By Matt Rowson
I should have been suspicious. The deeply illogical nature of the decision to take half a day off to travel up to Lancashire for this relatively low-profile game disappeared into irrelevance as I bombed up the M6 in the sunshine. I entered Wigan with the scantest of directions, but was quickly adopted by some cordial locals who lead me to the magnificent JJB Stadium. Parking: no problem. Two minutes from the ground in a shopping complex car park. All too easy. It couldn't last.
The stadium was no less impressive from the inside. Almost brand new, nice shiny seats and ample facilities, all unremarkable in these days of new stadia... but the little things made it special. Things like a tannoy which was audible but not overpowering (WFC take note), and the wonderfully steep stands that will lend themselves to a tremendous atmosphere if Athletic can ever attract more than the five thousand who stained three sides of the ground for this game. All this and not a rubbish mascot in sight....
Watford started with the same eleven who had so magnificently disposed of Chelsea at Vicarage Road the previous Saturday, bar calf-strain victim Nordin Wooter who was replaced by Nick Wright. In the absence of livewire Wooter much of our early approach play was again predictable and slightly ponderous. Ostensibly playing 4-3-3, Wright and Kennedy were always far too withdrawn to provide any real support to Smart as the Hornets withdrew into an uninspiring 4-5-1.
The only apparent channel for attacks was the marauding Gibbs on the right, but with only the lonely Smart to aim at, his crosses wandered all too comfortably into the arms of Carroll.
Wigan, meanwhile, were issuing warnings of what was to come, with their breaking attacks invariably looking far more threatening than our own. Haworth in particular was looking far more of an international footballer than he had done in the first leg, and it was he that eventually gave the Latics the lead. Barlow forced a limb past Page to connect with a left wing cross at the near post and steer it towards the bottom corner. Chamberlain made more of a meal of the stop than appeared strictly necessary, opting to block with his foot rather than use his hands. The ball spun free to Bradshaw, who set up Haworth to head into an empty net.
If this was a wake-up call, few of the Hornets chose to listen. One notable exception was Clint Easton, who attempted to add some variety to the attack by running at the opposition defence, but with little end product. Wigan continued to threaten on the break, Barlow netting again inadvertently whilst clearly offside.
Half-time came. We were disappointed, but there was no great pessimism amongst the travelling support; consensus seeemed to be that GT would "sort it".
Certainly the shape of the side was dramatically altered by the half-time changes; Foley and Ngonge arriving in place of the anonymous Wright and, perhaps harshly, Allan Smart. Now in a conventional 4-4-2, our forwards' movement was quickly a noticable improvement on the first half.
Peter Kennedy's performance, however, was increasingly a frustration, twice in this period squandering promising openings by lashing optimistically from distance, on one occasion following an outrageous dummy from the impossible Foley, of whom more later. Just as the mutterings were reaching a crescendo, Kennedy vindicated his approach by connecting perfectly with a Ngonge knock-down on the edge of the box, volleying into the top corner with his right foot, a magnificent strike.
For the next five or ten minutes, and for the only spell in the match, we looked two divisions superior to our opponents, now stung by the enormity of the three goals they would need to score to salvage the tie. As had been apparent following Easton's goal a week earlier, a sudden injection of confidence added masses to our attacking play. One sweeping move found Hyde on the corner of the six yard box, but he wanted too much time and finally sent his shot above the keeper and onto the bar.
Then, a tremendous ball from the left found the marauding Gibbs bombing towards the touchline inside the area. Kevin Sharp was as surprised as anyone, and stuck out a leg in confusion, felling the fullback.
Penalty. Sorted. Except it wasn't... Kennedy lost all the brownie points he had salvaged with the lamest of penalties, comfortably blocked by Carroll and cleared from the feet of the onrushing Ngonge.
Our attacking play collapsed again. Wigan began to impose themselves on the game, with Michael O'Neill in the centre particularly impressive, and Barlow and Haworth moving well up front. Having forced a corner on the right, Sheridan's corner was inexplicably palmed on by Chamberlain, giving Haworth another simple finish at the far post.
The lowest point of a bad evening for Watford fans came in the 89th minute, when Gibbs was adjudged to have felled Haworth by the arbitrary John Kirkby. Bradshaw displayed exactly the decisiveness that Kennedy had lacked in converting his spot kick. Wigan had deserved this, no question, but the ludicrous journey back was suddenly postponed by half an hour. Not good.
Whilst Wigan's play in extra time, supported by some realistically positive substitutions, was the more confident and carried more momentum, the Hornets came closer to adding the tally with two audacious attempts... a lob on the run by the persistent Easton brought a fine recovering save out of Carroll. Then there was Foley.
Foley is a ridiculous footballer; mixing moments of vision and control that belong at the very highest level with other moments where he displays all the grace of a three-legged piano stool. At one extreme, the countless occasions where he hared into space after a ball from the midfield, only to trip over said ball. At the other... facing a full back on the corner of the area stock still. Dropping one shoulder, then the other, then curling a shot impossibly with his instep onto the inside of the far post and into the keeper's arms.
The game finished. We left. A bad day, and no mistake, but no post-mortems and no throwing of blame or insults. Chelsea was only last Saturday, remember. And if we can get through ties like this, playing so far below par against a team playing so well, and so up for it... well, maybe our name is on this trophy after all.