Tag Archives: Tom Cleverley

Pride Overcomes Heartbreak at Wembley

Before the Cup Final in 1984

I will start by saying that I can’t bring myself to write a full match report.  Everyone who is reading this will have seen the match and I am sure, like me, you don’t want to relive it.  But what I do want to relive is the build-up to the game and the experiences of the day.

My build-up started straight after the semi-final when I received an email from David Hyams suggesting that we create a good luck banner for the final.  The idea was to collect messages from fans from all over the world and display them on a banner to present to the players before the game.  Banners had been produced on three previous occasions, for the 1999, 2006 and 2013 play-off finals.  My involvement in 1999 was limited to having my photo taken with the banner outside Wembley, but I got involved in 2006 and 2013 helping to publicise the initiative and liaising with the club.  On this occasion, we had a great point of initial contact at the club in Dave Messenger, who immediately supported the venture and put us in touch with Hamish in the media team.  Jon Marks then got involved, providing us with a great background photo to use on the banner and arranging for us to go to the ground to present it to the players.

On the big screen looking as nervous as I felt

My next contribution was a couple of weeks before the game when Jon Marks asked if I wanted to be one of the fans featuring in the FA’s pre-match video.  I was incredibly busy at work, so taking a Monday morning off for filming was really not a good idea.  Needless to say, I agreed to do it.  The filming was taking place at 10:30 on a Monday morning.  I arrived at the same time as the Watford Ladies’ captain, Helen Ward.  I was also told that Nigel Gibbs was currently being interviewed and my heart skipped a bit.  I knew that this was something out of the ordinary when we were sent to the players’ lounge in order to meet the make-up artist.  My request to her was to give me some eyebrows and remove one of my chins.  Bless her, she did her best.  Then Helen and I went down to the changing room (thrilling!!) where she was to be filmed.  They sent me back to the lounge so that my spontaneity wasn’t spoilt!  When they finally came to collect me, I was taken out into Occupation Road for the filming.  It took a while to find an angle which allowed them to use the Watford FC on the outside of the SEJ stand as background.  I have to admit that I was a little reserved as it started.  I’m not very good with all the jingoistic stuff, so told them that Roy Moore (who was the next to be filmed) would be great for that element.  Then they asked me to talk about Graham Taylor, Elton John, Heurelheo Gomes, Troy Deeney and generally my love for Watford and there was no stopping me.  I must admit that I often see those pieces and wonder why the participants have no dignity.  On this occasion, dear reader, dignity was completely dispensed with.

Presenting the banner to the players (credit Alan Cozzi)

The league season had finished with a disappointing set of results, but the thing that upset me most was the red card shown to José Holebas.  I remember when Wilf Rostron was sent off at Luton in 1984.  The photo of Wilf’s face when he realised that he would miss the cup final is etched on my memory.  The idea that another player would suffer the same fate was almost too much to take.  I stayed in Watford on the Sunday night after the game, with the idea that I would spend the evening writing my match report.  I was so upset after the game that I couldn’t bring myself even to make a start.  On Monday morning, I drove over to the training ground at London Colney arriving on schedule and was shown to the media room where some of our party were already gathered.  Jon told us the plans for the presentation and then we were taken to the training pitch to wait for the players.  As they started to gather, Javi was introduced to each of us.  When Troy arrived, he recognised me, so said hello and gave me a kiss.  Then David showed him the memento pack that he had made with a replica of the banner and print-out of the messages and the video from the semi-final with the voice over from GT.  Troy could easily have said thanks and dismissed him, but he spent the time listening to David talking about what we had done, and he appeared interested and engaged.  I love him for doing that.  As the players gathered around the banner, it was lovely to see them reading the messages.  The photo with the banner was taken, the players left to start training and we went home.

Fuzz in all her magnificent glory

I had spotted José Holebas at the training ground, but he lurked in the background and looked a bit down, although I am not sure that is unusual.  There had been some discussion amongst the fans there about the appeal going in to the FA and there were varying opinions on what the outcome would be.  I was not hopeful.  I worked from home in the afternoon, which was just as well because, when the news came through that the red card had been rescinded, I found myself sobbing with relief and joy for José.  When we went to Wembley in 1984, my sister took a banner reading “Wilf is Innocent”.  I was so thankful that we wouldn’t have to cross out “Wilf” and write in “José”.

In the week before the game, the club put out a series of videos with the tag line “Imagine if”.  The From the Rookery End guys put out a couple of pre-final podcasts including a great interview with Ben Foster.  Then there were the Hornet Heaven specials.  All of these were wonderful, but the Hornet Heaven episode entitled “35 Years of Hurt” was just incredible.  Added to that we had fans uploading their photos from 1984 and the memories of the game, often involving family members who are no longer with us.  I spent a fortune on tissues this week.

Pre-match, I tried to follow the same pattern as for the semi-final.  I packed my bag with essentials including my scarf with the badge featuring Toddy and Steve Brister and the GT memorial game badge.  I made sure that I took the lucky seashell that Pete Fincham gave me at Woking.  I also added my first scarf, bought in 1979, which accompanied me to Wembley in 1984.  That may have been my mistake.  I took the train into Paddington listening to the latest Hornet Heaven episodes and then took the wrong exit out of the station (as I had previously) and again took an ill-advised detour on the way to the pub.

Fuzz and the family at Wembley (as is my usual practice, my yellow shirt and scarf were donned when I got to my seat)

Richard had booked a table for 11am, when the pub opened, under the assumption that leaving it much later would mean that we would arrive to a packed pub and have to evict those on our table.  I arrived just before the advertised opening time to find the doors open and a couple of guys lurking outside.  I entered a pub that was empty apart from the bar staff who looked a little askance, before breaking out in broad smiles and welcoming me, showing me to our table (the same one as we had for the semi-final) and offering me a drink.  I thought about having a coffee, but that seemed rude, so a pint of Doom Bar it was.  The guys that had been lurking outside also came in and turned out to be the door staff for later in the day, when there was more than one customer.  Thankfully Richard wasn’t far behind me and our party was soon in full swing.  As the “Happy Valley” contingent arrived, I was able to hand out the last of the match tickets that I had purchased (they had better nerves than I did, being able to wait until matchday to receive their tickets).  The ticket handover was accompanied by personalised bracelets that Fuzz had made for all of our party which were very gratefully received.  When Mike arrived, much was made of his winning the Supporter of the Season award.  Then we had lunch and more beer and waited for the designated time to leave the pub as I got more and more nervous.

35 years on, Rose’s daughters accompanied her to Wembley

The journey to Wembley was as simple as last time and we were through the turnstiles very quickly. It has to be said that, despite the strict bag policy, the search was the very definition of cursory.  When we reached the upper level, my family, who had travelled in from Hertfordshire so not joined us in the pub in central London, were all there to greet us.  As was my friend, Farzana.  Now, Fuzz had long talked about she and I dressing as Hornets if we ever went to a cup final.  Thankfully, after years of telling her that I would do nothing of the kind, she had decided to do her own thing.  “Think 70s Elton John.”  The last time that she had promised such a costume, she turned up dressed as a chicken.  This time, the costume was a work of art.  She had added bling and feathers to a yellow mac and it was absolutely gorgeous.  We had photos taken, but then she had to meet her people as so many admired her attire.

The band playing Abide with Me

We were in our seats in plenty of time for the pre-match entertainment, although we had missed the marching band playing Z-cars.  Thankfully, Annie Mac had added it to her play-list and it got an amazing cheer.  She followed with Elton’s “Are you ready for love?” and then “Wonderwall”, which was roundly booed by the Watford fans.  Next up was the FA film.  For Watford, Luther, Gibbsy and Roy Moore said their pieces before my face appeared, to cheers from my family.  I think (hope) that I didn’t make too much of a fool of myself.  This was followed by Abide with Me which always brings memories of Elton’s tears in the stands in 1984.  Then the FA Cup was brought onto the pitch by Tony Book and Luther Blissett.  It was lovely seeing Luther as part of the proceedings, I well remember seeing him walk around the pitch in 84, at the end of his sabbatical in Milan and being so sad that he wasn’t able to play.  At this point, a banner was displayed for each club.  City’s included the dates of their previous cup wins and a picture of Tony Book who had been on the winning team in 1969.  Watford’s showed a shirt with “Ossie 10” on it and “Ossie with us at Wembley” in honour of young Watford fan, Ossie Robinson who died of neuroblastoma in 2017.  That was a lovely gesture by the club.

Troy deep in conversation with Will Hughes

The teams came out and Troy was joined by Elton’s sons, Zachary and Elijah, with their Dad working in Copenhagen so unable to make the game.

The Cup Final team was, as expected, Gomes; Holebas, Mariappa, Cathcart, Femenía; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes; Deulofeu, Deeney.

At last the game kicked off.  City started brightly but, on 10 minutes, the Hornets broke, Deulofeu played in Pereyra who shot straight at the onrushing Ederson.  There was a shout for a penalty as a shot from Doucouré seemed to hit Kompany on the arm, but it wasn’t given and Abdoulaye was booked for his protest.  City took the lead on 26 minutes.  It looked a bit of a soft goal, Doucouré lost possession, Sterling broke forward, the Watford defence were unable to clear the ball and Silva finished from a tight angle.  The second goal came after a series of corners, finally Silva found Jesus who beat Gomes.  It appeared that Sterling had applied the final touch, but the ball had already crossed the line and the goal was awarded to Jesus.  I was feeling pretty miserable at this point, so I was grateful for a moment that made me smile as Holebas lost the ball in the City half but sprinted back to make a magnificent recovering tackle.  So, we were two goals down at half time.  There were some among our group making positive noises after our comeback in the semi-final, but it was hard to see us coming back from this against City.

Gathering for a corner

The second half started with the ball in the Watford net from a diving header, but Jesus was in an offside position, so the goal was disallowed.  Watford then created a couple of decent chances, but seemed reluctant to take a shot, which is the story of our season.  Ten minutes into the half Guardiola made his first substitution bringing De Bruyne on for Mahrez.  Now that seemed just mean and the feeling was compounded when De Bruyne scored the third after receiving a square ball from Jesus, dribbling past Gomes and finding the net.  At this point “Blue Moon” was ringing out from the City end.  De Bruyne also had a hand in the fourth, playing a through ball for Jesus who was one-on-one with Gomes and made no mistake.  At this point I pleaded “Please make this stop,” before commenting to my sister on how amazing the 1881 in the stand below us were, still singing their hearts out.  I was joining in as much as I could and certainly joined the “One Graham Taylor” chant that came on 72 minutes.  Despite the scoreline, Watford hadn’t given up, and Success and Capoue both created chances but couldn’t get the ball in the net.  City’s fifth came as a low cross from Silva was converted by Sterling.  At this point something remarkable happened, the flags started waving in the Watford end.  First a few and then the stand was a sea of red and yellow, all around us getting to their feet to wave the flags and sing our hearts out for the lads.    The sixth City goal came when a shot from Sterling was turned onto the post by Gomes, but Raheem was there to finish from the rebound.  At this point the guy next to me muttered that was a joint record defeat in the final, not something that I wanted to hear.  Thankfully there were only a couple of minutes of added time.  Stones had a great chance to score a seventh, but Gomes saved with his feet.  The final whistle went to cheers from all corners of the ground.  I was so proud of the Watford fans who were still on their feet waving their flags and applauding their team.  The players must have been devastated but when they came to acknowledge the fans, there was a lovely moment as they stood to applaud a crowd that applauded back in recognition of all that they have done this season.

It must have been a long walk as the team took the steps up to the Royal Box, so it was lovely to see Gino Pozzo greeting Javi and the lads so warmly.  A good number of us waited to applaud the winners as Vincent Kompany lifted the cup.  I must admit that he is a player that I have always liked.  I was interested to see that Guardiola did not go up with the players, he was chatting with the Watford players with Deulofeu (who would have played for him at Barcelona) getting a particularly warm hug.

It took a while to leave the ground.  On the way out, I was delighted to bump into a woman who used to have a season ticket behind us in the Rookery.  She gave it up when she had her first child, which didn’t seem too long ago until she introduced us to her youngest who is now 9 years old.

On the way back to the station, we bumped into Steve Terry who was very chatty and felt that the result was unfair on the lads.

The banner says it all

I headed back to the pub in desperate need of a glass of wine.  I was feeling pretty low and it must have been obvious as Jacque gave me a warm hug saying that she had never seen me look so down after a game.  I must admit that I didn’t expect us to win, but the thrashing was very hard to take.  Mostly for the players who have been magnificent for most of this season and really didn’t deserve to be beaten that badly.  A City fan that we encountered in the pub reflected that they were a good team, but not often that good.  They clearly wanted to finish their season on a high and did so and there was nothing that we could do about it.

As the wine flowed and we reflected on our season, it was time to put the game in some perspective.  The defeat was awful and will hurt for a long time, but it is always the good times that you remember most.  For most of us, the abiding memory of 2013 is that amazing semi-final win against Leicester.  Going back to 1987, the quarter-final win at Arsenal remains one of my most fondly remembered games in the FA Cup.  In years to come, the semi-final against Wolves will be much talked about in a way that the final won’t be.

As I received messages of commiseration today, my response was that it really hurt, but this season has been the best that I have experienced since the glory days of Graham Taylor.  I am so thankful to Gino Pozzo and Scott Duxbury for what they have done for Watford.  In my time following the Hornets, I have seen many highs but also many lows.  I lived through times when I thought that I would no longer have a club to support. These are great times for the club, but we can never take them for granted. That is why I was so proud of the Watford fans yesterday.   To give the team such incredible support when they are being badly beaten is the mark of a true fan in my eyes.  “We’ll support you ever more”, doesn’t mean only when they are winning.  The Watford fans as a whole were amazing and the lovely people that I meet at games, either in the pub beforehand or in the stadium, are a massive part of what makes going to watch Watford special for me.

It has been a tough end to the season, but the fixtures are out on 13th June.  Who knows what joys next season will bring.

Come on you Hornets!!

A Frustrating Sunday Afternoon at the Bridge

Foster about to take a free kick

This is one of the easiest of away trips for me and, for once, the bizarre weekend schedules of South Western Railway did not cause me any problems.  They had even cleared the tree that had meant a trip from Clapham Junction to Windsor on Saturday evening required a detour via Paddington.  So, after a pleasant train journey to Putney and a walk through some dodgy looking areas of Fulham, I found myself in Parsons Green to meet friends for Sunday lunch.  Lots of talk of what we had been up to since we last met.  Mike and I had seen Maggie Smith in “A German Life”, which was superb.  Graham had been to the Don McCullin exhibition and was still a bit shell shocked from it.  I had missed City Orns to see The Unthanks, so was updated on the gathering that I had missed while enjoying an evening of Northumbrian folk music.  Our peace was briefly shattered when the Norfolk/East Anglian Horns turned up to say “Hello”.  Glenn told us that, as it was the last away game of the season, he had started his trip with champagne and strawberries.  Our friends from Norfolk know how to travel in style.  A Chelsea fan appeared and wished us luck in the Cup Final.  The Sunday roasts were absolutely delicious, and we were enjoying our lunch so much that we almost forgot that there was a match to go to.  Almost …

The welcome return of Deeney

We left plenty of time for our walk to Stamford Bridge and to negotiate our way past the multiple phalanxes of security guards.  There was a surprise in store as we were greeted by a voice announcing, “FA Cup Finalists to the left.”  I was still smiling when I heard another directing us on “The road to Wembley.”  A rather lovely and unexpected welcome which meant that my opinion of Chelsea went up massively.

Team news was that Gracia had made two changes with the welcome return of Deeney in place of Gray and a rare start for Chalobah deputising for the injured Capoue.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Mariappa, Cathcart, Femenía; Pereyra, Chalobah, Doucouré, Hughes; Deulofeu, Deeney.  The choice of Chalobah over Cleverley, who was on the bench, was an interesting one.  Our hope was that Nate’s return to Chelsea would give him an extra incentive to impress.  It was pleasing to see that he was given a warm welcome back by the Chelsea fans.

As we took our seats, Alice produced her flag.  Designed by the 1881, in an homage to our previous cup final, it bore the legend “Hot cross Barnes Holebas.”  Just wonderful.

Mariappa on the ball

The game kicked off and there was a great early chance for the Hornets as Deulofeu turned and hit a shot that was just wide of the target.  Watford should have taken the lead on 8 minutes when, from a short corner, Holebas crossed for Deeney whose header was heading for the top corner until Kepa somehow got a hand to it and kept it out, the ball dropped to Hughes whose shot was well over the bar.  Sarri was forced into an early change as Kanté picked up an injury and had to be replaced by Loftus-Cheek.  Chelsea had their first shot in the 14th minute, a chip from Jorginho that was blocked by Foster.  The home side threatened again as Higuaín broke into the box but was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Mariappa.  Watford created another decent chance as Hughes laid the ball off to Deulofeu, but the shot was wide of the target.  The next chance for the Hornets came as a lovely passing move finished with Holebas shooting over the bar.  Chelsea had a half chance as the ball was dinked to Hazard in the box, Foster appeared to hesitate, but recovered and was able to gather the ball.  Then Pereyra and Deeney combined to get the ball to Doucouré in shooting position, but his shot flew wide of the target.  There was a shout for a penalty as Femenía tussled with Luiz in the box.  From our angle, it looked as though the Chelsea man was playing for the foul, the referee was equally unimpressed and waved play on.  Another chance for the home side came as Hazard took the ball off Doucouré before playing in Pedro, whose shot curled over the target.  There was some frustration in the away end as the ball was passed from Doucouré to Deeney to Pereyra, all of whom could have taken a shot, but none did, and the chance was gone.    At the other end, Pedro played a one-two with Higuaín before taking a shot that was just wide of the target.  Another opportunity went begging after some good work from Pereyra who slipped in the build-up, but recovered to put in a decent cross, sadly there was no Watford player on hand to take advantage.  The half time whistle went to boos from the Chelsea fans and cheers from the travelling Hornets who had seen their team completely dominate the half, playing some exquisite football, but failing to make the most of their chances.  When have we heard that before this season?

Great to see Chalobah back in the team

All our good work was undone in the first five minutes of the second half.  Hazard tried a shot from an acute angle that Foster pushed around the post for a corner.  From the corner Hazard crossed and Loftus-Cheek beat Chalobah to open the scoring.  Two minutes later, the home side were two up as, from another corner, Luiz came around the blind side of Mariappa and headed home.  It was the Manchester City away game all over again.  The Hornets tried to hit back as Deeney found Deulofeu just outside the box, he took his time to pick his shot before firing just wide of the far post.  Pereyra played a lovely through ball to Deulofeu whose shot was weak and easily dealt with by Kepa.  We then had the interesting sight of a fired-up Holebas (what other kind is there), tackling Pereyra before snapping into a set of challenges.  Even when we are losing, angry José can make me smile.  Chelsea had a decent chance to score a third as Hazard found Pedro in the box, thankfully the shot was saved by Foster and Loftus-Cheek put the follow-up wide.  The Hornets had a chance to pull one back as Mariappa crossed for Doucouré, who couldn’t get above the ball, so it came off the top of his head and flew over the bar.  At the other end, the home side had a great chance to increase their lead as a shot from Higuaín was kept out by a brilliant save from Foster.  Then Chalobah played a lovely ball for Deulofeu who hit a decent cross towards Deeney, but Alonso put the ball out for a corner.

Holebas and Pereyra prepare for a free kick

Gracia made his first substitution replacing Chalobah with Cleverley.  It had been an interesting choice before the game, but Nate had justified his selection putting in the best performance that I have seen from him since he came back from injury.  Watford had another chance to reduce the deficit when Deulofeu found Hughes in prime position, but the shot was appalling.  A number around us were berating him for passing instead of shooting.  It looked like a shot to me, but it was that poor that it was mistaken for a pass.  Any hopes the Hornets had of a comeback were dashed when Pedro played the ball to Higuaín, Foster came out to meet him, but the Argentine chipped the keeper and found the net.  But Watford were still fighting and Deeney should have done better when the ball fell to him, but he belted his shot over the bar.  There was a much better chance soon after when Holebas nicked the ball and rounded Luiz, but his shot rebounded agonisingly off the crossbar.  Each side made late substitutions.  Giroud replaced Higuaín for the home side, while Deeney and Deulofeu made way for Gray and Success.  Troy looked furious when he saw the board go up indicating that his afternoon was over.  Watford finally had the ball in the net, and it was typical of our day.  A free kick from Pereyra appeared to have been cleared off the line by Holebas, Success got his head on it, but it bounced off Gray on the way in and was flagged offside due to Gray’s inadvertent touch.  Chelsea should have scored a fourth as Hazard crossed for Giroud who scuffed his shot and cleared the bar.

Pereyra takes a free kick

Watford had a half chance as Hughes crossed for Success, but the header was an easy catch for Kepa.  The last substitution for Chelsea saw Cahill come on for Luiz, he was handed the captain’s armband and got the biggest cheer of the afternoon.  Femenía went on a decent run, but his cross was turned around for a corner.  The first card of the game came in time added on as Doucouré was cautioned for a pull on Hazard.  Foster was in action twice in added time, first to divert a shot from Hazard into the side netting, then to gather a low shot from Giroud.  The last chance of the game fell to the Hornets, but the shot from Success was poor and easily saved by Kepa.

We headed back to Parsons Green to drown our sorrows.  As we arrived at the pub, we saw the Chelsea fan who had wished us luck at Wembley before the game.  His verdict, “We robbed you.”  He wasn’t wrong.  The scoreline indicated that we had been well beaten, the pattern of the game nothing of the kind.  But this has been the case in a number of our games against the top six this season.  Similar to the matches against Arsenal and Manchester United, we dominated large parts of the game, but could not turn that domination into goals and were let down by defensive mistakes.  In the first half in particular, the passing was incredibly slick, and we played some gorgeous football but our finishing let us down.  It was great to see Troy back.  He looked hungry and desperate to make up for lost time and we saw the leadership that we had been missing.  As frustrating as the afternoon had been, the conversation soon took a positive turn as we reflected how far this team has come.  In contrast to when we were first promoted, I now travel to most games feeling that we have a team good enough to get something from the game.  It is very rare that we leave a ground with that humiliating feeling of having been taught a lesson by a much better team.  That is something to be relished and when we look back on this season, it will be with pride and happiness and a sense that we have progressed.

 

Heurelho Helps Us to Wembley

The GT Stand before the game

I had to travel to the US for work again this week.  Leaving after the City game and returning on Thursday morning, meant I didn’t have too much time to prepare for this match.  The crucial thing was not forgetting the paper ticket that had been sent out.  This was taken with me to the US as I was scared that jet-leg would lead to me leaving it in a drawer.

Due to the early kick-off, I decided to stay in London overnight on Friday.  On waking, and before I had really had time to think about my plans for the day, the nerves had already kicked in.  I caught the 9:24 from Euston to Watford and settled down with a coffee while noting that others on the train had already started on the beer.  Contemplating which podcast should accompany me, I decided to have another listen to the previous week’s From the Rookery End.  If I needed any more inspiration for the day, the rallying cry from the Parkin men, Mike and Arlo, certainly did the job.  As I passed Wembley on the train, I stared at the arch.  The new stadium hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for us, but that has to change one of these days and I wanted the chance to return (although I wish it wasn’t for a semi-final, those should be at Villa Park).  When the train emptied at the Junction, as it often does, it made a nice change to see that those disembarking were fans of football rather than Harry Potter.

Heurelho Gomes

I reached the West Herts a few minutes before the doors were due to open at 10 and there was already quite a crowd waiting.  When the doors opened, we took up position at ‘our’ table and were soon enjoying a pint and a bacon roll.  Breakfast of Champions.

Just to spite us, the clock there was running 30 minutes slow, but we noticed early enough to ensure that we left in plenty of time.  As we walked along Vicarage Road among the crowds, the anticipation built.  I noted that Wolfie had already sold out of programmes and hoped that my usual lady still had some left when I entered the ground (she did).  As we turned the corner into Occupation Road, I glanced over at the statue and knew that I had to greet GT.  I went over and took his hand, knowing that today would be a day he would have savoured.

The 1881 had put incredible efforts into making sure that there would be a tremendous atmosphere.  When we took our seats, the ground was already full of people waving flags.  The big screen was showing footage of earlier quarter-finals.  I enjoyed watching John Barnes lobbing Tony Coton in 1984, but it is the Arsenal game in 1987 that always comes to mind.  I loved that day out at Highbury.

Jose Holebas on the ball

The Palace fans had been given their required allocation, no more, no less.  Due to problems with segregation in the Vicarage Road end, this meant that the Palace fans were housed in two blocks in the stand with a netting area between them and a banner wishing the Hindu community Happy Holi India for their festival on Thursday this week.  It was an odd sight and one that had infuriated the visiting fans.

Team news was that Gracia had chosen what most would consider to be his strongest team with the exception of Gomes coming in for Foster for what would probably be his last game at Vicarage Road.  What a game to go out on.  It was interesting that Femenía had been chosen in place of Janmaat, who had done well recently.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney.  The major news for Palace was that Zaha would miss the game through injury.  While he is undoubtedly a very talented player, he often seems to go missing.  So I wasn’t sure that his absence would have a major effect on the game, although it may have changed Harry Hornet’s game plan.  Of course, the lovely Ray Lew was back at Vicarage Road in the opposition dug out.  He managed us through times of penury, but still took us to an FA Cup semi-final.  He will always be a legend to me for that.

As the teams came out, the flags waved in the home stands, there were streamers and the Legends banner was unfurled from the Upper GT stand, meaning that Nigel Gibbs found himself sitting under his picture.  That had to be a good omen.

Doucoure and Pereyra

My niece, Maddie, had enjoyed the Leicester game so much that she made a late decision to come to this one.  Her seat was in a part of the Rookery away from the rest of us, but she hung around just in case one of the seats in our section remained unoccupied.  That didn’t happen, but the crowd in the Rookery forgot to sit down, so the extra person in our row was not apparent and we were able to enjoy the match together.

The game kicked off and the Rookery were in good voice singing “Is that all you take away” to the Palace fans, before launching into “Heurelho Gomes baby” for our veteran keeper.  He was in action early in the game as the first goal chance fell to the visitors as Townsend played the ball back to Milivojevic whose shot was saved by Gomes, although it was off target anyway.  Watford’s first action of note came from a free kick, Holebas floated it into the box where McArthur took Hughes down, but the referee. Kevin Friend, waved away our appeals for a penalty.  After a quarter of an hour, there was a break in play as the players burst a number of red and blue balloons that were invading the pitch in the corner in front of the Family Stand.  Having found a pitchfork somewhere, Harry joined in with some enthusiasm.

Capoue giving thanks for his goal

Watford’s first chance of the game came as Deulofeu burst into the box and shot from a narrow angle, but the Palace keeper, Guaita, stood tall and blocked the shot.  Palace won a free kick in a dangerous position, but Gomes rose to make a comfortable catch.  Watford then had a spell when they were in and around the Palace box, but couldn’t fashion a shot on target.  Instead we won a series of corners and, as each one was repelled, I hoped that we wouldn’t regret missing those chances.  Then, from yet another corner, the ball fell to Capoue and he knocked it into the net to send us all crazy.  Just what we needed to settle the nerves a bit.  The Hornets could have had a second as Deulofeu advanced into the box and hit a gorgeous shot but Guaita did brilliantly to get a hand to it and keep it out.  The first booking of the game went to Milivojevic for a foul on Hughes.  Watford had another great chance to increase their lead as Deulofeu hit a free kick over the wall, but Guaita was down to make the save.  Palace made a rare foray into the Watford half as Townsend broke forward, but was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Holebas who was injured in the process.  Thankfully, he was able to continue after treatment.  Palace had a chance to equalise just before half time as Wan-Bissaka chipped the ball to Meyer but the shot was weak and easily gathered by Gomes.  The visitors had one last attack in time added on but Deulofeu was back to make a superb tackle on McArthur and avert the danger.  An unexpected and very welcome showing in defence from young Gerry.

Holebas and Pereyra line up a free kick

So we went into half time in a deserved lead.  It had been a dominant performance from the Hornets, who were not giving their opponents any space to play.  We should really have been further ahead, but I was happy with what I had seen.

Half time and the first talking point was a hornet onesie that was being worn by a woman in the Rookery.  It was an interesting fashion choice.  Back to the official entertainment and the special guest was Tommy Smith who was asked about his appearances in previous cup quarter finals.   His goal from the game against Burnley was shown, I couldn’t help remembering that Ray Lew then left him out for the semi-final after Chopra’s heroics in another game against Burnley.  Tommy had also played in the game against Plymouth in 2007 (as had Mariappa).  I had forgotten that game, until he mentioned it.  It was truly dire.

 

A tremendous showing by Femenia

Watford had to make a substitution at the break as Holebas was unable to continue, so was replaced by Masina.  The Hornets had the first attack of the second half as a poor goal kick from Gomes was rescued and flicked on to Deulofeu who put in a decent cross, but nobody was on hand to connect with it.  Then a Palace corner was flicked goalwards by Meyer, but Gomes pulled off an excellent save to deny him.  Masina was booked after taking Meyer down soon after executing another robust challenge.  Townsend took the free kick and it was on target, but Gomes tipped it over the bar.  Batshuayi should have done better when he received a ball from Schlupp, but he knocked it wide of the near post.  He did much better soon after as Mariappa dwelled on the ball instead of clearing it, the Palace man nipped in to dispossess him and shoot across Gomes into the opposite corner to draw the game level.  It was a howler from Mariappa, who would have been devastated given his history at Palace.  At this point, the nerves set in with a vengeance again.  Surely Palace wouldn’t snatch this from us.  Watford had a chance to regain their lead as Deeney played the ball back to Deulofeu but his shot was straight at the keeper.  The Hornets had another great chance as Guaita punched a cross from Masina only as far as Pereyra, his shot was saved but Doucouré could only put the follow-up over the bar.

Deep in conversation after Gray’s goal

Gracia then made his first unforced substitution bringing Gray on for Hughes.  I dare not say it out loud, but my mind was screaming “super sub!”  A lovely exchange of passes deserved a better finish than a cross from Doucouré that was too heavy and went out for a goal kick.  The second goal for the Hornets was a thing of beauty as Pereyra dinked a ball over to Gray who finished past Guaita sending the Watford fans crazy again and also giving us the opportunity to see a Gomes celebration in front of the Rookery for what may well be the last time.  With 10 minutes remaining, I was hoping that we would hold on, but the visitors then won a free kick in a dangerous position.  I held my breath as Milivojevic stepped up to take it, my joyous shout of “into the wall” may have been stating the obvious but it indicated my profound relief.  Hodgson made a substitution at this point, replacing McArthur with Benteke.  Watford could have grabbed a third, but Deeney’s powerful shot was parried by Guaita and Wan-Bissaka managed to clear as Deulofeu closed in on the rebound.  The Hornets had another great chance as Cathcart met a corner with a header that was cleared off the line by Milivojevic.  Gracia made his final change bringing Cleverly on for Deulofeu who left the field to an ovation and some laughter as, when the referee went over to tell him to speed up his departure from the pitch, he innocently turned and shook his hand.  As the clock reached 90 minutes, the visitors had a chance to take the game into extra time when a corner reached Tomkins, who seemed to be taken by surprise and turned it wide of the near post.  Late into time added on and the visitors really should have been level as the ball fell to Wan-Bissaka and we watched despairingly as his shot appeared to be heading for the opposite corner before rolling wide.  I noted something in my notebook at this point, but my hand was shaking so much that it is totally illegible.  When the whistle went to confirm our place in the semi-final, Vicarage Road erupted with joy.

Harry Hornet in his Superman cape

I was distracted at the sight of Harry Hornet running on wearing a Superman style cape, so missed the moment when Gracia warmly embraced Gomes.  The keeper was then hugged by Deeney and it was apparent that he was in tears.  The crowd were cheering him on and he was very emotional in his response.  It was lovely to see the mutual respect between the player and the crowd.  Finally, as he always used to, he brought his sons on to the pitch to enjoy the applause with him.  While this was going on, the tannoy had Que Sera Sera playing and the Watford crowd were singing along with gusto.  It was all fabulous.

Normally we stay to applaud the last player off the pitch, so the stands are empty by the time we leave (everyone is in Occupation Road).  It is a mark of how much this win meant that when the pitch emptied the stand was still full and, for the first time in years, we had to wait to leave our row.

As we reached the Hornet shop we noticed that they already had t-shirts commemorating the semi-final in the window.  Being a sucker for that sort of thing, we all went in and bought the shirts.  Then came out and had a family photo with GT.

A family photo with GT

When I finally got back to the West Herts, my group were happily sitting outside celebrating the victory.  It is hard to analyse a game when the result is all that counts, but it had been a great performance from the Hornets and the win was well deserved.  Deeney may not have scored, but he had put in a great Captain’s performance which was noted by us all.  I have to say that I had almost forgotten how good Femenía is, he had a tremendous game and certainly justified his inclusion.  While enjoying our celebratory beers, I had a quick read of the BBC online match report and was a little taken aback to see a comment to the effect that the win mean that we had reached “only” our sixth semi-final.  Actually it is our seventh, but we are a small town club and to have reached seven semi-finals is actually a tremendous achievement.  I am still pinching myself.

When I finally decided to head for home, the walk through the town centre to the station was to the sound of Watford fans singing Que Sera Sera.  It was a lovely feeling.

The draw for the semi-final took place when I was in the car driving home this afternoon.  When Alan Green announced that Watford were playing Wolves, I screamed with relief.  They will not be easy opponents, they are a very good side.  But at least we go into the game knowing that it is winnable and that is all that you can ask at this stage.  Troy has been on the losing side in a previous semi-final at Wembley and he will certainly not want to repeat that experience.  It should be a great day out.

I am still buzzing after that win.  Over the past 40 years, I have many wonderful days following the Hornets, but also some very miserable ones.  We go week in, week out, sometimes travelling a long distance to see our team badly beaten, but days like this make it all worthwhile.  There is a tremendous spirit around the club at the moment, so I hope that we can sell out our allocation and roar the boys on to a cup final.  That would be a fitting end to what has been a wonderful season.

Controversy at City

Ben Foster takes a free kick

Despite the late kick-off, I left London at the same time as I would have for a 3pm game.  I went straight to the hotel to see if there was a possibility of an early check-in.  As I neared, I spotted a familiar face, so we both checked in and dropped our bags/toothbrush before heading to the pub.  When the details had come through of the proposed pre-match pub, I was slightly put off to find out that it was called the Castle Hotel.  On arrival it was clear that this was far from the hotel bar that I had been expecting, instead it was a proper old-fashioned pub with real ale and a back room that often hosts live music.  Over the next hour or so, our group gathered and occupied a couple of tables in the back room.  All managed to resist the temptation to bang out a tune on the piano that was available.  Just before we left, a couple of guys came in and occupied a table in the corner next to us having first shared the information that John Peel had once interviewed Ian Curtis at that very table.  A little snippet of information that gave the rather shabby looking back room an unlikely glamour.

Having had a couple of drinks there, we moved on to a Thai restaurant in China Town for a very tasty lunch before getting the tram to the stadium. On our last visit the journey to the ground took rather longer than expected due to a long wait for a tram, so on this occasion we gave ourselves plenty of time.  We didn’t want to miss an early goal again!

Miguel Britos back in the side

On the tram, I found myself sitting next to a City fan who, when I expressed my lack of confidence about the game, mentioned that they had a number of injuries.  That didn’t make me feel any better even though Gracia had announced that he now had a fully fit squad to choose from.  When the team news came through, we found that Javi had decided to make the most of that embarrassment of riches by making seven changes, including replacing 3 of the back 4 and leaving Deeney on the bench.  So our starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Britos, Kabasele, Masina; Femenía, Cleverley, Capoue, Doucouré, Success; Gray.  I understood the logic of making the changes, especially as we have a tricky FA Cup quarter-final next week, but at that point I suggested that we go back to the pub.

The first event of note in the game was a booking for Walker for a foul on Success.  This was to be a rare occasion in the game when a Watford player had possession.  City had their first attempt on goal soon after as David Silva headed a cross from Mahrez wide of the target.  The first attack for the visitors came as Janmaat played a through ball to Gray, but the ball was easily gathered by Ederson.  City threatened again with a shot from a narrow angle by David Silva that Foster was able to block.

Masina takes a throw-in

The Watford keeper was in action again soon after coming to punch a free kick from Gündogan clear.  The next chance for the home side came from a cross from Zinchenko, a slight deflection prevented it reaching Agüero and it went out for a corner.  The home side should have taken the lead after half an hour when a cross from Bernardo Silva reached Agüero who, with the goal at his mercy, headed just wide of the near post.  They also looked certain to score when Sterling broke into the box with only the keeper to beat, but Janmaat, who had been in pursuit, managed to catch up and frustrate him with a fantastic tackle.  There was a half chance for City as a cross reached David Silva whose header was an easy catch for Foster.  Into time added on at the end of the half, Foster came to claim a speculative shot from Agüero but was only able to put it out for a corner.  The delivery was met by the head of Success, whose clearance dropped to Mahrez, but the shot was just wide of the target.  So, we reached half time with the game goalless.  It had been all City, with the Hornets not mustering a shot on target.  But the defensive efforts of the visitors had been impressive and restricted the chances for the home side.

Deulofeu lines up a free kick

The second half started disastrously for the Hornets.  From the other end of the ground, it appeared that Watford had let in a really soft goal from Sterling, so it was a relief when the lineman’s flag was raised.  But, following protests from the City players, the referee had a very long conversation with the lino before indicating that the goal would stand.  It was a bizarre decision by all accounts and the Watford players were furious, but their protests fell on deaf ears.  I can’t help feeling that their anger at the injustice was a factor in their conceding a second goal a few minutes later, another simple finish for Sterling from a square ball from Mahrez.  A few Watford fans had seen enough at this point and left the stand.  Sterling got his hat trick on the hour mark as he latched on to a through ball from David Silva and chipped the ball over Foster.  This led to more departures including the family who were sitting in front of us.  In my opinion this was poor parenting.  Watching your team get thrashed is character building.  Guardiola clearly thought that Sterling’s work was done as he was replaced by Sané.  I had to laugh at that point, because if I didn’t I feared that I would cry.  Gracia also made a change bringing Deeney and Deulofeu on for Success and Femenía.  This turned out to be an inspired substitution as, with their first touches of the game, Deeney knocked Kompany out of the way to get on the end of a free-kick from Foster that he headed on to Deulofeu who sped upfield and finished past Ederson.  That cheered me up no end.

Masina takes a free kick under the watchful gaze of Cleverley and Janmaat

City tried to restore their three goal advantage, but the shot from Aguero was into Foster’s midriff.   The next to threaten was Bernardo Silva who latched on to a through ball from Mahrez, but Foster was equal to the shot.  Guardiola made his second substitution bringing Jesus on for Agüero.  Gracia’s final change saw Cathcart coming on in place of Britos.  City looked sure to get a fourth goal when Jesus rounded Foster, but Kabasele made a superb tackle to stop him.  The final substitution for the home side came at the start of the additional time as City wonder boy Foden replaced Mahrez.  But there was no further action of note, so the game ended with a two goal defeat for the Hornets, which was more than respectable.

Due to the late kick-off, the post match analysis was brief and occurred as we walked to a music venue near Oxford Road station in order to see a Lebanese band playing songs of protest against human rights issues in relation to women and LGBT folk.  The comments between the songs were so interesting that I was disappointed not to be able to understand the Arabic lyrics.  It was a fabulous end to a day on which the football wasn’t expected to give us much pleasure.

Like the majority of Watford fans, I don’t travel to places like City expecting anything out of the game, so the fact that the home side had the vast majority of the possession and Watford had only the single shot on target came as no surprise.  Unlike the trip to Liverpool, Watford were more effective in defence and, had the referee not interfered, the result may have been more favourable.  But the scoreline was a fair reflection of the game and, given the other results on Saturday, has not adversely affected our position in the table.  So time to forget that one and prepare for the early kick-off next Saturday and the opportunity to reach the FA Cup semi-final.  Palace will be difficult opponents, but they are very beatable so we all need to bring our best game.  If we do, it could be an occasion to savour.  I’m nervous already!

 

40 Years On

Gerard Deulofeu

I am normally pretty irritated when our games are moved to stupid times for television, and it has to be said that there is no more stupid time for football than midday on a Sunday.  However, on this occasion, I was actually quite pleased as it meant that I would attend a game on the 40th anniversary of my first matchday at Vicarage Road.  On that occasion, Chesterfield were the visitors for a third division game.  My friends and I went to the Wimpy for lunch before the game (a great treat in those days), we won the game 2-0 with goals from Ian Bolton and Ross Jenkins and I was officially hooked.

Work commitments in the US meant that I was unable to go to Liverpool for the midweek game.  I must say that, as I followed the game from afar and the goals started going in, my regret at not being at Anfield dissipated a little.  This is only the second league game that I have missed this season, in those games we have failed to score while conceding nine goals.  I will do everything within my power to ensure that I am ever present from now until May.

Etienne Capoue

Given the early start, I decided to forego a pre-match beer and head straight for the ground.  All the more time to spend with the family, a particular pleasure on this occasion as my niece, Maddie, was making a rare visit to Vicarage Road.  I had given her my season ticket seat and intended to sit in the vacant seat of a friend who couldn’t make it, but one of our neighbours kindly moved and we were able to all sit together.

Leicester’s decision to dispense with the services of Claude Puel and appoint Brendan Rodgers meant that this was the third home game in a row in which we would face a former manager.  It also ensured a better atmosphere than may have been expected on a Sunday lunchtime as Mr Integrity returned to Vicarage Road.

Team news was that Gracia had made just the one change with the return of Holebas from suspension meaning that he took the place of Masina.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart, Mariappa, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu and Deeney.  After the away team was announced, Tim Coombs asked the Watford fans to give a big welcome to our former manager, which had the predicted response of a loud chorus of boos.

Deeney looks pretty happy to have opened the scoring

The Hornets started brilliantly and should have taken the lead in the second minute when Mariappa met a Holebas free kick with a shot from close range that Schmeichel did brilliantly to stop, the follow-up from Deulofeu was deflected wide.  But the Hornets were not to be denied for long and in the fifth minute Deeney rose to meet a free kick from Deulofeu and head past Schmeichel.  That certainly settled the early nerves.  Our first indication that we would have a typically torrid time with Jon Moss came in the 13th minute when the referee deemed a challenge from Mariappa on Vardy as deserving of a yellow card.  Vardy then found himself in the wars again as he and Foster came for a free kick and collided heavily.  They were both down for a while with Foster taking the longer to recover.  When Ben finally sat up he looked into the television camera that was directly in front of him and stuck out his tongue.  I breathed a sigh of relief at that point.  Leicester then had a dominant spell but the only chance of note came as Ricardo played a ball across the penalty area for Chilwell to cut back for Barnes who shot high and wide of the target.  Watford had a good chance to score a second goal, as Capoue released Deeney who put in a decent cross for Doucouré, but the Leicester defenders stopped the shot.  The Hornets fashioned another chance as Pereyra found Deulofeu who went on a run into the box but could only shoot straight at Schmeichel.  At the other end Ricardo put in a low cross that looked dangerous until Mariappa met it with a powerful clearance that went out for a throw.  Watford had the last chance of the half as a long pass released Pereyra who crossed for Deeney, but there were two Leicester defenders in attendance who stopped him getting a shot in.

Holebas takes a free kick

So the half time whistle went after a really decent half of football that was quite unexpected as Sunday lunchtime television games are not exactly known for their entertainment value.  The game had gone in waves of possession, but Foster had yet to make a save.

The players had warmed up for the game wearing shirts showing the Man of Men which is the symbol for the Prostate Cancer UK charity.  Mike Parkin of the From the Rookery End podcast was on the pitch at half time talking about the charity.  Last year he did the March for Men, which I did a couple of years ago, in order to raise funds for research into prostate cancer, a disease that has affected his father as it has friends and family of mine so it is a cause very close to my heart and I was delighted to see the efforts at this game to raise awareness of a horrible disease that affects so many men.

 

Deeney waiting for the ball to drop

The visitors had the first chance of the second half with a shot from distance that was straight at Foster.  The first chance of the half for the Hornets should have led to them increasing their lead as Pereyra played the ball out to Doucouré on the edge of the box, he hit a gorgeous shot that needed a brilliant one-handed save from Schmeichel to keep it out.  Jon Moss was increasingly attracting the ire of the Watford fans as he blew up for a series of innocuous looking fouls (by the Hornets) while waving play on for infringements from Leicester that looked far more obvious.  The annoyance was compounded when he booked Capoue for a nothing foul.  At this point, the Leicester fans decided to serenade Troy with a chorus of “Troy Deeney, what a w*nk*r.”  Troy just laughed and applauded them.  There was another clash of striker and goalkeeper, this time a ball was played over the top to Deeney, Schmeichel came out to clear and they collided.  Troy was booked which seemed harsh as he had every right to go for that ball.  Both teams made their first substitution within minutes of each other and, in each case, a player called Gray took the field, in the place of Barnes for the visitors and Deulofeu for the Hornets.  Gerry looked very unhappy at the decision.  Leicester came close with a speculative shot from Ndidi that rebounded off the crossbar.

Doucoure, Hughes and Cathcart gathering for a free kick

Watford fans were shouting for a free kick as Deeney was fouled, at least I believe a big defender leaning on your back is a foul, Jon Moss clearly does not, so waved play on allowing Tielemans to release Vardy who broke forward and chipped Foster to get the equalizer.  At this point the nerves really set in and I was sure that Leicester would get a winner.  Rodgers made a double change with Tielemans and Vardy making way for Mendy and Iheanacho.  The visitors having drawn level, Moss relented and finally awarded a free kick to the Hornets and booked Pereira for a foul on Deeney, decisions that earned the referee an ironic standing ovation from the Watford fans.  The visitors threatened to get a winner with a dangerous looking cross from Chilwell, but Foster was down to make a comfortable save.  They had another decent chance as Morgan met a cross from Maddison but the header was wide of the target.  Gracia made a final change bringing Cleverley on for Hughes just as the fourth official held up the board indicating that there were four minutes of added time.  Following the equaliser, Leicester had looked the more likely winners, but it was the Hornets who snatched a late goal as Deeney played a lovely ball through to Gray and, with the Rookery screaming encouragement, he shrugged off the attentions of the defender and finished past Schmeichel to send the home fans into a wild celebration.  Our little group were bouncing up and down in a lovely family group hug.  Gray was booked for taking his shirt off.  It was worth it.  My heart was pounding for the remainder of the added time, but the final whistle went and the celebrations started again.

As the referee left the field, he was roundly booed by the home fans.  It was no more than he deserved, but it annoyed me as we should have been cheering our lads after that win.

A family of Watford fans

Back to the West Herts for a post-match pint.  I had been warned that, prior to the game, “our” table had been taken over by a group of Scandinavians.  It turns out that this was a large group of Norwegians who were old friends of Don, who had met them on a pre-season tour of Norway in the early 80s, which was when he had first met his good friend, Trond (now a Watford resident and season ticket holder).  One of the visitors had been to our match at Kaiserslautern, so these were not tourists jumping on the Premier League bandwagon at Watford.

Consensus after the game was that we would have lost that one last year … and the year before … and probably the year before that.  Leicester had more possession during the game, but the Watford defence had been steadfast, restricting their shooting opportunities such that, the goal apart, Foster wasn’t tested.  The Hornets played some lovely football and it was Schmeichel who had made the more impressive saves.  Deeney put in a superb Captain’s performance that was capped with his goal and assist.  What has been particularly pleasing this season is that the second half slump has not materialized.  We continue to be challenging opposition for (almost) all of our opponents.  We now have 43 points and look likely to surpass all of our previous premier league totals making this a season to remember and cherish.

The forty years that I have been watching the Hornets have provided me with some incredible experiences.  Our small town club has punched above its weight for most of that time and given us a team to be proud of.  I have met many lovely people, made great friends and have so many happy memories.  But one of the loveliest things is to see the next generation of fans coming to games.  So many of my friends and those who sit around me in the Rookery are now bringing children and grandchildren to games and sharing the joy with them.  Our family group is one of those and the highlight of this game for me was seeing our Maddie celebrating the goals.  She may not go very often, but she is definitely a Watford fan.  It proves the adage that you can take the girl out of Watford, but you can’t take Watford out of the girl.

Magic Deulofeu

Lining up a free kick

Due to the Six Nations game between Wales and England being played in Cardiff on the Saturday, our match was changed to Friday night.  This meant an afternoon off work and a journey to Wales on an early afternoon train from London that was already full of rugby fans.  It has to be said that the train was definitely the right decision as the M4 was at a standstill and the supporters coach from Watford took over five hours to get there.

Having checked into the hotel, we headed for a real ale and cider bar.  It was in a basement under student accommodation, which didn’t sound promising, but it turned out to be a lovely comfortable place with a tremendous selection.  We had a drink there and then headed for our designated pre-match venue to meet up with Alice and have something to eat.  As I collected the cutlery, I was gratified to see that the napkins were yellow.  That had to be a good omen.  After a beer and a veggie chilli we headed for the ground.  It is a while since we have been there, and I still look wistfully at the flats that took the place of Ninian Park.  That was a tatty old place, but what an atmosphere.

Team news was that Gracia had made two changes with the suspended Holebas replaced by Masina and fit again Pereyra in for Sema.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart, Mariappa, Masina; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney.

Hughes, Deeney and Doucoure challenging

As I pulled my green shirt out of my bag, Graham helpfully pointed out that it was the wrong colour.  My Girl Guide training came in handy as I went back to my bag and retrieved the yellow shirt instead.  I was all set for the game.

Prior to kick-off there was a minute’s applause for former players Matthew Brazier and Brian Edgley, both of whom had recently passed away.

The first chance for the Hornets came from a decent cross from Janmaat which bounced off Pereyra who didn’t seem to have seen it coming.  Janmaat was also involved in the next goal attempt, playing a one-two with Deeney before firing over the target.  Cardiff’s first chance of note came as Paterson flicked a ball through to Niasse who only had Foster to beat, but the Watford keeper stood tall and blocked the shot. Watford took the lead in the 18th minute, Deeney did brilliantly to keep hold of the ball before finding Deulofeu who slotted the ball into the near corner.  The home side tried to strike back immediately, but the shot from distance from Murphy was easily gathered by Foster.

Ben Foster

Watford should have had a second just before the half hour mark as Deeney unleashed a powerful shot that was well saved by Etheridge.  The first booking of the game went to Capoue for a foul on Niasse which looked pretty innocuous from our vantage point.  The resulting free kick was taken low and touched on by Arter straight to Foster.  There was a very nervous moment just before half time as Janmaat tangled with Murphy just inside the box.  It was right in front of us and looked like a definite penalty, but the referee waved play on, much to the relief of the travelling Hornets.  The home fans made their displeasure known with a chorus of “You’re not fit to referee.”  So we reached half time with the Hornets a goal to the good.  While we were very fortunate with the penalty decision, we were so obviously the better team that an equaliser would have been a travesty.

Before the start of the second half, Foster’s warm-up was accompanied by howls of derision from the Cardiff fans behind the goal.  He good naturedly kicked the ball into the crowd, which backfired when the game had to be stopped as the ball was thrown back on the pitch during play.  The first chance of the half fell to the home side, but Bacuna’s shot from distance was well over the target.  Watford’s first chance of the half came after some lovely passing between Hughes and Deeney, the shot from the captain was deflected just wide.  Pereyra then found his way into the referee’s book after a silly pull on Niasse.

Celebrating Deeney’s first (celebrations do tend to be blurred)

Cardiff made the first substitution replacing Murphy with Hoilett.  Cardiff had another chance to grab an equaliser but Bennett’s shot from distance was easy for Foster.  Watford threatened again as Doucouré played a lovely through ball for Deulofeu, but Etheridge was first to the ball.  At the other end, Mariappa came to the rescue diverting a dangerous cross from Paterson wide of the target.  On the hour mark, Deulofeu got the ball in midfield and started running.  As he was bearing down on Etheridge, I held my breath as he has had a number of similar opportunities in the past and has made the wrong decision, losing his nerve and running into a defender or the keeper, but this time he rounded the keeper and finished into the empty net to send the away fans wild.  While I was delighted that we had scored a second, there was a nagging feeling in the back of my mind as I remembered being in a similar position in the home game.  Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry for long as three minutes later Capoue latched on to a poor pass from Arter before playing a lovely ball to Deulofeu who chipped the keeper to grab his hat trick.  At this point, many of the home fans had seen enough so started heading home.  Warnock made a second substitution bringing Mendez-Laing on for Ralls.  The home side won a free kick in a decent position, but Hoilett blasted it into the wall.  Gracia’s first change was to bring Quina on for Pereyra, while Cardiff made their last substitution replacing Niasse with Zohore.

Celebrations of the fifth in time added on

Watford scored a fourth on 73 minutes after a period of sublime passing, Capoue played a wonderful through ball to Deulofeu who accelerated into the box and cut the ball back to Deeney to finish past Etheridge.  The players celebrated right in front of us and Deeney was rightfully (but decently) deflecting the plaudits to Gerry.  Deulofeu had a decent chance to score his fourth as he received a pass from Hughes but shot wide of the far post.  Watford then made their second substitution bringing Cleverley on for Capoue.  Irritatingly, the Hornets failed to keep a clean sheet as a corner led to a goalmouth scramble, the Watford defence failed to clear and Bamba was able to prod the ball past Foster.  The first booking for the home side went to Paterson who was penalised for pulling Quina to the ground.  The final Watford substitution came with five minutes to go and it was the hat trick hero, Deulofeu, who left the field to a standing ovation as he made way for Gray.  Cleverley almost scored the fifth from a free kick which looked to be curling in but hit the near post.  Cardiff had a chance to reduce the deficit further but Paterson’s shot from distance was so far over the bar that it sparked the observation that he was supposed to score a try first.  Into time added on and Watford finally scored a fifth goal as Hughes played the ball back to Deeney who scored to finish off a cracking game.  The scoreboard operator was clearly exhausted as the goal wasn’t acknowledged until the players were back in the centre circle ready for the restart.  The final whistle went sparking wild celebrations in the away end.  The players all came over to celebrate with the crowd and the songs and cheers went on for some time.  Deulofeu secured the match ball, despite an attempt by Doucouré to steal it.  As the others left him to it, he stood alone in front of the away fans while we told him he was magic.  It was a lovely moment.

Deulofeu taking the plaudits while ensuring the match ball is in sight

We walked back into town and headed for the real ale bar expecting it to be heaving with rugby fans, so were delighted to find that there were seats available and we could have our post-match analysis in comfort.  That was easily our best performance this year so far.  We played some lovely football and finally turned dominance in possession into a convincing win.  It was an excellent team performance and at various points during the game I declared my love for Cathcart and Doucouré.  I also thought Hughes had a decent game, he seems to be getting back to his best.  But the plaudits have to go to Deulofeu.  Troy was spot on in his post-match comments.  Gerard can be incredibly frustrating, holding on to the ball too long, making poor decisions and not making the most of the chances that he creates.  However, he never stops working and he continues to create those chances.  This was a reward for all of that hard work and both the players and the fans were delighted for him.  I hope that he treasures that match ball.

It was a tremendous performance.  Our first top flight hat trick since 1986.  What pleased me most was that, despite having a comfortable lead, we didn’t sit back, we carried on attacking, playing with flair and going for goal.  To score five at any level is impressive.  In the Premier League it is very special.

I am still pinching myself as I look at the table and realise that we have reached the magic 40 point mark (which is unlikely to be needed this season) and it is still February.  This is a season that will go down in history and I am loving it.

Winners in the South Oxhey Derby

Celebrating Forster’s goal in the U23 game

 

I was still at work when the draw for the fifth round of the FA Cup took place.  When Chelsea were pulled out of the bag to play at home, I was convinced that we would be the next to be drawn.  When the next ball was Man Utd, I celebrated almost as much as I did when we were paired with Portsmouth/QPR.  I was thankful that the office was almost empty at this point.  I would have been happy to play either team.  Both are clubs with passionate support and are great grounds to visit.  But QPR won the replay to set up what I am told is called the South Oxhey Derby.

But, before the visit to Loftus Road, I took the afternoon off work to travel to Finchley to see the U23s play Charlton.  As the U23 games are played in the afternoon, I haven’t managed to make it to the new venue, so this was a great chance to do so.  It was a gorgeous afternoon and I made the most of the opportunity to stand on the side of the pitch, although I had to shade my eyes to see the left hand goal.  It was a disappointing afternoon for the youngsters.  They went one down early on, but Forster got an immediate equaliser and it looked very positive until the visitors scored a second before half time.  Watford never looked like getting back into the game and Charlton scored two in the second half, one of which was a cracking shot from distance.  I left the Maurice Rebak Stadium hoping that would be the only defeat that I witnessed that day.

Lucky cup sea shells

Due to the pubs in the vicinity of Loftus Road nearly all demanding to see a QPR home ticket before allowing you in, our party met at a pub near Edgware Road in order for me to hand out the tickets.  You have no idea how many times I checked my bag to ensure that I hadn’t misplaced those precious tickets.  Having done my Stan Flashman bit and had a nice glass of Malbec, I was ready for the game.

Team news was that Gracia had made five changes with Gomes, Kabasele, Britos, Cleverley and Gray coming in for Foster, Mariappa, Cathcart, Doucouré and Deulofeu.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Janmaat, Kabasele, Britos, Holebas; Hughes, Capoue, Cleverley, Sema; Deeney and Gray.  This looked to be a very good side and one that should be more than able to beat QPR.   But this was a cup game so all bets were off.  It was also Gomes 38th birthday, so I was hoping that, having to work on his birthday, he would have something to celebrate.

After taking our seats in the upper tier, Pete, Alice and I retrieved the lucky shells that we had been given at Woking for a group photo.  These things are important.

Prior to kick-off there was a minute’s applause for Gordon Banks who passed away this week.  It has to be said that nobody waited for the referee’s whistle to start the tribute.

Birthday boy Gomes in front of an advertisement for Pepe’s Chicken on Watford High Street

The first notable incident of the game was a clash of heads between Britos and Smith.  Both players were down for a while, so it didn’t look good.  Thankfully, both recovered after treatment, Smith returning with a bandage around his head.  There was nothing even resembling a goal chance until the 24th minute and that was a horrible scramble in the Watford box that ended with Kabasele being hit in the face, thankfully he was able to recover and the ball was cleared.  QPR threatened again from a free kick, but Gomes emerged from the crowd to claim the ball.  Watford’s first chance came when Janmaat, unrecognisable due to a very severe haircut, broke into the box and tried to play a one two with Sema, which didn’t quite come off but the ball broke back to him and he hit a shot that flew just over the bar.  An ill-advised back pass led to Gomes conceding a corner, which he came out to punch clear, but it fell to Luongo who shot just wide of the target.  QPR had another chance to take the lead as a cross into the box was headed wide by Smith but the flag was up anyway, so it wouldn’t have counted.  Kabasele then came to the Hornets’ rescue blocking a dangerous looking shot by Smith.  With five minutes to go until half time, QPR had the best chance of the game so far as a sloppy pass from Holebas was intercepted by Freeman who ran upfield before flicking the ball to Wells whose shot had to be tipped around the post by Gomes.  Rather surprisingly, the Hornets took the lead in time added on at the end of the half.  Sema played a short corner to Holebas who crossed for Cleverley whose horrendous mishit turned into an assist as it found Capoue who shot into the far corner.  The celebrations of the travelling Hornets were joyous, but still not a patch on the celebratory run from Gomes.  I have missed seeing his goal celebrations this season.

Deeney and Gray in position at a set piece

So we reached half time a goal to the good after a half that had been short on excitement.  Watford had completely dominated possession, but had spent most of the half passing around the midfield without threatening the Rangers goal.  QPR had been more attacking, but they had also only managed a single shot on target.

The home side had a great start to the second half creating a couple of early chances, but both shots flew well wide of the target.  There was a let off for the Hornets as a terrible clearance from Kabasele went straight to Wells but his shot was wide of the target.  Sema then provided some entertainment, demonstrating silky skills on the left of the box before finally winning a corner.  The delivery was headed out but only as far as Cleverley whose shot was well over the target.  QPR made their first change on 71 minutes bringing Hemed on for Wells.  Watford had a great chance to score a second when Deeney played a lovely through ball for Gray who had rounded the keeper when he noticed that the flag had been raised, he put the ball in the net anyway.  The offside decision looked marginal at the time and television pictures suggest that the goal should have stood.  The first booking of the game went to Luongo for a foul on Sema.

Cleverley lines up a free kick

With 15 minutes remaining, Watford made a double substitution with Mariappa and Doucouré coming on for Sema and Gray.  Mariappa’s first act of the game was to get booked for a foul as he obstructed Freeman.   QPR made a second substitution bringing Eze on for Wszolek.  Watford threatened to increase their lead with a deep free kick from Holebas, but Kabasele could only knock it wide.  Each side made a final change with Quina coming on for Cleverley for the Hornets and Osayi-Samuel replacing Hall for Rangers.  The Rangers substitute went on a good run that was stopped by Doucouré who was booked for his efforts.  The professional foul was nearly in vain as, from the free kick, Furlong played the ball along inside the box to Leistner who really should have scored the equaliser, but managed to miss the target.  As the clock ran down to full time, Deeney gave us all a smile as he dribbled down the wing and ended up having to run around the lino in his efforts to keep the ball in (which he did).  The four minutes of added time passed without incident and the final whistle went confirming that the Hornets were through to the quarter finals.

As a game it wasn’t a classic, but in the cup all that matters is the result.  Watford were livelier in the second half and the introduction of Doucouré added a dimension that we had been missing.  But, discounting the disallowed effort from Gray, there was no on-target shot from either side in the second half.  So, in the end it looked like job done from the Hornets.  We haven’t been playing great football recently, but we are not conceding many goals and so are proving hard to beat.

We headed back to Baker Street for a celebratory glass of wine.  We are now in the quarter final of the FA Cup with a great chance to progress further given a favourable draw.  Sitting in the top 8 of the Premier League and now in the last 8 of the FA Cup, this is proving to be a very good season indeed.