Thomas: “He Absolutely Knows Where That Bottom Corner Is”
By Shea Duffy
The high-flying Under-23s were held to a draw against a resilient Cardiff City side this afternoon, only missing out on a dramatic last-minute victory by a controversial refereeing decision.
Academy Manager Richard Thomas remained in charge of the young Hornets as Hayden Mullins has been serving as Interim Head Coach for the first team. He lined up with a familiar starting XI, including the dynamic trio of Joe Hungbo, Kaylen Hinds and Jayden Bennetts which has been in such hot form this season.
The opening exchanges were mainly fought out in aerial duels, the Hornets' centre-half partnership of Harry Hudson and Mason Barrett staying strong despite having three physical forwards keeping them on their toes.
Bennetts had the first chance of the game after a quick counter-attack led to Hungbo picking him out with space in the box. Bennetts rounded the keeper but could not shake off the Bluebirds’ defender, who managed to clear his shot off the line.
The young Hornets looked particularly threatening down the left flank, Lewis Gordon overlapping Bennetts and linking up with Hinds regularly. Bennetts had another chance to score after Hinds’ pressure won the ball high up the pitch and allowed the winger to take on his defender and cut inside, but his shot was smartly saved.
Despite the hosts having the clearest chances, it was Cardiff who opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time from a quick free-kick on the edge of the Golden Boys’ area. The ball was pulled back to Aaron Bolger, who slotted past Adam Parkes in goal. There was a suspicion of offside due to the number of players in the penalty area, but the referee and his assistant eventually decided those in an offside position were not interfering with play.
In the second half the first chance fell to Cardiff, but Parkes pulled off an outstanding acrobatic double save and then recovered quickly to collect the loose ball.
The introduction of Under-18s pair JJ McKiernan and Sonny Blu Lo-Everton in midfield on the hour-mark changed the game for the Hornets. Lo-Everton first set Bennetts away with a spectacular diagonal ball but the winger's lobbed effort bounced agonisingly off the post. But it wasn't long before he did bag an assist, threading a perfectly weighted ball through to Hungbo, who dropped a shoulder, cut inside and curled the ball beautifully in off the far post.
A re-energised Watford side ran back for the restart and pushed on for the final 10 minutes, continuing to test the Cardiff back-line as they struggled to keep pace with the Hornets.
A free-kick was awarded 30 yards from goal, which Lo-Everton stood over in added time. He floated it into the box and the keeper attempted to gather but fumbled. Barrett volleyed home, only to see the referee award a free-kick against the Golden Boys and blow the full-time whistle.
Thomas felt that although the team did not produce the same level of performance they are so regularly capable of, they still did enough to deserve the victory.
“I don’t think we were particularly clean with anything we did today, but regardless the boys created enough chances to win the game,” he said.
“I'm not sure why the last goal was ruled out to be honest, it looked like the keeper brought it down on top of one of our players and spilled it, and we put it in the goal. I don't think there was any real contact on him. It didn't look like a free-kick and I don't think any of their team appealed for a free-kick at all.”
Although the Hornets did not take all three points, Thomas was encouraged by how often Bennetts got into good spaces.
“Jayden has had two good opportunities. We’ve been asking him to get in behind the back four more often now as opposed to picking it up in front of full-backs and trying to beat them. He’s showed that in a couple of occasions here today, he’s developing and picking up new habits that are going to help him longer term,” he said.
“The fact he missed the chances doesn’t concern me. He’s creating the chances and other players can see that movement now so we can build on that.”
Hungbo's goal was his 12th of the season, and Thomas was delighted with the winger's contribution.
“He's got a real knack for that hasn't he? He absolutely knows where that bottom left-hand corner is,” he said. “I was frustrated in the first half that we didn't feed him the ball more often, especially against three centre-backs that don't want to go touchline-wide.”
HORNETS: Parkes (GK), Balogun, Barrett, Hudson, Gordon (Trialist, 59), Wise (Lo-Everton, 59), Adebyi (McKiernan, 74), Bennetts, Hinds, Hungbo, Cassidy.
Subs not used: White (GK), Spencer-Adams.