After the poor start to the season, the last thing that I needed to hear before this game was that Deeney was out after surgery and Doucouré and Pereyra were both doubtful due to injury. I had not been very hopeful anyway, but any vestiges of confidence disappeared completely.
I arrived at the West Herts at my usual time to see Don already in place, the rest of our crew gathered slowly. When the team news came through, a bloke at the other end of the table told his friends that they wouldn’t want to see it. So, I was rather relieved to discover that Gracia had been forced to make only the two changes with Cleverley and Gray coming in for Pereyra and Deeney. Doucouré had passed a late fitness test. So the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Cathcart, Dawson, Femenía; Capoue, Doucouré; Deulofeu, Cleverley, Hughes; Gray. Record signing, Sarr, was to make his first appearance on the bench.
As the teams came out, the Audentior banner was run up the centre of the Rookery.
After the past few games, when Foster has been wearing a disturbing shade of orange, it was good to see him sporting a blue shirt. Maybe this would herald a change in our fortunes.
Those hopes were dashed in a mad first couple of minutes. First Deulofeu tumbled in the West Ham box, the penalty appeal was waved away. The visitors then broke down the other end of the pitch, Cathcart put in a welcome tackle, but the ball broke to Lanzini who went down under a challenge from Doucouré and the referee pointed to the spot. The crowd in the Rookery behind the goal, tried their best to put Noble off, but he sent Foster the wrong way and the visitors were ahead. The Hornets had a great chance for an equaliser when Femenía surged down the wing, the ball reached Deulofeu by way of Hughes and Gray, but his shot hit the top of the crossbar, I felt that he should have done better. Watford had a really good spell of possession at this point, but the next chance fell to the visitors as Anderson broke forward and found Lanzini whose flicked shot was just wide. From the goal kick, Watford had a great chance to level the score, but Deulofeu’s shot was blocked by Diop. A lovely passing move from the Hornets finished with a shot from Doucouré being put behind for a corner which came to nothing. The equaliser came in the 17th minute when Hughes played in Gray who shot across Fabianski into the opposite corner. It was lovely to have a goal to celebrate at last and, given the positive way that we were playing, I now felt that we could get something from this game.
Gray had a decent chance to grab a second soon after, but his shot was wild and flew high and wide. At the other end, West Ham’s record signing Haller attempted an overhead kick, but Foster was equal to it. On 25 minutes, there was a break in the game for the players to take on water and cool down a bit. The rehydration was certainly needed, as the game had been end-to-end and played at quite a pace. The match restarted with a decent chance for the Hornets as Holebas put a great cross in for Gray, but the shot was terrible and flew wide of the near post. At the other end, Anderson tried his luck with a shot from distance that was deflected over the bar. The corner was met by the head of Ogbonna, but it was an easy catch for Foster. There were appeals for a penalty as Gray appeared to be fouled in the box while attempting to get on the end of a cross from Holebas. It was clear that the referee was checking via VAR, but he indicated that the previously awarded throw-in should go ahead. Watford created another good chance as Deulofeu played the ball out to Femenía, who put in a lovely cross for Doucouré whose header was deflected for a corner. The delivery from Holebas fell to Cleverley who shanked it way over the bar. The visitors should have increased their lead from a corner as Anderson’s shot came back off the inside of the far post, much to my relief.
So, the half-time whistle went with the score level. It had been an entertaining half of football with some lovely play from the Hornets but, as is so often the case, the finishing was wasteful.
During the break, there was a presentation about the WFC Community Trust’s Golden Memories programme. This is aimed at people with mild to moderate dementia and “will use a host of memorabilia and magic moments to stimulate the senses and evoke personal memories”. This was introduced by Hannah Foster who is the contact point for the programme (Hannah.firstname.lastname@example.org) with a guest appearance by Watford legend Tom Walley, who is suffering from dementia. I was delighted at the reception that Tom was given as he waved appreciatively to the crowd.
The first attack of the second half came from the Hornets, Deulofeu’s shot was blocked with a number in the Rookery claiming that it was stopped by a hand. The referee did not agree. At the other end Yarmolenko tried a looping shot, but Foster parried and then gathered at the second attempt. The Hornets should have taken the lead ten minutes into the half when a lovely ball from Deulofeu released Gray who rounded the goalkeeper before crossing for Hughes, who looked to have an easy tap in from close range but managed to knock the ball wide. West Ham made their first substitution as Antonio replaced Yarmolenko. The substitute almost made an immediate impact as he bore down on goal, but Foster came out to block the shot and then followed up to make a tackle outside the box and clear the ball. Watford had another excellent chance as Hughes played a lovely ball back to Deulofeu in the box, but the shot was straight at Fabianski. The first booking of the game went to Holebas (of course) for a poor tackle on Antonio. A minute later, the visitors retook the lead with a goal that was gifted to them by poor defending. Anderson was allowed to waltz into the box without a challenge before pulling the ball back for Haller to score. It was incredibly dispiriting after some excellent attacking work by the Hornets. The home side had a chance to hit back almost immediately as a free kick from Deulofeu was met by the head of Gray whose effort was just wide of the far post.
The Hornets threatened again after Cleverley made a tackle in midfield and advanced down the wing, the ball found its way to Deulofeu whose shot was easily caught by Fabianski. A nasty looking foul on Cleverley was not penalised, allowing the visitors to break, the resultant shot was deflected for a corner. Antonio was allowed a free header from Anderson’s delivery, Foster made an excellent save to keep it out, but he conceded another corner. Again, from the corner, Foster was equal to the header from Antonio, but he could only tip it onto the bar and Haller scored the rebound. While all this was going on, Welbeck and Sarr had been on the sidelines waiting to come on. They finally replaced Deulofeu and Hughes, but it looked like the substitutions were too late for the Hornets. Welbeck’s first meaningful attack was stopped short as he was taken down by Ogbonna, who was booked for his trouble. The visitors made a second substitution with Fornals replacing Anderson who angered the home fans by walking across the pitch instead of leaving at the touchline where he had been standing. Some good work from Sarr created a chance for Cleverley who spun and shot just over the target. Cleverley then turned provider, playing in Doucouré whose shot was saved by Fabianski. Watford continued to create chances as a corner reached Gray, who held off the defender before hitting a shot that was just wide of the target. Each side made a final substitution as Quina replaced Cleverley for the home side and Lanzini made way for Sanchez for the visitors. The Hornets had one last chance to reduce the deficit after a foul on Welbeck, but the free kick from Holebas was cleared to Capoue whose shot from distance flew over the bar. The final whistle went to boos from a good number of the home fans who had remained in the ground.
Back at the West Herts, our numbers were depleted as some of our group had made a rapid departure. But, as Jacque and I were going to have to get trains home that were likely to be packed with celebrating West Ham fans, we decided to have a couple of drinks to let the crowds disperse.
The post-match mood was sombre. As last week against Everton, we faced a team that we could and should have beaten, but we were undone by our lack of clinical finishing and the generosity of our defence. Dawson is getting a lot of criticism, but he was left exposed by Femenía who certainly adds to our attacking options but is so often missing in defence. I was encouraged by a lot of the forward play but, too often, the players wait for the perfect sight of goal and end up losing out to a defender.
As I sat there sulking, I commented to one of the West Herts regulars that I hate football. This started a conversation in which the complaints about the current performances were followed by reminiscences of watching football in the Furphy years, terrible pitches and away trips to Workington and Torquay with less than friendly welcomes from the locals. We then got on to a discussion of recent owners and how close we were to not having a club at all and suddenly the day’s defeat didn’t seem so bad. I have watched with horror the goings on at Bolton and Bury in recent months. Knowing how easily that could have been our fate, I find it hard to get too despondent about a couple of Premier League defeats. I have every confidence that we can turn this poor run of form around and in years to come we will be looking back on these as the good old days.