Known frailties let us down in the first half
The first half yesterday was a bit of a mixed bag, with some players showing their value to the team and others simply working hard and doing a good job the majority of the time.
It was nice to see the lads start confidently in front of 44,000 fans, who were in fine voice and up for the challenge of being our twelfth man. We failed to convert that fiery start into any goals, but it was great to see.
Pierre Ekwah was a good example of our mixed fortunes.
He had a shot inside the first three minutes, and was tackling back and covering his defensive duties on the same side as Gooch extremely well, nicking the ball and dictating play really well for someone so early in their pro career.
Unfortunately, just after I noted down that the defensive combo of Gooch and Ekwah looked really good in my notes for this article, Watford caught out the very same player with a set piece, exploiting one of our known weaknesses - the lack of experienced defenders for dead ball plays.
After Luke O’Nien gave the ball away cheaply about 17 minutes in, Watford pushed on his error and earned a corner, which we have to admit was converted very effectively by Elton’s mates. The very promising Pierre Ekwah was unfortunately muscled out of the way, enabling a well taken header to put Sunderland behind. Had we not been without all of Baath, Alese and Ballard, I have no doubt we would not have let that chance be anything like as promising. We have who we have though, and they have all done very well to help us still be in with a sniff of playoff football.
Though we had a few decent chances in the remainder of the first half to get level, including Clarke not quite converting a parried shot by Amad, and Roberts trying to slot one inside the post on 36 minutes but not quite getting the curl on the shot it needed, the final ball on too many occasions was left wanting.
The usually very reliable Amad had the chance to put Roberts through with five minutes of the first half to play, but in this and other examples the magical touch of the diminutive Man Utd loanee was not quite on song. His final bow in front of the fans who have adored him since his loan period commenced was not his best, in the first or second period, though for me he has plenty credit in the bank to have a slight dip.
Ekwah once again proved a contender for man of the match on 42 minutes when he executed a block on a shot right by our penalty spot, preventing the lads from going in 2 down when it looked very likely we may. We earned a couple of late corners but clearing the front man was a talent we seemed to have left in the changing rooms, and the half ended with the lads 1-0 down.
Slow starting second half, once again
The second period started quite poorly for me, with players like Dan Neil continuing to struggle to be effective in the middle of the park, though Tony Mowbray resumed the game with the same 11 to see whether they could get back into the game before any changes were introduced.
Like Amad, this wasn’t a great day for Dan Neil in my view. Just in the first 5 minutes after oranges he lost the ball 30 seconds in, gave it away 2 minutes into the second period resulting in a deflected shot which was thankfully being saved by Patterson, and he then gave away possession through a free kick moments later.
While I know Dan has been a good asset this season, I couldn’t help hope that Mowbray may make a change involving him as a clearly struggling player, and soon. As is often the case however, this didn’t happen until close to the hour. We did have chances to level things pre that though.
One of the best chances was around 52 minutes in, when a cross in from the right landed on the head of Hume who hit the target but could not beat the keeper. The parried shot landed in front of Amad, who we would normally see bust the net from that position, but once again his touch let him down, with the ball going wide of the right post.
After a couple of subs for us and one for them around the hour, when Ekwah was mysteriously dragged rather than Neil or other options (who were not as prevalent as or Pierre for me), Watford once again relied upon set piece domination to extend their lead to 2 goals.
After Jack Clarke prevented a break away with an O’Nien-esque piggy back, Watford won a corner as a result of the free kick. From that corner, Porteous rose highest to score Watford’s second. You could almost feel the air sucked out of the lungs of over 40,000 fans.
Second half of the second half, we came alive!
For some reason we decided to wait till the 70th minute before really having a proper go at a team who were clearly happy to sit back, waste time and run down the clock with eleven men not exactly going for it.
We got the score back to 2-1 within a minute or two of the second Watford goal. Luke O’Nien found himself in the box and was very unlucky not to score with his first volley which crashed off the bar with the keeper well beaten.
The rebound fell to sub Pritchard whose shot was diverted in by O’Nien, and a raft of fans who had started to head for the stairs suddenly did a u-turn and returned to their seats, to see if the lads could get anything from the match with around 20 minutes to go.
And did we have a go.
Roberts had a shot deflected out for a corner on 72 minutes. Amad took a long range punt a couple of minutes later, but the strike was too close to the Watford keeper to trouble him. Right at the dusk of normal time, a great chance to get level was once again not taken advantage of, however.
A slick interchange of passing between Cirkin and Clarke resulted in a ball dropping to Jack, but as was the case for most of the game, the usual composed finishing of our forwards failed us, and Clarke skied the chance high and wide.
Given the time wasting antics of Watford, the referee saw fit to add 7 minutes of additional time to the match, and it was in those added minutes that the lads drew level and kept the hopes of the red and white faithful alive.
After Both Roberts and Pritchard had shots charged down, Patrick Roberts pulled an absolute worldy out of the bag, which simply has to contend for goal of the month despite similar awards for the larger part of the season ignoring our classy finishes.
Cutting onto his sweet left foot on the right hand corner of the Watford box, he drilled a curling shot immaculately into the postage stamp square to the goalies right hand side.
The place went mental, and our hopes of playing beyond one more game regained a slight glow of hope.
Post match thoughts
We really were not at the races with our final ball for most of the match. I’m not sure if the size of the home crowd or the pressure of the occasion got to some of this young team, but it was lovely to see a moment of real quality from Paddy Roberts to get us a point.
While the chances of an extra 2 or three games may now be out of our hands, nobody can fault the season this team has had, despite where we have come from and the injury trials we have had hit our squad.
My Man of the Match:
Personally I would split the man of the match award in two.
The first half of it I would honestly give to Pierre Ekwah. He was immense in the hour he played, and while he made mistakes, he also played so well he prevented way more chances than he enabled, and at such an early stage in his professional career, what he can do in future proper excites me.
The second half of the award I would give to the man who made such a crucial contribution to play off football a year ago; Patrick Roberts. You really could have had a couple of keepers in the goal and neither would have saved that shot. It was perfect, and the only criticism I would table is that it took him till the 96th minute to do what he did, but he was far from the only player who left it too late to mean we could get a win from this tie.
Well done to the whole team, as coming back from 2-0 down at a level we have only spent 9 or 10 months at, and finishing anywhere in the top half of this league…that is absolute class and an incredible achievement, which I am sure will inspire me and others to look forward for what we may see develop in the coming 12 to 24 months.
One more cup final lads..ok, then maybe two or three after that if all goes well!
Let’s give it our all at Preston, but come what may, we are so very, very proud once again.