Monday evening saw Watford visiting Bristol City for the second preliminary round of the Under-21 Premier League Cup. Since it was a fairly easy journey down the M4 after work, I decided to make the trip. The beauty of attending games like this is that you can park right outside the ground and take your pick of the seats, mine being a rather nice padded effort on the half-way line in the “premium” section. I was paying for my seat but there was some confusion among those in front of me who had complimentary tickets, but were still asked to pay a pound to get in. The explanation was that this was because it was an FA Cup game. How odd.
Despite being an U21 competition, the rules state that you are allowed to field up to three overage players and an overage goalkeeper, which meant starts for Gilmartin, Cathcart and Smith. The only academy scholar to start was Alfie Young. The City team was a mix of U-18s and U-21s. Watford’s starting line-up was Gilmartin, Doherty, Hoban, Cathcart, Young, Murray, Smith, Byers, Ikpeazu, Mensah and Jakubiak, which looked very strong on paper.
Watford started well. Mensah had a shot saved in the early minutes. He then won a corner which was taken by Murray and met by a flying header from Jakubiak which went wide of the target. For the home side, a short corner was played to Hall on the edge of the box but he also powered his shot wide. Morrell beat the Watford defence but shot over the bar. Ikpeazu dribbled along the top of the box to get into shooting position but his shot was weak and easy for the City keeper. Doherty intercepted the ball and played it out to Smith who played a chip into the box, but Ikpeazu couldn’t reach it. The home side had a good chance to take the lead with a free-kick on the edge of the box, but Morrell’s set piece was headed wide by a Watford defender. At the other end, Cathcart tried to release Mensah, but the through ball was just too heavy. Jakubiak was the next to threaten, but his shot flew across the goal.
The home side took the lead on 18 minutes as the Hornets failed to clear a low cross which travelled the width of the box to reach Wynter who knocked it past Gilmartin much to the disappointment of the half dozen Watford fans in attendance. A cross by Horgan was put out for a corner by Cathcart. Young lofted a ball into the box but it was gathered by Richards with Ikpeazu closing in. Morrell tried a curling shot but it was straight at Gilmartin. Ikpeazu managed to break through the City defence, but mis-controlled allowing Richards to gather. A free kick from Mensah was hit straight into the keeper’s arms. Watford had a very good spell of possession but chances were at a premium as every forward run was met by a resolute defender. On 39 minutes, Watford equalized with a lovely shot from Mensah that he curled just under the crossbar. The goal was particularly appreciated by Bernard’s girlfriend and her pal who were sitting in front of me. City could have hit back almost immediately as a dangerous ball was played through to Horgan, Gilmartin came to meet him leaving the goal exposed but, fortunately, the shot drifted wide. In the dying minutes of the half, Murray played a pass out to Mensah who curled a cross into the box, but it was just too far in front of Ikpeazu for him to shoot. At the other end the ball fell to Hall in space in the box, but his volley was ambitious and well off target. The last action of the half was a Watford free-kick in a dangerous position, but Murray’s delivery was disappointing, flying well over the bar.
Mensah had started the second half limping after being clattered a few times in the first period, so he was soon replaced by Dennon Lewis. City threatened as Hall crossed and Burns and Horgan leapt to head the ball but it eluded them both. Doherty played Ikpeazu in, he did really well to beat the defender, but his shot was easy for the keeper. At the other end, Hall had a shot deflected wide by Cathcart. From the corner, Vyner headed over the bar. For the visitors, Connor Smith played a clever back heel to Jakubiak, but the youngster’s shot was saved. On 70 minutes Cathcart was replaced by Charlie Rowan. Jakubiak really should have put the visitors in front as he beat the keeper, but the ball bobbled so he found himself with his back to the open goal and tried a back heel that agonizingly rolled wide of the far post. At the other end, a powerful shot from Morrell flew wide of the near post. Ikpeazu, who was playing his first game since a long injury lay-off had grown into the game and did well to skip into the box evading a couple of challenges but his shot was blocked by a defender.
Ikpeazu then played a through ball to Jakubiak, but the City keeper narrowed the angle so he shot just wide of the target. In a rare second half attack for the home side, Horgan played the ball through to Hall but Gilmartin was out to block and the flag was up anyway. Horgan threatened again with a shot that was just wide. Ikpeazu was crowded out as he went for goal when he probably should have passed to Lewis who was in space. An injury to Last forced City to make a substitution with Mafuta the replacement. Watford continued to press for the winner but a Murray free-kick eluded Ikpeazu. Then Lewis played a cross that was missed by everyone in the box. City also had a late chance with a corner that was headed over the bar. The final action of normal time was another Murray free-kick that Ikpeazu failed to connect with.
The home side dominated the opening exchanges of extra time as Horgan found Fry who was closed down before he could shoot. Gilmartin pulled off an excellent save to a shot from distance by Mafuta. For the Hornets, Ikpeazu broke into the box, beat a defender but overplayed the ball and it rolled through to the keeper. Substitute Ronan got on the end of a corner but hit his shot wide. Watford’s final substitution saw Folivi replacing Jakubiak. Burns was blocked by Doherty on the edge of the box earning the Watford man a yellow card. Then Gilmartin had to drop to save a low shot from Horgan. City had a great chance to take the lead early in the second period of extra time as a shot from Morrell cannoned back off the crossbar, the follow-up from Horgan was saved. But it was Watford who went in front soon after as Ikpeazu was bundled over in the box. He stepped up to take the penalty himself sending the City keeper the wrong way to break the deadlock.
The home side could have broken back almost immediately as Mafuta hit a belter of a shot that Gilmartin did well to keep out. City made a late substitution replacing Fry with Mattis. Batten was booked for a foul on Folivi as the Watford man attempted to break. Watford set up a defensive rearguard for the final minutes, but City were hopeful of taking the game to penalties as Burns went down in the box but the referee was no more convinced than I was of the merits of the penalty shout and the visitors emerged as winners.
We’d made heavy weather of it having the lion’s share of possession without making it count. Hoban had an impressive game in the centre of defence notable for his encouragement of the younger players. Mensah’s goal was a peach and Ikpeazu grew from a slow start to really take hold of the game once Mensah went off and he deserved his goal for his perseverance. All in all, a good evening’s entertainment.