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02/03: Reports:

F.A. Cup Semi-Final, 13/04/03, 4.30pm
A famous day
By Ian Grant

It already seems impossible. The Cup Final, the UEFA Cup, the glorious celebrations that would've - could've - greeted a victory yesterday, they all seem incredibly distant, even so soon after the event.

As you left Villa Park, shuffling quietly away after applauding the team until your arms and shoulders screamed for mercy, I hope that you paused for a second. Even if it was hard to control your emotions, even if the weight of disappointment threatened to crush you completely, I hope that you took it all in, that you looked at it all for one last time. It doesn't happen every day. When it does happen, it's gone so damn quickly.

For me, that short pause at the top of the steps was perhaps the most memorable moment of the entire day. The steps led down and away. Back to normality, reality, everything that we'd desperately hoped to postpone for another month. But, with the pitch still in view, the spell hadn't yet been lifted. As I stopped to gaze at the riotous carnival of red and white on two and a half sides of the ground, it wasn't hard to raise a slightly wobbly smile. For we - little ol' Watford - were part of that too. Somehow, without really knowing it, Southampton fans were celebrating on our behalf as well.

It just meant so much, to them and to us. To get so very close to that impossible prize, and still to be contesting its ownership until the very last, is not a wasted effort. It's not a defeat. It's just not winning. And that means something. It earns us the right to claim a small share of the spoils, to hold onto a bit more than just our pride. The popular cliché suggests that nobody remembers the beaten semi-finalists. And while there's a certain amount of truth in that - I can't even recall last season's losers - it misses a fairly central point. We will remember. Honestly, how could we ever forget?

It still matters, inevitably. If you thought of anything else when you awoke this morning, you're doing remarkably well. To have come so far and lost...well, it's an extraordinarily deflating experience. This was only the third opportunity to reach the Cup Final in my lifetime, and, for all I know, we might never return to this stage of the competition again. To get so very close, to be able to see it and reach towards it and then have it snatched away, is just shattering....

That won't last forever, though. Even when the disappointment fades, as it inevitably will, it won't be forgotten entirely. It'll always be a day of mixed memories. But the scale of the achievement will surely become much clearer with time, with a bit of perspective and a smudging of detail. The cause of anguish is also the source of joy, for these opportunities are so incredibly rare that, for a club of our size, they represent unqualified triumphs in themselves. There's always another ladder rung to aim for...but that needn't prevent you from admiring the view from your current perch.

So, yeah...we went to win, but that doesn't make the defeat meaningless. Give it time, and you'll see. In 2003/03, under Ray Lewington and Terry Burton and with this admirably honest and dedicated set of players, we did something great. You won't need Trefor Jones' help on that one.

All in all, the match itself was a curious affair. After such unbearable anticipation in the days before, it just sped by in a confused, all-too-brief blur. For me, the jittery, nervous expectation - I must've been particularly marvellous company in the pub, unable to string a coherent sentence together and impatiently looking at my watch every minute - only began to subside when we reached the magnificence of the Holte End, loitering for a while to take in the view from the balcony before making our way inside. Somehow, it all became real when we found our seats in the upper tier of that vast stand. Somehow, it also became fabulously unreal, a series of slightly distant and unfocused images.

Regardless of countless attempts to bring this within the realm of day-to-day experience, it slipped through my net entirely. Oh, I took in the events of the day in every minute detail and I'll treasure some of them for a long, long time...but the match itself, as if it was an unexpected addition to the agenda, eluded me almost completely. As it happened in front of me, I remained strangely calm - I saw it all, but I didn't quite take it in.

Which, in the context of this report, isn't really so important. After all, if you keep the video, it'll be for the spectacular footage of the Holte End as the teams emerged from the tunnel. It'll be as proof that we were there, that we made it to the Semi-Final of the FA Cup, and that we were loud and colourful and bloody proud. Though the football was enjoyably competitive and our efforts were thoroughly commendable in so many respects, it won't be for the game itself. The result is all, even if it doesn't necessarily drag the rest of the occasion along with it.

In the end, we just fell short. Not by very much, but, as in the Premiership season, we found that we'd matched our opponents in most areas, yet been punished for errors that would've gone unnoticed at a lower level. You can review matches like this and find little to divide the sides...but, in the relentless speed of the live action, that momentary lapse, that bit of composure in front of goal, that fraction of luck is enough. Only just, but it's enough.

We could argue that the peaks of previous rounds, particularly that fabulous victory over West Brom, remained unscaled. We could argue that a really special performance might've won the day. We could argue lots of things...but, in the circumstances, argument seems rather churlish. For, although we were largely effective in preventing Southampton from playing with any comfort, they responded in kind. At this stage of the competition, with so much at stake, the smattering of over-paid complacency that can enable First Division sides to bridge the gap in quality doesn't really materialise. It was a game that we might've won...but, as so often in these matches, it was slightly - ever so slightly - beyond us.

There's no shame in that. When we look back, we'll feel proud of ourselves not only for having got so far, but for having played a full, committed part in a tremendous Semi-Final. And we'll continue to wonder what might've happened if, say, Heidar Helguson's fifth minute header, after he'd pulled away beyond the far post to meet a Neal Ardley free kick, hadn't squirmed around the post via Jones' right foot. That crowned a fine start to the match by the Hornets, who immediately succeeded in wrestling the initiative from the favourites. Even if the pressure couldn't be sustained, it set the tone for the afternoon - we weren't there just to make up the numbers.

But it didn't last. Southampton's grip on midfield would, ultimately, provide the key to their success, and they began to assert themselves. After twelve minutes, Beattie headed over from a precise Bridge cross, then Oakley smashed a low drive into the hoardings from twenty-five yards. A little concern started to spread as we struggled to keep possession and then struggled to win it back, a point illustrated when Michael Chopra was robbed in the Southampton half and Fernandes finished a long, largely unchallenged run with a shot that whipped towards the top corner and missed by not nearly enough. The size of the task was becoming apparent.

If there's one thing that we should be thoroughly pleased about, however, it's that we showed the world some of the spirit that's come to characterise this season. Our resilience has been remarkable, enabling us to bounce back from repeated setbacks in stirring style. Here, we were quickly on the offensive once again, pushing Southampton back in response to their spate of attacks. Given enough space, our football was tidy, crisp and progressive, and Paul Robinson's intended cross caused Jones some discomfort as it floated over the bar. In a match that had still to be lifted by a truly clear-cut chance, we created the first, as Heidar Helguson's fine cross from the left was met by a stooping header from Stephen Glass...and, as it sailed wide, we wondered what would've happened if those roles had been reversed....

Still, a goalless draw at half-time would've been a considerable achievement, something tangible to build upon. It would've confirmed our faith in the possibility of an upset, enhanced our confidence, spread a few doubts in our opponents' minds. Instead, we ended the first forty-five minutes with two defensive lapses...and, typically, one of them was punished. It's a harsher game at this level, so much less forgiving.

We escaped once. When Neil Cox contested a long ball with Beattie, he attempted to head it back to Alec Chamberlain as it fell. But it dropped short, the striker nipped in...and, twenty miles away in the Holte End, we could barely watch as the ball bounced towards goal and, mercifully, continued bouncing past the goal.

We didn't escape twice. With little time left, Gavin Mahon and Micah Hyde were caught ball-watching as Marsden slipped into the space behind them. When his cross arrived, a line of yellow shirts hadn't prevented Ormerod from finding a gap, heading firmly, and charging away in celebration as Alec Chamberlain tried desperately and unsuccessfully to push the ball around the post. The distant roar from the other end was matched almost instantly by defiant encouragement from the Watford fans...but it was suddenly slipping away from us. Expectation was turning back into hope.

But hope remained. Although only because Svensson failed to emulate Ormerod when presented with a free header from Beattie's excellent cross in the first minute of the second half. He should've ended it. He directed it straight to Alec Chamberlain instead. And, having been given that reprieve, we were immediately given enormous encouragement as Heidar Helguson played in Michael Chopra and the youngster, perhaps betraying his inexperience, took that vital extra touch to allow a defender to block his eventual effort. Still, we were very far from finished. The atmosphere in the Holte End lifted. Hope still remained.

And with good cause, as it happened. Increasingly, we began to find ways of spreading the play, compensating for an ineffective performance from Stephen Glass on the left by using the excellent Neal Ardley on the other flank. With Heidar Helguson throwing himself around as a distraction, a little space began to appear in the Southampton penalty area. A little space, and yellow shirts to fill it.

These were the chances. The moments that we'll chew over, that we'll imagine turning out differently. A fine pass to find Michael Chopra on the right, a neat back-heel to supply Neal Ardley, a low cross to pick out Micah Hyde...and a scuffed finish that took a deflection and skidded just - just - beyond Heidar Helguson. Another break, more good movement on the right as Allan Nielsen, who'd replaced the increasingly anonymous Paolo Vernazza, fed Neal Ardley again. This time, it was Stephen Glass who'd made a move, meeting the cross with a determined climb and a strong header at the far post...and Jones produced a superb save to flick the ball onto the crossbar and over. My word, if either of those had gone in....

If. It doesn't buy you much in the Premiership, as West Brom have spent several months discovering. When it came down to it, Southampton were able to find answers to our questions, leaving us to rue those missed chances in the knowledge that it wouldn't be at all easy to recreate them. They pressed us harder in midfield, pushed Neal Ardley back towards the halfway line, adapted to meet our challenges.

As we found it harder to keep the ball, they caught us at the vital moment. One backward movement too many, one dangerous pass (from Gavin Mahon to Micah Hyde) too many, one well-timed tackle, one vicious counter-attack. Instantly, Ormerod left Mahon behind to burst into the left of the penalty area, smack a low cross through the six yard box, and a combination of Marcus Gayle, James Beattie and Paul Robinson bundled the ball into the net from close range. The video does indeed prove that the latter made the decisive contact, without knowing anything about it...and it also proves that, if that contact had not been made, the ball would somehow have missed everyone. If.

We're better than that, though. We spent much of last season blaming bad fortune, while doing precious little to overcome it. This term, so much has been about doing it for ourselves, making things happen. Brilliantly, we did just that. When it mattered, when we really needed to. The match was effectively finished, the Southampton fans were rejoicing loudly, the Watford fans were quiet and despondent. It would've been such a shame, such an anticlimax. And, yes, Marcus Gayle's goal - an imperious header from a Neal Ardley flag-kick, floated over a crowd of players and into the far top corner in a way that brought to mind a certain goal at Wembley - was too late to make a difference to the final outcome.

But it wasn't too late to make a difference to the game, to the afternoon, to the memories that we took away. Because we ended our Semi-Final on our feet, both literally and metaphorically. We ended it by roaring them on towards an improbable comeback, shoving players forward, giving it a bloody good try. And the Southampton fans were nervous, tense, almost silent. Even if the only notable chance of this frantic last period fell to the Saints, as Fernandes ambled away on the break and finished by rather selfishly shooting at Alec Chamberlain, it was the tone that really mattered. We weren't beaten until the final whistle. That counts for so much. Not as much as an equaliser, granted...but if we were to lose, we would surely have chosen to lose like this.

We went down fighting. And we saluted the effort with one of the most moving ovations that a Watford team can ever have received. It went on and on and on, a vast torrent of noise that was directed at the small crowd of drained, distraught players and coaches until it was physically impossible to continue clapping and shouting. It visibly lifted their spirits, if only briefly. More than anything, however, it crowned the achievement - the season, the Cup run, the day itself. They've done us proud, you know. They really have.

We didn't finish with the Cup Final, with Europe, with everything that we'd hoped for. But we didn't finish with nothing either. Just close your eyes, think back, listen to that ovation.

A famous day, whatever.