Date: 18 January 2014
This afternoon Bournemouth battled hard, in appalling conditions (again!), to earn a draw against the team that thrashed us 6-1 earlier this season. You’d think that might mean we’d come away satisfied, and proud of our team? But no; the facts that (i) once again we dominated a game and failed to win, (ii) we played against 10 men for the last half hour, and (iii) Grabban missed a penalty, meant we ended up more conscious of the two points we’d dropped than of the one we’d gained.
The first news to greet us on arrival outside the stadium was that Grabban was staying after all (relief – as he’s the only member of our squad really suited to the one-up-front role). The second news was that Liverpool tickets have sold out (so if I’d asked for an Exiles one I wouldn’t have got it anyway). And on arrival inside the first impression was that the pitch is looking quite excellent despite (or because of?) all the recent rain; and the second impression was that this was yet another excellent (in excess of 10,000) crowd. Just a shame that by the end of the match it would be the Watford contingent that would have the most to sing about.
We lined up identically (same formation, same players, same positions) to the last game I’d seen – at Brighton. No problem with that. Grabban of course received the loudest cheer. The first half was fairly balanced but Camp had little to do – Elphick’s quick thinking once or twice ensuring that Watford didn’t get anywhere near our goal. (Elphick had a good first half, but once again he struggled whenever Francis got forward so that he was required to fill in at right-back.) Meanwhile O’Kane quickly emerged as undisputed ‘man of the match’; he covered the whole pitch, performing every role from sweeper to striker while excelling in his chief role of ‘protecting’ the centre backs.
Our two best scoring opportunities in the first half (when for the second home game running we’d lost the toss and were therefore having to attack towards the North Stand) came firstly from a Ritchie shot on 24 minutes – which appeared to be on target but was unfortunately deflected for a corner – and secondly from a ‘sitter’ for Pugh off a great ball from Surman, that Pugh somehow managed to send soaring over the bar. But, apart from this, chances were few and far between because whenever wingers (and often Grabban himself – in an outside right position) had the ball and wanted to put in a cross, there was no-one in the box to receive it. More often than not the only option was to pass the ball from one wing to the other; and back again! The team and the fans started to get frustrated. At one point some angry exchanges took place on the touchline in front of the Main Stand, involving personnel in the dugouts as well as players on the pitch. I’ve no idea what started it but, significantly, Eddie stayed completely out of it while, unsurprisingly, Harry Arter didn’t!! The referee somehow sorted it all out without needing to book anyone, not even Harry; and play continued. It was only about ten minutes to half time now, and a scoreline of 0-0 at the break was looking increasingly likely.
But no; on the stroke of half-time Elphick gave away a free kick from which Angella – who’d made our lives a misery at Vicarage Road in August – headed the ball into the net in front of the Ted MacDougall Stand. 0-1 at the break. And in the torrential rain of the second half Bournemouth’s equaliser was scored at the same end. On the hour mark, Grabban was adjudged to have been felled by Angella (yes, him again!) in the penalty area, the Watford player was sent off, and Grabban himself took the resultant penalty kick. Throughout the time (three or four minutes) the referee was dealing with protests from the Watford players (as if there were the remotest likelihood of him changing his mind!) Grabban remained static at the penalty spot – calm as you like – with the ball in place. Having never missed a penalty, no-one was surprised when he gently slotted the ball home for 1-1. But now we could really increase the pressure because we were up against ten men, and we did. The crowd wanted to see Pitman and Rantie brought on, but they’d have to wait for that. First, there was a moment when Pugh was one-on-one with the keeper, appeared to be challenged, fell (or was it a dive?) rather late, and another penalty was awarded. Almunia was not red-carded, but the Watford fans were still furious. Nonetheless their anger turned to delight when Grabban attempted the exact same penalty, Almunia palmed it away, and in the next few seconds shots by both Ritchie and O’Kane – on the rebound – were saved too. Almunia was the away fans’ new hero; Grabban looked dejected; and eventually (with only ten or so minutes to go) Howe made the change everyone wanted. Rantie and Pitman were brought on (if only Pitman had come on earlier he could have taken the second penalty!), Surman and Pugh came off, and we switched to a 4-2-1-3 system (see below). Rantie and Pitman both had chances to score but at the end (and there were seven minutes added – largely because of the remonstrations at the times of the two penalties) there were also one or two chances for Watford to steal the show and score their second. So a 1-1 draw it was but, while Bournemouth fans (and players) sloped away looking dejected as though they’d lost the match, Watford fans remained in their places giving their team an animated ovation as though they’d won a famous victory!
The team lined up as follows at the start of the game (I've given the players marks out of ten):
Francis (7), Elphick (7), Ward (7), Daniels (7);
Ritchie (6), Arter (6), Surman (7), Pugh (7);