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04/05: Reports:

Football League Cup Quarter Final, 30/11/04, 7.45pm
By Ian Grant

"Stay right where you are! The players will be coming out again!"

These things can go wrong. Easily. Often. You can't orchestrate joy, you can't conduct ecstasy, you can't sculpt custard. This doesn't, of course, prevent football clubs and other foolish folk from trying very, very hard to do exactly those things, with predictable results. There's nothing that kills joy as efficiently as compulsory fun...especially spontaneous compulsory fun.

As Richard Short announces that the players will be appearing again, we're already starting to shuffle homewards, with roaring songs in our hearts and beaming grins on our faces. Here and there, someone's just staring into space, unable to get a grip yet. There's a moment when you fear that the team might re-emerge to empty stands and a couple of echoing cheers, another failed attempt at fun-by-design. But it's not that kind of night. It really is not that kind of night at all.

When they come back, we're still here. If anything, the momentary pause has allowed reality to sink in ever so slightly, and reality insists that we actually, really, honestly have just spent another evening slapping a Premiership (not premier, not a ship) side around, reaching another semi-final in the process. In black-and-white, it looks remarkable. At the time, it just made you want to stand there, thrust your fists into the sky, summon up enough breath to last for minutes, and howl until your vocal chords failed. That primal, that elemental. The team came back, and a glimpse of reality only served to turn up the volume in their honour. For a brief moment, the manager stuck his head out of the tunnel to have a look too, and his ears are probably still ringing.

It'll be one of those memories, I think. It felt so bloody right, a chance to pay proper tribute to the players without the associated clutter of opponents and officials at the final whistle. A set of tracksuited footballers, breath clouding in the bitter air of a winter evening, wandering exhausted and fulfilled towards the Rous Stand, while three parts of Vicarage Road supplied an appropriate ovation, a final roar of celebration. Not presumptuous, not contrived, not arrogant, just right. A moment shared, relished. Deserved.

It's unfair and lazy, but the comparison still needs to be made. It can't be avoided, really. For anyone of a certain age, this is the very essence of what makes Watford special. There's nothing to be gained by weighing the past against the present, too many variables and too few constants; still, these are the kind of magical nights that first set the seal on the club's most famous era. The nights when the script was ripped up and became scattered confetti in the floodlit air; when fate rode by, got ambushed and robbed blind by a bunch of bandits with yellow shirts and clear consciences. When cup upset really wasn't enough.

A prize in itself, in time; does anyone take any less pleasure in those spectacular victories over Southampton and Forest in 1980 because we didn't go to the final? Those matches exist as landmarks in their own right, touchstones for any Watford fan, even those who weren't there. Every football fan thinks that their club is special, and every football fan is right. Those moments are our justification: not normal, not predictable, far beyond cliché. Three-nil, for heaven's sake. Three-nil.

True, this was less immediately dazzling than the thrashing of poor Southampton. That was bright yellow, this was a deep, resonant red. There was less extravagance, less of a carefree flourish...but my word, that matters not a jot when there's so much potency to a performance that simply folds its arms, stares intently, and waits for the opposition to blink. A performance that cold shoulders expectations as much as opponents, stonily slapping its own agenda onto the table before disdainfully ripping up the prissily type-written version prepared and agreed by everyone else. No consolation goals, not this time. No flaws at all, still less regrets.

Despite recent events, Portsmouth are a much better side than the last round's victims, and this success required the intense, concentrated implementation of a well-prepared gameplan. Required it, got it...and we again, astonishingly and spectacularly, arrived at the point where we'd put the game out of reach with half an hour remaining. This time, our opponents didn't disintegrate entirely. Even so, after a brief flurry of protesting attacks, Portsmouth were a completely spent force by the final whistle, just about keeping their shape and holding their heads up, nothing more. They weren't destroyed as Southampton were destroyed, just efficiently neutered. A different achievement, yet, in many ways, even more thrilling. Think of it, grit your teeth, clench your fist. Pretend you're Dychey for a moment. Every single challenge faced and beaten.

With a little help from fortune too, admittedly. But after surviving crappy draws in earlier rounds, we've deserved that...and besides, these fixtures have been characterised by a sense that rather than waiting for luck to come along, we've searched for it, grabbed it by the hair, and dragged it kicking and screaming into the opposition penalty area. So, yeah...injuries...blah...Harry Redknapp...blah...ill-timed press conferences...blah...and we'll throw in Primus' remarkable miss in the eleventh minute, meeting a Berger free kick at the far post, and slicing his volley admirably wide from a mere couple of yards. This might've been a different match report, then. It wasn't. Isn't. Not our problem.

Because over the course of a truly astounding evening, we were to make that seem utterly irrelevant. Our opponents should've opened the scoring; our opponents declined that opportunity; we took a moment to consider what had happened, nodding thoughtfully with chin resting on hand, and then reacted by punching their lights out. Only fair, really. We're not nasty for fun, us...but we've got a reputation to keep up, and you really don't want to mess with The Dyche Mob. A menacing whisper in the ear: "It's not like we'll enjoy it, but there's consequences, pal. Consequences. You were warned."

Thus, after a little more anticlimactic drift, we conjured up a goal of such startling, stark individual brilliance that it deserved to win the contest alone. Not an inspired individual goal, a moment of pure flair, vision or artistry, but an extraordinary thing nevertheless. Justifiably, Ashdown will take some of the credit, for his ill-advised attempt to claim Neil Cox's dangling free kick in the outer reaches of his penalty area undoubtedly made it possible. But that's what goalkeepers do, usually without complication...unless someone Icelandic and slightly unhinged decides to leap and hang like Ang Lee's directing proceedings, climbing way above a defender and reaching the height of those stretching gloves to win the ball cleanly and convincingly. Soaring impossibly, and still retaining the composure to send the ball goalwards, beyond Primus' desperate sprawl and into the back of the net. Not an elegant goal, sure...but something classic and imperious, something absolutely perfect, from nothing at all.

We were on our way. Within a couple of minutes, one of those Neal Ardley corners had taken a touch from Neil Cox and been blocked before it provided Brynjar Gunnarsson with an absolute sitter. Later, Gavin Mahon, every-f***ing-where, had swept in a cross from the right that found Neal Ardley lurking in a central position, unable to direct his header away from Ashdown. It wasn't a game of many chances...and if it hadn't been our single goal, with associated nail-biting and fate-tempting, then it seemed like the kind of match that might be won by a single goal...but with hindsight, there were suggestions that there might be more than initially met the eye. Not yet, though.

In the meantime, we were putting that gameplan into action. The goal and the (forthcoming) save might've been important moments here, yet it's impossible to get away from a sequence around the half hour mark. Then, Portsmouth got the ball and passed. And passed. And passed. And passed. And passed. Across and forwards and backwards and across and forwards and across and backwards and across and across and across, for what seemed like two or three minutes. We'd pushed up, aware that they had no pace to trouble us, and dropped back at the front, aware that they could do nothing much to hurt us from within their own half...and they could do nothing but keep possession, forwards and backwards and forwards and across and backwards and across. Normally, lengthy spells of possession are greeted with agitation by the other team's fans; here, we were cheering every pass as the endless to-ing and fro-ing continued infinitely and impotently. In the end, the final ball from deep won a corner, only because Neil Cox and Richard Lee failed to communicate and allow it to run harmlessly through. But in those minutes, you sensed the first shivers of despair descend on our visitors. And, though no-one would've dared to admit it, the first flickers of triumph too.

Plenty of work remained, mind. While the match remained poised, we were caught out just once more, as Sean Dyche burst from defence, lost possession, and, even though he returned to his position, the backline took a few seconds to find its shape again. In the muddle, Portsmouth smuggled the ball across to Berger, whose fierce, dipping drive from twenty-five yards brought a typically athletic, strong-handed save from Richard Lee to push the ball around the post. A reminder, if we needed it, that it wouldn't take very much for all of this immensely impressive work to be undone; it's been a while now, but Premiership memories are still fresh enough.

Which remained the concern at the start of the second half, at which point Portsmouth, tellingly, undertook a complete re-organisation based upon a double substitution and we, worryingly but not, as it turned out, particularly tellingly, were forced to replace Brynjar Gunnarsson with Dominic Blizzard. Despite a number of quite staggering performances, it wasn't an evening for individuals...but Blizzard deserves a brief moment, I think. His contribution might've been comparatively low-key, yet his constant presence in the right place at the right time throughout the second half was necessary and vital, stopping their attacks and starting ours, and allowing others to play more effusive roles. A proving experience, as well as learning.

A little nervously, we began to refute Portsmouth's claims to a comeback. And we did it damn well, strong in defence, active and urgent in midfield, relentless from the halfway line onwards. If you want a summary, you can find it late on, in Heidar Helguson chasing and harrying Quashie in a midfield nowhere-in-particular, the Portsmouth player finally releasing the ball to a colleague and then standing for a moment, shaking his head in disbelief and frustration. If he'd had a speech bubble, it would've read simply, "GIVE IT A BLOODY REST!" Even so, you felt that forty-five minutes was too long to survive; I caught Matt looking at his watch with just five or so minutes of the half departed. That was the script.

By ten o'clock, that script was torn and tattered, muddied to indecipherable in a Vicarage Road puddle. Just as you ticked yourself off for getting greedy, for thinking that a second goal might put an end to it and save frayed nerves for the semi-final, we scored it. Innocuous, really: Gavin Mahon stamping through midfield and flicking a fine ball out to Jermaine Darlington on the left, but his left-footed cross was more of a gesture than a challenge, lacking any real power or direction. None of that mattered to Heidar Helguson, of course, who showed all of the desire that Primus lacked in beating the sleepy defender to the near post and jabbing the ball decisively past Ashdown.

Suddenly, everything opened up before us, as it had three weeks before...and, as then, we were further out of reach almost instantly, not a moment for the delirium to be calmed. More tremendous battling from Heidar Helguson before James Chambers was released into the right of the penalty area, a situation that seemed merely promising until he surprised Ashdown with an early shot, side-footed accurately as the keeper moved to cover his near post. It brought a fine save...and a pointless save too, for Bruce Dyer simply tucked the rebound into an empty net to send Vicarage Road into shredded, bruised, tangled raptures. One of those celebrations in which people can be lost for years, dazed and confused and ecstatic.

Portsmouth were getting stuffed, like their local rivals before them. Different methods, harder game, and not quite the same sense that we'd be able to score at will for the remainder of the ninety minutes...but still, support-affirming moments that'll live for generations. There was a brief revival, a few proud sparks from the visitors to threaten our clean sheet: when O'Neil tricked his way into the box and struck a low curler towards the bottom corner, Richard Lee pulled off a truly outstanding save to deflect the ball around the post; Harper hit a long-range effort that missed the top corner by a small distance; Lee again excelled in denying Taylor with his legs, before Harper was crowded out as he sought to volley home on the rebound.

Our decisive move had shifted the game from its stable footing, yet, pleasingly, there remained that fist-clenched determination to prevent Portsmouth from getting through. Here, in contrast to the previous round, we protected the clean sheet as proudly at three-nil as at nil-nil and one-nil; it was part of the victory, not to be discarded casually, and the result feels just right as a consequence. Our resistance held, and although Portsmouth were never reduced to wreckage and debris, they were nonetheless lost and bewildered long before the match finished. They didn't just lose. They were beaten, and soundly.

So, incredibly, another match against top flight opponents concluded with relaxed, joyous scenes. With the result beyond doubt, apart from the possibility that our sauntering, swaggering attacks might just cause a further extension of the lead. They damn nearly did too: none of us would've ever come down if Neal Ardley's sublime attempt from a wide, no-surely-not position had wedged in the top corner rather than smacking the woodwork. That had Ashdown completely floundering, but the young keeper did well to turn another Ardley effort wide from the bottom corner after he drifted royally in from the wing, then parry a fierce drive from Paul Devlin at his near post in injury time.

More than anything, though, these closing stages were again about the crescendo. About Berger picking up possession in a deep position to set another Portsmouth move in motion, and again running straight - smack! - into Gavin Mahon, Dominic Blizzard, or whoever, losing the ball and losing all hope. About the way that this seething intensity produced an outer serenity, as we passed possession around calmly and neatly in the knowledge that it could be reclaimed as soon as it was lost. There will be many memories from these games, but none as powerful as the sense that we were simply stronger, mentally and physically, than our opponents. They were better, in theory. We weren't even listening.

Two games. Top flight sides. The aggregate score? 8-2. Eight sodding two, for flip's sake...and the two were meaningless consolation goals that we cheered out of charity. In all five rounds, an aggregate score of twelve flaming two. It's fair to suggest that what comes next might serve to re-dress the balance somewhat. It really doesn't matter.

Heady, heady stuff, this. Intoxicating and potent, and no hangover will be too painful. This is as good as it gets.

Surely. Probably.