I will start by saying that I can’t bring myself to write a full match report. Everyone who is reading this will have seen the match and I am sure, like me, you don’t want to relive it. But what I do want to relive is the build-up to the game and the experiences of the day.
My build-up started straight after the semi-final when I received an email from David Hyams suggesting that we create a good luck banner for the final. The idea was to collect messages from fans from all over the world and display them on a banner to present to the players before the game. Banners had been produced on three previous occasions, for the 1999, 2006 and 2013 play-off finals. My involvement in 1999 was limited to having my photo taken with the banner outside Wembley, but I got involved in 2006 and 2013 helping to publicise the initiative and liaising with the club. On this occasion, we had a great point of initial contact at the club in Dave Messenger, who immediately supported the venture and put us in touch with Hamish in the media team. Jon Marks then got involved, providing us with a great background photo to use on the banner and arranging for us to go to the ground to present it to the players.
My next contribution was a couple of weeks before the game when Jon Marks asked if I wanted to be one of the fans featuring in the FA’s pre-match video. I was incredibly busy at work, so taking a Monday morning off for filming was really not a good idea. Needless to say, I agreed to do it. The filming was taking place at 10:30 on a Monday morning. I arrived at the same time as the Watford Ladies’ captain, Helen Ward. I was also told that Nigel Gibbs was currently being interviewed and my heart skipped a bit. I knew that this was something out of the ordinary when we were sent to the players’ lounge in order to meet the make-up artist. My request to her was to give me some eyebrows and remove one of my chins. Bless her, she did her best. Then Helen and I went down to the changing room (thrilling!!) where she was to be filmed. They sent me back to the lounge so that my spontaneity wasn’t spoilt! When they finally came to collect me, I was taken out into Occupation Road for the filming. It took a while to find an angle which allowed them to use the Watford FC on the outside of the SEJ stand as background. I have to admit that I was a little reserved as it started. I’m not very good with all the jingoistic stuff, so told them that Roy Moore (who was the next to be filmed) would be great for that element. Then they asked me to talk about Graham Taylor, Elton John, Heurelheo Gomes, Troy Deeney and generally my love for Watford and there was no stopping me. I must admit that I often see those pieces and wonder why the participants have no dignity. On this occasion, dear reader, dignity was completely dispensed with.
The league season had finished with a disappointing set of results, but the thing that upset me most was the red card shown to José Holebas. I remember when Wilf Rostron was sent off at Luton in 1984. The photo of Wilf’s face when he realised that he would miss the cup final is etched on my memory. The idea that another player would suffer the same fate was almost too much to take. I stayed in Watford on the Sunday night after the game, with the idea that I would spend the evening writing my match report. I was so upset after the game that I couldn’t bring myself even to make a start. On Monday morning, I drove over to the training ground at London Colney arriving on schedule and was shown to the media room where some of our party were already gathered. Jon told us the plans for the presentation and then we were taken to the training pitch to wait for the players. As they started to gather, Javi was introduced to each of us. When Troy arrived, he recognised me, so said hello and gave me a kiss. Then David showed him the memento pack that he had made with a replica of the banner and print-out of the messages and the video from the semi-final with the voice over from GT. Troy could easily have said thanks and dismissed him, but he spent the time listening to David talking about what we had done, and he appeared interested and engaged. I love him for doing that. As the players gathered around the banner, it was lovely to see them reading the messages. The photo with the banner was taken, the players left to start training and we went home.
I had spotted José Holebas at the training ground, but he lurked in the background and looked a bit down, although I am not sure that is unusual. There had been some discussion amongst the fans there about the appeal going in to the FA and there were varying opinions on what the outcome would be. I was not hopeful. I worked from home in the afternoon, which was just as well because, when the news came through that the red card had been rescinded, I found myself sobbing with relief and joy for José. When we went to Wembley in 1984, my sister took a banner reading “Wilf is Innocent”. I was so thankful that we wouldn’t have to cross out “Wilf” and write in “José”.
In the week before the game, the club put out a series of videos with the tag line “Imagine if”. The From the Rookery End guys put out a couple of pre-final podcasts including a great interview with Ben Foster. Then there were the Hornet Heaven specials. All of these were wonderful, but the Hornet Heaven episode entitled “35 Years of Hurt” was just incredible. Added to that we had fans uploading their photos from 1984 and the memories of the game, often involving family members who are no longer with us. I spent a fortune on tissues this week.
Pre-match, I tried to follow the same pattern as for the semi-final. I packed my bag with essentials including my scarf with the badge featuring Toddy and Steve Brister and the GT memorial game badge. I made sure that I took the lucky seashell that Pete Fincham gave me at Woking. I also added my first scarf, bought in 1979, which accompanied me to Wembley in 1984. That may have been my mistake. I took the train into Paddington listening to the latest Hornet Heaven episodes and then took the wrong exit out of the station (as I had previously) and again took an ill-advised detour on the way to the pub.
Richard had booked a table for 11am, when the pub opened, under the assumption that leaving it much later would mean that we would arrive to a packed pub and have to evict those on our table. I arrived just before the advertised opening time to find the doors open and a couple of guys lurking outside. I entered a pub that was empty apart from the bar staff who looked a little askance, before breaking out in broad smiles and welcoming me, showing me to our table (the same one as we had for the semi-final) and offering me a drink. I thought about having a coffee, but that seemed rude, so a pint of Doom Bar it was. The guys that had been lurking outside also came in and turned out to be the door staff for later in the day, when there was more than one customer. Thankfully Richard wasn’t far behind me and our party was soon in full swing. As the “Happy Valley” contingent arrived, I was able to hand out the last of the match tickets that I had purchased (they had better nerves than I did, being able to wait until matchday to receive their tickets). The ticket handover was accompanied by personalised bracelets that Fuzz had made for all of our party which were very gratefully received. When Mike arrived, much was made of his winning the Supporter of the Season award. Then we had lunch and more beer and waited for the designated time to leave the pub as I got more and more nervous.
The journey to Wembley was as simple as last time and we were through the turnstiles very quickly. It has to be said that, despite the strict bag policy, the search was the very definition of cursory. When we reached the upper level, my family, who had travelled in from Hertfordshire so not joined us in the pub in central London, were all there to greet us. As was my friend, Farzana. Now, Fuzz had long talked about she and I dressing as Hornets if we ever went to a cup final. Thankfully, after years of telling her that I would do nothing of the kind, she had decided to do her own thing. “Think 70s Elton John.” The last time that she had promised such a costume, she turned up dressed as a chicken. This time, the costume was a work of art. She had added bling and feathers to a yellow mac and it was absolutely gorgeous. We had photos taken, but then she had to meet her people as so many admired her attire.
We were in our seats in plenty of time for the pre-match entertainment, although we had missed the marching band playing Z-cars. Thankfully, Annie Mac had added it to her play-list and it got an amazing cheer. She followed with Elton’s “Are you ready for love?” and then “Wonderwall”, which was roundly booed by the Watford fans. Next up was the FA film. For Watford, Luther, Gibbsy and Roy Moore said their pieces before my face appeared, to cheers from my family. I think (hope) that I didn’t make too much of a fool of myself. This was followed by Abide with Me which always brings memories of Elton’s tears in the stands in 1984. Then the FA Cup was brought onto the pitch by Tony Book and Luther Blissett. It was lovely seeing Luther as part of the proceedings, I well remember seeing him walk around the pitch in 84, at the end of his sabbatical in Milan and being so sad that he wasn’t able to play. At this point, a banner was displayed for each club. City’s included the dates of their previous cup wins and a picture of Tony Book who had been on the winning team in 1969. Watford’s showed a shirt with “Ossie 10” on it and “Ossie with us at Wembley” in honour of young Watford fan, Ossie Robinson who died of neuroblastoma in 2017. That was a lovely gesture by the club.
The teams came out and Troy was joined by Elton’s sons, Zachary and Elijah, with their Dad working in Copenhagen so unable to make the game.
The Cup Final team was, as expected, Gomes; Holebas, Mariappa, Cathcart, Femenía; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes; Deulofeu, Deeney.
At last the game kicked off. City started brightly but, on 10 minutes, the Hornets broke, Deulofeu played in Pereyra who shot straight at the onrushing Ederson. There was a shout for a penalty as a shot from Doucouré seemed to hit Kompany on the arm, but it wasn’t given and Abdoulaye was booked for his protest. City took the lead on 26 minutes. It looked a bit of a soft goal, Doucouré lost possession, Sterling broke forward, the Watford defence were unable to clear the ball and Silva finished from a tight angle. The second goal came after a series of corners, finally Silva found Jesus who beat Gomes. It appeared that Sterling had applied the final touch, but the ball had already crossed the line and the goal was awarded to Jesus. I was feeling pretty miserable at this point, so I was grateful for a moment that made me smile as Holebas lost the ball in the City half but sprinted back to make a magnificent recovering tackle. So, we were two goals down at half time. There were some among our group making positive noises after our comeback in the semi-final, but it was hard to see us coming back from this against City.
The second half started with the ball in the Watford net from a diving header, but Jesus was in an offside position, so the goal was disallowed. Watford then created a couple of decent chances, but seemed reluctant to take a shot, which is the story of our season. Ten minutes into the half Guardiola made his first substitution bringing De Bruyne on for Mahrez. Now that seemed just mean and the feeling was compounded when De Bruyne scored the third after receiving a square ball from Jesus, dribbling past Gomes and finding the net. At this point “Blue Moon” was ringing out from the City end. De Bruyne also had a hand in the fourth, playing a through ball for Jesus who was one-on-one with Gomes and made no mistake. At this point I pleaded “Please make this stop,” before commenting to my sister on how amazing the 1881 in the stand below us were, still singing their hearts out. I was joining in as much as I could and certainly joined the “One Graham Taylor” chant that came on 72 minutes. Despite the scoreline, Watford hadn’t given up, and Success and Capoue both created chances but couldn’t get the ball in the net. City’s fifth came as a low cross from Silva was converted by Sterling. At this point something remarkable happened, the flags started waving in the Watford end. First a few and then the stand was a sea of red and yellow, all around us getting to their feet to wave the flags and sing our hearts out for the lads. The sixth City goal came when a shot from Sterling was turned onto the post by Gomes, but Raheem was there to finish from the rebound. At this point the guy next to me muttered that was a joint record defeat in the final, not something that I wanted to hear. Thankfully there were only a couple of minutes of added time. Stones had a great chance to score a seventh, but Gomes saved with his feet. The final whistle went to cheers from all corners of the ground. I was so proud of the Watford fans who were still on their feet waving their flags and applauding their team. The players must have been devastated but when they came to acknowledge the fans, there was a lovely moment as they stood to applaud a crowd that applauded back in recognition of all that they have done this season.
It must have been a long walk as the team took the steps up to the Royal Box, so it was lovely to see Gino Pozzo greeting Javi and the lads so warmly. A good number of us waited to applaud the winners as Vincent Kompany lifted the cup. I must admit that he is a player that I have always liked. I was interested to see that Guardiola did not go up with the players, he was chatting with the Watford players with Deulofeu (who would have played for him at Barcelona) getting a particularly warm hug.
It took a while to leave the ground. On the way out, I was delighted to bump into a woman who used to have a season ticket behind us in the Rookery. She gave it up when she had her first child, which didn’t seem too long ago until she introduced us to her youngest who is now 9 years old.
On the way back to the station, we bumped into Steve Terry who was very chatty and felt that the result was unfair on the lads.
I headed back to the pub in desperate need of a glass of wine. I was feeling pretty low and it must have been obvious as Jacque gave me a warm hug saying that she had never seen me look so down after a game. I must admit that I didn’t expect us to win, but the thrashing was very hard to take. Mostly for the players who have been magnificent for most of this season and really didn’t deserve to be beaten that badly. A City fan that we encountered in the pub reflected that they were a good team, but not often that good. They clearly wanted to finish their season on a high and did so and there was nothing that we could do about it.
As the wine flowed and we reflected on our season, it was time to put the game in some perspective. The defeat was awful and will hurt for a long time, but it is always the good times that you remember most. For most of us, the abiding memory of 2013 is that amazing semi-final win against Leicester. Going back to 1987, the quarter-final win at Arsenal remains one of my most fondly remembered games in the FA Cup. In years to come, the semi-final against Wolves will be much talked about in a way that the final won’t be.
As I received messages of commiseration today, my response was that it really hurt, but this season has been the best that I have experienced since the glory days of Graham Taylor. I am so thankful to Gino Pozzo and Scott Duxbury for what they have done for Watford. In my time following the Hornets, I have seen many highs but also many lows. I lived through times when I thought that I would no longer have a club to support. These are great times for the club, but we can never take them for granted. That is why I was so proud of the Watford fans yesterday. To give the team such incredible support when they are being badly beaten is the mark of a true fan in my eyes. “We’ll support you ever more”, doesn’t mean only when they are winning. The Watford fans as a whole were amazing and the lovely people that I meet at games, either in the pub beforehand or in the stadium, are a massive part of what makes going to watch Watford special for me.
It has been a tough end to the season, but the fixtures are out on 13th June. Who knows what joys next season will bring.
Come on you Hornets!!