Winning is believing
By Tony Beale
Representing Watford FC in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, I was awestruck by the simplicity and devastating thoroughness of our epic victory at Cardiff. Okay, so I have lived in the Gulf for over twenty years, but annual pilgrimages to Vicarage Road, occasional Christmas forays and the Internet have helped me feel part of the build-up to this latest glorious episode in my beloved Hornets' history.
The UAE nationals here love football, but their allegiance is tribal - to the town they come from, not whichever team is fashionable. So when I postponed my evening class for 21 May, in advance of the Palace games, they were intrigued as to my team. In Arabic I said "Ana Watfordawi" - "I am a Watfordian". They could sense that affiliation and smiled in an understanding way.
The ritual of the Playoff Final presented a dilemma. I had the lucky Watford T shirt that had seen off Palace so imperiously. Season-ticket-holding daughter #2 had sent me a new old gold Watford T shirt bought from the Watford shop in the Rookery. What to do? Pragmatism won out by wearing both shirts, despite the 38°C heat and seventy-five percent humidity, at least the Club bar would be air-conditioned and bolstered by two invited 'Hornets-for-the-day'. One of these, Eamon, a mourning Birmingham supporter, just could not bring himself to wear another team's colours, for which I respect him, but he was on our side.
The Leeds supporters vastly outnumbered us as we took over the 'snug' where my twelve-year-old daughter and wife joined us for the match. Youngest daughter Zeena's first live match was when we stuffed five goals past Coventry at the Vic; my mates back home regard her as a lucky charm (we're open to offers for her to be flown back for any crunch games next season!). I'd been receiving regular text messages from daughter #2, Dana, on her way at 11.23am from the Paddington Hornets Nest to the 2.14pm signal of her being "behind the goal, front row, second block, behind Yellow Army banner". We kept looking but she was lost in the yellow blur.
As the match kicked off, the experts' predictions on the South African SuperSports channel had all favoured Leeds, Gary Bailey should have known better. I sat back, feeling confident that Aidy had all the possibilities covered and this team had the will and passion to go all the way. Yes, we had the luck, when Ashley diverted Derry's goalbound shot. "It's gonna be our day," I said to myself.
Watching slow motion replays of DeMerit's bullet header, I was amazed at its speed and power. Bollocks to slack marking, Gary, Jay's life depended on meeting that corner. The third SMS of the day at 3.26pm had what was to become the familiar refrain: "I can't believe it!" and "Come on you 'orns!" The glum Yorkshiremen in the main bar stayed silent and morose.
By half time, I 'knew' that we were not going to lose our grip. The snug was our haven and history was waiting to be written before our eyes. Having weathered the lacklustre Leeds fightback, the 'shin of God' own goal confirmed our destiny; "We're on our way!" I shouted to all and sundry. The fourth SMS at 4.19pm again exclaimed "I can't believe it!" and "Magic, bloody marvellous!" Dana never says "bloody marvellous", but this moment eclipsed the joy she felt witnessing the 1999 Wembley Playoff Final. Needless to say, the post-penalty incredulity and happiness was flowing at 4.59pm when the fifth and final SMS confirmed our elevation to the Premiership. What an adventure awaits us all.
Here in the UAE, victorious football fans blast up and down the seafront blaring their horns and hanging out of the windows waving banners. I floated home and was still on cloud nine when I touched base with the other daughters Sheri and Nadine after the match. Zeena was thrilled at fellow pupils in school the next day who congratulated her on Watford's achievement, some teachers acknowledged the significance of our victory. We are on the map.
We aren't 'exiled' Hornets, we choose to live overseas, but we are with you in spirit, if not in body. My personal lifelong passion for Watford is deeply rooted in my second daughter - what better tonic can you have for your upcoming medicine degree final exams than to take a day off revising and see a miraculous performance by such a team, managed by Bradford's finest export to the south?
We were there. We'll be with you, all the way, wherever we happen to be supporting the Golden Boys. Thank you all for one of the most unforgettable experiences of my Watford experience that goes back to the Holton/Uphill era. You've done us proud!