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FA Carling Premiership, 28/12/99
By Ian Grant

"Come on. Bloody COME ON!

No. No. No. NO. NOOOO! Jesus, get it AWAY! AWAYYY! Well in. Well in. GET IN THERE! AWAY! YES!



I'm no longer using the dictaphone...but, if I had been, it would've recorded something like the above during most of the second half. Which explains why my throat feels as if I've been gargling battery acid.

After three and a half months, victory was always going to be emotional. But this was ridiculous....

We've had some low points since beating Chelsea, to put it very mildly. None of them compare to the moment when Kevin Davies slammed in the Southampton equaliser, wiping out our precious lead and threatening to send our hopes spiralling away into a black hole. In that instant, the world fell apart and there was nothing to do but stare into the deepest abyss.

So the joy that greeted Xavier Gravelaine's winner was understandably unrestrained. To outsiders, it would've seemed disproportionate; to us, it was the only possible reaction to a goal that might mean everything. It was an insane moment of pure celebration.

Beyond that, there was the sheer determination and scary obstinacy that we've missed since we last had a lead to protect in injury time. What we still lack in organisation was compensated for by the fiercest commitment...and more than a little good fortune. We were heroic once more, and it's wonderful to be able to write that.

Back at kickoff, we knew that another defeat was more than we could afford. You don't stand a chance of Premiership survival if you don't win these fixtures...and we also knew that the Southampton fans, impressive in number, would be thinking the same. Yer actual six pointer, then.

The atmosphere briefly reflected that, Watford fans once again getting behind the team in these endless hours of need. Only briefly, though, because we simply cannot prevent opponents from disrupting our attempts at rebuilding confidence. So, five minutes in and neither Steve Palmer nor Paul Robinson stopped Davies from meeting Benali's cross. From little more than six yards, he should've buried the chance...but his header was straight enough to allow Alec Chamberlain to make an extraordinary save, shoving the ball over the bar with one hand. The Watford keeper made a more routine stop from Richards' header from the consequent corner.

For the time being, it wasn't much of a game. Crucially, however, it was our turn to punctuate proceedings with match-winning moments. After ten more uneventful minutes, there was a breakthrough. Neil Cox's deep cross from the right found David Perpetuini challenging on the edge of the box. He did enough to win the header and the ball dropped a few yards in front of him. Jones advanced and then inexplicably stopped, perhaps a pivotal point in the season as Perpetuini pounced and drilled a shot through the keeper's legs to give Watford a priceless lead.

After our lack of defensive coordination had nearly conspired to throw away that lead - Robert Page marking two opponents at the far post as a corner came in, Hughes heading a foot or so wide - the match reverted to its previous state. Again, though, we managed to raise ourselves.

And how we raised ourselves. The second goal was sweeping and decisive, counter-attacking of the highest order. Despite recent erratic kicking, Chamberlain started it by collecting a cross and driving a clearance towards the head of Michel Ngonge. The knockdown was precisely into Micah Hyde's path, and his first-time pass into the space in front of Xavier Gravelaine was perfection. From the other end, it appeared that the chance had gone as the striker cut back onto his right foot and defenders closed in...but the frustration was only fleeting because the finish beat Jones and planted itself into the back of the net to bring a brilliant move to an appropriate conclusion. Gravelaine, who looks like an undiscovered member of the Addams family, went as mad as the rest of us.

Again, the luck was with us just seconds later. Suddenly midfield squabbles ended with Tessem sprinting through and threatening to reduce the lead immediately. As Chamberlain came out, he poked the ball goalwards but the effort was too strong and cleared the bar. We breathed again.

Curious, this winning thing. We've grown so used to sitting here and watching defeat after defeat that it didn't feel quite right, like when you're waiting for a train and it actually arrives on time. As Le Tissier injured himself in the process of shooting weakly at Chamberlain and was replaced by the footballing phenomenon that is Stuart Ripley, it was all going a little too well. Still, it's an easy choice between winning and feeling nervous or losing and feeling miserable.

So far, so normal. But we'd hardly begun. The second half was football stripped of all its niceties, turned into the kind of brutal, heartless spectacle that might've been served up at a Roman amphitheatre. It was emotionally and physically exhausting.

It started well enough, the confidence just beginning to come back. Helped by a gigantic performance from Ngonge, ably assisted by the lively Gravelaine, there were plenty of signs that the killer third wouldn't be too long in coming. Ngonge drove at Jones from outside the box. And then, in characteristic and thrilling fashion, he charged at the Southampton defence to set up Hyde for another through-ball for Gravelaine, Jones coming out to block and relieved to find Richard Johnson's lob attempt sailing into his chest rather than over his head.

Gravelaine's curler from the edge of the area carried insufficient power to beat the Southampton keeper as we continued to press in the opening fifteen minutes. Only Soltvedt's weak effort from a corner hinted at a comeback. For once, we were at peace.

Then, two hideous minutes later, we were in hell. Davies' burst past Page on the right allowed him to drive in a low cross - it evaded Palmer's outstretched boot and reached Boa-Morte, who hammered the ball back into the corner of the net. In the Rookery, we raised our heads from our hands in time to see Boa-Morte sprinting up the left with Cox in pursuit, crossing towards Hughes at the near post and Davies collecting the loose ball to fire Southampton level.

Words can't describe the feeling. The ground fell away from underneath us, and the sensation was nearly enough to make me physically sick. As the Southampton fans taunted us from the other end, all hope had gone and black depression had replaced it. "You're not singing anymore!" was the chant from the Vic Road end...and they were right, because we could hardly speak let alone sing.

Two substitutes lined up on the touchline, more in desperation than anything else. And then Cox's cross was only half-cleared. And Gravelaine hit an awkward, bouncing shot from the edge of the box. And it rambled through a crowd. And Ngonge got out of the way. And Jones saw it late. And still it went on. And Jones wasn't going to reach it. AND IT'S IN IT'S IN IT'S IN YES YES YES F***ING YES YES YES YOU'RE NOT SINGING ANYMORE YES YES YES! And utter misery was transformed into utter joy in an instant, a Christmas miracle.

The rest was no less mental. The completely baffling substitution of the mighty Michel Ngonge, followed shortly after by new hero Gravelaine, left us with much less muscle up front and much less hope of holding the ball up. While Dominic Foley has unquestionably improved and Tommy Smith is tireless and eager, the combination of the two is just too lightweight for a situation where clearances will inevitably be launched upfield with distance rather than direction. Two further goal attempts, a half-volley over and a header at Jones both from Foley, couldn't disguise the ominous rumbling as the Southampton artillery trundled forward for an assault on the Watford goal.

More often than not, it was difficult to make out what was happening at the other end. Which was probably a good thing. Davies shot wide from distance, but that was just a warning. The final quarter of an hour was madness...slowly ascending into complete bedlam by injury time, efforts raining in, bodies hurling themselves everywhere, the ball flying randomly about until it was finally booted clear. Somehow we survived. Boa-Morte whacked in a low cross that provoked mayhem, possibly involving a Chamberlain save but equally possibly not, before someone thumped it away. Chamberlain again appeared to save as either Davies' or Beattie's shot was diverted into the side netting, and then the corner came in and Lundekvam's header was somehow prevented from crossing the line by Hyde. Palmer headed clear from the goalline halfway through an eternity of injury time, during which many Watford fans will have done irreparable damage to their vocal chords.

In a desperate, shambolic way, we were totally magnificent. We visibly grew as the clock counted down, turning back into that absurdly heroic side that ought to have been beaten at St Andrews in May but simply refused to be. Quibbles about quality of defending are to be left to one side on this occasion - after we'd reclaimed the lead, the sheer belligerence of our rearguard deserved any amount of luck. This is what we want to see.

It's amazing how one result can lift the spirits, removing a weight from the shoulders of every Watford fan and allowing us to stand tall once again. It is, of course, only one result. And it is, as the pessimists will remind us, only against Southampton. But, while we're listing the "only"s, there's one more - we only have to finish above three other teams to prove all the cynics wrong.