The build-up to this game had been distinctly odd. There was some annoyance when the draw for the quarter final paired us against the winner of the only game in the previous round that required a replay. This irritation was exacerbated by the fact that there was a full Premier League programme in the midweek that the replay would normally have been played, meaning that we only knew our opponents late on the Tuesday night prior to the quarter final weekend. Hearts, if not wallets, wanted an away tie at Hull, but Arsenal’s comprehensive win meant that wouldn’t be the case, so we had an easy journey but considerably more formidable opponents. Watford committed to take an allocation of 9000 tickets which, with only 4 days to sell them, was a risk as they were committed to pay for them. They also subsidised the cost of adult tickets in the upper tier, so made a financial commitment towards ensuring that a large number of fans followed the team and that faith was repayed with a high take up and only around 700 tickets remaining unsold.
Social media indicated that there was a lot of excitement building up before the tie. But I was not relishing the prospect. Much as I enjoyed reliving the 1987 win in the build-up to the match, while wondering how we escaped Highbury in one piece. That win was not unexpected as we always beat Arsenal in those glory years. This season they are a different proposition and, while they lack consistency, the comprehensive defeat at Vicarage Road filled me with pessimism for the outcome and meant that I awoke on Sunday morning with a feeling of impending doom.
The day did not start well as we arrived at the pre-match pub to find that they were only serving soft drinks until midday and we could not move on as this was the designated venue for distributing the tickets for the City ‘Orns. Given the state of my nerves, a caffeinated beverage would not have been a good idea, so I was parched by the time all tickets had been collected and we only had time for a swift pint at Kings Cross before leaving for the match. The tube journey was remarkable only for the delightfully polite and gracious Arsenal fans that we met on the way. It is always a pleasure to go to an away ground and feel like a guest rather than the enemy. On arrival at the stadium, as we walked around to get to the away turnstiles, I was drawn to the photo of lovely Pat Rice, a man who is, deservedly, a legend at both clubs.
As the inclusion of Pantilimon in goal had been announced earlier in the week, it was a surprise when Gomes was named in the starting line-up. However this was corrected prior to kick-off, and there were 3 further changes from the last game with Cathcart, Behrami and Guedioura in for Holebas, Suarez and Amrabat. So we started with Pantilimon, Aké, Cathcart, Prödl, Nyom, Behrami, Watson, Guedioura, Deeney, Capoue and Ighalo.
Arsenal started the game very brightly, and crafted a chance in the first couple of minutes as Chambers put in a dangerous cross that was just missed by Sánchez. Watford, in contrast, looked nervous and some sloppy play almost put us in trouble on 9 minutes as Watson gave the ball away, Prödl missed a chance to clear and allowed Sánchez to play a through ball to Giroud, but the flag was up before he slotted it past Pantilimon. Watford’s first chance came soon after through Ighalo, but his shot was blocked. Capoue had the next chance as a cross from Nyom was headed back by Deeney, but he was unable to shoot and, given his misfortune in front of goal, would probably have missed anyway.
Ighalo got the ball in the box again, but held onto it a little too long, losing out in a tackle when Deeney was in space. For the home side, Chambers hit another cross, but this one was an easy catch for Pantilimon. Gibbs was the next to threaten with a cross that caused some panic in the Watford box, but the danger was snuffed out by a decisive tackle from Aké. Ighalo was frustrated again as he tried to latch on to a Deeney header, but the keeper, Ospina, was first to the ball. Arsenal had been a constant danger down the right and Chambers threatened again, but his cross was safely gathered by Pantilimon. At the other end, Guedioura whipped in a cross which was caught by Ospina, with Deeney lurking just behind him. Then Capoue played a lovely ball to Ighalo and the man who never passes opted to play the ball towards Deeney, allowing Mertesacker to intercept, while every fan in the away end was devastated that, for once, he hadn’t gone for goal himself when it seemed the better option. Just before the half hour, what appeared from our vantage point to be a 50-50 challenge in the middle of the pitch, left Deeney needing treatment. Replays showed that Gabriel had launched a two footed tackle on the Watford captain, who was lucky to avoid serious injury while the Arsenal man was fortunate still to be on the pitch. The home side had a decent chance to take the lead as a corner was cleared to Elneny who shot over the bar with a horrible miskick. Capoue released Ighalo who, again, passed instead of shooting, this time a dreadful ball that rolled behind Deeney so the chance was gone. One of our party declared that he was doing it deliberately so that nobody would ever again berate him for shooting instead of passing to a team mate. Aké was nutmegged by Özil who found Elneny but the Egyptian, again, shot over from the edge of the box. Arsenal had one last chance to go in at the break with a lead as Campbell got behind the defence, but Pantilimon was able to put him off and he fired over the target.
So we reached the break goalless. Arsenal had much the better of the first half and had looked very dangerous on the break. There had been far too many misplaced passes from the Hornets. Particular culprits were Prödl, who appeared to have put his boots on the wrong feet, and Guedioura, who was looking very rusty. However the Gunners had failed to capitalize on the mistakes from Watford and neither goalkeeper had faced a shot worthy of the name.
The home side came out early for the second half and they had the first chance with a corner from Özil that was headed over by Giroud. But it was Watford who took the lead on 50 minutes. It started with a dangerous cross from Guedioura which was taken off the head of Deeney and put out for a throw-in, which Aké took, it was headed on by Deeney to Ighalo who held off the defender, turned and fired past Ospina to send the away end into rapture. It was so good to see Ighalo on the score sheet again and a joy that the players were celebrating directly in front of the away fans. The goal unnerved Arsenal and injected a new confidence into the visitors and Ighalo could have had a second soon after as a Nyom cross was headed down by Deeney but, this time, Ighalo shot over the bar. Just before the hour, Deeney and Ighalo came storming up the field with a lovely exchange of passes, it was a great shame when a tackle stopped the break.
There was another great chance for the Nigerian as Capoue released Aké who broke forward and crossed for Ighalo but he couldn’t quite connect. It wasn’t all Watford, though, as a cross from Campbell found Giroud whose close range shot was stopped by a decent save from Pantilimon. The second goal was a thing of beauty. Deeney did tremendously well to hold the ball up in the box then he passed it out to Guedioura and WELLY!!! The shot nearly burst the net and would have knocked out someone in the upper tier if it had. If the first goal celebration had been joyous, this one was truly mental and, suddenly, the Watford fans started thinking that we could actually win this, and those of us who had been calling for Adlene’s replacement were left with egg on our faces. Arsenal had a rare second half foray into the Watford box as a Sánchez shot was deflected wide before Giroud’s volley from the corner missed the target. Wenger had seen enough and made three substitutions with a quarter of the game remaining as Elneny, Campbell and Giroud were replaced by Iwobi, Welbeck and Walcott. Soon after, Flores also rang the changes replacing Capoue and Guedioura, both of whom left the field to loud cheers from the travelling Hornets, with Anya and Abdi. In between the substitutions, Özil had been booked for a late challenge on Behrami.
As the game entered the last 10 minutes, Gibbs had a chance to reduce the deficit, but his back header was straight at Pantilimon. Flores made his final substitution replacing Ighalo with Amrabat as the home fans left the ground in droves. Arsenal had a decent chance as Sánchez cut the ball back to Chambers but he shot well wide. At this point, Lynn commented that it looked like it was our day. My look of horror was greeted with, “I hope I haven’t jinxed it.” So did I. My heart was pounding at this point and I couldn’t bring myself to join in the chants of “Que sera, sera”. Watford then threatened again as Anya released Amrabat who broke forward before cutting the ball back to Deeney whose shot was blocked. Deeney then turned provider playing a through ball to Anya who tried a shot from a narrow angle, which was stopped by Ospina, when a pull back to Amrabat may have been a better decision. The count down to the 90th minute was stopped short at 88 when Welbeck pulled a goal back with a close range shot past Pantilimon and the nervous tension in the away end went up a (large) notch. It was a relief that the next attack came from the Hornets, but Amrabat’s shot from distance was well wide of the near post. There was almost collective heart failure among the travelling fans as a shot from Iwobi rebounded off the inside of the post and hit Pantilimon before Welbeck turned the loose ball wide when he really should have buried it.
The fourth official indicated an additional four minutes, which was the minimum we could have expected. Welbeck had another chance to equalize as he latched on to a long pass, but Prödl and Pantilimon combined to ensure that his shot was off target. There was one final chance for Arsenal as a shot from Iwobi was deflected for a corner which came to nothing. I didn’t hear the final whistle over the thumping of my heart, but I did see the referee catch the ball and the Watford bench belting on to the pitch and over to celebrate with the Watford fans. Ighalo’s beaming smile was back, I don’t think I have ever seen him so happy, and Capoue was dancing joyously while I was trying to choke back happy tears.
The celebrations in the ground continued as the players finished the handshakes with the opposition and the officials and the hugs among themselves and the players lined up to do one of those German-style rush to the crowd celebrations, which clearly hadn’t been practiced so was endearingly rubbish which, strangely, added to the joy. The advertising continued on the big screen in the ground and I couldn’t help but laugh when it flashed up “Next match: Arsenal vs Watford.” They even played “Yellow” over the tannoy. But I must give a special mention to the Arsenal fans who hadn’t left with 10 minutes to go as there was still a decent number who stayed to applaud the Watford players.
As we left the ground there was a large group singing and celebrating outside, which was all rather lovely. We decided to walk back to King’s Cross (it was only a couple of miles and I am down to do 27 in a couple of weeks). It seemed oddly fitting to pass a pub called “The Cally” and we were congratulated by numerous people on the way, all of whom I assumed were Spurs fans. We arrived back to the pub to see a lot of familiar faces and a number of strangers in yellow, red and black who elicited big smiles. Everyone there, in their own way, was trying to come to terms with what had just happened. Because, the apparently one sided stats notwithstanding, we came away feeling that we had thoroughly deserved that victory as we had created (and finished) the best of the chances and had shown incredible strength of character in holding out after Arsenal scored. I have seen too many Watford teams that would have collapsed at that point.
A day later, I have been congratulated by so many neutrals (as well as the odd lovely Arsenal fan) and have to keep pinching myself. When I started following a small town club in the late 70s, I could never have known how much joy they would bring me. We have had so many ups and downs over the years, they have made me ecstatic and broken my heart. But, in March 2016, I find myself supporting a little club that appears to be about to have a second season in the Premier League and I am planning to attend my fifth FA Cup semi-final. Plus we are doing this while still feeling that our owners respect the history of our small town club. And that is just remarkable.