Watford make their first visit to the Brentford Community Stadium on Saturday in relaxed mood, after clinching promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
We had hoped that this match may have been crucial in deciding whether or not we could pip the Hornets for second place, but their 1-0 win over Millwall last Saturday confirmed it was theirs and ensured we would be in the play-offs once again.
When the Bees went top of the table on 10 February with a 3-1 win at Reading, Watford were in fourth place – nine points behind us.
But they beat Bristol City 6-0 the following Saturday and that victory was the first of a run of 13 wins and one draw in 16 matches, which ultimately proved decisive in deciding promotion.
The other key factor in their success has been their home form, which is the best in the Championship. The Hornets have picked up an astonishing 56 points from their 22 games at Vicarage Road, with 18 wins, two draws – one against us – and two defeats.
Their away record of eight wins, eight draws and six defeats is only the seventh best in the division, with all the other teams in the top six plus Cardiff earning more points on the road. The Bees have the second best record away from home, with only Norwich collecting more points than us.
Watford had little distraction from cup competitions this season – suffering a shock Carabao Cup defeat to Newport (3-1) after beating Oxford on penalties in round one, while in the FA Cup they went down 1-0 at Manchester United in round three.
The Hornets, who went through four managers (including one caretaker) last season, made another change in the middle of this campaign, when they replaced Vladimir Ivic with Xisco Munoz in mid-December.
Watford have been in the top two divisions since 1998, when they won the Division Two (now League One) title. Since then, they have had three spells in the Premier League. The first two – in 1999/2000 and 2006/07 – each only lasted one season, but when they were relegated last season, it ended a five-year spell in the top flight, during which they had a best finishing place of 11th.
The Hornets finished as runners-up in the old First Division in 1982/83 just five seasons after being promoted from Division Four alongside us. The following season they got to the third round of the Uefa Cup and at the end of that campaign, they reached the FA Cup final, where they lost 2-0 to Everton despite the best efforts of former Bee Steve Sherwood in goal.
WHO’S IN CHARGE
As mentioned earlier, Xisco Munoz took charge of Watford just before Christmas.
Before arriving in Hertfordshire, he had led Dinamo Tbilisi to their second successive Georgian league title last year.
Dinamo was the club he made most appearances for during his playing career as a left winger. He also played for a string of Spanish clubs including Valencia, who he helped to a Spanish league title/Uefa Cup double in 2003/04.
He also won eight Spain under-21 caps.
WE’VE MET BEFORE
Brentford have only played Watford three times in the Championship since we won promotion in 2014 – and we haven’t yet beaten them.
In fact we have failed to win any of our last 17 league and cup meetings with the Hornets, stretching back to a memorable Easter Saturday in 1977 when goalkeeper Paul Priddy saved two Watford penalties, one a minute after Andy McCulloch had given us the lead, to secure the points.
That completed the double for us as less than three weeks earlier we had beaten the Hornets 3-0 at Griffin Park with goals in the opening 15 minutes from Gordon Sweetzer (2) and Jackie Graham.
Past meetings in the Championship (Bees scores first):
2014/15 – (H) 1-2 (A) 1-2
2020/21 – (A) 1-1
In the away game at the end of September 2014, a Jonathan Douglas goal was not enough to earn us a share of the spoils. He equalised in the 57th minute from an Alan Judge pass, after Odion Ighalo had put Watford ahead with a rebound from a penalty, after David Button had saved his spot-kick.
Matej Vydra clinched a 2-1 win for the hosts with a superb shot from the edge of the area, but Daniel Pudil was sent off for a second yellow late on, before Judge was inches away from a second equaliser, with his injury-time header being saved by Heurelho Gomes.
The win took Watford up to third in the table, level on points with top two Norwich and Nottingham Forest, while Brentford stayed 12th.
The return match in February was shrouded in controversy after it came out that morning that Bees manager Mark Warburton would be leaving Griffin Park at the end of the season.
Once again, Brentford lost 2-1, Watford missed a penalty, Odion Ighalo was on target, and there was a red card. But this time, it was the Bees who went down to 10 men, when Jake Bidwell was sent off for a foul in the 37th minute.
Despite that, future Watford striker Andre Gray put us ahead early in the second half, with the players running to Warburton to celebrate. David Button then saved a spot-kick from Troy Deeney, but the visitors did equalise through Ighalo, who then volleyed their winner in the first minute of second-half stoppage-time.
In this season’s first encounter, there were more penalties and another red card, as Brentford earned a 1-1 draw at Vicarage Road.
All the significant action happened in a six-minute spell early in the second half. Watford were awarded a spot-kick for a foul on Ismaila Sarr by Ethan Pinnock, who was sent off – but only after the referee recalled Mads Bech Sorensen, who he had initially dismissed in error. After a long delay to sort all that out, Troy Deeney crashed home the penalty to put the Hornets – playing in front of 2,000 home fans – ahead.
But three minutes later, Brentford were level once again when Ivan Toney took his Championship goal tally for the season up to 16 when he sent Ben Foster the wrong way from the penalty spot, following handball by Christian Kabasele.
The point took Watford up to third, three places and two points ahead of the sixth-placed Bees.
BBC Three Counties Radio’s sports editor Geoff Doyle analyses Watford’s promotion triumph, explains why they have been so good at Vicarage Road this season, and recalls past Watford-Brentford matches.
Q – What has been the secret to Watford’s success this season?
A – Changing the head coach when they did. Vladimir Ivic left when Watford were fifth in the table and outsiders might have thought that was a bit harsh. But he wasn’t getting the best out of the group of players at the club. His tactics and approach to games reflected his personality, which was stern and steely. Watford were playing too defensively and the players weren’t happy with this approach, and it was affecting performances. They were solid defensively but not scoring or winning as many games as they should have. The decision to sack Ivic was decisive, timely and necessary and since then they have gone from strength to strength.
Q – What difference did the appointment of Xisco Munoz as manager make?
A – Huge. At the time it felt a left-field appointment. Not many had heard of Munoz and his management experience was limited to a few months in Georgia. But the minute he arrived it felt like a breath of fresh air. Happy, smiley and delighted to be at Vicarage Road, his personality spread across the club and after a couple of months of settling in he had worked out that 4-4-2 was stymieing Watford and went with a more attacking 4-3-3. It let Ismaila Sarr off the leash and allowed Watford to start playing with freedom and on the front foot. They haven’t looked back.
Q – Would anything less than promotion have been considered a failure this season, or was the club prepared for a year or more of consolidation?
A – No. Promotion was the goal. Anything less would have been seen as a major failure. Watford lost some key players following relegation (Doucoure, Deulofeu, Pereyra, Dawson and eventually Capoue) but that still left the likes of Hughes, Femenia, Sarr, Cleverley, Kabasele, Foster and Deeney, who you would describe as Premier League players. The squad was easily good enough to go straight back up – it just needed to be managed right and that eventually happened.
Q – Why have the Hornets been so good at Vicarage Road this season?
A – They have been so hard to score against both home and away (22 clean sheets so far this season which is staggering) but particularly at home Watford have been excellent. Under Ivic the side was built not to concede. They were particularly effective at this at Vicarage Road. Once Ivic left, Munoz kept the excellent defensive aspect of Watford’s game and added the attacking thrust. Their record at Vicarage Road has been better because of the condition of the pitch. It has been immaculate all season allowing Watford to play their passing game. Some of the other pitches in the Championship this season have been dreadful and haven’t suited Watford’s game.
Q – How do you think they will do in the Premier League next season?
A – It’s likely to be very difficult. Most clubs are just happy to survive when they go up. Watford will be no different. After that, it’s a case of trying to improve season-on-season if you survive. When they won promotion from the Championship last time in 2015 they finished 13th in the Premier League first season. They would snap your hands off for that. For the four years after that they only bettered that position once. It’s a pretty good squad at the moment but they will need a host of new recruits and that player search will have started a while back.
Q – What do you remember of Brentford’s visit in December?
A – I was so impressed with Brentford I thought the Bees would gain automatic promotion after the game. It was at a time when Watford were still not clicking under Ivic. And then Brentford came to the Vic and in the first half passed the Hornets off the pitch. It was probably the best 45-minute performance from any side Watford have faced at home, and Brentford should have been two or three up at half-time. Missing chances proved really costly and then the game changed when Pinnock was sent off early in the second half. I thought that was harsh on the centre-back but even after Watford took the lead, Brentford responded and the Bees deservedly got a draw.
Q – What other memories do you have of past games between the sides?
A – The last time Watford played Brentford away was in their Championship promotion-winning season in 2015. It was a crucial 2-1 win for the Hornets in February and led them to go on and take second place. Odion Ighalo scored both goals including an injury-time winner. Andre Gray scored for Brentford that day and the Bees had defender Jake Bidwell sent off. In the reverse fixture that season Watford had defender Daniel Pudil dismissed but still won the game and in fact Watford’s record against Brentford is amazingly good. They are now unbeaten in 17 games (11 wins) against the Bees with the last defeat back in 1977.
Q – Which players should Brentford fans watch out for on Saturday?
A – Will Hughes has been the catalyst for Watford’s upturn in form. He was injured at the beginning of the season and the Hornets missed him badly. Then he was played out of position when he returned. Eventually sense prevailed and he was put into central midfield and the Hornets haven’t looked back. Obviously Ismalia Sarr takes a lot of the headlines and he has improved as the season has gone on and is a huge handful. His link up play with full-back Kiko Femenia down the right has been outstanding all season. Francisco Sierralta has been a great find in central defence and Joao Pedro has adapted to the English game well, although he hasn’t scored for a couple of months now and it’s affected his confidence a bit.
Q – Finally can you give me a possible Hornets line-up and formation please?
A – Likely to be 4-3-3 but with promotion now assured I think Munoz may give some of his squad players a run-out as a thank you. So it would be no surprise to see the likes of Cathcart, Gray, Zinckernagel, Sanchez, Lazaar and Hungbo start. It’s going to be a bit strange with Brentford now knowing they can only go up via the play-offs and I wonder whether Thomas Frank may rotate his players as well.
HOW TO FOLLOW THE GAME
The match is being played at the Brentford Community Stadium at 3.00pm on Saturday, behind closed doors. Season ticket holders who froze their tickets have free access to watch the match on iFollow, and others can buy a match pass for £10.