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FA Carling Premiership, 23/4/00
By Ian Grant

"I can tell you in just a heartbeat what my fascination with sports is. It's this: I think all of us are looking for that which does not admit of bullshit.... If you tell me you've got 4.4 speed in the forty, hell, we'll just put a watch on you and see if you've got it or not. If you tell me you can bench press 450, hell, we'll load up the bar and put you under it. Either you can do it or you can't do it - you can't bullshit. Ultimately, sports are just about as close to what one could call the truth as it is possible to get in this world."
- Harry Crews

Whatever else Harry Crews is - and everyone who crosses his path seems to have something to say about it - he's a fine, fine writer. The kind that writes for no other reason than the fact that it's in his blood, bursting to get out and demanding to be read.

But we don't agree about sports. Where Crews seeks certainty and truth, it's precisely the absence of those things that keeps me coming back to football. Again and again, it proves to be beyond prediction. Sometimes, as on Sunday, it's beyond comprehension too. That's when I like it best of all.

Really, this made no sense whatsoever. A spewed, skewed mess of a football match, mercilessly thrilling throughout. Goals, misses, controversy, aggression, mistakes, mayhem. The thunderstorm that clattered around during the second half, blackening the skies except for occasional sharp flashes of lightning, could hardly have been more appropriate - this was furious, elemental stuff.

So let's set everything else aside for one moment. Forget all the talking points, the shambolic refereeing, the murderous Arsenal counter-attacking, the incredible near-comeback, and all the rest. The bottom line - Harry Crews' certainty, if you like - is that this was one of the most potent games Vicarage Road has seen for a long time.

It began and ended in extraordinary, enormously controversial fashion. Within two minutes, Grimandi's awkward backpass had put Seaman in trouble and Heidar Helguson threatened to poach a goal as the ball was caught in the England keeper's tangled legs. The challenge left both players grounded and, in attempting to extricate himself to prod the ball into the empty net, the striker was clearly held down. Referee Harris, not well-placed to make a decision and not aided by his linesman, waved play on.

That was just the start - things didn't calm down until five o'clock. Within a minute, the vastly impressive Henry sent a dipping half-volley just wide from the right-hand corner of the penalty area, and we had our first terrifying glimpse of the finishing that would ultimately do for us.

I haven't even mentioned the tactical changes yet. In many ways, it didn't seem to be a game with enough order and structure for tactics to be important.... However, by playing with three strikers to deal with the much-highlighted lack of width and especially by returning Steve Palmer to his natural midfield berth, we were simply better equipped to disrupt and disturb Arsenal. Which is exactly what we did.

Don't be fooled by the half-time scoreline. Prior to the interval, the game was entirely dominated by one team, and it wasn't the illustrious Londoners. We were left utterly bewildered as we watched Arsenal's piercing attack pick us off on the break, despite the fact that our territory was a deserted wasteland for most of the first half. Scoring goals is what it's all about, of course...but that doesn't stop it being cruel and heart-breaking.

We played extremely well before the break. Arguably, in fact, we played better than during the unlikely second half fightback. Taking the game to our opponents with considerable courage and occasional style, this was not the meek and mild Watford of last week. You can draw your own conclusions from that.

In the opening fifteen minutes, we were twice denied by Seaman saves. The first, one-handed away to his right from Tommy Smith's angled shot, was tremendous. The second, after Paul Robinson's bustling run through the midfield to set up Helguson for a curled attempt from the edge of the box, was more routine. In between, Allan Smart was just a yard short of latching onto Smith's through-ball and Neil Cox over-elaborated when offered the opportunity to try his luck with his left foot. Most of us had been grimly realistic about our chances of avoiding a hammering here, yet we were seeing something entirely different - a Watford side looking impatient for glory, an Arsenal side looking unsettled and vulnerable.

Until they played their "GET OUT OF JAIL FREE" card, that is. Petit's weighted ball over the top, Henry's pace taking him away from the defence for a calm finish as Alec Chamberlain hesitated. It's not about learning lessons any more, but it still felt that way.

To our credit, there was no collapse. Again, the scoreline does us a great disservice - while we were never so dominant as in the first quarter of an hour, we stubbornly refused to allow Arsenal to go on the rampage. We stood up to them, as we've stood up to too few this season. For ten minutes, we simply consolidated and built upon the positive aspects of the performance, particularly in midfield where Palmer's unfussy, decisive ball-winning was annoying the hell out of Vieira and Petit. All Arsenal managed was a Bergkamp shot, easily fielded by Chamberlain.

Then, suddenly, the chance to equalise. The approach work was brilliantly simple. Once again, it began with Palmer fighting away to win possession and play an easy pass into Smart. The Scotsman's awareness in dummying to wrong-foot the defence was the key factor...and there was Micah Hyde, who'd been spotted by no-one but Smart and was all alone with only Seaman to beat. Somehow, he managed to swing his shot against the upright instead of levelling the scores.

Really, Arsenal might as well have stood and wagged their fingers at us in disapproval. We paid a high price for that miss. The second goal was almost a carbon copy of the first - Henry was the supplier this time and it was Parlour who raced through, evading Robinson's challenge and ignoring feeble opposition from Chamberlain. Within two minutes, the roof had completely fallen in - a fine solo goal from Henry, aided by defensive hesitation as he darted into the box and deftly curled a shot into the corner. And there it was, three down after one of this season's finer forty-five minutes - this time, you couldn't have blamed them if their heads had dropped.

Even then, there was one last chance. Darren Ward's header from a corner fell to Tommy Smith, a couple of yards out with his back to goal. Any contact from his attempted overhead kick would surely have taken the ball past Seaman and into the net. But there was no contact and the ball hit the Arsenal keeper on the shins, bouncing away to safety. Not our day.

The break was spent preparing ourselves for the inevitable second half carnage as we became discouraged and Arsenal took advantage. Anyone who's claimed that defeat is more palatable when you know you've performed well might've been having second thoughts during half-time on Sunday. As Overmars teased Ward, waited for a glimpse of goal and instantly drove against the foot of the post from twenty yards, it seemed that the carnage was about to begin...although Parlour shot clumsily wide from the rebound to let us off the hook temporarily. Five minutes later, it was Robinson's turn to find Overmars too much to deal with, and this time the shot was dragged just a yard wide after he'd raced clear.

It was surely only a matter of time before further Arsenal goals. Only a couple of tame Ward headers from set pieces offered any threat to Seaman's goal, while the sheer quality of the forwards attacking our nervous defence was enough to put the most confident Hornet into a panic. If we'd found ourselves three-nil down after a first half of such immense bravery, what would happen when our confidence fell away?

Instead, we found ourselves roaring on a most improbable comeback. It started with a new, and brilliant, free kick manoevre - take a gigantic run up and twat the ball at the goal as hard as humanly possible. Whadayaknow, it works! Neil Cox's effort from thirty yards nearly took some poor sod's head off as it hit the Arsenal wall, then looped and span into the area like a bouncing bomb. Seaman scrambled across his line but Helguson had reacted first, steering the ball in from the tightest of angles.

And then, insanely, we scored again. Hyde compensated for his earlier miss, pouncing inside the box after a cross had been headed down by Keown. The half-volleyed strike was awkward for Seaman, who couldn't prevent it bouncing over his dive and into the far corner of the net. Having failed to take advantage of our earlier dominance, we'd suddenly scored twice out of nothing - as I've said, this was not a match that made very much sense.

We wanted this. We really wanted it. Hungry, mean, angry, desperate. You'd expect that the metaphorical vultures circling Vicarage Road would be waiting for meat from Watford carcasses...instead, it was Arsenal who'd shown the crucial weakness and looked like prey. Relegated or not, that third goal would've sent the whole place into an absolute frenzy. Two minutes after Hyde's goal, Robinson's long ball so nearly set Smart free, only for him to be crowded out as he attempted to find a finishing touch. And Seaman was off his line shortly afterwards, diving at Helguson's feet to prevent him running onto a Hyde pass.

Always bearing in mind the class of our opponents and always conscious of our vulnerability, we were rampant and brilliant. If we haven't given it our best shot over the course of the season, then we sure as hell gave it our best shot here. Another Cox free kick, hammered destructively into the wall as before, had Seaman worried before its deflected path took it over. This was Graham Taylor's Watford as we know and love it, ignoring all the odds and simply refusing to accept defeat. And Arsenal didn't like it one bit, adding their bad tempers and short fuses to a game that was already full-blooded.

In the end, as you'll have noticed from the scoreline, it was just beyond us. We needed a goal in the first half...and, much as we'll blame the referee, we had three clear chances to get that goal and he was only responsible for our missing out on one of them. The chance of the famous victory was there for us, but it had gone by half-time.

Indeed, Arsenal proved a point by hitting the woodwork one last time. Henry robbed Ward in midfield and was only denied a hat-trick by Page's last-ditch challenge, which deflected the shot against the join of post and bar.

It was a tough afternoon for Ward, playing against truly world class strikers for the first time and learning some hard lessons. Ironically, it was Robinson, often found lacking this season, who showed the way. By treating his opponents with little respect and yet staying within the laws, he engaged them, particularly Henry and Bergkamp, in continual bickering and off-the-ball nonsense...and, of course, the more time they spent being distracted by personal confrontations, the less time they spent carving holes in our defence. Although there are times when Robinson's fully committed approach is inappropriate, it was perfect for this occasion. The only obvious frustration is that, having exposed Arsenal's petulance and irritability, we weren't able to rub salt into the wounds by beating them.

The storm arrived as the game reached its most tempestuous point, at times becoming some kind of pre-Association running battle with an almost incidental ball. Richard Johnson's entry onto the field of "play" was greeted with a monumental, ominous rumble of thunder...although, sadly, he didn't live up to God's fanfare and only contributed a volley that soared into the Vic Road end. The game lost all shape, composure and order but retained all its intensity and drama...which, unless you're a purist, made it brilliant entertainment.

There were no more chances, much as we roared them on towards the ecstasy of a last minute equaliser. There was one more talking point. After Helguson and Vieira had tangled in an aerial challenge, the head-to-head confrontation left the Watford player on the ground and all hell broke loose. While Harris talked to Vieira and eventually booked him, there were scuffles around Helguson as Arsenal players demanded that he get to his feet and things briefly threatened to get completely out of control. Vieira was only booked, to his relief and the unrestrained fury of virtually everyone else. Even after the final whistle had gone, blown by Harris while strategically close to the tunnel, there were further confrontations between Vieira and Helguson. A fitting end to a quite insane football match.

For what it's worth, my reading of the incident is easily summarised. Firstly, while it is simply impossible to tell whether contact was made, Vieira's aggressive reaction was extremely stupid, at best - it's rather easier to plead your innocence of a headbutting offence if you haven't just thrust your forehead in someone's face. Duh. Secondly, Helguson's over-reaction does neither him nor the club any credit at all. Full stop. Thirdly, Harris' booking of Vieira was an utter, snivelling cop-out - either there was a headbutt or there wasn't, no middle ground.

In normal circumstances, we'd say that it was a shame such a fantastic match had to end like that. Except that it was such a fantastic match precisely because it had that chaotic, unruly edge to it.

We gave it some welly. Arsenal didn't like it. No complaints at all.