Tag Archives: Will Hughes

Deprived of Sleep and Entertainment

A kind welcome in the concourse

I had to be on the East coast of the US for work on Friday.  Travelling overnight to attend a football match felt like old times as I did that frequently when I lived there.  I was thankful that the flight was on time and I managed to get a few hours sleep so didn’t feel too bad on arrival.  Before I went to sleep on the flight, I took one last chance to watch the Match of the Day highlights of the Liverpool game.  I needed that positivity before a trip to Selhurst Park.  I was home just after 9am, so had plenty of time to shower, change and pack my bag for the football before heading for South London.

Having taken the wrong exit out of East Croydon station, I was somewhat disorientated, but finally found the pub and was pleased to find Jacque and Richard already there, we were later joined by Mike.  As we were readying to leave for the game, Mike had a sudden realisation that he had not brought his match ticket with him.  He contemplated returning home and, hopefully, making it back for the second half, but after a few panicked texts, he secured a replacement and so was able to see the whole game.  Whether that was a positive thing is open to question.  On the platform waiting for the train to Selhurst, we met a very friendly and pleasant Palace fan who engaged us in conversation.  He was full of praise about our performance against Liverpool last week and far from confident about his team’s prospects for the game.  We were appreciative of the praise but also shared his lack of confidence regarding our chances.

Femenia takes a throw-in

Team news was that Pearson had made just the one enforced change with Pereyra replacing the injured Deulofeu.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Femenía; Hughes, Capoue; Pereyra, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.  While there were no ex-Watford players in the Palace team, they do have the lovely Ray Lew in their dugout, which means that I find it hard to wish them ill.

The first attack of note came from the Hornets as Hughes broke down the right and succeeded in reaching the penalty area where he was frustrated by a great tackle from Kouyaté.  Watford had a decent chance to take the lead after quarter of an hour when Doucouré beat a couple of defenders before shooting from a tight angle, but Guaita in the Palace goal was equal to his effort, Sarr latched onto the follow-up but his shot was blocked and deflected wide.  There was a rather strange incident as Hughes was fouled, but the ball broke for Sarr so the referee allowed advantage to be played.  However, Sarr was then flagged offside and, instead of bringing play back, the free kick went to the home side.  A baffling decision that was rightly protested by Watford’s players and fans, but the referee wasn’t moved.

Doucoure on the attack as Deeney and Capoue look on

The Hornets threatened again as Doucouré and Sarr broke forward while exchanging passes, but the resulting shots were blocked allowing the home side to break down the other end where Foster came out to head a lofted ball clear.  Watford had another chance to break the deadlock as Hughes cut inside and shot just wide of the far post.  The first chance for the home side came as Zaha found van Aanholt in the box but his cross was blocked by Foster and bounced off the Palace man for a goal kick.  It had been all Watford, so it was incredibly frustrating when the home side scored on 28 minutes after a counterattack, McArthur found Ayew on the edge of the box and he shot between two defenders and past Foster’s outstretched hand.  The defenders in question, Cathcart and Masina, really should have done better.  Kabasele had been down injured after a challenge during the attack that led to the goal, so VAR was invoked but the goal stood and, thankfully, Christian was able to continue after treatment.  The first booking of the game went to Femenía for pulling Zaha over.  Watford had a decent chance to hit back when Masina played a lovely ball over the top to Pereyra but he couldn’t position himself to take advantage and Guaita gathered the ball.  Zaha was then booked for a pull on Capoue.  The Palace man then went down very easily under a challenge from Hughes, which infuriated the Watford players.  The decision went against Zaha who was fortunate to avoid a second yellow.

Hughes readies to take a corner

So, we went into the half time break a goal behind to Palace’s only real shot of the half.  The Hornets were also unfortunate in the half time penalty shoot-out.  Although young Lucy from Watford was a star, scoring and impressing the commentator by celebrating with a cartwheel.

The first incident of note in the second half was a prolonged period of handbags after Capoue fouled Zaha.  There was a VAR check for a possible red card but, in the end, there were just cautions for Capoue and Kouyaté.  The game restarted with a free kick for Palace in a dangerous position which came to nothing as van Aanholt’s delivery was headed over by Ayew.  The next caution of the game went to Doucouré after pulling Zaha back.  Zaha was the next to create a scoring chance but Foster stood tall and the shot bounced off him.  The Hornets had a chance of their own as a free kick from Pereyra dropped for Deeney whose shot was blocked.  Then a lovely passing move from the Hornets finished with Pereyra shooting straight at Guaita.  There was another booking as Benteke was cautioned for a foul on Sarr having caught the youngster’s heel as he tried to escape.

Ignacio Pussetto

There was a half-chance for the Hornets as, from a Sarr cross, a mix up in the Palace defence almost allowed Hughes in but, eventually, Guaita gathered the ball.  Midway through the second period, Watford had the best chance of the half so far when Deeney tried a shot from distance that required a smart save from Guaita to tip it over.  There was another decent chance soon after when Sarr chipped the ball into the box for Doucouré whose looping header looked to be going in until Guaita pushed it around the post.  From the resulting corner, the ball reached Hughes whose shot from the edge of the area was blocked.  With 20 minutes to go, Hodgson made his first change, bringing Milivojevic on for McArthur.  The home side had a decent chance to increase their lead as Benteke tried a bicycle kick that hit the side netting.  With 15 minutes remaining, Pearson made a double substitution replacing Pereyra and Deeney with Pussetto and Welbeck.  The Hornets created a half chance as a long ball found Pussetto, who delivered a low cross for Sarr, but Guaita was the first to the ball.  Pearson made his final substitution bringing Gray on for Hughes, who left the field in front of the travelling Hornets and was warmly applauded.  There were five minutes of added time, but the only action of note was a chance for the home side to increase their lead as Benteke found Ayew, but Foster dived at his feet to avert the danger.

Masina takes a free kick

So, after the euphoria of last week, this was an unwelcome return to what has been the reality of most of this season.  It was a very disappointing game.  The Hornets had been the better team for most of the first half but, as so often this season, did not make the most of their chances and the home side scored after a counterattack.  Once they were ahead, Palace defended well and, apart from a brief spell in the second half, Watford never really looked like winning the point that their performance deserved.  Thankfully results elsewhere meant that we stayed out of the relegation zone on goal difference, but it felt like a wasted opportunity and, again, I worry that we won’t get the points that we need from the upcoming “winnable” games.

Another disappointment was the away crowd.  Last season, one of our party had made complaints when the gangway next to us had filled with fans who celebrated aggressively and caused injury to someone in our group.  The complaint had been referred to Croydon council, so we hoped to see an improvement in the stewarding on this occasion.  It was not apparent early in the game as a number of Watford fans started to take up positions in the gangway.  The stewards made some attempts to move these lads on, but most of their efforts led to complaints which meant that, for periods of the game, my view of one of the few sections of the pitch that I could otherwise see was blocked by stewards arguing with fans.  I have often said that I enjoy visiting Selhurst Park, but I realise now that this came from a time before our promotion when there were always a loads of spare seats in the away end and you could choose where to sit.  In those days I took up a place in the wooden seats at the back that were usually populated by those who wanted to stand and sing.  Nowadays everybody stands which means that, if you need to sit, you have no chance of seeing the game.  Added to that, even if you stand, if you are 5’6”, as I am, you won’t see a lot of the action

Our post-match analysis was to take place at Richard’s.  He lives in South London and he and his lovely wife had kindly invited us back for dinner and drinks.  When the football is as poor as it was on Saturday, a lovely evening with friends is all the therapy that you need.

 

Thrashing the Would-be Invincibles

Sarr about to escape the attentions of the Liverpool defence

As always when we have a late kick-off, my pre-match routine was completely messed up.  Due to the late finish time of the game and an appointment in Hertfordshire on Sunday, I had decided to stay over in Watford so I drove over and arrived at about 2:40.  Despite knowing that the kick-off was at 5:30, this seemed to be cutting it a bit fine in the event that the kick-off time had been changed back at short notice (I know!!)  But the lack of people in Watford shirts on the Rickmansworth Road convinced me that I hadn’t got kick-off time wrong.  I checked in to the hotel before walking to the West Herts and managed to get caught in a nasty hailstorm on the way, so was very glad to arrive in the warm and find the usual suspects at ‘our’ table.  I was greeted by a very apologetic Glenn, who had promised pork scratchings but arrived at the butcher to find that they only had scraps left.  He needn’t have worried as there was just enough and they were gorgeous, although it gave us another excuse to complain about Sky Sports.

We spent the afternoon cheering on the opponents of the teams around us and could have done without West Ham beating Southampton.  Liverpool came into this game looking to make it a record 19 Premier League wins in a row and to continue their unbeaten run in the league this season.  A couple of very optimistic Watford fans said that they fancied us to get something from the game but, based on our recent form, I couldn’t see us getting anything other than soundly beaten.  Richard was one who thought that we might get the win, but when he left early “to soak up the atmosphere”, we said our goodbyes as he wouldn’t be back in the West Herts after the game.  Knowing that he never comes back after defeats made his positive prediction appear rather shallow.

Masina and Hughes

Team news was that Pearson had made two changes, and what very welcome changes they were, as Femenía and Sarr came in for Dawson and Pereyra.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Femenía; Hughes, Capoue; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.

The game kicked off and the first chance fell to the Hornets as Deulofeu cut inside and shot wide of the near post.  The home side also created the next chance of note as Doucouré fed Deulofeu, but the shot was just over the bar.  The same players combined again soon after, this time Deulofeu played the ball back to Doucouré, whose shot was blocked by van Dijk for a corner that came to nothing.  Despite having a lot of the play, Liverpool’s first chance didn’t come until the 20th minute when Oxlade-Chamberlain chipped the ball over to Salah in the box, he was in a great position but could only find the side netting.  Just after the half hour mark, Deulofeu went down under a challenge from van Dijk.  It looked pretty innocuous at first and I had just shouted “Get up, Geri” when I saw the referee waving to the bench for medical treatment.  It was soon obvious that the injury was bad and, after treatment, he was stretchered off.  This was so sad for the lad, and for us, as he had been having a superb game.  He left the field to the sound of his name being sung from the home stands and was replaced by Pereyra.

Deeney and Lovren in the customary pose as Doucoure breaks through

Deeney could have been in trouble after a robust challenge on Alexander-Arnold.  Troy went over and helped the lad to his feet and the referee was happy that no action needed to be taken, but the Watford captain may have been a bit lucky there.  The visitors created a half chance as a cross reached Mané, but his body position was wrong and the ball bounced off his head.  As it happened, his position on the field was wrong too as the offside flag was up.  Sarr created a much better chance trying a shot from the edge of the area that was over the target.  In time added on, there was the joy of a superb tackle from Masina on Alexander-Arnold.  Tackles don’t get as much coverage as (even poor) goal attempts, but sometimes they are things of beauty and this was one of those.  Watford could have taken the lead in time added on at the end of the half when, from a free kick, Alisson made a mistake allowing Deeney in, but the Liverpool keeper recovered to make a save and Deeney could only knock the follow-up wide.

So, we reached half time with the game goalless.  Liverpool had most of the possession, but the Hornets had created all of the noteworthy chances.  It had been an impressive performance but, as so often this season, I just worried that we would regret being so wasteful in front of goal.

Etienne Capoue

The half time guest was Heiðar Helguson who was a man of few words but seeing some highlights of his time with us was just a joy.  As would be expected, he was given a tremendous reception and appeared to appreciate it.

The Hornets started the second half as they had finished the first as Pereyra played a lovely ball through to Sarr whose shot was kept out by a one-handed save from Alisson.  At the other end, there was a bit of pinball in the Watford box, but Foster was finally able to gather the ball.  The Hornets took the lead on the 53rd minute as, from a Masina throw, the ball reached Doucouré who played the ball back to Sarr who finished from close range sparking mad celebrations in the home stand.  I have to admit that, after last week, my celebration was slightly delayed while I assured myself that VAR wouldn’t intervene.  I normally have a chance to grab some sort of photo of the players celebrating.  On this occasion, we had only just stopped hugging each other as Sarr reached the centre circle for the restart.  Lovely as the goal was, it felt far too early in the game to have any confidence in the lead, Liverpool had plenty of time to strike back.

Celebrating the third goal

The Hornets had a decent chance to grab a second soon after when Deeney got his head to a Hughes free kick, but his effort was wide of the target.  Watford did not have long to rue that miss as Hughes played a lovely back heel down the line to Deeney, he released Sarr who bore down on goal before lifting the ball over Alisson.  It was another lovely goal and the Liverpool players looked rather shocked.  I did get a photo of the celebration for this one, but my hands were shaking so much that it is just a yellow blur.  Klopp made a change before the restart bringing Lallana on for Wijnaldum.  The visitors had a chance to hit back almost immediately with a free kick in a dangerous position, but the delivery from Alexander-Arnold was woeful and flew well wide of the near post.  Hughes had a chance to make it three for the Hornets, but his shot hit Sarr and was cleared.  Klopp made a second change replacing Oxlade-Chamberlain with Origi.  Liverpool had a great chance to pull a goal back when a ball into the Watford box was headed clear to Lallana who hit it well, but his effort rebounded off the outside of the far post.  Sarr should have grabbed a hat-trick when he got on the end of a cross from Masina, but he tried to hit a volley and ended up mishitting the shot which flew wide of the near post.

More players join the celebration of the third goal

The third goal came from a Liverpool mistake as Sarr intercepted a backpass from Alexander-Arnold, he coolly held the ball up before playing a gorgeous pass to Deeney who lofted a beautiful shot into the empty net.  It was a fantastic goal and the celebrations were suitably manic.  Thankfully, this time I got some lovely shots of the players celebrating.  But, when my brain engaged again, all I could think was “Tranmere”.  As those around me were singing rather rude things about “invincibles” I was muttering that there was just under 20 minutes to go so it was far too early to be celebrating.  With 10 minutes remaining, Klopp made his final substitution replacing Firmino with Minamino.  Meanwhile I was trying to keep calm, but my heart was racing.  Sarr then had a superb chance to score a fourth goal as he received a lovely through ball from Capoue but the shot was just wide of the target.  That was his last action of the game as Pearson replaced him with Pussetto.  I have to say that I was a little disappointed that he was denied the chance to get a hat-trick, but it was a sensible decision given the lack of game time that he has had of late.  With 5 minutes to go the Rookery was rocking with a chant of “Can we play you every week,” while I was still shouting “too early”.  Liverpool had a chance to pull one back as Salah crossed, but it was an easy catch for Foster.  Then van Dijk tried his luck from distance, but his effort was well over the bar.  Pearson made his second substitution on 89 minutes replacing Doucouré with Chalobah.  All eyes were on the fourth official as he held up the board indicating that there were 4 minutes of added time.  Those four minutes were mostly played in Watford’s half, but every poor pass from the visitors and the odd catch from Foster was loudly cheered.  It must have been the 93rd minute when I finally believed that we would win the game.  The final whistle went to joyous scenes in the home stands.

Masina prepares for a throw-in

After the celebratory hugs, we all just stood looking incredulously at each other.  I don’t think any of us could believe what we had just witnessed.  Michael in the row in front suggested that was possibly the best game we have ever played.  It was certainly up there with the best.  As we gathered in the concourse, Rose got a message from Amelia (her season ticket holding daughter who was unable to make the game) saying that last time we beat Liverpool 3-0 I had cried, and she hoped that we were all crying with joy.  We assured her that we had been.  The atmosphere in the concourse was a little muted.  Usually after games like this the concourse is noisy as songs are being belted out.  On this occasion, I think everyone was a little stunned.

We emerged onto Occupation Road to find a huge crowd, a sign that nobody had left early.  I left my family at the school car park and bumped into a West Herts regular with whom I waxed lyrical about the performance.  As I entered the bar the first person that I saw was Richard.  My enquiry as to what he was doing there was met with a broad smile and the offer of a drink.  The post-match analysis was joyous.  We all agreed that every one of our players had been magnificent.  The stats showed that Liverpool had enjoyed 71% of the possession, but the Watford defence had restricted them to only a single shot on target.  Deeney, Deulofeu and Pereyra had all been disappointing at Old Trafford, but had been superb in this game with even Pereyra working his socks off.  The performance of Femenía showed how much we had missed him.  What was really impressive was that, after two months out, he looked as though he had never been away.  Similarly with Sarr, who frightened the life out of the Liverpool defence, the only disappointment had been that he didn’t get his hat trick.  The midfield three of Hughes, Capoue and Doucouré had worked tirelessly and been incredibly solid.  Sometimes it is the silly things that give you immense pleasure and one of the memories that I will take from this game involved Capoue.  I love him as a player, but he can blow hot and cold.  Watching him when he is enjoying himself is utterly joyous and there was a point in the game when he sprinted from one side of the pitch to the other and back again, frustrating the Liverpool midfield and it was one of those moments that has me clapping my hands in glee.

Confirmation that it really happened

At the end of the day, we had beaten the team who are running away with the League.  Their recent performances have not been perfect, but they have continued to grind out results and were proving very hard to beat.  The fact that this Watford team not only beat them but did so convincingly was just amazing.  Although there is still a part of me waiting to wake up to find out that we have lost 6-0.

I was back in the hotel just in time to see the highlights on Match of the Day.  Any fears that the pundits would focus on how poor Liverpool had been were dispelled as they gave our lads the credit they deserved for their performance.  I was also gratified to get a message from a Scouse friend who congratulated us on a brilliant performance commenting that we were impressive all though the team.

Obviously, one win doesn’t keep you in the division, but we went on a great run after our impressive performance at Anfield.  I can only hope that this even more impressive performance at Vicarage Road gives the lads the confidence that they need to start playing with the quality that they know they have and getting the results that they deserve.

What a difference a week makes.  I love football again.

 

United we Fell

Masina preparing to take a throw-in

It was an early start for this game, and I couldn’t believe how many people were on the Central Line at 7:30 on a Sunday morning.  The journey to Manchester was uneventful.  Our usual group were going to be split between two pre-match pubs, one nearer the city centre, the other near the ground.  I met up with Pete at Piccadilly and, since the bar in Salford Quays wasn’t opening until midday and we were somewhat earlier than that, we headed to Deansgate to meet Graham and the Happy Valley Hornets.  Graham had arrived early and gone for breakfast.  While wandering in the area, he encountered a group of young men in hoodies and quickly realised that it was the lads out for a constitutional after their breakfast.

Our usual haunt didn’t open until midday, so an alternative had been chosen.  A quick look at TripAdvisor had shown a large number of one star reviews.  When we arrived it seemed OK, apart from the Man United memorabilia, but it went quickly downhill.  For what appeared to be a local pub, it was a bit surprising that the beer was at London prices.  But the clincher was when the barman, while clearing plates, knocked a pint of beer over the daughter of one of our group, claimed that she had done it and refused to provide a replacement.  It was a relief to take refuge in our usual haunt, I don’t think that we will be going back to the White Lion.

The decision to go to the more central pub looked even more misguided when I couldn’t fight my way on to a tram.  When I finally found a space to get on to one, it was the least crowded that had passed through so at least it was a relatively comfortable journey.

Doucoure on the ball

Knowing how restrictive the bag policy is at Old Trafford, I had packed carefully, only bringing things that I needed, but I still had a couple of things in a small bag.  As I passed through the first phalanx of stewards, I asked one of them if I could take my bag in.  He said that I could, and I passed through the next layer of security until I reached the one just before the turnstiles.  At that point I was told I couldn’t take the bag in.  I asked if it was OK to empty the bag into my pockets.  They were fine with that but said that I couldn’t take the actual bag in even though it was a nylon drawstring bag that could be tucked into a pocket.  At that point I gave up trying to reason and went back through the security cordons to the bag drop in the car park opposite.  There I found a young lad with an even smaller drawstring bag telling the attendants that he didn’t have the £5 they were demanding to leave his bag there.  I said that I would pay for him.  The woman behind the counter kindly said that we could put our bags together so that I would only have to pay once, and I had to point out that I didn’t know this boy so we wouldn’t be returning together.

I was livid when I got into the ground.  My mood wasn’t helped when I told my story only to find that two of our party had played the elderly card and brought in two bags that were considerably larger than mine and Mike had a Swiss army knife in his pocket!!  So much for their stringent security.

Doucoure and Masina

Team news was that Pearson had made just the one change with Hughes in for Chalobah.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Hughes, Capoue; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney.

Prior to kick-off, there was a minute’s silence for Harry Gregg, survivor and hero of the Munich air disaster, who had passed away during the week.  The silence was impeccably observed.

Watford had an early chance to take the lead as a defensive mistake allowed Deeney to escape, he broke into the box, but delayed taking a shot giving Shaw time to get back and make the clearance.  It was a golden chance that went to waste.  Troy had another chance to break, but Fred, while lying on the ground, managed to make a tackle allowing United to break and Greenwood to take a shot that was straight at Foster.  The Hornets created another decent chance as Deulofeu crossed for Doucouré, but the Frenchman could only find the side-netting.  Watford had a decent spell without testing the keeper, the next effort came from the home side and was a cross-cum-shot from James that Foster punched clear, it fell to Wan-Bissaka who shot into the side-netting.

Dawson on the ball as Capoue looks on

Watford threatened again as Doucouré went on a good run, his cross was knocked down to Deeney whose shot flew wide of the far post.  At the other end, a low shot by Shaw from the edge of the area was straight at Foster.  It has to be said that, at this stage of the game, the United fans were uncharacteristically noisy.  Martial went on a tremendous break but it came to nothing as his shot was well over the target.  In the away end, a new song got an airing as the travelling Hornets appropriated “Tequila” from Tranmere, but the climax of the song became a shout of “Masina”.  It was rather catchy.  Doucouré then went on a run and tried his luck, but de Gea got a hand to the shot and pushed it out for a corner.  Then Pereyra played in Masina, but he was slipping as he crossed and it was easily gathered by de Gea.  At the other end, James cut inside and shot well wide of the target.  The home side threatened again, this time James played the ball back to Fred just inside the area, but his shot was well over the bar.  Capoue then provided some light relief winning a free kick with what could only be described as a swallow dive.  It was elegant and effective, and the travelling faithful sang his name with some gusto.  Just as we thought we would make it to half time with no score, James played in Fernandes, Foster came out to meet him and took him down.  The United man made the most of it, but it was an obvious penalty.  Fernandes took the spot kick himself, taking a stuttering run up before sending Foster the wrong way and putting the home side ahead.  It could have been two after a mistake from Pereyra gave Fernandes another chance to score, but his shot was just wide of the target.

We were a little unlucky to be behind at half time, United had been poor but, as so often this season, Watford had not taken their chances.

Doucoure and Deeney celebrate the goal that never was

The Hornets created the first half-chance of the second period as Doucouré crossed for Deeney, but Shaw intervened to put the ball out for a corner.  From the corner, Deeney turned the ball in for what we thought was the equaliser.  We had celebrated, the players had celebrated, but then I saw Martin Atkinson in discussion with Harry Maguire who was indicating that he thought there had been a handball.  After consulting the VAR, Atkinson indicated upfield and I was momentarily hopeful until I realised that he was indicating a goal kick.  Apparently, the ball had come off Dawson’s arm in the build-up, so the goal didn’t stand.  The Hornets then won another corner but, on this occasion, the delivery from Hughes was easily caught by de Gea.  The home side threatened again as James played a through ball to Greenwood, whose shot across goal was put out for a corner.  Martial scored United’s second just before the hour mark.  Foster blocked the initial shot, but the Frenchman picked up the rebound and cleverly lofted the ball over Foster and in from a tight angle.  They had a decent chance for a third as Greenwood broke into the box and tried a shot that Foster saved with his feet.  The first booking of the game went to Cathcart for a foul on Martial.  United threatened again as Fernandes crossed for Maguire who headed wide.

Capoue, Masina and Deeney race upfield

With 20 minutes to go, Pearson made his first substitution, bringing Sarr on for Pereyra.  The youngster went on a run almost immediately, but his cross was put out for a corner that came to nothing.  With 15 minutes to go United were three up after Deulofeu lost the ball, Greenwood broke forward and played a one-two with Fernandes before finishing off the underside of the crossbar.  It was a quality goal and you couldn’t see any way back for the Hornets.  Pearson made a second substitution bringing Welbeck on for Deeney, who had had a disappointing game.  The Hornets had a great chance to pull a goal back as Hughes fed Deulofeu but the shot rebounded off the crossbar.  With ten minutes remaining, United made a triple substitution replacing Fred, Greenwood and Martial with McTominay, Chong and Watford old boy, Ighalo.  Pearson also made a final substitution bringing Cleverley on for Doucouré.  Ighalo immediately created a chance after picking up a poor header from Masina, that was meant for Foster, he rounded the Watford keeper but took the ball too wide and could only hit the outside of the post.  I was glad that he had missed as a goal against us from Ighalo would have been very hard to take.  Watford had one last chance to reduce the deficit when Deulofeu took a free kick that flew over the wall but was an easy catch for de Gea.  United could have scored a fourth when Matic released Chong who cut inside but he curled his shot just wide of the target.

Hughes prepares to take a free kick

The final whistle went on a comprehensive defeat for the Hornets.  Unlike the Brighton game, I did applaud the players off and there was a surprisingly good atmosphere among the travelling Hornets.  The Masina-Tequila song was getting a late airing, but the volume increased considerably with a rendition of “Ighalo-oh” for old times’ sake.  Odion seemed to appreciate the gesture as he turned and applauded the Watford fans.

On leaving the ground, I went to pick up my bag, which looked pitiful sitting on the shelf.   We then headed for the bar in Salford Quays to drown our sorrows.  On the way, Richard (wearing Watford gear) was called upon to give directions to some people wearing United scarves.  Bl**dy tourists!  The bar was much more hospitable than our pre-match venue and, after a nice glass of wine, something to eat and a good moan about the football, I felt a lot better.

It had been a disappointing afternoon, especially as United didn’t play particularly well.  The Watford performance had been better than the previous week, particularly in the first half, but once the goal was disallowed, all the fight seemed to go out of the lads and the result was never in doubt.  There were a lot of subpar performances and the wisdom of playing both Deulofeu and Pereyra was questioned.  They can both be luxury players and, in a scrap, as we are at the moment, we can’t afford that.  Pereyra, in particular, had an odd afternoon seeming to wander all over the place leaving Dawson exposed.  One of the topics of conversation was the Winter break.  Given the staggered nature of it, it doesn’t affect all teams equally.  Oddly, the Watford players looked rather rusty after their week off, while the United players, who should have been fatigued after a game in midweek, seemed a lot fresher.

With the visit of Liverpool next week, it is hard to see when the upturn will come and I am beginning to believe that the season will finish with the team being relegated.  At least if Leeds do get promoted it will mean we won’t have to go there. Every cloud and all that!

Despite the Disappointment, This is What We Do

The bust in the Glyndebourne room

A late kick-off on the South Coast played havoc with my sense of order.  It didn’t help that, due to engineering works, the timetable from Windsor had changed just for the weekend.  Thankfully, I managed to catch the train that I was aiming for and, when changing trains at Clapham Junction, I bumped into Jacque.  Others had been more organised than me, so she had arranged to meet Mike on the Lewes train.  By some brilliant planning (actually, a lot of luck), when the train pulled in we found that we had judged perfectly and were standing right by the doors to the coach in which Mike was sitting so were able to make the journey south together.

When we reached Lewes, we headed for the pre-match pub, which seems to have been under different ownership every time we have visited.  The new owners have introduced a Spanish feel to the menu and a new décor that I wasn’t totally enamoured with, apart from the lemur wallpaper in the bathrooms that was absolutely gorgeous.  Due to the late kick-off meaning a very late arrival home after the game, a couple of us had decided to stay the night in Lewes.  I had booked a room above the pub, so went and checked in.  I was staying in the Glyndebourne room in which the accessories included a “bronze” bust and a selection of opera glasses.  The bathroom was quite magnificent, including a deep bath and a shower that the landlady assured me was very easy to operate, even though there were multiple controls including one that turned it into a sauna.  I have to say that I wasn’t convinced that I would be able to remember her instructions by the next morning and was a little disappointed that the built-in seat wasn’t designed for me to take a rest while showering.

A kind welcome in the Ladies’ loo

As we got ready to leave for the game, I was in a foul mood and couldn’t work out why.  It wasn’t until the game got underway that I realised that it was pre-match nerves that had kicked in due to the importance of this game.  Earlier in the afternoon, it had been noted that Lewes FC were at home to Cheshunt at the wonderfully named Dripping Pan.  There was a suggestion that we should attend the game prior to heading for Falmer, but we would have had to leave halfway through the second half and that seemed a little rude.  As we waited for the train, we could hear cheers coming from the ground , we had assumed that this meant that Lewes were pulling ahead, but it turned out that Cheshunt were banging in the goals and ended the day as 6-1 winners.  In hindsight, maybe we should have stayed there after all.

Team news was that Pearson had made just the one change with Hughes in for Chalobah.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Hughes, Capoue; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney.

As I retrieved my distance glasses from my bag in order to watch the game there seemed to be something awry.  I couldn’t work out why my vision was impaired until I realised that one of the lenses had popped out.  Thankfully, it was in the glasses case, but I couldn’t replace it, so decided to dispense with the glasses for the afternoon.  It has to be said that, of late, there hasn’t been a lot worth seeing.

Doucoure celebrating with the bench (honest!)

The game kicked off and the home side created a very early chance as Kabasele failed to get his head on a cross from Trossard, the ball reached March whose shot was blocked for a corner.  March was involved in the next move, swinging in a cross that was met by Murray at the back post, but his header was easily caught by Foster.  The first vaguely meaningful attack from the Hornets came as Pereyra played the ball out to Doucouré who crossed for Deulofeu, but the shot was weak and easily claimed by Ryan.  By this time, my blurred vision was starting to irritate me and I decided that being able to see out of one eye was better than nothing, so I put on the damaged glasses just in time to see Capoue intercept a pass from Mooy, the ball fell to Doucouré who ran upfield and shot across Ryan into the corner.  It was a gorgeous goal and it was interesting to see Abdoulaye immediately run to the bench to celebrate with Pearson and the coaching staff.  The home side looked to hit back as a cross was headed out by Mariappa and the ball dropped to Mooy who shot well over the bar.  At the other end Doucouré found Deulofeu who pulled the ball back for Hughes whose shot was deflected for a corner.  The first booking of the game went to Schelotto for a foul on Deulofeu.  From the other end of the pitch, the card looked rather harsh as Geri had run into his opponent as he tried to clear the ball.  I had thought that we were fortunate to get the free kick, so certainly wasn’t expecting a card.

Deulofeu takes a free kick

The Hornets threatened again as Deeney knocked Duffy off the ball and played in Pereyra, but the cross went begging.  At the other end a cross from Trossard towards Murray in the box was cut out by Cathcart.  There were shouts for a penalty when Schelotto went down in the box, but the referee wasn’t interested.  As half-time beckoned a cross was deflected back to Foster by Pereyra, Ben caught the ball slightly dramatically and slid on his knees across the box giving a cheeky smile to the fans behind the goal.  This loses a lot in the telling, but was one of the most entertaining moments of the half.

So, we reached the break a goal to the good.  It had been a pretty dull half of football, although I was missing the action at our end of the ground as my view was restricted due to the people standing up in front of me in a shallow stand.  There was a child behind me standing on his seat and I have never been so tempted to do the same.

The welcome return of Will Hughes

The first chance of the second half went to the home side.   March was fouled by Pereyra on the edge of the box, Groß stepped up to take the free kick and his delivery was met with a strong punch from Foster.  The home side threatened again as a poor clearance came back to Schelotto, whose shot across goal looked dangerous, but there was no Brighton player on hand to turn it in.  The first substitution came on 57 minutes as Maupay replaced Burn for the home side.  The Hornets had a decent chance of a second goal when Deulofeu broke into the box, but his shot was poor and flew wide of the near post.  Potter then made a second change, bringing Alzate on for Groß.  There were then a couple of cautions for the visitors.  First, Hughes was booked for a robust tackle on Maupay.  Then Mariappa for a foul on March.  On both occasions, the home side had won free kicks in a dangerous position, but Foster was not tested on either occasion.  Even so, with our weakness against set pieces, this was causing me some concern.  With 15 minutes to go, Brighton made their final substitution as Jahanbakhsh came on in place of Schelotto.  There was some concern for the visiting fans as Masina was down for a while receiving treatment.  Holebas was stripped off ready to take in his place, but Adam recovered and was able to continue.  Brighton looked certain to grab the equaliser when Mooy broke into the box and shot goalwards, but Foster stuck a leg out and made a terrific save.  Sadly, it would prove to be in vain as, a minute or so later, Jahanbakhsh put in a cross which Mariappa powered past Foster.  The defender’s action was inexplicable.  There didn’t appear to be any Brighton players close by and Foster could have gathered the ball had Mariappa not intervened.  It was incredibly frustrating, and the travelling faithful were now bracing themselves for a defeat.  Pearson made his first change on 82 minutes replacing Pereyra with Pussetto.  The second change for the Hornets came soon after as Welbeck came on for Deulofeu.  The game was fizzling out but, with a minute to go, the home side had a chance to grab a winner when Jahanbakhsh crossed for Trossard, but he could only flick the ball wide.  There were 5 minutes of added time, but they passed without incident and the game ended in a draw.

Masina passes to Deulofeu

The fans in the away end had been getting increasingly irate during the second half and, as the final whistle went, a couple of fans were venting their anger at the players.  Normally I would dismiss the ranting, but these lads sit behind me in the Rookery every game and are absolutely lovely.  They had just seen enough, and I had a lot of sympathy with their viewpoint.  It is not often that I don’t applaud the players at the end of a game, but this was one of those occasions.

It took an age to get on the train back to Lewes.  On arrival, the London contingent headed home, while those of us from the suburbs and further afield headed for the pub and it was a relief to be sitting with a glass of wine in order to reflect on the afternoon.  It had been an awful game of football and, yet again, we had been the architects of our own downfall.  There was one moment of quality in the game, which was the gorgeous goal from Doucouré.  Although the late effort from Mooy and the save from Foster deserve a special mention.  Other than that, it was really turgid with Watford sitting deep against an ineffective Brighton attack.  It really hurt that we had lost two points due to a pointless own goal, especially as I am very fond of Mariappa, but I don’t know what he was thinking when he blasted that ball into the net.  At the end of the day, we remain in the bottom three and, while we are not yet adrift, it is hard to see where the next points are coming from.

I’m not sure that these would have helped at the game

The decision to stay over after the game turned out to be a good one as the anger and frustration about the day’s performance was supplanted with a discussion of how you can’t enjoy the highs anywhere near so much if you haven’t experienced the lows.  In the 40 years that I have been following the Hornets, I have experienced both, but I still marvel at the number of amazing days out that I have had while following a small, unfashionable club.

We all questioned why on earth we spend our Saturdays travelling to an event that gives no guarantee of any pleasure or entertainment.  The wonderful company is a major reason but, at the end of the day, this is what we do, and I don’t see any of us finding a replacement hobby any time soon.

Ending the Decade on a High

A festive Hornet shop

I left home bright and early aiming to be at the West Herts at midday.  Unfortunately, a signalling problem at West Drayton meant that the train that I had planned to catch from Slough was cancelled and I ended up on a train that had made an unscheduled stop due to congestion and kindly opened its doors to let the stranded passengers on.  It was slow progress and I finally arrived in the West Herts nearly three hours after leaving home and just in time to see Don leaving for the ground.

Most of our usual crowd were gathered at ‘our’ table with the addition of Jacque’s colleague, Adam, who is a Villa fan and was not relishing the prospect of the game, while the Watford contingent were fired up with some newfound optimism after the last couple of results.

The decision about what to have for lunch is usually quite simple but, on this occasion, I was in the horns of a dilemma.  I do love the jerk chicken but, for some reason, I had ordered sausage and chips before the Man United game, so that now qualified as the lucky lunch and had to be my order.

Capoue barking instructions

My sister had been unable to buy a ticket for the game, having left it late before finding that it was (surprisingly) sold out.  Luckily a friend wasn’t using hers and kindly offered to lend it to her.  We had arranged to meet Pete outside the Red Lion to pick up the spare ticket and I had handed my ticket to my sister so that she could sit with her daughter, so I left the West Herts not having a ticket for the game on my person, which induced a ridiculous mini panic until I spotted Pete and had Julie’s ticket in my hands (thank you, Julie).

Team news was that Pearson had made only one change with Chalobah making way for Doucouré on his return from suspension.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Capoue, Hughes; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.

I tried to take a spare seat in my usual row to sit with the family, but the lad who usually sits there turned up just after kick-off so I belatedly made my way to the back of the Rookery to sit with Pete and experience a different (elevated) view of the field of play.

Celebrating Troy’s first goal

The Hornets started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead as a corner from Hughes was headed on by Deeney to Kabasele whose shot was stopped by a reaction save from Heaton in the Villa goal.  Then Deulofeu played a cross-field ball to Sarr, whose shot was blocked by a defender for a corner that came to nothing.  There was little more action of note until the 26th minute when Villa launched a counterattack, Hourihane crossed for Wesley who looked to have scored with a header from close range, but a brilliant save from Foster kept him out.  The visitors had a shout for a penalty when Wesley went down in the box following a challenge by Cathcart.  It was an age before the VAR check came up on the big screen and there were loud cheers when the referee indicated that we were to play on.  The Hornets fashioned another chance when a free kick from Hughes was punched clear by Heaton, but only as far as Doucouré whose shot was well over the bar.  Soon after, a free kick from Deulofeu was met by the head of Sarr but the ball ended up on the roof of the net.  Then Mariappa released Sarr who played a lovely low cross into the box but there was no Watford player to meet it, so it was easily gathered by Heaton.  Hughes was the next to try his luck with a shot from distance, but it was well over the target.  A lovely cross-field ball from Capoue found Sarr who cut into the box, but his shot was deflected for a corner.  Watford nearly broke the deadlock from the set piece when the ball dropped to Deeney, but he hit his shot straight at Heaton.  Watford finally took the lead in the 42nd minute when Villa gave the ball away, Doucouré tried a shot that was parried by Heaton to Deeney who put the ball under the Villa keeper and into the net.  So the Hornets went into half time with a narrow lead.  It was well deserved as, apart from the early shot from Wesley, it had been all Watford.

Gathering for a corner

The half time guest was Bill Shipwright, who played for Watford in the 50s so was way before my time and I couldn’t hear the interview.  There was also the added bonus of Christian Battochio who was on ticket duty for the 50/50 draw.

Pearson was forced to make a substitution at the break.  Hughes had picked up an injury towards the end of the first half and was replaced by Chalobah.  Villa also made a change bringing El Ghazi on for Jota.  The Hornets started the half in a positive manner with a shot from Doucouré that was deflected for a corner.  Watford threatened again as Capoue crossed for Sarr whose shot was blocked.  The first booking of the game went to Mariappa for a foul on Grealish.  Chalobah then had a chance to extend the Watford lead with a shot from distance that cleared the bar.  Disaster then befell the home side as Mariappa was shown a second yellow for a supposed foul on former Watford loanee, Lansbury.  From my vantage point it appeared that Lansbury ran into Mariappa (who doesn’t have a bad bone in his body), but pleas to the referee fell on deaf ears and the Hornets were reduced to 10 men with over half an hour of the game to go.  Pearson immediately made a change and you had to feel for Chalobah who was sacrificed for Dawson.

Sarr and Capoue are under there somewhere

Just as the nerves were starting to jangle, Deeney ran into the box and was brought down by Luiz.  It looked a bit soft from behind the goal but, having seen it later from another angle (as the VAR did), it was nailed on as Deeney was shoved to the ground.  There was a delay before the spot kick could be taken as Targett had been down injured.  There were some complaints from Villa players that the Hornets had played on around him, but they had had the opportunity to put the ball out of play when he first went down and had not done so, so their complaints were unwarranted.  Targett was replaced by Guilbert before the penalty could be taken.  Then Troy stepped up and blasted the ball down the middle to put the Hornets two goals up and ease my nerves somewhat.  The nerves were properly calmed on 70 minutes when Deeney released Capoue who played a gorgeous cross for Sarr who sped into the box to meet it and shot past Heaton.  My heart sank when VAR was invoked for a possible foul in the build-up and I begged for that gorgeous goal not to be disallowed.  After an agonising wait, the referee pointed to the centre circle and I punched the air again.  On 72 minutes, GT’s face came up on the big screen adorned with both Watford and Villa badges and the great man’s name was sung with gusto as I wiped a tear from my eye.

Capoue, Doucoure and Femenia prepare for a free kick

The visitors made a final change bringing Kodja on for Lansbury.  The referee’s card was out again as Capoue was booked for an altercation with Grealish.  On 77 minutes, Villa had their first on-target shot of the half as Hourihane tried his luck from the edge of the area, but his shot was straight at Foster.  There was another booking for the Hornets as Sarr was cautioned for trying to stop a Villa free kick.  When they finally took it, the ball was played out to Grealish whose shot flew wide of the near post.  The final change for the Hornets saw Masina on to replace Cathcart, who had been treated for an injury shortly before.  Grealish had another chance to pull a goal back with a shot from outside the area but, again, his effort flew wide of the near post.  There were two late bookings, one for each side.  First Deeney for bundling Luiz over.  Then Grealish for kicking the ball at Sarr as he lay on the ground.  The booking for the Villa captain was not before time as he had been behaving petulantly all afternoon.  There was a touch of handbags at this point, but no more cards were shown and the final whistle went on a very satisfying win for the Hornets.

Capoue readying to take a corner

I had rather enjoyed my afternoon watching the game from the gods.  It is nice to have a different perspective and it was noisier up there with the contribution of the few from the 1881 that moved just behind us.  My neighbours were rather lovely too.  A man with his two small daughters, which I always love to see.  Needless to say, when the crowd rose to their feet, which they did less often than they do further down where I usually sit, the father would lift the girl next to me off her seat so that she could see and I made myself useful by putting the seat down for her to stand on.  We had it down to a fine art by the end of the game.

Back to the West Herts and we were all smiles, apart from poor Adam who was very gracious in defeat admitting that they deserved nothing from the game.  It had been a tremendous performance from the Hornets who had run the show all afternoon.  The game took place less than 48 hours after the end of the United game and yet the players were all working very hard for the win and were resilient when down to 10 men.  Deulofeu worked his socks off and was unlucky not to have more influence on the game.  Femenía was tremendous again in the left back position.  Deeney was back to his battling self and was thoroughly enjoying answering the jeers of the Villa fans with his goals.  But it was Sarr who deservedly won man of the match for a wonderful performance.  It took him a while to learn how to play the English game, but he is now showing why the Pozzos paid all that money for him.  A month ago we felt doomed, now we are only 3 points away from safety and our prospects for the new year are looking increasingly positive.

So, following the last game of this decade, I can’t help but reflect on the past 10 years.  We started 2010 with Malky in charge and an unhappy ownership who were struggling for money.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, we then had the horror of Bassini’s reign, and I am so thankful that there were still good people on the board and among the staff who kept the club going.  The arrival of the Pozzos had some concerned about foreign ownership, but they have built the team and the infrastructure into one that can compete in the Premier League while still maintaining the feel of a community club and for that I will be eternally grateful.  While the start to this season was dreadful, we go into 2020 with a spirit of optimism and I look forward to more wonderful adventures over the next 10 years following my team.

A Boxing Day Draw Against the Blades

Tony Currie Stand named after a player who impressed for both clubs

It has been a while since we had to travel any distance on Boxing Day, so it was with some disappointment that I noted that the eagerly anticipated trip to Sheffield United was to be played on Boxing Day.  Most of our usual away crowd decided to give the game a miss, but my sister and brother-in-law decided that they would go and offered to drive, which made me very happy indeed.

Having spent Christmas Day with Rose and her family, I left theirs bright and early to drive to Cate and Nigel’s.  My lovely sister had sent me on my way with a care package of turkey sandwiches and sausage rolls, which was much appreciated.

The M1 was busy, but there were no hold ups and we made good time.  We made one brief stop at services on the way and were delighted to see that our arrival coincided with that of the Watford supporter coaches, so I said a brief hello to Don before we set off again.

Caught on camera before the game

We parked up in the city centre and headed to the usual pub to find that it was deserted, so we had our choice of tables.  The Boxing Day menu on offer was various varieties of chip butty (one with cheese) and a couple of pies.  Given that we would need something to eat on the journey home, we decided to keep our sandwiches for later and have one of their pies.  When our lunches arrived, it turned out to have been a great choice as the pie was a decent slice cut from a large homemade pie accompanied with chips, mushy peas and gravy.  There was a bottle of Henderson’s relish on the table which I declined to try, although I overheard some friends at another table being informed that not adding the relish to their meal was grounds for being thrown out of the pub.

The big question mark over team selection was whether the arrival of Troy Deeney’s new son on Christmas Day would mean that he was absent on paternity leave.  Thankfully, when the team came through, he was included, with Pearson having made only the one (enforced) change from the Man Utd game with Chalobah replacing the suspended Doucouré.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Chalobah, Capoue; Deulofeu, Hughes, Sarr; Deeney.

We arrived at the ground in plenty of time and I headed to the other end of the stand for a chat with Don.  While I was there, a lovely steward came around to make sure that all in the disabled area were OK.  We complained about the weather as it was grey and wet, but she pointed out with a smile that we were in the North now and it is always raining.

Hughes lines up a free kick

In preparation for kick-off, the flag wavers took to the pitch.  It has to be said that some of them looked rather small for the flags that they had been given and there was a struggle to keep them in the air.  Alice had just commented that it was 3 minutes to three and the players ought to be out on the pitch when the announcement was made that kick-off was to be delayed for 10 minutes for unspecified safety reasons.  This meant that those poor children with the oversized flags had another 10 minutes to wave them.  It seemed unnecessarily cruel but they were made of stern stuff.  It was probably at this time that we were caught on camera as we received photos from our nieces of us looking rather puzzled on their television screen.

Finally, we could see the players in the tunnel on the big screen and they took to the field.  Prior to kick-off, the first bars of “Annie’s Song” were played and the home crowd gave a moving rendition of “Greasy chip butty”.  A magnificent piece of music.

Chalobah congratulates Deulofeu on his goal

The home side started brightly with an early attack from Stevens who broke into the box before being stopped by a brilliant tackle from Kabasele.  The first attempt on goal came after 10 minutes with a snapshot from McBurnie that was met by a great save from Foster, the rebound dropped to McGoldrick but a tackle from Kabasele diverted the ball for a corner.  McBurnie had another chance from a throw-in but his header was gathered by Foster.  Watford’s first attack of note came as Femenía hit a cross-cum-shot towards Sarr, but the youngster was unable to connect and the ball was gathered by the Blades’ keeper, Henderson.  The home side had another decent chance as McGoldrick met a cross from Norwood with a side foot that flew over the bar, but the flag was up, so it wouldn’t have counted.  The home side had the ball in the net after Basham crossed for Fleck who turned it in from close range.  It looked as if Fleck took the shot knowing that the flag was up for offside and it appeared that the defenders had stopped playing, but the decision went to VAR and we were rather concerned, as the home crowd who were in line with the scorer had been angrily protesting the decision.  Thankfully, that was a partisan reaction and VAR confirmed that the goal would not stand.  In the stands I was rather enjoying a song to the tune of Last Christmas indicating that we were giving our hearts to Nigel Pearson (oh yes).  Watford took the lead in the 27th minute and the goal was a thing of beauty as a clearance from Foster was headed on by Chalobah into the path of Deulofeu who raced upfield and finished past Henderson to give the travelling Hornets the Christmas present that they had all been waiting for.  Sadly, the lead did not last long.  Hughes made what looked like a decent challenge on Baldock, but the United man went down in the box and the referee pointed to the spot.  The view of the challenge from our angle was such that it was a while before a number around me realised that a penalty had been given.  The decision was confirmed by VAR and Norwood stepped up to score the spot kick.  Into time added on and the Hornets had a chance to regain the lead, but Deulofeu’s free kick flew just over the bar.

Watford hero, Foster, takes a goal kick

It hadn’t been the most exciting half of football, but I had enjoyed our goal.

The half time entertainment was a children’s relay that was enlivened by the lads running towards our stand who set off on the whistle not realising that they were supposed to be on the second leg.  When they ran back and received the baton (football) one of them set off in the wrong direction.  At this point I decided to head for the concourse and found my way out of the row blocked by people transfixed by the action on the pitch who muttered angrily at my interrupting their viewing.

There was a change at the break for the Hornets.  Sarr had been down injured for some time towards the end of the first half after an argument with the advertising hoardings.  He was obviously injured, so I was really irritated when he was booed by the home fans as he tried to continue.  The management allowed him to finish the half, but he was unable to continue so was replaced with Pereyra.  I was not happy at this turn of events.  The first chance of the second half fell to the home side when a clearance from Hughes rebounded to Lundstram whose shot was over the target.

Troy discussing issues with the referee

Watford had made a poor start to the half and we did ourselves no favours when, from a throw, the ball was given away to the opposition, thankfully no harm was done as the shot from Fleck was terrible and flew wide of the target.  McGoldrick then had a good chance to put the home side in the lead but his shot rebounded off the post and the flag was up for offside anyway.  Watford then threatened as Deulofeu crossed for Deeney at the near post, but the ball was deflected for a corner.  The home side made their first substitution on 63 minutes replacing McBurnie with Mousset.  The substitute almost made an immediate impact with a cross for Fleck whose shot was stopped by a stunning save from Foster.  I am ashamed to say that, when they were raving about the save on 5Live on the way home, I struggled to recall it.  My notes state that the shot was straight at Foster and that he pushed it for a corner.  Sadly, it was one of those that looks tremendous when you are behind the goal but rather pedestrian from low down at the other end of the ground.  Either that or I need to replace my distance glasses.  The Hornets should have done better from a free kick when the delivery from Hughes bounced off a defender towards Cathcart, but the Ulsterman knew nothing about it and the ball hit his face and went out for a goal kick.  There was a much better chance at the other end for the Blades as a low shot from Stevens was met by Foster who turned it into the side netting.  Deulofeu was then booked for arguing with the referee, I think the ref was sick of him as he had been complaining all afternoon.

Watford subs Gray and Dawson

Again the Hornets should have made more of the opportunity when Pereyra did well to keep the ball after battling past a defender, his pass bounced off Deulofeu to Deeney who seemed surprised that the ball reached him, so could only manage a soft shot that was easy for the keeper, but the flag was up for offside anyway.  That was Troy’s last involvement in the game as he was replaced by Gray.  The Hornets won a free kick on the edge of the box when Pereyra went down dramatically after a challenge by O’Connell.  Deulofeu chipped the ball towards the goal, but his effort was just wide of the post.  The home side had a free kick of their own, which was a decent effort but was blocked at the far post.  From the corner, Egan headed goalwards but Mariappa was on the line and headed clear.  The final change for the Hornets came as Dawson replaced Chalobah, who was booked for time wasting as he dawdled from the field.  Gray had a great chance to break the deadlock as he broke into the United box but, after doing all the hard work, he couldn’t get the shot off and the ball ran out of play.  The fourth official indicated four minutes of added time and we were counting the seconds.  Watford created a couple of chances in injury time.  First from a free kick in a dangerous area, but the delivery from Hughes was poor and missed the target.  Then Pereyra fed Gray who tried an audacious back heel that was easily gathered by Henderson.  The final whistle went to sighs of relief in the away end as we had been under the cosh for most of the second half.

Chalobah, Deulofeu and Pereyra talk tactics before a free-kick

It has to be said that this was a less enjoyable game than those against Liverpool and Manchester United, but it had been a battling performance and, despite the disappointment of conceding a dodgy penalty, we were happy to go home with a point.  Earlier in the season we would have collapsed after conceding the penalty.  This time we hung on bravely, although we lost a lot of our attacking threat when Sarr went off.  Sheffield United are flying high in the division for a reason, they are very well organised and play as a team and a draw at their place was very pleasing indeed.

On the way back to the car, we met a friendly United fan who gave us directions out of town.  I must admit that I much prefer games against teams like this when the opposition fans are passionate locals rather than tourists in brand new shirts and scarves who are only there to tick a box.  The marketing of the Premier League has certainly been to the detriment of the match-going experience.

The drive home in the rain was greatly improved by listening to our own Emma Saunders on 5Live while finally enjoying the turkey sandwiches.

We finished the day off the foot of the table, which was very pleasing and, while there is still some way to go, our prospects look a lot more positive than they did a month ago and that makes me very happy indeed.

 

The First Home Win of the Season Comes in Style

Deeney and Capoue waiting for the ball to drop

Sunday games are always odd, but my hopes that the journey would be quieter than usual was soon dispelled when the fast train to London pulled in to Slough and was so packed that some were left on the platform.  I managed to get on, but it was not a comfortable journey.  For some reason, when I reached Euston I had forgotten who our opposition were so, when a friend boarded the train with a group of youngsters who were clearly not Watford fans, it was a while before I realised who they “supported” and then regarded them with the contempt that I have for those who choose a team based on their results rather than any connection to the community.

The West Herts had opened early so was busy when I arrived.  Our party was somewhat depleted by Christmas invitations, but those who were there were strangely optimistic after last week’s showing against Liverpool.  I left for the ground earlier than usual and headed for the 1881 bunker, which was packed.  I was only there to drop off some tins for their foodbank appeal and was very pleased to see the table stacked with bags of food donated by fans.  I entered the stadium by the Rookery entrance at the GT end of the ground, so was able to buy my programme from Doreen Pym.  Just like the old days.  I still miss the Bill Mainwood Programme Hut.

Team news was that the Hornet line-up was unchanged from the Liverpool game.  So, the starting XI was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Capoue, Hughes; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.

Joao Pedro introduced at Vicarage Road

Prior to kick-off, João Pedro, who had arrived from Fluminense to a great fanfare during the week, was presented to the fans.  He held up the no 17 shirt that he will wear.  I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the boy, as he arrives to an incredible weight of expectation.  I am very glad that Heurelho Gomes is still on our books as this will be another adoptive son for him to take under his wing.

New manager Pearson was also welcomed but, having had his day in the sun before the Palace game, he made do with a wave from the dug-out.

The visitors created an early chance as James broke down the wing before finding Martial in the box, but he shot wide of the target.  Watford’s first half-chance came as Deeney picked up a misplaced pass and found Sarr whose cross into the box was blocked and cleared.  At the other end, a curling shot was easily gathered by Foster.  Then Femenía played a lovely through ball to Deulofeu whose cross was blocked for a corner.

Mariappa launches a throw-in

Watford had the ball in the net when Deulofeu’s delivery was dropped by de Gea and Doucouré turned the ball home, but the celebrations among the Hornet faithful were cut short as the keeper was adjudged to have been fouled.  The home side continued to threaten as Deulofeu went on a great run before finding Deeney, but the shot was blocked by Shaw.  United had a great chance to take the lead when a lucky ball fell for Martial who played in Lingard, but the shot cleared the crossbar.  I was briefly distracted by the sight of a red kite flying above the stadium.  There are a lot of kites where I live, but it still gives me joy every time I see one.  The first caution of the game went to Capoue for a rather benign foul on Lingard.  Almost immediately Shaw was booked for holding back Sarr.  The Hornets had a great chance to take the lead after a lovely passing move led to a great cross from Femenía which was met by Doucouré whose header was just wide of the target.  The Hornets had one last chance to take the lead in the first half with a cross from Sarr towards Deeney, but Troy was crowded out and the chance went begging.

So we reached half time with the game goalless and no shots on target, but some very promising play from the Hornets.

Sarr celebrating his goal

The half time guest was Neil Cox, who was asked about his experiences during a similarly trying time  and was very positive about our prospects.  I hadn’t realised that he and Neil Ardley are now the management team at Notts County.  Neil was also on hand to perform the on-pitch presentation of the award from the FSA to our wonderful Supporter Liaison Officer, Dave Messenger.  Dave is a tremendous advocate for the fans and will do anything to help, so this award was very well deserved indeed.

Six minutes into the second half and, suddenly, all was right with the world again.  A free kick from Hughes was met by Sarr who tried to hit the top corner, de Gea looked to have it covered, but the ball went through his hands and hit the net, sending the Rookery into raptures, apart from two rather gloomy blokes sitting just behind me.  The visitors had an immediate chance to break back, but the header from McTominay was straight at Ben Foster.  Instead, a foray by Sarr into the United box was stopped by Wan-Bissaka and the referee pointed to the spot.  It appeared to be a nailed-on penalty, but I was still holding my breath while the VAR check went on.  “Decision Penalty” had to be the best news of the afternoon.

Celebrating Troy scoring the penalty

It was a while before Troy was able to take the spot kick, so he amused himself by supping some of de Gea’s energy drink and ignoring any gamesmanship that was going on behind him.  When the whistle finally went to indicate that the penalty could be taken, he paused before taking his run up and blasting the ball down the middle as de Gea dived the wrong way.  It was a brilliantly composed penalty from Troy and I suddenly believed that we could win this game, despite there being 30 minutes left on the clock.  McTominay again tried to reduce the deficit but, again, Foster blocked the shot.  The first substitution of the game came just before the hour mark as Greenwood replaced James for the visitors.  At this point we were rather distracted by the sight of a cushion covered in a knitted Watford cover that was being used by a woman two rows in front.  It was a thing of great beauty and we were all very envious.  The Hornets had a chance to increase their lead when a corner from Capoue was cleared only as far as Hughes, but his shot was well over the bar.  The visitors made another change bringing Pogba on for Lingard, nothing for the Hornets to worry about there (gulp!!)  The visitors had a chance to break back following a corner, Rashford put the ball back into the Watford box, but the header from Greenwood was dreadful and well wide of the target.

This cushion inspired envy in our section of the Rookery

Watford had a chance to increase their lead further as Deulofeu found Sarr in the box, but he waited too long to take his shot and it was blocked, the ball came back in for Deeney, but he mishit his shot and the chance was gone.  Nigel Pearson made his first substitution with 20 minutes to go when he brought Chalobah on for Doucouré.  United won a free kick at an acute angle to the right of the Watford goal, Rashford went for goal but Foster punched clear.  Solskjær made his final substitution replacing McTominay with Mata.  The Hornets threatened again as Deulofeu battled his way into the United box, his shot was blocked, a follow-up effort from Deeney effort was also blocked.  At the other end, Pogba tried a shot from distance, but it was an easy catch for Foster.  Watford made a second substitution as Capoue was replaced by Pereyra, presumably as he was on a yellow card.  Another chance for the Hornets as a free kick was cleared to Femenía, whose shot was on target, but de Gea was able to make the save.  The visitors had a half chance from a corner as Mata’s delivery was met by the head of Maguire but his effort was straight at Foster.  United should have pulled one back with 8 minutes to go, but Pogba’s curling shot was saved by Foster.  There was another dangerous looking attempt from the visitors as Greenwood tried to lob Foster, but the ball flew over the bar.  With the clock running down, Pearson made a final change replacing Sarr, who had been magnificent, with Success.  With a minute left on the clock, Rashford tried a shot from close range which Foster blocked with his legs.  As the fourth official lifted the board to indicate the added time, I found myself celebrating the fact that it was only 3 minutes.  Into time added on and Martial cut inside and shot goalwards, but Foster was able to make the block.  United had a final chance to spoil our clean sheet when Cathcart took Rashford down on the edge of the box.  Mata stepped up to take the free kick, but it was a dreadful effort that flew well wide of the near post.

Man of the match, Deeney, after scoring the penalty

The Watford fans had been noisy all afternoon, but the cheers at the final whistle were rapturous. As the game was being televised, there was a big announcement of the man of the match that was given to Troy Deeney who then had to be interviewed for the television.  As the players did a lap of the ground to thank the fans, Kabasele came over and gave his shirt to a young child at the front of the Rookery.  While all this was going on, I had kept my eye on Pearson who had enthusiastically congratulated every player and stood and waited for Troy to finish his TV commitment before hugging him and then retreating to the dressing room.

Back in the West Herts, the smiles were wide and we all seem to have fallen in love with football again.  While discussing all that was good in the game, every player came in for some praise.  I have to say that, while Deeney was given the plaudits from the broadcaster, my award would have gone to Hughes who was everywhere and gave the United players no time on the ball.  Sarr was excellent again and Deulofeu was a menace even though his decision-making has me screaming with frustration (while knowing that if it was better he wouldn’t be playing for us).  My sister had observed during the game that she was looking at these famous names on the United shirts while not seeing performances that matched those reputations.  A lot of that was down to the way that our team played.  There was great quality in our play, but it was the hard work that made the difference.  The United players were given no time or space to play and that made the difference.  Pearson has only been with Watford for a short time, but he has instilled a discipline in the team that seems to be making a difference and the future appears to be much more positive,

Happy Christmas to all of my readers.  I hope you have a wonderful time and an extra belated Christmas present on Boxing Day.

 

A Surprisingly Fun Visit to Liverpool

Nigel Pearson and Craig Shakespeare in the Watford dug-out

This was to be Nigel Pearson’s first match in charge, and I have to say that I had enjoyed reading social media during the week.  Pearson is clearly well liked by his colleagues and former players and the comments from Leicester fans showed that he is held in very high esteem in those parts.  As if that wasn’t enough, I must admit to cheering when Craig Shakespeare was confirmed as Assistant Head Coach.

As one of my oldest and dearest friends lives on Merseyside, I travelled up on Friday afternoon to spend the evening with them.  But the early kick-off meant an early start from theirs and it did not bode well for the afternoon when I found myself caught in a hailstorm on the way to the station to catch the train into the city.

Despite information indicating that the pub wouldn’t be open until 11, the doors had opened before my arrival and there were already some familiar faces inside.  Our party gathered, but a delayed flight from Amsterdam and delayed trains at Milton Keynes meant that two of our usual group were not going to make kick-off.  After a swift pint or two, we headed to the ground.

Mapps, Sarr, Doucoure (and Mane) in the sleet

The buses to Anfield had returned to the stop opposite Doctor Duncan’s and it was noted that there had been long queues there since about 10:30.  We left the pub at a reasonable time but the length of the queue meant that, by the time we reached the front, the steward was telling us that we were on the last bus and it was already leaving later than planned (12:10).  Having estimated that the bus would take 20 minutes to get to Anfield, I was getting rather tense at the late departure and Pete, sitting next to me, was becoming very apologetic about having had a second pint.

Team news for Nigel Pearson’s first match in charge was that he had made two changes from the Palace game with Mariappa and Hughes coming in for Masina and Pereyra, who were both out with injuries.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Capoue, Doucouré; Deulofeu, Hughes, Sarr; Deeney.  There had been rumours in the pub that, due to the two midweek games that Liverpool were facing, they would play a much weakened team, possibly packed with youth players.  When the Liverpool team came through, that couldn’t have been further from the truth and I started to feel very nervous indeed.

The bus arrived at the ground with 10 minutes to spare and, to my great relief, I found myself in the stand just as the game kicked off.

Ben Foster launches a free kick

Our seats were located quite high up in a corner of the ground.  The sun was very low over the opposite stand and, with a lot of tall people in front of me, I could see little of what was going on and absolutely nothing at our end of the ground.  So, I was aware that there had been some early possession from the home side, but hadn’t seen any action (or heard any reaction from the crowd) that suggested anything resembling a goal chance.  On 6 minutes, Sarr broke forward and played a lovely ball across the Liverpool box, but nobody was there to turn the ball in.  Quite early on there was a chant from around us of “How sh*t must you be, it’s only 0-0.”  My heart sank until I heard someone shout that it was a terrible song and we should be positive.  Another voice spoke up in support of that view and my faith in our travelling support was restored.  Goal chances were few and far between until a little flurry at the midpoint of the half.  First for the home side when Henderson broke into the box and shot over the bar.  Then Hughes won the ball in the midfield, advanced and shot just wide of the target.  The first caution of the game went to Hughes who was booked for a foul on Henderson.  There was little excitement on the pitch but, over the tannoy, we were told to ‘stand by for Operation Anfield exercise’ and the tension in the air was palpable.  But the exercise came and went and we were none the wiser.

Hughes and Deulofeu line up a free kick as Kiko looks on

The home side had a shout for a penalty when Mané found Salah in the box and the Egyptian took a tumble, but the referee waved play on.  Watford then had a half chance when Deeney headed the ball down to Doucouré, but Van Dijk was on hand to make the clearance.  The home side had a chance from a corner, but Alexander-Arnold’s delivery was easily claimed by Foster.  With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Watford should have taken the lead as Capoue played the ball back for Doucouré who miskicked horribly so failed to get a shot in when it looked easier to score.  To add insult to injury, the corner from Deulofeu was poor which allowed Mané to claim the ball and escape upfield before finding Salah whose shot curled past Foster.  At this point, bizarrely, there was a mass exodus from the home stand to our right.  There were still 8 minutes to go to half-time, but the lure of the concessions clearly trumped watching the match.  Watford had a gilt-edged chance to break back before half time when a shot from Deulofeu was saved by Allison, but he pushed it straight to Sarr in the box.  Unfortunately, the youngster’s mishit was even worse than Doucoure’s.  Henderson was the next to go into the referee’s book after pulling Deulofeu back.  Liverpool had a great chance to grab a second when Mané broke into the box, but Kabasele made a superb save to stop him.  So, the half finished with the Hornets a goal down, but it has to be said that we were very unlucky to be behind.

Andre Gray somewhat outnumbered

Watford had the first chance of the second half as Sarr broke into the Liverpool box, but Allison was able to make the save.  At the other end a shot from Salah was blocked by Kabasele.  Liverpool thought they had scored a second goal when Mané headed home, but the VAR decision was that the goal would not stand.  There was no explanation in the ground of why the goal had been disallowed, but it seemed the forward was deemed to be offside.  Deulofeu had a great chance to draw the Hornets level when he found himself with only Allison to beat, but the keeper was able to block the shot.  Sarr had been tormenting the opposition all afternoon and the next player to fall victim was Milner who was booked for tripping him up.   Liverpool were forced to make a substitution due to an injury to Wijnaldum who was replaced by Robertson.  The Hornets had a great chance to draw level as Capoue played a lovely ball over the top for Deeney, but the Watford captain could not apply the finishing touch.  Then Sarr broke into the area and was sent tumbling by Van Dijk, but the referee was unimpressed.  At the other end, Firmino hit a low shot, but Foster was down to make the save.  Another chance came and went for the home side as Salah broke into the box, but Kabasele was in close attendance and able to turn the ball back to Foster.  Then Salah found Firmino in the box, but it came to nothing as Foster was out to make the save.  With 20 minutes to go, Klopp made a second substitution replacing Shaqiri with Oxlade-Chamberlain.

The wonderful Hughes lines up a free kick

The home side threatened again when a cross found Firmino, but the shot was weak and easily gathered by Foster.  Pearson then made his first substitution replacing Deeney with Gray.  The Watford defence were in action again as a cross from Chamberlain was repelled by the head of Mariappa.  At the other end, another promising move came to nothing when Gray tried to release Sarr, but the touch was heavy and Gomez was able to clear.  A decent pass from Gray went begging as Doucouré hadn’t read the ball, but the Liverpool defence were asleep and, in panic, Van Dijk almost turned the ball into his own net but, instead, it went out for a corner.  On this occasion, Deulofeu’s delivery was decent but he could only hit the post.  Watford were fighting to get back on terms and should have done better when a free kick from Hughes was cleared to Sarr, but the shot was well wide of the target.  Then Sarr played the ball back to Doucouré whose shot was dreadful and cleared the bar.  That was Abdoulaye’s last action of the game as he was replaced by Quina.  At the same time Origi came on for Firmino for the home side.  The Liverpool fans were heading for the exits, so a good number of them will have missed the second goal and it was a disappointing one to concede as the Hornets failed to clear a ball into the box and Salah flicked home.  There was a final chance for Liverpool to extend their lead as Mané broke into the box, but he shot straight at Foster.

The magnificent Christian Kabasele

The final whistle went to cheers from all sides of the ground.  While the travelling Hornets enthusiastically applauded the players, I was very pleased to see Pearson telling his players to go over and applaud the fans.

It is strange to feel so positive after a defeat, but the performance had been very encouraging and we felt very unlucky to have lost.  Given the relative positions of the two teams at each end of the table, this game was much closer than it should have been and, but for the terrible finishing from the Hornets, this could have been an upset.

Sarr was a joy to watch.  He is now showing us why Gino Pozzo paid a club record fee for him.  The Liverpool defence were clearly scared of him as evidenced by the balls being thumped into the stands.  Hughes and Kabasele were also magnificent, their reputations are growing with each game.

The game coincided with a gig from one of my favourite artists, Ian Prowse, who, with his band Amsterdam, was playing his traditional Christmas gig in his hometown.  A number of us had bought tickets in the hope that this would give us some enjoyment from the day.  The early kick-off meant that we had a long time to kill between the game and the gig and this was spent on a crawl of some of the most attractive pubs in Liverpool.  During this, Mike continued to wear his Watford top and was approached by many locals (reds, blues and whites), all of whom congratulated us on our performance, with the Liverpool fans saying how much we had scared them.  It is always good to hear such a positive reaction from opposition fans.  Despite being bottom of the table, the hope has returned.

P.S.  The gig was magnificent and Ian Prowse now has a number of new fans among the travelling Hornets.

 

No Points, but Some Positive Signs

A nice welcome from our hosts

I worked at home in the morning before heading into London to catch the train to Leicester.  There had been problems on the line earlier on, so my arrival was slightly delayed, but I was still in the hotel in time to call in to my last meeting of the day and was in the pub before 5:30.  Our party was severely depleted with only Pete and I making the journey.  The pub was also pleasantly empty so we were able to have a couple of drinks (I moved on to wine from the beer) and something to eat in relative comfort.  As we headed to the ground, I began to question whether the game was going ahead as when we reached within 5 minutes of the stadium, there were no other football supporters to be seen.  As we got slightly closer, the other fans appeared.

In the past, I have had some very unpleasant experiences with Leicester stewards, but I have to say that the woman who performed the search at the turnstile was very friendly and pleasant.  Once inside, I decided to try to go and see Don in the disabled area.  This was a somewhat risky endeavour as a previous request to a steward to do this a few years ago was met with the response that I would be arrested if I stepped on to the perimeter around the ground.  At the time, I was with a friend who is a serving Police officer who was more patient than I would have been with the steward in question.  The woman that I spoke to on this occasion was much nicer and let me through.  I hadn’t realised when I made the request that the disabled fans were located in with the Leicester crowd.  I wasn’t wearing colours at the time, but still restricted myself to a quick hello, before making a rapid retreat.  How awful for the disabled fans.

The rainbow laces arch

With the departure of Flores, U23 coach, Hayden Mullins, was in charge of the first team for this match.  Team news was that he had made just the one change from the defeat to Southampton with Deeney returning to the starting line-up in place of Holebas, who had picked up an injury.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Mariappa, Cathcart, Femenía; Hughes, Capoue, Doucouré, Sarr, Deulofeu; Deeney.

It was lovely to see Troy leading the team out, it has been far too long.  The Premier League arch (or whatever it is) was coloured in keeping with the fact that this was the rainbow laces game, a stand against homophobia in football.  Although, given the silly boots that the players wear these days, rainbow laces seem terribly outdated.  Or am I overthinking this?  The other thing that caught my eye before kick-off was Femenía changing into a long-sleeved shirt.   Roy Clare would never have stood for that.

Ben Foster takes a free kick

The home side had an early attack as Vardy broke forward and cut the ball back for Pérez whose shot was over the target, but the flag was up anyway.  The Watford fans were on form with an early chant of “Brendan Rodgers, he’ll walk out on you.”  There was a very promising attack from the Hornets as Sarr raced forward with Deulofeu alongside him, he played in the Spaniard who got the ball tangled up in his feet before running in to a defender and the ball went out for a corner that came to nothing.  At the other end Barnes exchanged passes with Maddison before shooting from a tight angle, from where he could only find the side netting.  A nice move from the Hornets finished with Sarr finding Deeney just outside the box, but the shot was blocked.  Leicester threatened again when Barnes broke into the box, but Foster was able to block the shot.  On 38 minutes, the home side appealed for a penalty as Vardy went down in the box.  The referee was having none of it and booked the Leicester man for simulation.  However, in the VAR era, that means nothing, so we had to wait while the VAR check was done which confirmed the on-pitch decision, although those watching the live stream were not convinced.  A promising break by Sarr stopped when he was taken down by Söyüncü who was booked for the foul.  Deulofeu took the free kick which flew wide of the far post.  Watford should have taken the lead just before half time when Deulofeu played the ball back to Hughes, who was in an acre of space, but his shot flew wide of the target.  We were baffled when a goal kick was awarded as the shot must surely have taken a deflection.  Sadly, it transpired that the deflection was off Deeney.  The home side also had a great chance just before half time, but Vardy was unable to get the ball under control and Cathcart was able to usher the ball back to Foster.  So, we reached half time with the game goalless and somewhat lacking in incident.

Deeney and Sarr in the Leicester box

Leicester made a substitution at the break bringing Praet on for Pérez.  The home side won an early free kick when Söyüncü was tripped by Doucouré, who was booked for his trouble.  The delivery dropped to Söyüncü whose shot was over the bar.  Barnes broke into the box, but Foster dropped to block the shot.  Leicester won a penalty in the 53rd minute as Masina fouled Evans.  The arguments from the Watford players were impassioned and protracted, but VAR upheld the decision and Vardy beat Foster to give the Foxes the lead.  The Hornets were almost in more trouble as the ball reached Fuchs in a dangerous position, but Cathcart was able to intervene and turn the shot wide of the target.   Leicester threatened again as Vardy crossed the ball in for Barnes, but Masina did well to put it out for a corner.   Watford tried to hit back as Sarr broke and crossed from a dangerous position, but the cross wasn’t high enough and was headed clear by Söyüncü.  Leicester made a second substitution replacing Tielemans with Choudhury.  Watford won a corner and Hughes stepped up to take it.  He played it short to Deulofeu who returned the ball, Will crossed for Cathcart who flicked the ball goalwards, but it was an easy catch for Schmeichel.  Mullins made his first substitution replacing Deulofeu with Success. Then Justin came on for Barnes and was greeted with chants of “scum” from those that pay more attention to these things than I do.  Surely he should have been lauded for escaping Luton.  Watford made two late changes with Quina replacing Hughes and Gray on for Deeney, who had managed 87 minutes.  There was five minutes of stoppage time during which the Hornets finally had their first shot on target with a shot from Quina from outside the area that was an easy catch for Schmeichel.  But it was the home side who grabbed a late goal as Maddison broke forward and beat Mariappa before shooting past Foster.  It was a cruel end to the game.  I felt very sorry for Don and my other friends in the disabled enclosure as they were surrounded by cheering Leicester fans.  But, after the negativity in the crowd on Saturday, fair play to the travelliing Hornets who were singing “Watford til I die” and “I love you, Watford, I do” at the tops of their voices.

Mariappa, Deeney and Cathcart

At the final whistle, there was a decent away crowd left in the ground and, despite the result, they warmly applauded the players off the pitch.

Pete had made a quick getaway in order to catch the last train home, so I was left alone for the post-match analysis.  I have to say that I felt a lot happier than I did on Saturday.  It had been a much more positive performance overall both on the pitch and in the stands.  I was particularly pleased to see the players still fighting for an equaliser in time added on at the end of the game.  Sarr was a joy to watch, his speed was clearly worrying the Leicester defenders who were resorting to lumping the ball into row Z.  At the back, Masina was very impressive and was unlucky to give away the penalty.  It was also great to see Troy back.  He didn’t do a lot, but his presence gives the team a lift.  So, all in all, there was much to like in a performance against a very good team.  Maybe I shouldn’t write off this season just yet.

Quique’s Last Stand (Again)

Sarr and Doucoure waiting for a ball into the box

A 5:30pm kick-off in Southampton meant a later than usual departure from home.  The train journey, while easy enough, did require four changes in order to get to the pre-match pub.  The penultimate leg was subject to delays due to problems at Clapham Junction, so I spent more time than was desirable sitting in the cold on Basingstoke station and, on boarding the train to Southampton, it was clear from the animated conversations and the cans of Fosters that I was now on  a “football special”.  I met up with the rest of our travelling party at Southampton Airport Parkway and, having missed the hourly connection to St Denys, we piled into a taxi.

As we entered the pub of choice, there was a large group of Watford regulars gathered at the bar.  After greeting them, we headed for a table at the back.  The pub had a decent menu, so I was rather disappointed that, on a matchday, they only offered hot dogs, burgers, chips and peas.  I have to say that my disappointment was misplaced as the hot dog was excellent and it was served with proper chips, so we left for the game replete and ready for whatever the evening would bring.

Our route to the ground took us on a path alongside the River Itchen.  We have definitely been to evening games here in the past, but clearly not in the Winter as the path was incredibly dark.  Still, we soon emerged and saw the lights of the stadium.

Deulofeu looking animated at a corner, Holebas taking it in his stride

Our seats were at the back of the stand where we met up with Amelia, who had turned down the opportunity for a pre-match pint with her aunt.  As I got my breath back, I was a little concerned when the floodlights dimmed.  When it happened again, I realised that it was in time to the music and we were caught up in a stadium disco light show.  I found it rather off-putting and can only hope that there were no epileptics in the crowd.

Team news was that Quique had made two changes from the defeat to Burnley with Masina and Sarr coming in for Dawson and Gray.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Mariappa; Holebas, Doucouré, Capoue, Femenía; Hughes; Sarr, Deulofeu.  There were some concerns about Quique persisting with a back three, given our paucity of fit central defenders.  In a similar vein it was noted that we had only Foulquier on the bench, should one of the starting defenders succumb to injury.

 

A blurred but happy celebration of Sarr’s goal

The Hornets had a great chance to take an early lead as Højbjerg gave away possession to Sarr, but the youngster took his chance too early and shot straight at McCarthy in the Southampton goal.  The Saints’ Captain had an immediate chance to make up for his mistake when the ball dropped to him outside the Watford box, but his shot flew over the bar.  The home side threatened again as Redmond played a one-two with Ings before shooting from distance, but it was an easy catch for Foster.  At this point, very early in the game, the chants ringing out from the away end were, “You’re going down with the Watford”, “We’ll see you in the Championship” and “We only lost 8-0.”  Quite how that was supposed to spur the Watford players on to victory is beyond me.  On the pitch, a short corner was played to Holebas who put in a cross that was met with a defensive header that dropped to Capoue, he crossed back for Doucouré whose header was weak and easily saved by McCarthy.  The Hornets took the lead in the 24th minute, a lovely ball from Capoue released Sarr who advanced and shot across McCarthy into the net.  It was a terrific goal and prompted wild celebrations and lots of hugs in the away end.  I felt massively relieved, hoping that the goal would calm the nerves and set us up nicely.  Sarr was soon in action at the other end of the field repelling a ball into the box with a strong defensive header.  That’s what I like to see.  He had a chance to double Watford’s lead on the half hour as a deep free kick from Holebas found him in space, he volleyed goalwards, but McCarthy made the block and the ball went out for a corner.  The Hornets had another chance soon after, as Deulofeu broke forward and unleashed a shot that was pushed wide by McCarthy.  At the other end a low cross from Bertrand was blocked by Mariappa.  The home side threatened again as Redmond tried a shot from just inside the area, but his effort was over the target.  The Saints had a great chance to grab an equaliser just before half time when a low cross from Soares was flicked towards goal by Ward-Prowse, but the ball drifted just wide of the target.  The half time whistle was greeted with boos from the home fans, while the travelling Hornets were pretty happy with the state of play.

Doucoure, Cathcart and Masina getting ready to defend a cross into the box

The first action of the second half was a foul by Redmond on Femenía that earned the Southampton man a booking.  Ten minutes into the half Sarr beat a couple of defenders and unleashed a shot from distance which was just over the bar.  Just before the hour mark Southampton made a double substitution with Redmond and Obefami making way for Boufal and Long.  I was glad to see the back of Redmond, who always does well against us, not so glad to see Long coming on.  There was some concern among the away fans when Capoue was knocked to the ground after blocking a shot from Ward-Prowse with his face.  He was initially flat out with his arms outstretched but, once he got his breath back, he was able to continue the game.  Southampton threatened as Djenepo broke forward and crossed for Long who was unable to connect, so the chance went begging.  The Hornets nearly engineered their own downfall as Foster held on to the ball for too long in the box, tried to beat Ings with a Cruyff turn, then both men fell to the ground, I was sure that the referee would point to the spot, so was massively relieved when the outcome was a free-kick.  Needless to say, the relief didn’t kick in immediately as I waited for an intervention from VAR that, thankfully, never came.  With 25 minutes to go, Flores made his first substitution replacing Deulofeu, who had been ineffective, with Gray.  Southampton had their best chance of the game when Boufal cut the ball back to Long (of course) whose shot was stopped by a wonderful save from Foster who tipped the ball onto the bar.  It looked as though Ben’s efforts would be in vain as the big screen indicated that VAR was checking for a penalty for an earlier incident, but the decision was that there was no penalty.  Watford should have scored a second with twenty minutes to go when Gray played a lovely ball back for Sarr who missed the connection and the ball was put out for a corner by Bertrand.  With 15 minutes remaining Quique made a second substitution bringing Chalobah on to replace Hughes who, again, had to leave the field on the opposite side to the dug-out and was given a huge ovation as he walked past the travelling Hornets.

Chalobah back in action

Watford threatened again as Gray ran around the back of the defence and tried to sneak the ball into the net but, instead, hit it straight to the keeper.  Southampton then made their final substitution bringing Valery on in place of Soares.  Southampton should have drawn level when a shot from Ings, that appeared to be going wide, so Foster left it, reached Long who flicked it goalwards but, thankfully, Cathcart was on the line to make the block.  Sadly, Watford’s lead didn’t last much longer as Djenepo advanced and nipped around the back of the defence, as Gray had earlier, but his shot went under Foster and reached Ings who turned it in at close range.  Television pictures showed that Djenepo had used his hand in the build-up (quite an outrageous scoop, if truth be told), but I am not going to complain about VAR in this situation as the goal was a result of poor defending from the Hornets and it felt like it had been coming.  Sadly, at this stage, the confidence drained from both the team and the crowd and none of us believed that we would get anything out of the game.  With less than 10 minutes to go, Flores was lining up his final substitute and my heart sank when I realised that Foulquier was the answer.  To be fair, he was the only defender on the bench and Femenía had picked up an injury, but this was the last straw for a lot of the travelling Watford fans who greeted the decision with loud boos and chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing”.  Prior to the substitution, Capoue had fouled Højbjerg on the edge of the box.  There seemed to be some confusion in the setting up of the wall, or at least the bloke behind me was unhappy with the way that the defenders were lining up.  His concerns proved justified when Ward-Prowse stepped up and curled the free kick over the wall, Foster managed to get his hands to the ball, but could only help it into the net.  At this point, while the home fans celebrated, the travelling Hornets were telling Quique that he would be sacked in the morning.  When the fourth official held up the board indicating that there would be 6 minutes of added time, my only thought was that it was plenty of time for Southampton to get a third.  The Hornets did create a couple of chances in time added on.  First, from a corner, Sarr played the ball back to Gray but he shot wide of the target.  Then one final chance when Foulquier played the ball out to Sarr who took a shot that was pushed over the bar by McCarthy.

Foster up for a late corner

The final whistle went to celebrations among the home fans and total deflation in the away end.  I did have to admire the decency of those among our fans who applauded the players.  My applause was sporadic and half-hearted until Troy came over to thank the crowd.

There was no time for a post-match analysis as I made a swift departure in order to catch the train that would allow me to arrive back in Windsor before 10pm.  Travelling back home on my own, I had plenty of time to think about the game.  Yet again, following a decent first half, the second period had been disappointing, and we had lost to a very poor team.  Once we took the lead, we should have been in control of the game but we didn’t get a second goal and, such is the fragility of the squad’s confidence, once Southampton drew level, we never looked like getting anything from the game.  I always thought that the reappointment of Quique had been an odd move.  While he had a reputation for making us hard to beat early in his first tenure, the final third of the season was a dreadful trudge and that is what we are seeing now.  Despite the injuries, we have enough quality in this squad to be winning more games than we lose.  The fact that we are not has to be down to the coach.  By Sunday morning Quique was gone and I cannot imagine that there were any Watford fans who were saddened by that news.

Gino Pozzo slumming it

Sunday afternoon, at my Dad’s house, it was clear that someone needed to get hold of me.  When I finally answered the call from the private number that I was trying to ignore, I discovered it was someone from FiveLive who wanted to talk about the sacking of Flores.  I told him that I thought it had been an odd appointment in the first place.  He then asked what I thought of the owners.  I had mentioned that I was previously the Press Officer for the Watford Supporters Trust (hence why they had my number) and I assume that he was expecting me to criticise the Pozzos.  But, having been rather too close to the club when we went through those troubled times under the previous owners, I am still incredibly thankful for what the Pozzos have done for our club.  We have a stadium to be proud of with stands named for legends from another era, a team of players of a quality that we have no right to expect and a club that, with ventures like the sensory room and the work of Dave Messenger in connecting with the fans, still feels like a community club off the pitch and not a “foreign-owned Premier League business”.  For that I would still fall on my knees in worship in front of Gino Pozzo.