Chewing the Hud
Nick Catley looks at games against a club that just appears to have a significant impact on our destiny
The game at Huddersfield before Christmas was everything an away day should be – nice town, excellent pub, great company, easy walk to the ground, three points. It was the kind of trip you just don’t get in the Premier League (I’m aware that the record books show us and Huddersfield in the top division together between 2017-2019, but Huddersfield v Watford is clearly not a Premier League fixture, and I refuse to see our games in those two seasons as anything other than an extended fever dream).
It got me thinking about just how significant our games against the seemingly innocuous Terriers have been over the years. There was an hors d’oeuvre in the Taylor era, in that Huddersfield (in 1983/84) were the only team from a lower division to beat us in the League or FA Cup in the five First Division years of GT’s initial spell – we had to make do with the Cup Final and last 16 of the UEFA Cup that year – but it’s under the Pozzos that the importance of these matches has really kicked in. They’ve been low points, high points, managers’ last games (admittedly not a huge distinction in the last decade) and heralds of good and bad runs – even good and bad eras – with some absolute crackers and desperate stinkers thrown in. Here’s a rundown since 2012…
There had been promising signs, but the 3-2 win at Huddersfield in late September was the game that really suggested the team was gelling under Zola. Our record improved from there, albeit with the occasional stutter, but I left the ground that day excited and energised about the season to come – rightly, as it turned out.
Meanwhile, the home game in January, played with shovelled snow surrounding the pitch, was perhaps that team’s peak. An utterly dominant 4-0 win capped off with that magnificent multi-pass goal by Cristian Battocchio. I’ve argued before on these pages that that strike didn’t really sum us up as a team – but what a performance.
With some pretty well-documented ups and downs, Zola’s team continued in a similarly engaging vein for the rest of the season and into 2013/14. A relatively routine 2-1 win at Huddersfield in October brought our 21st point from our 11th game, and another promotion push appeared likely. But from that point on, everything collapsed surprisingly quickly, and that match turned out to be Zola’s last Watford win. A run of five home defeats started against Derby in the next game, continued through a 3-0 beating by Yeovil – perhaps the worst single result of the last decade – and ended in a 1-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, after which Zola was handed his cards. In retrospect, the most remarkable thing may be that the run had been allowed to last nine games and two months before action was taken.
I missed the first 20 minutes of the home game in May – the last of the season – due to escaped horses on the A41 (not an excuse Reggie Perrin ever got around to, as far as I’m aware). That put me one up on the poor sods who had to witness the whole of this debacle. A 4-1 defeat that couldn’t have confirmed the rumours that Beppe Sannino had lost the dressing room any more clearly if the team had nailed a notice to the Players’ Entrance door in the style of the 95 Theses of one of history’s three great Luthers (Blissett, King and Martin, with Vandross and Idris Elba missing out on the medals). A shocker, memorable even in the context of a very long list of dreadful final days.
Perhaps our most exciting battle against Huddersfield was Sannino’s last game in August 2014. Down to ten men at 2-2 with half an hour to go after Gabriel Tamaș’ dismissal, Keith Andrews grabbed a third before Watford dug in during a game notable for the volume of support from the stands. Almen Abdi’s added-time fourth joyously released the tension which had steadily built over the previous 30 minutes in an explosion of noise. An odd game after which to sack the manager, but Sannino had essentially been a dead man walking all season, and the tenacity of the performance may just have been because the players knew it. Presumably we waited to fire him because we needed the time to line up a shortlist of new candidates – something we clearly managed so successfully that three of them were appointed in the following six weeks.
The away game in January was a dreadful 3-1 defeat, on a day that made our recent trip seem like a balmy April outing to Torquay. This match was already an outlier in a season that ended in promotion after turning on a 5-0 win at Fulham in early December, but was notable for perhaps being our last really poor Championship performance until… well, arguably Huddersfield away in December 2020. But we’ll come to that.
Reunited in the Premier League, we played two games that only really stand out for being very poor indeed, a 4-1 home defeat in December and a 1-0 away loss in April as the Terriers performed creditably in surviving their first Premier League year.
A measure of our excellence during this season was provided by just how routine our 3-0 October home win was. Indeed, this was the season where we basically beat every team apart from the really big ones. It’s admittedly a niche stat, but despite our form falling off a cliff at the end of the season, we got 47 points from 24 games against teams other than the Big Six – five more than anyone else in the Other 14. Given that we got to the Cup Final as well, 2018/19 really does have a claim at being our second-best season ever…
…and Huddersfield was where it all finished. A 2-1 win in April over the doomed Terriers turned out to be not just our last of the season, but our last for more than half a year. Our next League win came at Carrow Road in November, by which time the previous year’s successes felt a long, long time ago. Of course, within a few months, a relegation battle would be the least of our worries.
Another poor performance, another sacked manager. It’s astounding now to look back at Vladimir Ivić’s record and find he only lost four of his 20 League games in charge. It’s possible that the Covid-based frustration of not being able to attend made it feel like more, along with the fact that the football was so bad the wins sometimes felt like defeats. A 2-0 defeat in West Yorkshire in the last game before Christmas meant Ivić got a P45 in his stocking.
The home game – strangely, just four weeks later – resulted in a comfortable win at a time when the problem was being unable to win away. The season got going properly a few weeks later against Bristol City – given the history of the fixture, it’s just a surprise it wasn’t the Huddersfield game that sparked the upturn.
A solid, João Pedro-inspired 2-0 win that will turn out to be his last full game for some time, given his injury against Millwall. Hopefully the longer-term significance will end there. But ultimately, who knows? Watch this space…