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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.