as Sarr was cautioned for trying to stop a Villa free kick.  When they finally took it, the ball was played out to Grealish whose shot flew wide of the near post.  The final change for the Hornets saw Masina on to replace Cathcart, who had been treated for an injury shortly before.  Grealish had another chance to pull a goal back with a shot from outside the area but, again, his effort flew wide of the near post.  There were two late bookings, one for each side.  First Deeney for bundling Luiz over.  Then Grealish for kicking the ball at Sarr as he lay on the ground.  The booking for the Villa captain was not before time as he had been behaving petulantly all afternoon.  There was a touch of handbags at this point, but no more cards were shown and the final whistle went on a very satisfying win for the Hornets.

Capoue readying to take a corner

I had rather enjoyed my afternoon watching the game from the gods.  It is nice to have a different perspective and it was noisier up there with the contribution of the few from the 1881 that moved just behind us.  My neighbours were rather lovely too.  A man with his two small daughters, which I always love to see.  Needless to say, when the crowd rose to their feet, which they did less often than they do further down where I usually sit, the father would lift the girl next to me off her seat so that she could see and I made myself useful by putting the seat down for her to stand on.  We had it down to a fine art by the end of the game.

Back to the West Herts and we were all smiles, apart from poor Adam who was very gracious in defeat admitting that they deserved nothing from the game.  It had been a tremendous performance from the Hornets who had run the show all afternoon.  The game took place less than 48 hours after the end of the United game and yet the players were all working very hard for the win and were resilient when down to 10 men.  Deulofeu worked his socks off and was unlucky not to have more influence on the game.  Femenía was tremendous again in the left back position.  Deeney was back to his battling self and was thoroughly enjoying answering the jeers of the Villa fans with his goals.  But it was Sarr who deservedly won man of the match for a wonderful performance.  It took him a while to learn how to play the English game, but he is now showing why the Pozzos paid all that money for him.  A month ago we felt doomed, now we are only 3 points away from safety and our prospects for the new year are looking increasingly positive.

So, following the last game of this decade, I can’t help but reflect on the past 10 years.  We started 2010 with Malky in charge and an unhappy ownership who were struggling for money.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, we then had the horror of Bassini’s reign, and I am so thankful that there were still good people on the board and among the staff who kept the club going.  The arrival of the Pozzos had some concerned about foreign ownership, but they have built the team and the infrastructure into one that can compete in the Premier League while still maintaining the feel of a community club and for that I will be eternally grateful.  While the start to this season was dreadful, we go into 2020 with a spirit of optimism and I look forward to more wonderful adventures over the next 10 years following my team.

A Boxing Day Draw Against the Blades

Tony Currie Stand named after a player who impressed for both clubs

It has been a while since we had to travel any distance on Boxing Day, so it was with some disappointment that I noted that the eagerly anticipated trip to Sheffield United was to be played on Boxing Day.  Most of our usual away crowd decided to give the game a miss, but my sister and brother-in-law decided that they would go and offered to drive, which made me very happy indeed.

Having spent Christmas Day with Rose and her family, I left theirs bright and early to drive to Cate and Nigel’s.  My lovely sister had sent me on my way with a care package of turkey sandwiches and sausage rolls, which was much appreciated.

The M1 was busy, but there were no hold ups and we made good time.  We made one brief stop at services on the way and were delighted to see that our arrival coincided with that of the Watford supporter coaches, so I said a brief hello to Don before we set off again.

Caught on camera before the game

We parked up in the city centre and headed to the usual pub to find that it was deserted, so we had our choice of tables.  The Boxing Day menu on offer was various varieties of chip butty (one with cheese) and a couple of pies.  Given that we would need something to eat on the journey home, we decided to keep our sandwiches for later and have one of their pies.  When our lunches arrived, it turned out to have been a great choice as the pie was a decent slice cut from a large homemade pie accompanied with chips, mushy peas and gravy.  There was a bottle of Henderson’s relish on the table which I declined to try, although I overheard some friends at another table being informed that not adding the relish to their meal was grounds for being thrown out of the pub.

The big question mark over team selection was whether the arrival of Troy Deeney’s new son on Christmas Day would mean that he was absent on paternity leave.  Thankfully, when the team came through, he was included, with Pearson having made only the one (enforced) change from the Man Utd game with Chalobah replacing the suspended Doucouré.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Chalobah, Capoue; Deulofeu, Hughes, Sarr; Deeney.

We arrived at the ground in plenty of time and I headed to the other end of the stand for a chat with Don.  While I was there, a lovely steward came around to make sure that all in the disabled area were OK.  We complained about the weather as it was grey and wet, but she pointed out with a smile that we were in the North now and it is always raining.

Hughes lines up a free kick

In preparation for kick-off, the flag wavers took to the pitch.  It has to be said that some of them looked rather small for the flags that they had been given and there was a struggle to keep them in the air.  Alice had just commented that it was 3 minutes to three and the players ought to be out on the pitch when the announcement was made that kick-off was to be delayed for 10 minutes for unspecified safety reasons.  This meant that those poor children with the oversized flags had another 10 minutes to wave them.  It seemed unnecessarily cruel but they were made of stern stuff.  It was probably at this time that we were caught on camera as we received photos from our nieces of us looking rather puzzled on their television screen.

Finally, we could see the players in the tunnel on the big screen and they took to the field.  Prior to kick-off, the first bars of “Annie’s Song” were played and the home crowd gave a moving rendition of “Greasy chip butty”.  A magnificent piece of music.

Chalobah congratulates Deulofeu on his goal

The home side started brightly with an early attack from Stevens who broke into the box before being stopped by a brilliant tackle from Kabasele.  The first attempt on goal came after 10 minutes with a snapshot from McBurnie that was met by a great save from Foster, the rebound dropped to McGoldrick but a tackle from Kabasele diverted the ball for a corner.  McBurnie had another chance from a throw-in but his header was gathered by Foster.  Watford’s first attack of note came as Femenía hit a cross-cum-shot towards Sarr, but the youngster was unable to connect and the ball was gathered by the Blades’ keeper, Henderson.  The home side had another decent chance as McGoldrick met a cross from Norwood with a side foot that flew over the bar, but the flag was up, so it wouldn’t have counted.  The home side had the ball in the net after Basham crossed for Fleck who turned it in from close range.  It looked as if Fleck took the shot knowing that the flag was up for offside and it appeared that the defenders had stopped playing, but the decision went to VAR and we were rather concerned, as the home crowd who were in line with the scorer had been angrily protesting the decision.  Thankfully, that was a partisan reaction and VAR confirmed that the goal would not stand.  In the stands I was rather enjoying a song to the tune of Last Christmas indicating that we were giving our hearts to Nigel Pearson (oh yes).  Watford took the lead in the 27th minute and the goal was a thing of beauty as a clearance from Foster was headed on by Chalobah into the path of Deulofeu who raced upfield and finished past Henderson to give the travelling Hornets the Christmas present that they had all been waiting for.  Sadly, the lead did not last long.  Hughes made what looked like a decent challenge on Baldock, but the United man went down in the box and the referee pointed to the spot.  The view of the challenge from our angle was such that it was a while before a number around me realised that a penalty had been given.  The decision was confirmed by VAR and Norwood stepped up to score the spot kick.  Into time added on and the Hornets had a chance to regain the lead, but Deulofeu’s free kick flew just over the bar.

Watford hero, Foster, takes a goal kick

It hadn’t been the most exciting half of football, but I had enjoyed our goal.

The half time entertainment was a children’s relay that was enlivened by the lads running towards our stand who set off on the whistle not realising that they were supposed to be on the second leg.  When they ran back and received the baton (football) one of them set off in the wrong direction.  At this point I decided to head for the concourse and found my way out of the row blocked by people transfixed by the action on the pitch who muttered angrily at my interrupting their viewing.

There was a change at the break for the Hornets.  Sarr had been down injured for some time towards the end of the first half after an argument with the advertising hoardings.  He was obviously injured, so I was really irritated when he was booed by the home fans as he tried to continue.  The management allowed him to finish the half, but he was unable to continue so was replaced with Pereyra.  I was not happy at this turn of events.  The first chance of the second half fell to the home side when a clearance from Hughes rebounded to Lundstram whose shot was over the target.

Troy discussing issues with the referee

Watford had made a poor start to the half and we did ourselves no favours when, from a throw, the ball was given away to the opposition, thankfully no harm was done as the shot from Fleck was terrible and flew wide of the target.  McGoldrick then had a good chance to put the home side in the lead but his shot rebounded off the post and the flag was up for offside anyway.  Watford then threatened as Deulofeu crossed for Deeney at the near post, but the ball was deflected for a corner.  The home side made their first substitution on 63 minutes replacing McBurnie with Mousset.  The substitute almost made an immediate impact with a cross for Fleck whose shot was stopped by a stunning save from Foster.  I am ashamed to say that, when they were raving about the save on 5Live on the way home, I struggled to recall it.  My notes state that the shot was straight at Foster and that he pushed it for a corner.  Sadly, it was one of those that looks tremendous when you are behind the goal but rather pedestrian from low down at the other end of the ground.  Either that or I need to replace my distance glasses.  The Hornets should have done better from a free kick when the delivery from Hughes bounced off a defender towards Cathcart, but the Ulsterman knew nothing about it and the ball hit his face and went out for a goal kick.  There was a much better chance at the other end for the Blades as a low shot from Stevens was met by Foster who turned it into the side netting.  Deulofeu was then booked for arguing with the referee, I think the ref was sick of him as he had been complaining all afternoon.

Watford subs Gray and Dawson

Again the Hornets should have made more of the opportunity when Pereyra did well to keep the ball after battling past a defender, his pass bounced off Deulofeu to Deeney who seemed surprised that the ball reached him, so could only manage a soft shot that was easy for the keeper, but the flag was up for offside anyway.  That was Troy’s last involvement in the game as he was replaced by Gray.  The Hornets won a free kick on the edge of the box when Pereyra went down dramatically after a challenge by O’Connell.  Deulofeu chipped the ball towards the goal, but his effort was just wide of the post.  The home side had a free kick of their own, which was a decent effort but was blocked at the far post.  From the corner, Egan headed goalwards but Mariappa was on the line and headed clear.  The final change for the Hornets came as Dawson replaced Chalobah, who was booked for time wasting as he dawdled from the field.  Gray had a great chance to break the deadlock as he broke into the United box but, after doing all the hard work, he couldn’t get the shot off and the ball ran out of play.  The fourth official indicated four minutes of added time and we were counting the seconds.  Watford created a couple of chances in injury time.  First from a free kick in a dangerous area, but the delivery from Hughes was poor and missed the target.  Then Pereyra fed Gray who tried an audacious back heel that was easily gathered by Henderson.  The final whistle went to sighs of relief in the away end as we had been under the cosh for most of the second half.

Chalobah, Deulofeu and Pereyra talk tactics before a free-kick

It has to be said that this was a less enjoyable game than those against Liverpool and Manchester United, but it had been a battling performance and, despite the disappointment of conceding a dodgy penalty, we were happy to go home with a point.  Earlier in the season we would have collapsed after conceding the penalty.  This time we hung on bravely, although we lost a lot of our attacking threat when Sarr went off.  Sheffield United are flying high in the division for a reason, they are very well organised and play as a team and a draw at their place was very pleasing indeed.

On the way back to the car, we met a friendly United fan who gave us directions out of town.  I must admit that I much prefer games against teams like this when the opposition fans are passionate locals rather than tourists in brand new shirts and scarves who are only there to tick a box.  The marketing of the Premier League has certainly been to the detriment of the match-going experience.

The drive home in the rain was greatly improved by listening to our own Emma Saunders on 5Live while finally enjoying the turkey sandwiches.

We finished the day off the foot of the table, which was very pleasing and, while there is still some way to go, our prospects look a lot more positive than they did a month ago and that makes me very happy indeed.

 

The First Home Win of the Season Comes in Style

Deeney and Capoue waiting for the ball to drop

Sunday games are always odd, but my hopes that the journey would be quieter than usual was soon dispelled when the fast train to London pulled in to Slough and was so packed that some were left on the platform.  I managed to get on, but it was not a comfortable journey.  For some reason, when I reached Euston I had forgotten who our opposition were so, when a friend boarded the train with a group of youngsters who were clearly not Watford fans, it was a while before I realised who they “supported” and then regarded them with the contempt that I have for those who choose a team based on their results rather than any connection to the community.

The West Herts had opened early so was busy when I arrived.  Our party was somewhat depleted by Christmas invitations, but those who were there were strangely optimistic after last week’s showing against Liverpool.  I left for the ground earlier than usual and headed for the 1881 bunker, which was packed.  I was only there to drop off some tins for their foodbank appeal and was very pleased to see the table stacked with bags of food donated by fans.  I entered the stadium by the Rookery entrance at the GT end of the ground, so was able to buy my programme from Doreen Pym.  Just like the old days.  I still miss the Bill Mainwood Programme Hut.

Team news was that the Hornet line-up was unchanged from the Liverpool game.  So, the starting XI was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Capoue, Hughes; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.

Joao Pedro introduced at Vicarage Road

Prior to kick-off, João Pedro, who had arrived from Fluminense to a great fanfare during the week, was presented to the fans.  He held up the no 17 shirt that he will wear.  I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the boy, as he arrives to an incredible weight of expectation.  I am very glad that Heurelho Gomes is still on our books as this will be another adoptive son for him to take under his wing.

New manager Pearson was also welcomed but, having had his day in the sun before the Palace game, he made do with a wave from the dug-out.

The visitors created an early chance as James broke down the wing before finding Martial in the box, but he shot wide of the target.  Watford’s first half-chance came as Deeney picked up a misplaced pass and found Sarr whose cross into the box was blocked and cleared.  At the other end, a curling shot was easily gathered by Foster.  Then Femenía played a lovely through ball to Deulofeu whose cross was blocked for a corner.

Mariappa launches a throw-in

Watford had the ball in the net when Deulofeu’s delivery was dropped by de Gea and Doucouré turned the ball home, but the celebrations among the Hornet faithful were cut short as the keeper was adjudged to have been fouled.  The home side continued to threaten as Deulofeu went on a great run before finding Deeney, but the shot was blocked by Shaw.  United had a great chance to take the lead when a lucky ball fell for Martial who played in Lingard, but the shot cleared the crossbar.  I was briefly distracted by the sight of a red kite flying above the stadium.  There are a lot of kites where I live, but it still gives me joy every time I see one.  The first caution of the game went to Capoue for a rather benign foul on Lingard.  Almost immediately Shaw was booked for holding back Sarr.  The Hornets had a great chance to take the lead after a lovely passing move led to a great cross from Femenía which was met by Doucouré whose header was just wide of the target.  The Hornets had one last chance to take the lead in the first half with a cross from Sarr towards Deeney, but Troy was crowded out and the chance went begging.

So we reached half time with the game goalless and no shots on target, but some very promising play from the Hornets.

Sarr celebrating his goal

The half time guest was Neil Cox, who was asked about his experiences during a similarly trying time  and was very positive about our prospects.  I hadn’t realised that he and Neil Ardley are now the management team at Notts County.  Neil was also on hand to perform the on-pitch presentation of the award from the FSA to our wonderful Supporter Liaison Officer, Dave Messenger.  Dave is a tremendous advocate for the fans and will do anything to help, so this award was very well deserved indeed.

Six minutes into the second half and, suddenly, all was right with the world again.  A free kick from Hughes was met by Sarr who tried to hit the top corner, de Gea looked to have it covered, but the ball went through his hands and hit the net, sending the Rookery into raptures, apart from two rather gloomy blokes sitting just behind me.  The visitors had an immediate chance to break back, but the header from McTominay was straight at Ben Foster.  Instead, a foray by Sarr into the United box was stopped by Wan-Bissaka and the referee pointed to the spot.  It appeared to be a nailed-on penalty, but I was still holding my breath while the VAR check went on.  “Decision Penalty” had to be the best news of the afternoon.

Celebrating Troy scoring the penalty

It was a while before Troy was able to take the spot kick, so he amused himself by supping some of de Gea’s energy drink and ignoring any gamesmanship that was going on behind him.  When the whistle finally went to indicate that the penalty could be taken, he paused before taking his run up and blasting the ball down the middle as de Gea dived the wrong way.  It was a brilliantly composed penalty from Troy and I suddenly believed that we could win this game, despite there being 30 minutes left on the clock.  McTominay again tried to reduce the deficit but, again, Foster blocked the shot.  The first substitution of the game came just before the hour mark as Greenwood replaced James for the visitors.  At this point we were rather distracted by the sight of a cushion covered in a knitted Watford cover that was being used by a woman two rows in front.  It was a thing of great beauty and we were all very envious.  The Hornets had a chance to increase their lead when a corner from Capoue was cleared only as far as Hughes, but his shot was well over the bar.  The visitors made another change bringing Pogba on for Lingard, nothing for the Hornets to worry about there (gulp!!)  The visitors had a chance to break back following a corner, Rashford put the ball back into the Watford box, but the header from Greenwood was dreadful and well wide of the target.

This cushion inspired envy in our section of the Rookery

Watford had a chance to increase their lead further as Deulofeu found Sarr in the box, but he waited too long to take his shot and it was blocked, the ball came back in for Deeney, but he mishit his shot and the chance was gone.  Nigel Pearson made his first substitution with 20 minutes to go when he brought Chalobah on for Doucouré.  United won a free kick at an acute angle to the right of the Watford goal, Rashford went for goal but Foster punched clear.  Solskjær made his final substitution replacing McTominay with Mata.  The Hornets threatened again as Deulofeu battled his way into the United box, his shot was blocked, a follow-up effort from Deeney effort was also blocked.  At the other end, Pogba tried a shot from distance, but it was an easy catch for Foster.  Watford made a second substitution as Capoue was replaced by Pereyra, presumably as he was on a yellow card.  Another chance for the Hornets as a free kick was cleared to Femenía, whose shot was on target, but de Gea was able to make the save.  The visitors had a half chance from a corner as Mata’s delivery was met by the head of Maguire but his effort was straight at Foster.  United should have pulled one back with 8 minutes to go, but Pogba’s curling shot was saved by Foster.  There was another dangerous looking attempt from the visitors as Greenwood tried to lob Foster, but the ball flew over the bar.  With the clock running down, Pearson made a final change replacing Sarr, who had been magnificent, with Success.  With a minute left on the clock, Rashford tried a shot from close range which Foster blocked with his legs.  As the fourth official lifted the board to indicate the added time, I found myself celebrating the fact that it was only 3 minutes.  Into time added on and Martial cut inside and shot goalwards, but Foster was able to make the block.  United had a final chance to spoil our clean sheet when Cathcart took Rashford down on the edge of the box.  Mata stepped up to take the free kick, but it was a dreadful effort that flew well wide of the near post.

Man of the match, Deeney, after scoring the penalty

The Watford fans had been noisy all afternoon, but the cheers at the final whistle were rapturous. As the game was being televised, there was a big announcement of the man of the match that was given to Troy Deeney who then had to be interviewed for the television.  As the players did a lap of the ground to thank the fans, Kabasele came over and gave his shirt to a young child at the front of the Rookery.  While all this was going on, I had kept my eye on Pearson who had enthusiastically congratulated every player and stood and waited for Troy to finish his TV commitment before hugging him and then retreating to the dressing room.

Back in the West Herts, the smiles were wide and we all seem to have fallen in love with football again.  While discussing all that was good in the game, every player came in for some praise.  I have to say that, while Deeney was given the plaudits from the broadcaster, my award would have gone to Hughes who was everywhere and gave the United players no time on the ball.  Sarr was excellent again and Deulofeu was a menace even though his decision-making has me screaming with frustration (while knowing that if it was better he wouldn’t be playing for us).  My sister had observed during the game that she was looking at these famous names on the United shirts while not seeing performances that matched those reputations.  A lot of that was down to the way that our team played.  There was great quality in our play, but it was the hard work that made the difference.  The United players were given no time or space to play and that made the difference.  Pearson has only been with Watford for a short time, but he has instilled a discipline in the team that seems to be making a difference and the future appears to be much more positive,

Happy Christmas to all of my readers.  I hope you have a wonderful time and an extra belated Christmas present on Boxing Day.

 

A Surprisingly Fun Visit to Liverpool

Nigel Pearson and Craig Shakespeare in the Watford dug-out

This was to be Nigel Pearson’s first match in charge, and I have to say that I had enjoyed reading social media during the week.  Pearson is clearly well liked by his colleagues and former players and the comments from Leicester fans showed that he is held in very high esteem in those parts.  As if that wasn’t enough, I must admit to cheering when Craig Shakespeare was confirmed as Assistant Head Coach.

As one of my oldest and dearest friends lives on Merseyside, I travelled up on Friday afternoon to spend the evening with them.  But the early kick-off meant an early start from theirs and it did not bode well for the afternoon when I found myself caught in a hailstorm on the way to the station to catch the train into the city.

Despite information indicating that the pub wouldn’t be open until 11, the doors had opened before my arrival and there were already some familiar faces inside.  Our party gathered, but a delayed flight from Amsterdam and delayed trains at Milton Keynes meant that two of our usual group were not going to make kick-off.  After a swift pint or two, we headed to the ground.

Mapps, Sarr, Doucoure (and Mane) in the sleet

The buses to Anfield had returned to the stop opposite Doctor Duncan’s and it was noted that there had been long queues there since about 10:30.  We left the pub at a reasonable time but the length of the queue meant that, by the time we reached the front, the steward was telling us that we were on the last bus and it was already leaving later than planned (12:10).  Having estimated that the bus would take 20 minutes to get to Anfield, I was getting rather tense at the late departure and Pete, sitting next to me, was becoming very apologetic about having had a second pint.

Team news for Nigel Pearson’s first match in charge was that he had made two changes from the Palace game with Mariappa and Hughes coming in for Masina and Pereyra, who were both out with injuries.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Capoue, Doucouré; Deulofeu, Hughes, Sarr; Deeney.  There had been rumours in the pub that, due to the two midweek games that Liverpool were facing, they would play a much weakened team, possibly packed with youth players.  When the Liverpool team came through, that couldn’t have been further from the truth and I started to feel very nervous indeed.

The bus arrived at the ground with 10 minutes to spare and, to my great relief, I found myself in the stand just as the game kicked off.

Ben Foster launches a free kick

Our seats were located quite high up in a corner of the ground.  The sun was very low over the opposite stand and, with a lot of tall people in front of me, I could see little of what was going on and absolutely nothing at our end of the ground.  So, I was aware that there had been some early possession from the home side, but hadn’t seen any action (or heard any reaction from the crowd) that suggested anything resembling a goal chance.  On 6 minutes, Sarr broke forward and played a lovely ball across the Liverpool box, but nobody was there to turn the ball in.  Quite early on there was a chant from around us of “How sh*t must you be, it’s only 0-0.”  My heart sank until I heard someone shout that it was a terrible song and we should be positive.  Another voice spoke up in support of that view and my faith in our travelling support was restored.  Goal chances were few and far between until a little flurry at the midpoint of the half.  First for the home side when Henderson broke into the box and shot over the bar.  Then Hughes won the ball in the midfield, advanced and shot just wide of the target.  The first caution of the game went to Hughes who was booked for a foul on Henderson.  There was little excitement on the pitch but, over the tannoy, we were told to ‘stand by for Operation Anfield exercise’ and the tension in the air was palpable.  But the exercise came and went and we were none the wiser.

Hughes and Deulofeu line up a free kick as Kiko looks on

The home side had a shout for a penalty when Mané found Salah in the box and the Egyptian took a tumble, but the referee waved play on.  Watford then had a half chance when Deeney headed the ball down to Doucouré, but Van Dijk was on hand to make the clearance.  The home side had a chance from a corner, but Alexander-Arnold’s delivery was easily claimed by Foster.  With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Watford should have taken the lead as Capoue played the ball back for Doucouré who miskicked horribly so failed to get a shot in when it looked easier to score.  To add insult to injury, the corner from Deulofeu was poor which allowed Mané to claim the ball and escape upfield before finding Salah whose shot curled past Foster.  At this point, bizarrely, there was a mass exodus from the home stand to our right.  There were still 8 minutes to go to half-time, but the lure of the concessions clearly trumped watching the match.  Watford had a gilt-edged chance to break back before half time when a shot from Deulofeu was saved by Allison, but he pushed it straight to Sarr in the box.  Unfortunately, the youngster’s mishit was even worse than Doucoure’s.  Henderson was the next to go into the referee’s book after pulling Deulofeu back.  Liverpool had a great chance to grab a second when Mané broke into the box, but Kabasele made a superb save to stop him.  So, the half finished with the Hornets a goal down, but it has to be said that we were very unlucky to be behind.

Andre Gray somewhat outnumbered

Watford had the first chance of the second half as Sarr broke into the Liverpool box, but Allison was able to make the save.  At the other end a shot from Salah was blocked by Kabasele.  Liverpool thought they had scored a second goal when Mané headed home, but the VAR decision was that the goal would not stand.  There was no explanation in the ground of why the goal had been disallowed, but it seemed the forward was deemed to be offside.  Deulofeu had a great chance to draw the Hornets level when he found himself with only Allison to beat, but the keeper was able to block the shot.  Sarr had been tormenting the opposition all afternoon and the next player to fall victim was Milner who was booked for tripping him up.   Liverpool were forced to make a substitution due to an injury to Wijnaldum who was replaced by Robertson.  The Hornets had a great chance to draw level as Capoue played a lovely ball over the top for Deeney, but the Watford captain could not apply the finishing touch.  Then Sarr broke into the area and was sent tumbling by Van Dijk, but the referee was unimpressed.  At the other end, Firmino hit a low shot, but Foster was down to make the save.  Another chance came and went for the home side as Salah broke into the box, but Kabasele was in close attendance and able to turn the ball back to Foster.  Then Salah found Firmino in the box, but it came to nothing as Foster was out to make the save.  With 20 minutes to go, Klopp made a second substitution replacing Shaqiri with Oxlade-Chamberlain.

The wonderful Hughes lines up a free kick

The home side threatened again when a cross found Firmino, but the shot was weak and easily gathered by Foster.  Pearson then made his first substitution replacing Deeney with Gray.  The Watford defence were in action again as a cross from Chamberlain was repelled by the head of Mariappa.  At the other end, another promising move came to nothing when Gray tried to release Sarr, but the touch was heavy and Gomez was able to clear.  A decent pass from Gray went begging as Doucouré hadn’t read the ball, but the Liverpool defence were asleep and, in panic, Van Dijk almost turned the ball into his own net but, instead, it went out for a corner.  On this occasion, Deulofeu’s delivery was decent but he could only hit the post.  Watford were fighting to get back on terms and should have done better when a free kick from Hughes was cleared to Sarr, but the shot was well wide of the target.  Then Sarr played the ball back to Doucouré whose shot was dreadful and cleared the bar.  That was Abdoulaye’s last action of the game as he was replaced by Quina.  At the same time Origi came on for Firmino for the home side.  The Liverpool fans were heading for the exits, so a good number of them will have missed the second goal and it was a disappointing one to concede as the Hornets failed to clear a ball into the box and Salah flicked home.  There was a final chance for Liverpool to extend their lead as Mané broke into the box, but he shot straight at Foster.

The magnificent Christian Kabasele

The final whistle went to cheers from all sides of the ground.  While the travelling Hornets enthusiastically applauded the players, I was very pleased to see Pearson telling his players to go over and applaud the fans.

It is strange to feel so positive after a defeat, but the performance had been very encouraging and we felt very unlucky to have lost.  Given the relative positions of the two teams at each end of the table, this game was much closer than it should have been and, but for the terrible finishing from the Hornets, this could have been an upset.

Sarr was a joy to watch.  He is now showing us why Gino Pozzo paid a club record fee for him.  The Liverpool defence were clearly scared of him as evidenced by the balls being thumped into the stands.  Hughes and Kabasele were also magnificent, their reputations are growing with each game.

The game coincided with a gig from one of my favourite artists, Ian Prowse, who, with his band Amsterdam, was playing his traditional Christmas gig in his hometown.  A number of us had bought tickets in the hope that this would give us some enjoyment from the day.  The early kick-off meant that we had a long time to kill between the game and the gig and this was spent on a crawl of some of the most attractive pubs in Liverpool.  During this, Mike continued to wear his Watford top and was approached by many locals (reds, blues and whites), all of whom congratulated us on our performance, with the Liverpool fans saying how much we had scared them.  It is always good to hear such a positive reaction from opposition fans.  Despite being bottom of the table, the hope has returned.

P.S.  The gig was magnificent and Ian Prowse now has a number of new fans among the travelling Hornets.