A risibly turgid and eminently forgettable encounter managed to find a remarkable, tension destroying climax which could well secure Town’s unlikely survival in a league which continues to present huge challenges.
A bright start to a game of huge importance couldn’t disguise the fact that the Terriers’ ability to create and convert chances remained severely limited as promising situations invariably floundered once exposed to Watford’s resilient and packed defence. Lacking pace and incisiveness, the home side’s desperate probing failed to trouble Karnezis in the visitors’ goal and having comfortably survived the early onslaught, the Hornets slowly took control of possession but, like their hosts, their attacking carried little menace.
The evergreen Deeney managed a decent effort which was deflected by a fine challenge but the Hornets’ prowess in the attacking third – which was an absolute joy in the early stages of the season – was more prosaically summed up by Pereyra comically putting two consecutive corner kicks out of play. His dive not long afterwards was just as comical, and he was rightly booked for it (for balance, Pritchard was punished for a similar offence).
A first half of limited quality but lots of effort from both sides ended with an insipid free kick following a Zanka foul, rather epitomising the fare on offer.
Watford improved in the second half, taking more control of possession but remained as unthreatening as the home side. The dynamic Hughes – the pick of the visitors along with the elegant Capoue – tried to unpick the home defence on his own before a combination of Schindler and the otherwise under employed Lössl stopped him a few yards out.
When Town did have possession, there was little fluency and getting down the sides of their opponents was proving ridiculously difficult – Watford were serenely navigating a game where avoiding defeat would be a good achievement in the context of their travelling woes.
Change was desperately needed and the ineffective Quaner was replaced by the much maligned Ince on the half hour. Any impact of the substitution must have been subtle, though it should be said that the ex-Derby man brings more orthodox skills than the idiosyncratic Quaner. The German can surprise at times, though this possibly unintentional quality had been wholly absent in this game.
His next changes built the foundations for the win. Depoitre replaced the isolated Mounié and, with time running out, Billing came on for the spent Van La Parra.
Having feebly probed Watford’s back 9 for 80 fruitless minutes, Depoitre’s more troubling presence up front provided a little more discomfort for them, while Billing’s long throw weapon (which has been eschewed for much of the season) was deployed with obvious intent.
As crude as it was, the tactic of launching the ball in to the box gave the visitors something different to think about and led directly to a long awaited shot on goal by the indefatigable Hogg. Sweetly struck, it narrowly missed the target but gave the raucous crowd a sliver of hope to which they would cling as they roared on their underdogs for a final effort.
Another Billing throw was propelled in to the box – the tactic also allowed Zanka and Schindler to add their height in the box – as the added time board was being raised showing 3 minutes. The ball was cleared up to substitute Gray but the ex-Burnley man carelessly lost it to Kongolo whose lob back in to the box finally turned Watford’s rearguard. Depoitre’s hustling prevented a central defender getting to the ball and Zanka neatly played a reverse pass through Janmatt’s legs for the arriving Ince to slot home and (surely) repay his transfer fee with one sweep.
The explosion of relief was something to hear. The team may have been fortunate to find a late winner, but the crowd deserved it. They didn’t give up despite the toil unfolding in front of them and proved, yet again, that David Wagner’s constant praise and encouragement is genuine belief, not cliche.
We have witnessed many late winners under this manager and many times when he seemingly laughs in the face of the finest of fine margins – however fortunate this victory may seem (and none the less satisfying for it), his substitutions made the difference; not just the individuals themselves but the shape and tactics of the whole team.
If this game proves to be the one which secures survival – though all of us would welcome a triumph over Allardyce’s Everton to confirm it – the manner of it couldn’t be more apposite.
A team of lesser talent than their opponents – and the Watford manager really does need to be questioned about his failure to harness their quality more effectively but probably less urgently than their board for sacking Silva after their blistering start – worked relentlessly to bridge the quality gap, never gave up and grasped their opportunity when it arrived.
Should we survive, they (and we know who “they” are) will continue to patronise, under estimate and look down their noses at us – they still do it to Burnley despite their remarkable achievements, for God’s sake! – but they will never understand the feeling which arrived on 90+1 at the John Smith’s Stadium yesterday.