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02/03: Reports:

F.A. Cup Semi-Final, 13/04/03, 4.30pm
A privilege
By Frances Lynn

It all started so well. The travel pack in my seat pocket on the Virgin flight was yellow - a good omen. Arrived Saturday morning and, after a cup of tea and a shower, headed into Watford. Outside the Hornet Shop were guys selling flags and curly wigs. There was a steady stream of fans coming through the shop all wanting to be at the Vic on the eve of the Semi, buying anything just to have a souvenir.

Then, on to the party at the Museum. The brainchild of Fuzz Chaudry and Sarah Jones, it was a fantastic effort. Loads of material for making banners and flags. Face and nail painting, hair spraying, and a table full of Yellow Pages for shredding. Hornet-centred music playing, and a TV showing the video of the Burnley Quarter-Final under a banner saying "Alan Hansen - is this dire enough for you?" They even provided refreshments. There was a constant stream of children (and big kids like myself) through the museum, creating a great atmosphere of creativity and expectation.

Sunday morning, and an early start. As I went into my bedroom after breakfast, I heard Coldplay's "Yellow" ringing out from my sister's flat downstairs. The heart started beating a little faster. Then we left for the station with our replica shirts on, our lucky scarves, and our hair in bunches tied with yellow, red and black ribbon - with our Dad's voice ringing in our ears ("You're not travelling on a train like that, are you?"). As we arrived, we met Fuzz and Toddy draped in flags, wearing curly Watford wigs...our look was positively restrained. Fair play to the staff at the station, who allowed us to decorate the place with "Go on the Golden Boys" and Tommy Smith posters. And then Doug arrived with our tickets. I took one look at it and my legs turned to jelly - I was really going. By the time the train arrived, the place was jammed with Horns.

After a long journey to Brum, we left Aston station to see the pub opposite draped with a flag for the South Coast Horns. We ended up in the Edward VII pub, which was packed with Horns. Fuzz set up her face-painting station. I don't think anyone escaped without some sort of decoration. Saw a lot of old friends and met some WMLers whose names were familiar, but who I had never met before. There was a great atmosphere, lots of singing. "Terry and Ray, Terry and Ray, Are taking the Horns to Cardiff in May" was given a lot of outings. Jackie Brister was there looking stunning in her wedding dress with the whipround continuing for sponsorship in aid of the Supporters Trust.

At about three, we headed for the ground and, as we neared, the streets filled with yellow-clad Horns and the tension began to mount. Villa Park is a magnificent ground and, as we took our seats, it was an amazing sight to behold. Soon the players took to the pitch for the warm-up to a great ovation. It was great to see Marcus Gayle out there warming up and, sure enough, he started. The team held few surprises. It was a shame that Tommy Smith only made the bench, and I thought Allan Nielsen may have started, but no argument with the selections.

Then the players are coming out to a great roar and it was viewed through a storm of confetti. The cutting up of the Yellow Pages had been a conspicuous success. Finally, the moment that we had all been waiting for and the match kicked off. Some early nerves in the stands, certainly. Southampton lauch a ball forward and there is Marcus Gayle to send it back. And again. Great stuff, you would never have known he hadn't played for a month. Quite soon after kick-off, the parts of my brain that control thought and coordination stopped functioning, having been overrun by the emotional part, so memories are few and sporadic. Early on we had an attack and Heidar had a header that was just tipped around the post. Heads in hands behind the goal. At the other end, Beattie beats Cox and jabs a shot past Alec and it is inelegant and heart-breaking as it appears to be going in, but it too goes wide. A huge relief fills the Horns fans and I am shaking and having trouble controlling my breathing. The game is quite even and competitive, the Golden Boys showing they can play football and are not giving their Premiership opponents too much respect. It was approaching half-time and we thought we were going in level when disaster struck. Southampton break and Ormerod heads goalward. Alec gets a hand to it, but it's in. Stunned, sickened silence from the Watford fans. Then we realise we are all in it together and the Upper Holte rises and roars "Yellow Army" at our heroes.

Half-time was pretty miserable. Sarah passed around the lucky half-time saffron cake. I repaired the chipped red stripe on my yellow nails and donned my play-off final scarf for extra luck.

The second half and Alec is down our end. The players came out with a fighting spirit and we came at them. We had chances to equalise, Stephen Glass had a header off the bar, but they had chances too and we were not making enough of the forward play that we had. Then Mahon gave the ball away, they broke and Beattie slid in with Gayle and Robbo challenging and the ball ended up in the net off Robbo. The stunned pause is longer this time, but we are on our feet again encouraging them on and the players respond by throwing everything at Southampton. Still, the minutes pass and the dream of Cardiff and Europe seems over. Until, a cross into the box and the magnificent Marcus Gayle heads powerfully and it is 2-1. Game on! The Horns fans are on their feet screaming, broad grins replacing the worried frowns. The big screen showed shots of very worried Southampton fans. This spurred us on to greater efforts both on and off the pitch. Three minutes of added time is announced, more cheers and shouts for the players. The minutes ran down and then the final whistle was blown and the dream was over. There were tears and hugs in our section of the Holte End. The players looked devastated as they came over to applaud us. Robbo did his usual tour of the stands putting as much as he could into it. We applauded until the last player left the ground. Then we remembered our manners and applauded the Southampton players who were still on the pitch, they responded in kind.

The group that gathered after was completely deflated. If only we hadn't let in those soft goals. If only the push of the last fifteen minutes had started earlier. Trying to come to terms with the defeat was so difficult when the result could have gone the other way.

Then Toddy said, "We've just been to the Semis." And that gave us pause for thought. In our long history, we have been to the Semis four times. This was a privilege for everyone there. In years to come, this will be remembered as a great day in Watford history, but for now the disappointment lingers. I fear I shall shed a tear on 17th May.