Tag Archives: Xherdan Shaqiri

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 Penalty, No Points, But No Shame

Meeting Javi

My Journey to the game was rather more eventful than I was expecting as an incident further up the line meant that my train into London stopped at Feltham.  As there were buses heading to Hatton Cross, that seemed the best bet and a bus and four different tube trains later I arrived in Watford.  It is a testament to how early I leave for games that I was still in the West Herts by 12:30.

Talk before the game was mostly about the Fans’ Forum that had taken place during the week.  It had been a superb event.  It started with a presentation by Spencer Field, Global Strategy and Partnerships Director(!), about the efforts they were making to bring Watford to a global audience, one of which will entail a change to the badge.  This was greeted with some dismay although I assume those that thought it was a good idea remained quiet.  Certainly there were no questions about it later in the evening.  Then the players were up, in the persons of Daryl Janmaat and Ben Foster who were good value, although Ben was certainly the star of the show.  He is a very funny man and clearly loves Watford.  He waxed lyrical about the football that we have been playing (comparing and contrasting to playing for Tony Pulis) and revealed that his favourite player is Deulofeu, who he hates facing in training.  He also thinks Dahlberg will be a star.  The last section of the evening featured Javi Gracia and Scott Duxbury.  Scott was able to announce that Peñaranda now has a work permit and that Javi was about to sign a new contract.  Javi was as lovely as he seems in his interviews.  It was all very positive and reminded me why I love being a Watford fan.

Liverpool fans protesting Scudamore’s payout

On the way along Vicarage Road to the game, I stopped off to buy a copy of the Watford Treasury from Olly Wicken, who had written an exclusive episode of Hornet Heaven for the supplement.  A wonderful addition to a publication that was already full of fascinating stuff.  Well worth a fiver of anyone’s money.

As I took my seat in the Rookery, I couldn’t help noticing how many people with season tickets were asking the stewards the way to their seats.  That didn’t happen when we played Huddersfield.  Thankfully, there were few strangers around us and those that were there were wearing Watford scarves.

Team news was that Gracia had made three changes from the Southampton game bringing Deeney, Masina and Capoue in for Success, Chalobah and Holebas.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Masina; Hughes, Doucoure, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu and Deeney.

Prior to kick-off there was a superb set of banners in the away end protesting Scudamore’s golden handshake.  Well done to the Liverpool fans for that.

Hughes takes a free kick

Watford started the game brilliantly and I was on my feet celebrating in the second minute as Deulofeu finished past Alisson.  Sadly, the celebrations were cut short by the linesman’s flag.  The Spaniard had another chance soon after, but this time the ball was cleared before he could shoot.  On 18 minutes, Watford won a corner.  As I had my camera focussed on the box waiting for the ball in, I missed the short corner, which was greeted with groans from those around me as they bemoaned a wasted opportunity.  Liverpool’s first real chance came soon after, but Foster got his fingertips to Shaqiri’s cross preventing it from reaching Salah.  The Egyptian threatened again as he ran onto a forward ball, but Ben Foster played sweeper coming out to intercept and launch the ball back upfield.  A dangerous free-kick from Shaqiri deserved more than a mishit from Wijnaldum allowing Foster to make an easy save.  Then a mistake allowed Firmino to break into the Watford box but Foster came to the rescue again, dropping to make the save.  At the other end, the Hornets had a chance to take the lead as a lovely shot from Pereyra was turned wide by Alisson.  Then Mané threatened on the break, but was stopped by a great tackle from Cathcart.  The Liverpool man had another chance with an overhead kick that Foster pushed wide.  The resulting corner was met by the head of Salah but, again, Foster was equal to it and the half time whistle went with the game goalless.

Mariappa on the ball

It had been a decent half with few chances.  Apart from the first 15 minutes, Liverpool had all of the possession, but a decent defensive display and some brave keeping from Foster had stopped them making the breakthrough.

The first attack of the second half came from the visitors as Mané’s shot hit the near post, but the flag was up anyway.  Watford had a strong appeal for a penalty when Hughes was tripped in the box, but the referee was not interested.  The first substitution was made just before the hour mark as Deulofeu was replaced by Success and, as has become his habit, showed his dismay when he reached the dugout.  The first booking of the game came as Henderson was cautioned for puling Success to the ground as he tried to escape.  A Watford attack was stopped by a rather bizarre offside decision against Deeney.  The visitors immediately broke down the other end and Mané crossed for Salah whose shot appeared to go through Foster.  A great shame after the keeper’s great work so far on the afternoon.   Watford tried to break back but a cross from Femenía was headed clear by van Dijk before it reached Deeney.  Then a cross into the Liverpool box was cleared only as far as Capoue whose shot cleared the bar.

Masina and Pereyra prepare for a free kick

Each side made a substitution as Shaqiri made way for Milner for the visitors, and Gray replaced Hughes for the Hornets.  If the first goal looked a bit scrappy, the second was excellent as Alexander-Arnold curled a free kick over the wall and into the top corner.  Liverpool played the last 8 minutes with 10 men as Henderson, who had just been warned after protesting a decision, decided to pull Capoue back.  It was a stupid foul and well worthy of the second yellow.  Success had a chance to pull one back for the Hornets with a shot across goal that only needed a touch, but nobody was there.  The second change for the visitors saw Fabinho replacing Salah.  The Hornets had a wonderful chance to reduce the deficit as a lovely passing move took the ball to Pereyra whose curling shot was just wide of the target.  The third Liverpool goal was just cruel. Foster did really well to stop a shot from Mané, but Firmino was on hand to nod in the rebound.  So the game finished as a 3-0 defeat for the Hornets.

So a disappointing afternoon all in all.  The first half display had been impressive as the defence kept Liverpool at bay.  The penalty that wasn’t given would have put a different perspective on the game, but Liverpool are a good side and were not to be denied, although it has to be said that the scoreline flattered them greatly.  As we say every time we play one of the top clubs, this one was a free hit and I was happy that we gave them a decent game.  After a couple of recent thrashings on our travels to Anfield, this was a very different performance and Liverpool really didn’t look that impressive, which can only be due to Watford playing well.  It is still a testament to the quality of our team that a defeat to one of the top two clubs in the country is viewed as a disappointment.

Goalless but Happy on a Cold Night in Stoke

Javi Gracia takes charge of his first league game for Watford

Why is it that when you are taking the afternoon off work, nobody speaks to you until a couple of minutes before you are due to leave and then it is a crisis that has to be dealt with?  I must have appeared very rude as I packed my bag and changed into my walking shoes while answering the questions coming my way, but I had a train to catch.

Once I left the office, it was a nice easy journey to Stoke, and having opted to travel first class, there was the delight of a glass of wine with my late lunch.  When I arrived at the hotel, I was happy to see a number of regulars milling around the foyer and the bar.  I was soon joined by my companions for the evening and we headed for the pub.  The pre-match pub at Stoke is lovely.  In previous years it has had a sign indicating that it is home fans only (not that we have ever been turned away).  That was missing on this occasion and, as always, there was a nice mix of home and away fans present.  One of the main topics of conversation was the dreadful behaviour of the Watford fans at Southampton and the belief that we wouldn’t be seeing that section of the support on a cold night in Stoke.

We set off for the ground in plenty of time.  I must admit that the walk along the towpath isn’t the most picturesque in daylight.  On a dark Winter’s evening, there was nothing to see but the lights of the stadium which shone in the distance welcoming us.

Challenging at a corner

Team news was that Gracia had made four changes for his first game in the Premier League giving a debut to Deulofeu in place of Carrillo, with Deeney, Cleverley and Prödl coming in for Gray, Watson and Janmaat.  So the starting line-up was Karnezis; Mariappa, Kabasele, Prödl, Holebas; Doucouré, Cleverley; Deulofeu, Capoue, Richarlison; Deeney.

Watford started brightly as a cross from Holebas was met by Prödl, but Butland was equal to the shot.  The first chance for the home side came as a cross from Adam was flicked wide by Diouf.  Watford had a great shout for a penalty as Deulofeu appeared to be thrown to the ground in the box, but the referee saw no infringement.  Then Richarlison pulled the ball back for Cleverley whose shot was over the bar.  The first booking of the game was earned by Kabasele for a push on Shaqiri.  Stoke earned their first booking soon after when Adam was cautioned for a trip on Richarlison.  At this point in the game, I couldn’t help but notice how different the crowd were from Saturday.   Lots of positive chants in support of our team and, on transfer deadline day, there was a lot of love for Deeney and the fact that he would finish the season as a Watford player.  The home side had a great chance to open the scoring as a quick break finished with a shot from Adam that was stopped by a brilliant block from Mariappa, Choupo-Moting picked up the loose ball and curled a shot just wide of the far post.

Deulofeu makes his debut

It was then Watford’s turn to break forward and Butland needed two attempts to gather the cross from Holebas.  Bauer was the next to be cautioned for a nasty tackle on Cleverley.  His reaction was pure outrage pointing out that he had played the ball (as well as the man).  Utterly ridiculous.  A decent free-kick from Holebas was headed goalwards by Doucouré, but Adam managed to clear the shot off the line.  The resultant corner from Holebas bounced off the crossbar.  Watford threatened again when Cleverley picked up a loose ball in midfield, he played a square ball to Doucouré whose weak shot was easy for Butland.  The final chance of the half fell to the Hornets as Deulofeu broke forward and crossed for Richarlison whose shot flew over the bar.

As the players walked towards the tunnel in the corner by the away fans for the half time break, they were cheered off the pitch.  It had been a much better performance than of late, with considerably more effort and energy on show.  Deulofeu had made a lively debut, Mariappa had done very well fitting in at right back and even Capoue had put in a decent shift.

Deeney and Doucoure in the Watford box

The first action of the second half was a booking for Holebas for a foul on Diouf.  Adam took the free kick, his low shot was easy for Karnezis.  There was another booking when Kabasele was knocked to the ground by Diouf.  I didn’t see the foul, but a number of comments post-match indicated that his reaction to the contact was over the top, which was interesting as the other Watford players reacted as if it had been a nasty challenge.  A lovely Watford move started with a break by Doucouré, who found Deulofeu, he flicked the ball on to Richarlison whose shot was deflected wide.  From the corner there was a total mishit from Deulofeu, allowing Stoke to break down the other end where Allen shot over the target.  Stoke made a substitution just before the hour mark replacing Adam with Crouch.  We had Karnezis to thank for keeping the game goalless as he pulled off a superb double save, first from Shaqiri, then the rebound from Crouch.  The Stoke substitute was having a lively start to the game and, soon after, he got on the end of a cross from Diouf but was forced to turn it wide under pressure from Mariappa.  Watford’s first substitution saw Richarlison make way for Gray.  I have to say that the young Brazilian appeared devastated at being taken off.  The Watford substitute was soon involved in the action as he played the ball to Doucouré whose shot was stopped by a great block from Shawcross.

Mapps takes a free kick

Watford’s next substitution was enforced as Pereyra came on for Cleverley who had appeared to go down with a hamstring injury.  The Stoke fans were less than sympathetic yelling at him for being a cheat.  Charming!  Watford continued to look for the breakthrough as Doucouré won the ball in the midfield before finding Pereyra whose shot was deflected for a corner.  There was an even better chance in the next move after Deulofeu beat a couple of players before the ball found its way to Pereyra but, again, Butland was equal to the strike, pushing it out for a corner.  The set piece was played out to Doucouré who shot wide of the target.  There was a late change for each side as Berahino replaced Diouf and Carrillo came on for Deulofeu, who went off to appreciative applause from the travelling Hornets.  The last chance of the game fell to the home side as a corner from Shaqiri was met by the head of Shawcross, but it was an easy save for Karnezis and the game finished goalless.

Kabasele and Prodl

It was a game of little quality, but plenty of action and endeavour and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  At the end of the game, the players were warmly applauded and Pereyra and Kabasele, who had been abused at the end of the previous game, handed over their shirts to smiling fans.  While a goalless draw at Stoke wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of a good night out, it was a point well won and I left the ground with a big smile on my face.

After a swift glass of red at the pub, we headed back to the hotel and spent a late night in the lounge with a large number of Watford fans.  Everyone in attendance had thoroughly enjoyed the performance and were happy to have been part of a more positive crowd.  One fan had actually contemplated staying at home due to the unpleasantness of the crowd on Saturday.  Thankfully he hadn’t and had his faith in his fellow fans restored.

The rest of the season will not be easy but there were more than enough positives in that performance and, if we all pull together, we could have an end to the season that is as much fun as the start was and that is something to look forward to.

Stymied by Stoke

The piper plays Flowers of the Forest

Back to Vicarage Road again and, after a busy week, it was lovely to sit down with the crowd for the pre-match pint.  I bumped into someone that I hadn’t seen for a while, a regular who had almost given up in the dark days at the end of Mazzarri’s reign.  He was all smiles again, thoroughly enjoying the football as we all are.  I must admit that, going into this game I was less confident than last week against Chelsea.  There is something about Stoke and their negative style of play that made me think that we could struggle.

Since it was the last game before Remembrance Day, there was a piper on the pitch to play Flowers of the Forest.  This was followed by a minute’s silence.  Both were observed impeccably by the crowd.

Team news was two changes for the Hornets with Capoue and Carrillo coming in for Mariappa and Pereyra.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Holebas, Britos, Kabasele, Femenía; Capoue, Cleverley, Doucouré; Richarlison, Deeney, Carrillo.

Rare first half action in the Stoke box

There was a slow start to the game, with Watford having most of the possession but being given little space by the visitors.  So it was a bit of a shock when Stoke took the lead on 16 minutes after a corner from Shaqiri reached Fletcher on the edge of the box from where he powered a shot through the bodies in the box and past Gomes.  You couldn’t help thinking that, having taken the lead, Stoke would make it difficult for us.  There was certainly little in the way of goal attempts in the half.  The first half chance came as Holebas played a ball into the box for Deeney, who was unable to reach it.   A Cleverley corner was headed on by Britos, to Capoue who tried and failed to finish, but was in an offside position anyway.  Watford’s best chance of the game so far came in the 38th minute as Cleverley played a lovely ball to Deeney who tried to place his shot, which drifted wide.

That was it for the first half.  The whistle was greeted with a few boos from the Rookery.  Who are these people?  It hadn’t been pretty, but any football had been played by the home side.

The beautiful game did make an appearance during the half time penalty shoot-out when a young girl from Holy Rood floated a perfect chip over the keeper.  Sign her up!

Capoue and Holebas prepare for a short corner

The second half started at a cracking pace.  The first chance came as Doucouré played a gorgeous ball to Femenía who went on a run and crossed for Deeney, but Shawcross got a block in to prevent the shot.  The next chance followed the same pattern starting with a beautiful ball from Doucouré and finishing with Shawcross clearing before Deeney could shoot.  Next a cross from Holebas was flicked on by Deeney to Capoue, who couldn’t quite reach it to apply the finish.  Watford came closer still as Holebas played a cross-field pass to Carrillo who cut the ball back to Richarlison, but the angle was too acute for the Brazilian and his shot hit the side netting.  The first substitution came just before the hour mark as Gray replaced Capoue.  Stoke could have increased their lead when, completely against the run of play, there was a forward break from Sobhi, he cut the ball back to Allen who shot just wide of the target when he should have done better.  Watford continued to threaten as Cleverley advanced and put in a decent cross, but Butland’s fist reached the ball just before Richarlison’s head.  Another chance for the young Brazilian went begging as a cross from Britos reached him, but he couldn’t get a proper connection for the header and it flew wide.  Watford also should have done better with the next chance as a cross from Carrillo reached Gray, but he mishit the shot and it went wide of the near post.

Fisticuffs by the dugouts

Stoke’s first change came as Berahino replaced Sobhi in a substitution that seemed to take an age (they had been wasting time from soon after they scored).  Watford’s next chance came from a corner, but Doucouré’s shot was blocked and the ball was deflected over the target.  The second substitution for the Hornets came as Carrillo was replaced by Hughes, making his debut for the Hornets.  A rare attack by the visitors finished as Choupo-Moting shot straight at Gomes.  Watford had another decent chance as a lovely ball into the box from Doucouré was flicked on by the head of Gray, but Deeney couldn’t reach it to turn it in.  There was danger at the other end as a cross from Shaqiri wasn’t cut out but, even as Gomes hesitated, he did enough to cause Berahino to shoot wide.  Watford threatened again as Gray met a cross from Cleverley with a header that flew on to the roof of the net.  Soon after, it all kicked off on the sideline.  I don’t know what provoked it, but it seemed to start with Doucoure and Diouf who, in photographic evidence obtained from a friend in the SEJ stand, squared up to each other before everyone else got involved, including some members of the Stoke coaching staff, but it was only the initial perpetrators who were cautioned.  After the dust settled, Stoke made another substitution replacing Shaqiri with Adam.  There was another scuffle after Stoke had put the ball out when one of their players went down with cramp in their box.  It had appeared to be an attempt to waste time and the ball was, quite rightly in my opinion, not returned to them.  This incensed Allen who went for Deeney and it all got rather unpleasant.  The two men were booked, but the television pictures of the altercation suggest that Deeney may incur further punishment for his reaction, which would be unfortunate.  Watford had one last chance to win a point as Hughes found Gray, but the shot was deflected for a corner.  As it was late into time added on, Gomes came up to join the attack and was nearly caught out as Stoke broke upfield, Gomes was unable to tackle Adam, who advanced with an open goal to aim at but found the far post instead, much to the amusement of the Rookery faithful.

Doucoure on the ball

There were boos again at the final whistle, although most of these appeared to be aimed at the opposition.  Richarlison, Britos and Holebas had collapsed to the turf on full time with the latter staying prone with his shirt over his head for some considerable time.

It was a disappointing afternoon.  The football was horrible but, credit to Stoke, they played their game very well and we didn’t play ours.  The second half was much better as Watford attacked at pace, but the Stoke defence were very well organized and Butland didn’t have a save to make.  Special credit must go to Zouma, who had a great game keeping Richarlison very quiet.

As we walked up Occupation Road, a familiar face passed us, and I couldn’t help wondering if Pereyra would have made a difference, but it was one of those afternoons.

Back in the West Herts and the post-match analysis focussed on how horrible Stoke were to watch.  All very true, but you have to find a way past these teams and we failed to do that.  The positive is that this is one of very few games that have not been entertaining so far this season.  So let us put this one behind us and look forward to Goodison Park next Sunday.

 

Petulant Loss to the Potters

Kaboul and Capoue line up a free kick

Kaboul and Capoue line up a free kick

Midday on a Sunday is a ridiculous time for a football match.  I was up at the crack of dawn (for me) in order to get to the game but a slight delay on my first train meant that I had to wait a while for the connection at Euston so that, when I arrived in the West Herts after a long journey, the pleasant greeting from my friends was “Where have you been?”  Still, my tardy arrival did mean that a round was already in progress and the traditional cider went down very well with the bacon roll (apple juice is a breakfast drink, isn’t it?) setting me up for the afternoon.

Team news was that Mazzarri made one change from last week with Holebas returning from suspension to replace Zúñiga.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Kaboul, Prödl, Britos; Janmaat, Capoue, Behrami, Holebas; Amrabat, Deeney and Pereyra.  It was good to see each of the captains wearing a rainbow armband in support of the Rainbow Laces campaign which supports fans and players from the LGBT community.  It was also pleasing to see Mazzarri with the rainbow lace displayed on his jacket.

Amrabat on the ball

Amrabat on the ball

Any hope that we would start the game in a similar way to the previous week was soon extinguished and Stoke had the first chance, capitalizing on a Watford mistake, as a failure to clear the ball allowed Martins Indi to shoot, but his point blank effort was blocked by Gomes, who was also on hand to gather the follow-up cross.  The home side’s first goal attempt came as Janmaat intercepted a pass and went on a run before unleashing a shot that was saved by (Hemel boy) Lee Grant.  Stoke should have done better when a cross from Diouf flew across the goal but, luckily for the Hornets, there was no Stoke player anywhere near to apply the final touch.  The visitors threatened again with a shot from distance from Imbula that flew just past the far post.  A lovely passing move from the Watford team finished with Amrabat finding Capoue in space, but his shot was straight at Grant in the Stoke goal.  Mazzarri was forced to make his first substitution after 20 minutes as an injury to Kaboul meant that he was unable to continue, so was replaced by Kabasele.  Pereyra created a chance for himself as he picked the ball up on the edge of the area, turned and shot.  It was a similar strike to the one against Leicester, but this time the ball flew just wide.  Stoke were back in the Watford box as Arnautović headed the ball on to Walters who seemed a little surprised to see it come his way and Gomes was on hand to snuff out the danger.

Behrami being challenged

Behrami being challenged

At this stage of the game, the home fans were becoming increasingly impatient with the referee who seemed to be blowing up after every tackle by a man in a yellow shirt.  Half an hour into the game, he had booked both Amrabat and Britos for reasons that were not apparent from the stand and seemed to baffle the players but were put down to dissent.  The visitors took the lead with a scrappy goal as, following a corner, a header from Adam bounced back off the post before rebounding into the net off Gomes.  The Watford faithful greeted this with a chant of 1-0 to the referee which, at the time, seemed to be stretching the truth somewhat as Stoke had been the better team to that point, but I hadn’t seen the foul by Adam before he reached the ball.  The referee certainly didn’t placate the crowd when he blew up immediately after the restart, insisting that the kick-off be retaken.  Watford had a decent chance for an equalizer as a Capoue free kick was met by Britos, but his header cleared the bar.  Holebas was the next to receive a caution, again for dissent as he kicked the ball away having been angered at being penalized when he conceded a corner while being fouled.  In time added on at the end of the half it appeared that Holebas was tripped in the box, but the referee gave the decision the other way.  The whistle for the end of the first half was greeted by loud boos directed at the referee, but it was difficult to put Watford’s woes at his door.  Stoke were playing a very disciplined, organized game and were ensuring that the Watford players had no space to play in.  Instead of finding a way to counteract this tactic, the home side were just getting increasingly frustrated, it was not good to watch.

Wonder Woman (Marcus Gayle), Ian Richardson, Ian Bolton and Keith Mercer and Gavin Mahon

Wonder Woman (Marcus Gayle), Ian Richardson, Ian Bolton and Keith Mercer and Gavin Mahon

There was a pleasant distraction at half time as the club celebrated Former Players’ Day by reminiscing with Marcus Gayle, Gavin Mahon, Wayne Andrews and Ian Richardson, all of whom evoked happy memories, although I am probably the only person who sees Marcus Gayle and thinks “Wonder Woman”.  They were followed by Keith Mercer, Ian Bolton and Neil Price who were advertising the upcoming dinner at the club and talking about the work of the Former Players Association.  I must say that seeing those old heroes cheered me up considerably.

The visitors started the second half brightly with a run from Arnautović that finished with a cross-cum-shot that was too far in front of the oncoming Walters for him to provide the finishing touch, so flew past the far post.  The Austrian threatened again, but his next shot was stopped by a good block from Kabasele.  Ten minutes into the half, Mazzarri was forced into a second substitution as Holebas, who had received some treatment on the sidelines, was replaced by Ighalo.  The Nigerian’s first half chance came as Amrabat delivered a decent cross into the box, but a defender was on hand to shepherd the ball out and ensure that Ighalo didn’t get a touch.  He had a better chance soon after as he headed a Britos cross goalwards, but the header had no power and was easy for Grant to deal with.

Waiting for a free kick

Waiting for a free kick

The home side were having much more of the play in the second half and another ball into the box looked promising as Janmaat’s cross was headed on by Ighalo but it didn’t reach Deeney and the chance was lost.  Mazzarri’s final change saw Okaka brought on to replace Amrabat.  There was a great chance for an equalizer as a cross from Pereyra was cleared to Janmaat on the edge of the box, but his volley was well over the bar when he should have hit the target.  The presence of Okaka did seem to unsettle the Stoke defence and he had a chance to bring the Hornets level as an overhead kick from Ighalo fell to him, but he was at an acute angle to the goal and could only hit the side netting.  Deeney had a great chance to get his 100th goal when he met a ball from Janmaat with a header but it flew over the target.  Watford’s miserable afternoon continued when Britos stupidly fouled Shaqiri and was shown a second yellow card, so we finished the game with ten men.  Stoke then had a chance to increase their lead as Pieters tried a shot from distance which, thankfully, just missed the target.  But there was still time for another booking for Watford as Behrami received his fifth yellow card of the season.

Pereyra takes a free kick

Pereyra takes a free kick

The final whistle was greeted with yet more boos for the referee.  The Watford players, with the exception of Deeney and Gomes, disappeared in an instant providing no distraction for the home crowd as they directed their anger at the official.  Despite the feeling that the goal should have been disallowed for the foul by Adam, I didn’t feel that the defeat was down to the referee’s decisions.  It had been a poor day at the office for many of the Watford players.  There had been an improvement in the second half with the Hornets finding a bit more space, but the win was a result of Stoke effectively stopping their opponents from keeping the ball or creating any chances.  But the most disappointing aspect of the game was the petulance and ill-discipline of many of the Watford players, which resulted in yellow cards and a sending off that will mean that both Britos and Behrami are unavailable for the game against West Brom.  Sunday’s game was as bad as the previous week’s was good, but that is what we should be expecting this season and, to put a positive spin on it, this is becoming a season in which (ouside the top six) any team can beat any other and, while that will lead to games like Saturday’s, it also means that we can approach most games with an expectation that we can get something out of it and that has not been the case for us at this level since the 80s.

Stoked in the Potteries

 

The oatcake and beer barges

The oatcake and beer barges

I have just returned from a business trip, the original plans for which would have meant missing this game and, to be honest, if I had to miss a game then a trip to Stoke wasn’t one I would be too upset about.  As it turned out, I missed the Arsenal game instead, or rather I spent the morning sitting in a pub in San Francisco watching it.  I was so proud of our performance for the first hour, especially the fact that we went for it rather than the cautious approach that we took against Man City.  The three goals were a little hard to take, but our season won’t be decided by the results of games against the likes of Arsenal.  The game against Stoke was a different matter completely.  It would be a real test, with the result giving an indication of what we can expect for the rest of the season.

My previous trips to Stoke have been on the supporters’ coach, so I’ve always had the impression that the ground is miles out of town and a pig to get to.  Also, away fans are advised to avoid most of the pubs.  So, as I left home feeling fatigued after my travels, I did not have high hopes for my day out.  However, on arrival at the designated pub, which had a sign in the window indicating that only Stoke fans were welcome, the door was held open for me by the security guy, which is always a good sign.  Our advance party was already in place at a table, the beer was good and the food was hearty.  As the pub filled up, there seemed to be more faces that I recognized than not, so the sign in the window was not acting as any kind of deterrent.  The next adventure was to walk to the ground.  It turned out to be an easy stroll along the canal towpath which was not the most picturesque I have ever encountered, but certainly had lots to remark upon.  There was a group of ropey looking canal boats, one of which had foliage on the rudder suggesting a lack of custom.  They were just outside a ‘shooting range’ that appeared to be someone’s garden shed.  Then, as we arrived at the bridge to the ground, there were a couple of somewhat nicer looking barges which were serving oatcakes and beer and doing a roaring trade from the punters who had made the ‘long’ trek from town.

Gomes takes a free kick

Gomes takes a free kick

Team news was just the one change with Britos making his league debut in place of Prödl, a selection that raised eyebrows, especially from those who had witnessed his truncated performance at Deepdale.  The starting line-up was Gomes, Aké, Britos, Cathcart, Nyom, Watson, Capoue, Anya, Deeney, Abdi and Ighalo.  Stoke came into the game in good form having won their previous three league games while only conceding a single goal.  Given Watford’s lack of goalpower, this record was a little worrying.  But we started well as Deeney got goalside of Cameron only for Johnson to appear to take the ball off his feet and redirect it towards Butland.  The home side’s first chance fell to Charlie Adam whose shot from the edge of the area flew wide of the near post.  Then Anya cut the ball back to Watson whose shot was blocked.  Stoke were forced into an early substitution as defender, Cameron, was replaced by Wilson due to an injury sustained in his early challenge with Deeney.  A cross into the Watford box was well blocked by Capoue, it came back in and Aké headed clear but only as far as Adam whose shot was deflected for a corner.  Abdi exchanged passes with Aké before finding Anya whose attempted cross was blocked so looped unthreateningly into the area before it was cleared.  Stoke had a great chance to take the lead just before the half hour as a dangerous cross from Shaqiri was headed wide by Arnautovic when he really should have done better.

Celebrating Deeney's goal

Celebrating Deeney’s goal

Watford had been dreadful for most of the half, they looked sluggish and passes were going horribly astray.  But, just as I was thinking I should have stayed at home and slept off the jet-lag, we had a great chance to take the lead.  Anya broke forward and crossed for Ighalo.  I was already celebrating when the Nigerian’s header came back off the crossbar, but the chance had not gone.  Odion’s follow-up shot was blocked and rebounded to Abdi, the ball got stuck under his feet so he moved it on to Deeney who was in space but his shot hit the same spot on the crossbar that Ighalo had found and rebounded to safety.  At the other end a Stoke break was stopped as a cross from Johnson was blocked by the brilliant Watson.  From the corner, Shaqiri’s delivery appeared to be flying in but Gomes punched it clear.  Surprisingly, it was the visitors who took the lead just before half time.  A lovely back heel from Ighalo found Deeney who got into position and curled the ball into the corner past Butland.  The celebrations in the away end had extra impetus due to Deeney finally having scored his first goal of the season.  He has worked his socks off and thoroughly deserved it.  Most of the first half had been dreadful, but the goal ensured that the Hornets left the pitch to applause and with Troy Deeney’s name ringing out in the Britannia.

Deeney congratulating Abdi after he scored the second

Deeney congratulating Abdi after he scored the second

Watford launched the first attack of the second half as a long free kick from Gomes reached Deeney whose header was soft and straight at Butland.  At the other end, Shaqiri hit a shot from outside the area that flew high and wide.  Deeney had a great chance for a second as Ighalo found him in space.  Last season he would have buried the ball, but this time he took one touch too many and the chance was gone.  Watford had a shout for a penalty as Ighalo tumbled in the box, but the referee waved appeals away, which was fine by me as it would have been rather soft.  A corner from Watson reached Ighalo in the centre of the box, he volleyed goalwards, but there was a body in the way to block the shot which was hit with such power that I would suspect that body was hurting for some time.  Watford were on top now and a Cathcart free kick was nodded down by Deeney towards Ighalo who was held off by a defender so couldn’t reach the ball.  Flores made his first substitution on 64 minutes replacing Anya with Paredes.  Watford’s second goal came on 69 minutes as Ighalo battled to dispossess Wilson on the left and played a perfect pass into the path of Abdi who advanced and hit a gorgeous shot past Butland at the near post.  The celebrations in the away end were joy unconfined.

Challenging at a corner

Challenging at a corner

Watford were looking to increase their lead further as Paredes advanced down the right, his cross reached Abdi who balooned his shot wide.  Paredes then had a chance himself as he hit a powerful shot from outside the area that Butland dived to keep out, although the block was such that the ball could have flown anywhere.  A Stoke counter-attack finished with Walters shooting well wide of the far post.  The first booking of the game went to Whelan for taking Capoue down in the centre circle.  Watford’s second substitution saw Behrami replacing goalscorer, Abdi, who went off to warm applause and the sound of his name being chanted.  Another Stoke chance was scuppered as the attentions of Deeney ensured that Adams shot high and wide.  At the other end, Deeney played a ball to Capoue whose shot curled just wide of the target.  Stoke’s late attempts to cut the deficit were poor as, first, a Johnson cross was headed wide by Arnautovic and then a corner flew across goal and straight out for a goal kick.  A late substitution by the visitors saw Guedioura coming on for Igahlo.  The Nigerian took a while to leave the pitch so was pushed by Pieters, there was a bit of handbags and both men received a caution.  Stoke’s frustration manifested again as Adam hacked Capoue down and was carded for the offence.  As the fourth official signalled four minutes of time added on, the home stands were almost empty.  The final chance of the game fell to Capoue whose low free kick was disappointing and flew well wide of the goal.

Just after the post-match hug

Just after the post-match hug

There were great celebrations in the away end after the final whistle and it was lovely to see Flores, Deeney and Gomes return from thanking the referee with their arms around each other.  As the last Watford player left the pitch the travelling Hornets were still bouncing and singing and my earlier jet-lagged state had been replaced with euphoria.  If we had been fortunate in the first half, we had been excellent in the second and thoroughly deserved the win.  While the goals for Deeney and Abdi and Ighalo’s two assists will attract the headlines, the consensus among our party was that the man of the match award should go to Watson, who was quietly magnificent running the midfield, with a special mention for Capoue who had the home side rattled throughout.

So 10 games played, 13 points and 13th in the table.  We’d have taken that in August.  We’ve also broken our Premier League duck for October.  It is always good to see records like that falling.

As I was waiting for the train home, I was joined on the platform by Stuart Timperley and Miles Jacobson, fresh from the Stoke boardroom, so had a very interesting journey home with these two delightful gentlemen.  A wonderful end to an unexpectedly enjoyable day in Stoke.