It is a nice short journey from London to Leicester and the rail connections are excellent, but I was still surprised to arrive at St Pancras and see that there were two trains leaving within 3 minutes of each other, so took another look at my ticket to ensure I was on the one I had booked. I took my allocated seat and found myself opposite a young Watford fan who was wearing rainbow laces in support of the Stonewall campaign to stop homophobia in the game. I admired his choice while feeling somewhat ashamed that my boots were zipped, so I was not able to join in.
Arriving in the designated pub before midday, it was already very busy and there were a number of the Watford regular away travellers in situ. The pub has a great selection of real ale and there was a chocolate orange stout on offer that seemed to be a particular favourite with that group, but I went for the safer option of the local bitter. Our party soon gathered and one or two did sample the stout, but there were eyebrows raised at my sister’s tipple. Raspberry gin just doesn’t seem right pre match.
Team news was that Gracia had made two changes bringing Holebas and Success in for Masina and Deeney. So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu and Success.
Prior to the teams taking the field, the 1881 unveiled two banners that they had crowdfunded to pay tribute to Khun Vichai and the other victims of the tragic helicopter crash. When the large one was unfurled, I found myself under it, but I could see the Leicester fans in the stand to the left of us and they were all on their feet applauding. After a short time the banner was surfed across the stand and it was lovely to see it move from the away to the home stand and to be moved around as it would have been in the Rookery. The appreciation of the home fans was reflected by the Leicester announcer who started his reading of the team sheets with “To the Watford fans, thank-you.”
Watford had the first chance of the game as Deulofeu and Pereyra combined to advance before finding Doucouré whose shot was deflected for a corner that came to nothing. But disaster struck for the Hornets on 11 minutes as Vardy ran on to a through ball in to the box, Foster came out to challenge, Vardy went down and the referee pointed to the spot. The challenge was right in front of us and looked like a definite penalty, although the Leicester man did go down rather easily. Vardy doesn’t miss those chances and powered past Foster to give the home side an early lead.
The visitors tried to strike back immediately as some great work led to a corner, the delivery from Holebas was met by the head of Success, but Schmeichel got a hand to it and it went out for another corner. Watford were two goals down soon after as a mistake in the midfield gifted the ball to the opposition, Albrighton played a long pass to Maddison, who shook off the attentions of the Watford defenders with a bit of ball juggling before volleying past Foster. The Foxes had a chance to increase their lead further, but Pereira shot over the target. They threatened again as the ball was played through the legs of Doucouré to Demarai Gray whose shot was deflected for a corner. This was taken short and turned into a chance for the Hornets when an attempted forward pass hit Deulofeu who broke at speed, and found Success, who should have done better, but shot over the target. At this point, word spread through the away end that Vichai’s son, Khun Top, would pay for all the food and drink consumed by the away fans at half time. A lovely gesture. But there was still action on the pitch and in the last minute of the half Watford won a free kick. It took an age to take as the referee insisted that it was taken from a certain spot, inches from where it had originally been placed, and Deulofeu’s delivery disappointingly cleared the bar.
So we reached half time two goals down due to Leicester making the most of the few chances that they had. A decent contingent of the away support made their way to the concourse to drown their sorrows and, as promised, the beer (and tea and coffee) flowed and the tills were closed.
Watford had the first chance of the second half as the ball was crossed to Success in the box, but he had no space and just side footed it into an area occupied by Leicester players. Then Deulofeu found Success in space in the box and, with an open goal in front of him, he passed the ball to Schmeichel. Deulofeu broke again, this time finding Pereyra whose shot was agonizingly just wide of the far post. Gracia made a double substitution at this point with Deulofeu, who had created a great deal, and Pereyra, who had another quiet game, making way for Gray and Deeney. It was an attacking substitution, but the home side had the next chance and I was mightily relieved to see Demarai Gray’s shot rebound off the post. The first caution of the game went to Albrighton for handball. The Hornets should have pulled a goal back when Holebas crossed for Andre Gray, who had a free header but managed to direct it wide of the target. The Watford man had another chance soon after as Success played the ball back to him, but he wasn’t expecting it and hit a shot that looked more like a cross and drifted wide. The home side made a couple of substitutions with first Söyüncü replacing Gray and then Iheanacho coming on for Vardy. Watford had another promising chance as Femenía crossed for Success, he played it back to Gray who horribly miskicked the ball and the danger was gone. Gracia made his last change bringing Chalobah on for Hughes. Watford had another chance to get on the scoresheet from a corner as the ball was headed out to Doucouré, but his shot flew over the bar. Then there was more frustration for the travelling Hornets as a cross from Femenía was blocked, the ball fell to Chalobah but his shot was also blocked. The first card for the visitors was shown to Success for a high boot, although he didn’t seem to make much contact, so it appeared rather harsh. Puel made his final substitution bringing Iborra on for Evans. In time added on, the Hornets were reduced to ten men as Capoue was dismissed for a coming together with Iheanacho. I didn’t see the contact at the time, but the television pictures indicated that it was a very harsh decision. The last chance of the game fell to the home side as Maddison tried a shot from distance, but Foster was equal to it.
As the players came over to thank the fans they faced the additional challenge of a phalanx of mowers that had been employed to trim the pitch. Leicester stewards have a reputation for being inflexible and aggressive but this level of weaponry was a new one on me.
After another defeat for the Hornets, the overwhelming feeling among the away following was frustration. It had not been a bad performance, but our defence had been unable to cope with the Leicester counter attacks, while our domination of the possession and goal attempts did not lead to one on target shot. For all the complaints about tactics and personnel, all the ‘strikers’ had their chances and not one of them tested the Leicester keeper. It is hard to know how to remedy that. We face Manchester City on Tuesday and, given their form, I am sorely tempted to go to the Herts Senior Cup game in Leverstock Green instead (I won’t).
But, despite the disappointment on the pitch, what we will remember from this game is the kindness of the 1881 in commissioning a banner to pay tribute to Leicester’s chairman and the reaction that this provoked from both his family and the fans. It was an emotional moment as the banner was unfurled in the away end, but when I saw Top’s reaction on Match of the Day, it was clear how much it meant to him. There are bitter rivalries on the pitch, but we are all football fans and that camaraderie between fans of different teams in times of trouble is what makes being a football fan special. Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was not a Leicester native, but he made a tremendous difference to the lives of the people of that city and will be fondly remembered for what he did for both the football team and the city. May he rest in peace.