Last October, the City ‘Orns team won the Watford Quiz Night (I am still not sure how that happened). Our prize was hospitality for the Wolves game on New Year’s Day. As I couldn’t find a taker for my season ticket, I released it. When I received the email acknowledging my ‘non-attendance’, it was all I could do not to respond to tell them that it wasn’t that I wouldn’t be attending, but I had a ticket for hospitality. Thankfully I was able to convince myself that that may come across as just a little obsessive.
I arrived in Watford at my usual time for a matchday but, unlike the bustle of a Saturday, the town was deserted. As Thursday was a workday, I decided to stay in Watford, so I dropped my bag at the hotel before heading to the ground. As I reached Market Street, the crowds increased but they were all wearing Wolves shirts and scarves and I realised that the away supporters’ coaches had arrived. As I was a little too early for the opening of the hospitality lounge, I went into the Hornet shop. I was looking for programme binders and searched high and low, but they were nowhere to be seen. However, I did find some oven gloves. For someone who rarely cooks and almost never uses the oven, I don’t know why I was so attracted to them, but they were a thing of beauty and I had to have them. I then found the programme binders, and all was right with my world. As I approached the till, I noticed the signs indicating “tax free” purchases. I asked the woman behind the counter if we really have that many tourists visiting Vicarage Road. Apparently, we do. What has become of football?
I was not (quite) the first in the Horizons lounge and was quickly joined by Alice, so we bought a couple of bottles of wine for the table (one red, one white) and toasted the new year. Our party soon gathered. As well as the quiz winners, Mike Raggett was there celebrating winning the Supporter of the Season. He had brought Jacque as his plus one, so there was a good number of the West Herts contingent in attendance.
As part of the pre-match entertainment in the lounge there was an interview with Tommy Smith talking about the current squad and being very positive. When he was finished, he was invited to our table and stayed for a long chat about anything and everything. I liked his description of himself as a “lazy winger”, not quite the way that I remember him. He never fancied being a coach or a manager, so went into estate agency and the business seems to be doing really well. He seems pretty happy with life and is enjoying the ambassador/guest role as a way of staying connected with football. I still think of Tommy Smith as a youngster, after all we went to the same secondary school, but I left the school the year after he was born. It was a bit of a shock to realise that he will be 40 in May.
Team news was that Pearson had made two enforced changes with Dawson and Chalobah in for Mariappa (suspended) and Hughes (injured). So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Dawson; Capoue, Chalobah; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.
We left the lounge in good time to find our seats, but the signs in the Upper GT concourse were somewhat misleading so we wandered around for a while before finding someone who could point us in the right direction. When we finally found the seats, they were in the front row of the new overhang at the end of the stand right next to the 1881 in the Rookery, so a great spot. I could see my family sitting in the middle of the Rookery and tried to attract their attention, but they were not looking in my direction and by the time I found my glasses to send a message they were in match mode and concentrating on events on the pitch.
As the teams came out, a RocketMan surfer banner featuring Elton and GT appeared over the centre of the Rookery. On a normal day, I would have been under it, so it was nice to see the revelation of a new banner for once. It was absolutely gorgeous. I was a little late snapping the picture, so it doesn’t do it justice.
We had been told that there was a strict dress code in the lounge regarding replica shirts, but I had brought mine with me anyway and, as we were sitting in a Watford section rather than in the Directors’ area, I decided to put it on to watch the game and felt a whole lot better.
Wolves came into the game having beaten Man City and run Liverpool very close, so my hopes of getting anything out of the game were pretty low, but it would certainly give us an indication of how the team were developing under Pearson.
The first chance of note came in the 12th minute and fell to the visitors as Coady played Doherty in and, with only Foster to beat, he looked odds on to open the scoring, but Ben came to meet him and made the save. Jiménez then had a great chance and really should have scored, but his shot from the edge of the box flew wide of the far post. Watford’s first meaningful attack came as Deulofeu played the ball out to Femenía who put in a lovely low cross but there was nobody there to meet it. The Hornets threatened again as a shot from Deulofeu was blocked, the ball eventually found its way to Chalobah outside the box, his shot cleared the crossbar. The first caution of the game went to Dawson for a foul on Neto. The same two players then tangled in the Watford box, this time the referee booked the Wolves man for simulation. Needless to say, there was a VAR check for a penalty, but the man in Stockley Park upheld the decision.
Watford had their best chance of the game so far when Deulofeu found Sarr who hit a decent shot which was saved by Rui Patricio. We were not left to rue that miss for long as we took the lead a minute later. This time Sarr played in Deulofeu who shot across the keeper into the opposite corner. Cue mad celebrations in the posh seats. Watford were in the ascendancy at this point and a lovely move deserved more, but the Wolves defence prevented the shot. Then, from a throw, Deeney nodded the ball on to Deulofeu who could only shoot over the bar. There was a great chance to increase the Hornets’ lead just before half time when a lovely flick from Deeney found Sarr but he could only hit the side netting.
The guest at half time was Filippo Galli, but I am ashamed to say that I headed into the lounge for dessert and another glass of wine. I thought I was keeping an eye on the time, but suddenly the screen next to our table was showing the Wolves players coming back onto the pitch and so we had to make a rapid return to our seats.
The visitors started the second half brightly as Neto broke forward but could only find the side netting with his shot. Then Jiménez tried a shot from distance, but it cleared the bar. Instead it was the Hornets who scored with their first shot of the half as Deulofeu went on a run and played in Doucouré whose shot took a slight deflection and beat Rui Patricio. It was lovely to see Abdoulaye score on his birthday, so very kind of him to give us all a present. My family had received the text with my location, so it was rather lovely to see them turn towards me so we could celebrate the goal together. The visitors made an early double substitution with Neves and Vinagre replacing Bennett and Jonny. Then there was disappointment for the home fans as Femenía, who has been brilliant lately, was forced to go off after tweaking a hamstring. There seemed to be some confusion on the bench regarding his replacement as both Holebas and Masina appeared to be readying themselves to come on. In the interim, Watford were playing with 10 men and Wolves were looking to pull a goal back. First Traoré fed Moutinho, who hit a low shot which Foster was down to gather. Then Vinagre tried his luck but, again, Foster was equal to it. The Watford fans were yelling for someone to put the ball out so that the substitution could be made and there was a sigh of relief when Kabasele belted the ball into the stand and Holebas finally took to the field.
But, as soon as we were back to full strength, the visitors pulled a goal back, as Neto hit a shot from distance that took a wicked deflection and beat Foster. Wolves made their final substitution at the midpoint of the half, replacing the goalscorer, Neto, with Jota. The substitute was soon involved as an attempt to escape upfield was stopped when he was pulled back by Kabasele. The referee showed a yellow card, but the decision was referred to VAR which indicated that a red card should be shown and Kabasele was given his marching orders. I have to say that this is the most ridiculous use of VAR. The on-pitch referee had a good view of the incident and decided to book the player. The referee in Stockley Park viewed the same infraction and decided it was worthy of a red card. Had the original decision been a clear and obvious error? Would the on-pitch referee have made a different decision had they seen the same footage as the VAR? We have no idea, but the subjective decision of the VAR now overrules that of the man who is supposed to be refereeing the game. On this occasion they made the mistake of playing footage of the incident on the big screen and this prompted howls of anger from the Rookery. Interestingly the Wolves fans had been expressing their feelings about VAR while the incident was being reviewed. They cheered briefly at the decision and then continued with their original theme at which point the whole ground was singing “F*ck VAR”. Having expressed our frustration, we were then resigned to having 20 minutes left to play with 10 men.
At this point, getting anything out of the game was looking very unlikely. Thankfully, we passed the first hurdle as the free kick resulting from Kabasele’s foul hit the wall and was caught by Foster. Unlike the Villa game when Pearson made a bold change after the sending off, his substitution on this occasion was more defensive as Masina took to the field in place of Deulofeu. As they had in the previous game, a photo of GT was shown on the big screen on 72 minutes, this time with Watford and Wolves badges superimposed. Many Wolves fans have very fond memories of GT and it had been lovely before the game seeing a number of them having their photos taken with his statue. The visitors created a great chance after the ball appeared to be going out for a goal kick, but Vinagre belted after it and managed to keep it in play before putting in a lovely cross for Doherty whose header looked sure to level the score but Foster got a hand to it and kept it out. Vinagre then had a chance of his own to draw the visitors level, but his shot was high and wide. The Wolves man threatened again with a dangerous looking cross that almost caught Foster out, but the Watford keeper was fouled by Jiménez to relieve the pressure, if only briefly.
The fourth official indicated five minutes of time added on. At this time, it was all hands to the pump. The Watford faithful were in excellent voice urging their team on as they tried to run the clock down. Pearson tried to use up some time by making a substitution as Sarr was replaced by Pereyra. When the board went up, the Watford youngster was near the corner flag between the Rookery and the GT stands so, under the new law, should have left the field on that side of the ground, but Deeney was chatting away to referee which distracted his attention allowing the youngster to amble off at his own pace. Deeney had been trying to keep the ball in that area and was successful in winning a corner to waste some time. He was instructing the young ball boy to take as long as possible to return the ball when it went off and took a short corner himself with no attacking intent. Eventually he attracted the ire of the referee and was booked for his delaying tactics. With a minute of added time remaining, Traoré was fouled by Doucouré giving the visitors a free kick to the right of the box from our perspective at the other end of the ground. Capoue threw himself in front of the free kick which went out for a throw. The visitors tried to get the ball back in play quickly, but were penalised for a foul throw, much to the amusement of the home crowd. The visitors had one last chance to grab a point, but the shot from Neves flew over the bar and the final whistle went on an unlikely and very hard-fought victory for the Hornets.
The cheers were heartfelt and intense and, as I always do, I made sure to cheer every player off the pitch.
We returned to the lounge and a celebratory glass or two of wine. It had been a terrific game and a very impressive win against a Wolves team who are very good indeed. Femenía had done a tremendous job in keeping Traoré quiet and we were under the cosh a bit after the double blow of his injury and the dismissal of Kabasele, but the team worked hard to keep their shape and were well worth the three points. Deulofeu appears to be a new player under Pearson, an arm around his shoulder has given him more confidence in both himself and his team mates to the benefit of all of us. Capoue was magnificent running the midfield and Chalobah put the disappointment of the early withdrawal on Saturday behind him to put in an assured performance. Birthday boy Doucouré was back to his best and topped it off with a goal.
It is hard to believe that, up until the Saturday before Christmas we were winless at home. We now have three home wins in a row and, given that the opposition included Man Utd and Wolves, that is very impressive indeed. Similarly, having been concerned that we were becoming marooned at the foot of the table, we are now only two points off safety and are looking up the table with some confidence. I have always thought this team were much better than the results indicated, but something was lacking. Nigel Pearson seems to have given them a confidence in their abilities and a resilience that was too often missing earlier in the season. There is a sense now that they playing as a team rather than as a collection of individuals and they now have the crowd back onside with them and football is fun again. It looks like being a very happy new year for the Hornets.