It has been a while since we had to travel any distance on Boxing Day, so it was with some disappointment that I noted that the eagerly anticipated trip to Sheffield United was to be played on Boxing Day. Most of our usual away crowd decided to give the game a miss, but my sister and brother-in-law decided that they would go and offered to drive, which made me very happy indeed.
Having spent Christmas Day with Rose and her family, I left theirs bright and early to drive to Cate and Nigel’s. My lovely sister had sent me on my way with a care package of turkey sandwiches and sausage rolls, which was much appreciated.
The M1 was busy, but there were no hold ups and we made good time. We made one brief stop at services on the way and were delighted to see that our arrival coincided with that of the Watford supporter coaches, so I said a brief hello to Don before we set off again.
We parked up in the city centre and headed to the usual pub to find that it was deserted, so we had our choice of tables. The Boxing Day menu on offer was various varieties of chip butty (one with cheese) and a couple of pies. Given that we would need something to eat on the journey home, we decided to keep our sandwiches for later and have one of their pies. When our lunches arrived, it turned out to have been a great choice as the pie was a decent slice cut from a large homemade pie accompanied with chips, mushy peas and gravy. There was a bottle of Henderson’s relish on the table which I declined to try, although I overheard some friends at another table being informed that not adding the relish to their meal was grounds for being thrown out of the pub.
The big question mark over team selection was whether the arrival of Troy Deeney’s new son on Christmas Day would mean that he was absent on paternity leave. Thankfully, when the team came through, he was included, with Pearson having made only the one (enforced) change from the Man Utd game with Chalobah replacing the suspended Doucouré. So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Chalobah, Capoue; Deulofeu, Hughes, Sarr; Deeney.
We arrived at the ground in plenty of time and I headed to the other end of the stand for a chat with Don. While I was there, a lovely steward came around to make sure that all in the disabled area were OK. We complained about the weather as it was grey and wet, but she pointed out with a smile that we were in the North now and it is always raining.
In preparation for kick-off, the flag wavers took to the pitch. It has to be said that some of them looked rather small for the flags that they had been given and there was a struggle to keep them in the air. Alice had just commented that it was 3 minutes to three and the players ought to be out on the pitch when the announcement was made that kick-off was to be delayed for 10 minutes for unspecified safety reasons. This meant that those poor children with the oversized flags had another 10 minutes to wave them. It seemed unnecessarily cruel but they were made of stern stuff. It was probably at this time that we were caught on camera as we received photos from our nieces of us looking rather puzzled on their television screen.
Finally, we could see the players in the tunnel on the big screen and they took to the field. Prior to kick-off, the first bars of “Annie’s Song” were played and the home crowd gave a moving rendition of “Greasy chip butty”. A magnificent piece of music.
The home side started brightly with an early attack from Stevens who broke into the box before being stopped by a brilliant tackle from Kabasele. The first attempt on goal came after 10 minutes with a snapshot from McBurnie that was met by a great save from Foster, the rebound dropped to McGoldrick but a tackle from Kabasele diverted the ball for a corner. McBurnie had another chance from a throw-in but his header was gathered by Foster. Watford’s first attack of note came as Femenía hit a cross-cum-shot towards Sarr, but the youngster was unable to connect and the ball was gathered by the Blades’ keeper, Henderson. The home side had another decent chance as McGoldrick met a cross from Norwood with a side foot that flew over the bar, but the flag was up, so it wouldn’t have counted. The home side had the ball in the net after Basham crossed for Fleck who turned it in from close range. It looked as if Fleck took the shot knowing that the flag was up for offside and it appeared that the defenders had stopped playing, but the decision went to VAR and we were rather concerned, as the home crowd who were in line with the scorer had been angrily protesting the decision. Thankfully, that was a partisan reaction and VAR confirmed that the goal would not stand. In the stands I was rather enjoying a song to the tune of Last Christmas indicating that we were giving our hearts to Nigel Pearson (oh yes). Watford took the lead in the 27th minute and the goal was a thing of beauty as a clearance from Foster was headed on by Chalobah into the path of Deulofeu who raced upfield and finished past Henderson to give the travelling Hornets the Christmas present that they had all been waiting for. Sadly, the lead did not last long. Hughes made what looked like a decent challenge on Baldock, but the United man went down in the box and the referee pointed to the spot. The view of the challenge from our angle was such that it was a while before a number around me realised that a penalty had been given. The decision was confirmed by VAR and Norwood stepped up to score the spot kick. Into time added on and the Hornets had a chance to regain the lead, but Deulofeu’s free kick flew just over the bar.
It hadn’t been the most exciting half of football, but I had enjoyed our goal.
The half time entertainment was a children’s relay that was enlivened by the lads running towards our stand who set off on the whistle not realising that they were supposed to be on the second leg. When they ran back and received the baton (football) one of them set off in the wrong direction. At this point I decided to head for the concourse and found my way out of the row blocked by people transfixed by the action on the pitch who muttered angrily at my interrupting their viewing.
There was a change at the break for the Hornets. Sarr had been down injured for some time towards the end of the first half after an argument with the advertising hoardings. He was obviously injured, so I was really irritated when he was booed by the home fans as he tried to continue. The management allowed him to finish the half, but he was unable to continue so was replaced with Pereyra. I was not happy at this turn of events. The first chance of the second half fell to the home side when a clearance from Hughes rebounded to Lundstram whose shot was over the target.
Watford had made a poor start to the half and we did ourselves no favours when, from a throw, the ball was given away to the opposition, thankfully no harm was done as the shot from Fleck was terrible and flew wide of the target. McGoldrick then had a good chance to put the home side in the lead but his shot rebounded off the post and the flag was up for offside anyway. Watford then threatened as Deulofeu crossed for Deeney at the near post, but the ball was deflected for a corner. The home side made their first substitution on 63 minutes replacing McBurnie with Mousset. The substitute almost made an immediate impact with a cross for Fleck whose shot was stopped by a stunning save from Foster. I am ashamed to say that, when they were raving about the save on 5Live on the way home, I struggled to recall it. My notes state that the shot was straight at Foster and that he pushed it for a corner. Sadly, it was one of those that looks tremendous when you are behind the goal but rather pedestrian from low down at the other end of the ground. Either that or I need to replace my distance glasses. The Hornets should have done better from a free kick when the delivery from Hughes bounced off a defender towards Cathcart, but the Ulsterman knew nothing about it and the ball hit his face and went out for a goal kick. There was a much better chance at the other end for the Blades as a low shot from Stevens was met by Foster who turned it into the side netting. Deulofeu was then booked for arguing with the referee, I think the ref was sick of him as he had been complaining all afternoon.
Again the Hornets should have made more of the opportunity when Pereyra did well to keep the ball after battling past a defender, his pass bounced off Deulofeu to Deeney who seemed surprised that the ball reached him, so could only manage a soft shot that was easy for the keeper, but the flag was up for offside anyway. That was Troy’s last involvement in the game as he was replaced by Gray. The Hornets won a free kick on the edge of the box when Pereyra went down dramatically after a challenge by O’Connell. Deulofeu chipped the ball towards the goal, but his effort was just wide of the post. The home side had a free kick of their own, which was a decent effort but was blocked at the far post. From the corner, Egan headed goalwards but Mariappa was on the line and headed clear. The final change for the Hornets came as Dawson replaced Chalobah, who was booked for time wasting as he dawdled from the field. Gray had a great chance to break the deadlock as he broke into the United box but, after doing all the hard work, he couldn’t get the shot off and the ball ran out of play. The fourth official indicated four minutes of added time and we were counting the seconds. Watford created a couple of chances in injury time. First from a free kick in a dangerous area, but the delivery from Hughes was poor and missed the target. Then Pereyra fed Gray who tried an audacious back heel that was easily gathered by Henderson. The final whistle went to sighs of relief in the away end as we had been under the cosh for most of the second half.
It has to be said that this was a less enjoyable game than those against Liverpool and Manchester United, but it had been a battling performance and, despite the disappointment of conceding a dodgy penalty, we were happy to go home with a point. Earlier in the season we would have collapsed after conceding the penalty. This time we hung on bravely, although we lost a lot of our attacking threat when Sarr went off. Sheffield United are flying high in the division for a reason, they are very well organised and play as a team and a draw at their place was very pleasing indeed.
On the way back to the car, we met a friendly United fan who gave us directions out of town. I must admit that I much prefer games against teams like this when the opposition fans are passionate locals rather than tourists in brand new shirts and scarves who are only there to tick a box. The marketing of the Premier League has certainly been to the detriment of the match-going experience.
The drive home in the rain was greatly improved by listening to our own Emma Saunders on 5Live while finally enjoying the turkey sandwiches.
We finished the day off the foot of the table, which was very pleasing and, while there is still some way to go, our prospects look a lot more positive than they did a month ago and that makes me very happy indeed.