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.
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.
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
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
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.