By Ian Grant
It's football. It's a game played by humans, with all that suggests. And it's wonderful. You knew that,
of course, but it's easy to forget sometimes.
If humanity had never tried to transcend its perceived limitations, you wouldn't be reading this report for
two reasons. Firstly, we'd still be living in caves. Secondly, football would be as predictable as the pundits
would like it to be, and therefore not worth writing about.
At last, that message seems to have been received. For any Premiership club without the resources to assemble and maintain
a squad of household names, there's a simple choice. You can accept that you're "not good enough", as we've been
ceaselessly told in recent months, and continue to live in those metaphorical caves. Or you can tell everyone
to stuff their opinions where the sun don't shine, knowing that there's nothing to lose. Change the world, don't let
the world change you.
As in September, even a patchwork Chelsea side contained enough quality to have made this an empty exercise in
improving their goal difference. As in September, we hadn't read the script.
We have played better this season, but only on two occasions. Even then, those performances did not have the courage
in adversity that we showed on Saturday. That we trailed Chelsea for the majority of the game was not unexpected, that
we still dominated and disturbed our illustrious opponents was, frankly, astounding. If ever there was a
moral victory to be claimed, it was here.
The setbacks just didn't faze us, they merely seemed to provide us with challenges that were welcomed and met. In the
end, there was one challenge too many. No shame in that. On the contrary, we have every right to take great pride
in falling at the final hurdle rather than the first. It's difficult to explain - sometimes you have to measure
achievements by emotion rather than points gained, and this felt monumental.
When we went behind after little more than a minute, it didn't seem very likely that I'd be describing anything
other than another humiliation. Chelsea had simply charged forward from kickoff, winning a corner in a matter of
seconds and suggesting that they were in the mood for revenge. When Zola swung in a free kick for Desailly to twist
and head home at the near post, we all feared the worst. That's not pessimism, just realism - we've been here
So Stamford Bridge stood, cheered, watched the video replay and waited for the slaughter to begin. And waited,
and waited, and waited....
It's not only that we're mentally stronger than before, although the heads certainly don't seem to drop quite so quickly
now. It's more that the return of key players - Peter Kennedy and Allan Smart, in particular - means that going
behind doesn't seem so completely irreversible. An equaliser is no longer something to dream of but something to
pursue - at the very least, it's a way to take our minds off things.
Although Deschamps shot wide after three minutes, the real chance of the game's second goal came at the other
end. We came so close...close enough to believe that we might've let a crucial and never-to-be-repeated opportunity elude us.
Kennedy's cross from the left took a deflection and looped up, Wooter climbed brilliantly to flick the ball on. The
Chelsea defence stood and watched as Smart stretched to volley and it came back off the bar. Still they stood and watched as
Williams managed to mis-hit his follow-up effort so that it bounced awkwardly against the post. Still they stood and
watched as he had a second try, this time slicing it high into the stand. We groaned all over again as the screens
replayed our misfortune.
But, as I've already said, we seemed able to take such things in our stride. Now aware that the Chelsea backline was
not invulnerable, we spent the remainder of the half battling as hard as at any time this season. Particularly in
midfield, where Alex Bonnot and Micah Hyde were both absolutely outstanding in dominating against class opposition, we
would not be beaten without a fight, nothing would go uncontested. It was inspiring stuff.
Sure, Chelsea opened us up from time to time. Occasionally there were mistakes, such as when Wooter delayed in
defence, was caught in possession and Zola fired wide from the penalty spot. Sometimes the home side showed
their quality - Flo and Zola exchanging passes on the edge of the box, Chamberlain saving well from the Italian's well-struck
effort. A couple of times, there were openings that weren't fully exploited - Poyet, who'd earlier disgraced himself by attempting
to get Page dismissed, headed over; Petrescu shot weakly at Chamberlain after breaking swiftly (and, with hindsight, tellingly) down
But I'm abbreviating such details because they hardly tell the whole story. A handful of chances? Yes, of course. A
scene of "carnage" so horrific that children should be refused admission, as predicted by Rodney Marsh? Not even close. The
frustration grew as time passed and still we would not lie down, still the easy victory would not come.
Once again, Chelsea had not prepared themselves for the kind of game they were now involved in, and we were sensing and
enjoying their increasing discomfort. "Wouldn't it be interesting if...", we thought to ourselves, and Allan Smart
completed the sentence for us. It was simple, "route one" stuff...except that there's now a bite to our attack which
means that we're no longer flinging balls into the penalty area for the sake of it. Heidar Helguson's involvement was
minimal in the first half yet, decisively and brilliantly, he was involved here, acrobatically volleying as Williams'
flick dropped. De Goey could only push the ball out to Smart, who carefully tucked it in from close range.
That really put the rat poison among the pigeons. Previously, Chelsea had been irritated by their inability to rack
up a cricket score. Now, even the formality of the result was being called into question. The remaining five minutes
were thoroughly invigorating, the two sides trading punches as equals. At the Shed End (which is more aircraft hangar than
shed these days), Poyet curled a shot over, having initially been foiled by the mighty Page. At the Other End, Kennedy attempted
to end any debate about "goal of the season" candidates with an extraordinary screamer from at least thirty yards which whistled inches
over, De Goey's panic betraying just how close it was. Mind you, Deschamps' low shot from outside the box in injury time wasn't
very far away either.
The second half began and continued in extraordinary fashion, twenty minutes of Watford dominance that made an absolute
mockery of our current plight. Chelsea were being slowly suffocated by a side that looked confident, organised and
very capable of producing a winning goal. Yeah, we've lost by a slim margin at other clubs this season...but not like this,
not with a scoreline that so completely insults our performance. At Leicester, West Ham and Arsenal, we were clearly
inferior and flattered by narrow defeats; at Chelsea, we simply didn't get what we deserved. We deserved a draw,
and we could've grabbed even more.
We took control. After quarter of an hour, we'd pushed Chelsea back so far that we were permanently camped around
their penalty area. This was not what we had expected. At Stamford Bridge, the scores level, and laying
siege...I mean, bloody hell. Every time I replay the video of Steve Palmer's over-hit cross swinging goalwards and
catching De Goey off his line, it looks like it's going to go in, only for the keeper to scramble back and punch it over the
bar at the last moment.
Then Smart, leading the line superbly, knocked the ball into Wooter's path and he was momentarily in the clear but shot
straight at De Goey. And moments later the Chelsea keeper was again struggling, shoving Smart's cross out from the near
post as it threatened to embarrass him. Come on. As Kennedy thumped a free kick into the wall, we were on the
crest of a wave, surging forward and playing ridiculously well.
In the end, we got a bit over-excited. It cost us, it often does at this level. It wasn't about luck, since the counter-attack could not have been
executed more perfectly, yet it still felt like something had been stolen from under our noses. As Chelsea once more booted clear from their area, we
suddenly realised that we'd over-committed. It was already too late - Deschamps lobbed the ball forward, Petrescu took it in his stride and swept down the right, Harley
waited for the pinpoint cross and nodded tidily into the top corner.
Our hearts sank, and the home side briefly threatened to kill us off. Had Flo managed to keep his half-volleyed shot down after he'd
spun superbly to create the opening from a corner, they might have done so. But this was a Watford performance of unbreakable resolve. Until the
final whistle, and arguably even after it, we were never beaten and Chelsea were never victorious.
Within ten minutes, the scores should've been level again. In sneaking around the back of the Chelsea defence
as Desailly headed Chamberlain's clearance towards his own goal, Allan Smart showed great anticipation. In bringing the
ball down carefully and neatly stepping inside a challenge, he showed superb control. In prodding an attempt into the side
netting rather than trying to shoot across goal where, even if he'd missed, any kind of deflection would surely have done the job, he showed that
reliable finishing is still the only thing that holds him back.
To Chelsea's considerable discomfort, we continued in the same vein until the ninety minutes were up. There were
further efforts at both ends as an utterly absorbing contest reached an appropriately intense conclusion. Zola and Deschamps
both drove efforts at Chamberlain from outside the area. Helguson did the same for Watford after a fine interchange
between Miller and Smart. Even as injury time expired, De Goey was punching a Kennedy free kick under considerable
pressure, the ball falling to Helguson who couldn't get sufficient purchase on his attempt and merely mis-hit the ball back
to the keeper.
We applauded them off at the end. We always do, but this was different. This was not about taking pride in our Premiership
status, in the achievement of playing at places like Stamford Bridge. This was not about wanting to let them know
that we'll stick by them through thick and thin. There was no hidden agenda in our ovation.
They'd played like we demand that they play. From one to eleven (or one to thirty-seven), they have every right to feel
thoroughly proud of themselves. Mistakes and failings aren't the issue - this is a game played by humans, remember. Crucially, it
was precisely the sheer, raging determination to compensate for those mistakes and failings which made this such an incredible
afternoon for Watford fans. We didn't just give one hundred percent, we didn't accept our own limitations. Throughout, we
searched and found ways of overcoming obstacles that initially seemed impossibly daunting. Now that's ambition.
Let history record that Chelsea recorded a 2-1 win on Saturday 26th February 2000. Let BSaD record that a Watford side
has rarely played better and lost.