Gianfranco Zola said after Watford’s 1-0 defeat at Millwall last April that referees “look like they are enjoying themselves when they do not give us anything”.
“It’s not the first time and we are missing points that would have made a big difference. It’s game after game.”
He spoke after seeing his side denied two clear-cut penalties at the Den in a game that, as the league table will tell you, would have seen Watford automatically promoted to the Premier League had they won.
There is no proving that subsequent events would not have taken a different twist, but the simple fact is that the Hornets ended up missing out by two gut-wrenching points.
Zola was right when he said that it was not the first time his men had been hard done by.
Fernando Forestieri and Matej Vydra were both wrongfully sent off in October. Forestieri was given a second yellow card for appearing to dive at Charlton when he had clearly just lost his footing inside the area. On this particular occasion it did not prove costly but Vydra’s dismissal absolutely was; the Czech Republic international received his marching orders for appearing to do very little in the home game against Middlesbrough, where the visitors were second best while the contest was 11 versus 11 but went on to win. Although the forward won his appeal against the sending off, the decision contributed to a the loss of three points that would have come in particularly useful.
Questionable decisions followed at Cardiff and Blackburn. The tone had been set. When Zola spoke after the Millwall defeat, Jonathan Hogg had not yet been denied a cast-iron penalty on that agonising final day of the league campaign. If Watford had beaten Leeds United they would have been promoted; another poor refereeing decision that cost the club.
And, of course, the softest of soft penalties that pantomime villain Anthony Knockaert won in that famous playoff semi-final 2nd leg at Vicarage Road last May. But we’re not in the strongest of positions to complain too strenuously about how that turned out.
Everything that could go wrong for the Hornets did on both that final day and at Wembley. Injuries to Manuel Almunia and Jonathan Bond during the Leeds game, and for Matej Vydra and Fernando Forestieri before the playoff final didn’t help. But if Watford had had a bit more of the rub of the green from the man in the middle, it wouldn’t have mattered.
You may have hoped for a change in fortune this season. No such luck. In fact the list of refereeing mishaps this term are all the more extraordinary.
In the televised game at Brighton, Fernando Forestieri was denied a goal that would have put the Hornets 2-0 up when his strike seemed to have clearly crossed the line. After the match Zola called for goal-line technology in the Championship – no-one was arguing. Two points lost.
This season, Watford were charged for ‘failing to ensure their players conducted themselves in an orderly fashion’ as a result of the furious reaction to a penalty being awarded against Gabrielle Angella for handball in head coach Giuseppe Sannino’s first match at the helm following the departure of Zola. . The anger was understandable; it was another shocker of a decision. Despite this, Troy Deeney equalised late on. Perhaps another two points lost.
At Bournemouth, Angella was again on the wrong end of a decision, this time sent off as a result of mistaken identity. How is it even possible to mistake the Italian with the true perpetrator, Fitz Hall, I will never know. Angella was clearly (to us at least) a good five yards away from the incident. The referee later awarded Bournemouth a second penalty (Hall had conceded the first) when Marc Pugh was inexplicably blown over by a sudden gust of wind. That must have been the explanation because Hall was certainly nowhere near him. Lewis Grabban’s penalty was weak and the Hornets got away with it. No points lost, but a continuing trend.
The recent performance at Yeovil Town was reminiscent of a Dave Jones press conference; bland, uninspiring and quite frankly boring, however it could have been rewarded with victory. Deep into added time, the ball clearly struck Glovers’ defender Jamie McAllister on the arm right in front of the assistant referee. No whistle, no flag and potentially two more points lost.
And so to Watford’s last game at Doncaster and the surely the most incompetent decision of the lot.
With the Hornets behind and playing with 10 men after Mathias Ranegie’s needless sending off, they soon found themselves with another man down. Rugby-tackled down to the ground that is.
As Troy Deeney evaded Rovers’ goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, he was set to role the ball into the back of the net. So as Johnstone took out the forward WWE style, the 6,581 in attendance waited for referee Christopher Sarginson’s whistle and for the inevitable second red card of the game to follow. Except, extraordinarily, neither came.
Deeney was so stunned that his initial complaints were not too vociferous. But protests followed, confirming, if confirmation was needed, that the Hornets had been denied the most blatant of penalties. Despite a dogged effort with 10 men, Sannino’s side went down to a late Billy Sharp goal. The scoreline could have been much different had the teams been evened up; we were dominant for large periods when it was 11 against 10. A further three points gone.
Despite how this may sound, Watford fans cannot afford to solely blame poor officiating for this damp squib of a season. Every team will have their own examples of when they have been short-changed by poor decisions. To put it simply, the Hornets have lacked quality, tempo and often the resilience and bottle to hold on to results.
The intentions are there for all to see, the vast majority of this squad cannot be accused of not working hard enough. But we’re simply not the same side as last season. Key players were not adequately replaced while Iriney and Javier Acuna, who were seen as like-for-like replacements for Nathaniel Chalobah and Matej Vydra were both shipped out on loan by January.
The ‘fear factor’ that was routinely instilled into opposition defences last season just has not been there this time around.
But the old saying that decisions “equal themselves out over the season” has not applied to us so far. If they do over the next few weeks, then it could be an exciting period. I may be being overly pessimistic here but they won’t and it’s hard not to believe that referees don’t subconsciously see us as “a bunch of foreigners” who will hit the floor at every available opportunity. They see the ‘Italian Job’ we have attempted to pull on the rest of the Championship and assume we are probably be cheating slightly more than the rest. The ‘foreign culture’ in football is nonsense and any referee who even subconsciously believes our players try it on more than any others has got it horribly wrong.
Are we seen as a soft touch? Zola and Sannino’s likeable personalities do not endear themselves to public criticism. Sannino needs to get nastier with both officials and players and I think he needs to let the fourth official know he’s there. It may be ugly, but it’s often a recipe for victory. Alex Ferguson’s ‘success’ with referees proves that. He made Old Trafford a cauldron of fear for referees.
Both players and management have made mistakes over the last two seasons which have cost Watford Football Club, but I can’t help but think that if we had the slightest bit more luck in terms of refereeing decisions we would have been promoted a year ago. From the games I have pinpointed this season, we could have earned nine more points had the most obvious decisions gone our way.
These aren’t close calls; they are easy decisions for qualified referees to make and we seem to be on the wrong end of them more often than not. Those nine points would have had us sitting eighth in the Championship table, two points outside the play-offs with a game in hand. It makes you wonder what could have been.
To finish with Zola: “They worked very hard and they deserved something more on the pitch. The reason they didn’t get it was because of him.”