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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.