Why is it that when you are taking the afternoon off work, nobody speaks to you until a couple of minutes before you are due to leave and then it is a crisis that has to be dealt with? I must have appeared very rude as I packed my bag and changed into my walking shoes while answering the questions coming my way, but I had a train to catch.
Once I left the office, it was a nice easy journey to Stoke, and having opted to travel first class, there was the delight of a glass of wine with my late lunch. When I arrived at the hotel, I was happy to see a number of regulars milling around the foyer and the bar. I was soon joined by my companions for the evening and we headed for the pub. The pre-match pub at Stoke is lovely. In previous years it has had a sign indicating that it is home fans only (not that we have ever been turned away). That was missing on this occasion and, as always, there was a nice mix of home and away fans present. One of the main topics of conversation was the dreadful behaviour of the Watford fans at Southampton and the belief that we wouldn’t be seeing that section of the support on a cold night in Stoke.
We set off for the ground in plenty of time. I must admit that the walk along the towpath isn’t the most picturesque in daylight. On a dark Winter’s evening, there was nothing to see but the lights of the stadium which shone in the distance welcoming us.
Team news was that Gracia had made four changes for his first game in the Premier League giving a debut to Deulofeu in place of Carrillo, with Deeney, Cleverley and Prödl coming in for Gray, Watson and Janmaat. So the starting line-up was Karnezis; Mariappa, Kabasele, Prödl, Holebas; Doucouré, Cleverley; Deulofeu, Capoue, Richarlison; Deeney.
Watford started brightly as a cross from Holebas was met by Prödl, but Butland was equal to the shot. The first chance for the home side came as a cross from Adam was flicked wide by Diouf. Watford had a great shout for a penalty as Deulofeu appeared to be thrown to the ground in the box, but the referee saw no infringement. Then Richarlison pulled the ball back for Cleverley whose shot was over the bar. The first booking of the game was earned by Kabasele for a push on Shaqiri. Stoke earned their first booking soon after when Adam was cautioned for a trip on Richarlison. At this point in the game, I couldn’t help but notice how different the crowd were from Saturday. Lots of positive chants in support of our team and, on transfer deadline day, there was a lot of love for Deeney and the fact that he would finish the season as a Watford player. The home side had a great chance to open the scoring as a quick break finished with a shot from Adam that was stopped by a brilliant block from Mariappa, Choupo-Moting picked up the loose ball and curled a shot just wide of the far post.
It was then Watford’s turn to break forward and Butland needed two attempts to gather the cross from Holebas. Bauer was the next to be cautioned for a nasty tackle on Cleverley. His reaction was pure outrage pointing out that he had played the ball (as well as the man). Utterly ridiculous. A decent free-kick from Holebas was headed goalwards by Doucouré, but Adam managed to clear the shot off the line. The resultant corner from Holebas bounced off the crossbar. Watford threatened again when Cleverley picked up a loose ball in midfield, he played a square ball to Doucouré whose weak shot was easy for Butland. The final chance of the half fell to the Hornets as Deulofeu broke forward and crossed for Richarlison whose shot flew over the bar.
As the players walked towards the tunnel in the corner by the away fans for the half time break, they were cheered off the pitch. It had been a much better performance than of late, with considerably more effort and energy on show. Deulofeu had made a lively debut, Mariappa had done very well fitting in at right back and even Capoue had put in a decent shift.
The first action of the second half was a booking for Holebas for a foul on Diouf. Adam took the free kick, his low shot was easy for Karnezis. There was another booking when Kabasele was knocked to the ground by Diouf. I didn’t see the foul, but a number of comments post-match indicated that his reaction to the contact was over the top, which was interesting as the other Watford players reacted as if it had been a nasty challenge. A lovely Watford move started with a break by Doucouré, who found Deulofeu, he flicked the ball on to Richarlison whose shot was deflected wide. From the corner there was a total mishit from Deulofeu, allowing Stoke to break down the other end where Allen shot over the target. Stoke made a substitution just before the hour mark replacing Adam with Crouch. We had Karnezis to thank for keeping the game goalless as he pulled off a superb double save, first from Shaqiri, then the rebound from Crouch. The Stoke substitute was having a lively start to the game and, soon after, he got on the end of a cross from Diouf but was forced to turn it wide under pressure from Mariappa. Watford’s first substitution saw Richarlison make way for Gray. I have to say that the young Brazilian appeared devastated at being taken off. The Watford substitute was soon involved in the action as he played the ball to Doucouré whose shot was stopped by a great block from Shawcross.
Watford’s next substitution was enforced as Pereyra came on for Cleverley who had appeared to go down with a hamstring injury. The Stoke fans were less than sympathetic yelling at him for being a cheat. Charming! Watford continued to look for the breakthrough as Doucouré won the ball in the midfield before finding Pereyra whose shot was deflected for a corner. There was an even better chance in the next move after Deulofeu beat a couple of players before the ball found its way to Pereyra but, again, Butland was equal to the strike, pushing it out for a corner. The set piece was played out to Doucouré who shot wide of the target. There was a late change for each side as Berahino replaced Diouf and Carrillo came on for Deulofeu, who went off to appreciative applause from the travelling Hornets. The last chance of the game fell to the home side as a corner from Shaqiri was met by the head of Shawcross, but it was an easy save for Karnezis and the game finished goalless.
It was a game of little quality, but plenty of action and endeavour and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At the end of the game, the players were warmly applauded and Pereyra and Kabasele, who had been abused at the end of the previous game, handed over their shirts to smiling fans. While a goalless draw at Stoke wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of a good night out, it was a point well won and I left the ground with a big smile on my face.
After a swift glass of red at the pub, we headed back to the hotel and spent a late night in the lounge with a large number of Watford fans. Everyone in attendance had thoroughly enjoyed the performance and were happy to have been part of a more positive crowd. One fan had actually contemplated staying at home due to the unpleasantness of the crowd on Saturday. Thankfully he hadn’t and had his faith in his fellow fans restored.
The rest of the season will not be easy but there were more than enough positives in that performance and, if we all pull together, we could have an end to the season that is as much fun as the start was and that is something to look forward to.