Tag Archives: Pablo Zabaleta

No Way, Jose

Don and I with Capoue and Mariappa

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

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

Javi had a smile and a hug for everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holding the play-off trophy

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

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

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

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

Hughes shouting instructions as Capoue looks worried

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

Mike being interviewed after winning the Supporter of the Season award

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

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

Goalscorer Deulofeu

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

Challenging in the West Ham box

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

Gomes addressing the crowd

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

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

 

Knitted Deulofeu

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

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

Jingle Bells

Challenging at a corner in front of the home fans

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

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

Celebrating Deeney’s penalty

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

Capoue beating Snodgrass

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

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

Waiting for a corner

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

Celebrating Deulofeu’s strike in front of the away fans

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

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

Applauding the fans after the final whistle

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

Disappointing Afternoon at the London Stadium

Capoue and Holebas taking a free kick

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

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

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

Gathering for a corner

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

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

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

Lukebakio on his debut

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

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

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

 

We are still Family

Meeting Watford legend Ann Swanson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Britos and Carroll

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

Gomes was a hero in goal

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

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

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

A blurred Richarlison still celebrating after scoring

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

Cleverley, Richarlison and Kabasele

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

Zeegelaar directing Doucoure

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

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

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

Testing Ourselves Against the Best

 

The Maine Road Chippie

The Maine Road Chippie

When I heard the draw for the fourth round of the cup, my heart sank.  Such is the gulf between teams like City and those battling a division below that an upset seemed impossible.  I’ve heard the argument that if you want to progress you need to test yourself against the best.  That is fine if you are ready for the test.  But nothing that I have seen from my team this season suggests that we are and there is nothing worse than seeing your side given a footballing lesson.  Our tie against the same opposition last season saw an arguably stronger side play well and still lose 3-0 to a City team that didn’t get out of second gear.   Listening to the pundits before the game didn’t help my mood.  On Radio 5Live, there was talk of Kidderminster getting a result at Sunderland, while we were given no chance.  Equally, on breakfast television on Saturday morning the suggestion from a presenter that Watford may get a result was countered with the comment that this was the game which was least likely to see an upset.

The Pre-match Handshakes

The Pre-match Handshakes

Our time in Manchester didn’t start well as our pre-match pub of choice refused entry to Southerners so we decamped to a less interesting hostelry to numb ourselves.  The texts from Toddy informing me that the U18s were 3-0 up in their cup game helped to enforce the notion that I had chosen the wrong match to attend.  Given that City had scored 106 goals and an average of 4 a game so far this season, more than one Hornet mentioned their hope that we would keep the score down to single figures.  When we reached the Etihad, which is an impressive stadium, I enjoyed the sight of the Maine Road chippie and hair salon opposite.  It seemed to be positioned to remind the Etihad where they had come from and bring it down a peg or two.  Before we were permitted entry to the ground, there was an impressive search procedure.  Bags were searched, we were all patted down to ensure we had nothing illegal concealed about our person and, a first for me, a friendly sniffer dog was set on me, presumably to see whether I was concealing any flares. When the team was announced, we had made 5 changes.  To be honest, it was difficult to work out what the formation was, but at least the much discussed midfield included some midfielders.  Our starting line-up was Bond, Ekstrand, Angella, Doyley, Pudil, Anya, Murray, Battocchio, Faraoni, Forestieri and Deeney.

Waiting for a Free-kick

Waiting for a Free-kick

We started brightly and, some gallows humour from my companions encouraged me to make a note at 1 minute and 40 seconds that City hadn’t got out of their own half.  In the second minute, Forestieri was felled on the edge of the box.  He took the free kick himself, hitting it straight at the wall but the ball fell to Battocchio whose shot was high and wide.  In the sixth minute, we had a shout for a penalty as Forestieri found Anya in the box where Pantilimon brought him down, but Kevin Friend waved the appeals away.  At the other end Richards went down after being tackled on the edge of the box.  While waiting for the free kick, there was a bit of pushing between Dzeko and Angella in the box that earned the City player a yellow card.  On 10 minutes, Bond was called into action for the first time as a shot came in following a free-kick, which he blocked and then dropped to

Forestieri congratulated on his goal

Forestieri congratulated on his goal

claim the ball.  Soon after, a corner from Navas was met with a header by Kolarov which flew across the box, but nobody was able to get a touch.  Then Murray and Deeney combined to feed Anya whose cross was caught with Forestieri challenging Pantilimon.  At this point the City fans started up a chant of “You’re just a stop off at Wembley.”  Good one!  On 15 minutes, City finally showed a glimpse of their quality with a lovely move that finished with a shot from Toure that was blocked.  Watford continued to threaten as Forestieri broke downfield and fed Faraoni whose shot was straight at Pantilimon.  In City’s next attack Angella was on hand to intercept a cut back from Navas.  On 20 minutes, Watford went one up as Forestieri ran on to a through ball from Deeney and

It's official

It’s official

shot into the far corner.  The celebrations in the away end were a mixture of joy and disbelief, but there was no doubt that the goal was well deserved.  Soon after, Rodwell tried a shot that was deflected into Bond’s arms.  Then Aguero received a pass from Toure and, despite the attentions of Angella, managed to shoot but Bond turned it around the post.  Watford were then on the attack again.  Forestieri picked up the ball from a throw-in and shot just wide of the near post.  Then Sean Murray played a cross-field ball to Anya who found Deeney who slipped the ball between Pantilimon and the post.  If the first goal celebration had been joyous, this one was properly mental.  Thirty minutes in to the game and Watford are 2-0 up at the Etihad.  The disbelief was palpable throughout the stadium.  Watford continued to attack as Murray again found Anya who passed to Forestieri,

Celebrating Deeney's goal

Celebrating Deeney’s goal

but his cross was cut out.  A chant of “What the f*ck is going on” started.  For the life of me I can’t remember which stand it came from, but both sets of fans would have been equally justified in singing it.  Towards the end of the half, Kolarov tried a shot that Bond bravely came to gather.  Then a shot from Anya was blocked, the rebound fell to Faraoni who shot wide of the far post.  Next it was City’s turn with a Lopes shot that went wide of the near post.  In the last minute of the half we could have been three up as a lovely Watford move ended with a Pudil shot that hit the side netting.  I almost passed out at this point.  Just before half time Kolarov had another attempt that was wide of the far post.  Then a Lopes break was stopped by a tackle from Murray, who had been totally fearless all afternoon.  Very impressive for such a young player. 

The half-time score

The half-time score

At half time, the concourse was full of song.  Although most people that I spoke to either wanted to know when they’d wake up or to go home, because surely we couldn’t keep this up. As the players came out for the second half, Kompany and Zabaleta had replaced Rodwell and Richards.  The tannoy announcer originally stated that Zabaleta was on for someone “as yet unknown”.  Given the size of Richards, I would have thought he was pretty hard to miss.  The substitutions indicated that our first half performance had rattled Pellegrini.

A second half corner

A second half corner

Early in the second half, Pudil was booked for a tackle on Navas that had looked decent from our vantage point.  On 53 minutes, a Murray corner was cleared and fell to Anya, but his shot was weak and easy for Pantilimon to deal with.  Then Deeney found Anya, whose cross was cut out by Lescott.  On 55 minutes, Aguero passed to Navas who found Dzeko whose shot was pounced on by Bond.  At this point young Lopes was replaced by Jovetic.  From a City corner, we twice cleared but the ball came back and finally fell to Jovetic who hit the shot wide of the target.  On 58 minutes, City pulled a goal back.  Kolarov crossed into the box, Bond did well to save Dzeko’s shot, but Aguero pounced on the loose ball to score.  It had taken City an hour to breach the Watford defence and suddenly the home crowd could be heard.  Soon after, Watford made their first

Sannino wanting to join the action

Sannino wanting to join the action

substitution as Cassetti replaced Forestieri.  Aguero threated again almost immediately, getting on the end of a cross from Kompany but Doyley was on hand to block the shot.  Doyley also foiled the next attempt as Dzeko got on to the end of a cross from Toure, but Lloyd’s attentions ensured that he headed wide of the target.  A great rear-guard action by the Hornets couldn’t stop Kompany getting in a cross, but Dzeko’s shot was straight at Bond.  On 75 minutes, Abdi replaced Murray, who had been excellent.  Soon after, City were level as Navas advanced and passed to Aguero who struck an exquisite shot into the top left-hand corner.  I have to say that we’d done brilliantly in matching them to this point but, gutting as that goal was, you couldn’t help admire it.  Into the last 10 minutes and Cassetti got his customary booking, sticking out a foot as Kolarov attempted to run past him and then doing that look of horror at the injustice that we love so well.  On 84 minutes, Fabbrini

Battocchio on the ball

Battocchio on the ball

replaced Faraoni.  With five minutes to go until we’d earned a replay, disaster struck.  Kolarov hit a speculative shot from outside the box.  Bond dropped and appeared to have caught it, but the ball squirmed through his legs and into the net.  That was a cruel way to go behind and Bond didn’t deserve that based on his performance.  Neither did the travelling fans, but we were not downhearted and launched into loud chants in support of our team.  On the pitch we battled on, as Deeney played a through ball to Anya but his shot on the run was high and wide.  Anya broke again and played a through ball to Fabbrini, but the Italian was offside.  Then Toure fed Navas whose initial shot rebounded back to him and Bond caught the follow-up.  In time added on, City added a fourth as Aguero claimed his hat-trick with a header from a Navas cross.  Straight from kick-off, Angella tried his luck with a shot from distance that was well wide of the target.  The final whistle went and there was no upset, but every Watford fan in attendance left the stadium with their head held high as our lads had given City a game and, despite their second half dominance, the Premier League high-fliers were flattered by the score.

Applauding the travelling fans

Applauding the travelling fans

At full time, Deeney went to swap shirts.  Since the first player he approached didn’t take his, he ended up with two City shirts.  Pudil and Doyley came over and handed their shirts to kids in the crowd.  I then saw Deeney reach down the front of his shorts and my imagination went in to over drive about quite what he was going to throw into the crowd, so I was relieved when he extracted the two City shirts that he had placed there for safe-keeping as he applauded the fans. When I arrived home, I turned on the news and heard the newsreader talking about “an amazing comeback by Manchester City.”  That was certainly not what anyone had expected on Saturday morning, but that is what keeps us going to games like this.  Despite the final score, we were magnificent.  Hell, we even won the first half and that made me very happy indeed.