Tag Archives: Marko Arnautovic

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.

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.

A Spirited Performance Spoiled by Defensive Lapses

The teams emerge from the tunnel in Stoke

The teams emerge from the tunnel in Stoke

Memories of the recent dreadful performance at Vicarage Road against the Potters and the capitulation to Spurs on Sunday meant that I set off on my journey to Stoke with no hope of any pleasure to be gained from the evening’s entertainment.  But the afternoon started rather well, as I unexpectedly encountered a friend at Euston so we spent a very pleasant journey chatting about our various activities over the Christmas period.

The designated pre-match pub (for the two of us) had signs on the doors indicating that it was home fans only.  However, a previous visit had shown that they did not enforce this terribly strictly.  This was very pleasing as the real ale, the food and the atmosphere were all first class and it was no surprise that it was soon populated with familiar faces from our travels.  We decided to take the bus to the ground which, due to traffic, seemed to be within touching distance of the stadium lights for quite some time before we were dropped off.  Once in the ground, I donned my Watford regalia (scarf, shirt and socks) and was wrapped up warm at a stadium notorious for being cold at the best of times.  The pre-match flag wavers around the ground were not kitted out in Stoke uniforms, but appeared to be a random selection of local children in colourful coats and bobble hats which was rather nice.

Kabasele and Kaboul

Kabasele and Kaboul

Team news was that Mazzarri had made three changes from Sunday with Cathcart and Ighalo replaced by Britos and Kabasele, and Behrami, who was rumoured still to be carrying an injury, taking the place of the (presumably more severely) injured Amrabat.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Kaboul, Prödl, Kabasele, Britos; Doucouré, Guedioura, Behrami, Capoue, Holebas; Deeney.  The chants in the concourse prior to the game were all about parking the bus.  Whatever the tactics, we needed to see a far more committed performance than on Sunday.

The news that Behrami was starting, injured or not, had me punching the air and that reaction was justified as soon as he took the pitch as he was immediately organizing and harrying the players.  We really miss him when he is not there.  But the first chance of the game fell to Stoke as Crouch headed wide after a corner.  Watford’s first shot came from a Guedioura free kick that was repelled to Holebas who, unfortunately, launched his effort over the bar.  The home side were almost gifted a goal due to a misunderstanding between Behrami and Prödl, who went for the same ball then left it for each other allowing Allen to sneak in and feed Arnautovic who went on a dangerous run into the area where he was stopped by a great tackle from Britos.

Capoue and Guedioura line up a free kick

Capoue and Guedioura line up a free kick

The first card of the game went to Diouf who stopped a break from Holebas by pulling him to the ground.  A great header from Kabasele reached Prödl who battled his way into the box, but his shot flew harmlessly across the front of the goal.  There were loud appeals from the away stand for a penalty as a cross from Kabasele appeared to be handled in the box, but the referee waved play on.  There was a scary moment for the Hornets as a header from Crouch was parried by Gomes and ricocheted off Behrami back in the direction of the goal before it was finally cleared.  At the other end, there was a gilt-edged opportunity for the visitors as a lovely through ball from Holebas reached Doucouré in space but, instead of going for goal, he hesitated before cutting the ball back to Guedioura and the chance was lost.  I was becoming increasingly frustrated at this point as the lads seemed to be determined to score the perfect goal when taking a shot would at least give us a chance of scoring.  With four minutes to go to half time Behrami, who had been limping for a while, went down in need of treatment.  On a number of occasions this season, it has taken far too long for the substitute to get ready to replace an injured player.  In this instance, Ighalo was stripped and ready on the touchline before Behrami had left the field, only for Valon to turn around and come back on leaving Odion to return to the bench.  Just as it appeared that the game would reach half-time goalless, the Watford defence fell asleep at a corner and Shawcross was given the freedom of the area to finish past Gomes.  It was almost the last kick of the half as the whistle went straight after the restart.  I braced myself for the crowd’s reaction to this setback and was very pleased that as the players walked towards the tunnel, which was in the corner in front of us, they were greeted by loud, encouraging applause and chants of “Watford FC.”

Guedioura 'assisting' Holebas at a corner

Guedioura ‘assisting’ Holebas at a corner

The goal felt like a real kick in the teeth after a very even half in which my major criticism of the team was that they were reluctant to shoot when getting a sight of the goal.  With all the injury woes, the players didn’t deserve that.

As expected, Ighalo replaced Behrami at the start of the second half which began brilliantly for the visitors as Doucouré unleashed a terrific curling shot that Grant did really well to keep out of the net.  Sadly, Watford were two goals down a couple of minutes later as a routine cross into the box was inexplicably missed by Prödl and Crouch, lurking behind him, had an easy finish.  The crowd’s frustration started to build in the away end.  Their ire was particularly provoked by the corner routine that consisted of a second player standing just in from the touchline, but playing no role in the delivery which was launched straight into the box.  I can only assume that the tactic was designed to draw defenders out of the box, but the single defender standing just outside the box didn’t seem to create any advantage that would outweigh the presence of another Watford head to meet the corner.

Folivi joins his team mates waiting for a corner

Folivi joins his team mates waiting for a corner

In contrast to the reaction on Sunday after conceding, Watford heads did not go down and they were making every effort to pull a goal back.  From a free kick, Capoue played a short ball to Guedioura whose powerful shot was blocked.  Then Kaboul played a through ball to Deeney who crossed for Ighalo, but the Nigerian’s shot was into a group of Stoke defenders.  Each side made a substitution at the half way mark in the second period with Afellay replacing Diouf for the home side and Sinclair coming on for Guedioura for the visitors.  With 20 minutes to go, there were chances at both ends as a decent free-kick from Holebas had to be punched clear by Grant and then a lovely shot from Stoke substitute, Afellay, curled just wide of the near post.  Stoke had a great chance of a third as a cross was headed down by Crouch to Walters, but Gomes smothered the shot.  Watford then had a couple of great chances of their own as Capoue’s corner was met with a header from Sinclair that was cleared off the line, Capoue sent the ball back in to the box and this time it was headed just wide by Prödl.  Then a punched clearance from Grant was headed down by Deeney to Igahlo whose shot was disappointingly weak and easily saved.  Mazzarri’s final change saw Folivi come on in place of Prödl.  In the times that I have seen Folivi play for the U18s and development teams, I have enjoyed watching him, so was delighted to see him make his debut for the first team, although it was under very difficult circumstances.  From pre-match songs about parking the bus, the travelling faithful were now extolling the benefits of having four strikers on the pitch.  Sadly it wasn’t to lead to a change in fortunes in front of goal.  The final chances of the game fell to the home side as Walters got the wrong side of Holebas and bore down on goal before Gomes made an excellent save to deny him.  From the resulting corner, Shawcroft fired wide.

Folivi leaves the pitch after his debut

Folivi leaves the pitch after his debut

There was disappointment at the final whistle.  Unusually Mazzarri applauded and waved to the crowd as he left the pitch, although the position of the tunnel right in front of us was likely the prime reason for this.  The players looked despondent but many of them showed their appreciation by giving their shirts to some of the travelling fans.  The post-match reaction among those that travelled was generally positive.  The team had picked itself due to the dearth of fully fit players.  Mazzarri also admitted that he had played Behrami knowing that he wasn’t fully fit but, assuming that it doesn’t mean a lengthier lay-off for the player, it was a gamble worth taking as he brings leadership and organization to the midfield that has been lacking in recent weeks and he ran his socks off.  Doucouré was also a different player when in the position that he was expecting to play, and he fashioned Watford’s best chances of the game.  The disappointing thing was that, yet again, we were punished for a couple of defensive mistakes.  No tactical game plan can overcome a lapse in concentration.  Still, we asked for a reaction after the Tottenham game and we certainly got what we asked for as there was no lack of effort among the players on show.

We now have a couple of weeks to regroup as it is likely that the Burton game will see more of the youngsters given a chance.  We have some tricky fixtures coming up, so both players and supporters need to band together to get through this sticky patch.  With the transfer window open, hopefully we can bring some players in to make up for some of the longer term injuries.  But I truly believe that a positive support from the stands is an essential element and it is the only thing that the fans can do to help the team so let us all make this our new year’s resolution.

Petulant Loss to the Potters

Kaboul and Capoue line up a free kick

Kaboul and Capoue line up a free kick

Midday on a Sunday is a ridiculous time for a football match.  I was up at the crack of dawn (for me) in order to get to the game but a slight delay on my first train meant that I had to wait a while for the connection at Euston so that, when I arrived in the West Herts after a long journey, the pleasant greeting from my friends was “Where have you been?”  Still, my tardy arrival did mean that a round was already in progress and the traditional cider went down very well with the bacon roll (apple juice is a breakfast drink, isn’t it?) setting me up for the afternoon.

Team news was that Mazzarri made one change from last week with Holebas returning from suspension to replace Zúñiga.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Kaboul, Prödl, Britos; Janmaat, Capoue, Behrami, Holebas; Amrabat, Deeney and Pereyra.  It was good to see each of the captains wearing a rainbow armband in support of the Rainbow Laces campaign which supports fans and players from the LGBT community.  It was also pleasing to see Mazzarri with the rainbow lace displayed on his jacket.

Amrabat on the ball

Amrabat on the ball

Any hope that we would start the game in a similar way to the previous week was soon extinguished and Stoke had the first chance, capitalizing on a Watford mistake, as a failure to clear the ball allowed Martins Indi to shoot, but his point blank effort was blocked by Gomes, who was also on hand to gather the follow-up cross.  The home side’s first goal attempt came as Janmaat intercepted a pass and went on a run before unleashing a shot that was saved by (Hemel boy) Lee Grant.  Stoke should have done better when a cross from Diouf flew across the goal but, luckily for the Hornets, there was no Stoke player anywhere near to apply the final touch.  The visitors threatened again with a shot from distance from Imbula that flew just past the far post.  A lovely passing move from the Watford team finished with Amrabat finding Capoue in space, but his shot was straight at Grant in the Stoke goal.  Mazzarri was forced to make his first substitution after 20 minutes as an injury to Kaboul meant that he was unable to continue, so was replaced by Kabasele.  Pereyra created a chance for himself as he picked the ball up on the edge of the area, turned and shot.  It was a similar strike to the one against Leicester, but this time the ball flew just wide.  Stoke were back in the Watford box as Arnautović headed the ball on to Walters who seemed a little surprised to see it come his way and Gomes was on hand to snuff out the danger.

Behrami being challenged

Behrami being challenged

At this stage of the game, the home fans were becoming increasingly impatient with the referee who seemed to be blowing up after every tackle by a man in a yellow shirt.  Half an hour into the game, he had booked both Amrabat and Britos for reasons that were not apparent from the stand and seemed to baffle the players but were put down to dissent.  The visitors took the lead with a scrappy goal as, following a corner, a header from Adam bounced back off the post before rebounding into the net off Gomes.  The Watford faithful greeted this with a chant of 1-0 to the referee which, at the time, seemed to be stretching the truth somewhat as Stoke had been the better team to that point, but I hadn’t seen the foul by Adam before he reached the ball.  The referee certainly didn’t placate the crowd when he blew up immediately after the restart, insisting that the kick-off be retaken.  Watford had a decent chance for an equalizer as a Capoue free kick was met by Britos, but his header cleared the bar.  Holebas was the next to receive a caution, again for dissent as he kicked the ball away having been angered at being penalized when he conceded a corner while being fouled.  In time added on at the end of the half it appeared that Holebas was tripped in the box, but the referee gave the decision the other way.  The whistle for the end of the first half was greeted by loud boos directed at the referee, but it was difficult to put Watford’s woes at his door.  Stoke were playing a very disciplined, organized game and were ensuring that the Watford players had no space to play in.  Instead of finding a way to counteract this tactic, the home side were just getting increasingly frustrated, it was not good to watch.

Wonder Woman (Marcus Gayle), Ian Richardson, Ian Bolton and Keith Mercer and Gavin Mahon

Wonder Woman (Marcus Gayle), Ian Richardson, Ian Bolton and Keith Mercer and Gavin Mahon

There was a pleasant distraction at half time as the club celebrated Former Players’ Day by reminiscing with Marcus Gayle, Gavin Mahon, Wayne Andrews and Ian Richardson, all of whom evoked happy memories, although I am probably the only person who sees Marcus Gayle and thinks “Wonder Woman”.  They were followed by Keith Mercer, Ian Bolton and Neil Price who were advertising the upcoming dinner at the club and talking about the work of the Former Players Association.  I must say that seeing those old heroes cheered me up considerably.

The visitors started the second half brightly with a run from Arnautović that finished with a cross-cum-shot that was too far in front of the oncoming Walters for him to provide the finishing touch, so flew past the far post.  The Austrian threatened again, but his next shot was stopped by a good block from Kabasele.  Ten minutes into the half, Mazzarri was forced into a second substitution as Holebas, who had received some treatment on the sidelines, was replaced by Ighalo.  The Nigerian’s first half chance came as Amrabat delivered a decent cross into the box, but a defender was on hand to shepherd the ball out and ensure that Ighalo didn’t get a touch.  He had a better chance soon after as he headed a Britos cross goalwards, but the header had no power and was easy for Grant to deal with.

Waiting for a free kick

Waiting for a free kick

The home side were having much more of the play in the second half and another ball into the box looked promising as Janmaat’s cross was headed on by Ighalo but it didn’t reach Deeney and the chance was lost.  Mazzarri’s final change saw Okaka brought on to replace Amrabat.  There was a great chance for an equalizer as a cross from Pereyra was cleared to Janmaat on the edge of the box, but his volley was well over the bar when he should have hit the target.  The presence of Okaka did seem to unsettle the Stoke defence and he had a chance to bring the Hornets level as an overhead kick from Ighalo fell to him, but he was at an acute angle to the goal and could only hit the side netting.  Deeney had a great chance to get his 100th goal when he met a ball from Janmaat with a header but it flew over the target.  Watford’s miserable afternoon continued when Britos stupidly fouled Shaqiri and was shown a second yellow card, so we finished the game with ten men.  Stoke then had a chance to increase their lead as Pieters tried a shot from distance which, thankfully, just missed the target.  But there was still time for another booking for Watford as Behrami received his fifth yellow card of the season.

Pereyra takes a free kick

Pereyra takes a free kick

The final whistle was greeted with yet more boos for the referee.  The Watford players, with the exception of Deeney and Gomes, disappeared in an instant providing no distraction for the home crowd as they directed their anger at the official.  Despite the feeling that the goal should have been disallowed for the foul by Adam, I didn’t feel that the defeat was down to the referee’s decisions.  It had been a poor day at the office for many of the Watford players.  There had been an improvement in the second half with the Hornets finding a bit more space, but the win was a result of Stoke effectively stopping their opponents from keeping the ball or creating any chances.  But the most disappointing aspect of the game was the petulance and ill-discipline of many of the Watford players, which resulted in yellow cards and a sending off that will mean that both Britos and Behrami are unavailable for the game against West Brom.  Sunday’s game was as bad as the previous week’s was good, but that is what we should be expecting this season and, to put a positive spin on it, this is becoming a season in which (ouside the top six) any team can beat any other and, while that will lead to games like Saturday’s, it also means that we can approach most games with an expectation that we can get something out of it and that has not been the case for us at this level since the 80s.

Stoked in the Potteries

 

The oatcake and beer barges

The oatcake and beer barges

I have just returned from a business trip, the original plans for which would have meant missing this game and, to be honest, if I had to miss a game then a trip to Stoke wasn’t one I would be too upset about.  As it turned out, I missed the Arsenal game instead, or rather I spent the morning sitting in a pub in San Francisco watching it.  I was so proud of our performance for the first hour, especially the fact that we went for it rather than the cautious approach that we took against Man City.  The three goals were a little hard to take, but our season won’t be decided by the results of games against the likes of Arsenal.  The game against Stoke was a different matter completely.  It would be a real test, with the result giving an indication of what we can expect for the rest of the season.

My previous trips to Stoke have been on the supporters’ coach, so I’ve always had the impression that the ground is miles out of town and a pig to get to.  Also, away fans are advised to avoid most of the pubs.  So, as I left home feeling fatigued after my travels, I did not have high hopes for my day out.  However, on arrival at the designated pub, which had a sign in the window indicating that only Stoke fans were welcome, the door was held open for me by the security guy, which is always a good sign.  Our advance party was already in place at a table, the beer was good and the food was hearty.  As the pub filled up, there seemed to be more faces that I recognized than not, so the sign in the window was not acting as any kind of deterrent.  The next adventure was to walk to the ground.  It turned out to be an easy stroll along the canal towpath which was not the most picturesque I have ever encountered, but certainly had lots to remark upon.  There was a group of ropey looking canal boats, one of which had foliage on the rudder suggesting a lack of custom.  They were just outside a ‘shooting range’ that appeared to be someone’s garden shed.  Then, as we arrived at the bridge to the ground, there were a couple of somewhat nicer looking barges which were serving oatcakes and beer and doing a roaring trade from the punters who had made the ‘long’ trek from town.

Gomes takes a free kick

Gomes takes a free kick

Team news was just the one change with Britos making his league debut in place of Prödl, a selection that raised eyebrows, especially from those who had witnessed his truncated performance at Deepdale.  The starting line-up was Gomes, Aké, Britos, Cathcart, Nyom, Watson, Capoue, Anya, Deeney, Abdi and Ighalo.  Stoke came into the game in good form having won their previous three league games while only conceding a single goal.  Given Watford’s lack of goalpower, this record was a little worrying.  But we started well as Deeney got goalside of Cameron only for Johnson to appear to take the ball off his feet and redirect it towards Butland.  The home side’s first chance fell to Charlie Adam whose shot from the edge of the area flew wide of the near post.  Then Anya cut the ball back to Watson whose shot was blocked.  Stoke were forced into an early substitution as defender, Cameron, was replaced by Wilson due to an injury sustained in his early challenge with Deeney.  A cross into the Watford box was well blocked by Capoue, it came back in and Aké headed clear but only as far as Adam whose shot was deflected for a corner.  Abdi exchanged passes with Aké before finding Anya whose attempted cross was blocked so looped unthreateningly into the area before it was cleared.  Stoke had a great chance to take the lead just before the half hour as a dangerous cross from Shaqiri was headed wide by Arnautovic when he really should have done better.

Celebrating Deeney's goal

Celebrating Deeney’s goal

Watford had been dreadful for most of the half, they looked sluggish and passes were going horribly astray.  But, just as I was thinking I should have stayed at home and slept off the jet-lag, we had a great chance to take the lead.  Anya broke forward and crossed for Ighalo.  I was already celebrating when the Nigerian’s header came back off the crossbar, but the chance had not gone.  Odion’s follow-up shot was blocked and rebounded to Abdi, the ball got stuck under his feet so he moved it on to Deeney who was in space but his shot hit the same spot on the crossbar that Ighalo had found and rebounded to safety.  At the other end a Stoke break was stopped as a cross from Johnson was blocked by the brilliant Watson.  From the corner, Shaqiri’s delivery appeared to be flying in but Gomes punched it clear.  Surprisingly, it was the visitors who took the lead just before half time.  A lovely back heel from Ighalo found Deeney who got into position and curled the ball into the corner past Butland.  The celebrations in the away end had extra impetus due to Deeney finally having scored his first goal of the season.  He has worked his socks off and thoroughly deserved it.  Most of the first half had been dreadful, but the goal ensured that the Hornets left the pitch to applause and with Troy Deeney’s name ringing out in the Britannia.

Deeney congratulating Abdi after he scored the second

Deeney congratulating Abdi after he scored the second

Watford launched the first attack of the second half as a long free kick from Gomes reached Deeney whose header was soft and straight at Butland.  At the other end, Shaqiri hit a shot from outside the area that flew high and wide.  Deeney had a great chance for a second as Ighalo found him in space.  Last season he would have buried the ball, but this time he took one touch too many and the chance was gone.  Watford had a shout for a penalty as Ighalo tumbled in the box, but the referee waved appeals away, which was fine by me as it would have been rather soft.  A corner from Watson reached Ighalo in the centre of the box, he volleyed goalwards, but there was a body in the way to block the shot which was hit with such power that I would suspect that body was hurting for some time.  Watford were on top now and a Cathcart free kick was nodded down by Deeney towards Ighalo who was held off by a defender so couldn’t reach the ball.  Flores made his first substitution on 64 minutes replacing Anya with Paredes.  Watford’s second goal came on 69 minutes as Ighalo battled to dispossess Wilson on the left and played a perfect pass into the path of Abdi who advanced and hit a gorgeous shot past Butland at the near post.  The celebrations in the away end were joy unconfined.

Challenging at a corner

Challenging at a corner

Watford were looking to increase their lead further as Paredes advanced down the right, his cross reached Abdi who balooned his shot wide.  Paredes then had a chance himself as he hit a powerful shot from outside the area that Butland dived to keep out, although the block was such that the ball could have flown anywhere.  A Stoke counter-attack finished with Walters shooting well wide of the far post.  The first booking of the game went to Whelan for taking Capoue down in the centre circle.  Watford’s second substitution saw Behrami replacing goalscorer, Abdi, who went off to warm applause and the sound of his name being chanted.  Another Stoke chance was scuppered as the attentions of Deeney ensured that Adams shot high and wide.  At the other end, Deeney played a ball to Capoue whose shot curled just wide of the target.  Stoke’s late attempts to cut the deficit were poor as, first, a Johnson cross was headed wide by Arnautovic and then a corner flew across goal and straight out for a goal kick.  A late substitution by the visitors saw Guedioura coming on for Igahlo.  The Nigerian took a while to leave the pitch so was pushed by Pieters, there was a bit of handbags and both men received a caution.  Stoke’s frustration manifested again as Adam hacked Capoue down and was carded for the offence.  As the fourth official signalled four minutes of time added on, the home stands were almost empty.  The final chance of the game fell to Capoue whose low free kick was disappointing and flew well wide of the goal.

Just after the post-match hug

Just after the post-match hug

There were great celebrations in the away end after the final whistle and it was lovely to see Flores, Deeney and Gomes return from thanking the referee with their arms around each other.  As the last Watford player left the pitch the travelling Hornets were still bouncing and singing and my earlier jet-lagged state had been replaced with euphoria.  If we had been fortunate in the first half, we had been excellent in the second and thoroughly deserved the win.  While the goals for Deeney and Abdi and Ighalo’s two assists will attract the headlines, the consensus among our party was that the man of the match award should go to Watson, who was quietly magnificent running the midfield, with a special mention for Capoue who had the home side rattled throughout.

So 10 games played, 13 points and 13th in the table.  We’d have taken that in August.  We’ve also broken our Premier League duck for October.  It is always good to see records like that falling.

As I was waiting for the train home, I was joined on the platform by Stuart Timperley and Miles Jacobson, fresh from the Stoke boardroom, so had a very interesting journey home with these two delightful gentlemen.  A wonderful end to an unexpectedly enjoyable day in Stoke.