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Football Away Days: Watford FC and Vicarage Road

Vicarage Road 04/03/23

In this unusual season there's been a whole World Cup since my previous new football away day, last October. On that occasion I visited Rodney Parade to see Newport County, and long overdue for my next jaunt I was pleased to get my first trip in for 2023, with a visit to Hertfordshire to see Championship play-off contenders Watford take on Preston North End. This would also be a special away day, as it wouldn't involve any of my usual companions, instead this one was organised as a surprise for my uncle having turned 70.



An avid fan of The Hornets, he first went to Vicarage Road back in the late 60s and enjoyed standing in the terraces behind the goal at the end of the ground that would become the Vicarage Road stand in the early 90s. Having witnessed much of the glory years under the first Graham Taylor tenure, my uncle had not been back to the stadium since the late 80s, so a return trip was long, long overdue.


Accompanying us on this journey was my brother, Dad and another uncle, none of whom had been to any football matches themselves for a few years. We all met in Watford, and whilst my journey was by far the longest, it wasn't arduous and the same could also be said for locating the stadium. Having travelled via the London overground to Watford High Street station, it was less than a ten minute walk to get to the top of Vicarage Road and then the same distance again to walk down it past houses and shops to the ground itself.


Programme sellers were conveniently placed on either side of the final approach and then on the right hand side of the road, directly opposite Vicarage Road, was the conveniently placed Red Lion pub. A conventional looking old boozer on the outside, the inside was coated in the Watford crest and their home colours of yellow, red and black, plus they sold a beer for the home fans too, called Hornets Lager. The floor space was left mostly clear of seating, with an open plan layout to accommodate as many supporters as possible within a jovial atmosphere. The only down side was that there wasn't enough time to try one of their range of burgers from the kitchen.


Following a swift pint we took the rite of passage in having a photo with the Graham Taylor statue positioned outside the club shop, with the former manager smiling in his customary tracksuit and perched on the bench of his dugout. From there it was a very short walk to our turnstiles to get into the Graham Taylor stand. We were sat in the lower tier, just a few rows back from the pitch in what is a relatively small and cosy set-up. My uncle reminisced about how the stadium looked when he was last inside, back when of course it was mostly terraces with a lot less shelter from the elements.


One thing that remained the same was the Watford team entering the pitch to the theme tune of Z-Cars, and once the teams lined up there was a minute's applause to honour the passing of John Motson. When the game got underway you could see how the home side had only won once in their previous seven fixtures, although they had only lost twice in that period too. Their recent penchant for draws looked like it could partly be put down to a lack of cutting edge in front of goal, and throughout the first half Watford were mostly undone by their own sloppy passing and inability to keep possession for long, with Wesley Hoedt and Hamza Choudhury being particularly culpable.


As a result, the opening forty-five minutes was a disjointed affair with few chances, although Preston increasingly looked the more threatening with a couple of long range shots on target from Ched Evans and Álvaro Fernández. Meanwhile, the referee, Gavin Ward, frustrated the home crowd with an inconsistent performance that saw the visitors get a few soft free-kicks whilst the hosts saw similar fouls against them dismissed. After grabbing myself a much needed cup of Bovril at half time (which was nearly £3!), the second half saw Watford come out with a lot more purpose to their play and perform as the better team.

 Watford vs Preston in March 2023

During the second period several promising openings were created, as The Hornets huffed and puffed, but they always had to be mindful of Preston hitting them on the counter attack. João Pedro had the earliest chance to break the deadlock, when the ball ricocheted his way ten yards from goal and his low shot on the turn was palmed away from the left corner by Freddie Woodman. Soon after this, the burly Preston defender Bambo Diaby almost gifted Watford the goal they craved. A poor touch, as he tried to carry the ball forward, saw it roll into the path of the substitute Yáser Asprilla and his pass to fellow sub (and Aston Villa loanee) Keinan Davis, led to a shot across goal that Woodman deflected wide after coming out to close down the angle.


Then came the moment when we thought that the tension would be relieved. A crossfield ball from the left byline found Ismaïla Sarr in the middle of the pitch, on the edge of the penalty area, and the Senegalese international spun on his axis and hit a fierce shot that looked destined to ripple the net, only for it to flash just wide of the right hand post. It would have been a worthy winner but alas it was the nearest we came to a goal, and the final quarter of the match became scrappier as Watford got more desperate and Preston eyed up opportunities to grab a win against the run of play.


Asprilla then typified the performance by dribbling the ball in from the left, jinking past a couple of Preston players to the edge of the box before unleashing a left-footed curler that flew high and wide. Yet again it was a case of decent build-up play but no end product. Stoppage time left some hearts in mouths as the away side sent a few crosses into the Watford penalty area, before the inevitable final whistle came and everyone had to settle for the 0-0. However, in the following days it transpired that the Watford owner, Gino Pozzo, was not prepared to settle for recent results and Slaven Bilić was sacked after just twenty-six games and less than six months in charge.


Some can argue that the managerial churn at the club has been successful, when considering how much time The Hornets have spent in the Premier League these past ten years, but then again this is the same owner that sacked Nigel Pearson two games before the end of the 2019-20 season and seemingly grabbed relegation from the jaws of top flight survival. Either way, Chris Wilder was swiftly put in post until the end of the campaign and became the eighteenth permanent manager at the club since Pozzo dismissed Sean Dyche almost eleven years ago. A merry-go-round that's so regular that the Watford FC wikipedia page struggles to record it all.


Still, as for our day out it had been a roaring success, with plenty of laughs and my uncle pleased to get reacquainted with Vicarage Road after so long away. We followed up the game with a couple of drinks on Watford high street and then a nice meal at the Shendish Manor Hotel, which was quite a bit more upmarket than the food I typically get on my football away days!


The trip also reminded me of just how many away days there are in London to be considered for the future. For a start my other uncle, who came to the game, is a QPR fan and Loftus Road is certainly on the to-do list. All in good time, all in good time...




Click this link to read about our other football away day adventures

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