Tag Archives: Stefano Okaka

A Horrible Day on the South Coast

Richarlison strikes a free kick

Due to unfavourable rail connections, I ended up reaching Southampton ridiculously early and my first attempt to enter the pub of choice was greeted with a locked door and a dog barking to warn me off.  Luckily Richard arrived very soon after me, so I had delightful company as we waited in the cold and wet for the clock to strike 12.

Arriving early meant that we secured a great table for our party, which soon filled up as subsequent trains (and a car from Cheshire) arrived and we raised a glass to absent friends, particularly remembering Toddy whose last away trip had been to St Mary’s.

Pre-match talk was about the new manager and whether he could arrest the current slide, so the team news was eagerly awaited.  Gracia’s first team showed four changes (two enforced) as Wagué, Deeney, Zeegelaar and Pereyra made way for Mariappa, Holebas, Capoue and Gray.  So the starting line-up was Karnezis; Janmaat, Mariappa, Kabasele, Holebas; Doucouré, Watson; Carrillo, Capoue, Richarlison; Gray.  So, the new manager was also opting for one up front, although, in the absence of Deeney, that seemed a sensible choice.

Kabasele on the ball

The game started in the worst way possible as a free kick from Boufal was met by Long whose shot was parried by Karnezis, Stephens was first to the rebound and beat the Watford keeper to open the scoring.  From two rows in front I heard “Are you Silva in disguise?”  It was going to be a very long afternoon.  The home side threatened again as Long crossed for Tadić, but his effort missed the target.  Watford’s first chance came from a free-kick, Richarlison stepped up to take it and curled his delivery just wide.  At the other end Long met a cross from Cédric and headed just wide.  A foul on Kabasele was met with a chant of “Same old Watford, always cheating,” which I guess was deserved after the Watford fans had gleefully sung “He scores with his hands” in honour of Doucouré.  Watford finally had some time on the ball but a lovely passing move finished with a terrible shot from Watson that flew well wide.  This was greeted with “What the f*ing hell was that” from the away fans.  Southampton threatened again after Doucouré lost out to Long who broke into the box, but Karnezis was able to make the save.  The Watford keeper was called into action again soon after as Cédric tried a shot from distance, Karnezis dropped to make the save.  The home side were forced into a substitution due to an injury to Bertrand who was replaced by Pied.  Southampton had a great chance to increase their lead as Cédric hit a cross that flew just past the far post as Long failed to connect.  As half time approached, Mike was urging the team to get an equalizer and, as Richarlison hit a cross, there was an exasperated cry of “Not like that,” but he was made to eat his words as McCarthy had to back pedal to tip it over the bar.  Watford had another chance as a cross from Richarlison reached Holebas whose header from the byline was straight into the arms of McCarthy.  Not for the first time in recent games, the half time whistle was greeted with boos from the away end.

Gathering for a corner

The half time entertainment at Southampton was a relay race in which participants are stationed at the corners and on the half way line.  A football is carried and passed between team mates until the last player gets the ball and then dribbles towards the goal to score and win the game.  On Saturday, the green team went off like a rocket and were well in the lead when the final player received the ball, but he appeared to want to score the perfect goal, while the lad in purple belted towards the goal and took an early shot and won the game for his team.  I hope that Gracia gets a video of this to show the lads as there was definitely a lesion to be learned.

The other action of interest at half time was Okaka coming on to warm up and being greeted with joyous cheers from the away end.  I suspect that those who were so thrilled at his impending introduction had missed the trip to Leicester.  But he had the second half to dispel that memory as he came on to replace Capoue.

Andre Gray

The first action of note in the second half was a penalty appeal for the Saints as Boufal fell over in the box under a challenge from Carrillo, but the referee waved play on.  The first chance of the half fell to Long but his shot was straight at Karnezis.  There was a rare bright moment for the visitors as Janmaat played a lovely through ball to Carrillo but the cross was punched clear by McCarthy as Okaka rose to meet it.  Southampton had a decent chance to increase their lead as Boufal tried a shot from distance, but Karnezis was equal to it.  Gracia made a second substitution just before the hour mark replacing Carrillo with Pereyra.  Holebas should have done better when, with the ball in a dangerous position, he ballooned his cross over the bar.  As poor as the effort was, it was embarrassing to hear Watford fans chanting about how hopeless the team were (I am paraphrasing to remove the expletives).  There was a card for each side as, first, Watson was booked for a foul on Tadić.  Then Cédric was cautioned for taking Richarlison down, which appeared harsh as the Southampton man had won the ball before he made contact.  The Saints were close to a second goal as a shot from distance from Hojbjerg rebounded off the crossbar.  Then Okaka exchanged passes with Pereyra before trying a shot from a narrow angle that McCarthy was down to save.  This was greeted with a chant of “We’ve had a shot.”

Holebas cherishing a ball

Watford’s final substitution saw Janmaat making way for Sinclair.  Watford threatened as a cross from Richarlison was deflected for a corner.  The delivery from Holebas was headed goalwards by Doucouré, but was blocked by a defender and he protested that it had hit a hand.  The irony!  Richarlison then played a cross-field pass to Sinclair whose shot was terrible, flying high and wide, but he was hardly going to be encouraged by his own “supporters” singing “f*ing useless” at him.  Southampton made their final substitution replacing Tadić with their new signing, Carrillo, to great excitement from the home fans.  But it was Watford who finished the game more positively, with a couple of late chances to earn a replay.  First a shot from Richarlison was charged down.  Then a Pereyra cross was met by an overhead kick from Okaka that flew over the bar.  Finally, in time added on, the best chance of the lot as Kabasele met a cross from Holebas with a header that flew just wide of the near post.

The final whistle prompted some ugly scenes in the away end.  There were three men behind my niece and I, screaming abuse at the players.  As this went on, Amelia was infuriated shouting, “Don’t come to games then,” as she applauded the players with more enthusiasm than the performance deserved.  Those men then got into a heated argument with another fan in our row.  Meanwhile, a couple of rows in front, an exchange of profanities between a couple of fans evolved into a punch-up.  The players were not immune from the unpleasantness as Kabasele came over to applaud the crowd and was subjected to a volley of abuse that clearly upset him.  Holebas was on the end of the same treatment and looked furious, with Ben Watson pushing him away from his abusers.  As poor as the performance on the pitch had been, this was disgraceful behaviour from some in the Watford crowd and must have made Gracia think twice about the “family feel” that he said pre-game he had experienced at Watford.

More than one person mentioned yesterday that I usually find something positive to say about games.  Sadly, I cannot find anything good to say about that game either on or off the pitch.  But I will be off to Stoke on Wednesday, more in hope than expectation of a win, but very hopeful that the travelling fans will get behind their team instead of spending most of the ninety minutes abusing them.

 

Silva’s Last Stand

Karnezis making his full debut

When I checked the time of the train I had booked for Saturday, I realised that I was arriving in Leicester ridiculously early and feared that the designated pub may not be open.  Thankfully, given what a miserable day it was, the doors were open and I managed to get a booth.  When the next train arrived from London,

the pub suddenly filled up, so my early arrival didn’t look so foolish after all.  However my long wait meant that I became irrationally concerned when my friends didn’t arrive.  I only relaxed when the last of our depleted party was at our table.

On arrival at the ground, the search teams were operating a queuing system, using metal detectors (yes that is a phone and some coins in my pocket) and a sniffer dog.  Thankfully we had left ourselves plenty of time to get to the ground so did not miss kick-off on this occasion.

As there had been no discussion of the team prior to arrival at the ground, it was only when the ball was played back to the Watford keeper early in the game that I realised that Karnezis was in goal for the Hornets.  After his performance at Everton, this was a cause of some concern.  Silva’s other changes were Pereyra and Deeney in for the injured Cleverley and Gray.  So the starting line-up was Karnezis; Janmaat, Wagué, Kabasele, Zeegelaar; Doucouré, Watson; Carrillo, Pereyra, Richarlison; Deeney.

Richarlison on the ball

In line with other Premier League clubs, there was a minute’s applause for the wonderful Cyrille Regis, who passed away earlier this week.  Those of us of a certain age were deeply saddened at his early death.  He was a wonderful player to watch and one who was a trailblazer for the young players of colour that have followed him.  It is just heartbreaking that many of them are still suffering abuse related to their colour.  But, thankfully, racist abuse is not something that is evident at every game as it was in the 70s and 80s.

Watford started brightly enough with a couple of corners in the first minutes of the game, from the second Carrillo shot over the bar.  Leicester looked to hit the visitors on the counter attack as Vardy broke forward but his shot was saved by Karnezis, who I was pleased to see was looking assured in the Watford goal.  The Watford keeper was called into action again soon after as a free kick was nodded back to Ndidi, but the shot was blocked.  At the other end, there was a good spell for Watford as a Richarlison shot was blocked, a follow-up header from Pereyra was cleared off the line, the ball rebounded to Doucouré on the edge of the area, but his shot was easily gathered by Schmeichel.  Watford threatened again as Pereyra took a short free kick to Watson, whose shot was blocked, Pereyra hit the follow-up which flew high and wide.

Janmaat takes a throw-in

Deeney was the next to try his luck with a low shot from distance, but Schmeichel was down to save.  The lino in front of the away fans incurred their wrath when Vardy appeared to be in an offside position when he received a ball from Mahrez and was allowed to continue, when he then lost out to Kabasele, the defender was adjudged to have committed a foul.  Justice was done when Mahrez curled a dreadful free kick straight to Karnezis.  Watford appeared to have opened the scoring on 34 minutes when Carrillo headed the ball on to Deeney who volleyed home, but the flag was up for offside.  As happens so often these days, the opposition then took the lead.  From our vantage point, Wagué took the ball off Vardy in the box fairly, but the Leicester player went down and the referee pointed to the spot.  Vardy stepped up and buried the penalty.  The comment in my notebook at this point is not fit for a family blog.

So the Hornets went in at half-time a goal down, which was harsh as it had been a very even half.

Pereyra and Watson prepare for a free kick

Watford had a chance to strike back in the first minute of the second half as Carrillo crossed for Deeney, but the shot was blocked.  At the other end Vardy was allowed to nip in behind the defender, he crossed for Okazaki whose shot was straight at Karnezis.  Silva made his first substitution bringing Gray on for Pereyra.  He was immediately forced into his second as Wagué had pulled up with what appeared to be a hamstring strain and was replaced by Prödl.  Watford continued to push for the equalizer as Richarlison found Deeney but the captain’s shot flew just wide.  Leicester made their first change, which also involved a player called Gray who replaced Okazaki.  There was a lovely move as Deeney combined with (our) Gray, but the shot was saved by Schmeichel.  Leicester were shouting for another penalty when Mahrez went down in the box, but the appeals were waved away.  A decent chance for the visitors went begging after Richarlison released Doucouré whose cross seemed to get stuck under Gray’s feet so he was unable to take a shot.  The Watford man should have grabbed the equalizer soon after when he received a lovely ball from Deeney, he was one on one with Schmeichel but hesitated long enough for Maguire to get into position to block his shot.  So frustrating.  The Watford pressure continued as Richarlison broke into the box, his shot appeared to be blocked for a corner, but a goal kick was given.  Then a corner from Watson was headed just over by Deeney.  Silva’s final change was to bring Okaka on for Janmaat.  So, after starting with one up front, Watford now had all three strikers on the pitch at the same time.  Ironically, it was at this point that the visitors stopped creating chances.  Instead Leicester had a great chance to increase their lead as Mahrez played the ball back to Ndidi whose shot required a decent save from Karnezis to keep it out.  But the home side scored their second in time added on as Okaka dwelled on the ball too long before being dispossessed, Mahrez broke and shot across Karnezis into the far corner.

Zeegelaar strikes the ball

The scoreline definitely flattered the home side, as it had been a pretty even game.  Many around me spoke of a better performance by the Hornets, but I thought they were being rather charitable.  It certainly wasn’t as poor as the first half against Southampton, but Leicester did not play particularly well and still beat us fairly easily.  You could argue that it would have been a different game if Deeney’s goal had stood or Gray had scored the sitter, but Leicester had used their pace to their advantage and Watford had no reply.

It was a disgruntled group who reconvened for post-match drinks.  We harked back to how impressed we had been at the start of the season when the football had been entertaining, the work rate impressive, the players played for each other and we truly believed that we could beat any other team (apart from Man City).  That magnificent team had been replaced by a shambles that often looked as though they had only met on the bus to the ground that lunchtime.  The downturn had started when Everton made the approach for Silva.  I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for some time, particularly in view of the injuries, but the team which was comfortably mid-table when the first approach was made had finished the day in 10th place but only 5 points off the relegation zone.  With no prospect of any improvement, I think all of us had lost patience with Marco Silva.

On Sunday morning it became apparent that Gino Pozzo had also had enough and by the end of the day Silva had been replaced by Javi Gracia.  As with the majority of the Pozzo appointments, I know nothing about the new man.  I just hope that he can get the team back to their early season form.  We have games against Southampton (in the cup) and Stoke coming up and need to see considerable improvement from these players if we are not to be dragged into a relegation battle that I would have no confidence that we could win.

One Year On – Thank You, GT

The Norfolk Horns flag

With Friday being the first anniversary of Graham Taylor’s passing, this game took on a greater significance than normal.  The Saints being the opposition had an added poignancy for our group of friends as the fixture at St Mary’s had been Toddy’s last away game.  That had been a magnificent performance that sent us all home believing that this team could do great things.  That belief has been sorely tested over the past few weeks.

I headed into Watford a little earlier than usual so that I could spend some time at the museum, which was presenting the exhibition of GT’s memorabilia again.  On entry to the exhibition, I noticed the visitors’ book and was touched to see an appreciative message from Luther after his visit earlier in the week.  I had loved my previous visit but, on this occasion, there were a couple of extra little things that I noticed which greatly appealed to me.  One was a commemorative cocktail shaker from the Division 4 Championship.  Another was a plaque honouring Graham and Rita presented by the disabled fans on the occasion of his retirement.  But the one that I kept returning to was in a cabinet with Terry Challis cartoons of both GT and Elton.  It was a flag with the message, “Thanks, Gaffa, I enjoyed every minute.  Steve Todd.”

While wandering around the museum, I bumped into a familiar face in Steve, a season ticket holder who travels from Swansea for every home game.  He had left home at 5:30 that morning and, when I left him, was heading straight for the ground.  That is dedication for you.

The magnificent display of scarves for GT (thank you, Alice Arnold)

To the West Herts and I just wanted to hug all of my friends.  After making toasts to absent friends, we were having a lovely chat about theatre and a patchwork exhibition in Prague when the peace was shattered by the arrival of the Norfolk Horns.  Having seen photos on Facebook, I knew that they had travelled by train and, from previous experience, it was clear that they would arrive in a rather jolly state.  As if to prove a point, Russell appeared with a tray of Sambuca shots.  It all became rather raucous and, by the time we left for the ground, I wasn’t sure how many of them would be allowed in.

We left in plenty of time to ensure that we were in our seats well before kick-off so that we could join in with the “scarves for GT” display that had been planned by the 1881.  I had brought my first scarf with me which, if my memory is not playing tricks, was bought in Peter Percy gentleman’s outfitters in 1979.  As this is so precious to me, it was tucked into my bag for safe keeping while I wore my “everyday” scarf.  As the build-up to the players’ arrival continued, I noticed that the man who sits next to me had no scarf to raise, so I loaned him one of mine.  As Z-cars played, scarves were raised which seemed to cover each stand.  It was a magnificent sight that has the hairs standing up on the back of my neck as I write about it.  I was rather choked up to see how many Southampton fans also raised theirs.  Well done to both sets of fans for a wonderful tribute to GT.

Wague with the ball

Team news was three changes from the cup win last week with Watson, Richarlison and Gray coming in for Capoue, Pereyra and Deeney.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Wagué, Kabasele, Zeegelaar; Doucouré, Watson; Carrillo, Cleverley, Richarlison; Gray.  With emotions running high at Vicarage Road as we remembered GT and the tremendous teams that played for him, these guys needed to put in a very good performance or the crowd was likely to turn on them.

The visitors had a decent chance to open the scoring in the third minute when Long had a shot from close range, Gomes made a good save, but the referee blew the whistle for an offside that had not been flagged by the lino.  There was another chance for the Saints as a defensive header from Zeegelaar fell to Cedric who shot over the bar.  Nearly 20 minutes had passed before Watford launched an attack worthy of the name and it was a decent one.  Camped in the Southampton box, Gray and Carrillo both managed shots that were blocked before, finally, the ball reached Janmaat whose shot from distance was tipped over by keeper.  Needless to say, as soon as Watford missed a decent chance, the opposition took the lead.  A cross from Long found Ward-Prowse in space and he finished with a shot across Gomes into the opposite corner.

Challenging at a corner

The visitors continued to threaten as Zeegelaar failed to cut the ball out, allowing Tadic to cross for Long whose header had to be pushed to safety by Gomes.  At this point, there was the unusual sight of a bloke being escorted out of the SEJ stand.  I can only assume that annoyance at the performance had pushed him over the edge.  Southampton threatened again as Hoedt spotted Gomes off his line, so tried a lob from distance which looked as though it might sneak in until the Watford keeper rose to tip it over the bar.  A rare bit of quality passing by the Hornets allowed Cleverley to break, but he was stopped by a trip from Højbjerg, who was booked for the offence.   Cleverley took the free kick launching the ball into the box where it was easily gathered by Southampton keeper, McCarthy.  There was another decent chance for the visitors as Long hit a shot from close range and Zeegelaar just got a foot in the way to divert it away from the goal.  With ten minutes remaining in the half, Silva opted to make a substitution.  The board went up indicating that Watson was to be replaced by Pereyra, but Cleverley spoke with Silva and walked off instead.  There were loud boos from the Rookery, but Cleverley had been clutching his hamstring, so this was not Silva’s decision.  There was despair on faces around me.  We cannot afford to lose Cleverley for any length of time.  A rare chance for the Hornets came as a free kick from Watson was met by the head of Kabasele, but his effort nestled on the roof of the net.  Gray tried his luck with a turn and shot that was blocked.  Then another cross from Janmaat looked as though it would reach Richarlison in a dangerous position, but the keeper was first to the ball.  Southampton’s second goal was almost a carbon copy of the first, this time it was Wagué who lost his player, Long crossed for Tadic who laid the ball off to Ward-Prowse to score his second goal of the afternoon.  There was a shout from behind me, “GT would be giving you all a bollocking.”  I think he spoke for everyone in the Rookery and the half-time whistle was greeted with angry boos.

Gomes takes a free kick

The conversations at the break all had the same theme.  There was no passion being shown by the Watford players, they didn’t look like they wanted to be there.  I have to say, I have never heard so many complaints in the queue at the Ladies.  Kate was making a rare visit from Saudi Arabia and bemoaned the fact that she had made a huge effort to get there, but the players were doing nothing of the sort.  The consensus was that the first half performance had been an absolute disgrace.

Silva made a significant change at half time, bringing Deeney on for Watson and there was an immediate change in the approach to the game with the players demonstrating an increased level of energy and commitment.  The Hornets created a chance in the first minute of the half following a cross from Janmaat, unfortunately both Gray and Richarlison went for the ball and the header flew over the target.  Gray then fought his way into the box, but was muscled off the ball by Hoedt, illegally in the view of the Watford faithful and you got the feeling that if he had gone down he’d have won a penalty.  On this occasion the boos were directed at the referee.

Pereyra prepares for a free kick

Watford were getting closer to reducing the deficit as Carrillo laid the ball off to Pereyra who curled a shot just wide of the target.  Then Deeney played the ball back to Richarlison whose shot was blocked.  The goal had been coming and it was Gray who made the breakthrough nodding home from close range after Janmaat’s shot had rebounded off the bar.  The fans celebrated wildly, the players just ran back to the centre circle.  There was still work to do.  The Hornets continued the pressure as a cross from Doucouré was blocked and fell to Carrillo who shot well wide.  The first substitution for the visitors saw Davis replaced by Lemina.  But still the Watford dominance continued.  Gray broke down the left and put in a dangerous cross that was turned wide.  From Pereyra’s corner, Wagué rose and headed wide of the target. The visitors had a rare second half chance as Højbjerg headed just over the bar.  At the other end, a cross from Janmaat was met by the head of Gray but he was stretching and the effort was well wide of the target.  Silva made a final substitution replacing Gray with Okaka.  I am not sure I agreed with that one, but it would give the visitors something else to think about.  The 72nd minute was greeted with a rousing chorus of “One Graham Taylor”, this time with scarves held aloft.  It was very moving.  Watford pushed for the equaliser as a Zeegelaar cross was headed back by Deeney to Okaka whose shot was gathered by McCarthy.  Southampton had been doing their best to run the clock down all half and, finally, both McCarthy and Tadic were booked for time wasting.  There was a brief break in the game as Okaka needed treatment after challenging the keeper for a header in the box and receiving a punch to the face.  As we reached the last minute of normal time, Pereyra chipped the ball into the box, it was headed on by Deeney to Doucouré, who bundled it home.  I thought at the time that the ball hit his hand, although it didn’t appear to be deliberate (television pictures may tell a different story).  I looked nervously at the lino, but there was no flag, the goal stood and the Hornets won a point that was just reward for a tremendous second half performance.

Thank you, GT

The players left the pitch at the end of the game to warm applause.  In a game of two halves like that, it is always preferable that the good half comes at the end.  It was hard to believe that those performances had come from the same team, but the introduction of Deeney had been the difference.  Apart from his energy and leadership, it made a difference to Gray to have another forward player alongside him.  Silva persists in playing one up front, but none of our strikers suit that role.  I can only hope that the improvement that was apparent when we played two up front gives him pause for thought.

But this was not a day when the result was the most important thing.  The tribute to GT by the fans showed how much he meant to us and it is his legacy that we celebrate.  My day was spent surrounded by friends and family brought together by a shared passion.  It was a day filled with laughter and tears as we appreciated the friends around us and paid tribute to the absent friends with whom we shared so many happy memories.  Graham Taylor and the club that he created in his image have given me so many wonderfully happy times over nearly 40 years, and for that I will be eternally grateful.  Thank you, GT.

Year Ends with Disappointment against the Swans

Ben Watson waiting to take a free kick

After our return to winning ways on Boxing Day, I entered the West Herts on Saturday with a more positive attitude than of late.  The Boxing Day absentees were mostly back in attendance and I was delighted to arrive in plenty of time to see Don before he left for the ground.  Mike was back from his Christmas trip and, it being a year since we lost lovely Dee, there was a heartfelt toast to absent friends.

Team news was that Silva had made one change from Boxing Day with Okaka coming in for Pereyra, who was fit enough to make the bench.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Wagué, Kabasele, Zeegelaar; Doucouré, Watson; Carrillo, Cleverley, Richarlison; Okaka.  Swansea were facing their first game under new manager, Carlos Carvalhal, so fingers were crossed in the home end that this wouldn’t result in a new lease of life for the struggling team.

The first action of the game was a yellow card for Fernández after he stopped a break by Richarlison.  That poor lad must be black and blue by the end of each game.  The first chance fell to the visitors as a shot from distance from Ayew rattled the crossbar with Gomes rooted to the spot.  But Watford soon had a chance of their own as Okaka headed the ball down to Cleverley who turned and curled a shot just wide of the target. 

Celebrating Carrillo’s goal

The home side had another decent chance when Doucouré released Richarlison who advanced before shooting just wide of the far post.  Watford took the lead on 11 minutes as Okaka found Richarlison whose shot was parried by Fabianski but the ball rebounded to Carrillo who headed home from close range.  I was hopeful that this would calm the Watford nerves and set up a comfortable win for the Hornets, but it all went a bit quiet and the next shot came from a Swansea boot, although the shot from Mesa didn’t trouble Gomes, however it did trouble my sister in Row QQ of the Rookery, who had to duck out of the way to avoid injury.  There were a couple of bookings around the half hour mark as Carrillo was cautioned, rather harshly, for tripping Ayew as they battled for the ball.  Then Carroll was booked for a pull on Doucouré’s shirt.  Kabasele did a sterling job in defence stopping a dangerous looking run by Ayew by getting in front of the Swansea man and shepherding the ball back to Gomes.  The effort was well worthy of the applause that it received.  Watford threatened again as a deep cross from Janmaat was met by the head of Richarlison, but the Brazilian’s effort was straight at Fabianski.  Watford had another chance to increase their lead late in the half as Doucouré shot just wide from the edge of the box.  So the Watford team went into the break a goal to the good and looking in control although without really testing Fabianski.  Swansea really had been poor and it was apparent why they are in the relegation zone.

Crowding for a corner

The visitors made a change after the break replacing Mesa with Narsingh.  The second half started brightly for the Hornets as a dangerous cross almost reached Carrillo, but Fabianski was first to the ball.  The Hornets had a great chance to increase their lead as Cleverley released Richarlison whose cross was just inches in front of Okaka’s boot as he slid in.  The home side had the ball in the net when a Cleverley corner was headed home by Wagué, but the whistle had already gone for an infringement and the goal was disallowed.  Swansea’s second substitution saw McBurnie coming on for Abraham, who appeared to have an injury.  Swansea fashioned a rare chance as Mawson met a corner from Carroll and headed just over the bar.   Gomes was called on to make his first save of the game on the hour mark, after a shot from Ayew was cleared only as far as Narsingh, but the shot was straight at the Watford keeper.  Watford’s first substitution came as Prödl replaced Wagué.  The second change saw Okaka making way for Gray.  This change came 13 minutes after the first, sadly nothing of interest had happened in that period.  The visitors also made a change as Dyer replaced Clucas.  Into the last 10 minutes and there was finally something to quicken the pulse as a cross from Richarlison was deflected to Doucouré whose shot was blocked.

Doucoure in action

Silva’s final change saw Carrillo make way for Pereyra.  The Argentine made an immediate impact playing a gorgeous ball to Gray who only had the keeper to beat, I nervously glanced at the lino, but Gray beat himself shooting straight at the keeper with the goal at his mercy, prompting howls from the Rookery.  A voice behind me had been expressing his concern at the narrow lead for some time and there was a certain inevitability when the visitors launched a counter attack and a header from McBurnie found Ayew who poked the ball past Gomes.  I was hoping that there would be a repeat of the end of the game at the Liberty Stadium when the Hornets snatched a last minute goal to secure the win.  Instead, this was Palace all over again as a shot from Dyer was parried by Gomes and Narsingh grabbed the winner.  Watford had a chance to reclaim a point in time added on, but Doucouré’s shot was wild and flew well wide of the target.

The reaction of the Watford fans at the final whistle ranged from stunned silence to vociferous anger as a large volley of abuse was directed at the players, who made a quick exit from the pitch, with the admirable exception of Heurelho Gomes who did his usual lap applauding each of the stands.  He was given a hero’s ovation by most, apart from one individual at the front of the Rookery who decided to have a go at him.  He listened to the concerns and responded, but neither he nor the fan appeared happy with the conclusion.

Attacking at a corner

It is difficult to put into words how I felt after the game.  It had been incredibly frustrating as Watford were so much better than their opponents who showed little in the way of threat.  But the longer the game stayed at 1-0, the more likely it appeared that Swansea would leave Vicarage Road with at least a point.  It had been incredibly dull for most of the ninety minutes and Pete’s observation that the second half appeared as if it was being played at London Colney summed it up perfectly.  There was no sense of urgency or pressing to get a second goal and it cost us dearly.

However, thanks to Huddersfield only claiming a point on Saturday, we finish the year in the top half of the table, although we are now nervously looking down rather than up.  It is sad to end the year this way after such a terrific start to the season.  My niece, who had ended the game slumped forward with her head in her hands followed it up by tweeting “I hate football.”  I sympathise with that sentiment and only hope that the return in the new year of some of the missing players will mean an upturn in form and we can enjoy the second half of the season as much as we did the early months.

I wish you and your families a very happy new year and much joy in following the Hornets.

Success in the Boxing Day Fox Hunt

Wague making his first start

After a lovely Christmas day with the family, it was off to Vicarage Road to see if we could arrest the recent slump.   The Boxing Day game is one of the first that I look for when the fixtures come out.  I always look forward to them, even if they rarely give us anything to cheer (I am still smarting from the injury time goal by Kirk Stephens in 1979).  I had anticipated traffic and trouble parking but, once I had negotiated the classic car rally in Sarratt, it was plain sailing and I was surprised to be waved into the car park at the West Herts and find it almost empty.  Happily, our table was pleasantly populated although, as he likes to make sure he doesn’t miss anything, Don had already made his way to the ground.

Team news was that Wagué was to make his first start for the Hornets in place of Prödl.  Holebas and Gray also made way for Zeegelaar and Doucouré on their return from suspension.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Wagué, Kabasele, Zeegelaar; Doucouré, Watson; Carrillo, Cleverley, Pereyra; Richarlison.  The team selection was described as ‘random’ by one of our party.  It was noticeable that there was no striker in the starting XI but, given the lack of end product from the current incumbents, that was an option that had been discussed after the game on Saturday.  As we walked along Vicarage Road to the ground, Glenn predicted a 3-1 win.  He was feeling a lot more positive than I was.

Heurelho Gomes

Following the coin toss, the teams swapped ends, an event that is seen by many as a bad omen.  But my brother-in-law pointed out that having a female lino usually leads to good fortune, so the omens cancelled each other out.

The first fifteen minutes of the game was notable for the three yellow cards that were shown.  The first to Leicester’s Maguire, before Watson and Kabasele followed him into the referee’s book.  The first goal chance went to the visitors after a slack defensive header by Janmaat was intercepted, Chilwell’s cross was headed goalwards by Okazaki, but Gomes pulled off a flying save, tipping it over the bar.  A lovely move by the Hornets saw Carrillo beat a player to get into the box and pull the ball back to Pereyra who tried a back-heel towards the goal which was blocked.  Carrillo gave the ball away in midfield allowing Albrighton to release Vardy, who broke forward but, with only Gomes to beat, managed to find the side netting at the near post, much to the relief of the home fans.  Watford had a decent chance from a free kick which dropped to Doucouré, but his shot was blocked.  The next caution was earned by Dragović, who pulled Pereyra to the ground to stop him escaping.

Celebrating Wague’s goal

The visitors threatened with a shot from Mahrez which probably looked more dangerous than it was as it flew through a crowd of players who may have unsighted Gomes, so I was relieved to see it nestle in the keeper’s arms.  Leicester took the lead in the 37th minute as Albrighton crossed for Mahrez to head past Gomes.  It was a sickener as it followed a decent spell of play by the Hornets.  After recent set-backs, you could only see one result following, but the Hornets reacted well and should have equalised almost immediately as Carrillo played a lovely through-ball to Richarlison. With only Schmeichel to beat, an instinctive shot would probably have done the job, but the young Brazilian overthought it, delayed the shot and found the side-netting.  There was some light relief as a coming together between Pereyra and Ndidi resulted in the Leicester man tumbling over the hoardings.  I know that it could have ended in injury, but it always make me laugh and, thankfully, he returned to the field with no harm done.  That proved to be the Argentine’s last involvement in the game as he was withdrawn due to a knock and replaced by Okaka.  A change that was greeted with approval by the home fans.  The Hornets equalised as the clock reached 45 minutes when a corner from Cleverley was met with an overhead kick from Richarlison that was blocked, but it fell to Wagué who finished past Schmeichel.  The home side could have taken the lead in time added on at the end of the half as a lovely move finished with Cleverley finding Richarlison on the left of the box, his shot was powerful and cannoned off the post, but it sent the Vicarage Road faithful into the break with smiles on their faces.

Richarlison and Wague challenging at a corner

The guest for the half-time draw was Nigel Gibbs, who commented that he had been home for Christmas earlier than expected after the managerial change at Swansea.  It is always lovely to see Gibbsy back at Vicarage Road and, as he approached the Rookery on his way back into the stand, he was given a tremendous reception, which he clearly appreciated.

Early in the second half, a lovely ball over the top from Watson reached Richarlison who looked as though he’d escape, but his first touch was too heavy and the chance was gone.  The first goal attempt of the second half fell to the home side as Carrillo found Doucouré on the edge of the box, he had time to swap feet and pick his spot, but his shot sailed well over the bar.  Leicester had a great chance to regain the lead as a dangerous cross looked as though it would drop nicely for Vardy, but Gomes was first to the ball.  At the other end Richarlison found Okaka, who tried an overhead kick which flew wide of the post.  A dangerous counter attack by the visitors was foiled as Watson did well to get back and cut out Albrighton’s cross before it reached Vardy.

Congratulating Doucoure after the winner

The Hornets took the lead on 65 minutes following a Cleverley free-kick.  From our vantage point at the opposite end of the ground, Doucouré’s shot appeared to have been cleared off the line.  There was a pause as the Watford players claimed the goal, the referee looked at his ‘watch’ and, as I held my breath, pointed to the centre circle, sending the Rookery into wild celebrations.  Leicester made two substitutions replacing Okazaki and Dragović with Slimani and Gray.  It appeared that Glenn’s score prediction would be spot on as Cleverley robbed Chilwell and advanced on goal, but his shot was just wide of the far post.  Puel’s last change saw Ulloa coming on for King.  The visitors had a great chance to draw level from a corner as the ball dropped to Morgan, but Gomes did brilliantly to block the shot.  The keeper was called into action again from the resultant corner, dropping to save Ulloa’s header, and the danger was averted.  Silva made a couple of late substitutions, bringing Prödl on for Watson, followed by Carrillo, who had another great game, making way for Sinclair.  I must admit that it was a relief to see only three minutes of added time.  There was time for a lovely passing move up the wing which finished with a cross to Okaka, who won a corner and used up some of the remaining seconds.  The last action of the game was a cross from Albrighton that was gathered by Gomes under a challenge from Maguire that he did not appreciate, he was raging at both the player and the referee.  But he was to end the game with a smile on his face as Watford grabbed a win that was probably deserved based on the quality of the play, if not the tally of shots on target.

This game wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a pleasing return to some kind of form.  Following a couple of lack lustre performances, the work rate that had been such a pleasing aspect of the play in the early part of the season was back, with players pressuring their opponents, giving them no space to play and causing them to make mistakes.  Wagué played well on his full debut, topping it off with a goal.  What had appeared to be a bit of a makeshift team had given us the best ninety minutes for some time and provided a rather lovely finish to this Christmas.  We just need to continue in the same vein against Swansea.

No Respite on the South Coast

Norman Wisdom welcomes us to the Amex

Our last visit to Brighton was memorable for all the right reasons.  After taking the lead in the first half, the game had been a bit of a slog, before Vydra’s injury time goal sent us all away happy.  It having been the lunchtime game, we retired to a lovely pub and, after spending the preceding couple of hours in the garden anxiously checking phones, we interrupted a quiet afternoon by erupting in joy as last minute goals confirmed our promotion.

It seemed appropriate to return to the scene of the celebrations, although there was no way we could sit in the pub garden on a cold December afternoon.  The beer and food was excellent and the company delightful as we were joined by Kevin Le Belge.  The locals were friendly and helpful, warning us to leave in plenty of time due to the queuing system at the station (which turned out not to be required on this occasion).

After the short train journey to the ground, the walk to the turnstiles was enhanced by the banners recalling memorable Brighton moments.  One which really appealed to me was Norman Wisdom stopping at a bus stop to give a young lad a lift to the game.  The Brighton stewards are among the nicest I have encountered on my travels, so the usual search was done with smiles and the sign inside the ground welcoming us after our journey always engenders goodwill.

Team news was that Silva had made four changes, two enforced by suspension, with Watson, Cleverley, Pereyra and Gray coming in for Mariappa, Capoue, Doucouré and Deeney.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Prödl, Kabasele, Holebas; Watson, Cleverley; Carrillo, Pereyra, Richarlison; Gray.  It would be interesting to see Watson back in the team, but you had to feel sorry for Mariappa, who has been a stalwart this season.

Holebas debating a corner with the lino as Pereyra looks on

We were hoping for an improvement on last week’s dire performance, but the early signs were not good as a shot across goal from Hemed went begging, but Knockaert picked up the loose ball and his shot had to be saved by Gomes.  Pröpper then tried a shot from the edge of the box, but it was well over the bar.  Brighton threatened again as a cross from March flew across the goal but, on this occasion, Hemed just missed making the connection.  Watford’s first chance came after a quarter of an hour when a corner from Cleverley reached Pereyra on the edge of the box, he volleyed goalwards, but it was well wide of the target.  We waited another 15 minutes for the next action worthy of note when Carrillo tried a shot that appeared to take a deflection and was easily gathered by Ryan in the Brighton goal.  The home side had a decent chance to take the lead from a corner that was delivered to the far post where Goldson had a free header, but Gomes made a great save at close range.  It had been a dull half, but there was a moment of rare quality as Pereyra and Janmaat exchanged some slick passes to make their way out of defence and up the right wing, sadly the resultant cross was caught by the keeper, but the move was just wonderful.  At the other end, Knockaert had a chance to open the scoring, but his shot was straight at Gomes.  The Frenchman threatened again, but this time was thwarted by a great tackle from Richarlison who emerged with the ball.  The Brazilian had a half chance at the other end after a counter-attack, but his shot was weak and easy for the keeper.

Andre Gray up against Suttner

It had been a dull first half, the most positive thing anyone could find to say about it was that the score remained at 0-0 and there were still eleven Watford players on the pitch.

The first chance of the second half fell to the visitors but the shot from Hemed flew well over the bar.  Goldson then had a chance from a corner, but directed his header wide of the target.  Watford’s best chance of the game so far came as Richarlison played a one-two with Pereyra before unleashing a great shot that stung the palms of Ryan as he kept it out.  At the other end, Groß went close with a shot from the right that flashed across goal and flew just wide of the far post.  The home side should have taken the lead with a great shot that was met by a terrific flying save from Gomes.  The blokes in the row in front arrived back from their half time refreshments just in time to see Groß receive the ball on the edge of the area and unleash a shot that Gomes really should have stopped, but it bounced off him and in to give the home side the lead.  Brighton almost had a second soon after as a corner was met by the head of Dunk whose effort was just wide of the target.

Watson back in the team

Silva made his first substitution with 20 minutes remaining bringing Sinclair back from the wilderness to replace Pereyra.  The home side had a terrific chance to increase their lead as March broke upfield before crossing for Hemed whose close-range shot missed the target.  Silva’s second change saw Capoue come on for Watson, who had had a disappointing return to the team.  Watford had a decent chance for an equalizer from a Cleverley free kick which Kabasele met, but headed just over the target.  Silva’s last substitution saw Okaka come on for Gray.  The rapturous reception given to the Italian told you all that you needed to know about the afternoon’s performance.  The substitute almost made an immediate impact, breaking through on goal, but his shot was blocked.  There was an even better chance for the Hornets as Holebas crossed for Richarlison whose header was just wide of the target.  Hughton made his first change bringing Kayal on for the goalscorer, Groß.  The home side threatened to kill the game off with a quick break from Hemed whose shot was blocked, the ball fell to Knockaert but he could only hit the side netting.  Brighton made a couple of late substitutions as Hemed and March made way for Murray and Izquierdo.  Okaka had a couple of late chances to snatch a point for the Hornets, first he met a cross with a header, but it was weak and drifted wide.  Then, with the last action of the match, Ryan fumbled a cross from Carrillo, the ball dropped to Okaka at the far post, hit his knee and bounced wide.  He was looking straight at us as we clutched our heads in despair and, it has to be said, looked pretty devastated himself.

Jerome Sinclair

Since the last action was at the end of the ground that was housing the Watford fans, we were treated to the unpalatable spectacle of Knockaert celebrating with glee right in front of us.  Even more distasteful was the chorus of boos from the travelling fans as Silva applauded us at the end of the game.  I despair of football fans, while not being surprised, as some had started their complaints in the first minute.

It is a funny old game football.  We finish the first half of the season with 22 points siting pretty in tenth place in the table.  If you had told me that at the start of the season, I would have been delighted.  But, following the highs of the early games when I thought we could beat anybody (except Man City), the recent run of 4 defeats, means that the cushion that we had has all but disappeared and there are fears of an upcoming battle against relegation.  Our team selections have been disrupted by injuries and ill-discipline and I still believe that, with a full squad to pick from, we could establish ourselves in mid-table, although that faith is being sorely tested at the moment.  Still, the friendship of the group that I travel with and the regular encounters with so many other lovely Watford fans mean that every match day has its pleasures, even if the game isn’t up to much.

To all of you who read this blog, thank you for your support.  I wish you all a very happy Christmas and three very welcome points on Boxing Day.

An Early Christmas Present for the Terriers

Hogg and Deeney reacquainted

It has been a tough week to be a Watford fan.  We had played well at both Burnley and Palace, but come away with two defeats due, primarily, to two (needless) red cards.  At the West Herts, a number of fans were trying to lift spirits with their Christmas jumpers.  I must say that I am not generally a fan but Jim’s Baa Humbug (featuring a sheep in a santa hat) did raise a smile as did a Huddersfield fan’s Christmas Terrier that I had seen on the way in.

On arrival at the stadium, Pete and I took a detour to visit the 1881 bunker to drop off presents for their collection for local children in need.  It was great to see a packed table straining under the weight of all the gifts.  Due to the detour, I entered the Rookery through the turnstiles at the opposite end to usual.  The steward who searched my bag was lovely.  Then I entered the stadium and saw the program seller inside the entrance and it was former supporter of the season, Doreen Pym, who I always bought my programme from when she was in Bill Mainwood’s hut on Occupation Road.  Handing my money over to her, it felt like old times and I was quite emotional.

Team news was that Silva had made only the one (enforced) change from Tuesday with Capoue coming in for the suspended Cleverley.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Mariappa, Prödl, Kabasele; Janmaat, Doucouré, Capoue, Holebas; Carrillo, Richarlison; Deeney.  Huddersfield were captained by the wonderful Jonathan Hogg.  So the teams were led out by two of the participants in “that” goal.

Kabasele and Doucoure

Huddersfield had not scored a goal away from home since the first game of the season, so this should have been the ideal opportunity to reverse our mini-slump.  It must be said that their terrible away form hadn’t stopped their fans travelling in numbers.  The packed away end was noisy and impressive.  I was also hoping for an extra boost of luck from my niece, who was back from university.  Her last game had been the impressive win against Arsenal.

Watford have generally started games well this season, so it was a bit of a shock when the visitors took an early lead.  A corner was delivered into a crowded box and, after a scramble, Kachinga poked home from close range.  There were shouts for both a handball and offside from the Rookery, but the officials were unmoved (television pictures showed the hand was a Watford one, but the offside was valid) and the Huddersfield fans burst into a chorus of, “How sh*t must you be, we’re winning away.”   Watford attempted a fight back as Carrillo played a lovely cross towards Richarlison, but a Huddersfield head made the first contact and it went out for a corner.  There was then a lengthy break in the game due to an injury to the goalscorer, Kachinga.  A few in the crowd were booing him as he lay on the turf clutching his knee, which was unpleasant and unnecessary as he was clearly in pain.  Eventually he was taken off on a stretcher and my faith in my fellow fans was restored as the majority of the crowd applauded him off.

Capoue and Richarlison racing to meet a corner

The home side had a couple of decent chances to get an equaliser.  First a corner from Holebas that was flying straight in until it was cleared off the line.  Then Holebas played a lovely cross to Richarlison whose shot was over the target.  If the first Huddersfield goal had been scrappy, the second was a horror show.  The Watford defence appeared to stop playing as Holebas allowed Quaner to escape and deliver a low cross which flew across the goal to Mooy who had the easy task of tapping it home.  In the Rookery, we were looking at each other in disbelief at what we had just seen.  Watford tried to make amends with a lovely passing move that, sadly, came to nothing as Carrillo’s cross was just too far in front of Deeney.  Silva made his first substitution on the half hour, bringing Pereyra on for Mariappa and going to four at the back.  Pereyra’s first involvement was impressive, playing a sweeping pass to Richarlison, but the young Brazilian shot straight at the keeper.  On 33 minutes, Watford were down to 10 men for the third game running as Deeney was dismissed for a tackle on Hadergjonaj that appeared to be clumsy rather than nasty.  There was a caution for the visitors soon after as Hogg was booked for a foul on Carrillo.  From the free-kick, Richarlison had the ball in the net and I was on my feet celebrating.  Sadly I was the only person in the ground who had failed to see the linesman’s flag that ruled the goal out.  It went from bad to worse as Doucouré received his fifth yellow card of the season, ruling him out of the trip to Brighton.  Ince took the free kick and delivered it well over the bar.  A spell of lovely passing descended into fannying about as the bloke behind me, quite reasonably, shouted “The goal’s that way,” before Doucouré lost the ball, Huddersfield broke forward and van La Parra tried a shot from the left that was saved by Gomes.

Thank you for so many wonderful memories, Alec

We were all stunned at half-time, so it was good that there was a distraction on the pitch, although it was tinged with sadness as Alec Chamberlain was saying goodbye after 21 years at the club.  He has been a terrific servant as both player and coach.  Most memorably, he was the keeper for our successive promotions in GT’s second spell, playing a key role in the penalty shoot-out in the play-off semi-final when he made the decisive save from Holland.  He started by speaking about overcoming the stigma of having played for them up the road.  “Gibbsy forgave me.  He said I was a born again Hornet.  Once he accepted me, I knew I was fine.”  He spoke warmly about his time at the club, including two Player of the Season awards, and ended by thanking the fans and saying that he looked forward to seeing us all again in the future.  He has been a legend at Watford, which will be a sadder place without him.

At half-time, there had been some hopeful harking back to the Blackpool game in 2015, but the second half started with the visitors in the ascendancy.  There was danger when a shot from Ince was parried leaving Gomes out of position and allowing the Huddersfield man to cross for Quaner who, thankfully, headed wide.  But the third goal was not long in coming.  Holebas, who had fallen asleep for the second goal, collapsed in the box holding his face, so allowing Depoitre a free run before he fired across Gomes into the far corner.

Okaka making a rare appearance

The Hornets finally showed a bit of fight at this point, but Janmaat’s shot from distance was over the bar.  Then Kabasele found Carrillo who made space for a shot that was deflected over.  The referee had his red card out again soon after, showing Hogg a second yellow for a challenge on Richarlison.  “We’ll have a bit more space now,” commented the chap who sits next to me.  At this point each side made a substitution, with Williams replacing van La Parra for the visitors and Capoue making way for Gray for the Hornets.  Watford then had their best spell of the game.  First, a corner was headed just over by Prödl.  Then a gorgeous curling shot from Pereyra was saved by Lössl.  The breakthrough finally came when the ball dropped to Doucouré who thumped it into the goal.  Woe betide anyone who had got in the way of that shot.  The Watford crowd finally had something to cheer and there were roars as Janmaat won a corner.  The Hornets continued attacking as Pereyra passed back to Richarlison whose shot was blocked.  Then the ball found its way out to Gray whose shot was just wide of the target.  Richarlison had another chance to reduce the deficit, this time a shot from distance that curled just wide.  Silva’s last change saw Okaka come on for Holebas.  But the next chance fell to the visitors with a shot from Ince that was gathered by Gomes.  Doucouré turned from hero to villain as, after losing the ball to Depoitre, his attempt to win it back felled the Huddersfield man and the referee pointed to the spot.  Gomes went the right way, but Mooy buried it in the corner.  The visitors should have had a fifth as Quaner unleashed a shot, but Doucouré was back to clear it off the line.  The final kick of the game almost sent us home with a little comfort as Pereyra hit a lovely shot but Lössl was able to make the save.

Well done to the 1881

So finally a game in which the result reflected the performance, but that was not what I had in mind.  I still don’t understand where that dreadfully poor showing came from.  Huddersfield clearly wanted the win, while the Watford players looked as though they had already stopped for Christmas.  The post-match discussions included a lot of adverse comments about the referee, but he was not to blame for that defeat.  It was Watford’s worst performance by some considerable margin.  We have generally worked hard during games, but looked lethargic on Saturday.  Our usual second-half of the season slump has started rather early, I just hope it can be halted before we start sliding down the table.

To end this report on a positive note, 681 presents were donated to the 1881 collection.  A great testament to the work of the 1881 in organising this and the generosity of the Watford fans.  This will ensure a happy Christmas for a great many children, which is just wonderful.