Up until now, I have only been able to watch Watford through a computer screen. I had wondered for years just how exciting it would be to watch the Hornets up close. This past Saturday, I finally got that chance. I was both ridiculously excited and a nervous wreck. As anyone following the club will know, the lackluster performances on the pitch and increasingly totalitarian behavior of the owner have made a trip to Vicarage Road seem more like a chore than a fun time. However, true to their name, the local fans of the Original Family Club made me feel as welcomed as ever. Through the wonderful hospitality of Carl, Justin, and Peter, I was introduced to so many of the welcoming fans that make the club special.
As we approached the ground, Carl warned me Vicarage Road would not compare to the baseball or American football stadiums I had seen before. Nonetheless, when I stepped into the Rookery stand, I felt like I was home. Hearing the team introduction music was just as magical as I had imagined. As thrilling as the initial experience was, the nervous energy returned as the lineups were announced. If Watford were to keep their flimsy playoff hopes alive, three points would be the only option. The ever-dependable Joao Pedro would oblige five minutes in, taking down an Imran Louza free kick on the right side of the box. He turned and fired a low shot to the left corner, which ricocheted off the foot of Bristol’s Harry Cornick and into the net for the lead.
One of the many frustrations fans have with the club is their tendency to act complacent when they gain a lead, and that seemed to be what was happening here. Cornick was able to get a free header at the near post, but Dan Bachmann parried it aside. Cornick then had another chance as a corner found him in the center of the box, but he sent it over the bar. Unlike previous opponents, Bristol City didn’t seem to have the tenacity to pounce on Watford. With the scoreline still 1-0 heading into halftime, a sense of wary confidence could be felt around the ground. The Hornets had certainly let leads slip away before, but they had also managed to stave off Bristol City advances to that point.
In the second half, old fears crept back into Watford minds, as it appeared they were barely holding on. Leading scorer Nahki Wells recovered a rebound from six yards and forced Bachmann into an acrobatic save. Moments later, Wells sent a header clattering off the left post. Following this initial flurry, however, Watford put the nail in the coffin. Joao Pedro rose again to put a dipping shot through the legs of Max O’Leary and doubled the lead in the 54th minute. Even at that point, no Watford fan could fully relax. Again, the Hornets seemed to release the pressure from Bristol City, as if they just wanted to see the game out. For as much criticism as Bachmann has received this season, he may have been one of the only reasons Watford won this match. As the final whistle blew, a sense of desperately needed relief came over the whole stadium.
For the past few weeks, the fans have been discussing just how much of a chance this Watford team has of making the playoffs. The Championship table is quite compact, and this win propelled Watford to within 4 points of the playoff spots. The team’s form has not warranted a playoff appearance in the slightest, but it was still very much a mathematical possibility following that win. The following game against Cardiff City would be the chance for Watford to show they belonged in the promotion race.
I never thought I would legitimately prefer standing in an airport customs queue to attending a football match, yet that is how I felt on Wednesday. Yet again, Watford fans witnessed at team that cannot bring themselves to put in a consistent effort. Following a wonderful passage between Imran Louza, Keinan Davis and Ismaila Sarr which led to the opening goal, the Hornets proceeded to put forth some of the most apathetic and disjointed football imaginable. In the span of 10 minutes, Watford allowed a lead to transform into a 2-goal deficit. In the 31st minute, Kion Etete displayed some lovely skill to bamboozle the Watford defense and slot the equalizer into the left corner. Eight minutes later, a Cardiff free kick from 30 yards out pinballed to the feet of Cedric Kipre, who tapped it in for the lead. Finally, in the 42nd minute, Perry NG sent a ball forward to Sory Kaba in the box, who chested it up and sent an overhead kick into the corner for the 3rd goal. As impressive a feat as the overhead kick was, it should not have been difficult for Watford to stop. Wesley Hoedt gave Kaba far too much space for the kick, and Bachmann was rooted to his spot and watched the ball go in.
Despite the fact that all of that happened before the halftime whistle, it was practically a forgone conclusion that Watford would not mount a comeback. This team is simply not built to withstand resistance from their opponents, and they consistently show desire to coast through games once they gain a lead. Many of the fans I spoke to are glad of this result, in a way. The playoffs are now a much less likely prospect, and missing out may force the club to examine why their players have the mental fortitude of wet paper and how to fix it. I haven’t even covered the protests against Gino Pozzo which occurred in these two games, but they warrant their own piece that I’ll write later on. After briefly residing in the dreamland of Saturday, believing that we could achieve bigger and better things, the alarm clock rang to remind Watford of their harsh reality. This club needs a radical overhaul, but it likely won’t happen until this season is finished. Perhaps, at that point, this reeling club will finally start to come to its senses.