U23 Reaction | “Positives To Take”

By Kevin Affleck

Hayden Mullins is looking forward to watching his fast-learning Under-23 side mix it with another Cat 1 side on Thursday when Watford take on Southampton in the Premier League Cup at Vicarage Road.

The Hornets have already tasted victory over the Saints this season, winning 2-1 in the same competition in September, and following the 1-0 defeat to Blackburn on Monday night they now need to make it a home and away double over the side from the south coast if they are to stand a chance of reaching the last 16.

"We play Southampton at Vicarage Road and that's a good game for us," said Mullins. "They are a decent side. It's a great competition as it allows us to play against Cat 1 sides and sides we don't really get exposed to."

You couldn't tell the difference between Cat 1 Blackburn Rovers and Cat 2 Watford on Monday night. They more than held their own and deserved at least a point.

"The boys were excellent and there are a lot of positives to take tonight," said Mullins. "I told the boys I thought they were brilliant and they took on board all the messages we spoke about. We looked disciplined, the shape looked really good and we looked a threat at times with our pace. It's just disappointing not to get something from the game."


Max Ryan gets up to head the ball away

Lewis Mansell won it for Rovers on 73 minutes but there was so much to admire about this Watford performance, particularly the way they stood tall and stood firm in the first half.

"We expected them to be big, strong and physical and it's a testament to our boys that we did so well to stay in the game in the first half," said Mullins. "It was a physical test for us as they are a Cat 1 side. I think we deserved a lot more on the back of the second half. I think we looked very good from the off. We spoke at half-time and I think the boys came out and responded really well. We were excellent in the second half and unlucky to lose. We switched off for half a second and it was a clinical finish - that's the difference when you play Cat 1 sides."

The Hornets lost 6-1 to Rovers in November and there were seven changes to the side who were beaten heavily that night, so it says a lot about the players who came in and the coaching that has taken place since that Watford were able to bridge the gap so successfully.

"It was a tough game up there," said Mullins. "We were much improved tonight, right up until the last kick of the game when Ash Charles flashes one across the box and we've got no-one on the end to finish it, it was a great ball. Dion also got in down the side and hit his shot at the keeper rather than across him. The difference is they were that little bit more clinical."

Mullins has lost the services of Charlie Rowan, Alex Jakubiak, Connor Stevens, Randell Williams and Brandon Mason because they have gone out on loan but that has provided an opportunity for others, like Ryan Cassidy, to shine and other leaders to emerge, like Max Ryan who was excellent against Blackburn.

"Max was very good, again," said Mullins. "It's not the first time Max has played well — he's played consistently well this season. He and Joy [Mukena] did really well at the back. They had an experienced No. 9 up top and he was a handful. We spoke about him and how we were going to deal with him and I though Max and Joy dealt with him really well."

The Hornets' Under-23 Cup fixture against Southampton will now take place this Thursday (February 15) at Vicarage Road, with a 2pm KO. This match will take place behind closed doors. 

The game originally scheduled for this date against Colchester United has been postponed. Check the Academy fixtures and results page for updates. 


U23 Report | Watford 0-1 Blackburn

The equation is now pretty straight forward after a narrow defeat to Blackburn Rovers: Watford's Under-23 side must now win both of their remaining home games, against Southampton and Cardiff City, to stand a chance of reaching the knockout stages of the Premier League Cup.

A goal after 73 minutes by Lewis Mansell did for them on Monday night and means Hayden Mullins' ever-changing side now has a win, a draw and two defeats from their matches in the cup. This defeat was a touch rough on the Young Hornets as they had a right good go, particularly at the start of the second half, on a freezing night at Wealdstone FC, but there was to be no comeback this time.

The extraordinary escape acts against Bristol City and Coventry City inside four days probably took their toll in the end and Blackburn, who hadn't played since February 2, had that little bit more left in the tank. Having said that it was a vast improvement on the performance that resulted in a 6-1 defeat at the hands of the same opposition in November and showed Watford, on their day, can mix it with Cat 1 sides.

Watford did plenty right in the first two thirds of the field, with the excellent Max Ryan and Ashley Charles particularly excelling, but just lacked that little bit of luck and little bit of quality at the business end of the field. It was a night when they could have done with the services of arch poacher Ryan Cassidy, who was rested for this one after two games in four days as a 16-year-old, or Alex Jakubiak who, to his huge credit, was sitting in the stands rooting for his Under-23 colleagues.

With the games coming thick and fast, Mullins again had to shuffle his pack. Harvey Bradbury was brought in to lead the line instead of Cassidy, a buoyant Joy Mukena came into the heart of the defence after spending the last two matches on the first-team bench while Ben Jones, a centre-half by trade, can now say he has played in every position in the Under-23 back four after being asked to play left-back.

There was a good shape and organisation throughout but particularly in the first half when they had to roll up their sleeves and do some defending when playing up the slope. They were up against the physically imposing Joseph Nuttall, who has scored twice and played eight times for Rovers' first team, and Mukena and Ryan had to be really on their mettle. The timing of Ryan's interceptions were particularly impressive.

Behind them, Sam Howes continues to show why he was capped at youth level by England and why he spent most of his teenage years at West Ham. He made an excellent low stop to deny Willem Tomlinson finding the bottom corner after eight minutes, dived bravely at the feet of a posse of players to stop a threatening low centre from Charley Doyle reaching its target and then, with the pick of the bunch, dived high to his left to stop a free-kick from Joseph Grayson finding the top corner. He was largely responsible for the team going in at the break all square.

Watford threatened through David Sesay, who tried to bend a left-footed effort into the far corner, and Dennon Lewis, who blasted a well-positioned free-kick high, high over the bar. But that was about it in the first 45 minutes.

Kicking down the slope in the second period, the Hornets signalled their intent immediately by forcing a corner inside a minute following a teasing centre by Dion Pereira. Watford were now keen to play on the front foot and dictate the pace.

With his dad Lee, the former Portsmouth striker in the stands, Bradbury tried his luck from long range after good link up play with Lewis and then Lewis slalomed his way through the Rovers defence to win a free-kick on the edge of the box. Sesay smashed it over the bar but the signs were hugely promising. The fact Blackburn picked up two bookings in quick succession, for late challenges on the free-running Lewis and Pereira, was a further sign of the threat Watford were starting to pose and the problems they were causing the visitors' defence.

It looked like the game would finish goalless or Watford would nick it so it came as a surprise and a bit of a set-back when Lewis Mansell, on as a substitute, ripped one across Howes and in-off the far post with 17 minutes remaining. It was probably going to take a strike as clean as that to beat the inspired Howes. It was harsh as Watford deserved a clean sheet for the way they defended.

Watford, as is their way, refused to lie down and continued to have a go. Charles flashed one across the face of goal that just need a touch and then Pereira saw a clean strike on the angle palmed into the side-netting by Andrew Fisher in the Blackburn goal. But it wasn't to be and all eyes are now on the cup game with Southampton.

HORNETS | Howes (GK); Eleftheriou, Mukena, Ryan, Jones, Sesay, Charles, Stewart (Kaikay 81) Lewis, Pereira, Bradbury.

Subs not used | Tricker, Gartside, S Sesay, Forster. 

The Hornets' Under-23 Cup fixture against Southampton will now take place this Thursday (February 15) at Vicarage Road, with a 2pm KO. This match will take place behind closed doors. 

The game originally scheduled for this date against Colchester United has been postponed. Check the Academy fixtures and results page for updates.