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02/03: Reports:

FA Cup Quarter-Final, 09/03/03, 1.30pm
"...A second half wonderland..."
By Ian Grant

Oh, come on. You don't expect details, do you?

Not while it's still swirling around in my hungover head, all fresh and vivid and ridiculously potent. Not when it's all still there, ready to come rushing back as soon as I close my eyes and summon it up. It's much too soon, much too soon. Even after watching the video into the early hours of this morning, I can offer precious little insight into how it happened and what it means and where it all went so spectacularly right. Details? No, not now. Not for a long time.

The only details that really matter are circumstantial. These are the things that you'll hang your memories from, that'll enable you to conjure up the images and sounds and emotions of yesterday for many years to come. These are the bits and bobs and odds and sods that combine to make football (and this competition in particular) more than just the game itself, more than just the broad, bland sweep of history. The record books will say that Watford Football Club reached the FA Cup Semi Final for only the fourth time in 2003. But we'll remember all kinds of other nonsense.

The personal stuff is what makes you part of it, rather than merely a spectator. In the days leading up to the match, it's the way that your body seems to jolt suddenly and momentarily when your thoughts drift away from whatever you're trying to distract yourself with. And it's the increasing impossibility of finding anything to distract yourself with, until you finally surrender entirely to dreams and imagination and superstition and all the rest. Sometimes, occasionally, you manage to hold a conversation about something else. Sometimes, rather more often, you lose your train of thought completely and end up gazing into the middle distance as Heidar scores a last minute winner in your mind's eye....

It's all special. Spending seventeen quid on yellow balloons in a (rather bewildered) party shop in Brighton on Friday afternoon, and then watching them contribute to an early break in play by littering the Rous-side touchline and Alec Chamberlain's goalmouth. Tearing up a copy of the Yellow Pages in the morning to add to the tickertape blizzard as the teams run out. Eating an enormous breakfast at Doug and Kim's, just around the corner from the ground, and the way that the jovial banter around the table occasionally fails to hide the gnawing anticipation. Then out into the crowded streets on a bright, warm early spring afternoon...and it's magical, whatever's about to happen. Just savour everything, every moment.

Even the unbearable anticlimax of a defeat - or, perhaps worse still, a draw - would've faded away eventually. We would've looked back with regret, then remembered all of these wonderful details. These personal, joyful memories. Happy days. Macclesfield, West Brom, Sunderland, the Quarter Finals. It makes you hungry for more, of course...but that doesn't mean that you can't enjoy what you have. And yet, as the team emerged from the tunnel for a second celebratory bow in front of ecstatic, rejoicing supporters, I couldn't help but look at the handful of Burnley fans still in the Vic Road end, unable to tear themselves away. And I wouldn't have swapped places for anything.

Because this was utterly unmissable. So many more of those little, precious details that could easily have been lost in ghastly disappointment. The two goal celebrations, of course...particularly the second, when all of the nervous, exhausting expectation was suddenly and spectacularly converted into glorious certainty. The expression on Sarah's face in the middle of it all, a slightly wobbly smile and the start of a few tears. Setting off party poppers at the final whistle, one of several rituals that we'd preserved from that oh-so-lucky afternoon at the Stadium of Light. And applauding until my shoulders ached, and shouting and singing until my throat was raw, and singing Nicky Wright's name as he left the East Stand with his wife and child, and noise and colour and great, beaming smiles everywhere, and just wanting to stand in the middle of it all forever....

Much of what followed took place in the pub, inevitably. Guinness has rarely tasted so good. To my left, Matt's sitting with one of several beers and grinning from ear to ear underneath a preposterous hat. For all I know, he's still there. To my right, Loz has calmed down sufficiently to avert any immediate danger of spontaneous combustion, but is barely able to contain his joy even as we reach early evening in an increasingly dazed state. Around the corner, those watching the television are requesting that the video of the match be fast-forwarded by singing "...WALKING IN A SECOND HALF WONDERLAND...", which sums things up rather well. If football fans have a heaven of their own, then it's probably a bit like this.

Eventually, I leave and catch the train back to Brighton. The rest of the population looks pretty miserable and grey by comparison....

And so, really, the match was a means to an end as much as anything else. While there are certainly things that will be remembered for a long, long time - above all, a team performance that, yet again, made up for an occasionally desperate lack of quality with sheer determination and desire - the day itself meant more than ninety minutes of football. We've already played better in the FA Cup, we've already seen more enjoyable games. The occasion required a Watford win, and it got one. Nothing else matters greatly.

The style of the win least of all. If you want to advertise your footballing skills to the nation, Burnley aren't exactly ideal opponents. (In that respect, we should be extremely pleased to have avoided Sheffield United in the Semi Final, I think.) This was a largely dour, unattractive match that, while typical of much First Division fare, probably shocked a fair number of onlookers. Sod it, though. The whole beauty of the FA Cup is not merely that it create upsets and surprises and unlikely heroes, but that it includes the kind of variety of qualities, styles, approaches and philosophies that's utterly impossible in a single league, then randomly tests them all against each other. Sometimes that's going to result in a mediocre, boot-and-boot-again scrap. So be it.

Besides, although the first half offered extraordinarily sparse entertainment, it did lay the foundations for our eventual victory. In particular, the success of the defence, in which Marcus Gayle was again gigantic, in coping with Burnley's initial spell of enthusiastic attacking was crucial. Having survived some early pressure, we appeared so secure at the back that the rest of the team was able to concentrate fully on the lengthy, often frustrating search for a winning goal.

That the referee was quick to punish the lanky Taylor for some robust aerial challenges was especially helpful. Whatever else was in Burnley's gameplan, it didn't amount to very much, and Taylor's increasing annoyance had brought him fairly close to a booking by the end of the first half. He was pulled up twice in the opening fifteen minutes, both as the visitors appeared close to scoring the first goal. On the first occasion, his climb to meet West's cross at the far post and head down for Briscoe was deemed illegal...and, notably, Alec Chamberlain made his first and only save of significance, punching the close-range header over the crossbar before play stopped for the free kick. Then Taylor was again found guilty as he headed narrowly wide from a left wing free kick.

It was already an incredibly untidy match. That suited Burnley rather more than us, and Briscoe brought a comfortable save from Alec Chamberlain when he flicked Ian Moore's cross goalwards at the near post. For nearly twenty-five minutes, we struggled for any kind of control in midfield and, rather than exposing the lack of pace in our opponents' defence, our attempts to hit early balls into the forwards merely looked clumsy and primitive. Only an extremely speculative half-volley from Heidar Helguson, smacked in and miles wide from the right flank, came even vaguely close to threatening the Burnley goal. It wasn't terribly promising.

We didn't yet know it, but we'd survived the worst. Even as the Burnley fans' encouragement echoed around an otherwise slightly subdued stadium, Stephen Glass was winning a free kick on the left wing and the tide was turning in our favour. From there, a series of corners and although none of it came to much - just an off-target Paolo Vernazza effort from the edge of the box and a stretching Heidar Helguson header from an injury time corner - we'd set the agenda for the rest of the afternoon. For the remainder of the half, apart from a Chamberlain punch that nearly fell to Ian Moore, we were thoroughly comfortable...albeit in a fairly frantic and chaotic kinda way.

Lucky half-time chocolate: Tesco chocolate brownie
Reason: Following the success of various forms of cake in previous rounds, there was no way that we were about to change a winning formula.
Result: Oh, do pay attention....

To say that the second half was played entirely at the Rookery end would be an exaggeration. Nonetheless, the knowledge that Burnley would be far happier with a replay, which seemed by far the most likely outcome, meant that watches were checked more and more frequently as the home side's quest for a goal became the dominant theme. In general, the quality of the football improved little...but, crucially, there were occasional flickers and glimmers from some of the classier Watford players, suggesting that the stalemate might not continue for the entire ninety minutes.

In the stands, we roared them on. For viewers at home, the time was probably dragging terribly; for us, it seemed to slip past all too quickly. Micah Hyde sent a looping, spinning volley over the bar in an early attack, but still the stream of set pieces wouldn't yield that all-important opening. The players continued to bash away, as yet without reward. It was frustrating, gruelling stuff. And then...Marcus Gayle, betraying his roots, found himself on the left wing, took on an opponent and whipped in the most superb cross. At the near post, Tommy Smith flicked the ball on, it fell for Heidar Helguson in the six yard box...and he stabbed at it, caught it with his shin and watched as it tricked painfully, agonisingly past the post. At that moment, the celebrations that were to follow, that we'd imagined throughout the preceding days, seemed awfully remote. You have to take those chances.

But we were immediately encouraged, as the game suddenly spread out to offer inviting spaces and much more exciting possibilities. It was what we wanted and what we needed, for we'd hope to beat Burnley in a less physical, more open contest. With his first touch after replacing Alan Moore, Little blazed over the bar from the edge of the box, before Briscoe curled a tame effort from distance to Alec Chamberlain. At the other end, a lovely cross from the industrious Gavin Mahon found Tommy Smith pulling away at the far post, but he was unable to connect properly from a difficult angle and Beresford gathered. Heidar Helguson sent a volley bobbling wide after neat chest control and a smart turn, and it began to look a bit less like an inevitable goalless draw....

Well, I say that now. At the time, still battling away for an occasional sight of goal, it felt as if the remaining minutes wouldn't be long enough for us. Even as Heidar Helguson took another pass on his chest, flicked the ball inside to beat two defenders and blazed a tremendous drive over the bar via Beresford's fingertips, I was preparing myself for acute disappointment, ten days of forced optimism, and a doomed trip to Lancashire. I looked at my watch again. Fifteen minutes. The corner came over, Neil Cox contested the header, Gavin Mahon swiped the ball towards goal...and it still appeared as if we'd be frustrated again...and then Tommy Smith was pouncing on it, slamming it underneath Beresford's body from four yards...and the rest is just absolute mayhem. Screams...hugs...roars...bodies...arms...COMEON!COMEON!COMEON!...breath back... notebook out...calm calm calm...COMEON!.

Most of all, we deserve to be praised for what followed. For rather than allowing Burnley to charge at us for the remaining minutes, we simply controlled the game until its conclusion. Growing in confidence with each completed pass, hurtling around the pitch with renewed vigour, the players put a rather persuasive argument in favour of the manager's controversial team selection on Tuesday night. Burnley began to tire, heads dropping and shoulders slumping, and it took less than ten minutes to put the game beyond their reach.

It shouldn't have taken that long, in all honesty. When Gifton Noel-Williams replaced an exhausted Tommy Smith, his first contribution was to run onto a splendid Stephen Glass through-ball. I would've said that it was his first touch...but he was never allowed to get that far, as Ian Cox dragged him away from his intended course by blatantly and cynically wrenching his shirt. I'm not sure quite how you define a goal-scoring opportunity if it doesn't involve one of your forwards out-pacing a defender to run through...but that's a question to ask Alan Wiley, who inexplicably decided that a yellow card would be sufficient punishment. It makes no difference now, of course...but it might have made a difference then.

As it turns out, it did make some difference...for it was Cox's clumsy foul on Heidar Helguson within a few seconds that won us another free kick, much closer to goal. As Stephen Glass stepped up to take it, you felt the entire Rookery shifting slightly towards the left in expectation of a curled shot over the defensive wall. And it was that little bit of deception that beat Beresford, for the keeper took a crucial step in that direction before he realised, fractionally too late, where the ball was heading. Over his head, over his flailing hand, dipping underneath the bar, ripping into the net.



One of those moments. When you can release everything, stop worrying, let it all go. When the tension just floods out of your body, making way for pure, ecstatic calm. It doesn't last. You know it can't last, that they'll be kicking off in a moment and you'll be back to screaming and shouting and pointing and encouraging and desperately hoping. But while it does last, it's bloody perfect. Like I say, one of those moments...and they don't happen often.

We eased through the final minutes, impressively focused in the midst of a great riot of celebration all around. In Gifton Noel-Williams and Jamie Hand, we had two players whose sheer energy and commitment refused to allow Burnley to settle back into any kind of rhythm, and (mercifully and unusually) we were able to push the play out of our own half for much of the time. Burnley were thoroughly beaten...and, although four minutes of injury time did the nerves no good, we knew that we were safe as soon as Briscoe had directed a free header straight at Alec Chamberlain from Little's free kick. Then, we could really celebrate....

And it ends there, almost. Except, of course, that there's more to look forward to. And a whole month to savour it, imagine it, lose yourself in yet more daydreams. Yesterday, no matter how much we tried to pretend otherwise, there was a great deal to lose. From here on, there's nothing at all to be frightened of.

Just enjoy it. Every single second. Every little detail.