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03/04: Reports:

F.A. Cup Third Round, 03/01/04, 12.30pm
It happened
By Ian Grant

All of the usual clichés, then.

And more besides. Because, on the basis that Chelsea have not so much re-written the rulebook as had it reprinted in a lavish new leather-bound collector's edition with a foreword by some Russian bloke who looks a bit like Harry Enfield, the usual FA Cup clichés aren't nearly enough this time.

Conventional wisdom has it that this season has seen three clubs split away from the rest of the Premiership, for now and for ever. You spend multi-millions so that accidents can't happen. You buy that kind of player not simply because they have quality, but because they have consistent, dependable quality...and so that, if they falter, there'll be another of the same kind on the bench to replace them. In short, the "plucky underdogs" of Third Round legend should stand no chance whatsoever here. This is our competition, still. Just about. But it's not our world.

Here we are, though.

Bloody hell.

This was astonishing. I mean, it was many things, and you can find a convenient list under "magnificent" in your thesaurus. But it was astonishing, first and foremost. There will be some comments about how the performance throws the rest of our under-achieving season into sharp relief, but they'll miss the point. The point being that we could not possibly have expected eleven players to over-achieve in such an extraordinary manner. Not to that extent. Not for that long. Way beyond "spirited", this was a brief and tenuous, but very real, bridging of that impossible gulf. It happened. Even more remarkably, it happened for ninety minutes.

That is, we didn't merely - "merely," he says, as if it were the easiest thing in the world! - give our opponents a few problems to think about, in a lower division underdog way. We didn't only batter them. We did all of that, spectacularly and brilliantly. But having done it, having given everything to the first half effort and reached the interval on level terms, we kept much of that intensity and added some real composure for the remainder, when all that we'd achieved might so easily have been swept away in an anticlimactic blue blitz. We dictated the first half, which was remarkable. We didn't dictate the second half, which was even more remarkable, given that we were still flinging corners into the box in expectation of a winner in the final minute.

Indeed, the sheer scale of it only really became clear in that final minute. Until then, it always felt as if this breathtaking display was destined to be obscured by the result, given the likelihood of someone with a multi-million pound price tag conjuring a winner from nothing. In which case, our achievements would've been confined to reports, highlights, memories, robbed of the wider, indisputable glory that they truly deserved. Me, I always thought we'd lose, until we didn't.

And when we didn't, this became something else, the true sum of its parts. A heroic success, not just a heroic failure. A performance that held onto its reward, kept it safe, refused to let it go. An achievement that can't be quibbled over, except to wonder, in idle and complacement moments, whether we might've gone even further. And a complete sodding triumph, in every respect.

No need to be shy about this one. It was astonishing, hard to believe for those who've watched this team struggle since August. But it was real enough, even if it can't be recreated on demand. There's more than a fair chance that it'll never happen again, these players reaching such a level. But it did happen. You saw it. If you didn't, beg a tape from someone.

And try not to wear out the first few minutes, when we ripped into Chelsea with a ferocity that had been unimaginable. If the adoption of a 4-5-1 formation, leaving Heidar Helguson as a lone striker in order to gain an extra man in midfield, had sounded a note of caution before kickoff, then none of the players had apparently heard it. Whatever this was, caution didn't seem to be part of it at all...except that the midfield insurance enabled individuals to break forward from deep without worrying so much about being caught on the break, thereby becoming an indirectly positive set-up. This, from a manager occasionally accused of naivety. Hmmm.

Enough of tactics, though. It wasn't about that, not yet. This was sheer, thrilling bravado, the kind of thing that some of our opponents will simply never have encountered before. Except that there was some decent football thrown in, some quick thinking to send these full-blooded, pig-headed attacks in directions that might actually do some damage. Which, specifically, sent the ball skidding out to the right flank almost immediately, where Paul Devlin and Neal Ardley were ready to start taunting and teasing and, crucially, delivering. One minute, Neal Ardley's hanging cross, Heidar Helguson barges in front of Desailly to steer a header wide. This wasn't, in all honesty, what we were expecting. We were expecting that Arsenal game again, really. But we were already roaring this on to wherever it might take us...even if that turned out only to be a slight delay to the inevitable.

It was to take us further than we could've possibly imagined. Five minutes, and sublime pace and trickery from Paul Devlin sets up Neal Ardley for another cross. And again, Heidar Helguson is stronger than those around him; again, he leaps higher than taller men. This time, he's able to guide it accurately too, an arcing header that beats Sullivan comprehensively, hits the underside of the bar, bounces down and out. At the other end, we're on our feet as the ball floats towards goal, heads in hands as it rebounds from the woodwork, then immediately roaring them on to try again. And then...well, just an absolute frenzy, as the linesman intervenes in our favour....

It wasn't over the line, obviously. Not even close, frankly. But nobody would expect us to do this without some measure of luck, surely? Even with that, we might easily have been left with just a consolation goal, the memory of that wonderful frenzy, before harsh reality put us back in our seats for the rest of the afternoon. One goal might easily have been an irrelevance, without the rest of the performance to go with it. Besides, it comes back to the same old thing, from our point of view. Making things happen. Because if the cross doesn't happen and the header doesn't happen, then the luck doesn't happen either. If a team ever made their own luck, it was here....

The scoreline suggests that the luck held for half an hour. It didn't, in truth. For while there were moments of good fortune at the Rookery end, such as when Desailly hacked a close-range effort from Geremi's free kick into the stand within seconds of the goal, or when Lenny Pidgeley dived across and punched Johnson's curling effort into the heart of the penalty area without finding a blue shirt, they were more than balanced out at the other end. It was already a stupendous, fabulous match, and we'd lost none of that attacking momentum when we'd scored. Logic would have it that an open, flowing end-to-end match could only have one outcome, very much not in our favour. Astonishingly, logic was proved wrong.

A second would've defied logic entirely. Yet we were so close, Micah Hyde drifting a free header over the bar from Paul Devlin's ambitious run and flicked cross as we were still recovering our senses. Then even better, as Neal Ardley hurtled improbably around the Chelsea defence on the right, Sullivan flapped at the cross, and Paolo Vernazza was in position, shuffling an effort towards goal that was scrambled clear by Desailly on the line. Oh, what a moment that would've been...but, really, what wonderful moments anyway. Even on this occasion, we found the energy for a follow-up attack, and Heidar Helguson headed another Ardley centre into Sullivan's hands.

By this time, Chelsea had stumbled into the game, and Mutu's free kick had been deflected over by a head in the wall, and Gronkjaer had found the side netting from an impossible angle. But they were still stumbling - much had been made of the condition of the pitch before the game, but they seemed to have rather more problems just keeping the ball within its confines - and were frequently shoved off balance again by another inspired flurry from their opponents. Much fuss is made about the romance of the FA Cup, yet so much of that magic just belongs to the game itself...and this was nothing less than a great football match, whatever the competition. It had barely started either.

So, we should take a moment to applaud Jack Smith, for his was the most difficult job of the afternoon. In attempting to deal with the pace and experience of Gronkjaer, he was frequently isolated, sometimes beaten...and always, always prepared to pick himself up and try again. That was our weak point all afternoon, and Chelsea were never allowed to exploit it nearly as much as they'd have liked. That done, we'll shift our focus to Gronkjaer stealing a yard on Smith in the pursuit of a long pass and tumbling under Lenny Pidgeley's challenge inside the area. And we'll briefly note that Gudjohnsen's penalty was about as clinical as any you'll see, struck low in the centre while the keeper got his jersey grubby to the right.

And here's where television shows much and solves nothing. At the time, it struck me as a certain penalty, and there's some truth in that, for any referee would need a pretty good reason not to give the foul in such a situation. Still, the replay clearly shows that the active contact was from Gronkjaer, in leaving his leg trailing to catch Lenny Pidgeley's body and give himself cause to fall, rather than the keeper. So, that's a dive, in my book. (Incidentally, before anyone gets too irate, it's exactly the same dive demonstrated by Heidar Helguson and Scott Fitzgerald in the first half at Sheffield United. We didn't get either of those decisions, which merely shows that referees aren't all gullible. Besides, Gronkjaer might've gone down under Jack Smith's initial challenge, in which case we would've been down to ten men for the remaining hour.) It's not, most of the time, a dive in the eyes of television, which is utterly obsessed with contact, regardless of how that contact comes about. The lesson endeth.

We seemed to be back to the script after the improvised first act, and the anger was still echoing around the ground as Helguson gained another bruise for his collection. Then, from Lee Cook's free kick, Marcus Gayle towered above all as Sullivan came and stopped in the middle of nowhere, stranded as the ball looped towards goal. There, Gavin Mahon and Heidar Helguson competed to apply the finishing touch on the line, to restore the lead, and to set off an even more extravagant frenzy in the stands. To have had the lead, to have lost the lead, to have regained it so quickly...well, I've over-used "astonishing" already, and we're not even at half-time....

By then, we were level again, as Lampard swept Johnson's pass towards goal from the edge of the area, fortunate to see it take a slight but decisive deflection from Micah Hyde's heel to send it out of Lenny Pidgeley's reach. That was cruel, yet it wasn't enough to cancel out the unexpected ecstasy that we'd already experienced, nor to smother the thrill of watching such a truly fine game. There was still time for Chelsea to come very close to snatching the lead, as Gronkjaer broke through the offside trap on the right and the ball somehow ended up with the keeper via a poor touch from the completely unmarked Gudjohnsen, a miscued hack from the scrambling Pidgeley, and a very kind rebound from the striker's body. We had our luck here. But we didn't push it too far.

Frankly, I've only scratched the surface. Vicarage Road will not have seen a better half of football for some time, perhaps since that staggering League Cup tie against Charlton in late 2001. It had everything, from quality to aggression via a few moments of comedy and controversy...and it will live very long in the memory. More to the point, perhaps, we'd not only reached the interval on level terms, we'd done so by doing much more than spoiling. Rarely has a Watford side been so exuberantly positive, while also being so smart and streetwise. Rarely, I imagine, has a Watford side played better.

In which case, the second half might be left in shadow. It shouldn't be. While so much of the drama, and all of the goals, belonged to the first period, our achievements after the break were arguably even more impressive. So often, these games escape the underdog after that initial burst of adrenaline has faded, and the quality of the superior side tells in the end. Two-two turns into two-four or two-five quickly and easily. Thing is, that wouldn't have been a disgrace, by any means. Thing is, we didn't let it happen. Thing is, even more than that, we were still trying to win it at the death. That is what we ought to take from the game, more than anything.

It was a less breathless, more composed half altogether. It was much more of a Chelsea half than a Watford half, in that respect. As I say, that's what we should be most proud of, I think. For all that we were desperately stretched on occasions, those occasions weren't nearly as frequent as you'd naturally and understandably have feared...and when they did happen, we covered and recovered quite brilliantly. Lenny Pidgeley, who must've been looking forward to a busy afternoon, was called into action only sporadically, parrying an awkward Babayaro cross from the left early on, then doing remarkably little until flying across to tip a whipped Geremi free kick around the post with seven minutes remaining. In every respect, this was simply the most surprising afternoon....

There were certainly periods in which we didn't have the upper hand, yet the weight of the midfield seemed to anchor everything more effectively, and we were never dragged into our own final third for any length of time. Which is worth remembering, next time we're backing away from the terrifying might of Reading or Coventry in the dying minutes. Even so, you sometimes felt as if we wouldn't be able to muster enough strength to have another bash at the Chelsea defence, and there was still more than a little inevitability about the eventual result.

And that was usually when we'd suddenly pile forward again, one individual leading some kind of charge and instantly finding that others were following. Those individuals came from everywhere, whether it was Jack Smith conjuring up the pass of the season from deep on the left through to Heidar Helguson, a pass struck with the outside of his right boot at such an angle that it initially seemed destined for the Radio Hornet commentary box in the back of the East Stand, before swerving back towards its target. So good that it didn't need a goal on the end of it.

Or whether it was Gavin Mahon, swaggering mightily into the penalty area to be felled by a swinging boot from Gallas. Here, the television merely confirms what I thought at the time, that it was a clear penalty. It's hard not to feel that we would've won this if the incident involved a more accomplished and practised tumbler, for Mahon's stumble and fall was rather basic in its execution. But we shouldn't dwell on such things, for this was a game that deserved to be remembered for much more than controversy, despite the officials' best efforts. Shortly afterwards, Lee Cook swept a free kick over the bar, and Heidar Helguson was - one of very few predictable things - booked for a quite ferocious tackle on the otherwise anonymous Makelele.

We just wouldn't let it go. Which implies desperation, perhaps...but we were only desperate when we had to be, quickly recovering our composure as soon as immediate danger had been averted. Marcus Gayle slashed an attempted clearance over his own bar, then Gronkjaer twisted past his marker to drill a shot into the advertising hoardings. But it was mild stuff, in comparison to our nightmares. It wasn't nearly enough to beat us, not this time.

And we still kept breaking forward whenever the opportunity arose, eager to crown a magnificent afternoon with some headlines. Eighty-nine minutes, and Neal Ardley's corner was headed on by the mighty Sean Dyche, and Danny Webber's close range shot was blocked by Sullivan on his line. Another corner, and there was Sean Dyche again, straining and just failing to make decisive contact with his head. And, while that winning goal would surely have been one of the most celebrated in our history, the mere fact that we were still looking for it, pushing for it, demanding it was a victory in itself. Only a moral victory, perhaps. But a victory nevertheless, and one with very welcome prize money attached.

It ended there, until next Wednesday. But, really, it just ended there, for the replay is another game, a new performance. This one, it finished with a vast standing ovation, returned by visibly exhausted and perhaps slightly disappointed players. That disappointment will, I hope, fade with time, for there should be nothing but pride when we look back on this. And not pride in glorious failure either. Pride in genuine, stunning and, yes, astonishing achievement.

There were only different degrees of outstanding here. There were quieter contributions, feeding into the overall team effort; there were contributions that flashed into life only at key moments, then faded when the service failed or the pattern of the game moved elsewhere; there were contributions that thundered and rumbled throughout the ninety minutes. Different degrees of outstanding, as I say...and everything in unison, in defiant opposition to our supposedly inevitable fate.

But we'll finish with two people, for they deserve to be remembered for this afternoon as and when they leave Vicarage Road, like Paul Robinson should always be remembered as he was on that night against Charlton, when he played as a left-back, left-winger and striker at the same time. Here, two players reached the same kind of pinnacle of performance, where there's no room for improvement whatsoever, and you can only try to capture as much of it as possible for posterity. There were others - and I'm thinking especially of Gavin Mahon, absolutely mighty once again - who were very close to that peak. But there were two who reached it.

Sean Dyche. Jesus. Of all the pre-match fears, that was the one. And yet his recall in Neil Cox's enforced absence actually seemed to give the whole team a point of focus, for it was immediately obvious that there was no way whatsoever that anyone was getting past Sean Dyche yesterday afternoon. Or if they were, it was only because he'd already made sure that the linesman's flag was raised. It was a performance that seemed to demand complete compliance from colleagues and opponents alike, with a fierce stare, a bellowed order, and a broad-shouldered swagger that left no doubt at all as to who was in charge. You wouldn't want to cross him, and Mutu and Gudjohnsen seemed quite happy to keep well out of his way for ninety minutes. Just monstrous and terrifying. Oh, and wonderful.

Then, Heidar Helguson. The lone striker, apparently. But you wouldn't have known it, for neither Desailly nor Gallas seemed to win a header against him in the entire game, and, as a result of his demented charging about, pretty much every header was against him. He battered that defence from the start, spreading panic and creating chaos. He made it look fragile and nervous, small and frail. When he seemed to be tiring at the start of the second half, it was as if he caught an opponents' eye, glimpsed the fear, and was spurred on yet again. And so, while Ray Lewington and Terry Burton should be praised for their tactical tweaks, it was Heidar Helguson who really made them happen. Because 4-5-1 became something like 4-5-4, such was the impact of the Icelander on this football match.

And 4-5-4 has rarely been done better.