Football League Cup Quarter Final, 30/11/04, 7.45pm
By Stephen Marshall
I came into this game thinking, "Well, we've already beaten their south coast rivals 5-2, why can't we do the same against this lot? They've just lost their best manager in decades, they'll be low on confidence, and we can really do this." However, there was a nagging thought at the back of my mind, even after we went three up (yes, we did, I still cannot believe it myself), these are from the Premiership (even if it's not premier and it's not a ship). They recently beat Manchester United, and however good we are at crushing Premiership teams, Man Utd is just simply another level in class to Watford. My thinking was that Portsmouth are a very credible team, and despite losing a quality manager, which we cheerfully reminded them of, they still managed to beat Bolton away from home one-nil. Even though they had injuries to two excellent forwards in Yakubu and Kamara, they still had a team which, in theory, should have smacked us for six. Berger, Berkovic, Quashie, De Zeeuw, all top bracket players. But no matter, on cup night there is something very, very special about Watford Football Club, especially at the Vic. It was meant to be.
I felt the national media had left us short of praise in our performance against Southampton, but if there was any doubt left in the media's mind that it was more than a one-off special, then it must have evaporated after this fixture. Portsmouth came here, confident that they could beat their lower league opponents with ease, and they did brush the ball round well at the start. I was frightened; at first they did look like a classy, Premiership side, and when Berger floated a free-kick into the far post and Primus stabbed at goal from yards out, I was just waiting for the ball to rustle into the net at the far post, but it didn't, and we were saved.
Sometimes, we seem to rue our missed chances and the opposition's missed chances, but it wasn't to be tonight, we were focused. Picking up a free kick just inside Portsmouth's half, Neil Cox floated one into the edge of the area. Ashdown, the Pompey keeper, made a poor attempt to claim, and there was that mad Icelandic forward challenging every ball as always. This time he connected, and despite the Portsmouth defender's desperate attempt, the ball went into the back of the net. One-nil to the Golden Boys. Not a classic by Premiership standards, but it was just classic Heidar. We had taken our chance, very much unlike the Rotherham match.
There were more chances as well to double our lead, an effort from Gunnarson was deflected round the post, and Neal Ardley really should've headed home from eight yards from a left footed Gav Mahon cross. We were dominating this match. However, there was a nervous ten minutes before half-time where Portsmouth began to have too much possession in our half sweeping it around nicely, but we were hassling them, not allowing them any space to get that killer ball through (it did remind of times when a certain bald Italian was in charge here). Something Pompey were clearly not used to, they found it difficult to create. However, Berger showed a glimpse of that wonderful left foot he possesses, striking from the edge of the area, but Lee made a brilliant save, pushing the ball over the bar. We had kept our one-nil lead until half-time.
I was sceptical; Pompey, although far from their best, had shown why they were in one of the best leagues in the world, we just needed to keep to our game plan, chasing down anything and everything. This was particularly excelled by Heidar Helguson, surely now it is clear for the world to see why he is such a legend at this club. Changes were made at half time, Watford had been enforced to bring on Blizzard for the injured Gunnarson. Portsmouth reverted to 4-4-2, Harper and the very disappointing Griffin introduced for Unsworth and Berkovic.
Again, there was a short period where Pompey dominated; it looked like it would be a very long forty-five minutes. We kept battling on, Dychey leading from the back. We survived their early second half pressure and scored again, Gav Mahon playing a brilliant ball down the left for the excellent Darlington to chase, a natural right footer playing down the left. He rarely uses his left, and when he does it always seem to be scrappy and short of accuracy and power, and his cross was exactly this. But when you have Heidar Helguson as a forward never write anything off. He beat the sluggish Primus to the ball, and stabbed it past Ashdown. Another classic Heidar goal, this lad just never gives up, and how it bore fruit for us. We were two-nil up against Premiership opposition, and we playing with frightening efficiency. Using the ball effectively when we had it, chasing ever so hard when we didn't. This didn't have the class which the Southampton game had, but still there was just as high amount of quality to be seen. Again I remained unconvinced: these are a top-flight team, surely they'll have something hidden away, which they pull out whenever they are losing to an 'inferior' opposition? They didn't. Is there not such a big gap between Premiership teams and Division Two sides, or are we just an excellent cup team?
The ecstatic Watford supporters had an even bigger grin on their faces when Brucie turned in a rebound, parried out by Ashdown. Three-nil to the Golden Boys! This was wonderful, but still there was that lingering doubt, which I feel ever so guilty about now. Portsmouth did have one more minor resurgence; O'Neil wiggled his way through bodies, but to be denied by Lee. Blinded by players, he managed to dart down to his left and push it around the post. Harper came close with a long-range effort, which sailed just past Lee's top left hand corner. Taylor was then next in line to be denied by our marvellous goalkeeper; this time he used his legs to block the former Luton Town player's strike. And then Portsmouth collapsed.
We dominated the final period, sailed through to a glorious, glorious victory. It would have been even more special if Ardley's Beckham-esque effort hadn't been kept out by the crossbar. He had another attempt palmed away by Ashdown as we looked to make the difference one more than Southampton. We couldn't quite do it, but did it matter? Did it heck! We were fabulous, we quite simply ruled! Portsmouth couldn't handle our energy, our team effort and commitment to each other, the way we snapped away at every ball and we showed true skill. We knocked the ball around a limp Pompey team for the last five minutes, not many teams can boast that this season. Sheer joy and relief was met at the final whistle, again we the underdogs had been triumphant. And how we deserved it, there was no element of luck about this victory.
However, Liverpool await us in the next round, who are a much sterner test than either of the two south coast rivals we dismissed. I'm just hoping we can hold them off at Anfield, damage limitation, and then try and take them to pieces at the Vic. It will be tough, but remember the last time we visited Anfield....