On seeing a miracle in Brussels
By Stuart Campbell
It all goes back to March. And my birthday. A frighteningly significant one, as it happens.
Jenny gave me a wonderful present. A long weekend in Brussels for their annual Jazz Marathon. All booked and paid for. Being a major jazz and blues enthusiast this was a pretty ace gift by any standards. We had only spent a few hours in Brussels in the past and had liked what we had seen, and had determined to go back for a decent break and see the place properly. Art Nouveau and Art Deco are high on the Campbell like list too. Brussels ticks a lot of boxes. And let's face it, fine beer sampling is hardly a hardship.
It took just an hour or so for the unknown, dark concern to start gnawing at the edges of my pleasure. Then that sickening pit-of-the-stomach, realisation that all was not well. Dammit - it was the date. I sneaked off to look at my diary - and my Hornets fixture list (pretty much the same thing). Horror of horrors, Brussels coincided with the Play-off Final.
Sometimes life is like that. One pleasure has to be foregone to enjoy another. Hmmm... I never find that such cool-headed rationalising is much help in situations like this. I could hardly duck out of Brussels. Apart from anything else, I really wanted to go. All I could do was hope like crazy that the 'Orns would take the second automatic promotion slot.
Trouble was, I knew what the end of season would bring for the team. We would come third, breeze through the play offs and get to Cardiff. To the Millennium Stadium; where I've never been, and always wanted to go to, preferably with Watford. The outcome was decided for the 'Orns on my birthday. It was as simple as that.
There was only one thing for it. To make sure that my Sunday afternoon in Brussels was spent in front of a decent-size TV in a friendly environment, preferably with beer around. A plea to the BSaD noticeboard for Brussels knowledge was answered in double-quick time by Kevin B - a sympathetic 'Orns-watching Brussels resident. Kevin armed me with a mass of suggestions with impressively detailed directions on how to get to various city bars. He even included Sunday tram times from the stop nearest to my hotel. Top man!
I followed Kevin's advice to the letter and made for his top recommendation - an Irish pub called 'The Michael Collins'. Spot on. The Watford game was even on a TV play-list posted on the wall. A quick chat with the staff dispelled any nagging worries. The game would definitely be on, sound up, no problem. A couple of regulars had booked the slot already. The staff were English speakers too, so I could put my appalling French back on 'sleep' for the afternoon.
I rang Jenny to say the venue was fixed so that she could join me. The two pub regulars who had booked the big game turned up very soon. Inevitably they were Leeds fans. More locals drifted in, every one a Leeds fan or sympathiser. About ten in all. Pre-match chat was all very reasonable, civilised and polite. I guess Brussels is that kind of place. My Watford scarf was the only team identification in the pub. I felt irrepressibly superior.
There were several screens to choose from - all showing the game. Jenny had arrived to join me and we drifted upstairs to a back bar with a giant plasma screen. Four Leedites took up adjacent tables. Chimay Bleu was my chosen beer. This wasn't an occasion to sample different Belgian brews; too much to think about.
When I saw the team formations I felt very comfortable. Or as comfortable as you can be with butterflies and racing pulse. The only mild surprise was no Macker on the bench, but nevertheless nice to see Hameur there restored to fitness. The big surprise was the Leeds formation. One up front and Healey on the bench. Surely one up to Aidy before a ball was kicked. And the rugby-churned mess of a pitch was hardly unknown territory to our boys.
Apart from a few shaky early moments - Derry's deflected shot in particular - the 'Orns looked to be settling in better. Big screen player close-ups showed remarkably calm and concentrated Watford faces. Only young Ben looked nervous. By comparison, some Leeds faces looked sweaty and edgy. Gregan clearly wasn't enjoying having Marlon and Doris to cope with. Whatever psychology Aidy uses on his charges certainly works. The team spirit, the togetherness is a hundred percent real. You can sense it even on Sky.
Our set pieces were becoming encouragingly dangerous - and clearly starting to unhinge Leeds. Jay's goal - from possibly the best corner delivery of the season - was marvellous. I couldn't care what anyone says about dodgy marking and keeper positioning. It would have taken outstanding defending to cope with the sheer pace of Ash's swerving corner, Jay's battering ram of a run and piledriver header.
Jump up, yell and shout and then remember where I am. Deafening silence all round. "Um sorry guys, bad luck." Baleful looks from a couple of Yorkshiremen. One has the honesty to say that it's deserved, that Leeds aren't competing. Graciously true. Can't help grinning like a halfwit. Another Chimay Bleu.
Half-time and I trundle downstairs for chats with the other Leeds watchers. They're disarmingly honest. Their team is a big disappointment. It seems to them that only Watford are up for it.
The second goal is beautifully absurd. I now know that it is physically possible to cheer and laugh at the same time. Jenny grips my arm. I realise that to the Leeds guys that this is a sickening blow. Let's face it, if it had been scored against us we would have been distraught. But these Brussels Tykes are grim realists. Their judgement is that luck has favoured the better team.
A degree of concern comes into the equation when Blake and Healy arrive. Briefly they threaten. "Why didn't they do this before?" is the Leeds cry. But it doesn't take long for the imperious Malky and Jay partnership to bottle them up. Ben does what he has to do. The excellent James Chambers comes off and lovely Al Bangura appears, his chest puffing out with pride. This kid can't help putting a smile on your face. A legend in the making if ever there was one.
I feel we're there. Perhaps I wouldn't have felt that at Cardiff. The very remoteness of my watching location somehow brings a more rational appraisal. This hasn't been a classic game of beauty and fine goals. No Wright moment, no bonkers-inducing Smart volley. But every single Watford player has performed magnificently to plan. Simply winning a winnable game because they knew they were the better team. The back four were truly outstanding. We can't think of Lloyd as "young" Lloyd any more; he has come of age. Jordan Stewart has transformed wondrously in the last few vital games. Our outnumbered central midfielders outran and ultimately outplayed Leeds centre. Gavin performed the heroic captain's role to perfection. And Springy was always looking for the killer pass. Ash was able to display enough off his wonderful skills on that dog of a pitch to attract late tackles and generally cause panic. And our front two made the Leeds back line look desperately pedestrian. Marlon's pace, sharpness and reputation made him a constant threat. Big Darius was the perfect foil. Strong, aware and controlled.
The penalty wasn't really a surprise. As soon as Marlon did that trademark high-speed turn, dishevelled Derry's tired trip was almost inevitable. I was surprised when the big fella placed the ball on the spot, though. Hadn't he missed at that dress rehearsal at the Vic? Should have had no doubts. Dispatched with aplomb.
The game was up for Leeds - and their fans at "The Michael Collins". They didn't even seem to mind my ear-to-ear silly grin as the whole thing came to a close and even watched as Sky screened the victory celebrations. I found it hard to listen to the post-match punditry except to pick up that they were generous about Watford's well-merited achievement.
A final Chimay with the drinkers downstairs who were immensely gracious in their praise of Watford (could they really be real Leeds supporters?). Handshakes all round and we stumbled off for the tram. Strange emotions. As being at Cardiff wasn't an option for me, this somewhat weird big-game venue in a Brussels Irish bar was as good a substitute as I could have wished for.
Happy - yes, of course. But different from the last time at Wembley. That was a delirious party; somehow one off. This time I feel more awe and sheer admiration for what this virtually new Watford team and their extraordinary manager have achieved. And the future? Do y'know I haven't the slightest worry. I'm convinced there are more miracles in the locker yet to be enjoyed.
Bring on the big boys!