A golden opportunity
By James Frankland
What a game to make my "Blind, Stupid and Desperate" debut! First things first - this was the biggest game of my life supporting Watford thus far. I got the footy bug late in life and started supporting Watford following our relegation from the Premier League, so I missed out on previous glories like the Second Division Championship, Wembley, Anfield, and so on. To the best of my recollection, my first Watford game was the stonking 3-2 home win against Forest, when Tommy Smith had the winner disallowed in the eighty-eighth minute for offside. GT threw Helguson on and in that manic Icelandic manner we've come to know and love, he threw his head at the ball at the next corner and won the game.
I envy tremendously those people who were brought up supporting Watford, or any club, and who have seen them achieve glory such as that which we witnessed on Sunday. Because the sheer glory of days like this, knowing that your team has achieved so much and stands on the brink of even greater success, is one of the best things about supporting a football club. As the old cliché says, it's the magic of the FA Cup.
We came into this match on the back of a defeat to Preston, when Ray had somewhat unsubtly rested three-quarters of the team in order to ensure there were no injuries for Sunday. Unfortunately Allan Nielsen missed out due to a calf injury, so Chamberlain, Cox, Gayle, Hyde, Vernazza and Smith all returned to the starting line-up, to accompany Robinson, Ardley, Helguson, Glass and Mahon who all started against Preston. Subs were Richard Lee, who performed so well against Preston on his full debut, Lloyd Doyley, Anthony McNamee, Gifton Noel-Williams and Jamie Hand.
Now, I have to say I've never seen Vicarage Road full. I was sitting in the front row of the Rookery right dead centre behind the goal, and as I looked behind me at seven thousand people chanting, shouting and cheering on the team, I felt quite emotional. We did ourselves and the club proud.
It seems that the financial worries had eased enough for the club to splurge on about a million red, yellow and black balloons to mark the occasion, and the sheer number of them threatened to disrupt the game, to the point where players, stewards and fans, including myself, were grabbing every one we could and frantically stamping them out. After a few minutes, enough had been culled to allow the game to continue. We were all hoping that balloons bursting was not an omen of things to come.
Burnley had a full strength team to choose from and lined up as expected, with the lofty Gareth Taylor being flanked by Lee Briscoe and Alan Moore in attack. Ian Moore, Tony Grant and Paul Cook formed the midfield and Branch, Cox, Diallo and West protected Beresford in goal. Burnley have a difficult system to play against which works well for them, a 4-3-3 becoming a 4-5-1 when asked to defend.
The first half was pretty forgettable, really. Watford's best chance fell to Paolo Vernazza who whacked a left-footed volley over the bar from twenty-five yards. Both sides struggled to get any efforts on target as the occasion seemed to overwhelm them at times. The occasion was lightened somewhat by a friend receiving a text message from his irate other half, stating that their son was upset that he didn't tell him he was going to the game after seeing him on the telly.
Half-time brought an appearance on the Vicarage Road pitch from Nick Wright, sadly forced to retire through persistent and frankly horrendous injury problems. Anyone who has seen him in the reserves this year could tell he was far from the player he once was. The rousing applause and chants of 'Nicky Wright Wright Wright' served as a token of appreciation for a player who, in a short space of time, and for one main reason, established himself as a Watford Legend.
The second half began much as the first had finished, although Watford began to enjoy more possession and started to create some chances. After a corner was only half-cleared, the ball ended up with Marcus Gayle in what is now unfamiliar territory for him, advanced wide on the left. He shimmied around the Burnley full-back and whipped in a cross, which eluded Diallo at the near post and surprised Helguson so much he only managed to get a toe on it. It rolled wide for a goal-kick. From my vantage point, with Helguson about five feet away, you could clearly see the anguish on his face after missing such a golden opportunity.
Burnley then substituted Alan Moore for Glen Little, a very decent right-sided midfielder. He deigned to prove his quality by volleying just over Chamberlain's bar with his first touch. The game was starting to develop into the sort of match where you felt it was going to take a scrappy goal or a moment of magic to win it.
Mahon produced a quality cross on sixty-one minutes which fell right between Beresford and Diallo, and dropped right to Tommy Smith, five yards out. Somehow he failed to get a good connection on it, and the chance was gone. Right about this time I started thinking of that dreaded word: replay.
"I don't want to have to go to Burnley. I don't like the place, it's a long way away, and if we have to go there, we might lose. And it will have proved right all those pundits who have written us off at virtually every stage of this competition. I want to win, just to stick it to people like Lawrenson and bleedin' Rodney Marsh."
Seventy-three minutes in, and Heidar loses two defenders by flicking the ball over their heads, turning on a sixpence and lashing a left-footed shot goalwards. From my perspective, it's in. Beresford obviously felt the same and tipped it over for a corner. Not another corner. We've had about ten so far and nothing's come of it.
In it comes, falling to the ground in a crowd of players. Burnley try to clear it but can't. Mahon gets a foot to it. It falls to Tommy Smith, in virtually the same spot as his earlier chance.
He's got a foot to it.
It's under the keeper.
It's crossed the line.
We're 1-0 up.
I don't need to tell anyone that there was the explosion of noise that accompanied that goal. What it signified, for our club that nearly went out of existence, that has the threat of legal action hanging over it by Luca Vialli, was that we were ninety minutes away from a cup final and European football. No-one in their wildest dreams could have predicted at the start of the season that we'd be where we are, and indeed where we will be on April 13th.
But wait, it's not over. We've thrown away one-nils before. Remember Wolves at home earlier this year? That sickening feeling as a game we so deserved to win got snatched away from us by a cruelly cheap deflection. Not today. That's not going to happen today.
Vicarage Road rose as one and roared the boys on to get a second goal. The noise was deafening, and it seemed as if it physically shook the Burnley players and focused the Golden Boys. A ball forward found Helguson, who tried to turn Ian Cox and was hacked down for his troubles. A free-kick was given, twenty yards out, right of centre.
I'm a left-footer and it looked like an absolute certainty that either Glass or Gayle would hit it. I have to say I would have picked Marcus for it based on the number of times he stuck them past us whilst plying his trade at the Dons. So I was surprised, pleasantly as it turned out, that Stephen Glass stepped up and hit it.
As I've said earlier, I was sitting right behind the goal. Beresford's positioning seemed spot on, and if Glass went to his right, as it seemed he must, then the keeper had a good chance. But he changed his mind and moved to the left. As the ball cleared the wall he realised his mistake and sprang to the right, palm outstretched. There was an audible slap as the ball struck his glove and for a fraction of a second I thought he'd saved it. But the pace of the ball took it into the back of the net and the whole place went crazy.
'2-0 TO THE GOLDEN BOYS!' We screamed as loud as we could, wanting the world to know that we, little lowly Watford from the bottom half of the First Division, were in the FA Cup Semi-Finals. I could envisage Motty going nuts in the gantry above the Rous, and I caught a glimpse of the directors' box, where one half was on its feet, applauding wildly, and one half stayed resolutely in its chairs, looking at the floor. The rest of the game flew by, even the completely unjustified four minutes of injury time, and then that was it, we were through. We applauded the players off, then back on, then back off again, and gradually filed out.
Making my way up Occupation Road after the game I got to witness another fantastic moment when Nick Wright and his family emerged from the East Stand into the throng of delirious Hornets. A spontaneous chant of 'Nicky Wright Wright Wright' went up, and a packed Occupation Road parted and allowed the great man a clear passage through to the car park, patting him on the back and wishing him well all the way. He had the biggest grin on his face. Further up I spotted Scott Fitzgerald standing in a doorway, quietly taking in the scene. From non-league football to an FA Cup Semi-Final in seven days. That must have been some week.
It promises to be a few "some weeks" for all of us as the anticipation builds towards the semi-final. We know now that we face the mad Scotsman's Southampton, a tough proposition given their excellent defensive record and the free-scoring James Beattie in attack. But in all the furore surrounding this game, it's easy to overlook the fact that in the league we have fallen quite a way off the pace for a play-off place.
But enough of that, we're in the FA CUP SEMI-FINALS!
See you at Villa Park.