Kevin Affleck dissects the Hornets' action-packed draw on the south coast
José Holebas loves picking a fight and there is certainly a damn good argument to be had that he has been the club's best value for money signing in the Premier League era.
Holebas had played 35 times for Roma in the season they finished runners-up to Juventus and still had two years left on his contract, but Gino Pozzo and Scott Duxbury managed to prise him out of Serie A. The fee is quoted as £1.8m in some quarters and £2.25m in others. Whatever it was, it was a snip. International left-backs do not grow on trees and yet the Hornets got one in his peak for around half of what it cost to sign Nathan Ellington.
He's not everyone's cup of tea and he collects yellow cards like others collect stamps, but he barely misses a training session yet alone a game through injury and has racked up 87 appearances in just over three seasons. No Premier League defender has been involved in more goals this season than the 34-year-old. That's pretty good going. Surely only Étienne Capoue can rival Holebas in a pub debate about being the best bargain buy since the summer of 2015.
On a day of acrimony on Saturday, on a day when both sides had good grounds for complaint, it was ironic that it was Holebas, the man who his teammates will tell you could start an argument in an empty room, who ensured with a swing of his trusty left foot that the Hornets didn't have as much to grumble about had they lost 1-0 and not been awarded a penalty that fell firmly in the stone-wall category.
He was a peacemaker of sorts, which is in stark contrast to how he ended the last match between the two sides here when he exchanged a few words with some disgruntled fans. Under Javi Gracia, he and the team have come a long way since that meek FA Cup exit, winning the hearts and minds of the fans.
They only mustered one shot on target on that bleak day in January. On Saturday they had six.
“We have to be very focused on our job and listen to what the coach says and look forward,” said Holebas, sounding like a man who has very much bought into what Gracia is trying to do, that one-for-all and all-for-one mentality. “I don't care who scores. If we win that's the most important, I just want the team to win. It's like a big feeling to help the team.”
Gracia clearly rates Holebas as he has been the only exception to his rule of not changing a winning team. Adam Masina had the left-back shirt after the wins at Wolves and Huddersfield and looked set to continue at Newcastle, but Gracia felt he needed his set-piece specialist back in the team. “He has experience and he knows how to manage different situations,” said Gracia after the defeat at Newcastle.
The only surprise was that Holebas wasn't booked for protesting at Simon Hooper's failure to award a penalty for the foul on Nathaniel Chalobah. It was just the sort of injustice to get under his skin and rile him. Troy Deeney did a real good job in shepherding his players away and ensuring he was the one to plead the case to Hooper. It was probably just as well that Holebas did not get within ear shot.
“It was a penalty,” he said, “a big mistake and then we don't know how the game goes after that so I am a little bit mad at this. I think everyone went to the ref. It's his decision and I think he will see after he made a mistake.”
It will be intriguing to see how the Professional Game Match Officials deal with Hooper after the mistakes at St Mary's. He controversially disallowed a Cameron Jerome scissor kick and failed to spot a shove in the box on Sebastien Bassong in the opening game of the 2015/16 season between Norwich City and Crystal Palace. The Wiltshire official has only been awarded three Premier League games since.
“The referee hasn't had much experience in the Premier League and that showed,” said former Hornets midfielder Derek Payne on BBC Three Counties Radio. “I like the fact he's come out and apparently held his hands his hands up. Not enough [referees] do that and we all make mistakes.”
The Hornets have been awarded 15 spot-kicks since they returned to the top-flight of English football and you didn't even need the benefit of a replay to know this should have been number 16. You knew in real-time it was a penalty.
“I don't want to join in on this criticism of the referee but yes I believe it was a penalty,” said Martin Keown on Match of the Day. “Bertrand just takes him out, it's a scissor challenge, he takes him out and it's another bad decision from the referee.”
What the failure to award the penalty also overshadowed was the quality of the exchange between Deeney and Chalobah on the edge of the box. Everybody would have been purring over it had it resulted in a goal but it kind of got lost. It was of international standard and sent Chalobah surging into the box and within shooting range of registering his first goal as a permanent Watford player.
“There is no way I'm going down for no reason, I'm not that type of player,” Chalobah told watfordfc.com. “There is a blatant contact and it's bizarre he didn't give it.”
When the penalty protests were waved away you wondered if it might be football's curious way of levelling things out following Abdoulaye Doucouré's goal with his hand at Vicarage Road in January. But then the Saints were dealt another rough hand when Charlie Austin's goal was ruled out, leading to an emotional post-match interview from the striker which, welcomely, was as far from the banal “we focus on the next game” and “it's all about the team / three points” interviews you usually get.
“Charlie Austin is rightly upset,” said Alan Shearer on Match of the Day. “He's away celebrating what he thinks is a perfectly good goal and it should have been.”
Gracia remained unflappable throughout and operated with the same cold dispassion he usually does. How he viewed the disallowed goal was fascinating and showed just how switched on he is.
“I saw the Southampton players celebrating, but I also saw the flag and I was trying to say to my players, 'quick, we need to attack again.'”
And right there is a window into Gracia's mindset. He named three strikers on the bench, threw two of them on and ended the match boldly playing 4-2-4. It was a tactic that led to Southampton making 36 clearances to Watford's 16 and 17 interceptions to Watford's eight. This Watford side will always have a go and will never die wondering.
The fact that 66 per cent of their shots were accurate – compared to just nine per cent at Newcastle – also suggested they had worked hard in the week and are fast learners. They dug out a draw here whereas they got nothing in similar games at Huddersfield, Brighton and Burnley last season.
“It's another point on the road and any point away from home in the Premier League you have to earn it,” said Payne. “I thought they showed a bit of character and they earned it in a different way today.”