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Watford 3 Aston Villa 2 (14/08/2021) 15/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- By half time, the sun is properly out.  Which is how opening day should be, of course.  There are 200 hospital staff circuiting the pitch to a prolonged standing ovation from all four sides of the ground.  “Song for Guy” plays as the faces of those lost over the pandemic by both club and hospital appear on the screen.  There is a deluge of specks in eyes, odd for a still afternoon.

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It’s one of a number of significant things on a memorable day.  Arguably the most memorable thing, though there are many others.  Like… just being in a full stadium again.  The noise.  The colour.  The single living entity that a football crowd becomes. Queuing for a pint.  Edging your way to your seat.  Grins and greetings shared both with friends and with familiar faces.  God, we’ve missed this so much.

Simon and I had reflected on some of this as he arrived an hour earlier.  We went as far as suggesting that the result really didn’t matter at all.  That the other stuff was so much more significant.

We quickly acknowledged that this was complete bollocks.

2- So much is governed by mindset.  Several weeks ago we had the holiday conversation at home.  Weighed up the things that everyone’s weighed up.  Cost.  Uncertainty.  Risk. Risks. All sorts of risks. COVID.  The need to navigate the labyrinthine testing requirements (what does “a PCR test is advised for those returning from Spain” actually mean?).  The possibility that sands might shift between booking our holiday and the planned date of departure or, worse, whilst we were away or, worse, that positive tests at certain required points might be catastrophic.

My wife and daughters calmly but firmly pointed out that we were going anyway.  And that was that.  As soon as my head accepted this fact as a given rather than a decision to be made everything seemed much more straightforward (excepting, possibly, the labyrinthine regulations).  We returned from Málaga yesterday.

Meanwhile on Twitter, the world is ending.  Troy Deeney’s still here for one thing and he’s, like, ancient.  And Will Hughes, that’s a disgrace.  And who’s going to get the goals?  And who’s going to make the goals?  We’re, like, so relegated (my daughters did explain to me the difference between “relegated bruv” and “relegated bro” over another eclectic buffet dinner in Spain, but I forget…).

You wouldn’t know it.  The concerns loudly voiced on social media are left at the door, or at the very least drowned out by furious bloody-mindedness.  This is not a time for balance and weighing things up and judgement, overly anxious or otherwise.  This is a time for just bloody going to Spain and everyone knows it.  The noise is relentless – given the ten-plus minute ovation at half-time it’s possible that recent records were broken, but nobody is counting.  The first hiatus late in the second half is borne of collective exhaustion.

3- The opening is a sparring match, and whilst it’s completely unreasonable to extrapolate from the first few minutes to the entire season that’s what everyone’s doing.  On the whole we look kind of OK… keeping Villa at arm’s length if offering them more glimpses that you’d really like.  A key protagonist here is Peter Etebo, who is a mobile, efficient, disciplined destructive agent.  If Jonathan Hogg had been Nigerian…  win ball, keep possession, lay off.  Win ball, hold off marker, find the pass.  Tremendous.

Alongside him is the deceptive Juraj Kucka. This, I will confess, was the one that tested my ability to reserve judgement…  a 34 year-old?  Really?  And look at him, he’s clearly another ball-winner with his hulking, square shoulders.  Thing is, he looks like a hell’s angel but moves like a ballerina and whilst others will get wise to this Villa really aren’t.  He’s simply fabulous, a big character whose deceptive touch and swagger complement Etebo and Cleverley beautifully in what looks far from the sellotaped midfield of the twitterati’s (and everyone else’s) worst fears.

It’s not too long before a less surprising weapon puts on the burners.  Ismaïla Sarr is going to give Matt Targett a miserable 45 minutes before his half-time withdrawal – Targett an odd selection by Dean Smith since established first choice left back or otherwise, Targett’s value is in the quality of his delivery rather than his turn of pace (or lack of it).  Against any normal mortal, let alone Isma. Twenty minutes in Joe is WhatsApping that Sarr is finishing Targett’s career.

By this point we’re already ahead.  The third debutant to start is Emmanuel Dennis whose first ten minutes is the lowest profile of the trio until he gets on the end of a Sarr cross to open our account for the season at the second attempt – fortunate perhaps that the rebound fell to him, although even the newly reticent VAR might have had a glance at Konsa’s block, the shape of which Martínez would have been proud of, had the striker not followed up.  Thereafter Dennis joins his fellow new-boys in enthusing his new crowd with a spiky hour or so in which he torments Villa’s back line with a repertoire of speed, sharp first touches and efficient aggression.  More than once ponderous Villa play is disrupted by Dennis dropping out of a tree like some kind of ninja and making off with the ball before anyone’s had time to shout.

We’re not dominant in terms of possession.  Villa have plenty, but don’t know quite what to do with it.  The unpopular Young is prominent, Ings looks sharp enough that you wouldn’t want to give him a view (we don’t), Buendía is all but invisible.  But whilst we’ll have tougher opponents than a Villa side in the wake of a disruptive departure and missing, in Watkins and Luiz, two key protagonists, it’s hugely encouraging that we do the “holding them off” thing around the edge of our area as effectively as we executed it for much of last season.  They don’t record an effort on target in the first half and rarely look like doing so, whereas from ten minutes on we’re sharp on the break.  We end the half well ahead on points and also on goals…  Sarr wins one of an impressive and unprecedented number of flick-ons to release Dennis, the Nigerian slips him in on the right and his shot gets a big deflection off, poetically enough, Tyrone Mings to loop past Martínez.  A bit of luck…  if these three points send Villa down at the end of the season we’ll let them off the missed red card and call it quits.

4- We’ve covered three debutants and we’ll get to Cucho.  But there are further debutants in the stadium in the shape of Aasha and Sammy.  Aasha was a school friend with whom contact has been recently re-established through the miracles of social media;  she wasn’t a football fan back then, but apparently things change in 30 years.  Having enthused over the Euros she has declared that having a club of her own was overdue.  Now living locally the Hornets were an option; Streatham was home for quite a while too so Palace declared as another.

An old school friend, as I said, but some things are less about friendship and more about common decency.  Steering Aasha onto the right path was the only reasonable thing to do.  I made the case as clearly as I could and when Aasha conceded, partially in terror I suspect, I followed up by contacting A Club Representative who facilitated a letter from Troy congratulating Aasha on the wisdom of her choice.  So here Aasha is, with 8 year-old son Sammy giving it everything next to her. I’m not sure whether it’s right to point out that it isn’t always quite this fun or let them find out in time.

Meanwhile back on the pitch Villa are out earlier after the break, and start with purpose.  Young has replaced the hapless Targett by shifting to left back after which Isma’s free rein is curtailed, and sub Jacob Ramsey is prominent in two early attacks.  These yield nearly moments rather than efforts on target, but they’re a statement of intent in a more assertive if, at least initially, scarcely more impactful second half from the visitors.

We still provide threat on the break but the difference in quality between divisions is evident as Sema does his once-a-game bundle down the left touchline but is robbed before he can pull the trigger.  He should have been given a corner, but that’s a shot on target in the Championship.  Similarly Sarr is a threat and provokes anxiety on the other flank but again Villa muddle through.  Dennis cuts inside from the left and fires in hard and low; the keeper’s right behind it, but tickets and raffles as Sarr’s goal demonstrated.  Villa haven’t had a shot on target yet.

Minutes later Dennis is hobbling off to an ovation, and on comes the mythical Cucho Hernández at least twelve months later than planned.  In truth his competitive debut is relatively low key and innocuous, except for the bit that isn’t.  There’s so much that marks Cucho out, builds up his legend… the stories from Spain, the two goals off the bench on his debut for Colombia, the bleached blonde hair and boyish grin.  So the force of personality to take that wave of expectation and ride it and score a goal of the season contender with his first involvement is quite staggering.  Kucka is bundled over in Villa’s half, Dean plays a great advantage as Cleverley scraps the ball out to Cucho on the left.  The Colombian progresses down the flank, cuts inside and flings a curling shot across the face of goal.  It’s in off the base of the far post and Vicarage Road erupts in noise.  We’re away.

5- Had we held out a little longer we might have gotten away with a flattering thrashing, set up as we were to attack on the break.  Instead John McGinn’s brilliant conversion of Leon Bailey’s cross serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change with a bit of Premier League quality.  It didn’t ultimately matter much this time, but we won’t always have a 3-0 cushion;  1999/2000 was peppered with games in which we played pretty well and lost 1-0, this fixture amongst them.  The late penalty, too, was more than a footnote…  a bizarre attempt at a tackle by the otherwise exemplary Masina, but had he not attempted it Traoré was in and a second goal was likely in any case.  It was wrong to presume relegation before a ball had been kicked.  It’s no less foolish to be presumptuous on the back of one, albeit largely fabulous, victory.

But 3-2 flatters the visitors;  we were much better than that.  Villa can be expected to improve, and can take heart from hanging in there…  we can be grateful, I think, for opening at home and for catching our opponents at a weak moment, but there was no fortune in our own performance.  To reiterate, we got our players in early, players that the recruitment team know more about that we do, and it showed.  We have a team, already.  And let’s have no more leaping to “I’ve got doubts about Xisco’s tactical acumen”;  all available evidence since his first few games defy that position.  We have a team, a coach and a club to be proud of.


As for Aasha, who once got a job in Boots in Basildon just in case Dave Gahan came in for some toothpaste, the regular Depeche Mode outing over the tannoy at the final whistle sealed the deal.  The day kept dropping in highlights… Lloyd Doyley bashfully edging his way down Occupation Road against the tide was one, Nathaniel Chalobah gushing about his brother and “his” club’s win on Twitter another.  Spain was fabulous, and today was a Good Day.

Now we just need to do it again, on and off the pitch.

See you at Brighton, and welcome back.


Bachmann 3, Cathcart 3, Masina 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Kabasele 4, Etebo 4, Cleverley 4, *Kucka 5*, Sarr 4, Sema 3, Dennis 4
Subs: Hernández (for Dennis, 66) 4, Gosling (for Kucka, 69) 3, Deeney (for Cleverley, 80) NA, Ngakia, Rose, Louza, Fletcher, Sierralta, Foster


1. Andy C - 15/08/2021

That was great fun! Sarr vs Targett the most one-sided contest I can remember watching since Will Buckley embarrassed Lee Naylor against Cardiff.

Have to resist getting over excited but with Pedro and King still to add competition to the front line, the pace and skill promises plenty going forward.

Matt Rowson - 15/08/2021

great fun is about right… 🙂

Crisb - 15/08/2021

We were probably fortunate that Denis Smith was picking the villa team instead of Dean 😉

Welcome back and glad you had a good holiday!

Matt Rowson - 15/08/2021

Christ, I’ve done that so many times and spotted it… mental block… thx

2. Hazel - 15/08/2021

Brilliant article Matt. Sums up the day perfectly. I can just send this to friends and family and say this was how it was 👍.

Matt Rowson - 15/08/2021

🙂 Thanks Hazel

3. Old Git - 15/08/2021

Some of us remember Stewart Scullion roasting Graham’s Taylor!
Credit to Craig Cathcart. He’s a top notch defender wherever he’s asked to play and this early in the season maybe cavalier forays up the wing from right back are a bit of a luxury. All respect to Kiko but he is prone to being caught out of position, which might not be such an issue in the championship but now we’re back in the Prem his occasional lapses are likely to be more costly.
As for yesterday’s midfield trio…crikey! If Will Hughes decides to accept the new contract, would he get back in the side?
Finally, no sign of Gray or Success, not even on the (rather large) bench. Can’t say I’m too bothered.

4. Julian Hawkins - 15/08/2021

Your holiday reference was an interesting reverse of my situation – I was all for taking a chance and going somewhere overseas but was overruled by Wife and daughter ! Ended up spending a week in the rain in Dorset . So yesterday was a lift before the dreaded return to work. Agree Kucko was immense and the other debutants were outstanding, Dennis’s work rate was terrific and Etebo looked like he’d been playing for Watford for years. Having turned up and seen the line -up it was difficult to know what to expect. But unless those performances were all just one-offs I’m quietly optimistic we can make a good fist of this season .

Harefield Hornet - 15/08/2021

AKA Harefield Hornet

Bill James - 15/08/2021

Hey Julian, if you are the one and only, good to know you still go. I have been going occasionally the last couple of years, and really enjoyed yesterday (as it was the first time I have seen a win live since the FA Cup Semi Final v Wolves). Maybe we’ll catch up sometime! Cheers

Harefield Hornet - 15/08/2021

Hello Bill ! – all the Harefield gang still congregate in the V bar in the Rookery before the match . Still see Swanny, Wally South, Moaner and his boys, Chris Potter and the rest ! COYH!

5. Nick Young - 15/08/2021

Wonderful, transcendental even, sun blessed afternoon. This is going back a bit, but the way we set about it reminded me of how God regularly used to set up his sides to be totally without fear and simply blow the opposition away. For example Leicester at home in 1982 (featuring a hapless young Gary Lineker), highlights of which can be found on YouKnowWhere. The difference being that was at the end of a triumphant season whereas yesterday was supposed to be the prologue to a naysayers’ doom. Furious bloody-mindedness indeed!

6. David - 15/08/2021

As we won, the half time walk remains the most important aspect of the day.

7. heftiehornet - 15/08/2021

Matt, as I am having to isolate in preparation for an operation, I find your match reports enlightening. It sounds like we are going to have an exciting season with pace that will scare many an opponent.

Matt Rowson - 15/08/2021

I hope so heftie. Best of luck with the op.

8. Andrew Maslen - 15/08/2021

“He’s simply fabulous”, he is.

9. Ray Knight - 16/08/2021

Glad you had a good holiday Matt. Lovely write up for a perfect day. Apart from what happened on the pitch the march of the NHS workers around the pitch was a touching highlight. I felt impelled to clap for 10 minutes and thought my arms would fall off! Most of us were nervous beforehand but what a performance from Xisco and the team. They played without fear and did us proud. Actually feel optimistic now if we continue in thar vein.

Matt Rowson - 16/08/2021

Cheers Ray

10. Back from Hammerau - 16/08/2021

There’s a lot of renewal of acquaintanceships on the first day of the season – with the stadium, with the players, with those sitting around us, with live football – and it was more so on Saturday because the absence had been significantly longer than the usual 3 months.
Despite the number of new faces on the pitch and in the dugout, there was a lot that was familiar. The stadium seemed the same (apart from a new temperamental turnstile system) and things like the half-time salute to the NHS workers and the applause for GT gave reassurance that the most important things hadn’t changed.
I must admit to being puzzled at the reception Ashley Young received.
I still have no idea where we’ll finish in May, but I’m confident that I’ll be thoroughly entertained between now and then.

Matt Rowson - 16/08/2021

A couple of things with Young. Some heated exchanges when he was at United might have contributed, but probably more the fact that he appeared to be about to come back here and then ducked out because he got a better offer.

11. Graham French - 16/08/2021

Thanks for the great report Matt , which summed up my feelings about a terrific afternoon. Though I missed the NHS applause & walk round as I was queuing for lucky half time chocolate!
All our 4 debutants look like real finds .
Being an irregular attender at games , we’d only decided the night before to go ( football in august never feels quite right) & I confess I was spurred on by local euphoria at Brentford’s result – I live a couple of miles from the ground & both daughters are keen supporters ( their local team – can’t argue with that). The Watford ticketing arrangements however were a nightmare. I won’t bore with the details but it took nearly 3 hours including 2 calls to the ticket office to sort them out . I’m a fairly old hand at online tickets for all sorts of things so I don’t think it was my incompetence. Hopefully the club sort it out.
Back to the game – a highlight for me was the short build up to Cucho’s exquisite goal. 2 players fouled & Tom flicking the ball to Cucho as he tumbled to the ground . And a master class by Mike Dean in playing the advantage.
Final thought – Daughter 1 lived in Colombia for 2 & a half years – she was very entertained by the nickname Cucho. I won’t spoil the fun but look it up

Matt Rowson - 16/08/2021

Cucho – in an interview he said it meant “Old Man”, but he was named after Esteban Cambiasso, who had the same nickname, when his parents cut his hair drastically short.

Sorry to hear of your trouble getting tickets. I think they’ll get there… this is a system deemed to be vastly superior to Ticketmaster by clubs that have used both.

Lucky chocolate… I ALWAYS buy mine from the corner pre-game, but what with the clapping and all forgot to eat it until the half started. Not easy to neck a Snickers quickly… I blame myself for the loss of 2 goals.

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