Trying to sum up a match as full of emotion and intensity as last night’s gripping contest was is never easy. Especially when you’re writing the following day, fatigued by a lack of sleep. And even more especially when you forgot to take your notebook to London with you. But allow us to try, as we give our thoughts on a thoroughly entertaining evening at the Valley.
Charlton: Hamer, Wilson, Cort, Morrison, Solly, Green (Hulse 79),Stephens, Hollands (Pritchard 79), Kerkar, Fuller, Wright-Phillips.
Subs Not Used: Button, Evina, Wagstaff, Razak, Dervite.
Goals: Fuller 35.
Watford: Almunia, Hoban, Hall, Neuton (Ekstrand 75), Cassetti, Chalobah (Doyley 90), Hogg, Abdi, Pudil, Deeney (Iwelumo 90), Forestieri.
Subs Not Used: Bond, Yeates, Murray, Vydra.
Sent Off: Forestieri (45).
Booked: Forestieri, Pudil, Neuton, Abdi, Almunia.
Goals: Hoban 29,Abdi 70.
It seems inappropriate to comment first on individual performances, as we usually do, after a victory like this. There were undoubtedly a number of fantastic shifts put in by certain players – especially in the second half, when there were only ten of them – but a huge amount of credit must be bestowed on the team as a unit.
Critics of Watford’s new approach to squad sourcing had many reasons for their gripes, but the one that rung loudest was that of practicality – this is no way to build a team. Everyone has their opinion over the morals of importing a squad from a wealthier beneficiary, of the justness of blocking the path of our talented pool of youngsters, but it was hard to argue that building a team around loanees, “mercenaries” who “only care about their own future rather than the club’s”, would be extremely difficult, no matter what spin you put on the players themselves.
Which is why it was so refreshing and encouraging to see the players punching the air and hugging one another when the final whistle sounded. Bodies were put on the line in defence, lung capacity was pushed to its limits further up the pitch, as ten men battled for forty five minutes to secure an unlikely victory – thinking of nothing but getting the job done.
A second away success on the trot was good, but the unity, grit and determination that this ragtag group showed as one was the real victory. We’ve seen good performances go astray this season, as domination has been let down by the absence of a winning mentality, but with the last week’s haul of six points from two tricky games, it seems as if this side have finally arrived.
Up there with the most memorable games that I’ve witnessed in my fifteen years of following Watford is the 1-0 defeat of Leicester on a crisp Tuesday night in February 2008. John-Joe O’Toole, the Sean Murray of old, was contentiously sent off after 40 minutes, with the game still scoreless. Much like last night, the Hornets fought a rearguard action and secured a smash-and-grab victory with a goal well before the end. Like all great last ditch stands, it needed a leader, someone to lead from the front, rally the troops and give heart to the disheartened: a William Wallace, a Leonidas, a Darius Henderson. ‘Hendo’ put in a shift that will long be remembered by those present as his greatest day in a Watford shirt. Barrelling around the pitch, he was involved in everything. One moment he’d be jostling with the Foxes’ back line, the next throwing himself in front of a shot in the six yard box – not content with ploughing a lone furrow up front, he moved to centre back where he defended with resilience and bravery. It was a performance of mythic proportions.
Troy Deeney’s performance last night was not quite on the same level, mainly as he was not completely isolated whenever he ventured outside of his own penalty area, but he played the same role. Not only did he provide an outlet for the pressure piled on by Charlton, giving our defenders time to breathe by eagerly chasing down every clearance and holding it up as best he could, but he was the man that the other players could look to and know that all was not lost.
Whatever you think of him as a man, it is clear that he is a huge asset to the changing room – after running himself into the ground for 89 minutes, it would have been understandable if he wanted to head straight for the fans at the final whistle and take some of his deserved plaudits, but he hung back, high fiving each of his teammates, and allowing the rest of the team to bask in the adulation of the thousand-or-so away fans.
To call the game a rearguard victory is perhaps slightly harsh. Though Watford defended resolutely, and rode their luck on quite a few occasions, they did not pack ten men behind the ball. Sure, they defended in numbers, but more often than not, when the ball was regained, they attempted to play the ball out and regain possession, a tactic made possible by the calming presence of Almen Abdi. After a few ineffectual games, Abdi was back at his classy best, hustling around like a 1940s switchboard operator, picking up the ball amongst the mania and coolly passing on possession. Jonathan Hogg struggled to put his stamp on the game for the most part, and Nathaniel Chalobah was unusually (he said, four games into his career) sloppy with the ball, so the onus was on Abdi to take hold of the three man midfield. His free-kick wasn’t bad either.
The game’s turning point was, of course, the sending off of Fernando Forestieri. Before that, the game had been a fairly tepid affair, though goals from Tommie Hoban and Ricardo Fuller had perked it up somewhat. The diminutive Italian/Argentine had already been given a caution for needlessly obvious encroachment on a threatening Charlton free-kick when he was, in this guy’s opinion, the victim of an atrocious refereeing decision.
When Forestieri’s stoppage time corner was half cleared to Chalobah, the young midfielder sprayed the ball back out wide. Shaping to cross with his right, the forward cut inside onto his left, leaving the nearest defender on his backside. As he turned to make the most of the room his movement had created he slipped on the greasy turf – which had caused more than a few slips and miscontrols already in the game – with at least two yards of daylight between him and the defender.
Forestieri has managed to already accrue a reputation as a diver, a reputation probably exacerbated by his nationality, and I personally haven’t seen enough of him to comment either way. What I would say is that he goes down easily, which is a completely different thing. In any case, when looking to win a free-kick, he adopts the time-honoured style of arching his back, flinging his hands to the sky and dragging himself along the floor. On this occasion, he did none of these things. Nor did he appeal for anything. That he was booked for simulation was ridiculous, one would expect better from Mike Dean, but it did spark the performance that led to the three points, and an extremely memorable victory.
Hoban’s “goal” (which, whisper it quietly, was going out for a throw before taking a deflection) was the icing on the presumably solid and uncompromising cake that was only his second senior start. He has been thrown in the deep end somewhat, with starts first against a high-flying form team and then for an evening game full of needle, but of the three centre halves last night, he was the most impressive. Neuton was his usual solid self, making one spectacular last-ditch tackle in particular; nice to watch, but prone to make a boo-boo at any time, while Fitz Hall was unconvincing as a defensive leader. Hoban may not be that comfortable with the ball yet, but his defending was infallible, strong in the air, and confident in the challenge.
Joel Ekstrand was brought into the fray for his debut when it was at its most intense. Unlike Neuton who is perhaps prone to the odd mistake, he seemed solid, and formed part of the solid back line that remained unpenetrated for the immense pressure it was put under for the last twenty minutes.
Just like the Huddersfield match, Watford started in a 3-5-2 formation from the get-go, with Daniel Pudil and Marco Cassetti again the wing backs. When he was on the pitch, Forestieri was having to work hard down both channels as neither of the wing-backs were getting forward quickly enough. Cassetti does like to attack, but is not the sort of player who will bomb forward on the off chance of an attack occurring – at his age, you have to be sparing with energy. Cassetti had the added task of keeping Salim Kerkar, Charlton’s standout performer, in check, which he managed relatively well, barring the build-up to Ricardo Fuller’s equaliser. It was certainly the best I’ve seen Cassetti play. Pudil, on the other hand, didn’t get involved enough, rarely committing to an overlap – when he did, it was effective and resulted in good chances being created.
The balance in midfield seems to have sorted itself out. With Yeates, as alright as he’s been this year, alongside Abdi, the central three was lacking in destructive qualities and had to rely on Hogg to dominate the middle third on his own. Now, with Chalobah contributing to the defensive side, and weighing in with a composed attacking style, there is both a definitive bite to the midfield, without harming its creative capabilities.
To a man, every Watford fan left the Valley on a high – many probably woke up this morning buzzing. Walking through the dark streets of South East London, nursing a portion of fish and chips, it felt a weight had been lifted from the shoulders of the Watford faithful. We’ve been promised beautiful football, a more continental style, but at the cost of good old English backbone? Nice build-up and a few nifty touches hasn’t been enough to fully convince – something has always been missing…
One showing of belligerence and refusal to lie down later, with the added bonus of a goal from an academy product, and suddenly everything seems brighter. Having risen to 11th in the league, only three points of the playoffs, the fans could be forgiven for beginning to look up rather than down.