The nightmares started on Friday night. I have a recurring dream in which I am at a match but am unable to see the pitch from my vantage point which is often in a stand that is facing away from the pitch. On this occasion, the Watford crowd at Bournemouth had been housed in a container. Now, there have been some issues with our fans at Bournemouth in the past, but putting us in a metal box seemed a little excessive. Saturday night I struggled to sleep but, when I did, I had my other recurrent dream of trying and failing to get to a destination. These are usually football related, although this time the destination was a bit vague, but I knew what it meant. There is quite a lot going on in my life at the moment. I am in the process of buying a flat and readying a house for sale. Work is busy with some crucial deadlines coming up. But I am having nightmares about a football match. I fear that there is something wrong with my priorities.
I left home at 8:40 to catch the train. It seemed a little early on a Sunday, but I could hardly complain as Jacque had to leave Leighton Buzzard on a rail replacement bus at 6-ish in order to make the connection with the train she had booked from London. Needless to say, at that hour on a Sunday there were few people on the platform for the train to Slough and I was able to occupy my ‘lucky’ seat, so all was right with the world. As I checked social media it was full of fellow Watford fans expressing their love for Graham Taylor on the anniversary of his passing. This added an extra significance to the day.
We had arranged to meet in the usual pub but, due to the 2pm Sunday kick-off, the timing of my arrival meant that I would arrive before the pub’s scheduled opening time. Alice was arriving by car at a similar time, so arranged to meet me at the station so that we could kill some time together. Just before my train arrived in Bournemouth, there was a message from Pete telling me that he had found a table in the pub, which was already open. So, I met Alice and, after a short walk, we had a drink and a seat in the pub. My recollection had been that the pub menu was rather limited (mostly burgers), so I asked whether they had any food on. The news that there were a couple of roasts or a burger if we wanted one was very welcome. I had had no breakfast, so the lovely plate of meat and several veg which was served to me set me up very nicely for the afternoon.
I left myself plenty of time to get to the ground and through the security that is always in place in Bournemouth. Thankfully, on this occasion, we arrived to find a very short queue and were soon through the turnstiles. It was Alice’s birthday, and she had left for the ground a little earlier than I did to meet some friends. When I found her inside with Mr Fincham, a man known for starting chants, she recounted that he had regaled her with a booming chorus of Happy Birthday that was soon picked up as the entire concourse joined in, much to Alice’s embarrassment/delight. There was also another song being sung in the concourse, “Super Nigel Pearson” which was catchy and simple and, by the time I took my seat in the stand, I knew (nearly all) the words. Our party soon gathered in the stands including my niece who lives in Bournemouth so it was a home game for her.
Team news was that Pearson had made two enforced changes from the Wolves game with Masina and Mariappa in for Kabasele (suspended) and Femenía (injured). So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Dawson, Mariappa; Capoue, Chalobah; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney. I was disappointed to see that Aké had returned for Bournemouth. I still hurts that he is playing for them rather than us and he always plays brilliantly against us.
The Hornets made a bright start to the game as Deeney played the ball out to Doucouré who put in a low cross but Deulofeu, who was charging into the box, could not reach it. Then Deeney released Sarr on the wing, the first touch was a bit heavy but he managed to win a corner that came to nothing. The first chance for Bournemouth came as a miskick allowed the ball into the Bournemouth box, it looked worrying for the Hornets as Solanke almost reached it, but he slipped over and Foster was able to gather. Then Bournemouth won a free kick about 30 yards out. Harry Wilson blasted the ball towards the Watford goal, but Foster managed to push the ball around the post. Then there was a bit of niggle between Lerma and Doucouré which threated to get out of hand and Mike Dean had words, but no cards were shown. The first caution of the game went to Adam Smith for a nasty looking tackle on Sarr.
The Hornets had a decent chance on 18 minutes when Doucouré found Deulofeu at the near post, but stand-in keeper, Travers, was able to block the shot. The resulting corner was met by the head of Masina whose effort flew wide of the far post. The home side threatened again as a shot from distance by Harry Wilson was deflected for a corner. With five minutes to go to half time Lerma got the ball in a dangerous position on the edge of the box, but his shot was woeful flying high into the stand behind the goal. It was the Hornets who took the lead just before half time. Francis played a back pass to Travers, Deulofeu closed him down forcing a hasty clearance that fell to Sarr who raced forward and crossed for Doucouré who controlled the ball before shooting past Travers and sending the travelling Hornets into delirium. It was noted that, unlike previous visits, the goal was not greeted with a flare. But, with my niece not making as many games this season, it was really lovely to share a goal celebration and hug with her.
So, we went into the break feeling very happy. It hadn’t been a classic half of football, but there had been some very good signs and the goal had left us all feeling very positive. The half time entertainment consisted of a “beer goggle challenge” in which disorientated fans tried to score a penalty against the mascot. Most of the efforts were woeful and it was won by the Watford fans due to a single goal which followed a very clever run up and, it has to be said, he was the only fella who managed to get a decent strike on the ball.
The Hornets created the first goal-scoring opportunity of the second half as Sarr tried a shot from distance that deflected off Aké for a corner. The Senegalese youngster then had a great chance to double Watford’s lead after receiving a pass from Deulofeu, but the shot was weak and easily cleared. Then Bournemouth won a corner, but Fraser’s delivery was met by a header from Wilson that flew over the bar. A lovely passing move from the Hornets deserved more as Sarr found Doucouré who fed Deulofeu, but the final shot was poor with Geri shooting high and wide of the near post. Then Sarr found Deeney who tried to lift the ball over the defence, but the effort was cleared and a frustrated Deeney was booked for pulling Harry Wilson down as he attempted to escape.
The home side made a double substitution on the hour mark bringing Billing and Cook on for Lerma and Gosling. Billing’s first contribution was a dangerous run into the Watford box that was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Capoue. Chalobah then tried his luck with a shot from the edge of the area that cleared the target. The second goal for the Hornets came on 65 minutes after Sarr rode a tackle and made his way to the bye-line, he cut the ball back towards Doucouré who was crowded out but managed to divert the ball to Deeney who came flying in and powered the ball past Travers. This time a flare did go off, so we were unable to see the restart. But the smoke had cleared by the time Deulofeu went on a terrific run into the opposition box, his shot was blocked but the ball rebounded to him and he crossed for Deeney who volleyed goalwards but Travers made the save. At the other end there was a half chance for the home team as a headed clearance fell to Billing but he shanked his shot high and wide. As the clock ticked over towards 72 minutes the travelling Hornets blasted out a loud chorus of one Graham Taylor in memory and appreciation of Watford’s greatest ever manager. The Hornets created another great chance as Deulofeu found Deeney in the box, the ball was returned and Geri hit a wonderful shot that a defender managed to head to safety.
With 15 minutes remaining, Bournemouth made their final substitution replacing Harry Wilson with Surridge. Soon after, Pereyra replaced Sarr and then Quina came on for Doucouré. I noticed that Pearson had given both of the players who were substituted a cuddle and talked with them as they came off. What I hadn’t noticed, but have read subsequently, was that Sarr had reacted badly to his withdrawal and that Pearson had a word with Doucouré who went and chatted to the youngster and smoothed things over. Following his introduction, Pereyra was immediately involved with an uncharacteristic (and impressive) defensive tackle. In time added on Deulofeu made way for Gray. Then Pereyra went on a storming run before crossing for Gray who was tackled, but managed to get a shot in that was cleared off the line but Pereyra was following up, chested it down and volleyed for our third which extinguished any lingering doubts about where the points were going.
The final whistle went to loud cheers and hugs and Alice declaring “Happy birthday to me!”.
There was much excitement after the game as phones were proffered displaying the table showing Watford out of the relegation zone for the first time this season. Nobody in the away end wanted to head for the exits as we stayed to cheer our heroes. The Nigel Pearson chant had had a good airing, but there was always time for another chorus as well as chants for Deeney, Doucouré and anyone else who attracted our attention. Then lovely Nate Chalobah came over and pumped his fists at the crowd and was greeted with a cheer. A repeat fist pump elicited the same reaction. He headed away from us and the crowd responded with ‘oooooooohhhh’, he turned around and pumped his fist and was rewarded with another cheer. This was repeated another couple of times before he reached Pearson in the centre of the field and the two of them pumped their fists in unison. I know that this loses a lot in the telling but it was a gorgeous moment and I had a tear in my eye at the togetherness.
As we made our way out of the ground, there were more celebrations with broad smiles and warm hugs with friends.
We headed back to the pub for a celebratory pint/glass of wine and to cheer City on against Villa. It felt odd to be cheering one of the bigger teams against one that was struggling but needs must. The crowd in the pub was a mix of fans of the two teams and was absolutely lovely. The landlady even commented that she was sure we were enjoying our day after the result.
The post-match discussion centred around how impressive our team had been. There were times when we played some absolutely gorgeous football and the team are actually playing as a team. A criticism earlier in the season had been that they were playing a lot of clever passes that just went to the opposition. On this occasion there was some exquisite passing and it was a joy to watch. The defence had been really solid and there has to be a special mention for Adam Masina, who was quite brilliant, as well as Dawson who has turned into the solid defender that we were expecting when he arrived. The midfield was magnificent. Capoue was excellent as always, Doucouré is back to his best after a terrible start to the season, but the special joy for me was seeing Chalobah finally putting in imperious performances. I had worried that, after too many injuries, he would never return to his best but his recent performances have been just wonderful to watch. Sarr started a little slowly and seemed to be struggling against Aké in the first half, but once he started taking on the defenders he was brilliant and made two of our three goals. Similarly, Deulofeu wasn’t getting as much of the ball as he would have liked, but he worked his socks off and was a constant threat to the Bournemouth defence. Then there is Troy Deeney. During his absence with injury there were some that doubted that his return would make that much of a difference as he was not the goal scoring phenomenon that he had been. He has proved all the nay-sayers wrong as his organisation and leadership has made a huge difference. Of course, I cannot finish this without heaping praise upon Nigel Pearson. Before he arrived, we were watching a team of talented individuals who had lost their way. He has added a focus and organisation that has transformed those individuals into a formidable team and watching Watford is an absolute joy again.
We headed home at a reasonable time and I decided to accompany my friends on the London train as far as Basingstoke rather than taking the (slightly earlier) train directly to Reading. It was only when we took our seats in cattle class that they all mentioned that they had first class tickets and were slumming it for me. Still we had a great time eulogising our performance, watching the highlights and listening to Jon Marks’ commentary for the goals. We were also joined by another regular away fan and discovered that we all had a mutual dislike for ‘plucky’ Bournemouth and their manager and how special a win over them felt.
When I changed trains at Basingstoke I was left alone with my thoughts. This was one of the most enjoyable days out this season. The game was a “six-pointer” against another team who are struggling and we beat them comprehensively. The talk after the game was of a top half finish, which may be a stretch but does not sound impossible as it would have done a couple of months ago. But, on the anniversary of Graham Taylor’s passing, we reflected on a team who worked hard and worked together and a fanbase that were totally engaged and felt part of the team. It was a performance on and off the pitch that would have made GT proud and that is the ultimate praise from me.