So Watford’s season ended as it started – with a 2-2 draw. Yet this one signalled the end of an era rather than the start of one.
Quique Sanchez Flores will have wanted one last hurrah from his team, especially as Sir Elton John was in attendance. They gave it a good go, waking from their first-half slumber to produce a rousing second-half display and twice come from behind to rescue a point thanks to goals from Sebastian Prodl and Troy Deeney. It was enough to finish position number 13, lucky for Watford, unlucky for Sanchez Flores.
There was plenty to encourage likely new manager Walter Mazzarri – not least the spirit they showed when it would have been easy to throw in the beach towel – while there was also plenty to show just why Gino Pozzo and Scott Duxbury have elected not to extend Sanchez Flores’ stay, not least another iffy team selection (the Craig Cathcart experiment was abandoned at half-time) and affording Nordin Amrabat just ten minutes and Steven Berghuis zero. What happened to the handbrake coming off and the players bound for Euro 2016 getting a shot?
At least Almen Abdi was given more license to roam and influence matters in the final third of the pitch than he has been all season. He was Watford’s brightest spark and came close early on, shooting over after a neat passing move. He then fired straight at Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford from distance. Odion Ighalo, who looked more like the player who got the winner at the Stadium of Light, directed a chip wide and then saw another deflected into the side netting.
Pickford, who played against Watford for Preston in the Capital One Cup, made only one meaningful save of the opening period, getting down well to deny Nathan Ake, who arrowed a low shot towards the far corner bottom after Abdi was again involved. Watford were, as they often have been in the past five months, lacking ideas. Sunderland, however, weren’t. Roared on by the excellent support, they finished the half the strongest, getting their noses in front when Jack Rodwell converted at the far post.
Sunderland thought they had a second a minute later when Duncan Watmore slotted past Gomes. The goal was ruled out for offside but replays showed Ake had played the striker on. It was a let-off for the Hornets who deservedly trailed at the interval. This wasn’t how Sanchez Flores scripted his farewell party.
Watford needed to respond in the second half and they did, once they had a genuine right-back occupying the spot on the right-hand side of the defence. Juan Carlos Paredes didn’t change the game but he did give them balance and a more familiar look. Cathcart won’t thank Sanchez Flores for playing him there in two of the last three games. Three minutes after the restart, the Hornets levelled. It was brilliantly simple goal. Adlene Guedioura whipped in an excellent corner and Prodl headed past Pickford.
But, just like they did at Norwich City on Wednesday night, the Hornets conceded moments after scoring, suggesting the concentration levels aren’t what they once were. With Watmore leading the charge, Sunderland broke superbly from a Hornets corner. Watmore slipped a pass to Lens who put Ake on his backside before slotting past Gomes. It was another poor goal for Watford to concede. The defence, which was rock solid during the opening months of the season, has looked shaky every time the opposition has attacked in the final week of the season. Indeed, Sunderland could have had a third when Lamine Kone headed home a free-kick, but the offside flag again saved the Hornets. Again it was the wrong call.
It was a pivotal moment. From Watford’s next attack, Jose Manuel Jurado was clattered into by Kone and John O’Shea in the Sunderland area. Kevin Friend thought long and hard, looking at his motionless assistant referee before pointing to the spot. Deeney was never going to miss, sending the keeper the wrong way and sidefooting the ball into the bottom corner for his 15th of the campaign. “Deeney for England” chorused the adoring home fans.
Just under half an hour remained, time for a grandstand finish, but both teams seemed content with what they had. Except Deeney, of course. He was still charging around and was seriously ticking after Friend deemed Kone hadn’t in fact brought him down in the area. At the other end, Gomes was alert to deny Watmore on the break.
As the clocked ticked down, Vicarage Road stood to chant Sanchez Flores’ name one last time. Watford’s head coach sheepishly applauded. He doesn’t take compliments well and was more concerned, even at the death, with making sure his side were organised defensively and funnelling back after losing possession. Pragmatic until the end.
Watford: Gomes; Cathcart (Paredes h-t), Britos, Prödl, Ake, Abdi (Suarez 65), Guedioura, Watson, Jurado (Amrabat 80) Deeney, Ighalo. Not used: Pantilimon, Nyom, Anya, Berghuis.
Sunderland: Pickford, Yedlin (Jones 75) Robson, O’Shea, Kone, Larsson (M’Vila 61), Rodwell, Lens, Watmore Greenwood (Honeyman 52), N’Doye. Not used: Mannone, Brown, Defoe, Khazri.
Referee: Kevin Friend.