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98/99: Reports:

Division 1 Playoff Semi-Final 2nd Leg, 20/5/99
Birmingham City 1(1)
Scorers: Adebola (2)
Penalties: 6
Watford 0(0)
Team: *Chamberlain 5*, Bazeley 4, Kennedy 4, Page 5, Palmer 4, Gibbs 4, Ngonge 4, Hyde 4, Mooney 5, Johnson 5, Wright 4
Subs: Hazan (for Wright) 4, Day, Smart (for Ngonge) 4
Penalties: 7
Wem-ber-lee, Wem-ber-lee!
Report by Ian Grant

I mean, where the hell do I start?

Last night is incomprehensible, even with the aid of a notebook. Just absolutely gargantuan. My brain is currently refusing to process all the information for fear of overload, but my heart knows the score. Which is probably why I nearly started crying when we appeared on the news this morning - one of those moments when realisation hits, and you can do nothing but crumple. This may not be the most coherent report I've ever written.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning. The coach journey from hell, stuck in traffic on the M1 and M6 and watching time tick by in the knowledge that the Sky-scheduled kickoff probably wouldn't be delayed. And thinking that the players had run out for their warm-ups, to be greeted by twenty-five thousand Birmingham fans and a near-empty away section. We made it with about twenty minutes to spare, far too close for comfort.

Albeit aided by a murderous PA system, the noise before kickoff was frightening. Above and all around us, City fans sang their club anthems at a volume that made your teeth rattle. We sang too but we were barely able to hear ourselves, let alone compete. All we could do much of the time was ensure that, if any of the players looked our way, they'd see our encouragement even if they couldn't hear it. We did that, we sang so much and so passionately that many of us were very close to fainting by the end.

And then they kicked off, and it all went instantly pear-shaped. With two minutes gone, we cleared a corner but didn't push out far enough to catch Ndlovu offside as the ball was lobbed back in. He dinked it over Alec Chamberlain, it hit the post, evaded Adebola's cumbersome prod, bounced around on the line, nearly got belted away by Steve Palmer, struck Adebola once more and ended up in the net. Classy goal, as the description suggests.

The roar was crushing, it felt like a punch in the guts. Having surrendered our hard-earned lead from the first leg so quickly and so easily, listening to the home fans making one of the most intimidating rackets I've ever heard, there was a sense of something unstoppable heading our way. All the theories about crucial away goals and attacking from the start and not panicking too much if we concede were swept away by this tidal wave with our name on it. We were in deep trouble.

For twenty minutes, we did nothing but cling on. Rowett wasted a free header from a corner; Darren Bazeley cleared another flag kick off the line at the near post; Nigel Gibbs, replacing Paul Robinson at left back/left central defence, smacked a clearance into Ndlovu inside the six yard box and was relieved to see it clear the bar. It seemed impossible that we'd survive without conceding again, equally unlikely that we'd manage to get up the other end for long enough to score ourselves.

In the midst of such a maelstrom, nothing but sheer stand-up-and-be-counted strength of character will suffice. This Watford performance produced little football to be proud of, but the bloke behind us who was going purple with rage at our failure to re-enact Brazil v Italy in 1970 had completely missed the point. You don't see very much that's pretty in these playoff games. And when everything was going against us, when it seemed that our dream was about to fade and die, we fought and fought and fought and fought to keep it alive. In the playoff equivalent of "paper-scissors-stone", will to win beats sexy football every time.

By half-time, we'd inched our way back into the game. No goal attempts of any great consequence - a couple of off-target shots from Richard Johnson's left boot, a Nigel Gibbs cross that momentarily looked as if it was going to creep in at the far post, a Peter Kennedy free kick that slammed into the advertising hoardings - but that was less important than establishing a foothold. For the first time, the Birmingham fans left some gaps between their chants and we could make ourselves heard. A blessed relief more than anything, as close as we got to a respite all evening....

Because the second half was bloody manic. Forty-five minutes of epic confrontation, stressed to breaking point and way beyond.

It began with our best chance of the entire match. Peter Kennedy's right wing free kick found Tommy Mooney unmarked at the near post, but his attempt to steer the ball goalwards was so hopelessly mistimed that it hit him on the ear and bounced feebly away. We weren't creating enough opportunities that we could afford to waste them.

Adebola curled a shot wide and Kennedy lifted a free kick over the bar, before Birmingham were dramatically reduced to ten men. There were an extraordinary number of bookings for use of elbows, both in aerial challenges and the pressure-induced squabbles that were breaking out all over - David Holdsworth was stupid enough to pick up two of them, the second for an off-the-ball thump to the back on Michel Ngonge's head, which left the Watford striker face down on the turf and kicking the ground in agony. As he departed, so the Hornets' hopes surged. In the ascendancy at last.

For a time, there was suddenly space all over the pitch. The midfielders had more room, spreading the play to the right wing to pick up bursting runs from Darren Bazeley, and Birmingham were most definitely on the back foot. But the final ball continually eluded us, Bazeley being the primary culprit, and only a tremendous Johnson volley and a Mooney header strayed near the opposition goal.

Pumped up to bursting on adrenaline, we were unable to find the composure needed to take advantage of the extra player. You wouldn't have known that Birmingham were down to ten men from their stunning assault on the Watford goal in the final fifteen minutes. Trapped down at the other end, wincing at every attack, there was nothing to do but scream songs in pure hope as Alec Chamberlain came up with the performance of his life to keep the Hornets in the game.

When the book of this improbable, rags-to-Wembley tale is written, the portfolio of Chamberlain saves from last night is destined for the front cover. My God, he deserves everlasting adulation. Rowett's driven free kick, turned around the post with both hands as it arrowed hideously towards the bottom corner. The denial of Ndlovu in a carbon copy of the goal as Grainger knocked the ball back into the box for the Birmingham striker to pounce, only to find Chamberlain diving at his feet before he could finish decisively. The save from Ndlovu again, after the striker had beaten Palmer on the right wing and (perhaps rather selfishly) driven a fierce shot at the near post. The tip over, more routine this time, to keep out Johnson's header from a corner.

His best is yet to come, but we'll leave Alec down at the other end for a short moment. With time nearly up, we were so close to ecstasy. Alon Hazan, on for an absolutely shattered Nick Wright along with Allan Smart for Michel Ngonge, piled down the right wing and whipped in a too-rare quality cross to the far post. And there was Mooney, sliding in with eyes only for goal, and our hearts leapt skywards. But it was a difficult chance - he made solid contact but couldn't keep the volley down and Poole didn't have to make a save.

Five minutes of injury time - after the numerous lengthy stoppages, that was a conservative estimate - and they were tick-tick-tick hell on earth. Halfway in, the moment that ought to guarantee that Alec Chamberlain never has to buy another drink in Watford as long as he lives. Rowett's cross from the right, Johnson completely unmarked to head powerfully down, the long and miserable journey back to Brighton suddenly swallowing everything. Chamberlain down to his right, fingertips stretching, not only keeping the ball out as if by will-power alone but pushing it away from danger. Like Blissett at Highbury in '87, that save is going to be truly legendary. I am neither the marrying nor the fatherly type, but I fully intend to do both so that I can have some grandchildren to tell about it.

Extra time, then. If you're going to put yourself through the emotional wringer, doing it without water or food is not recommended. Some tranquilisers would've come in handy too. On several occasions, it felt as if belting out yet another song at full throttle would end in a black-out. Did I sit down and take it easy? Don't be daft!

By this stage, the game was amplified to a ridiculous extent by its importance. Every time we crossed the halfway line, the possibility of that glorious winner made us bellow encouragement; every time it went the other way, we screamed in pure terror. Even if neither side had got anywhere near the other's penalty area, we would've been exhausted, nervous wrecks by the end.

The first period was the calmer of the two, naturally - the possibility of instant defeat having mercifully gone with the end of normal time. Robert Page was heroic, with a flying block to deny Ndlovu after a mazy run from the flatter-to-deceive striker; Chamberlain was again magnificent, a relatively comfortable save from a Furlong header but one that he couldn't afford not to hold and that was inspirationally calm in the circumstances; Richard Johnson had his first on-target drive of the night deflected over; Darren Bazeley shot straight at Poole from distance.

But the lunacy returned as penalties crept closer. A minute into the second period, Kennedy smacked in a low cross and City's Johnson was inches away from an own goal, shinning the ball onto the outside of the near post. Head in hands, deep breaths. Five minutes later, an incredible scramble in the Watford area seemed certain to result in a goal but something, Chamberlain is a fair guess, got in the way of Ndlovu's shot to keep it out. More deep breaths, stare at the floor to allow the brain a moment of relief. Hazan headed over from Mooney's cross, Poole punched a Kennedy centre off Smart's head. Final whistle. Penalties. We've lost.

I gave it up. At least partly to spare myself some agony if this epic night was to end in defeat. But, let's face it, this is a club that doesn't even have a regular penalty taker, Kennedy having abdicated after his miss against Tranmere and Mooney having fluffed his most recent attempt against Bolton. How the hell do you win a penalty shoot-out if you can't put confidence in even one player in the entire squad?

Here's how. You have Graham Taylor as your manager, for a start. And he gets the whole team to practise in training, so that even those for whom scoring is completely alien territory (Robert Page) can walk up with a nerveless stride and plant the ball in the top corner in front of the Birmingham home end. Penalties are a lottery, of course, and it's a cruel way to end a forty-eight game season...but, by being so prepared, we did at least give ourselves a fifty-fifty chance.

I stayed calm, tried to communicate that feeling to the players under the spotlight, hoped that the player who ultimately missed would be a Mooney or a Page, someone who'd still be a Hornet hero regardless, rather than a Smart or a Kennedy. To my right, Loz was a tensed-up ball of nerves, all clenched fists and screaming. To my left, Matt was quietly murmuring the song for each penalty taker like a prayer.

Kennedy scored, via the keeper's glove and (oh, don't do this to us!) what looked like both posts and the crossbar. Chamberlain, who ought to have an open-top bus tour all of his own after this, saved magnificently from Furlong. Palmer bludgeoned his effort wide to lose the advantage immediately. Then it was neck-and-neck all the way as Johnson, Bazeley and Mooney took the shoot-out into sudden death.

Robert Page stepped up, every inch the captain. Perfect kick, leaving Poole with no chance. Birmingham scored. Allan Smart was next and I really feared for him - to my mind, one of the stars of this season but not someone whose confidence would survive missing the decisive penalty in a playoff semi-final. He sent the keeper the wrong way beautifully. Birmingham scored again, keeper Poole taking a very assured kick. Alon Hazan made it seven for the Hornets, something had to give sooner or later. Holland gave, Chamberlain guessing the right way and saving....

...They were down at our end in seconds to join us in celebration. Smart first, then the whole team. Shirts off and into the crowd, congratulating each other as equals and friends, incredible scenes that I can't even begin to do justice. The Cup Final songs echoed around St Andrews, the home fans' gigantic noise only a memory and the stadium suddenly our own. Near to tears, and not for the last time. Lump in my throat, looked down and saw Gibbsy...and, well, you don't need me to tell you what his expression was like. Thought about the idea that someone on the mailing list had to find Wilf Rostron and get him to Wembley, fifteen years too late but still better than never. Sang "One Graham Taylor, there's only one Graham Taylor" and meant it like I've never meant anything in my life before. Under the stand, after hours of gazing in dumbstruck awe at the scenes, the concrete reverberated to our chants. In the car park and in the coach, more of the same. Wonderful.

Whatever else I achieve in my life, I will have seen Watford play at Wembley. The very thought of it makes me fill up, so now I'm going to stop.