A 5:30pm kick-off in Southampton meant a later than usual departure from home. The train journey, while easy enough, did require four changes in order to get to the pre-match pub. The penultimate leg was subject to delays due to problems at Clapham Junction, so I spent more time than was desirable sitting in the cold on Basingstoke station and, on boarding the train to Southampton, it was clear from the animated conversations and the cans of Fosters that I was now on a “football special”. I met up with the rest of our travelling party at Southampton Airport Parkway and, having missed the hourly connection to St Denys, we piled into a taxi.
As we entered the pub of choice, there was a large group of Watford regulars gathered at the bar. After greeting them, we headed for a table at the back. The pub had a decent menu, so I was rather disappointed that, on a matchday, they only offered hot dogs, burgers, chips and peas. I have to say that my disappointment was misplaced as the hot dog was excellent and it was served with proper chips, so we left for the game replete and ready for whatever the evening would bring.
Our route to the ground took us on a path alongside the River Itchen. We have definitely been to evening games here in the past, but clearly not in the Winter as the path was incredibly dark. Still, we soon emerged and saw the lights of the stadium.
Our seats were at the back of the stand where we met up with Amelia, who had turned down the opportunity for a pre-match pint with her aunt. As I got my breath back, I was a little concerned when the floodlights dimmed. When it happened again, I realised that it was in time to the music and we were caught up in a stadium disco light show. I found it rather off-putting and can only hope that there were no epileptics in the crowd.
Team news was that Quique had made two changes from the defeat to Burnley with Masina and Sarr coming in for Dawson and Gray. So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Mariappa; Holebas, Doucouré, Capoue, Femenía; Hughes; Sarr, Deulofeu. There were some concerns about Quique persisting with a back three, given our paucity of fit central defenders. In a similar vein it was noted that we had only Foulquier on the bench, should one of the starting defenders succumb to injury.
The Hornets had a great chance to take an early lead as Højbjerg gave away possession to Sarr, but the youngster took his chance too early and shot straight at McCarthy in the Southampton goal. The Saints’ Captain had an immediate chance to make up for his mistake when the ball dropped to him outside the Watford box, but his shot flew over the bar. The home side threatened again as Redmond played a one-two with Ings before shooting from distance, but it was an easy catch for Foster. At this point, very early in the game, the chants ringing out from the away end were, “You’re going down with the Watford”, “We’ll see you in the Championship” and “We only lost 8-0.” Quite how that was supposed to spur the Watford players on to victory is beyond me. On the pitch, a short corner was played to Holebas who put in a cross that was met with a defensive header that dropped to Capoue, he crossed back for Doucouré whose header was weak and easily saved by McCarthy. The Hornets took the lead in the 24th minute, a lovely ball from Capoue released Sarr who advanced and shot across McCarthy into the net. It was a terrific goal and prompted wild celebrations and lots of hugs in the away end. I felt massively relieved, hoping that the goal would calm the nerves and set us up nicely. Sarr was soon in action at the other end of the field repelling a ball into the box with a strong defensive header. That’s what I like to see. He had a chance to double Watford’s lead on the half hour as a deep free kick from Holebas found him in space, he volleyed goalwards, but McCarthy made the block and the ball went out for a corner. The Hornets had another chance soon after, as Deulofeu broke forward and unleashed a shot that was pushed wide by McCarthy. At the other end a low cross from Bertrand was blocked by Mariappa. The home side threatened again as Redmond tried a shot from just inside the area, but his effort was over the target. The Saints had a great chance to grab an equaliser just before half time when a low cross from Soares was flicked towards goal by Ward-Prowse, but the ball drifted just wide of the target. The half time whistle was greeted with boos from the home fans, while the travelling Hornets were pretty happy with the state of play.
The first action of the second half was a foul by Redmond on Femenía that earned the Southampton man a booking. Ten minutes into the half Sarr beat a couple of defenders and unleashed a shot from distance which was just over the bar. Just before the hour mark Southampton made a double substitution with Redmond and Obefami making way for Boufal and Long. I was glad to see the back of Redmond, who always does well against us, not so glad to see Long coming on. There was some concern among the away fans when Capoue was knocked to the ground after blocking a shot from Ward-Prowse with his face. He was initially flat out with his arms outstretched but, once he got his breath back, he was able to continue the game. Southampton threatened as Djenepo broke forward and crossed for Long who was unable to connect, so the chance went begging. The Hornets nearly engineered their own downfall as Foster held on to the ball for too long in the box, tried to beat Ings with a Cruyff turn, then both men fell to the ground, I was sure that the referee would point to the spot, so was massively relieved when the outcome was a free-kick. Needless to say, the relief didn’t kick in immediately as I waited for an intervention from VAR that, thankfully, never came. With 25 minutes to go, Flores made his first substitution replacing Deulofeu, who had been ineffective, with Gray. Southampton had their best chance of the game when Boufal cut the ball back to Long (of course) whose shot was stopped by a wonderful save from Foster who tipped the ball onto the bar. It looked as though Ben’s efforts would be in vain as the big screen indicated that VAR was checking for a penalty for an earlier incident, but the decision was that there was no penalty. Watford should have scored a second with twenty minutes to go when Gray played a lovely ball back for Sarr who missed the connection and the ball was put out for a corner by Bertrand. With 15 minutes remaining Quique made a second substitution bringing Chalobah on to replace Hughes who, again, had to leave the field on the opposite side to the dug-out and was given a huge ovation as he walked past the travelling Hornets.
Watford threatened again as Gray ran around the back of the defence and tried to sneak the ball into the net but, instead, hit it straight to the keeper. Southampton then made their final substitution bringing Valery on in place of Soares. Southampton should have drawn level when a shot from Ings, that appeared to be going wide, so Foster left it, reached Long who flicked it goalwards but, thankfully, Cathcart was on the line to make the block. Sadly, Watford’s lead didn’t last much longer as Djenepo advanced and nipped around the back of the defence, as Gray had earlier, but his shot went under Foster and reached Ings who turned it in at close range. Television pictures showed that Djenepo had used his hand in the build-up (quite an outrageous scoop, if truth be told), but I am not going to complain about VAR in this situation as the goal was a result of poor defending from the Hornets and it felt like it had been coming. Sadly, at this stage, the confidence drained from both the team and the crowd and none of us believed that we would get anything out of the game. With less than 10 minutes to go, Flores was lining up his final substitute and my heart sank when I realised that Foulquier was the answer. To be fair, he was the only defender on the bench and Femenía had picked up an injury, but this was the last straw for a lot of the travelling Watford fans who greeted the decision with loud boos and chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing”. Prior to the substitution, Capoue had fouled Højbjerg on the edge of the box. There seemed to be some confusion in the setting up of the wall, or at least the bloke behind me was unhappy with the way that the defenders were lining up. His concerns proved justified when Ward-Prowse stepped up and curled the free kick over the wall, Foster managed to get his hands to the ball, but could only help it into the net. At this point, while the home fans celebrated, the travelling Hornets were telling Quique that he would be sacked in the morning. When the fourth official held up the board indicating that there would be 6 minutes of added time, my only thought was that it was plenty of time for Southampton to get a third. The Hornets did create a couple of chances in time added on. First, from a corner, Sarr played the ball back to Gray but he shot wide of the target. Then one final chance when Foulquier played the ball out to Sarr who took a shot that was pushed over the bar by McCarthy.
The final whistle went to celebrations among the home fans and total deflation in the away end. I did have to admire the decency of those among our fans who applauded the players. My applause was sporadic and half-hearted until Troy came over to thank the crowd.
There was no time for a post-match analysis as I made a swift departure in order to catch the train that would allow me to arrive back in Windsor before 10pm. Travelling back home on my own, I had plenty of time to think about the game. Yet again, following a decent first half, the second period had been disappointing, and we had lost to a very poor team. Once we took the lead, we should have been in control of the game but we didn’t get a second goal and, such is the fragility of the squad’s confidence, once Southampton drew level, we never looked like getting anything from the game. I always thought that the reappointment of Quique had been an odd move. While he had a reputation for making us hard to beat early in his first tenure, the final third of the season was a dreadful trudge and that is what we are seeing now. Despite the injuries, we have enough quality in this squad to be winning more games than we lose. The fact that we are not has to be down to the coach. By Sunday morning Quique was gone and I cannot imagine that there were any Watford fans who were saddened by that news.
Sunday afternoon, at my Dad’s house, it was clear that someone needed to get hold of me. When I finally answered the call from the private number that I was trying to ignore, I discovered it was someone from FiveLive who wanted to talk about the sacking of Flores. I told him that I thought it had been an odd appointment in the first place. He then asked what I thought of the owners. I had mentioned that I was previously the Press Officer for the Watford Supporters Trust (hence why they had my number) and I assume that he was expecting me to criticise the Pozzos. But, having been rather too close to the club when we went through those troubled times under the previous owners, I am still incredibly thankful for what the Pozzos have done for our club. We have a stadium to be proud of with stands named for legends from another era, a team of players of a quality that we have no right to expect and a club that, with ventures like the sensory room and the work of Dave Messenger in connecting with the fans, still feels like a community club off the pitch and not a “foreign-owned Premier League business”. For that I would still fall on my knees in worship in front of Gino Pozzo.