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FA Cup 3rd Round, 11/12/99
Birmingham City
Blood pumping
By Matt Rowson

tension ('ten§(e)n/ n. & v. -n. 1. The act or an instance of stretching; the state of being stretched; tenseness. 2. Mental strain or excitement. 3. A strained (political, social etc.) state or relationship. 4. Mech. the stress by which a bar, cord etc. is pulled when it is part of a system in equilibrium or motion. 5. electromagnetic force (high tension, low tension).

That sum it up for you? No? How about being on a coach some way from St.Andrews and suddenly realising that you might not even make kick-off? How about beginning to coil up inside as you enter the stadium, realising that all of your bold assertions about how much you were going to sing mean nothing in the face of this impossible onslaught of noise? How about twisting tighter when Birmingham bundle a crucial goal in the opening minutes? Coiling to an impossible tautness, knowing that one more slip like that and it's all over, everything. Reaching the point as Chris Holland runs up to take THAT penalty, when you know that this coil will have to either snap heartlessly inside you, or release you in a freewheeling spin that won't relax until well into the summer.

Now think about afterwards. Think about Wembley, all the colour, the singing in the pub. Think about Nicky Wright's goal, how you cried when Allan Smart scored (well, I did). Think about the celebrations, Tommy Mooney with his hands on his head, GT grinning like a Cheshire cat. Think about the dazed walk away from Wembley, the drinks you had when you got back to Watford. Think about Watford High Street at eight, nine, ten, eleven pm that night. Think about the grin that you wore all summer, the thumbs-up you got from complete strangers as you proudly displayed your Premiership shirt.

Now think about this. What if we'd lost the penalty shoot out?

This is the second most dramatic draw that we could have possibly been dealt in the Third Round of the Cup. Forget Luton; forget Bolton (who we beat convincingly twice and bravely, if fortunately, a third time last season). Only a trip to St.Andrews would have got the blood pumping more than this. And that may still happen, but let's not think about that just yet, I need to finish this preview without packing myself.

Birmingham. A first division team. But nobody's kidding themselves... we may have only lost one of four games against the Blues last season, but they were four tight games, and it's not as if we're wealding the same steamrollering confidence that put paid to the Blues at St.Andrews in March, and crucially over the two legs of the play-off semi in May.

Look at the Blues' squad, and it's full of quality... Paul Furlong, Peter Ndlovu, Andy Johnson, Dele Adebola, Stan Lazaridis, Jon McCarthy, David Holdsworth, Gary Ablett. Not to mention the two loan stars, Allan "Magic" Johnston and Christophe Wreh from Sunderland and Arsenal respectively.

Fortunately for the Golden Boys, none of the above will be available on Saturday. Wreh and Johnston's loan deals forbid their involvement, Ablett is on loan at Wycombe and Holdsworth is suspended (saving us from a potentially bloodshedding reunion with Michel Ngonge). The remainder all have what look like being long term injuries... add to that the likelihood that Marcelo will not have recovered from his foot injury, plus unconfirmed rumours about Gary Rowett's availability and you have quite an injury list. Most crucially, without Marcelo the Blues will not be able to field a recognised striker... against West Ham in the Worthington Cup last week this resulted in centre-half Darren Purse forming an unlikely partnership with winger Johnston. The latter's ineligibility means that even this isn't an option on Saturday, although it should be noted that Purse can allegedly head the ball better than any of the regular strikers in any case.

How Francis decides to play is anyone's guess, but in the circumstances a defensive set-up can only be expected. The public suggestion that Francis' is willing to trade in one of his defensive assets for a striker, such is the short-term urgency with the Blues slipping out of the play-off places, could hardly introduce a new man in time for Saturday.

Familiar faces from May who are likely to feature include the hugely impressive Michael Johnson, who can be forgiven for regarding Alec with a certain awe; Bryan Hughes, a useful creative midfielder, and the bullish Martin Grainger, who did for Gary Charles with a characteristically brutal tackle at St.Andrews last week.

Do I feel sorry for Birmingham? For the fans, yes, a bit. But only a bit - as anyone else who had to walk back to a car after either of the St.Andrews games will understand. For the players? Maybe a little. Certainly in Holland's case. For Tricky Trev? Tricky "Watford and their big men, better team lost, graceless muppet" Trev? Ha. Injury list or no injury list, the murmuring is starting at St.Andrews as Francis' 23 million experiment continues to stumble. Shame.

More than anything, this game represents an opportunity for Watford to turn things around. By no means an easy tie, but at home against a first division side (albeit a decent first division side) with crippling injuries it's as good a chance as we're going to get to record a win and claw back some much needed confidence.