Tag Archives: Neil Danns

A Rock and Roll Night Out on Merseyside

A proper old school paper ticket

It felt like groundhog day when I arrived in Liverpool.  It was just over a week since the futile trip for the postponed game and, after the two away games at the Liverpool clubs and the cup game against Everton, this was my fifth trip to Merseyside for a football match this season.

I dropped my things off at the hotel and picked up a message from Mike suggesting that we meet in the Excelsior, where we had spent a couple of happy hours on a previous trip.  After a quiet pint there, we headed for a pub in the city centre where we had an interesting encounter with some locals.  There was a well-dressed eccentric complaining about the long trip that he had taken to Widnes for a funeral.  I may well have misunderstood what he was saying but he seemed to be unconvinced that he had attended the correct funeral.  Also at the bar, were an elderly mother and son.  The son was very friendly and welcoming, the mother not so much, seeming to resent her quiet whisky being interrupted by Watford fans as she pointedly told us that she supported Liverpool.  Pete had taken the supporters coach and they had arrived very early.  So, after some negotiation with the steward, who didn’t want to let him get off, he made the trip across the Mersey and joined us for dinner.

Mike, Pete and I with Nasher and Prowsey

Mike is friends with Ian Prowse, a brilliant musician who we had seen in concert after the Liverpool game (https://amsterdam-music.com/).  Prowsey is a Tranmere fan so Mike had arranged to meet up with him before the game.  He had told Mike that he was going to the game with his mate, Nasher.  Nasher being Brian Nash from Frankie goes to Hollywood, so we found ourselves in the presence of two Liverpool music legends.  We met for dinner and then caught the Merseyrail for the journey across (under) the river and then caught a cab to the ground.  As there was still some time before kick-off, we went into the Prenton Park pub by the ground.  As we had wine with dinner, Pete and I decided we would continue.  The barmaid looked a little confused but found a couple of long glasses in which to serve our drinks.

We said our goodbyes and headed for the ground and I was rather delighted to see that the turnstiles actually had operators to whom I could hand the huge paper ticket.  Having just said goodbye to Nasher outside Prenton Park, it was a little surreal to hear “Two Tribes” playing in the stadium.  The pre-game playlist also included the theme from “The Rockford Files”, a real flashback to my youth.

The Prenton Park pitch

Team news was that Pearson was putting out a very young team with first starts for Barrett, Whelan, Hungbo and João Pedro.  So, the starting XI was Bachmann; Holebas, Kabasele, Spencer-Adams, Barrett; Hungbo, Quina, Dele-Bashiru, Whelan; João Pedro, Gray.  During the week João Pedro had been complaining about the cold on social media, so I can only imagine what he thought when he emerged from the tunnel to find a very muddy pitch and the ground enveloped in an icy fog.  Although, regarding the pitch, kudos must be given to the grounds staff who had worked very hard to ensure that it was playable, even if a police officer outside had commented that anyone who attempted a sliding tackle was likely to end up in the stands.

Watford started the game brightly and created an early chance when Hungbo escaped upfield and tried a shot from outside the area, but his effort was blocked.  Then João Pedro went on an excellent run before cutting inside and hitting a curling shot that was blocked by Monthe.  The Hornets threatened again as Whelan crossed for João Pedro who could only turn the ball over the bar.

Spencer-Adams and Whelan

Tranmere’s first goal attempt came as a cross-field ball was played to Blackett-Taylor who shot high and wide of the near post.  Then Danns tried his luck but his shot flew wide of the far post.  Nearly half an hour had passed before the first shot on target which came as a deep ball was played to Morris whose effort was blocked by Bachmann, but the ball dropped to Blackett-Taylor, who should have done better with his shot which cleared the bar.  The home side were dominating at this point and a free kick was cleared only as far as Danns who shot high and wide of the far post.  Tranmere took the lead on 35 minutes after the Hornets failed to clear from a corner, there was a scramble in the box before the ball fell to Monthe who fired past Bachmann.  The Hornets had a half chance to restore parity before the break, but the shot from Hungbo was poor and didn’t trouble Davies in the Tranmere goal.

Pearson made a change at the break replacing Dele-Bashiru with Hinds.  The home side won a corner early in the second half, Ridehalgh got on the end of it but his header was easily gathered by Bachman.  Then Watford created a decent chance as João Pedro found himself one-on-one with the keeper, but Davies made the save, the rebound fell to Hinds whose shot was over the target.

Celebrating the equaliser

The first booking of the game went to Jennings for a foul on Hungbo.  The Hornets had another good chance to draw level as a free kick was punched clear and dropped to Holebas who met it with a decent volley that hit the post.  Tranmere made their first change on 64 minutes replacing Ferrier with Mullin.  Watford were almost architects of their own downfall when Bachmann dropped a corner and was a little lucky that the referee adjudged him to have been fouled.  The home side looked to increase their lead when Mullin tried a run into the box, but Bachmann was out to gather.  The equaliser came from Watford’s first corner of the game, the ball fell to Hinds, his first attempt was blocked, but the ball rebounded to him and he finished past Davies.  Tranmere had a great chance to regain the lead almost immediately as Mullin got on the end of a long pass, took the ball around Bachmann but his shot hit the outside of the post.  The Hornets then threatened as Hinds crossed for João Pedro, but Davies intervened to put the ball out for a corner.  Kabasele had a chance to grab a winner when he got on the end of a cross from Holebas but could not find the target.  With 10 minutes to go, Pearson was forced to make a substitution as João Pedro had picked up an injury, Dalby was the man who took his place, another youngster making his debut.  Tranmere were pushing for a winner as Danns tried to break into the box, but he was stopped by a great tackle from Spencer-Adams.  The home side could have won it in time added on after some terrible defending by the Hornets, Holebas knocked the ball into the path of Danns who really should have done better but shot wide of the target.

Dalby and Barrett

So, the game went into extra time.  Gray messed up the kick-off, touching the ball twice and so conceding a free kick on the centre circle.  Very odd indeed.  Andre, who was captain for the night, looked to make amends as he picked up a decent ball, advanced and crossed for Hinds whose header back across goal was cleared.  Whelan then had a chance to put the visitors ahead with a lovely curling shot that was stopped by a great save from Davies.  Holebas, who really did not appear to be enjoying his evening, went on a gorgeous mazy run through the Tranmere defence.  It came to nothing, but it was great fun to watch.  With five minutes to go in the first period of extra time, each side made a substitution with Bennetts replacing Hungbo for the Hornets and Danns making way for Gilmour for the home side.  There was danger for the visitors as the ball was bobbling around the Watford box, Riedhalgh crossed for Morris but the header was wide of the target.  The winner resulted from more poor defending from the Hornets as Hinds had the chance to clear the ball but instead kept it in on the right touchline, the ball fell for Gilmour who put in a cross, Blackett-Taylor flicked it on for Mullin to head past Bachmann to regain the lead for Tranmere.  The home side could have extended their lead just before half time in the added period as a corner was cleared to Morris whose shot flew just wide of the near post.

Bachmann takes a goal kick

Each side made a change at the start of the second period of extra time with Quina making way for Wise (son of Dennis) for the Hornets and Woods replacing Blackett-Taylor for the home side.  Watford never looked like getting back in the game and the home fans were enjoying themselves immensely, with “Tequila” ringing out from the stand behind the goal.  As the final whistle approached, there was an announcement asking the fans not to run on the pitch at the end of the game as they would damage it!  Needless to say, the request was in vain and, as the final whistle went, there was a mini pitch invasion.

The reaction of the Watford fans at the final whistle was mostly resignation, although one lad was walking down the stand shouting angrily at Gray.  The majority politely applauded the players, who responded in kind, and then headed out.  The coaches were waiting outside the away end, so Pete left us there and Mike and I headed back to the Prenton Park where a very happy Prowsey was already at the bar and planning to get tickets for himself and his daughter for the visit of Manchester United.  Mike and I commented that we already had tickets for that tie that we now couldn’t use.  We headed back to the City and the lads bumped into a woman that they knew in the lift at the station.  When she left Prowsey said, “That was Janice Long.”  I hadn’t recognised her.  We had one last drink in a pub that was playing a video of Liverpool icons from the 80s.  So, I found myself in the very odd position of watching the bloke I was chatting with on the telly.

Barrett, Spencer-Adams and Hinds challenging at a set piece

In the cold light of day, while it had been a disappointing performance from the youngsters, it was not unexpected.  They had started brightly enough and there had been a few decent moments, but the Tranmere team were too strong for them and, ultimately, appeared to want it more.  Of the youngsters, Hinds did well when he came on and deserved his goal.  Spencer-Adams has looked promising in both games and Whelan had a decent second half.  Of the first-team players, Kabasele put in a decent shift, Holebas had a couple of very decent chances but looked unhappy to be there and Gray was mostly anonymous, which was very sad to see.

I have to say that, after three games in a week, I was not heartbroken at the thought of a weekend off.  The prospect of playing Man United in the next round had not excited me at all.  Given our precarious position in the Premier League, this extended break will likely be beneficial as it gives the team longer to work together on the training pitch.  The Tranmere fans will love the visit of United and I wish them a lot of luck as they were tremendous at both of the games.

Travelling to two midweek games in one week, both ending in defeat, may not appear to be the most enjoyable way to use my precious holiday from work.  But I have been going to football for long enough not to rely on the game to provide enjoyment and my Thursday night on Merseyside with the rock stars was actually a lot of fun.

From Coasting to Capitulation

Daniel Bachmann

Before the game, I was a little surprised to discover that the last time that we had played Tranmere Rovers had been GT’s final home game as manager in April 2001.  I was living in the US at the time and had flown home to be at the match.  From memory, it was an uninspiring draw and fans were unhappy.  I was also at the previous home game against them, the Easter Saturday tie which had looked to be heading for a dull defeat until two goals and two dismissals for the Hornets resulted in a comeback win that sparked our run to the play-offs in 1999.  Very happy memories of that one

It was nice to be back to the usual routine of a 3pm Saturday kick-off and I was in the West Herts just after midday.  They were clearly not expecting a big crowd as the car park stewards were nowhere to be seen.  But Don was in his usual spot and all was right with the world.  Jacque was getting food, so I went to join her and was rather gratified when the woman behind the counter identified our location as “the TV table”.  It is either that or “Are you sitting with Don?”  We are creatures of habit.  There were fond reminiscences about our visit to hospitality for the Wolves game.  Trond asked if we had been sitting in the new overhang which is in front of where they sit and commented that it had moved a lot more than in previous games.

The mysterious Spencer-Adams

Unsurprisingly, the team news was that there were nine changes from the Wolves game with only Dawson and Chalobah keeping their places.  I am ashamed to say that there was one name in the starting line-up that I didn’t recognise (Spencer-Adams).  As the U23s generally play their matches in the afternoon these days, I don’t get to see them anymore.  The starting XI was Bachmann; Masina, Spencer-Adams, Dawson, Mariappa; Dele-Bashiru, Chalobah, Quina; Pereyra, Gray, Success.

The walk down Vicarage Road was rather refreshing as there were no touts or half-and-half scarves.  But I was rather disappointed to find that the programmes had sold out, my search of the Rookery concourse failing to find any of the programme stalls still open.  That’ll teach me for leaving the pub so late.

The game kicked off at 15:01 in support of the “Heads Up” campaign and was designed to encourage everyone to take a minute to think about their mental health.

Celebrating Dele_Bashiru’s opener

There was a fairly quiet start to the game, although the Tranmere crowd, which was just under 2700, were already making a noise.  With 12 minutes on the clock, the Hornets won a corner.  This was played short, Chalobah found Dele-Bashiru at the edge of the box and he hit a lovely shot from distance past Chapman in the Tranmere goal to put the Hornets in the lead.  The home side were two up soon after as Tranmere struggled to clear, a shot from Success was blocked and the ball was cleared to Chalobah who also beat Chapman with a shot from outside the area.  Nate ran straight to Pearson to celebrate, so clearly there were no hard feelings after his quick substitution in the Villa game.  There was a decent chance of a third for the Hornets after 20 minutes when Quina made space for himself and unleashed a shot that was deflected over the bar.  Chalobah had a decent chance to score a second following a corner, but this time his shot was well over the bar.  Watford threatened again as Pereyra played a through ball for Gray but Andre was unable to reach it and it ran through to the keeper.  Just before the half hour mark Rovers won a corner, the delivery flew harmlessly across the goal.  Watford scored a third on 34 minutes when Success beat a defender before passing to Gray who helped it on to Pereyra who blasted past Chapman.  Tranmere had a chance to pull one back when a corner found Clarke at the far post, but his header was wide of the target.  They threatened again as a shot from Monthé deflected off the head of Dawson for a corner that came to nothing.  Bachmann was finally called into action with 5 minutes to go to half time, but the low curling shot by Jennings was easily gathered.   Jennings created another chance in time added on at the end of the half but his shot from distance was also comfortably stopped by Bachmann.

Mapps congratulates Chalobah (missed the hug with Pearson)

The half time whistle went with the Watford faithful feeling very comfortable.  It had been a convincing performance in the first half and the lads appeared to be coasting.

There was a change for the Hornets at half time which meant the much anticipated debut of João Pedro who came on in place of Chalobah, who had picked up an injury.  Tranmere made a double substitution with Blackett-Taylor and Woods replacing Payne and Nelson.  The first action from the Brazilian wonder boy was to jump into a tackle on Caprice giving away a free kick.  But he was soon showing his attacking skills as he received a pass from Pereyra and took a shot that was blocked.  He created a better chance soon after as Success went on a run before finding him in space, the shot was excellent and flew just wide of the near post.  Watford threatened again as a corner was played out to Quina who mishit his effort, the ball finished with Dawson whose shot was high and wide.  The visitors won a corner of their own, but the cross was easily caught by Bachmann.  Watford made a second substitution on the hour mark with Whelan coming on to make his debut in place of Quina who had picked up an injury.  Out of nowhere, the visitors then had the ball in the Watford net as Blackett-Taylor crossed for Jennings who headed in at the near post.  The flag was up indicating offside, but the shouts from the Watford end of “sit down, shut up” soon looked rather foolish as the VAR overruled the lino and allowed the goal.  This prompted joyful chants of “VAR, VAR” from the visiting supporters.

Masina and Success congratulating Pereyra on his goal (honestly!)

Tranmere had another decent chance as Jennings tried a flick at the near post, but Bachmann pushed it over the bar.  Jennings was then booked for a foul on João Pedro.  It was a poor foul, but disappointing to see the youngster roll over three times after the contact.  No harm done as, soon after, he went on a lovely run which deserved better, but nobody could get on the end of his cross.  Pearson made his final change and it was another player making his debut as Mason Barrett replaced Spencer-Adams.    Disaster befell the Hornets on 77 minutes as Bachmann failed to catch a cross from Blackett-Taylor, the ball dropped and was played to Monthé who turned the ball in past a couple of defenders on the line.  Tranmere made a final change bringing Mullin on for Ferrier.  There had been an indication that some of the Watford players were struggling for fitness and it was rather concerning to see Masina giving Success a leg massage, presumably to ward off cramp (GT would have been livid).  As I shouted encouragement, the thought crossed my mind that I had never been to Prenton Park, so what happened next is all my fault.  Blackett-Taylor was tackled by Barrett on the corner of the box.  He went down under the challenge and the initial decision from the referee was that it was a corner.  The Tranmere fans were shouting for VAR with good reason.  The decision was that it should have been a penalty and the footage shown on the big screen afterwards confirmed that as the correct decision.  Tranmere substitute, Mullin, stepped up and sent Bachmann the wrong way to draw the visitors level with three minutes left on the clock.  To add insult to injury, a couple of minutes later Pereyra was shown a straight red for a rather innocuous foul on Blackett-Taylor.  VAR was definitely not our friend on this afternoon as the decision stood and we played the six minutes of added time with ten men.  Watford had a chance to regain the lead when Success was taken down of the edge of the box by Monthé, who earned a yellow card for his trouble.  The free kick was awful as Masina played it short to Dele-Bashiru who played a return pass, but the Moroccan got under the ball and shot high and wide.

A first look at Joao Pedro

The final whistle went to boos and the sight of a lot of people storming out.  There was one bright spot in the gloom, though, as Masina came over and gave a child his shirt.  He was then looking in the crowd for someone.  When he finally spotted the person he was looking for, he waved and then came into the crowd and gave them his undershirt and a warm hug.  My sisters told me that, during the warm-up, he had kicked a ball into the crowd which had hit a woman.  She was rather shocked and upset at the time and his apologies had seemed to fall on deaf ears, although the offer of his gloves had been taken up by her husband.  Thankfully she was recovered by the end of the game and the apology, the shirt and the hug were gratefully received.

Back to the West Herts and there were a lot of very glum faces and a sense of shock.  We had been coasting at half time and Rovers had been poor.  But the loss of Chalobah and then Quina changed the game and the whole of the second half seemed to be played with Watford on the back foot.  I briefly thought that it looked like one of those games that Liverpool used to play in the 80s when they would play for a draw in the first leg of a league cup game before battering the opposition in the second leg.  But those games were controlled 0-0 draws.  This game was quite baffling.  It has to be said that it was an opportunity for those who were on the fringes to show Pearson what they can do.  Sadly, I don’t think that Success or Gray did anything that would convince him to include them against Bournemouth.  However, Chalobah had another good outing, Dele-Bashiru looked excellent and João Pedro put in a decent showing.  The fitness problems of the fringe players was a cause for concern and they may find themselves with some extra routines in training.

Spencer-Adams, Gray and Dele-Bashiru

I have to say that I did not share the concerns of some who thought this may derail our recovery in the Premier League as most of the players are not regular starters.  I did worry about it derailing the U23s who have had a decent season so far.  But they played on Monday and won 6-1, so no worries there.

We really could do without another game at the moment, but I am very much looking forward to a trip to Birkenhead.  If the Tranmere fans are half as impressive at their place as they were at Vicarage Road, we are in for a fun evening.

 

The Beautiful Game

Layun takes the kick-off

Layun takes the kick-off

Since it was FA Cup 5th round day, I waited to book my train to this game until we were knocked out of the cup.  Needless to say, I’d completely ignored the fact that our opponents were still in the competition so was sweating during their 4th round replay.  An added complication was that, at the time that I booked my tickets, there was signalling work planned for the West Coast line so I had booked a slow cross-country train which would get me in later than I would usually plan for.  In the interim there had been a landslip that meant that my already long train journey was interrupted with a bus between Banbury and Leamington adding another hour with the consequence that there would be no time for a pre-match pint.  Bulletins picked up on the way indicated that there were also problems on the roads so the away contingent could be severely depleted.  The final leg of the journey was another rail replacement bus and, as we reached the stadium with less than half an hour to kick off, I could see that the official supporters’ coach was just parking.  Relief all round.

When we arrived outside the turnstiles, one of the stewards asked what we thought the score would be.  “Depends which Watford turns up,” “Yes, we’re a bit like that too.”  An interesting game in prospect.

The main item of team news was that Troy had been dropped to the bench with Vydra taking his place.  He was joined by Hoban and Tözsér who were replaced by Ekstrand and Abdi, both returning after spells on the sidelines.  The starting line-up was Gomes, Angella, Ekstrand, Cathcart, Anya, Watson, Layun, Abdi, Paredes, Vydra and Ighalo.

Paredes passes

Paredes passes

The first goal attempt of the game went to the home side as Clough played the ball back to Le Fondre in the box, he always scores against us, but this time his shot was high and wide.  There was an early yellow card for Cathcart who was penalized for pulling Feeney back as he tried to escape down the wing.  For the visitors, Abdi played the ball out to Anya whose cross was blocked, the ball found its way to Vydra whose shot went out for a goal kick.  Janko broke into the box with Angella in close attendance ensuring that the ball ran through to Gomes.  Anya broke forward and crossed, but there was no Watford player in the box to take advantage.  We waited 18 minutes for Watford’s first goal attempt and then two came at once.  Anya broke forward again, played the ball back to Vydra who found Abdi in the box whose shot was blocked by Lonergan.  The clearance fell to Anya who played it back in, it finally reached Vydra on the edge of the box but his shot was gathered by the Bolton keeper.  Watford put themselves in danger as a mix up between Angella and Gomes resulted in a corner and Gomes needing treatment.  From Feeney’s set piece, Wheater had a free header that flew just wide.  Then Vydra gave the ball away to Wheater who released Le Fondre, he found Janko who fired a shot wide of the target when he really should have done better.

Ighalo gives thanks for his goal

Ighalo gives thanks for his goal

It was the visitors who took the lead on 25 minutes through who else but Ighalo.  The Nigerian had received a pass from Watson, appeared to get the ball stuck under his feet but recovered to shoot and the ball seemed to enter the net in slow motion.  The home side had a great chance to break back soon after as a Gomes punch fell to Le Fondre whose shot was blocked on the line by Watson.  Bolton’s first yellow card went to Bannan who was booked for pulling Abdi back.  Bolton should have equalized with a curling shot from Bannan that was tipped over the bar by Gomes.  Watford threatened again as Vydra exchanged passes with Ighalo, the ball was played to Paredes who just passed it to the keeper.  Bolton equalized in controversial circumstances.  The lino was flagging for offside against Le Fondre so the Watford players and fans took little notice when Feeney crossed and Clough turned the ball into the net.  I was baffled to see the home fans celebrating as they must have seen the flag.  Then the realization hit that the lino had lowered his flag and the referee had signalled for the goal.  There were heartfelt appeals from the Watford players and strong opinions being expressed by the fans, but the goal stood.  This knocked the stuffing out of the Hornets and the home side took advantage.  From a free kick, Ream shot into the side netting.  Then Bolton took the lead as Feeney broke forward and crossed for Le Fondre (who always scores against us) to shoot past Gomes.  We were all feeling pretty aggrieved at half time, but the players and the fans just needed to forget the injustice and get on with the game.

Abdi takes a free kick

Abdi takes a free kick

Thankfully, the players started the second half on the front foot.  Abdi and Ighalo combined to find Vydra who was fouled on the edge of the box.  Abdi’s free-kick was heading for the top corner until Lonergan got a hand to it to keep it out.  Vydra played the ball to Anya who juggled it to get some space before taking the shot which was saved.  Abdi tried a shot from the edge of the area that flew wide.  On 56 minutes, Jokanovic made an attacking substitution taking Angella off for Deeney.  Troy’s first act was to play a ball to Paredes whose dangerous cross was headed clear.  Soon after, Deeney got the ball in the box, he turned to shoot but the shot was blocked.  There was danger for the visitors as Watson lost out to Clough who passed to Le Fondre who was one on one with Gomes who did very well to block the shot.  Clough broke forward and again fed Le Fondre who looked sure to score but hit a dreadful chip over Gomes and wide.  At the other end, there was a scramble in the Bolton box as first Deeney and then Watson had shots blocked.  Then Deeney and Ighalo exchanged passes but the shot was deflected for a corner.  Jokanovic made two more substitutions bringing Forestieri on for Vydra and Tözsér for Watson.  Another decent shot from Abdi was stopped by Lonergan who also saved Ighalo’s follow-up, although the flag was up anyway.  A ball reached the dangerous Feeney in the box but Gomes came out to gather.

Ighalo congratulates Ekstrand

Ighalo congratulates Ekstrand

Watford’s equalizer was a thing of beauty as, just as he did at Fulham, Abdi curled a ball into the top corner in front of the Watford fans.  Thankfully this time I was not behind a pillar so had a perfect view.  It was no more than we (and Almen) deserved.  Bolton tried to hit back immediately from the restart and it took heroics from Gomes to deny them as he parried a shot from distance by Feeney, blocked the follow-up from Le Fondre and somehow got across the goal to deny Clough.  A remarkable effort.  At the other end a corner was headed straight at Cathcart, the ball dropped to Deeney who tried to turn it in but the effort was blocked.  Watford regained the lead in style as a cross from Abdi was met with a gorgeous header from Ekstrand.  A wonderful way to mark his return from injury.  Abdi tried another shot from distance, but Lonergan was equal to this one.  Bolton’s first substitution saw Gudjohnsen come on for Janko.  We were waiting for Neil Cox to join him.  The home side drew level again on 84 minutes as Feeney, who had been a menace on the right all afternoon, crossed for Clough who fired past Gomes.  Watford continued to attack as Anya advanced to the by-line and tried a cut back that was cleared.  Abdi then tried a shot from distance that just cleared the crossbar.  There was pandemonium in the away end as Ighalo played the ball across to Deeney who fired past Lonergan just as the clock hit 90 minutes.  Obviously the celebrations were mighty and Ighalo was booked for his part.  The fourth official’s board went up during the celebrations so I didn’t see it, but someone nearby reckoned there were 4 additional minutes.  Bolton did have the ball in the net again through Wheater, but the flag had been raised before it reached him and thankfully on this occasion the lino kept the flag up.

The players had given their all by the final whistle

The players had given their all by the final whistle

When the final whistle went, a couple of the Watford players dropped to the ground as did a number of the Bolton players.  They all looked dead on their feet and certainly those of us in the stands were completely drained.  What a terrific game of football.  There were ecstatic grins in the away end and hugs between friends and, most likely, complete strangers.  The players came over and were greeted as the heroes that they were.  Ighalo, Layun, Forestieri and Deeney thanked us by nipping over the advertising hoardings to give their shirts to the crowd.

I have always found the people of Bolton to be lovely and this was shown again as an official walking around the pitch while we retrieved Becky’s flag commented to us that it had been a good match.  We also saw our friendly steward on the way out and he was equally gracious.

Just before 10pm I boarded a rail replacement bus at Leamington Spa with the prospect of three further trains before I was home.  Soon after, a father and son got on and I was greeted with a “You Orns”.  That perked me up and we were soon waxing lyrical about the terrific game we had seen.  I finally arrived home over 16 hours after I had left.  It had been a very long day but one that I will remember for a very long time.

As the match was coming to an end, the thought had gripped me that this must be a terrific game for the neutral and I felt a twinge of regret that I couldn’t see it through their eyes.  In the cold light of day I realise what a ridiculous thought that was.  No neutral would experience the joy and despair that I did yesterday.  The rollercoaster that ranged from anger at the injustice to the sheer lunacy of the goal celebrations that had me leaping up and down punching the air long after the ball had hit the net.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend about the season so far and the fact that, despite being in the play-off places, it had not been an enjoyable season.  That has been completely turned on its head since.  The character and the passion on show in the past few games have made this team one to love.  We even saw some emotion from our usually impassive manager at the final whistle.  I can’t wait for next week.

Off to a Winning Start

Luther and Gifton

Luther and Gifton

Having seen my first pre-season game on 5th July, it feels like I’ve already seen a lot of football, so the dawning of the first day of the season seemed less exciting than it should have been.  Works on the line around Watford Junction meant that the journey took longer than usual but, on boarding the slow train to Watford at Queens Park, I met the lovely John of Ossett who accompanied me on the rest of my trip.  As the West Herts starting filling up with familiar faces, it was lovely to see Curtis from Denver.  He’d not managed to see a game last season so as far as he was concerned Vydra had never left.  I did warn him that, if we won, he would be our lucky charm and wouldn’t be allowed to go home.

First huddle of the new season

First huddle of the new season

I must admit that I wasn’t convinced when I heard the starting line-up.  I was surprised that Dyer wasn’t starting and it seemed risky to start Paredes when he hadn’t participated in pre-season.  The starting line-up was Gomes, Angella, Ekstrand, Tamas, Pudil, McGugan, Tözsér, Adbi, Parades, Deeney and Vydra.  Usually, the first game of the season sees a lot of people still on holiday so the crowd can be a bit sparse.  This was certainly not the case on Saturday as there wasn’t a spare seat to be found in our section.  There was a change in the pre-match personnel as Richard Short and Tim Coombs made way for Luther Blissett and Lee Partridge.  I’ve seen Luther working in the lounge in the past and it certainly adds an interesting element having a legend interviewing returning players.  On Saturday we were treated to Luther wandering up the pitch chatting to Gifton Noel-Williams, a real joy.

Deeney receives his team mates' congratulations

Deeney receives his team mates’ congratulations

The fans in the Rookery were on their feet in the first minute as Deeney unleashed a shot, but we soon sat down again when we realised that it had hit the net from behind.  Deeney then found Pudil on the left, but his shot was wide of the far post.  After the dreadful performances at the end of last season, it was good to see a bit of fight and team work and I noted an early incident in which Vydra was back in defence fighting for the ball, which made me very happy.  Bolton threatened a break but Tamas was on hand to stop them.  Parades then tried to escape, but was sent flying.  “Welcome to England,” said my neighbour.  On 17th minutes, we were a goal up as a Bolton attack was snuffed out and we played a succession of short passes to bring the ball out of defence before Angella went on a run then lofted a pass to Deeney who buried the ball past Lonergan.  The Rookery went mental.  I was too busy watching the goalscorer but my sister turned with a beaming smile and informed me that Gomes’s celebration was pretty mental too.

Heurelho Gomes

Heurelho Gomes

Bolton tried to hit back immediately but Gomes came for the ball, gathered it comfortably and, as Medo was in his way, flattened the Bolton player for good measure.  No messing.  I loved it.  A cross from Paredes fell to Pudil whose chip was wide of the target.  A chant of “sexy football” started up.  That always worries me as it is often a precursor to a fall, so my heart sank when Neil Danns broke into the box but Tamas took the ball off him and was then pushed over for his trouble, so won a free kick and the danger passed.  We were two goals to the good soon after as Vydra received a lovely ball over the top from Tözsér, cut back from the bye-line, he nearly went down as he skipped past the defender, but recovered and fired the ball past Lonergan.  I am told when asked why he hadn’t gone down under the challenge he replied that if he’d done that Troy would have taken the penalty so he decided to take the chance himself.

The returning Vydra and new boy Paredes

The returning Vydra and new boy Paredes

We were on fire at this point.  Paredes played a ball over the top to Vydra, he passed back to Abdi who fired over the bar.  On the half hour, Medo had a shot for Bolton that flew over the bar.  That was their first goal attempt of the game.  With 10 minutes of the half remaining, Bolton had a free kick in a dangerous position, but the header from Mills bounced into Gomes’s arms.  There was a bit of handbags just before half time when Medo wouldn’t give the ball back after being rather harshly penalized for a foul.  We had one more chance in the half as Abdi tried a low shot that was straight at Lonergan.

Noel-Williams senior and junior

Noel-Williams senior and junior

So, the home crowd were very happy indeed at half time.  We’d seen two excellent goals, some lovely football and we’d barely given Bolton a sniff of the ball.  I am also pleased to report that my concerns at the inclusion of Paredes had been groundless as he had put in a thrilling first half performance.  Drawing the 50-50 tickets at half-time were Gifton and Dejon Noel-Williams.  With junior currently in our academy, we can only hope that he has his father’s talent and becomes a star of the future.

At the start of the second half, Feeney replaced Pratley for the visitors.  Within 30 seconds, Parades had a terrific chance to get a third and I was already jumping for joy when the ball cannoned back off the crossbar.  Bolton then won their first corner to loud, ironic cheers from their fans.  Spearing had a shot deflected wide and the resulting corner was easily gathered by Gomes.

Angella wants the ball

Angella wants the ball

For the home side, Paredes found Vydra who was tackled, but fought back and regained possession before playing the ball back to Abdi whose shot was deflected for a corner.  Abdi threatened again, playing a one-two with McGugan before taking a shot that Lonergan saved.  Gomes was really tested for the first time just before the hour as he pushed Feeney’s shot from distance around the post when it was heading for the top corner.  Bolton’s second substitution saw Moxey replaced by Dervite.  Bolton had had a decent spell, so it was good to see Deeney in shooting position again but he fired the ball straight at Lonergan.  At the other end, Lee tried to lob Gomes, but the keeper got his fingertips to it and tipped it over the bar.  With 20 minutes to go, Beckford replaced Danns for Bolton and Sannino’s first substitution saw Munari make his debut in place of McGugan.  Vydra went on a run and tried to play Deeney in, but his pass was just behind his team mate and the chance was gone.  Substitute Beckford was the next to threaten, but he shot in to the side netting.

Forestieri congratulated for a goal within seconds of coming on

Forestieri congratulated for a goal within seconds of coming on

At this point Vydra left the field to ecstatic applause and was replaced by Forestieri.  Fernando was barely on the pitch before he latched on to a ball over the top from Angella and slotted it past Lonergan.  I’d been a little nervous that Bolton would get back into the game, so that goal settled my nerves.  Bolton again tried an immediate response with a point-blank header from Lee that was pushed out by Gomes.  From the corner, Dervite’s header flew over the bar.  Sannino’s final substitution saw Dyer coming on for Pudil.  Forestieri had another great chance but his enthusiasm got the better of him.  He looked like a little puppy as he went scampering after the ball and then tripped over his own feet.

Deeney and Vydra in striking position

Deeney and Vydra in striking position

Dyer and Deeney exchanged passes then Troy shot well over the bar when he probably should have passed to Dyer.  The last two chances of the game fell to Bolton, but neither troubled Gomes, as first a misplaced header fell to Lee who shot over the crossbar.  Then a soft shot from Davies drifted wide of the near post.

The final whistle went to great applause from the home fans.  We had been masterful in the first half and, even if Bolton got back into it a bit in the second, it was a convincing win.  Even better than that, we had quality all over the pitch.  It was a joy to witness.  The horror show that was the end of last season is now a distant memory.  I’m really trying not to be over-optimistic, but I can’t help feeling that this could be a very exciting season indeed.

 

Nat Lofthouse Saved my Day

The spirit of sport statue

The spirit of sport statue

I felt like Franny-no-mates at Euston on Saturday morning as there was not another Watford scarf or shirt anywhere to be seen.  I hate that when I’m travelling to an away game as I find myself wondering if I’ve got the wrong day/time/venue.  Thankfully, when the train stopped at Milton Keynes, my usual travelling companions appeared and the journey passed with discussions of games recent and in distant memory.  Every stop on the way to Manchester elicited different recollections.  As we changed trains, they were discussing going for pre-match beers in Manchester, but I’d arranged to meet friends in a pub near the stadium and convinced them that there was somewhere to get a drink in that wasteland.  When we arrived at Horwich Parkway and they found themselves walking through a deserted industrial area, I sensed that they were doubting my word.  But we turned a corner and there was the promised pub just a short walk to the ground and everyone was happy.  On reaching the Reebok, we found Section H which was marked on our tickets, but all the turnstiles in that section were closed.  Thankfully we soon found the ‘proper’ entrance for the away fans.  There were no female stewards outside the ground, so I escaped the frisking, and the friendly male steward who searched my bag was only interested in whether I had any chocolate.  The inevitable question about flares seemed to be an afterthought.

Pre-match huddle

Pre-match huddle

Team news was that we would see Park’s debut.  The starting line-up was Almunia, Ekstrand, Cassetti, Angella, Anya, Merkel, Tözsér, Murray, Faraoni, Park and Deeney.  As the teams emerged from the tunnel, I was puzzled that I could only see Bolton players then noticed that there were two tunnels.  It was one of those days.

Jutkiewicz gave Watford an early scare as he broke into the box but Almunia was quickly down to save at his feet.  Tözsér delivered a lovely free kick for Watford but Baptiste put it out for a corner which came to nothing.  At this stage, Cassetti spent some time off the pitch receiving treatment and came back with his leg strapped up.  Bolton threatened again as Davies played a through ball to Mason who was one-on-one with Almunia but the Spaniard got down to thwart him.  From the corner, Mason headed over the bar.  At the other end, Angella met a free-kick from Tözsér with a header

Deeney waiting for the ball to drop

Deeney waiting for the ball to drop

that was straight at Bogdan.  Then Anya broke down the left and put in a cross from the bye-line, Deeney headed goalwards and Bogdan pulled off a smart save to keep it out.  From the corner, the ball broke to Mason who ran the length of the pitch before Ekstrand tackled him in our box to prevent a shot.  Mason threatened again as he latched on to a ball over the top into the area but this time Faraoni was on hand to make a saving tackle.  From the corner Mason’s header was straight at Almunia.  Then a backheader fell to Deeney on the edge of the box, but his shot was horrible, flying well wide of the near post.  It was all rather frantic, but had been quite entertaining.  On 23 minutes, Bolton made a substitution replacing the injured Pratley with Danns.  Soon after, Faraoni intercepted a clearance and went for goal, but Bogdan was on hand to save again.  Murray then played a lovely ball to Faraoni whose progress was stopped on the edge of the box by a foul from Medo, who earned a yellow card.  Tözsér’s free-kick cannoned off the wall, his follow-up was

Ream on the ball

Ream on the ball

narrowly wide, rippling the side-netting from the outside.  The masked man, Ream, then took a free-kick which was met with a header from Jutkiewicz straight at Almunia.  Just before the half hour, Danns tried a looping shot but, again, it was straight at Almunia.  Watford’s next attack finished with a shot from Murray that was well wide of the target.  On 33 minutes, Medo beat Merkel on the right and fed Jutkiewicz, who looked well offside as he hit a shot off the crossbar and then the follow-up past Almunia.  I thought he would be booked for time wasting, but the referee brought play back for a free-kick, presumably for a foul by Merkel in the build-up. From the free kick, Spearing crossed for Jutkiewicz who turned and shot past Almunia to put the home side a goal up.  The anger in

Park in action

Park in action

the away area at this turn of events was mainly aimed at the ‘cheating’ referee.  Five minutes before half time, Ream took a free-kick which Wheater headed over the bar.  Soon after Faraoni was penalized for hand ball and stupidly protested.  The referee let him know in no uncertain terms why he had blown up and pointed out the fouls that he had committed up to that point. We were two goals down just before half time as Mason outran the defence and placed his shot under Almunia and into the net.  At this point, Graham was texting to update one of our friends.  He said he only needed two words … ‘Dreadful defending.’  The other female in our party articulated the two words that had come immediately to her mind. They were the same as mine and a lot less polite than Graham’s.

Anya taking a throw-in

Anya taking a throw-in

Straight from kick-off in the second half, Jutkiewicz broke forward but Faraoni was on hand to clear.  Soon after, Cassetti’s injury got the better of him and he was replaced by Pudil with Ekstrand taking up position in the middle of the back three.  On 55 minutes, Ekstrand pulled Danns over then yelled at the ref when he penalised him and received his tenth booking of the season.  Medo took the free kick putting it just over the bar. Just before the hour, Jutkiewicz crossed for Danns whose volley was caught by Almunia.  On the hour, Sannino made a double substitution replacing Merkel and Park, both of whom had been disappointing, with Battocchio and Ranegie.  The chances were still coming for the home side as Mason played a low ball across the box, but Faraoni was on hand to clear.  At the other end Ranegie headed a ball towards Deeney, it came back to him off a defender

Defending a free kick

Defending a free kick

and he shot tamely wide. From another Bolton corner, a weak header from Wheater was easy for Almunia.  For the visitors, a long ball from Angella reached Deeney, but he couldn’t control it and was tackled so the ball went out for a corner.  From the set piece, Battocchio received the ball on the edge of the area and, to the exasperation of the travelling Hornets, just launched it way over the bar.  At the other end, the ball fell to Danns on the edge of the Watford area, but his shot was also well over.  Pudil then played the ball into the box, it was cleared as far as Murray who unleashed a decent shot but it was blocked by Bogdan.  Battocchio tried another shot from distance but it just looped into Bogdan’s arms.  Bolton’s next attack started when Ranegie lost the ball to Danns, he released Mason who was one-on-one with Almunia but the Spaniard dropped to block at his feet. A cross from Anya was met with a header from Ranegie that was cleared. With 12 minutes remaining, Davies was replaced by Chung-Yong Lee.  Into the last ten minutes, Anya

Bogdan launches a free-kick

Bogdan launches a free-kick

went on a run and crossed for Ranegie, but Bogdan was first to the ball.  Then Bolton seemed to play the ball about in our box for an age before it was finally cleared. With four minutes left on the clock, Trotter replaced the excellent Mason.  Watford pushed again as Ranegie passed to Deeney in the box, but there were two defenders on him and the ball was cut out.  Then Ranegie and Deeney both battled challenges to keep possession but when the ball was played to Pudil, he just gave it away.  Then Battocchio found Deeney whose shot was blocked, Anya’s follow-up cross was cleared.  The board went up indicating 6 minutes of time added on at which point Faraoni passed the ball into Bogdan’s arms and I just wished that we could do what the curlers did and put an end to the misery.  In time added on, Angella was booked for taking Trotter down on the edge of the area.  The free kick came straight back off the wall. Frustration got the best of Faraoni as he jostled with Ream who was trying to waste some time by the corner flag and the Italian was booked for his actions.   The final action of the game was Ekstrand lumping the ball into the box where it was caught by Bogdan.

Nat Lofthouse

Nat Lofthouse

The final whistle went to boos from the travelling fans. I didn’t boo but neither did I applaud at the end.  That display was not worth taking my hands out of my pockets.  To be fair, I’d enjoyed the first half hour of the game.  But once Bolton scored the rest had been just dreadful.  A number of people commented after the game that if Deeney’s early header had gone in, it would have hit Bolton’s confidence and the game would have been totally different.  But it didn’t and we were left with a long trip home wondering why this talented team is putting in such abject performances.

Still, to end on a positive note, the Nat Lofthouse statue is lovely.