By Pete Fincham
I have a utopian ideal about FA Cup Third Round day. It has to be sunny, cold and, of course, Watford win. On Friday afternoon, as the working week started to slowly grind to a halt, I eulogised to a colleague about how wonderful this utopia is and convinced myself that FA Cup Third Round day is a wonderful day. Maybe I'm just an old romantic who still lives for the era when Watford had the best year-on-year record in this great competition. If I had thought about it a bit more realistically, I should have remembered the fact that since 1990 the FA Cup has, by and large, been a miserable experience for us fans.
Throughout the Perryman and Roeder years, we failed to win a game in the competition. Even when we eventually did win a Third Round game against Oxford, we had to be royally pissed about by a referee who chose to call off a re-arranged game with ten minutes to go before kick off. The Lewington Semi-Final season aside, we've consistently failed to get past this seemingly basic hurdle since that solitary game in January 1997. Frankly, being a Watford fan in the FA Cup has been a crap experience for over a decade. I don't know why we bother, and on this evidence the players and management of the team feel the same.
Snow on the A3 around Hindhead made sure that any halcyon ideal of sunshine for the match was definitely out of the window and as the snow fell in a kind of miserable, half-arsed way all around the M25, spirits were already decreasing. Yet another top-flight side were heading to the Vic for Third Round day, following in the footsteps of Fulham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton since our own season with the big boys. Rupe, and many others, have consistently gone on about hot balls and cold balls; the luck of the draw has certainly not been with us. Then again, a dominating home performance and shock home win would be nice once in a while (once again, the 2003 cup run excepted).
A pre-arranged lunch with an old friend and his family had ended up adding three to the attendance, after we had convinced them all to come along to the game; they duly left with ten minutes to go, disappointed and unlikely to return in a hurry. How do you explain to a three-year-old boy that things aren't always this terrible?
Bolton were missing most of their first team. Only three of the side which started against Liverpool on Monday were on show, with the increasingly relevant African Nations Cup taking several products of the Bolton youth scheme (sic!) away for a month, while suspensions and apparent injuries forced several other changes. Their substitutes did not have one first team performance between them!
But with suspensions for Chambers, Spring and Young (the latter, I still contend, could have been successfully appealed, had there not have been some other agenda in resting Young for a few weeks), changes to the victorious side against "Them" were inevitable. An injury to the "time-wasting" Bangura meant a start for the French youngster Diagouraga. The absence of Devlin from the squad proved to be, at the very least, something to talk about. His Icons site has confirmed he is on the way out, with Walsall likely to be his new club. Pravda had not yet seen fit to announce anything. However, I find the release of Paul Devlin absolutely incredible: despite the whole wretched midfield performance, Ashley Young's suspension and an evident lack of depth in the squad, if we are truly going to launch a promotion challenge, it seems amazing to let go a player who not only costs the club nothing to keep, but one with genuine experience of mounting a promotion challenge. Even if he is to be released, as now seems inevitable, what part of leaving Devlin out of the squad in place of one of the totally inexperienced lads on the bench, leads the fans to believe that this game was being taken as seriously as it might have been? Like the departure of Boris in pre-season, if form starts to dip, questions will be asked. Boothroyd has proved to be brave and by and large his decisions have paid off. However, there is a long way to go until many are convinced that his dealings in the transfer market are as astute as they might be. Left back, anyone?
From the first moments of the game, the Watford performance stunk out WD18. The opening hoof from the kick off drifted pointlessly up-field as we settled into our seats for a thoroughly miserable afternoon. As various other sides around the country were at the very least challenging their more illustrious opponents, Watford capitulated from the start. The defence was wretched throughout the first half, seemingly incapable in dealing with the concept of wingers or forwards that are not limited to occupying a single channel. Borgetti, Vaz Te and European Champion Stelios made Watford look like a park side for much of the first half. Stewart's dithering let in Borgetti in the opening moments and the team were lucky to remain on terms. But on ten minutes, more dithering and defensive fanny football let in Borgetti who fired home from the edge of the box. Three defenders could and should have cleared before the goal.
Henderson could and should have equalised a few minutes later following tremendous work from McNamee. His left side cross found Henderson who side-footed first time, but the effort went inches wide of the far post. Don't be confused, though. This was one of two moments in an otherwise wretched first half. After half an hour, Vaz Te had a goal ruled out for an apparent offside, although from behind the Rookery it looked less than clear what offence had been committed. But the second goal arrived only a minute later as yet more chronic defending allowed Vaz Te freedom to cross, yet again, from the left, finding Stelios totally unmarked again inside the area to fire home through Foster and Stewart. It was by no means a fantastic finish, despite being an effective one. However, at the time an overwhelming sense of frustration began to arise around me - or maybe from me - as with two men mere yards away from the Greek international, neither chose to close him down, making the task considerably easier. One can hardly imagine Paul Robinson, our last decent left back, standing on the goal line awaiting the inevitable.
The second decent moment of the half for Watford came with time running out. King, fortuitously fed by the totally ineffective Diagouraga, should have scored with a hurried shot. But the shot was not up to the standards King has set as a loan player, and was scuffed wide.
With a "WIFC Legends" award presented to the well-known and equally well-liked Dr Dave during the half time break, my daughter had the right idea and fell asleep until the last ten minutes of this depressing spectacle. In front of us, Amanda returned from the food hatch with something advertised as a hot chocolate, but not for the first time this season, it materialised as some combination of water and colour. Several minutes into the half, she re-emerged with something marginally more palatable.
To be fair, Watford started the second half in a much livelier fashion. Eagles showed a few touches which illuminated the Rookery, the majority of which could not be relayed onto the big screen as that seemed to give up the ghost for much of the half. King also went close with an early second half effort which Ian Walker did well to save and Mahon criminally failed to shoot when the goal gaped open wide. But it was always Bolton who looked like actually scoring. It was not just the power and pace of the Premier team's forwards. It was the fact that the home defence were by and large hopeless. Nakata then hit the crossbar with an acrobatic overhead kick following good work from the Portuguese star Vaz Te and Nigerian Okocha, before Vaz Te finished off what had become an easy win for Bolton with a thirty yard shot which went in off the post. Foster may feel he could have done better.
As if to add absolute insult to injury, Sam Allardyce finally made it down from the Directors' Box with a few minutes to go to instruct the Academy goalkeeper, Sam Ashton, to go on for a run up front. A frigging goalkeeper in the Academy got his debut by way of a run out against our first team in the FA Cup!
All in all, a thoroughly lamentable afternoon's entertainment. You can take defeat to a team from a higher league; but to suffer such a defeat following such a totally passionless and desperate display really should grate with anyone who had to fork out £15 for the privilege. For me, the worst home FA Cup match since Wolves fourteen years ago. That day, we lost 4-1 to a team in the same league. We went onto beat them the following week, proving that the luck of the cup is often just that: luck consigned to the cup.
If the momentum and revised aims of this season are to be maintained, then performances such as this must not happen again. I'm sure that come May, if a playoff place is secured, the majority of us will have forgotten this match. Those who remember it will point to the absence of key team members or the fact that it was just a bad day at the office. One three-year-old lad will remember his first game, though, and it will be a lot more difficult to get the likes of him through the door again.
But like they say, there's always next year. Great!