Veni, Vidi, Gessi Flavensentis
By Chris Lawton
The record books will show that Southampton made the final. What they won't show is the story, the Watford story, of the season. At 16:25 on the 13th April 2003, the eleven chosen ones entered the arena to a spine-tingling roar and a riot of colour. This was their moment of the season and they had more than earned it. Ignoring, for the moment, the off-field problems of the season, for a team outside the top flight to reach the FA Cup Semi-Final, beating two of the country's elite on the way is a fine achievement in its own right.
Yet again in Watford's recent, and maybe not so recent, history, this was a day for the club as a whole, and the players, the management, staff, boardroom and fans as individuals. This was a club that could have been out of business. A club that could have thrown in the towel back in September. A club that entered the field of play only because of the loyalty and generosity of the aforementioned individuals. To win would make it a special day, a very special day. Yet whatever the result, this fixture's place in the Watford history books was already guaranteed.
Alas it was not to be. Despite a promising start in which Watford were keener, quicker, sharper, stronger and taller than their opponents, the game ultimately reflected the on-pitch problems we have suffered all season. Defensive frailties exposed in the cruellest way, indecision punished, goal-scoring chances created and spurned.
It might have been different had Helguson's early deflected header squeezed inside the post off Jones' foot. Had that early moment of fortune gone our way, who knows....
Despite that early thrust and good possession, the game drifted away from Watford. No longer first to the ball, the forwards were left feeding of scraps and forcing openings. Neither side created much in the way of clear chances and for a while the game hung in the balance. Then on the half hour a warning shot across the Watford bow. A surging run by Bridge down the Saints' left drew a clumsy, and bookable challenge, by Cox. Although the free kick came to nothing a weakness had been exposed.
Five minutes later, a second warning. A long ball played forward came off Cox and fell invitingly to Beattie. Despite the suggestion of a foul there was no whistle and it took an alert Chamberlain to surge off his line and force Beattie to push the ball wide. The silence as the ball missed was almost deafening. It was a let off, but not for long.
On forty-three minutes, Hyde all too easily conceded possession in the middle of the park. As the counter-attack surged down the left, Marsden lost Hyde, collected the ball, powered into the box and delivered a precise cross onto Omerod's head. Despite a valiant effort there was too much power on the header and Chamberlain's outstretched hand could only help the ball into the net.
Then what was arguably one of the key moments of the match. In the dying seconds of the half, Watford almost levelled the match up. Another powerful Ardley run into the box was followed by a despair cross that eluded by Chopra and the late arriving Helguson. If only that ball had found Helguson's head....
And so on to the second half. Again Watford more than matched their opponents in all areas and could have, possibly should have, equalised in the opening moments. A mazy Chopra run seemed open up the goal before him, as he swung his foot to connect so Wayne Bridge slid in with a vital challenge and blocked the ball, sending it rolling harmlessly into the keeper's hands.
As the half wore on Nielsen, in surely one of his last games for Watford, replaced Vernazza and introduced his vision and sure tackling to the proceedings. Just on the hour, another decisive moment that on another day could have changed our destiny. Ardley again found space down the right crossed the ball and this time Stephen Glass, match winner against Burnley, headed the ball goalward only to see it tipped onto the bar and away for a corner by Jones' outstretched glove.
The game continued to ebb and flow with awkward half-chances, but nothing more, being created by both teams. Then on eighty minutes came a moment of defensive madness. Instead of clearing the ball, the defence was happy to knock ever shorter, ever tighter passes to each other. Sooner or later it would go wrong and it was the unfortunate Mahon who conceded possession and space to Omerod. He had a free run and headed for the goal on path similar to that Giggs goal in a more illustrious semi-final a few years ago. Instead of firing an unstoppable shot past Chamberlain he got to the by-line and pulled the ball back for a combination of Gayle, Robinson and Beattie to somehow bundle the ball over the line from a few yards out.
A real blow, and definitely not deserved. Amid the jubilant noise that now rose from the Saints fans, the Horns dug deep once more. Lee Cook, on for Glass, and Smith, who had earlier replaced Chopra, strove with their pace to unhinge the defence. Eventually a free kick was won and from the resulting delivery a corner was won. Ardley delivered another excellent cross and Marcus Gayle rose unchallenged to send a looping header over the keeper and under the crossbar. The Saints fans fell silent. The marvellous travelling support exploded once again into life. There was still hope.
Sadly though there was simply not enough time on the clock. For all their effort and passion, the remaining minutes failed to produce another golden opening and all too soon the final whistle was upon us. It was over. The glorious ending to the dream was not to be.
Alec Chamberlain, stood some thirty yards out of his goal, stared hard at the ground in front of him. I felt a touch of sadness for this loyal servant - maybe his only shot at a Cup Final gone. Then as the fans rose as one body and voice to acclaim the heroes, he turned and was joined by his colleagues to acknowledge the effort that everyone had made to make the day so special.
On the day we were not outplayed. We were not outclassed. On another day we might have got extra time, or won in normal time - but it was not to be. Watford FC can be proud of the performance on Sunday. It had taken a truly monumental effort just to be there and that should never be forgotten.
Just over twenty years ago Watford thrashed Southampton in the most unlikely of League Cup ties - a match that in many ways became a defining point for a generation of players and supporters at the club. It gave the club the belief that it could go on achieve, that it could go on and be a contender in English football.
I see no reason why the club cannot draw similar strength from this recent cup encounter. Yes, the result was different, but to be there was magical, to be a part of it in the current climate was a footballing dream. Once again, like twenty years ago, the club is moving in the right direction. The players, the management, the boardroom and the fans are once again united and integrated in a way that is at the core of all that is enjoyable about Watford FC - something so synonymous with the GT eras. Maybe, just maybe, we are at the dawn of a bright new era for the golden boys.