Sunday games are always odd, but my hopes that the journey would be quieter than usual was soon dispelled when the fast train to London pulled in to Slough and was so packed that some were left on the platform. I managed to get on, but it was not a comfortable journey. For some reason, when I reached Euston I had forgotten who our opposition were so, when a friend boarded the train with a group of youngsters who were clearly not Watford fans, it was a while before I realised who they “supported” and then regarded them with the contempt that I have for those who choose a team based on their results rather than any connection to the community.
The West Herts had opened early so was busy when I arrived. Our party was somewhat depleted by Christmas invitations, but those who were there were strangely optimistic after last week’s showing against Liverpool. I left for the ground earlier than usual and headed for the 1881 bunker, which was packed. I was only there to drop off some tins for their foodbank appeal and was very pleased to see the table stacked with bags of food donated by fans. I entered the stadium by the Rookery entrance at the GT end of the ground, so was able to buy my programme from Doreen Pym. Just like the old days. I still miss the Bill Mainwood Programme Hut.
Team news was that the Hornet line-up was unchanged from the Liverpool game. So, the starting XI was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Capoue, Hughes; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.
Prior to kick-off, João Pedro, who had arrived from Fluminense to a great fanfare during the week, was presented to the fans. He held up the no 17 shirt that he will wear. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the boy, as he arrives to an incredible weight of expectation. I am very glad that Heurelho Gomes is still on our books as this will be another adoptive son for him to take under his wing.
New manager Pearson was also welcomed but, having had his day in the sun before the Palace game, he made do with a wave from the dug-out.
The visitors created an early chance as James broke down the wing before finding Martial in the box, but he shot wide of the target. Watford’s first half-chance came as Deeney picked up a misplaced pass and found Sarr whose cross into the box was blocked and cleared. At the other end, a curling shot was easily gathered by Foster. Then Femenía played a lovely through ball to Deulofeu whose cross was blocked for a corner.
Watford had the ball in the net when Deulofeu’s delivery was dropped by de Gea and Doucouré turned the ball home, but the celebrations among the Hornet faithful were cut short as the keeper was adjudged to have been fouled. The home side continued to threaten as Deulofeu went on a great run before finding Deeney, but the shot was blocked by Shaw. United had a great chance to take the lead when a lucky ball fell for Martial who played in Lingard, but the shot cleared the crossbar. I was briefly distracted by the sight of a red kite flying above the stadium. There are a lot of kites where I live, but it still gives me joy every time I see one. The first caution of the game went to Capoue for a rather benign foul on Lingard. Almost immediately Shaw was booked for holding back Sarr. The Hornets had a great chance to take the lead after a lovely passing move led to a great cross from Femenía which was met by Doucouré whose header was just wide of the target. The Hornets had one last chance to take the lead in the first half with a cross from Sarr towards Deeney, but Troy was crowded out and the chance went begging.
So we reached half time with the game goalless and no shots on target, but some very promising play from the Hornets.
The half time guest was Neil Cox, who was asked about his experiences during a similarly trying time and was very positive about our prospects. I hadn’t realised that he and Neil Ardley are now the management team at Notts County. Neil was also on hand to perform the on-pitch presentation of the award from the FSA to our wonderful Supporter Liaison Officer, Dave Messenger. Dave is a tremendous advocate for the fans and will do anything to help, so this award was very well deserved indeed.
Six minutes into the second half and, suddenly, all was right with the world again. A free kick from Hughes was met by Sarr who tried to hit the top corner, de Gea looked to have it covered, but the ball went through his hands and hit the net, sending the Rookery into raptures, apart from two rather gloomy blokes sitting just behind me. The visitors had an immediate chance to break back, but the header from McTominay was straight at Ben Foster. Instead, a foray by Sarr into the United box was stopped by Wan-Bissaka and the referee pointed to the spot. It appeared to be a nailed-on penalty, but I was still holding my breath while the VAR check went on. “Decision Penalty” had to be the best news of the afternoon.
It was a while before Troy was able to take the spot kick, so he amused himself by supping some of de Gea’s energy drink and ignoring any gamesmanship that was going on behind him. When the whistle finally went to indicate that the penalty could be taken, he paused before taking his run up and blasting the ball down the middle as de Gea dived the wrong way. It was a brilliantly composed penalty from Troy and I suddenly believed that we could win this game, despite there being 30 minutes left on the clock. McTominay again tried to reduce the deficit but, again, Foster blocked the shot. The first substitution of the game came just before the hour mark as Greenwood replaced James for the visitors. At this point we were rather distracted by the sight of a cushion covered in a knitted Watford cover that was being used by a woman two rows in front. It was a thing of great beauty and we were all very envious. The Hornets had a chance to increase their lead when a corner from Capoue was cleared only as far as Hughes, but his shot was well over the bar. The visitors made another change bringing Pogba on for Lingard, nothing for the Hornets to worry about there (gulp!!) The visitors had a chance to break back following a corner, Rashford put the ball back into the Watford box, but the header from Greenwood was dreadful and well wide of the target.
Watford had a chance to increase their lead further as Deulofeu found Sarr in the box, but he waited too long to take his shot and it was blocked, the ball came back in for Deeney, but he mishit his shot and the chance was gone. Nigel Pearson made his first substitution with 20 minutes to go when he brought Chalobah on for Doucouré. United won a free kick at an acute angle to the right of the Watford goal, Rashford went for goal but Foster punched clear. Solskjær made his final substitution replacing McTominay with Mata. The Hornets threatened again as Deulofeu battled his way into the United box, his shot was blocked, a follow-up effort from Deeney effort was also blocked. At the other end, Pogba tried a shot from distance, but it was an easy catch for Foster. Watford made a second substitution as Capoue was replaced by Pereyra, presumably as he was on a yellow card. Another chance for the Hornets as a free kick was cleared to Femenía, whose shot was on target, but de Gea was able to make the save. The visitors had a half chance from a corner as Mata’s delivery was met by the head of Maguire but his effort was straight at Foster. United should have pulled one back with 8 minutes to go, but Pogba’s curling shot was saved by Foster. There was another dangerous looking attempt from the visitors as Greenwood tried to lob Foster, but the ball flew over the bar. With the clock running down, Pearson made a final change replacing Sarr, who had been magnificent, with Success. With a minute left on the clock, Rashford tried a shot from close range which Foster blocked with his legs. As the fourth official lifted the board to indicate the added time, I found myself celebrating the fact that it was only 3 minutes. Into time added on and Martial cut inside and shot goalwards, but Foster was able to make the block. United had a final chance to spoil our clean sheet when Cathcart took Rashford down on the edge of the box. Mata stepped up to take the free kick, but it was a dreadful effort that flew well wide of the near post.
The Watford fans had been noisy all afternoon, but the cheers at the final whistle were rapturous. As the game was being televised, there was a big announcement of the man of the match that was given to Troy Deeney who then had to be interviewed for the television. As the players did a lap of the ground to thank the fans, Kabasele came over and gave his shirt to a young child at the front of the Rookery. While all this was going on, I had kept my eye on Pearson who had enthusiastically congratulated every player and stood and waited for Troy to finish his TV commitment before hugging him and then retreating to the dressing room.
Back in the West Herts, the smiles were wide and we all seem to have fallen in love with football again. While discussing all that was good in the game, every player came in for some praise. I have to say that, while Deeney was given the plaudits from the broadcaster, my award would have gone to Hughes who was everywhere and gave the United players no time on the ball. Sarr was excellent again and Deulofeu was a menace even though his decision-making has me screaming with frustration (while knowing that if it was better he wouldn’t be playing for us). My sister had observed during the game that she was looking at these famous names on the United shirts while not seeing performances that matched those reputations. A lot of that was down to the way that our team played. There was great quality in our play, but it was the hard work that made the difference. The United players were given no time or space to play and that made the difference. Pearson has only been with Watford for a short time, but he has instilled a discipline in the team that seems to be making a difference and the future appears to be much more positive,
Happy Christmas to all of my readers. I hope you have a wonderful time and an extra belated Christmas present on Boxing Day.