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Division 1 Playoff Semi-Final 1st Leg, 16/5/99
Watford 1(1)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Bazeley 4, Kennedy 4, Page 5, *Palmer 5*, Robinson 3, Ngonge 4, Hyde 4, Mooney 5, Johnson 4, Wright 4
Subs: Hazan (for Ngonge) 0, Day, Smart (for Wright) 3
Scorers: Ngonge (5)
Birmingham City 0(0)
Losing the plot
Report by Ian Grant

I've lost the plot completely. I'm not alone.

Real life is something to stumble haphazardly through, the bits of my brain that are supposed to be occupying themselves with useful stuff daydreaming of Wem-ber-lee instead. Real life is Saturday and Saturday is a daze, having queued in Occupation Road for tickets to the away leg from half past ten on Friday night and got no nearer to sleep than ten minutes with my eyes closed. Real life is what awaits in the summer, which might start as soon as Thursday (and that's a frightening thought). Real life is not Watford, so it's nothing that I'd be interested in.

Like the first convulsions of new love, there's nothing to do but submit. To eat, drink, dream, think Watford, twenty-four seven. Football is so often claimed as a distraction from reality, now it's reality that's the distraction.

Part of me - the bit that's always been too conservative for my own good - wants some semblance of normality back. But Watford have other ideas, no intention of letting go. Sunday only sent me even further into oblivion, even more head over heels, not merely Watford til I die but nothing else. Perspective? Not right now, thanks.

The most eagerly anticipated Watford match for well over ten years. (Note the lack of the word "important", a term far too pompous and academic for something so utterly thrilling.) The one occasion when the hype generated by the fans has over-taken the club's marketing machine. The playoff semi-final, an occasion that looked set to happen without us and that we're so happy to have gate-crashed. A bona fide event.

So, what do we do? Do we allow ourselves a moment to savour it all? Do we settle in for the duration of the two-legged tie? Do we give ourselves the safety net of the "brilliant to be here, anything else is a bonus" attitude?

Do we bollocks. For twenty minutes, this was steamroller versus hedgehog. We battered the living daylights out of Birmingham, Tommy Mooney bellowing a blood-curdling "CHAAAAAARRRRRGGGGE!" in echo of roaring encouragement from the stands and leading an awesome assault on the Rookery end. No matter how long we've spent watching Graham Taylor's sides, they still have the capacity to leave us in a state of breathless disbelief. I know we've seen all this before but... bloody hell....

Two minutes in, and Michel Ngonge and Nick Wright cause mayhem in the penalty area, the ball running loose to Paul Robinson who blasts it across the face of goal. Five minutes in, and Peter Kennedy's corner is met perfectly by Ngonge and dumped into the back of the net. Pandemonium all around Vicarage Road with me somewhere in there, halfway between fainting and crying. Eleven minutes in, and Kennedy wastefully scoops Richard Johnson's cross over the bar from close range. Sixteen minutes in, and Johnson again supplies the cross for Kennedy, whose header drifts wide.

It was mighty, heroic stuff, an absolute torrent of Watford attacks, and it briefly raised the possibility of winning the tie with such a demolition of Birmingham that the away leg became irrelevant. Had Kennedy's first chance been taken, who knows what might've happened. Regardless, it was a spell that removed any lingering doubts, that proved decisively what we're capable of. And we're capable of anything right now....

I haven't even mentioned a Birmingham player yet. Gradually, however, they did manage to find a foothold. Paul Furlong did a good job of wrecking his cult status at Vicarage Road with a cynical dive in the penalty area, for which he was booked; Paul Robinson also received a slightly harsh yellow card for throwing the ball away, something that was to return to haunt him later.

Furlong went close twice, hooking a Rowett cross a yard wide at the near post and then heading over a few minutes later. Briefly, we were forced to hang on to the lead in the face of determined City pressure. Holland's drive from twenty-five yards was deflected, wobbled terrifyingly away from Chamberlain's reach and hit the outside of the post. Furlong volleyed straight at Chamberlain from the penalty spot.

As the frantic drama unfolded, the first half rushed by in a spectacular blur. More monstrous performances to be etched into stone for generations to come - Richard Johnson, whose position is no longer "midfield" but "not goalkeeper", was once again everywhere at once; Micah Hyde was sheer glitzy class; Michel Ngonge and Tommy Mooney were absolutely undeniable. The second goal, with the others queued up behind it, was tantalisingly close.

With seven minutes remaining, Ngonge out-muscled a defender to give Wright possession. His dainty lob left Poole stranded, but bounced on top of the bar. Then Mooney reacted smartly to defensive carelessness and again tried to lob Poole, only to see the ball clear the target. Finally, Ngonge headed Page's long free kick straight at the Birmingham keeper.

Disappointed that we hadn't scored more? Well, I suppose so. But not really. While the failure to take advantage of periods of total dominance might ultimately be our undoing, it was impossible to escape the glowing knowledge that we were giving it our best shot, that promotion is not going to escape us for the lack of ambition.

The second half was more even, but no less frantic. The half-time switch of Dele Adebola for Lee Bradbury made a huge difference to Birmingham, and our defence had to do its job without ever being able to win the ball in the air with any consistency. That makes the clean sheet, which was only threatened by Chamberlain's failure to claim crosses under challenge, all the more laudable - Furlong and Adebola might've jumped higher, Page and Palmer reacted quicker.

For a while, the Watford threat remained. The City defence didn't look at all secure, disintegrating into chaos whenever Ngonge and Mooney were given enough service to work with. Those two combined for the first incident of the half after six minutes, Mooney flicking a long ball into the penalty area towards Ngonge, Johnson intercepting but colliding with Poole in panic, and Holdsworth heading away to prevent a comical own goal. Minutes later, Mooney met Bazeley's cross with a tremendous diving header, only to see the ball come back off the foot of the post. We were playing magificently.

In the end, it couldn't last for ninety minutes. But, crucially, we didn't allow a gradual fade-out to lose us the lead. For that, we have Page and Palmer to thank. And Dele Adebola, who was presented with an empty net after Furlong and Chamberlain had got tangled in competing for a cross and clouted the ball casually over the bar. There was almost a repeat performance seven minutes afterwards - again Chamberlain couldn't beat the Birmingham strikers in the air, there was a scrambled race on hands and knees between Adebola and the keeper, but Page booted the ball away as it trickled goalwards.

So the tide had already turned, but Robinson's sending off made that irreversible. It was an idiotic tackle to make, flying in on Ndlovu on the halfway line as Birmingham broke. In that situation, all you've got to do is to stand up and hold the player while teammates cover back. Particularly if you've already been booked.

We held on with ten men, pulling Mooney back to fill in on the left and leaving Allan Smart to do all he could to relieve the pressure. Encouragingly, Birmingham's kitchen sink approach induced stress in the stands more than chances in our penalty area - it was the numbers committed forward, ironically, that ruined their best opening, Furlong and O'Connor both going for a free header and distracting each other.

As a one-off game, this would've gone down as another classic. Even ignoring the context, it was as thunderously dramatic as anything we've seen. But the celebrations at the final whistle were tempered by the looming presence of the second leg. Thursday, one suspects, is going to make this game seem like a pre-season friendly.

We ain't seen nothing yet.