Tag Archives: Mark Noble

A Goal at Last, but No Points

Gathering for a corner

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.

Cleverley congraulates Gray on his goal

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.

Cleverley getting into position while Kiko is distracted

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.foster@watfordfc.com) 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.

Capoue and Cleverley wait for the ball in

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.

Sarr and Welbeck waiting to come on

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.

Our first sight of record signing, Sarr

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.


No Way, Jose

Don and I with Capoue and Mariappa

The end of season dinner took place last Thursday and was a really lovely evening.  The first person of note that I encountered was Gino Pozzo. As he walked past me, I thanked him and he smiled. He was busy at that point, so I didn’t bother him.  The Taylor family were out in force as usual and I had a hug from Rita and a chat with Karen.

One of our party is an old friend of Caroline Robinson, so was delighted to be there to see Paul inducted into the Hall of Fame. Paul’s speech was really heart-warming. He spoke with such passion about his time at Watford and how he didn’t want to leave. He also paid warm tribute to Luther, Gibbsy and, of course, GT in the course of which he thanked Rita for all that they did for him. Our present leadership did him proud as he was given a table for 10 so his parents and in-laws were there with Paul, Caroline and their 4 children rather than sitting at home baby-sitting.  His youngest son spent the rest of the evening walking around clutching his trophy.

Javi had a smile and a hug for everyone

Young player of the season was Domingos Quina. His message was that he just wants to play. I hope that we see a lot more of him.  Players’ Player was Ben Foster who was rightly lauded for his positive attitude and sense of humour.  Despite a sterling effort by Alice to garner enough votes for José Holebas, Gerard Deulofeu won the Individual Performance of the Season for his tremendous substitute performance at the semi-final. He also won the Goal of the Season (of course). He paid tribute to his teammates and said that it was all about winning as a team. Last year I was trying to persuade him that Watford was a much better location than Barcelona. This year he seemed very happy to have made the move.

Player of the Season was a fight between Holebas, Foster and Etienne Capoue.  Capoue was the very worthy winner and his speech was lovely. “I love my club and I love the fans.” He is such a warm, smiley guy. I have loved watching him on the pitch this season and he was equally lovely off the pitch.

Javi was surrounded by fans all evening and had a smile and a hug for all of them.  The same was true, as it is every year, of Troy and Heurelho. Both Watford legends who have so much time for the fans.  I love them both.

But I think my highlight of the evening was my second encounter with Gino. I had spent the evening saying “Thank-you” to all the players and staff that I met, but Gino deserved that extra heartfelt thanks, especially with the recent re-emergence of Bassini bringing back so many horrible memories. Gino and his wife were absolutely lovely, countering my thanks with their own for my support of the club. I came away a little gobsmacked and very touched.

The jumper from the 84 cup final, a thing of great beauty

Sunday was the sixth anniversary of the play-off semi-final against Leicester.  A game that must be among the favourites of all Watford fans who were in attendance.  I still howl at the injustice when the penalty is given and squeal with delight at the double save, shout “don’t try to shoot” at Hoggy and then DEENEY!!!!  The memory gives me goosepimples and reminds me why I love football so much.

I was in Watford bright and early in order to visit the exhibition at the Museum.  As I walked down the High Street, I encountered a chancer selling dodgy looking merchandise and wearing a shirt bearing the legend “Garcia’s Cup Final Heroes.”  I said, “You do know his name is Gracia.”  He laughed, “Yes, I’ll fix it tomorrow.”  Hmmm.

On arrival at the museum, I was very happy to see my friend, Sarah, welcoming visitors.  While there I took the opportunity to buy the “Hornet Heaven” collection so I will have something to read during the close season.  The exhibition was a look back at our previous Wembley finals and was absolutely lovely.  There were lots of mementoes of the previous events, including medals that belonged to GT and Nigel Gibbs.  A wonderful jumper with “Taylor Made for Wembley” and the 84 players’ names knitted into bands around the waist and cuffs.  My friend, Farzana, had contributed knitted versions of Deeney, Gomes, Deulofeu and Mariappa.  The attention to detail was stunning.  As if that wasn’t enough, I was thrilled to be able to (don white gloves and) hold the Play-off final trophy.  What an honour.  Sarah and Farzana had put on a crafting day on Saturday for children (and adults) to come along and make rosettes and bunting.  The room was still open and I know of more than one adult who took the opportunity to make themselves a rosette for Wembley.  While there, a number of old friends arrived, so it was lovely to catch up.

Holding the play-off trophy

It says a lot about my matchday habits that I was horrified to be arriving at the West Herts at 1:30, which seemed to be obscenely late.  Still, I managed to fit in a couple of beers, some lunch, pork scratchings and fill a goody bag of sweets, so all the requisite boxes were ticked.

Team news was that Gracia had made two changes from the Chelsea game bringing Capoue and Kabasele in for Chalobah and Mariappa.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Kabasele, Cathcart, Femenía; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes; Deulofeu, Deeney.

One of my pre-match rituals is to don my replica shirt when I get to my seat, so I was horrified when I could not find my shirt in my bag.  I panicked, came to terms with the fact that I hadn’t brought it, then took one last rummage and found it at the bottom, hidden under the books and swag that I had acquired at the museum.  What a relief!!

The Hornets started the game very brightly and Deulofeu had the ball in the net within the first minute, but I stayed in my seat as I had already seen that the flag was up for offside.  Geri had another decent chance soon after with a shot from the edge of the area, but Fabianski was down to make the save.  A lovely passage of play finished with a cross from Hughes that was blocked for a corner, from which Pereyra played the ball back to Doucouré whose shot was deflected wide.  From this corner, the ball dropped to Hughes whose overhead kick was saved by Fabianski.

Hughes shouting instructions as Capoue looks worried

The first chance for the visitors came as Antonio won a free kick on the edge of the box.  It was in a dangerous position, but Lanzini’s delivery was dreadful and went out of play.  So, it was against the run of play when Noble opened the scoring in the 15th minute after exchanging passes with Antonio, he beat Kabasele and finished into the bottom corner.  A dispiriting turn of events, but there was still a long way to go.  The Hammers had a chance to extend their lead from a free kick, Lanzini’s delivery was headed clear by Capoue, but only as far as Antonio whose shot from distance was wide of the target.  The visitors were forced into an early change as an injury to Fredericks meant that he had to be replaced by Zabaleta.  Deulofeu tested Fabianski again with a lovely shot, but the keeper was equal to it.  Then Pereyra received a cross from Holebas, turned and shot, but it was an easy catch for Fabianski.  Pereyra went on a run which looked very promising when Zabaleta slipped, allowing him a clear path to goal, but he squared the ball instead of shooting and it went out for a corner.   Yet again Watford were made to rue missed chances, as a shot from Antonio was turned onto the bar by Foster and Lanzini headed the rebound home.  Watford could have pulled one back with the last kick of the half, but Deeney’s close range shot was cleared off the line.  So we went into the break two goals down and, yet again, feeling that it didn’t reflect the balance of play.  West Ham had scored with their only two on-target shots of the half.

Mike being interviewed after winning the Supporter of the Season award

At half time, the Supporter of the Season award was presented to my dear friend, Mike Raggett, in honour of his sterling work for the Community Trust including the gorgeous book that was produced for their 25th anniversary that was pretty much all his own work (and was a lot of work).  He was introduced to the Hornets by his lovely wife, Dee, who we sadly lost a couple of years ago, so it was also a fitting tribute to her memory.  Academy player of the season was Daniel Phillips.  Watford Ladies Player of the Season was their captain, Helen Ward.

I was just sitting down for the second half after kick-off when I heard a shout and looked up to see Deulofeu rounding Fabianski and slotting the ball into the net.  He celebrated briefly, but the team quickly returned to the centre circle in order to ensure a quick restart.  The smiles were soon taken off our faces as Antonio went down under a challenge from Holebas.  He had been so easily knocked off his feet during the first half, that I was sure the referee would give the decision against him.  Instead, after intervention from the linesman, he brandished a red card and José was sent to the dressing room.  My blood ran cold.  The photo of Wilf Rostron when he realised that he was being sent off and would miss the cup final in 1984 is etched on my memory.  It still hurts that such a lovely bloke missed the biggest game of his career.  The idea that another left back, one who is so passionate and has been so great for us this season, would suffer the same fate was almost too much to bear.

Goalscorer Deulofeu

The Hornets had a great chance for an equaliser as Deulofeu broke into the box and, for once, did the unselfish thing and passed to Doucouré, the ball was cut out and cleared, if Geri had been selfish and taken a shot the game would likely have been level. Deulofeu had another chance almost immediately, this time he tried to chip the keeper, but Fabianski was able to make the catch.  Pereyra was the next one to fashion a chance as he ran into the box but was muscled off the ball and the chance was gone.  At the other end, there was a rare chance for the visitors as Arnautović hit a shot from distance well over the bar.  Gracia’s first substitution was also forced on him as Deulofeu picked up a knock and had to be replaced by Gray.  There was a shout for a penalty as Gray was bundled over in the box, but the referee gave a corner.  Watford threatened again as Femenía put a decent cross into the box, both Deeney and Gray jumped for it, but neither could make the necessary connection.  Another great opportunity went begging when a low cross from Hughes found Deeney, but the captain was unable to control the ball and it went out for a goal kick.  At the midpoint of the half, both teams made a substitution with Wilshere replacing Lanzini for the visitors and Hughes making way for Masina for the Hornets.  The visitors threatened again as Arnautović broke into the box and tried a shot, but Foster was equal to it.

Challenging in the West Ham box

West Ham’s third goal came soon after.  A volley from Anderson bounced back off the post and Arnautović was on hand to put in the rebound.  I think the heads of everyone to do with Watford dropped at this point.  West Ham had another chance as Antonio tried to chip Foster, but the Watford stopper did well to make the save.  Antonio went down again, this time under a challenge from Femenía in the box, and the referee pointed to the spot.  Before they could take the penalty, Gracia made his final substitution replacing Kabasele with Mariappa.  When Noble finally stepped up to take the spot kick, he sent Foster the wrong way and the rout was complete.  At this point the ground started to empty, much to my annoyance, which was voiced by a guy in the next block to me who sang “loyal supporters” to those departing.  The visitors made their final change with Sánchez coming on in place of Rice.  The Hornets had a couple of late chances to spare their blushes.  First, from a Mariappa throw-in, Deeney tried a back header but Fabianski made the save.  Then a cross from Doucouré found Deeney whose shot swept wide of the target.  There was just time for Capoue to pick up a record 14th yellow card for the season and the referee blew up to put us out of our misery.

Gomes addressing the crowd

I am pleased to report that the final whistle was met with applause from those left in the Rookery.  Those who stayed were treated to the presentation of the main player awards for the season, a farewell speech from Gomes, several of the kids having their Makka Salah moment (although there was a mini goalie involved on this occasion) and an unprovoked attack on Harry Hornet by a group of the younger children.  I have to say that we were highly amused to see Nate Chalobah taking a series of photos of various members of his family with Harry.  They certainly let him know who they thought was the star.

I hate leaving the ground after the last match of the season, so left very late and saw José and Diana Holebas walking towards me.  He looked devastated and I could only say thank you to him for all that he has done for us this season.


Knitted Deulofeu

Back to the West Herts for our final post-match drinks of the season.  Mike was there, proudly showing off his Supporter of the Season trophy.  But, apart from celebrating Mike’s success, the mood was somewhat sombre.  We had only needed a point to achieve a top half finish and I was gutted that we hadn’t managed to do that.  However, I took a deep breath and remembered that my hope at the start of the season was just that we would finish higher than we had in the seasons since our return to the top division.  My optimistic prediction had been 12th and we had surpassed that.  Watford haven’t had a top half finish in the top division since the first GT era, so this was something to celebrate.  When you add to that the fact that we are in an FA Cup Final for only the second time in our history, this will go down as one of the best seasons that we have ever experienced.  So, despite the disappointing end, the memories of this season will be mostly joyous.

However, the thing that was really upsetting me was the sending off of José Holebas.  I still have not got over the injustice done to Wilf Rostron in 1984.  My sister took a banner to the final declaring “Wilf is Innocent”.  I have never forgiven either Roger Milford or Paul Elliott for their parts in him missing the cup final.  The thought that Jose Holebas, who has become a bit of a cult figure for his Eeyore-like demeanour but has also been one of our best players this season, was going to miss the final broke my heart.  I have to say that it was a good thing that I chose to work from home today as, when the news came through that the red card had been overturned, I sobbed uncontrollably.  Suddenly there is a good omen for next Saturday.  Jose is innocent and the Hornets have the opportunity to choose from their best players for the final.  Our chances are slim, but in a cup game you never know.  As long as we all take our best game to Wembley, we have a chance. Oh, there go those nerves again.

Jingle Bells

Challenging at a corner in front of the home fans

I had started a cold on Friday, so was very grateful that the last Saturday before Christmas was mild and sunny, absolutely gorgeous.  I made my way to the designated pre-game pub to find Pete and Mike had made themselves comfortable on a sofa in the corner.  Even better when one of them went and bought me a beer.  Mike had not enjoyed his first pint so had opted to try something else, but got more than he bargained for when it turned out that he had bought a packet of smokey bacon crisps in liquid form.  I was sceptical when he described the beer, but one sip confirmed the truth of his taste test.  My brother-in-law is a West Ham season ticket holder, so joined my sister and I for the pre-match drinks if not for the game.  Being a local, he was a great help on the way to the ground, sending us on what appeared to be a huge detour but actually meant that the queue to get through security was very small.  I have to say that the young man who ‘searched’ me only glanced in my bag and waved his security wand in my general direction before letting me through.  Clearly I didn’t look likely to be smuggling anything in.

Team news was that Gracia had made one change with Capoue returning from suspension in place of Quina.  A slightly surprising move as the lad had played exceptionally well and most thought that Sema would have made way, although this would have meant a change in formation that Gracia clearly didn’t want.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Sema, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deeney and Deulofeu.

Celebrating Deeney’s penalty

The home side had an excellent early chance which was snuffed out as Kabasele intervened to prevent Hernández from connecting with a cross.  Their first goal attempt came from a corner that was met by the head of Rice, but Foster was equal to the header.  The Hornets’ first chance of the game came in the 18th minute as Deeney met a cross from Femenía with a shot that was deflected for a corner.  Antonio then tried a shot from distance that was met by a terrific save from Foster.  Just before the half hour mark, Pereyra played a one-two with Deulofeu and was through on goal when he was taken down by Balbuena.  The referee immediately pointed to the spot, but Troy had to wait an age to take the penalty as the West Ham man had picked up an injury making the tackle and needed treatment.  After a long wait, Troy stepped up and, with the West Ham fans behind the goal doing their very best to put him off, coolly smashed the ball into the top corner to give the Hornets the lead.  Balbuena was unable to run off the injury, so soon made way for Ogbonna.  A theatrical tumble into the box by Antonio was only rewarded with a free kick on the edge of the area which Snodgrass powered into the wall.  The home side had an excellent chance to draw level when a cross from Anderson was headed down by Antonio to Hernández who hit a sweet volley goalwards, but Foster pulled off an excellent save.  In time added on, Watford had a great chance to increase their lead as Deulofeu released Deeney, his first shot was blocked and, sadly, he curled the follow-up wide of the target.

Capoue beating Snodgrass

So we reached half time a goal to the good.  It had been a pretty even half with few chances but it has to be said that the best of them had fallen to the home side.  Again, Foster was performing heroics.

West Ham almost had an equalizer five minutes into the second half, as a corner from Snodgrass was headed against the post by Antonio, from our angle it appeared to have gone in so we were very happy to see the clearance.  The first caution for the Hornets went to Kabasele for a foul on Snodgrass.  The resultant free-kick by Anderson was straight into the wall.  Before the free kick was taken, West Ham made their second change bringing Carroll on for Noble.  West Ham looked to draw level with a shot from distance from Masuaku, but again it was saved by Foster.  Holebas received his customary yellow card, likely for a foul on Hernandez, but he didn’t do himself any favours by then having a row with Snodgrass.  Watford had a decent chance of a second goal when Doucouré found Pereyra whose low shot was parried by Fabianski, and Deeney was unable to take advantage.   West Ham should have equalized when Anderson made his way into the box and laid the ball on to Hernández who completely miskicked and Foster was able to gather easily.

Waiting for a corner

Watford should have increased their lead on 71 minutes as Deulofeu found Doucouré whose magnificent shot was met by a blinding save from Fabianski.  Doucouré then turned hero in the other box, taking the ball off Hernández when he looked sure to score.  Each side made a substitution with 15 minutes to go as Sema made way for Cleverley for the Hornets and Diangana replaced Hernandez for the home side.  Carroll had a chance to break back with an acrobatic shot but it was a rather poor effort and cleared the bar.  Watford should have put the game to bed when Deulofeu put Deeney through into the box but, with only Fabianski to beat, he hit a low shot straight at the keeper to screams of frustration from the away end.  Cleverley then tried his luck with a shot from wide on the right but again it was straight at Fabianski.  The Watford goal was living a charmed life as Foster did well to save a shot from Snodgrass, but the rebound dropped to Antonio who looked sure to score but the shot rebounded off the post much to the relief of the travelling Hornets.  Gracia made his second change at this point replacing Deeney with Success to howls of protest from our section of the away end.  Why on earth would he replace Deeney?  It should really have been Deulofeu who had not had his best game (my thoughts at the time, which have been rather discredited as I reread my notes).

Celebrating Deulofeu’s strike in front of the away fans

Foster was in action again almost immediately tipping a header from Carroll over the bar.  Then we had one of those, “what the hell do we know about football” moments as Deulofeu played a one-two with Pereyra before beating Fabianski right in front of us and sending the away end into raptures (while readying to eat a large slice of humble pie).  Surely that lovely goal had to seal the win.  Certainly the home fans thought so as, when I had finished celebrating the goal, I looked up at the stands to see that the home sections of the stadium were almost empty.  It was quite shocking.  The announcement of 3 minutes of added time was greeted with hysterical giggling from one of our party who couldn’t quite believe our luck.  There was just time for goal hero Deulofeu to be replaced by Mariappa, and Diop to be booked for a foul on Success before the final whistle went to confirm Watford’s win.

As we left the ground, there was much festive joy among the travelling Hornets and the concourse rang out to a loud chorus of “Jingle Bells (Oh what fun it is to see Watford win away)”.  My sister was trying to get all of her celebrating out of the way before meeting her husband (who is a really good bloke and takes defeat very sportingly), particularly as she had a text from her (Watford supporting) daughter telling her to “Be nice to Dad.”

Applauding the fans after the final whistle

Transport ninja, Richard, had us back in the pub, via a quick train hop, in no time at all.  Made all the more impressive when the others, who I assumed must have gone straight home, turned up about 10 minutes later.  The post-match gathering was very happy indeed.  West Ham had been on a great run of form, so this had to be considered to be an excellent win and three very welcome points.  The match had been pretty even, with some great chances for both teams, but a combination of Ben Foster and the woodwork had ensured that we kept a clean sheet.  Again we played some lovely football, while showing resilience at the back, and Capoue returned from suspension playing as if he had never been away.  So we go into Christmas with 27 points and in seventh place in the table.  Happy Christmas one and all!

Disappointing Afternoon at the London Stadium

Capoue and Holebas taking a free kick

After the cold night out in Stoke, I started feeling unwell.  At first I thought it was the late night that was catching up with me, but I felt worse and worse as the week went on and spent the whole weekend curled up on the sofa.  I haven’t missed a game all season and agonised about not going to the Chelsea game on Monday.  But I had seen so many people laid really low with that nasty cold/flu, that I had to conclude that a night in the freezing cold was really not a good idea, so decided to stay at home and follow the game from there.  Of all the games to miss, I am still devastated.

I also had a different type of match day on Saturday.  My brother-in-law is a West Ham season ticket holder and my Watford supporting sister was coming to the game with me, so I had spent Friday evening at theirs and, due to dog walking duties, we ended up leaving for the game at a time when I would usually be in the pub.  I was having a bit of a panic about missing kick-off, but we arrived in plenty of time to have some pre-match refreshments inside the ground while catching up with the usual suspects.

Team news was that Gracia had named the same starting XI who performed so well against Chelsea, so the starting line-up was Karnezis; Mariappa, Prödl, Holebas; Janmaat, Doucouré, Capoue, Zeegelaar; Deulofeu, Deeney, Richarlison.

Gathering for a corner

Watford had the first chance of the game as the ball was laid back to Capoue whose shot was blocked for a corner.  The delivery was met by the head of Mariappa, but Adrian made the save.  The first chance for the home side came as Arnautovic went on a run into the box, he was tackled by a combination of Prödl and Mariappa and, with the home fans appealing for a penalty, the ball broke to Mário whose shot was saved by Karnezis.  It all went quiet then until the half hour mark when Hernandez headed home from Mário’s free kick.  The bubble machine was in full celebratory force before it was noticed that the linesman had flagged for offside.  Watford immediately broke down the other end of the field and Capoue unleashed a shot that Adrian fumbled before gathering, much to his relief.  Arnautovic should have opened the scoring with a shot from close range that Karnezis did brilliantly to block.  But the Hammers took the lead a minute later as Antonio crossed for Hernandez who was left with a free header when Zeegelaar fell over.  It had been coming, but it was a very soft goal to give away.  So we reached half time with West Ham in a deserved lead.

Deulofeu and Pereyra waiting for the referee to get out of the way of their free kick

Watford had the first chance of the second half when a corner was met by the head of Deeney, but he headed it down into a crowd of players and it was cleared.  At the other end, a corner was headed goalwards by Kouyaté forcing Prödl to head over from under his own bar.  Gracia made his first substitution on 55 minutes replacing Zeegelaar with Pereyra.  Watford had a terrific chance to grab the equaliser when Deulofeu won a free kick just outside the area.  He took it himself, launching a marvellous shot over the wall which Adrian did very well to keep out.  Then Holebas broke forward and found Deeney in a great position in the box, but the referee blew up for a foul and the chance was gone.  Another decent move from the Hornets finished with a cross from Pereyra that was easily gathered by Adrian.  Hernandez looked sure to secure the three points for the Hammers when he broke into the Watford box, but Karnezis smothered the danger.  Watford’s second substitution surprisingly saw Lukebakio making his debut in place of Deulofeu, who I would have kept on as he always looked as though he could cause problems.  Watford had another chance to level from a corner but Prödl’s header was just over the bar.  The Hammers scored their second soon after as a goalmouth scramble finished with a clearance that rebounded to Arnautovic, who crowned a superb performance with a somewhat scrappy goal.

Lukebakio on his debut

Watford tried to strike back as Richarlison turned and shot straight at Adrian.  Lukebakio was the next to try his luck with a shot from distance that flew over the target.  Gracia’s final substitution saw Gray come on for Richarlison.  Moyes had also made late substitutions with Mário, Arnautovic and Hernandez making way for Byram, Rice and Hugill.  Watford were still trying to pull one back and had a decent chance as a cross from Holebas was met by the head of Mariappa, but the effort was blocked.  The Hornets had one final chance as Gray got into a decent position, but his header was poor and the game finished with a comfortable win for the home side.

Watford had played considerably better in the second half but, while it could be said that the score was a little flattering to the hosts, some poor defending and equally poor finishing meant that it felt as though the Hornets didn’t deserve anything from the game.

The results elsewhere over the weekend now mean that Watford, in 11th place, are only 4 points off the relegation zone.  It is a bizarre position to be in and it is a bit of a relief that we now have a week off to give some of the injured players a chance to recover.  It has been a tough few weeks, but our squad has to be better than at least three of the other teams below us.  The next few weeks will be fascinating.


We are still Family

Meeting Watford legend Ann Swanson

Having experienced 3 defeats before the international break, I approached this game with some trepidation.  West Ham have struggled so far this season, but they have a good squad and there was concern that the appointment of David Moyes would provide the “new manager bounce” that so often occurs.  There was also the worry that the speculation regarding Silva’s future could have an adverse impact on the team and there were certain fans on social media speculating about the crowd giving the coach a hard time.  As so often, I despair at the mentality of certain football fans.

But, before the trip to Vicarage Road, there were serious things to deal with at the West Herts.  “The game” was being played.  A glorified game of snap during which the first few to match cards pick from an array of beautifully wrapped gifts placed on the table, once those are gone it is a dog-eat-dog scenario and there are various little factions who plot against each other.  At the end of each round, the “winners” get to open their prizes, which are usually utter rubbish (by design) although the theme of this game was “J” which led to an inordinate number of jaffa cakes being on offer and the shocking revelation that one of our number doesn’t like jaffa cakes.  I am still reeling from that news.  As always, absent friends were toasted as we played.  Dee and Toddy were always enthusiastic players.

When the game was done, Alice introduced me to Jeff, one of the Denver Horns, who told me that he reads this blog.  It is always lovely to meet fellow Hornets and hear about their matchday experiences.  Having travelled so far, we were hoping that he was in for an enjoyable afternoon.

Celebrating the goal from Hughes (he is in there somewhere)

It is the 25th anniversary of Watford’s Community and Education Trust and the club had chosen this game to celebrate.  As part of the commemorations, they had invited Ann Swanson back as guest of honour.  Ann had run the Junior Hornets back in the 80s and her efforts in ensuring that youngsters had a safe environment in which to watch football helped a whole generation of fans develop a love for the game, many of whom are now bringing the next generation along.  While I am too old to have been part of this group, I did want to shake her hand and thank her for all that she had done.  While waiting, it was lovely to hear her greet a guy with, “You’re one of my Junior Hornets.”  She seemed thrilled, but the warmth of the young man’s greeting showed the great esteem in which she is held by her former charges.

Team news was that Holebas and Carrillo were making way for Mariappa and Zeegelaar, who was making his debut.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Mariappa, Kabasele, Britos; Femenía, Cleverley, Doucouré, Zeegelaar; Hughes, Richarlison; Gray.

The game had barely kicked off when there was a lengthy delay as Zeegelaar required treatment after making contact with Carroll’s elbow.  He was down for a considerable time, so it was looking like possibly the shortest debut in history but, thankfully, after treatment he was fit to continue (with added nose plugs).  Watford took the lead in the 11th minute, Zeegelaar’s cross led to some pinball in the box, before Hughes buried it.  It was a tremendous strike and I couldn’t have been happier for him.

Britos and Carroll

West Ham created a chance soon after as Carroll met a cross from Zabaleta, but Gomes was equal to the shot.  Just before the half hour, Carroll had survived a couple of tackles when Richarlison appeared and took the ball off him, and was hacked down for his trouble.  It was a petulant reaction and not his first infringement of the afternoon, so there was some annoyance among the Watford fans when he was only shown a yellow card.  That annoyance turned to anger soon after as Britos was booked for a late tackle on Kouyaté.  The fury was somewhat misplaced as Britos deserved the booking, but it did look a tad harsh in the light of Carroll’s infringements.  Watford had a chance to increase their lead as Hughes played the ball out to Gray, but his cross-cum-shot from a narrow angle was easily gathered by Hart.  There was a better chance soon after as a terrific shot from Richarlison was saved, the rebound reached Femenía who shot just wide of the far post.  The petulance from the West Ham players wasn’t confined to Carroll as Arnautovic also reacted to being tackled by Cleverley by hacking him down and was booked.  Back to the beautiful game, there followed a lovely series of passes from the Watford players with Olé ringing out around the ground until the ball reached Britos and it was “Oh dear” as he launched the ball into Row Z.  The next West Ham booking went to Obiang for a trip on Hughes.

Gomes was a hero in goal

West Ham really should have equalized with 3 minutes to go to half time, as Noble played a through ball to Kouyaté, who only had Gomes to beat but, with heads already dropping in the Rookery, the Watford keeper managed to turn the shot around the post.  From the corner Watford broke upfield and Femenía crossed for Hughes whose volley was over the bar.  West Ham had another great chance to draw level in time added on at the end of the half, but Gomes was magnificent, first reacting brilliantly to stop a header from Arnautovic, then instinctively blocking the follow-up and catching the third attempt.  Those of us standing behind the goal who witnessed the saves were just looking at each other in disbelief that he had kept the ball out of the net.  Watford had a final chance to increase their lead just before half time, but Richarlison’s shot was just wide of the far post.

It had been a thoroughly entertaining half of football and, while Watford were good value for their lead, there had been a couple of golden chances for the visitors towards the end and the crowd were singing the name of Gomes in adoration.

Half time saw Ann Swanson being introduced on the pitch.  She spoke warmly about her time at the club and particularly the relationships with both GT and Elton who were great advocates and supporters of the Junior Hornets.  She received a tremendous ovation, which was just lovely.

A blurred Richarlison still celebrating after scoring

Watford had a great chance to increase their lead early in the second half as Femenía crossed for Gray, but Reid got a foot in to stop the shot.  At the other end a cross from Arnautovic was turned over the bar by Kouyaté.  Watford threatened again as Hughes played the ball back to Doucouré who hit a cracking shot that was just wide of the target.  Hughes then tried a shot himself, but it took a slight deflection off a West Ham head and was easy for Hart.  Gray was the next to try his luck, but his shot was deflected for a corner.  Watford should have increased their lead as Mariappa met the delivery from Hughes with a header that Hart did well to keep out, it dropped to Richarlison who was almost on the goal line, I still have no idea how he didn’t turn it in but, somehow, the ball was cleared.  The young Brazilian made up for that mistake soon after as he went on a run before shooting across Hart and into the far corner.  His celebration showed how much it meant to him and was almost as passionate as that of my sister, who is married to a West Ham fan.  The goal certainly calmed some nerves in the home crowd and from that moment on, West Ham never looked like getting anything from the game.  The first change for the visitors came on 65 minutes with Sakho replacing Carroll who went off to boos from both ends of the ground and chants of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” from his own fans.

Cleverley, Richarlison and Kabasele

A lovely passing move from the Hornets finished with a shot from Doucouré that was saved by Hart.  The Watford fans were in a good mood at this point and thoughts turned to the man in the dugout whose name was chanted followed by a chorus of “Marco Silva, we want you to stay.”  There was another long break in the game following a nasty injury to Arnautovic, who was clearly in a lot of pain clutching his arm.  Thankfully, the stretcher wasn’t required and the post-match news was that he had broken a thumb, but he had to be replaced by Masuaku.  West Ham had a great chance to pull one back with a low shot from Lanzini, but Kabasele was there to clear it off the line.  At this point the away end vented their frustration starting with chants against Brady and Sullivan (I assume that they had started with Gold, but I missed that one) followed by “You destroyed our  *** club.”  I couldn’t help but sympathise, the move to Stratford seems to have ripped the soul from the club.  Back on the pitch, Zeegelaar, who had had a great game, took the ball down brilliantly on the wing and put in a lovely low cross, but there was no Watford player in the box to connect.  West Ham’s captain was the next to see yellow as Noble was booked for a trip on Richarlison.  Silva waited until the last five minutes of normal time to make his first substitution, bringing Pereyra on for Hughes.  The guy who sits next to me commented, “One magician for another,” which perfectly summed up the terrific performance from Hughes.  As this change was being made, there was a signal to the bench that Femenía was unable to continue, so he was replaced by Holebas.  Due to the injuries in the second half, there was 8 minutes of added time, but the only scoring chance worthy of note fell to the Hornets as Richarlison curled a shot just wide of the far post.  There was just time for Carrillo, fresh from racking up a boat load of air miles travelling to Peru’s World Cup qualification games against New Zealand, to come on in place of Gray.  Attention at this point turned to the TV studio adjacent to the Rookery.  The sight of Ighalo having his make-up done before appearing for the post-match analysis prompted changes of “Oghalo-oh!”  As he looked out smiling, the whole of the Rookery waved at him.  He waved back.  All rather lovely.

Zeegelaar directing Doucoure

The final whistle went to jubilation in the stands.  Watford back to winning ways and in some style.  The coach and players were applauded off with special adulation directed at Gomes as he made his usual lap of the pitch.  We had to reign our happiness in a little as we were meeting my brother-in-law, my sister already having received a message from her Watford-fanatic daughter telling her to “be nice to Dad.”  Mark’s gracious comment was “At least my second team won.”

Back to the West Herts and it was all smiles.  It had been a thoroughly enjoyable team performance with some stand out individuals.  Zeegelaar had impressed greatly on his debut.  Cleverley had recovered from his last minute penalty miss at Goodsion Park with an assured performance in the centre of the park.  Gomes was absolutely brilliant in goal.  But the most impressive showing came from Hughes.  I had been thrilled when we bought him and rather sad that he seemed to have dropped into obscurity, but he was biding his time.  He put in a decent showing against Everton but was absolutely brilliant in this game and the goal was a just reward.  With players coming back from injury, apart from the goal keeping position, we now seem players who can slot in to any position without a loss of quality, which bodes very well for the rest of the season.

But the last comment should go to the Community Trust.  They have been a massive part of the club for a long time now.  From Ann Swanson’s work with the Junior Hornets in the 80s, this has grown into a huge asset for the local community.  Current Director, Rob Smith, has been tireless in growing the Trust for many years and it was rather fitting that Britt Assombalonga, who was discovered at one of the Trust’s schemes, scored for Middlesbrough on Sunday.  In these days when football seems to be all about money, it is great to see that the Trust is still valued at the club and the commemorative t-shirt, designed by 11 year-old Codie Snaith, which declares “We are Family” summed it up perfectly.

Few Chances but a Decent Point

Niang challenging for a header

Niang challenging for a header

After a week free of live football, with the distraction of the thrills and spills of the FA Cup, it was great to be back at a game, although there was the usual stress that comes with a late kick-off as I worry that I have misremembered the kick-off time and will arrive in Watford with the game already underway or over. Thankfully, my journey took me down Vicarage Road at 3pm, where it was clear that they were preparing for a match but it was some time before kick-off. My smug feeling was soon wiped out as I arrived at the West Herts to find that it was already packed and my companions remarked that they didn’t think I was coming, being a part-timer. I was so insulted that I had to have a pint to calm down.

As with our previous game, we had happy memories of the reverse fixture early in the season, but West Ham had been on a good run of form recently so I wasn’t at all hopeful of a similar result. On the positive side, the results in the games earlier in the day meant that we wouldn’t finish the evening below 13th in the table.

Holebas takes a throw in

Holebas takes a throw in

Team news was two changes with Cathcart and Prödl making way for Janmaat and Behrami. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Kaboul, Britos, Holebas; Cleverley, Behrami, Capoue; Zárate, Deeney and Niang.

The game started brilliantly for the Hornets. In the second minute, Cleverley played a ball over the top to Deeney who found Zárate in the box, the Argentine was bundled over by Kouyaté and the referee pointed to the spot. Deeney stepped up and powered the ball to Randolph’s right and into the bottom corner. There was a great chance to double the lead soon after as Niang won the ball in the midfield, went on a run and unleashed a powerful shot from outside the area that flew just over the target. At the other end a dangerous cross from Antonio was cleared by Britos in the middle of the box although, from our vantage point behind the goal, it looked as though it just bounced off the Watford man and could have flown anywhere. The first 15 minutes had contained some wonderful passing from the Hornets that, at one point, prompted a standing ovation. Capoue was the next to threaten the West Ham goal with a lovely turn and a shot that was just wide of the target.

Lining up for a corner

Lining up for a corner

The visitors had a decent chance to draw level as Arbeloa played the ball back to Snodgrass in the box, but Kaboul made a great block to avert the danger. Snodgrass threatened again, but this time his cut back in the box only reached Gomes. The West Ham man tried his luck again with a shot from distance that flew way over the bar. The visitors won a free kick in a dangerous position as Janmaat fouled Antonio on the left of the box earning himself a yellow card for his trouble. But Lanzini’s delivery was terrible, flying high and wide. As the half wound down, my gaze was drawn to the TV studio to our left where the pundits were having their hair and make-up done, the first time that I have seen beauty treatments in a football ground. In time added on at the end of the half, there was a dangerous chance for an equalizer as a cross-cum-shot from Cresswell was parried by Gomes, fortunately Holebas was the first to the loose ball and made the clearance. As I had been watching the action in the goal area, I had completely missed Zárate going down with an injury. It was quickly apparent that he was in a bad way as he received oxygen and, after a considerable period of treatment, the physios very carefully strapped him to the stretcher before they carried him off. Very worrying indeed. As he left the field, it was very gratifying to see the West Ham fans on their feet applauding and singing the name of their former player. He was replaced by Doucouré, much to the displeasure of those around me who would much rather have seen Success brought on. The last action of the half was a booking for Antonio for a nasty foul on Behrami that could easily have led to a sending off.

Britos lines up a free kick

Britos lines up a free kick

So Watford went in at the break with a one goal lead after a fairly even half. The Hornets had started brilliantly and played some lovely football, particularly in the first fifteen minutes, but, the penalty aside, neither keeper had to make a save worthy of the name.

Saturday was Academy Day at Vicarage Road and at half time Brandon Mason and Michael Folivi received commemorative match balls marking their Premier League debuts. Brandon said that he hoped to kick on and contribute a lot more to the first team. We all hope that comes to pass.

Early in the second half, the visitors were appealing for a penalty as Kouyaté and Niang tangled in the Watford box, but the decision was given to the home side. Mazzarri was forced into a second substitution due to injury as Janmaat made way for Cathcart. West Ham had a great chance to draw level on the hour mark as a free kick was headed back across goal and met with a header from Fonte that was kept out by a wonderful flying save from Gomes.  The first substitution for the visitors saw Snodgrass replaced by Ayew.

Cleverley taking a free kick

Cleverley taking a free kick

Watford had been sitting far too deep in the second half and, while they had done a great job of frustrating the Hammers, it is always a dangerous tactic. It looked to have backfired as a Cresswell cross was headed just wide of the target by Antonio. Then, with the Watford fans on their feet for the minute’s applause for GT on the 72nd minute, Antonio went on a surging run, his shot bounced off both posts rebounding to Ayew who finished past Gomes. It was frustrating, but had been coming as the Hammers had dominated possession in the second half. Just as I started to worry that the visitors would get a second and win the game, Mazzarri made a late substitution bringing Success on for Niang who, after a very bright start had completely disappeared. It was a very popular change among the Watford crowd and the excitement in the stands extended to the pitch as a lovely quick passing move finished with Success breaking into the box where, sadly, Reid was on hand to stop him. The Hammers finished the game with 10 men as Antonio went down in the box and handled the ball earning a second yellow card. Britos could have won the game for the Hornets as he rose to meet a corner, but he was being challenged and the header flew just over. I was pleasantly surprised when the fourth official indicated that there were only three minutes of added time. Watford should have scored right at the death as a corner from Cleverley led to a bit of pinball, finishing with Deeney heading the ball down to Success who shot just wide from a couple of yards out.

A draw was a fair result and I would certainly have taken a point before the game, but I was disappointed that we didn’t build on a lovely start to the game when the visitors looked distinctly second best. But we have come a long way if a draw against West Ham is a bit of a disappointment. Mid table obscurity will do me just fine.

A Memorable Afternoon at the London Stadium

The London Stadium

The London Stadium

Having thought that I had timed my arrival at the pre-match pub perfectly for opening time at 12, I found a queue outside which, fortunately, included a couple of friendly faces.  Thankfully the doors were soon open and we were comfortably sat with a pint and ready to catch up after our international break.  Having been warned about the walk from Stratford station to the stadium, we left plenty of time for the journey.  It was very pleasant to board a nice, quiet, pretty empty train.  Then, just before it was due to depart, a large group of lads boarded and treated the carriage to some Watford chants.  In a lull in the singing one of our party started a rendition of Molly Malone.  They didn’t join in, but a section of their group did add the song to their repertoire before we finished the seven minute journey.  As we were walking along the platform to leave the station, a can of beer flew over our heads and two groups of lads squared up to each other.  Sadly that wasn’t the last time that we saw trouble on the day.


Bubbles greet the entrance of the teams

Bubbles greet the entrance of the teams

I was lucky enough to attend a couple of events at the Olympic Stadium during the Summer of 2012.  Having seen it as a venue for athletics, I found it hard to believe that it would function as a football stadium.  I was very sad when the Hammers left Upton Park as it was a cracking place to watch football with the stands so close to the pitch and an incredible atmosphere.  On arrival all went well.  The entry to the Stadium went very smoothly and, in marked contrast to Upton Park, there was no queue at the food stands and plenty of room to stand in the concourse to have a drink or eat your pie.  As we entered the seating area of the stadium I spotted Don Fraser, so had a chance to critique the disabled section.  I must admit that I was impressed.  He was sitting just behind the goal at a decent elevation and, if the evidence of the blokes standing in the area in front of him before kick-off was anything to go by, wheelchair users would have no trouble seeing past those in the stand in front of them even if they stood for the whole game.  I then bumped into another friend who told me that he had a good feeling about the game.  I have to say that, always the pessimist, he was feeling a lot more positive than I was.  On taking our seats, I was happy that, even though we were only 8 rows up, we were behind the goal with a very decent view and were sheltered from the rain that we could see was falling on the pitch.

Waiting for an attacking corner

Waiting for an attacking corner

Team news for the Hammers was the rather disturbing (for Watford fans) return of Payet and a debut for Zaza.  For the Hornets, Mazzari made four changes with Cathcart, Britos, Janmaat and Pereyra in for Kabasele, Prödl, Amrabat and Guedioura.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Cathcart, Kaboul, Britos; Janmaat, Capoue, Pereyra, Behrami, Holebas; Deeney and Ighalo.  As the teams emerged for kick off, “Bubbles” rang out and the bubble machines were going although I suspect that they made little impression on those that were not sitting right behind them.  It has to be said that any concerns about there being no atmosphere in the new ground disappeared on hearing the wall of noise coming from the stands.

The game started impressively for the home side as Antonio and Payet both had first minute shots saved by Gomes.  Ighalo provided a nice distraction with a shot into the side netting, but the Hammers took the lead in the fifth minute as Antonio met a Payet corner with a header that flew past Gomes.  At this point Dave’s good feeling was looking rather misguided.  Janmaat almost had a nightmare start to his full debut as he turned a cross from Antonio against the post.

Deeney and Ighalo celebrating the equalizer

Deeney and Ighalo celebrating the equalizer

Watford should have drawn level as Pereyra found Ighalo in a good position, but his shot was deflected wide.  Pereyra and Ighalo combined again, this time the Nigerian’s shot was saved on the line by Adrian and Behrami’s follow-up flew over the bar.  The Hammers had a couple of chances to increase their lead as, first, Antonio shot just over the bar and then Lanzini put a shot just wide of the post.  West Ham’s second goal came in the 32nd minute.  Payet played an audacious cross, Antonio ghosted past Cathcart and planted another header past Gomes.  As the West Ham fans jeered “You might as well go home,” I heard a young voice behind me sigh, “Only another hour to go.”  I knew exactly how she felt.  While we had had some chances in the first half hour, West Ham just looked quicker and better than we did and our defence looked as though they had just met.  Imagine our surprise when the next action of note, in the 41st minute, was a lovely ball from Capoue to Ighalo who cut inside before taking a shot which beat Adrian following a deflection off Collins.  Unbelievably we were level just before half time after a mix up between Collins and Adrian allowed the ball to fall to Deeney.  As we were watching from low down at the other end of the ground it wasn’t until I got home that I appreciated quite how good Deeney’s strike was, but we celebrated massively all the same.

Capoue celebrates striking the third goal

Capoue celebrates striking the third goal

At half time every one that I spoke to had a similar reaction.  A shake of the head, a rueful smile and “How are we still in this game?”  The trek to the concourse at half time was ‘interesting’.  Looking to my left I saw a crowd of West Ham fans on the other side of a barrier facing a group of Watford fans on our side so I had the pitiful sight of a bunch of middle aged blokes offering each other out.

As the players emerged for the second half, I had no idea where this game was going.  What followed was quite remarkable.  If a reaction from West Ham was expected, it didn’t materialize and Watford took the lead in the 52nd minute as Capoue chested down a cross from Pereyra before volleying the ball in off the post.  This goal brought an extra special smile to my niece’s face.  She is a huge fan of Capoue and had missed his two previous goals this season, so was delighted finally to see him score and there were hugs all round.

Great joy at scoring a fourth goal

Great joy at scoring a fourth goal

Just after the hour, Ighalo crossed for Janmaat whose shot was blocked, the clearance came back to Ighalo who cut back to Holebas who powered in from just outside the area.  The celebration for this goal was a mixture of ecstasy and disbelief.  But, at this stage of the game, the lead was thoroughly deserved and it was the Watford fans chanting “You might as well go home.”  At this point my gaze was drawn to the upper tier where it seemed to be kicking off.  Earlier in the game, there had been a scuffle among the home fans in the lower tier of the stand to our right.  On this occasion, it appeared that West Ham fans were trying to get to the Watford fans sitting near them in the top tier.  I could see nothing in place to enforce the segregation with only a flight of stairs and a handful of stewards between the two sets of fans, which was no deterrent for anyone who wanted to cause trouble.  It looked chaotic up there and, even though extra stewards were drafted in, it was some considerable time before they were augmented by officers from the Met.  Back to matters on the field, Ighalo was rewarded for his goal and assist by being given a bit of a rest as Success came on to replace him.  The youngster almost made an immediate impact as he went on a lovely run before taking a shot that was blocked by Adrian.

Holebas takes a corner

Holebas takes a corner

The home side had a rare second half chance as a free kick dropped to Payet who appeared to have a sitter to hit, but his shot was blocked and his blushes spared as the flag was raised for offside.  Mazzari’s second change was also to the forward line as Okaka came on to make his debut in place of Deeney.  If Deeney has been looking a bit stocky this season, Okaka completely dwarfs him.  His physique is positively Shittu-esque.  There was a touch of class from Pereyra who went on a lovely mazy run through the box, sadly his shot was blocked as that would have been a very special goal indeed.  Okaka then found the net following a Capoue corner, but our celebrations were cut short as the offside flag went up.  I know I wasn’t the only one thinking that I would have preferred to be going in to the last 10 minutes with a three goal cushion.  I needn’t have worried.  Watford’s final substitution saw Prödl replace Kaboul in defence and the exchange was seamless.  New boy Okaka had an eventful end to the game.  First he received a pass from Success and unleashed a shot that was saved.  Next he was booked for dissent.  Finally, and most regrettably, he appeared to pull a hamstring and had to leave the field meaning that Watford played the time added on with ten men.  But West Ham were a spent force at this point and Watford ran out 4-2 winners, a score that I am still looking at in disbelief even though I saw the game.

The final score!

The final score!

We had to keep our joy in check as we left the ground, so as not to rub it in when we met my lovely Hammer-supporting brother-in-law.  But I was soon back in the pub for post-match reflections with the Watford crew and the smiles could not be suppressed.

The last hour of this game featured one of the best performances that I have seen from a Watford team.  For the first half hour we looked second best and the defence struggled.  Then, suddenly, it all clicked into place.  The defence were organized and stood up to everything that West Ham tried.  The midfield were excellent.  Janmaat had looked like a liability early on, but finished superbly so Amrabat wasn’t missed.  Holebas had another good game, capping his performance with a great strike.  Behrami was in beast mode stopping anyone who came his way.  Capoue continues to enjoy the freedom to get forward immensely and Pereyra is certainly living up to the hype.  Then there was the front two.  Much concern has been expressed about both Deeney and Ighalo’s start to the season.  To see them both on the scoresheet with the added delight of an assist from Ighalo made me very happy indeed and their performances were assured.  Not only that, but the men who were brought on to replace them late in the game both appeared to be very worthy substitutes indeed, which was very reassuring.  From front to back we were excellent so I couldn’t help speculating how good this team is going to be when they actually get to know each other.

At this stage in the season we have four more points than I expected and the omens are good.  Unlike last season, the new players that arrived to a fanfare are living up to that billing.  We finally have strength in depth in all positions.  The team is playing lovely football and sharing goals among themselves.  This has the makings of a season to relish.

Our Last Visit to the Boleyn

Cathcart and Prodl bonding before kick off

Cathcart and Prodl bonding before kick off

Due to being busy at work and my niece having a driving lesson, there was no time to join the pre-match gathering with the City ‘Orns, so it was straight to Upton Park.  Leaving the station you have the walk down Green Street, which has a great character and is a lot less terrifying than it was in the 80s.  One drawback of an evening kick-off is that you miss the market experience.  I considered getting a beverage inside the ground but the crush in the concourse persuaded me to go straight to my seat.  My friend, Boyd, attending his last game before returning to the US, was already in his seat and showed me his photos of the statues outside, which made me regret walking straight to the away end.

When the team news came through, it was unsurprising to hear that Flores had made seven changes from the West Brom game.  I thought that the team selection would give us a good idea of who would play in the semi-final, so the fact that he had included Gomes suggested that Pantilimon would start at Wembley.  But I find it hard to believe that Cathcart won’t make the cut.  The starting XI was Gomes, Holebas, Cathcart, Prödl, Paredes, Behrami, Suárez, Abdi, Jurado, Guedioura and Amrabat.  The major question among fans about the team was where were the strikers.  The answer ‘Amrabat’ was not accepted by many.  Once the pre match bubbles, both physical and in song form, were dealt with, it was time to kick off.

Suarez on the ball

Suarez on the ball

The home side took the lead in the 11th minute with the first shot of the game as Carroll floated balletically into the area to connect with a cross from Payet and poke the ball past Gomes.  From our perspective behind the goal it looked like a poor goal to give away.  When the replay was shown on the big screen from the side on perspective, there was a glimpse of someone in an offside position before the image went blank and they decided to show it from behind the striker instead.  I must admit that I thought at this stage that we could be on the end of a rout.  The next action did nothing to quell this fear as Payet’s shot was blocked and Gomes had to save the follow-up from Sakho, although the flag was up for offside.  Watford’s first shot came in the 17th minute when Jurado went on a run and Adrian had to push his shot clear.   Watford were involved in another good move which finished with a cross from Guedioura that was headed clear before it reached Jurado.  Jurado went on another run before cutting along the byline and pulling ball back for Abdi who couldn’t finish.  The first booking was earned by Prödl for a foul on Sakho.  Payet took the resulting free kick, hitting his shot through the wall but Gomes caught it comfortably.

Guedioura's free kick position marked

Guedioura’s free kick position marked

A promising move by the visitors broke down when Behrami lost the ball on the edge of the box, West Ham launched a counter attack which ended with a shot from Payet that flew over the target.  At the other end Adrian saved after a turn and shot by Amrabat.  West Ham really should have increased their lead when Payet broke into the box and curled a shot just over the bar.  On 38 minutes, a picture of Dylan Tombides was shown on the big screen and Watford fans joined the home crowd in a minute’s applause in memory of this young Hammer who died of testicular cancer two years ago (check ‘em lads!)  It was rather nice to see Sakho joining in the applause.  A Watford attack came to nothing when Guedioura’s cross met the head of a defender before Abdi could connect.  West Ham had a great chance to increase their lead as Carroll played the ball back to Sakho whose shot was tipped around the post by Gomes.  But they got their second goal just before half time when Holebas jumped into a challenge and flattened Kouyate prompting the referee to point to the spot.  It was a stupid penalty to concede.  Gomes was not to continue his penalty-saving heroics as Noble sent him the wrong way.  The Hammers should have scored a third goal in time added on after Lanzini got into the box but, thankfully, he hit his shot wide.

Challenging in the West Ham box

Challenging in the West Ham box

So we reached the interval two goals down, which was a bit harsh as it had been a decent performance from the Hornets but we were lacking a goal threat.  At the interval all that is wrong with modern football was encapsulated in the sight of a tourist in a half and half scarf taking photos with a selfie stick.  I can’t believe that made me nostalgic for the days when a trip to the Boleyn meant a police escort with horses taking us back to the tube station to catch an away fans’ tube straight back to Euston Square.

West Ham had a chance in the first minute of the second half as Sakho ghosted in but he put his shot wide.  At the other end a cross from Paredes was just too high for the leap of Abdi.  Jurado went on a great run before playing a square ball just in front of Abdi who was stretching to reach it so directed his shot over the bar.  On 52 minutes West Ham were awarded another penalty, this time for a trip by Abdi on Antonio on the edge of the box.  Again Noble stepped up and this time he hit the penalty down the middle over the diving Gomes.  Flores made a double substitution soon after bringing Berghuis and Anya on for Jurado and Guedioura.  Most of the singing in the Watford end to that point had been repetitious renditions of the Behrami song to the tune of La Bamba.

Berghuis taking a free kick

Berghuis taking a free kick

Since it is a relatively new/little used ditty, it seemed as if the crowd were indulging in some singing practice.  So it was good to have a bit of variety introduced with the appearance of the young Dutchman prompting a few choruses of “Berg-huis in the middle of our street.”  Catchy and easy to learn, it brought a smile to my face.  As did the performance of young Steven who was involved in Watford’s goal as his free kick was volleyed home by Prödl.  There was no celebration by the Watford players, they just headed back to the centre circle.  West Ham looked to regain their three goal lead as a corner was headed back by Carroll to Reid but the shot was deflected wide.  Berghuis had a great chance to cut the deficit further as he appeared in the West Ham box, but his shot hit the side netting.  Watford picked up a couple of bookings as both Suárez and Amrabat were cautioned for fouls.  Flores made his final substitution with 14 minutes to go, and it was a surprise to see Deeney coming on to replace Abdi.  I can’t have been the only Watford fan horrified at the thought that our captain and talisman may get an injury and miss the semi-final.  Bilic also made a change bringing Moses on for Sakho.  Watford could have pulled another goal back as Berghuis played a lovely through ball for Anya, but Adrian reached it first.  Berghuis played provider again playing the ball out to Anya, who should have tried an early shot but took the ball too far wide and his cross went begging.

Deeney looking relaxed before the penalty

Deeney looking relaxed before the penalty

As I was distracted by a steward dealing with a beach ball on the pitch, Gomes was busy saving a shot from Moses.  Gomes was in action again coming out to unnerve Lanzini and ensure that his shot missed the target.  West Ham’s second substitution saw Andy Carroll making way for Emenike.  On 90 minutes, Anya got to the by line and shot goalwards, but Adrian was equal to it.  Watford won a late penalty as Ogbonna fouled Prödl in the box.  Deeney looked confident as he stepped up, but I jinxed it by getting my camera out and Adrian made the save.  In time added on Amrabat was sent off for a second yellow after tripping Reid.  A silly thing to do with the opportunity to play at Wembley on the horizon.  The final whistle went to sighs of relief that none of our key players had picked up injuries and comments that we had won the double header on away goals.  I felt that 3-1 was a bit harsh on us as we had played some nice football while West Ham had not gone for it as I would have expected.

I was rather sad to leave the Boleyn ground for the last time.  It is a city centre ground (my cousins grew up in the street that continues on from Green Street and went to school next door) and the structure inside ensures that the crowd is close to the pitch which usually means a good atmosphere.  So I was disappointed that at this game it was all rather muted.  Very odd given that they still have a European place to play for.  I fear that the Olympic Park will be another in the pantheon of soulless bowls and not a fun place to visit at all.

Despite the defeat, we finished the evening in 12th position with an FA Cup semi-final to look forward to.  This game had been a distraction and an irritation as both the players and fans prepared themselves for the big one on Sunday.  Troy has talked in the build-up of the chance to make themselves Watford legends.  I would argue that he is already there, but leading the team out for an FA Cup final would cement that for him.  I do hope he gets that chance.

Quique, Quique, Give us a Hug

Gathering for a corner

Gathering for a corner

After a tremendous win and a rather lovely day out in Stoke, we were back home for the visit of West Ham.  I didn’t hold out much hope of getting anything out of this game as the visitors were flying high in the table and came in to the game unbeaten in their last 7 Premier League matches.  My one ray of hope was that their results against teams that they were ‘supposed’ to beat had not been impressive.

The pre-match gathering at the West Herts was joined by Al Gick who, for a number of years, was our Football Intelligence Officer, so a familiar face at away games looking out for us.  It was great to be able to buy him a pint at last.  As we enjoyed our drinks, we were entertained by the lunchtime match on the TV.  Each Liverpool goal was loudly cheered, not because we have any love for Liverpool (I still haven’t forgiven Rush for that dive), but because it ensured that Chelsea would remain below us in the table for another week.

Flores named an unchanged team, so the starting line up was Gomes, Aké, Britos, Cathcart, Nyom, Watson, Capoue, Anya, Deeney, Abdi and Ighalo.

Watson takes a corner

Watson takes a corner

West Ham had the first chance of the game as Payet hit a shot that Gomes dropped to gather.  The Rookery was, as always since the foundation of the 1881, in good voice and there was an early rendition of the Flores song.  During the week, Quique had said that when he heard that song he wanted to “jump into the stand and hug every fan one by one.”  I sung my heart out, so was a tad disappointed when he remained on the touchline.  Still there was plenty to enjoy on the pitch.  An impressive period of Watford play finished with a Watson corner which Deeney flicked on to Ighalo who tried an overhead kick which was easy for the West Ham keeper, Adrian, to deal with.  Watford had a strong shout for a penalty on 10 minutes as a corner from Watson was headed goalwards by Aké, the keeper saved and the ball dropped to Deeney whose shot was handled by Carroll, but the referee waved the appeals away.  Adrian almost came to regret trying to dribble in his own box as Ighalo challenged, but he just managed the clearance in time.  Watford then had a long spell of pressure without creating any chance worthy of the name and I feared we might live to regret that as Moses broke down the right but he dragged his shot well wide of the far post.  Watford immediately had the ball down the other end, Ighalo broke into the box and won a corner which reached Deeney who shot over the target.  Soon after, a Watson free-kick was met with a header from Britos which flew over the bar.

Celebrating the first goal

Celebrating the first goal

A ball over the top from Deeney seemed to have released Anya, but his first touch was heavy and Adrian was able to put the ball out for a corner.  Watford continued to threaten the West Ham goal as shots from Abdi and Ighalo were blocked in quick succession.  Ighalo was looking determined to continue his goal and assist record as he beat three players to get into the box before finding Abdi who was tackled before he could get a shot in.  Much as I was loving the performance, I was beginning to get a bit nervous that we were not finishing our chances.  My nerves were calmed in the 38th minute as a free-kick reached Aké, who appeared to have lost the ball to Carroll, but the West Ham man inexplicably decided to play it on the byline, instead of wellying it to safety which gave Aké the opportunity to rob him and cross for Ighalo who turned the ball in from close range.  There were some suggestions that the last touch had gone to an opposition player, but it looked like Ighalo’s goal from the middle of the Rookery.  The visitors had a chance to equalize as a free kick from Payet was headed goalwards by Kouyaté, but Gomes caught easily.  The final chance of the half went to the home side as a corner reached Abdi, but the shot was blocked.

We were very happy Hornets at half time.  Not only were we a goal ahead, but it had been a very impressive performance indeed.

Congratulating Ighalo on his second goal

Congratulating Ighalo on his second goal

Bilic made two changes at half time bringing on Valencia and Zarate for Lanzini and Moses.  But it was Watford who made the brighter start to the half and, within two minutes of the restart, Ighalo grabbed his second as he received a cross from Anya, and switched feet before hitting a gorgeous shot into the top corner.  Ighalo had a chance for the hat trick soon after as Deeney headed the ball down to him, but his shot was blocked.  Capoue then did well to beat a defender and square the ball for Deeney whose shot was high and wide.  Capoue and Anya were involved in the next attack, taking it in turns to pass to each other and then have a shot that was blocked.  Ighalo turned provider, finding Aké in space, but the youngster’s shot was well wide of the target.  A ball over the top from Abdi found Deeney who couldn’t control and it ran through to the keeper.  A rare attack from the visitors ended with a cross from Payet that went begging as Valencia’s leap failed to meet it.  Back at the other end, Deeney found Abdi who shot over the bar.  On the hour, the visitors had a great opportunity to reduce the deficit as Carroll connected with a ball into the box from Payet, but his volley was woeful and flew wide of the near post.  Soon after, Valencia fell in the box after a challenge by Britos, there was some handbags with Capoue, but no action was taken by the referee.  The first booking of the game went to Nyom who took Valencia down to stop a West Ham break.  The resulting free kick was dreadful, flying straight into the arms of Gomes.

Gomes celebrating the second goal

Gomes celebrating the second goal

Watford’s first substitution came on 67 minutes as Paredes replaced Anya.  Watford very nearly pushed the self-destruct button soon after as Cathcart, who has been a rock in defence this season, played a dreadful back pass to Gomes which was intercepted by Valencia, so there was relief when the shot came back off the post.  The ball reached Carroll who fell in the box, but the penalty appeals were, again, waved away.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the Rookery who felt like we got away with that one.  Watford resumed their attack as Capoue had a shot blocked and the follow up from Paredes flew just wide of the near post.  But it wasn’t all Watford as a dangerous cross from Jenkinson was met with a terrific header from Cathcart to direct the ball over the bar.  Collins met the resultant corner with a header that was caught by Gomes.  With 15 minutes to go, Abdi was replaced by Behrami.  Almen had put in another great performance, it is such a joy to see him play at this level, and went off to the sound of the crowd loudly singing his name.  But Behrami is a formidable replacement, and it was lovely to see the West Ham fans applauding their former player on to the pitch.  At the same time West Ham’s captain, Noble, was replaced by Jelavic.  Whenever I see Noble, I recall a comment from Ray Winstone that he loved players like Noble who took their boots off after a game and walked back to their aunt’s house.  I know that Noble is West Ham through and through but, in the 80s, I was also able to walk from the Boleyn ground to my aunt and uncle’s house, so it is no guarantee.

Ake takes a throw in

Ake takes a throw in

Another cross from Payet was met by a header from Carroll that didn’t trouble Gomes.  The second Watford player to go into the referee’s book was Aké who was booked for what looked like a soft foul on Valencia.  The visitors’ frustration was manifested as Collins went through the back of Ighalo.  It was a nasty challenge, so the referee brandished the red card and the visitors finished the game with 10 men.  Odion was down receiving treatment for a while, but managed to limp off and was available for post match interviews, so I hope those are good signs.  His replacement was Guedioura.  There were a couple of late chances for the home side.  First Paredes broke into the box, but Adrian was out to save at his feet.  Then, in time added on, Paredes crossed for Deeney to head the ball goalwards, but a defender was on hand to head clear.

On the final whistle, there was rapture in the home stands.  This win was particularly sweet for our party as my niece is the product of a mixed marriage so was very happy to be able to return home to her Hammer father with her head held high.  As usual, Troy was the last man in the post match lap of honour.  When he reached the Rookery he threw his boots into the stands.  The first was launched into the 1881, the other came flying towards me and, after a bit of a scramble, ended up in the hands of the lovely man who sits next to me.  A nice souvenir of a wonderful game.

Anya on the ball

Anya on the ball

When we gathered back at the West Herts the usual pleasure at a win was magnified by joy at the sheer quality of the performance.  We had bettered West Ham in every area of the field and were thoroughly deserving of the win, which could have been more convincing.  What is even better is that this team is constantly improving.  The caution of the early season play has been replaced with a greater willingness to attack, while still keeping the defence tight.  There was one incident in the game when the visitors launched a counter attack and we looked stretched, but the defence was soon marshalled again and the West Ham players were frustrated.  The success is down to the fact that the players are working as a team.  While Deeney and Ighalo’s names are on everyone’s lips, there are no stars out there, everyone is doing their jobs and the fact that the likes of Cathcart and Watson are getting a lot of plaudits from the regulars for quietly going about their unfashionable jobs says it all.  Watson has been taking set pieces for the past couple of games and we are finally getting some decent balls into the box adding to our attacking threat.  We have a couple of difficult games coming up, but recent performances have given us hope that we could get something from these matches.  It is also reassuring that we have a points cushion that means that a couple of bad results won’t put us in the relegation zone.  That is a great position to be in at this point of the season.

There is an At Your Place event, coming up on Wednesday, which is likely to be a very happy occasion.  Post match, it was suggested that we don’t ask any questions at all, but just sing the Flores song for three hours.  This sounds like a very good idea.  It’ll certainly give him plenty of time to hug us all.