In front of more than 20 scouts and Harry Kewell’s big mate Ian Harte, the strongest Watford Under-21 side have fielded all season produced their worst performance of the campaign and were soundly thrashed by Crystal Palace at St Albans FC last night. It was about as far removed from the scenes and setting at the Emirates the previous day as you could get.
Representatives from Arsenal, Stoke City and Norwich City were in the sparse crowd at a freezing Clarence Park but they would have come away having made plenty of notes on Palace’s bright, hungry young players and jotted down very little on Watford’s. Palace scored three before half-time, another two after the break and could have had more.
In taking the aggregate score in the two Professional Development League matches with Watford this season to 11-2, Palace more than bridged the gap in experience – Watford had a Sweden international in Joel Ekstrand, a player called up to the Holland squad last year in Steven Berghuis and a Republic of Ireland youth international in Sean Murray – to leave the club’s head of academy Chris McGuane, Kewell and Harte with plenty to discuss long after the players had departed.
Ekstrand had the right idea, playing 45 minutes before heading home along with sport scientist Ben Dixon, who was in the crowd to monitor the defender’s second comeback from a serious knee injury. The first lasted just three games because of a hamstring injury. Ekstrand played one hospital pass to Carl Stewart in the first half, which the young midfielder won’t thank him for, and was pretty powerless to prevent the menacing Fred Ladapo, on trial from Margate, from scoring either side of Connor Dymond getting the second. The way Oliver O’Dwyer, the Palace centre-half, celebrated his own assist for the second goal summed up the difference in the will to win between the two sides.
Alfie Young got sick of Watford being largely second best all over the park in the first 45 minutes and launched into a overzealous tackle that prompted gasps in the stand and a bit of handbags on the pitch. The right-back picked up a yellow card for his troubles. The half-time team talk presumably centred on regaining some pride and damage limitation.
Upgrading last week’s short-sleeve shirt and glove combination for a long-sleeved shirt and gloves this time, Berghuis flashed one effort across the face of goal in the first half and probably couldn’t believe his luck when the Palace keeper Kieton Pernatreou pulled out all the stops to preserve his clean sheet with a flying save, high to his right, to prevent the Dutchman finding the top corner from long range. But Berghuis largely flitted in and out, and any reports Quique Sanchez Flores gets back from the game will surely mention his failure to track back and put a shift in, two things the head coach demands from his forward players. It summed up Berghuis’ night when after being frustrated at not receiving a return pass from Murray, he got one from George Byers but failed to take the ball with him, leaving it behind on a difficult surface as he pushed off down the line.
Murray, who was so impressive at Boreham Wood in January, was disappointing here, missing the chance to impress the watching Kevin Gallen from MK Dons, who we know are keen on the midfielder. Murray knew it wasn’t his night long before he surged half the length of the field to reach the byline but shanked his cross behind and crashed into the advertising boards in the process. Byers, his midfield partner, showed he has has been paying attention to Etienne Capoue in training by skilfully nutmegging Jacob Berkeley-Agyepong, but Watford needed more than that from their captain.
The Watford goalkeeper Luke Simpson will want to forget the fourth goal, conceded at his near post from a cross-shot by Randell Williams from the acutest of angles but probably had to take his hat off to Ladapo, the outstanding player on the night, when he scored his hat-trick after 77 minutes. It was a night to remember for him but a night to forget for the Hornets.
Watford: Simpson; Lewis (Mensah 53), Young, Ekstrand (Hall h-t), Johnson, Martin; Stewart, Byers (c), Murray; Berghuis, Jakubiak. Subs not used: Gartside
Crystal Palace: Perntreou, George, Scales, Boateng, O’Dwyer, Croll, Dymond, Dreher, Ladapo, Berkeley-Agyepong, Williams. Subs: Pain, Fundi, Wynter, Lumeka, Phillips