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04/05: Reports:

League Cup Semi Final Second Leg, 25/01/05, 7.45pm
Delicate threads
By Ian Grant

Throughout the morning, messages arrive from far and wide, shared expressions of the mounting, irresistible tension. For me, trapped in front of a looming deadline, there's just frustration, irritation and desperation. I'm tired, I'm stressed, and I'm really not in the mood, for this or, quite frankly, for anything very much.

But these occasions are much too rare to be wasted. Too rare, too precious. There's so much else that comes and goes over the passing weeks, months and years, temporary even though it seems crucial and pivotal at that particular time. For a football fan, though, the annual cycle of the fixture list leaves a few permanent landmarks, vivid and potent even as they recede into history. You know what they are. You make room for them, whatever else is happening in your life.

So, I turn the computer off at lunchtime and prepare myself properly. It's been years since I last watched the video of our ascent to the playoffs in 1999, and much of the extra footage, including interviews with a coachload of then-current, now-former players, only serves to make it all seem like a terribly long time ago. And yet the football itself remains extraordinarily fresh: the afternoons are bright with yellow sunshine, the evenings are dramatically dark, and the emotions come tumbling back at the press of a button. Somehow, I'd expected to find that what I remember in here isn't on the tape, but I was wrong. It's all there, still.

It's not about comparison. Then and now, it's about believing in the impossible, about faith, about hope; some do, I know, but I can't base my support upon expectation. Watching the images of '99, it's not that difficult to remember the extraordinary innocence of it all, as we reached up to somewhere that we'd long assumed had become far, far beyond us. If there's anything that defines Watford Football Club, it's that: all of our finest moments have been born of over-reaching ourselves, spectacularly and, in the end, temporarily. Look at the stars, and all that.

But they're fragile, these moments. Desperately fragile, delicately linked threads that are broken with the faintest breath. For a club like this, reaching beyond possibility requires a sequence of events that can so easily escape us; even though we can take control of so much, we can't take control of everything, or close to everything. What if Bolton had taken one of those early chances? Or that penalty shoot-out had gone the other way? Or Robbo had been sent off at Port Vale? Or we'd stayed in the doldrums against Tranmere? Then some of those special moments would never have existed, not even missed or regretted.

Returning to the present, this particular cup run has been characterised by an obstinate refusal to let control of our destiny slip from our grasp: Southampton and Portsmouth were battered by our will as much as our football. But, ultimately, you don't reach cup finals simply by deciding to reach cup finals. On this particularly melancholy morning, when the possibility of one of those moments, felt so violently before kickoff, is still hanging around to haunt us, you have to realise that sometimes, most times, these things are just too fragile to survive. But not all times.

In the Rookery, we released a spectacular blizzard of balloons and confetti to greet our soon-conquering heroes, then stood in expectation for the entire ninety minutes, as if waiting for that moment. If we could prevent Liverpool from putting the tie beyond us, you felt that a chance would come at some point. Only one chance, perhaps. But a chance, if we could only take it. We waited. We're still waiting now. That's the heartbreak, impossible to disguise.

Because it's perfectly right and proper to take huge pride in the achievement, including last night's match. Whatever crises Liverpool might be going through, they remain far above us in every possible respect, and yet their first team was held within reach for nearly all of a two-legged semi-final that they desperately needed to win. It's not merely that there's no shame in that: it's a tremendous performance, at the end of a quite superb cup run that's included a couple of victories and one semi-defeat that'll become legendary. The point is, of course, that last night was about more than that. Everyone knew it and, as we shuffled away from Vicarage Road with a familiar journey ahead of us, everyone felt it.

It'll take a fair while before that pride starts to come through. There'll always be Anfield, whatever...but in many ways, that just serves to highlight how close we were, how rare the opportunity. Perhaps expectation began to mingle with anticipation just a little, but not without justification: while this was never easy, it was never impossible either. With one rather significant exception, though, Liverpool made it impossible: if we've spent a fortnight shoving our heads through the door to have a peek at a party from which we've always been excluded, last night was when we had the door slammed in our faces. Bang. Finished. Trudge home.

Because you can make far too much of some of the loose ends at the edges of the Liverpool performance - you wouldn't trust Biscan to pass you the gravy at Sunday lunch, let alone supply you with a football from twenty yards away - and far too little of the ruthless, brutal way in which they severed our football from our hopes. We knew what we wanted to do, right enough...and yet there was no space in which to do it, no room in which to gather the troops for the mighty charge. Without exception, the key performances - Jay Demerit and Neil Cox, both absolutely immense again; Gavin Mahon and Brynjar Gunnarsson, fighting for every inch in midfield - were all towards the rear. Further forward, where we so desperately needed to make an impact, there were only lost causes, throughout the evening.

In short, they applied the same formula as Stoke and Burnley and all the others, which is a considerable compliment, albeit one that we'd prefer that they hadn't paid. The difference, naturally, is that they did it with better players, enabling them both to maintain a much tighter grip on proceedings and to appear somewhat more attack-minded in the process. But the outcome was familiar: our goal, the goal that would've sent the Rookery beserk and ignited the tie, was only ever theoretical. In practice, we were struggling for ideas from the very moment that we realised that Liverpool weren't going to help us. From then, until the goal that underlined the outcome, we were determined and aggressive and proudly defiant, and very much second best.

Thus, our hopes gradually faded. In a game of remarkably few chances, nearly all fell to the visiting side, who needed them considerably less than their hosts. The first half began with anticlimax, almost inevitably: this was a sturdier, steadier Liverpool than we'd imagined in our dreams, and they were quick to preempt our imagined onslaught. Instead, while neither side looked much like scoring, our words were stolen before they'd left our mouths: we looked for complacency, for lack of confidence, for chinks in armour, and we found a team that kept the ball more efficiently than us, while defending robustly when they let it slip. We remembered that Southampton and Portsmouth weren't swamped right away, sure...but the difficulty of the task, the reality of it, dawned quickly.

Really, there was little meaningful action to note. It took half an hour for the Hornets to open up a shooting opportunity, and then Gavin Mahon dragged his drive comfortably wide; barely even a half-chance under normal circumstances, but bloody precious in this situation. Riise provided some entertainment with a variety of wild shots in the vague direction of the goal; Baros struck the only on-target effort of the entire forty-five minutes at Paul Jones from the edge of the box; Morientes' shot on the turn, via a deflection from Neil Cox's boot, was the closest that either side came, dribbling narrowly past the post.

Very occasionally, there were promising attacks at both ends, suggesting that there might be a more interesting game hidden somewhere. We were grateful for an uncharacteristically sloppy pass from Gerrard as Liverpool broke in numbers from a corner: the attempt to find Baros in acres of space struck a defender's heel in transit and enabled others to retrieve the situation. At the Vic Road end, we came closest when we found a little width, and Neal Ardley's low centre from the right after a fine lofted pass from Jay Demerit gave most cause for encouragement. In the main, though, this was a tough, demanding match; just as tough and demanding as the first leg, only with different parameters.

We could be satisfied with the half-time scoreline, then. Get into the dressing room, review a few things, then burst out to attack the Rookery in the second half, with Danny Webber presumably ready to increase the offensive threat from the bench. While it hadn't been as we'd imagined, the opportunity was still there. Except that, as it turned out, the opportunity had already gone.

It went with Mike Riley's verdict on Finnan's challenge as Hameur Bouazza burst into the left side of the penalty area in the final minutes. Having seen it again, it was, I think, a clear foul. Having seen the entire match, it was also our only chance of scoring, and the only moment that can qualify as an "if only". That said, my sense of outrage is subdued, now as it was then: from the referee's position, it probably appeared as if Finnan had got a toe to the ball before he made contact with the striker. We didn't get the decision. Somehow, as with Beattie's push on Robbo at Villa Park, it didn't feel as if we'd done enough to get the decision, as if we had sufficient control of our destiny. The opportunity was there, sure. We didn't create any others, and that's what we'll regret.

The second half differed only in direction. For ten minutes, our earnest efforts went nowhere, and we were unable to harness the Rookery's pent-up support. For Liverpool, Morientes sent an acrobatic overhead over the bar, but there was even less sense that the visitors were about to take any risks, and the arrival of Danny Webber to provide them with a new problem to consider was probably overdue. That said, it had only a marginal impact: we did look a little more sprightly when the ball reached the final third, yet we were still finding far too many red shirts in our way. There's always a way through. You can't always find it.

For as long as the deficit was only a single goal, it was impossible to surrender hope. It would only take one set piece, one moment of inspiration, one decision to go in our favour. Commendably, we continued to bash away relentlessly, even as Liverpool grew in confidence with the finishing line coming into sight. We kept going, but we couldn't prevent our opponents - and one opponent in particular - from producing a match-winning intervention. Ball lost, Gerrard surging through from midfield with only one intention, bottom corner from twenty yards, The End. We'd done brilliantly, absolutely heroically, to have come so far. But it ended there.

We weren't going to score one, so we definitely weren't going to score two. In the closing minutes of this wonderful cup run, we tried regardless. We unleashed Anthony McNamee to lift the crowd, and he did so, with one ridiculously convoluted dribble that left poor Sinama-Pongolle tied up in knots, to be withdrawn on a stretcher. From a corner, we briefly thought that we'd created that opportunity as Heidar Helguson, whose name hasn't been mentioned much, headed over from barely three yards, but the referee had already blown his whistle to penalise holding on the keeper.

Flourishes, spirited flourishes. That's how we lost. With a great deal of dignity, with a similar amount of pride, but with the full, gutting knowledge that one of those special moments, which had seemed to be so clearly within our grasp, had lived only in daydreams. No standing ovation - and this was an enormous ovation, graciously received by a devastated team - could possibly soothe these wounds. It'll take time, and the lack of a fixture on Saturday is no bad thing at all.

In the end, you know how this felt. At Anfield, defeat felt like victory...and it was victory, and this was an amazing prize. Here, defeat felt like defeat. No shame, no blame, nothing but praise for achieving so much. But, well, you know...too rare, too precious for such a dream to be abandoned without a tear or two.