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Watford 1 Manchester United 2 (15/09/2018) 17/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- May 1985.  I was twelve, the same age as Daughter 1 is now.  You were how ever old you were, perhaps you weren’t even born.  As an aside I was stopped short when talking to a colleague at work this week, having to explain the whole MK Dons thing and realising that he was young enough not to plausibly remember…

Good grief.

Anyway.  May 1985, whether it’s fresh in your mind or in the same box as Henry VIII and the dinosaurs, or whether it’s somewhere in between.  It seems remiss at this juncture not to remember it and revel in it, since there was more to that period than just  finishing second and the Cup Final and the UEFA Cup….

Saturday, May 11th.  White Hart Lane.  Spurs were on their way to their highest League finish for fifteen years, a third place under Peter Shreeves, but the Hornets would win 5-1.  Two days later United visited Vicarage Road.  The Reds had half an eye on the Cup Final six days later, but rested only Bryan Robson and Jesper Olsen in a time of smaller squads.  The scoreline was repeated;  new signing Colin West, whose arrival had sparked an end of season surge, Nigel Callaghan and Luther Blissett scored in both games, the latter also suffering an horrific injury at the hands of Gary Bailey and the cost of an impressive scar on his forehead.  Danny Thomas memorably contributed to our tally in the first game, the Spurs full-back finding the top corner from distance.

I was at both.  Even in the context of a time when taking on the big teams and beating them, in Cups and then in the League, was What We Did, this was remarkable.  More remarkable still is the progress made over the last few years.  Not since May 1985 have we gone into a game against United with anyone but us saying “Actually, I fancy Watford to win this….”.

2- A play in three acts, this.  The Hornets lined up in the now conventional eleven;  United kicking towards the Rookery in an alternative kit of nondescript colour which looked, as Cathal later observed, like it might be inside out.

This was a relatively low pressure game for the Hornets of course, low pressure in the sense that the tally already accumulated let us into the fixture without the burden of an iffy start.  United, twice defeated already, were probably in more urgent need of a result.  After an opening chorus of “One Harry Hornet” in recognition of the retirement of the mascot’s ten year incumbent an edgy opening half hour developed.  The visitors dominated possession, but were only allowed glimpses of goal;   Sánchez wriggled in down the right before thumping a drive towards the top corner which Foster repelled.  At the other end any hint of an attack sparked the crowd;  Bobby Pereyra set up Troy who put power above precision and shovelled his shot too close to de Gea, making a clawing save possible. Otherwise our attacks were trying to hit the strikers early and put United’s centrebacks under pressure – Troy has bossed Chris Smalling before, and Victor Lindelof has looked get-attable.  Troy will rarely play a game in which so many of his touches are with his chest, but for this period the two sides were keeping each other at arm’s length.

3- This changed on the half hour.  Étienne Capoue picked up his fourth booking in four home games this season for cynically curtailing Jesse Lingard’s progress on the break.  In the same fixture last season we’d regretted Tom Cleverley’s decision not to do something similar in the closing minutes.  From the passage of play resulting from the set piece United knocked us out of our defensive shape for the first time, and as we scurried and chased Ashley Young floated a cross in which Romelu Lukaku propelled into the net with his stomach.  Appeals aplenty – for offside from the stands, for handball, perhaps, from the players, but all in vain.  Difficult to see how Foster was fooled by the cross at the time and on replay, a rare blemish for the keeper.

Within three minutes it was two, Chris Smalling hooking home expertly after chesting down in the box.  You can criticise Daryl Janmaat for being on the wrong side of him but it was a fraction of an opening that still required a fine finish.

We could have caved in at this point, and looked a bit ragged for perhaps the first time this season.  United, as good teams are wont to do, tried to capitalise and surged at us;  Pogba came closest with a fine volleyed finish to a deep Lingard cross, Foster redeeming himself with a flying stop that left the French midfielder with his head in his hands. For the second home game in succession we were grateful for the interval; grateful, in this instance, to still be in it.

4- And so the second half was magnificent.  Yes, United sat back and invited it, invited us to find our feet but we showed no signs of needing that invitation.  It was a mild evening, and it’s not quite late enough in the year for half six-to-seven to be properly dark.  But there’s something special about the Vic in a late kick-off with the Hornets kicking towards the Rookery.  When United wandered forward early in the half we’d snatch possession and fly outwards… Doucouré, Pereyra, Hughes in tandem, Gray turning and twisting and chasing and getting buffeted by finally earning his reward with a composed finish.  Janmaat and Holebas both ran themselves into the ground and were replaced, Femenía and Masina providing further evidence of how far we’ve come.  These are our back up playernow, the fact that half of United’s support won’t have heard of them half the point.  If their very limited world view encompassed Kiko or Adam they would already be stars and wouldn’t be playing for Watford.  As it was they’re merely very very good players; both gave us a boost in the closing encounters.

If there’s a complaint about the second half it’s that the kitchen sink didn’t quite come out early enough.  There was always a risk of course… Anthony Martial’s pace twice launched counterattacks that first Cathcart and Kabasele had to be precise and urgent to repel – it may be that Gerard Deulofeu will soon be doing that “running off with the ball” thing for us”.  But from Gray’s goal onwards there was a sense that United really weren’t comfortable, than the game plan really hadn’t involved us scoring and yet we didn’t let it all rip until Matic, who was excellent for the most part, earned a second yellow card for a foul on the tireless Hughes.  The free kick was swung in and Kabasele’s fierce header was in…. until it wasn’t, de Gea vaulting to his left to deny it.  From the resultant corner Masina sent over a low missile that just needed a touch, de Gea ending up in the back of the net and the game was up.

5- So.  We lost to Manchester United (again).  Quite obviously the run was going to come to an end at some stage, and it goes without saying that this is quite high on the list of ways you’d chose for it to happen.  Against a top side, and giving it some, and with fire in our bellies to take to Fulham.

Best of all was watching that second half and, for all that it wasn’t quite enough in the end, watching a side that is comfortable in its skin and utterly unphased by being two down to Manchester United.  We’re a side that can be in that position at half time and yet entertain genuine hopes of retrieving the game. And have the players and the coach to do so.  “Deserved” is an odd word in the context of a football match and ultimately United deserved to win because they scored twice and we didn’t.  But I don’t think many in whatever-colour-that-was could have complained if we’d grabbed the equaliser.  We look like a Premier League team now, of all things.  A good one.

And so to Fulham and Slav and another fascinating encounter.  Interesting to note their division-high 12 goals conceded thus far (albeit heavily at the mercy of opposition faced after only 5 games) in the context of the theory that Jokanovic ultimately left Watford because it was felt that his football was too open for us to survive in the Premier League.  A huge test of our own mettle, too.  Spirited defeat is one thing… spirited defeat being two or more things might feel less comfortable.

Bring it on.


Foster 4, Janmaat 4, Holebas 3, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, Hughes 4, Capoue 3, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 4, *Gray 4*, Deeney 3
Subs:  Femenía (for Janmaat, 72) 3, Masina (for Holebas, 84) 0, Success (for Cathcart, 88) 0, Mariappa, Sema, Chalobah, Gomes


1. Roger Smith - 17/09/2018

Their shirt looked like it had been washed with red and the colour ran, which made is a shame that we didn’t win. “Man Utd washed out like their shirt” would have made a great headline.

2. Sequel - 17/09/2018

The Observer referred to the United shirts as “salmon”. If I’m ever served salmon that colour it’ll get returned pronto.
A great second half in which Grey finally endeared himself to the home fans.

3. Robert Hill - 17/09/2018

We have done so well over the first 5 games and all credit to the squad of players and Javi. Even the ones who aren’t playing seem to be contributing, and their is a definitive ‘lets do this’ about all of the players belief and spirit. I believe that near miss at the end of the game would have given us a draw that we deserved, but somehow the big clubs just seem to be able to close the door, or get away with it. I guess that it maybe just the slight difference in class? But I’m very happy with our first 6 performances which include the second string 11 at Reading. That was something to behold, and they have some bristling talent which makes us look so strong. This could be one of our great seasons.

SteveG - 17/09/2018

Well, some you win and some you lose. I think we did deserve a draw, but then again Spurs could easily have equalised in the last minute in the previous game, so I don’t think the big clubs do always get away with it.

I reckon almost all fans would have been delighted if we’d been ‘offered’ 2-2 draws against both United and Spurs in advance. That would have left us unbeaten and on 11 points. As it is, we’ve lost a game and we’re on 12. I’ll take that.

We got a bit of a battering in the last 15 minutes of the first half, but this was the first time for ages as a Watford fan that you’d got to half time hanging on at 0-2 but still feeling that the game wasn’t over yet and we might still get something from the second half. Which we so nearly did.

4. Stuart Campbell - 17/09/2018

‘Bristling’ is a great word for us this season as we’re certainly bristling with confidence and it’s joyous to see. That has to be down to our very likeable head coach who clearly knows how to motivate.
Comments on Matt’s report a couple of games ago suggests that other team’s fans don’t like Watford. I think this is a London phenomenon. From my home base in Newark my experience is the opposite. Fans around here are mainly Forest and they see us as a very positive example of getting it right. And on trips home from the Vic on the East Coast main line I meet fans from a vast variety of clubs. They are invariably very appreciative of Watford’s rise and extremely knowledgable about our players. But then again – no London or Manchester fans. What a great time to be an ‘Orn!

David - 18/09/2018

I’m not qualified to speak on behalf of Fans of other London clubs but I have felt like a rock star dropping off my children at their South London primary school. I wore a replica shirt on the first Monday after the Spurs win and around a dozen people, half of whom I did not know, offered congratulattions on the result and performance. Where You are certainly right, is the London based media Mafia, who are suspicious of sustained success from outsiders. Brentford, (who cancelled their youth Acadamy) get a similar amount of “this is not how you run a club” stick as us.

5. Crispticker - 17/09/2018

I’d forgotten United are a team of giants. They seemed to set-up as a back three including Fellaini dominating Deeney, plus Matic patrolling in front. To me theirs’ was a 3-1-3-3 formation but, going by what the pundits and press have shared since, I was alone in this view.

First half we looked to be a pass away from clicking. Fair play to Hughes who was full of tricks and skulduggery amongst their boot-laces, but too often the way through the middle was clogged with bodies. Second half it looked as if there was an adjustment to our approach with any long balls aimed to the corners and away from the trio of storm-troopers.

Not surprisingly United capitalised on the extra inches at set pieces and Doucoure, in particular, appeared to be targeted, and was found wanting.

Having said that, I think the nature of the second half enabled our midfield dynamo to deliver a performance that was at his best, and if he hadn’t recently signed a new contract, the cynic in me would think those 45 minutes were a faultless audition, showcasing why he is such a joy to watch.

And I agree. Amongst everything else, our manager comes across as a very nice man.

Happy times.

Matt Rowson - 17/09/2018

Meant to mention your Fellaini point but got distracted somewhere.

6. Sam Barratt (@samdbarratt) - 17/09/2018

Lots of echoes at the past right now and the press coverage about Watford in the build up theis game has been off the charts. It’s almost FA Cup-semi-final-esque (as a 9 year old, I remember the special Rusty Lee cocktail she made on 1984 FA Cup final morning of some colour-or-other).

What’s great is the strength of the squad we have is pretty astonishing. Looks like the two full-backs could easily switch in and I wonder whether Chalaboh could have helped the kitchen-sink charge with a cleaner pass to unpick the Utd lock…

Fulham away is always a belter (last time was “that game”) – hope you have a ticket Matt, your reports are always a great read from out here in Nairobi.

Matt Rowson - 18/09/2018

Not Fulham Sam, sorry. Going to Arsenal tho.

7. Old Git - 18/09/2018

What imbeciles thought it was a good idea to boo Ashley Young throughout the match? It only served to make him try even harder. Doubtless, Richarlison will be given the same treatment and knowing what we do of his personality, it will be just the provocation he will need to turn in his best performance ever.

Nick B (jnr) - 19/09/2018

He didn’t exactly endear himself to the supporters when he goaded the Rookery after scoring at the Vic last season. After years of being welcomed back as an opposition player, I think it’s fair to say that it was that celebration that soured the relationship.

8. PEDantic - 18/09/2018

Just to complete your Thunk 1, Matt: after the two 5-1 wins we went to Anfield and gave Liverpool a helluva game in a 4-3 defeat. 13 goals to 6 in six days to end the season. Even though it wasn’t fashionable then, football was great in the 80s.

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