By Ian Grant
I've got a lot of time for Alan Green. As a commentator, he keeps alive a dying art - it's relatively simple to
convey the excitement of an attractive or dramatic match but, particularly in this age of media hype, few are capable of
doing the reverse. No-one says the word "wretched" quite like Alan Green....
But his Radio Five programme on Friday night was nonsense. Joined by Gary Nelson and the Mirror's Harry Harris, Green
was full of gushing praise for Chelsea's midweek performance against AC Milan. Nothing wrong with that, except for
the grotesque snobbery that polluted discussions about the future of the Premiership and possible reductions in its
Pity poor Chelsea, then. How can they seriously be expected to play massive Champions League fixtures against AC
Milan and Hertha Berlin when sandwiched in between is a match against, "with all due respect", Watford? Absurd.
This one's for you, Alan.
The point being, as Vialli has since admitted, that if games like this really are to be viewed as meaningless
for the elite clubs, then it's up to them to render them meaningless. On paper, Chelsea ought to be able to pick
a team from their squad with a random number generator and still annihilate us...but all the media hype and international
caps and World Cup winners medals and sky-high transfer fees and hotel complexes are irrelevant for the crucial
ninety minutes. It comes down to who scores more goals, to desire and commitment and skill and all those essentially
human attributes. The day that football becomes as predictable as the businessmen would like it to be will be
a desperate day, and the likes of Alan Green ought to know that.
Besides, this isn't a one-way process. If Chelsea want to move on from being the most fashionable club in the country
to being the most successful, there are qualities that they could learn from Graham Taylor's men. For they were not
only out-fought but also out-thought, the victims not of a crude mugging but of a masterminded operation. They couldn't
handle our concentration as much as our work-rate - one of these two teams gave the ball away carelessly and was ruthlessly
punished by quality finishing, and it wasn't us - which really ought to demonstrate the value of such fixtures. In relative
terms, we are currently among the most successful teams in the country. Dismiss us at your peril.
Surely one of the most famous results in the club's history, staggering even by Graham Taylor's standards. The player
ratings ignore the standard of opposition - take that into account and you can double each, our heroes not only
matching but ultimately eclipsing household names.
Chelsea are no Liverpool. With some exceptions - the ill-tempered Sutton, inexplicably wearing the captain's armband
in Wise's absence; the shambolic Le Saux; the disappointing Ambrosetti - these are players of massive and deserved world
renown. Deschamps (the World Cup winning captain, fer crying out lahd!), Desailly, Zola, Petrescu, Flo. There's no
bedding down needed, no gaps to be filled, this is the finished article.
And Watford were better. Not stronger, not tougher, not harder, but better. Not only in refusing to allow
Chelsea's stars any time or space to play their football, frequently reducing them to distinctly primitive methods. But
also, crucially, in squeezing out enough Wooter-inspired quality in the final third to snatch the result that the rest
of the performance surely deserved. No hard luck stories this time.
More than twenty-four hours later, it still seems unreal. So, before writing about the game itself, I'd like to introduce a new
feature into these reports - the intermission. Sit back, close your eyes, think about how far we've come, think about
what we've just done, think about how completely bloody great we were on Saturday. Savour, savour, savour, drink
it all in. Take your time, no hurry, then come back for the rest of the report.
Right, let's begin. A game of comparatively little incident and yet one that was full of engrossing detail from start
to finish. In the stands, sore throats and clenched fists, disbelief, euphoria and tension. It was what we'd fought so
hard for last season, yet none of us could've dreamt how good it would be....
From kickoff, Le Saux booked within a minute for steaming through the back of Nordin Wooter, it was evident that this
would be no walkover. The new signing led the charge, fearless in demanding the ball and hurtling forward, and Chelsea
waited for the storm to blow over.
They're probably still waiting. On rare occasions, they did manage to create enough of a diversion to shift our midfield out of
the way for a brief moment of respite. But they then came upon a defence that reigned supreme, never flinching, never blinking.
Mark Williams will never play better and not be man of the match - he's not got a whole lot of pace, but neither has a
brick wall. Robert Page is going to be a legend at this club, the captaincy was once something he had thrust upon him and
is now something he lives and breathes. Paul Robinson is still learning but there was no sign of that, just this unstoppable
will to win. For all the right reasons, Nigel Gibbs is no longer the best right back outside the Premiership and writing those
words is enough to bring a lump to my throat. Alec Chamberlain had an average game.
The Watford keeper had one shot to save in the first half and that, from Goldbaek two minutes before the break, was straight
at him. You can't even argue that we enjoyed good fortune - apart from when Deschamps' effort was diverted from its
path towards the top corner by Flo's shoulder, this was all our own work. Chelsea were given no chances to waste - Sutton's wild
volley from Flo's knockdown was the only missed opportunity and hardly an easy one. Nope, the clean sheet tells you
all you need to know about our defensive display.
You had to pinch yourself. You had to read the names on the back of the shirts...and then read them again just to be sure. You
had to watch the instinctive, instant control of the Chelsea players - Flo bringing down a hanging ball on his toe and taking
it out of his marker's reach in the same elegant movement - and try to comprehend it all. We have already earned the
right to play on the same pitch as Chelsea, now we were earning the right to beat them as well.
In attack, we were always testing for cracks in the Chelsea defence. Not always successfully but it's worth remembering
that Allan Smart was trying to hold the ball up against Marcel flippin' Desailly and that Nordin Wooter's record fee is Ken
Bates' loose change. Probing and feeling our way, occasionally sensing a weakness and piling forward in expectation,
Off-target attempts from distance by Steve Palmer and Peter Kennedy were as close as we got. But we should've got closer as Micah Hyde's
right wing cross on twenty-seven minutes found Smart with a spare yard, only for the striker to glance his header well
wide. We wondered whether we'd get another chance like that, we wondered how long it'd be before Chelsea'd get a chance like
that and take it.
It took them until injury time. Then Sutton finally managed to do something that didn't involve his elbows, beating Robinson
down by the corner flag and pulling the ball back to Flo in the area. Goldbaek was the final recipient and seemed a certain
scorer, unmarked and ten yards out...but we'd reckoned without Mark Williams, diving in to block like Superman smothering a bomb.
The half-time whistle brought a standing ovation. It seemed barely adequate.
The second half was just ridiculous. A series of champagne moments that defied belief, falling head over heels
in love one more time. We were beyond magnificent, an earth-shaking machine of a team that crushed all in its path
and spat out moments of pure genius in the process. By far the greatest team the world has ever seen? Probably not, but
close enough that you wouldn't bother to argue.
Memories, memories. Steve Palmer stealing candy from Deschamps in midfield, striding forward with the Frenchman in his
wake and unleashing a drive that screamed a foot wide. Nigel Gibbs nutmegging the hapless Le Saux to delirious cheers
from the stands. Palmer faced with Zola at the corner flag, waiting patiently while the peerless Italian went through his
repertoire of tricks, then taking the ball away from him with a shrug of the shoulders. Tommy Mooney taking on Desailly and wrestling
him out of the way like he was nobody special to thump in a cross, at considerable cost to himself.
Chelsea couldn't keep us out. Smart forced the first save from De Goey after two minutes with a follow-up effort from Hyde's
cross; Palmer went on his afore-mentioned rampage; you could see the sheer belief enveloping us and lifting us away from our
Nationwide origins. Every inch as good as Chelsea, just in different ways.
The goal was wonderful. Wooter, getting into the spirit of things and charging about like Edgar Davids on fast forward, robbed
an increasingly bewildered Ambrosetti and needed no invitation to head for goal. Robinson, who'd also been bullying Ambrosetti, stayed
to support but thought better of a shot when Wooter released him. And so it was left to Smart to finish it, smacking
his shot firmly past De Goey. Complete bedlam, unrestrained joy, Watford till I die.
The Chelsea response was Zola and Petrescu, which is quite a response by anyone's standards. Zola is as close to the
perfect footballer as makes no difference - none of Bergkamp's irritability or Cantona's arrogance, just flawless skill and
endless enthusiasm. But I'll have to admire his extraordinary talent another time, since his introduction was simply too
late to save his team. He got the same treatment as everyone else in a blue shirt, the same disregard for reputation.
Half an hour remaining, feeling invincible. The best in the world not merely treading on the Vicarage Road turf but
getting beaten on it. There was no way through for Chelsea, no way past Page and Williams and the monumental Palmer. They
went close just once as Deschamps crossed from the left and Zola grazed the post with a header, and were reduced to
absolute frustration long before the final whistle, Deschamps kicking an advertising hoarding in hopeless fury. We defended deep, but that's the way you have to do it. The endless crosses and corners simply played into the hands
of our mighty rearguard, no amount of bombardment finding any hint of a lapse from our heroes.
Tommy Mooney's insane five minute cameo summed it all up. His first move was towards Desailly, quiet words as the two
waited for a long throw just to announce his arrival. The Frenchman was forced into emergency action immediately, desperately
heading clear from Mooney as he threw himself at Hyde's perfect cross. And then the moment - all the wry smiles that will
have greeted Matt's recent preview comments (that Desailly may have played against Ronaldo, but he hasn't come across anything like Mooney
on a crusade) wiped away as the two tussled and Mooney emerged utterly triumphant. He was injured in the process, GT rushing along
the touchline to show his concern, and hobbled away. Except for one last moment of brilliant lunacy as Mooney, despite being barely
able to walk, took it upon himself to return to the fray, demand the ball as Page lined up a free kick and attempt to ignore the pain to
beat Desailly one last time. He was hauled off straight afterwards, an absolute bloody hero.
Two efforts from Zola - a deflected free kick and rising snap-shot - aside, we survived until the final whistle with
little problem. As at Liverpool, the anxiety was created not by the likelihood of the opposition scoring but by
the knowledge that a fluke equaliser would've left us heart-broken. As at Liverpool, we gave everything to ensure
that it didn't happen.
The celebrations were vast and emotional. We've become used to feeling that almighty swell of pride as more chapters
are added to this extraordinary story. But any sense of familiarity, any idea that this is only another famous victory to revel in, is swept away
by the knowledge that it can't last forever. Watching Robert Page on a lap of honour, punching the air in unison
with the home fans, and realising that this is as good as it gets.
Like I say, beyond magnificent. Somewhere there's a place where you'll find Cliff Holton and Wilf Rostron and Luther's double-strike at
Old Trafford and the Southampton game and the Kaiserslautern home leg and the FA Cup triumph at Highbury and, more recently, the playoff final. This
belongs in the same place, immortalised and forever treasured in the hearts of Watford fans.