BY JONNY BRICK
Even though I’m a Watford boy, I used to hold a season ticket at Tottenham Hotspur. I went between 1998 and 2003 with my dad, alternating with my brother Richard, who was there for Sol Campbell’s return. I was at the 3-5 defeat against Man United, and also the 1-3 loss in the Worthington Cup against Birmingham. Unpredictable, full of flair, and lots of foreign talent, Spurs were fine, but Man United won things, so I switched to them in 2003.
For the last three years I lived back home in Bushey, a little place next to Watford that is world-famous for being the birthplace of both George Michael and Simon Le Bon (and, as I’ve just found out, Michael Portillo). No popstar myself, I chose to work on a book called Saturday, 3pm about how people should support their local club while respecting the money and fame of the Premier League.
In May 2015 I moved away to South London and followed Watford on the radio and through Match of the Day to save a bit of money. But Christmas came, I headed home and seized the chance to see Watford as a Premier League team, something I last did in 2000 when they were already relegated.
A spare ticket arose from Paul, a man who has spent his whole life watching Watford, for the big clash with Spurs. I had met Paul earlier in the year at an event organised by a well-known quarterly magazine, quietly overjoyed that I could explain the nature of my investigation and meet another of the 12,000 season ticket holders.
Paul had recently become an uncle to a child who was being christened that weekend (hence the spare ticket from the child’s father’s absence), so there’s another new Watford supporter in the works, whom Paul will bore about the less glorious days of the club. In fact, Watford vs. Tottenham was the catalyst for my own rejuvenated support of Watford. It was the fourth round of the FA Cup in 2012, and Watford impressed against a good Spurs team. I think I listened to some of the game on the radio. I remember Watford hitting the post or bar a couple of times.
Spurs rested Gareth Bale and Ledley King, but still started with players with the talent of Michael Dawson, Luka Modric and Emmanuel Adebayor (the last of these has trained with Watford in the 2015/16 season hoping to win a short-term contract after Spurs released him and his six-figures-a-week pay packet). Watford’s team bears listing in full:
Loach; Hodson, Mariappa, Nosworthy, Doyley; Murray, Buaben, Eustace, Deeney; Sordell, Graham. Subs: Bond, Dickinson, Yeates (for Murray, 67), Jenkins, Whichelow (for Garner, 80), Iwelumo.
Over 15,000 people were persuaded to buy tickets for the game which, incredibly, was dominated by Sean Dyche’s team, with 25 shots, 12 on target, to Spurs’ 6 and 4. The game’s goal was from Rafa van der Vaart, part of ‘Arry Redknapp’s great front line at Spurs. Troy Deeney, you’ll notice, was out on the left because the front two were working so well. Of the other 17 players, only Sean Murray remains at the club, with Lloyd Doyley slowly working his way back from injury.
The game took place six months before the Pozzo family bought the club. Dyche had been manager for six months, taking over from his friend and former defensive colleague Malky Mackay, and went on to lose only 15 of the 49 games for which he was in charge. Deeney came in the 2010 summer transfer window and it was a month after this game, with his father close to being defeated by his cancer, that the infamous nightclub affray took place in Birmingham which resulted in a brief prison sentence.
Now, on 28 December 2015, Deeney captained a Watford side which had had its best month ever, I reckon. Since November 28th, the four wins (Sunderland and Aston Villa away, and Norwich City and Liverpool at home) and a draw against Chelsea showed that everything was coming together for the team. Not just the goals of Deeney and Odion Ighalo, but the defensive solidity that brought clean sheets in three of those games.
Now, Heurelho Gomes was to play in goal against his old employer. Despite being PSV Eindhoven’s goalie for their four consecutive Eredivisie wins, he is not known for his time there as much as his disastrous time at Tottenham. One particular YouTube video shows two shots squirming through his hands, then being dispossessed and giving away a penalty in the UEFA Cup. Against Chelsea he gets a big hand to a hard Drogba shot, but watches it go in, and is beaten at his near post in a Champions League tie against Real Madrid by a Cristiano Ronaldo shot. Worst of all is the goal conceded from a thirty-yard swerver that he palms behind him and then seems to trickle into the goal in slow motion. By 2012, Gomes had been frozen out by Redknapp, replaced with Brad Friedel and Carlo Cudicini, and seemed a laughing stock despite being a full Brazil international who travelled as third-choice goalie to South Africa; he has 11 caps.
He spoke to ESPN in summer 2015, full of blame but respect for his former employer. Gomes had been disappointed with how he was eventually relegated to fourth-choice keeper. The man signed to replace him, Hugo Lloris, has been number one at Spurs for three seasons.
At Watford, Gomes has become a fans’ favourite not just for his enthusiastic goal celebrations but for his work in the community. A selfless player, Gomes gives his time to many projects encouraging kids to play sport, and is a leader in the dressing room. In front of Gomes are experienced Premier League players (Cathcart, Watson) and Watford favourites (Abdi, Anya, Ighalo), while on the touchline Quique Flores reminds his players of what to do.
I asked Paul, who sits to the right of the goal behind the pitch in the Rookery End, what Quique has done tactically since he took over in June. He says it’s simply a matter of playing two strikers, the same tactic Watford flourished under in the 2014/15 promotion season. In the top division, a traditional, but out of fashion 4-4-2, catches out two-man centre-back pairings.
As the Spurs match kicks off we realise Eric Dier is actually a centre-back today, with Tom Carroll and Dele Alli in front of a three of Dier, Alderweireld and Vertonghen. Eriksen is on the bench, but will come on for Dembele just before half-time, just after another Ighalo goal. Carroll, smartly, was given a game in place of Eriksen; he is a local lad, Paul pointed out, who captained Hertfordshire as a kid, and remains a proud alumnus of Parmiter’s, a footballing school which also counts England cricketer Steve Finn as one of its old boys.
The game will be remembered for two challenges: Dele Alli on Capoue in the second minute, a League One challenge by a Premier League starlet which earned a yellow; and Nathan Ake going in with studs on Eric Lamela, right in front of the referee and the Watford manager, who was shocked with the red card. A few minutes before that, Spurs showed that they want to win at all costs, Harry Kane running to the referee shouting for a card for Miguel Britos, who was taken off almost immediately as precaution.
In the Rookery End we all realised that the referee seemed to favour Spurs, almost looking for excuses to give Watford some free kicks to feign balance. Anthony Taylor is no mug, now on the FIFA list and twice a Cup Final ref (the Wigan FA Cup win of 2013, and Spurs’ defeat against Kurt Zouma and Chelsea in 2015’s League Cup), and is only following the rules. His assistant was berated by Ighalo, who received a yellow card for protesting a fair shirt-pull. I felt the game was beyond control, which is what happens when a referee has to show a card in the opening ten minutes: damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Who’d want to be one, eh?
Taylor did not redeem himself when Danny Rose fell over looking for a free kick on the edge of his own box right in front of the hardcore 1881 Movement, a group of fans in the corner of the ground who start the singing and embody the passion of many Watford fans. Troy Deeney, their hero, looked witheringly at Rose, a very good full-back desperately wanting his team to win. In a stunning spell of pressure from the ten men, a Ben Watson corner was 90% over the line. The chip in the ball didn’t buzz, and Spurs went up the other end and scored.
In the first half it has been a lapse, the sort that Watford themselves have pounced on this season, that befell Craig Cathcart, slipping on the halfway line and giving away possession in the kind of area that Premier League internationals relish (gegenpress is the fancy term for this). Lamela ran at Britos, wasn’t tackled because it was a 1 v 1 pursuit, and ‘slotted past’ (sorry for the cliché but it’s true) Gomes after twenty minutes.
It happens to even the best players (from Liverpool and elsewhere) and Cathcart will get over the slip.
Abdi was withdrawn at half-time, nullified by the Spurs midfield, and replaced by Valon Behrami. Against Chelsea forty-eight hours before this match, Behrami had given away a penalty which Oscar missed, a point gained; here it would have been a brilliant point against a Spurs team who would have been pilloried if they had not made a man advantage count. Impressively, Watford had only made one change, Ake coming back in after his enforced rest against his parent club. Rather than prolonged anger at Ake’s red card, I was amazed Watford could hold out for 25 minutes against a Spurs side which included some very good ball players. Eti Capoue, formerly of Spurs, wanted to win the game, and showed his class. Gomes made a couple of simple saves and was steady at corners.
Replays showed the winning goal, by South Korean star Son Heung-Min, should not have stood, but could Gomes have punched further than back to Trippier? Could Deeney have nudged Hugo Lloris as he ran twenty yards across his goal, confidently embodying the role of ‘sweeper-keeper’?
It’s academic and moot now. The manager, sensibly, praised Ake and his players while complimenting Spurs on respecting a team in form. The noise from the fans that greeted Ighalo’s goal and Deeney’s closing down was so impressive; the boos for Dele Alli, who could well have been sent off if the challenge hadn’t been the first in the game, were matched only by the chant ‘Twelve men!’ Rules is rules, and Spurs is Spurs.
What if I had carried on my Spurs fandom beyond 14 or 15? Would I be going to Russia and Slovenia on Thursday nights, or making appointment viewing with ITV4? I did marvel at Lamela’s rabona last season, more so because Watford were in the middle of a difficult patch early in the season and Spurs in Europe was a distraction.
All told, Spurs have had their own recent dizzy success, and the foundations are there to build on it, especially now they have a new Director of Football and are developing young British players. Alex Pritchard and Harry Winks are two of the squad players at Spurs, who can only get better as they train with world-class talent like Kane and Eriksen. Spurs also have the monetary power from their decades at the top level, and have been given the green light for a new ground. Paul said that Pochettino was the manager Daniel Levy, the Spurs CEO, had been searching for since taking over the club from Lord Sir Alan Sugar. (I was too young back then to really vent anger with Sugar, but he seemed less good than Levy.) With Harry Kane as captain and the best goalkeeper in Europe between the sticks, things are looking very much up even though the year ends in ‘6’, not ‘1’.
For little Watford, the first half of the season saw home fans witness to 10 goals scored and only 8 conceded, and an impressive away record of 14 scored and 12 conceded. To be in the top half of the table on New Year’s Day was probably above the expectations of every single Watford fan. There are reasons – fit players, great man management and recruitment that built on existing talent – but from sitting with the Watford fans I can tell they know there’s something in the air in WD18.
“How wonderful life is…” as Elton John once sang, when glory comes to a Watford fan’s world.