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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.