FA Cup Trail:
FA Cup Semi Final, 13/04/03
Team: 1. Alec Chamberlain 12. Gavin Mahon 5. Neil Cox 27. Marcus Gayle 3. Paul Robinson 2. Neil Ardley 4. Paolo Vernazza 8. Micah Hyde 11. Stephen Glass 18. Heidar Helguson 17. Michael Chopra
Scorers: Gayle 88
Team: 1.Paul Jones 33. Paul Telfer 5. Claus Lunderkvam 11. Michael Svensson 3. Wayne Bridge 29. Fabrice Fernandes 12. Anders Svensson 8. Matt Oakley 4. Chris Marsden 9. James Beattie 36. Brett Ormerod
Scorers: Ormerod 43, Robinson (og) 80
Referee: M Riley
Crowd: 42,602 (official)
Conditions: Slightly chilly out of the sun, windy
Entry: £40.00 (Upper Holte) no concessions
Programme: £5.00 for 60 pages A4 with 2 staples, full colour
Refreshments: None, in the ground
Distance travelled: 200 miles to Sutton Coldfield, then train (£5.85 for 3 adults and 2 children return)
"A yellow fish"
By Baz Barry
So common sense and convenience prevailed. Or was it a cop-out?
Neither Dave nor I are the most decisive of people and more so when it came to this part of our FA Cup Trail. We didn't want to upset each other by calling an end to our jolly jaunt so, following the Chelsea/Arsenal replay, we both let events follow their own course without too much interference. Having instantly secured seats for the Hornets' Semi-Final and with our countless pleas for tickets in the three previous rounds being ignored too many times for rudeness, there was little incentive to grovel any further. And armed with the self-justification that the Trail ended when we failed to see the game at Stamford Bridge, any romantic thoughts of attempting to see both games diminished as we got closer to the Semi-Final weekend.
On the Thursday before, Dave and I agreed not to go to Old Trafford and he wasn't keen on having a golden late afternoon in Birmingham. Not unexpectedly the Trail had the last laugh when the next day I came across rumours that Arsenal hadn't sold all their tickets. A quick visit to their website revealed there were still tickets available but to members only. Typical. I am told Arsenal did go to their match with at least two thousand seats unsold, which to my reckoning cost each of the semi-finalists £13,000 in lost revenue. For Arsenal, £13,000 is small fry, no doubt covering the cost of another appeal to the FA against their 49th red card under Wenger but to the likes of the Hornets and the Blades it would make the difference between retaining a player or letting him go.
With no distractions from the other game, there was the easy alternative of revelling in another glorious and historic day to be a Watford fan. It has been well documented elsewhere that our history and location points towards our station being well below recent lofty expectations so we have no right to expect the number of memorable games we've been blessed with since GT's arrival. We should be (and currently are) a team pottering along in the middle of the second tier so, with sixteen years since the last Semi-Final appearance, this was a game to be enjoyed to the full. And the bigger the game, the bigger the need to make a day of it.
Which meant it was a full Barry family outing with our chum Boogs in tow and making a complete carload. With youngsters involved, I was quite happy to be persuaded to decorate the car with ribbons and scarves and flaps and balloons but it soon became clear on the M40 that we were an isolated yellow fish amongst a sea of red and white. Apart from one exception that resulted in a less than truthful explanation of the middle finger salute to six-year-old Megan, the Saints fans seemed to be prepared to give us a cheery wave. We drove via a quiet M6 to Sutton Coldfield, circumnavigating the ring road twice, past the Beatties department store twice (bad omen), eventually finding the Station pub where we'd arranged to meet some friends who are in their first year of having Southampton season tickets.
A splendid lunch was bolstered by a frenzy of face painting and one too many pints of ale before we made the ten minute train journey to Aston. Outside the station it was time for our Southampton chums to feel isolated and outnumbered as everywhere we looked were Hornet fans. Full bladders called for a stop at a wall in the car park of the pub next to the police station and excitement rose as the team coach drove past.
Sadly, the euphoria disappeared in an instant as we overheard an exchange of words rapidly developing into a menacing preamble from tribal rivals eventually asking "do you want some?". A quick glance to check the boys weren't watching and I hear the sickening, gut wrenching sound of glass imploding, no more than twenty feet away. It wasn't the sound of glass breaking on brick or wood or metal but the sound of glass breaking of something soft. It was a sound that needed no explanation. I turned back to see that one of the Southampton fans had been bottled, or glassed, with blood on the side of his head. The apparent offender melted back into a crowd of silent, embarrassed and stunned Watford fans. Unbelievably, the victim remained standing, as his mates bounced around waiting for a second attack but it didn't come. Just a line of police in riot gear.
The rest of the afternoon took on a hollow complexion.
After our goodbyes with our Southampton friends, we sat in the park outside the ground for a while before making our way in an hour before kick-off. I was determined to make the match log in my memory but it passed in a quick and concentrated blur. Normally the kids divert the attention at some point during a game but this time the occasion kept them gripped. It was a game that came over better in the highlights that evening but the overwhelming feeling on leaving the ground was one of disappointment. Watford had equalled a Premiership side and even made them look ordinary in the second half. Both teams seemed to have the same number of chances but the Hornets had to make theirs whereas Southampton scored from the two they were gifted. And not for the first time this season it was left to Ray Lewington to hit the nail on the head by pinpointing the difference in class and composure between the two sets of players.
Nevertheless, I will live with the memory of Helguson early header going wide; the passionate chant of "Yellow Army" directly after their first goal; Neal Ardley giving the England left back a torrid time in the second half; being convinced that Beattie clattered into both players for the second goal; the excitement of the last three minutes; the girl Megan choosing that moment to want to go to the toilet; Micah Hyde leaving the pitch alone at the final whistle; Matt Oakley amongst the Watford players whilst his teammates cavorted at the other end.
As the Final approaches the Trail is overgrown with our indifference. Lame attempts are being made to secure tickets for Cardiff, including a calling of the FA's bluff over the empty seats at the Semis, but going on our total failure in securing any help from the family of football, neither Dave nor I are expecting the unexpected....