Another Tuesday lunchtime, another trip to Euston to travel to a match. On this occasion, at least, I was confident of seeing a game.
I arrived in Birmingham bright and early. It was another lovely day, although rather icy. I dropped my overnight things off at the hotel. I had stayed in London on Monday night, after a trip to the theatre and, on arrival, was horrified to realise that I had forgotten to bring my yellow shirt. I was vainly hoping that we would have an outing for the away shirt, but a check on the Premier League twitter feed confirmed that I would be unsuitably attired for the game. At least I had two yellow, red and black scarves with me.
Having dropped my bag, I headed for the designated pub to find the rest of my party already gathered at a table near the door. The usual suspects were joined by Jacque’s colleague, Adam, a Villa fan who was braving our company again so soon after the home game. After a couple of pints and a lovely meal with great company, we set off to catch the bus to Villa Park. For some reason, I found myself in a very irritable mood on the bus (not that unusual for me, but there was no reason for it on this occasion). So, when I met Kate on the way in and she said, “I don’t have a good feeling about this,” I couldn’t help agreeing with her. When we took our seats in the row second from the back of the lower tier, I was delighted to see that the seats behind me were occupied by the family who sit in front of me in the Rookery. On National Hug Day, the greeting was as warm as I would have hoped.
Team news was that Pearson had made just the one enforced change from the weekend with the injured Sarr replaced by Pereyra. So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Dawson, Mariappa; Capoue, Chalobah; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney.
The game kicked off and the Hornets created an early chance as Deulofeu met a cross from Pereyra, but the header was easily caught by Reina in the Villa goal. Watford had another half chance as Mariappa crossed for Deeney who tried to side foot home but, again, the Villa keeper wasn’t overly tested. The home side then had a couple of chances from corners but, first Konsa, and then Hause headed wide of the target. Villa’s next chance came as Grealish crossed for Trézéguet whose shot was blocked. On the half hour mark, Pereyra picked up the ball on the edge of the area turned and shot but his effort was blocked. At the other end, Targett took a shot from the edge of the area, but it was straight at Foster. Soon after, the ball reached El Ghazi in the box, but his shot was over the bar from what looked like an offside position (the lino on our side was struggling to keep up). Targett then tried his luck, but his shot was from an awkward angle and he was unable to get it on target.
The Hornets took the lead on 38 minutes when a lovely cross from Deulofeu was met by the head of Deeney who beat Reina at the Holte End, which will have amused him greatly. It certainly prompted massive celebrations in the away section and a loud chorus of “That boy Troy Deeney, he hates the Villa.” We should have been two up before half time as Deulofeu went on a tremendous run, it was clear that the angle was too acute and he had two team mates in the box ready for a tap-in, but he proceeded to take the shot himself and only found the side-netting. The last action of the half was the first caution of the game which went to Mings for a late foul on Doucouré.
The half time whistle went to boos from the home supporters. It had been an even contest and very dull. The Hornets were somewhat lucky to be ahead at the break although they had created the best chances of the afternoon and, if Deulofeu had been less selfish, they could have been two goals to the good.
The half time entertainment was a contest to get a football onto a target on the pitch with prizes assigned according to where the ball stopped. One bloke won a season ticket for next season. I was going to make a joke here about feeling sorry for him, but my experience of Villa fans is that they are great and I am sure he was delighted.
The first chance of the second half went to the home side from a free kick but it was headed clear by Dawson. Villa threatened again from a corner but Trézéguet’s delivery was headed over by Hause. Then a dangerous looking shot from distance by Konsa flew well wide of the far post. The Hornets should have scored a second when a cross from Deulofeu was parried by Reina to Deeney who had two chances to finish from close range, but Reina did brilliantly to keep them out. The first substitution of the game was made by the home side as Drinkwater made way for Luiz. Watford threatened again with a lovely one-two between Pereyra and Doucouré that was stopped by an excellent tackle from Guilbert. Villa had a half chance when Targett met a deep cross, but the header was easy for Foster. There was controversy on 63 minutes as Mings stopped an attack by Deulofeu by handling the ball. The Villa man had already been booked, so was lucky not to see red. Villa drew level on 68 minutes when Grealish played in Targett whose shot was saved by Foster, but the ball dropped to Luiz who hit the target. The goal felt like it had been coming as Watford had been sitting back and giving the home side too much space. The Hornets had a chance to hit back from a corner, Reina spilled Chalobah’s delivery but was able to recover before any Watford player could capitalise.
With 15 minutes remaining, Pearson made his first change as Chalobah made way for Pussetto. I thought it was a slightly odd substitution, I would have taken Pereyra off. A worrying Villa attack was stopped when Foster came out to gather the ball before Trézéguet could reach it. Cathcart was booked for a foul on Grealish during the build-up. Villa then made a second substitution replacing Trézéguet with Vassilev. With 10 minutes remaining, Mariappa tried to test the Villa keeper with a cross, but Reina was able to gather and Doucouré was booked for colliding with the keeper as he tried to challenge for the ball. With nine minutes to go, Pearson made a second substitution replacing Pereyra with Gray. Andre was immediately involved in a very promising move as he raced forward, with Deulofeu in close attendance, but his square pass to his teammate was very poor and was easily cut out. The Hornets created a better chance as Doucouré crossed for Pussetto who headed back towards Gray but Andre couldn’t quite reach the ball and again it was cleared. There were shouts for a penalty as Grealish tumbled in the box, but the referee waved the protests away. Pearson made a final change in time added on replacing Deulofeu with Kabasele. Unfortunately the substitution did not shore up the defence as he would have hoped as Watford failed to clear a free kick and a shot from Konsa deflected off Mings and past Foster to give the home side the win with the last kick of the game. It was a cruel end to the match and to Watford’s great run.
We left the ground feeling very disappointed and had to walk through a crowd of exuberant Villa fans chanting, “Deeney what’s the score?” On that note, it was lovely to see Villa fans on social media after the game singing the praises of Troy for stopping to have his photo taken with them. A true pantomime villain who loves the back and forth with the fans. We were quickly back on the bus to the city centre and retired to a pub to drown our sorrows.
That was probably the worst performance that we have put in since Nigel Pearson took over. We greatly missed Sarr, who has been superb in recent weeks and has been frightening the life out of opposition defences. But my biggest beef was that we sat back too much and allowed Villa space. At our place, we had pressed them and got under the skin of Grealish who became petulant and increasingly ineffective. He had a much better game at Villa Park and they looked stronger as a result. But, looking at the balance of chances, it was the old story of not making the most of our best opportunities. Had we converted those chances, we would have taken the three points, although a lot of the credit for that has to go to Pepe Reina.
So, we end the evening back in the relegation zone, if only on goal difference, and my nerves started jangling again. My angry reaction after the game, that that was what happens if you become complacent, was directed at myself rather than any of the players. But we have some very winnable games coming up, so we just need to forget this set back and continue playing as well as we have been in the last month. If we do that, we will be fine.