My build-up to the semi-final had been less than ideal as I had woken up in the middle of the night after the Fulham game with a streaming cold and felt rotten for the rest of the week. For this reason, it seemed sensible to have a quiet Saturday at home to prepare for the game. Big mistake. I don’t know how many times I checked the fixture lists to confirm that the game wasn’t actually on Saturday and I was missing it. I felt jumpy all day and settling down to watch the other semi-final didn’t help. Sadly, that game was a non-event. City scored early and that was it. It was a very dull game but provided confirmation that we would be playing for the chance to meet City in the final. My viewing on Saturday evening had to be carefully chosen and I opted for “I Believe in Miracles” the documentary about Clough’s Forest and their run to becoming European Cup winners. It was just brilliant and set me up nicely for the next day (after I watched the segment on the Premier League show featuring Gracia, Deulofeu and Luther).
So, finally, the day of the FA Cup semi-final dawned, and I was up bright and early and facing the dilemmas that come on the day of an important match. What top should I wear under my replica shirt? What mug should I use for my coffee? I was tempted to use my Hornets mug, but eventually plumped for the Luther8 one. It seemed only right. On social media in the morning there was a lovely exchange between Nigel Gibbs and Tony Coton about going to the game and the fact that they had bought tickets to be in with the fans. Legends, both of them. It had also been heart-warming to see Woking FC wishing us luck. It was where the journey began.
After ensuring that my (regulation size) bag was packed with everything that I would need (don’t forget your tickets) and that my lucky seashell from Woking was still in my pocket, I left to catch the train to London. On the first leg from Windsor to Slough I noticed a guy looking at me, but assumed it was my loud scarf that had attracted his attention, so didn’t take much notice.
On arrival at Paddington, I spotted a flash of yellow, turned and realised it was actually the old gold of Wolves, so walked on. My journey to our meeting place took me past Marylebone, which was surrounded with Wolves fans. The first Watford scarves that I spotted were outside the designated pre-match pub and worn by the friends that I was meeting. We had arrived before opening time and quite a crowd was gathering, so we were thankful that Richard had booked a table for us. As we waited, some Wolves fans appeared and were absolutely lovely. None of us was confident of a win, but all thought that it would be a good game.
As our group gathered, it was an occasion to remember absent friends. Dee and Toddy were both with us on our last visit to Wembley and their absence was keenly felt. We hoped that the lads would do them proud.
After we had been fed and watered, we left in plenty of time to get to Wembley as I had one final ticket to drop off and, after an easy journey, we were outside Entrance P. I immediately bumped into Adam to hand over the ticket and then saw that the rest of our party, who had come from the Watford direction, were all in the queue just in front of us. At this point, all was right with my world.
As we took our seats, Farzana handed out the A4 bags that she had made from Watford FC curtains and we draped the Rocket Men and Golden Gomes banners in front of our seats. She had also knit Gomes and Deeney dolls, but sadly they were too large to bring into the stadium so had been left at home. As we waited for kick-off, it was lovely to see our Emma and Tim on the pitch representing Watford.
We then got to see the pre-match displays. The one planned by Wolves had been advertised the previous day and it had looked as though it would be impressive. When we got to our seats, we found yellow flags. I was concerned that they were a little too much on the amber side and it wouldn’t be a match for what Wolves had planned. Then the Watford crowd started waving the flags and the yellow, red and black display with the movement was absolutely fantastic and the energy meant that the Wolves display looked far too static.
There had been a lot of discussion about the possible team selection, especially the goalkeeping position. When the starting XI was announced, we found that Gracia had kept faith with Gomes and had decide to bring Gray in for Deulofeu after his terrific performance against Fulham. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Gray, Deeney.
The game started brightly for Wolves who had their first chance on 23 seconds with a shot from Otto that flew over the bar. Watford won an early corner, but Ruddy was up to punch it clear, Pereyra picked up the ball and put in a cross, but Ruddy made the catch. Wolves then won a free kick in a dangerous position after Hughes fouled Otto. Moutinho stepped up to take it and it landed on the roof of the net, much to my relief. The first booking of the game went to Saïss for a foul on Pereyra. Wolves threatened again as a cross from Otto was touched on by Jota, but they couldn’t get a shot away. Neves was the next to go into the referee’s book, again for a foul on Pereyra. Holebas took the free kick, but Hughes met it with a dreadful mishit shot that sent the ball ballooning away. Some nice passing between Gray and Pereyra led to the ball reaching Deeney on the edge of the area, but his shot was high and wide of the target. Watford should have taken the lead on the half hour as Deeney flicked the ball over to Gray who, with only Ruddy to beat, got his foot under the ball and it looped over the bar when it looked easier to score. That miss looked all the more costly as Wolves took the lead soon after. A shot from distance from Dendoncker was tipped over by Gomes. The resulting corner was played short to Jota who crossed for Doherty to head past Gomes. Wolves had their tails up now and threatened again as Boly found Jota who advanced and, thankfully, shot just wide. Watford then had a corner which they also took short, but Femenía’s cross was a comfortable catch for Ruddy. Gray had a chance to grab an equaliser just before half time, but this time Coady made the block when Gray looked sure to score. So we reached half time a goal down, feeling rather hard done by after what had been an even half of football.
Luther was the Watford representative at half time. I still look back with sadness at seeing him walk around the pitch before the 1984 Cup Final, which came at the end of his gap year. We passed our time in the stands enjoying half-time samosas to keep our strength up for the rest of the game.
Wolves nearly had a great start to the second half as Saïss played a ball over to Jiménez, who beat the defence, but not Gomes who was down to make the block. Watford created an opening as Femenía crossed for Doucouré, but the Frenchman couldn’t make a firm connection, so his header looped wide. Jota then beat Cathcart (I know!!!) before crossing for Jiménez, but the shot was easy for Gomes. Deeney then got the ball just outside the box and played a low cross, but it was too heavy and flew past Gray and wide of the target. The first booking for the Hornets went to Cathcart for a foul on Jota just outside the box. Neves took the free kick which flew well wide of the far post. Watford then had a free kick in a dangerous position, Pereyra’s delivery reached Deeney who headed just wide. Watford had another decent chance to equalise as Pereyra played a through ball to Gray, but the shot was poor and over the bar.
Holebas received his booking of the afternoon for stopping a break by Jota. From the free kick, Jiménez took the ball down and poked it past Gomes to put Wolves two goals ahead. So frustrating to concede again after a really good spell for the Hornets. There was still half an hour to go, but it wasn’t looking good for the Hornets. We hadn’t taken our chances and it looked as though we would be punished for it. Gracia made his first substitution bringing Deulofeu on for Hughes. Soon after, while waiting for a throw-in, there was an announcement that a VAR check was underway for a red card. Nobody had any idea what this related to until my brother-in-law, who listens to the commentary during the game, said that it was due to Deulofeu putting his head into Moutinho’s face. It had looked rather innocuous from where we were sitting and, thankfully, the decision was not to show a card. There was another identical announcement soon after, I have no idea whether it was related to the same incident, but it was extremely irritating. Watford threatened again when Gray got on the end of a cross from Femenía, but again it was headed over the bar. There were then a number of half chances for the Hornets. Deulofeu put in a cross which Ruddy gathered under challenge from Doucouré. Holebas crossed again for Doucouré, but his shot was blocked. It had been a good spell, but we just didn’t look like we would get the breakthrough.
Then a throw-in from Holebas was knocked back to Deulofeu, it didn’t look particularly dangerous for the opposition until Gerry nonchalantly lifted the ball into the top far corner. It was a gorgeous goal out of nothing and suddenly it was game on with 10 minutes remaining. Watford’s next chance came from a corner, the delivery from Holebas was good, but it was headed behind for another corner. This one was flicked on by Deeney to Holebas, but his shot was blocked. Wolves made their first substitution as Bennett replaced Neves. Watford threatened again with a great cross from Kiko, but Ruddy just got to it. Then the ball fell to Holebas in a great position, but he blasted it over the bar. It wasn’t going to be our day. As Wolves made a late substitution, replacing Jota with Cavaleiro, I prepared myself for defeat. But, when the four minutes of added time was announced, I joined with my fellow Watford fans in roaring our encouragement to the team. Then, just as the four minutes were almost up, Deeney got the ball in the box and fell under a challenge from Dendoncker. Referee Oliver continued his habit of awarding late, dramatic penalties, but this one had to wait for the VAR review. I was beside myself at this point. After what seemed like an age, VAR confirmed the referee’s decision. Luckily, I was able to take a seat to watch it, as my legs were jelly. Troy’s weren’t, he stepped up and the ball hit the net in front of us and the crowd went properly wild. Screams and hugs and tears greeting the goal we thought would never come. The game restarted, but the whistle soon went for the end of normal time and we had earned ourselves another 30 minutes.
I have to say that we thoroughly deserved that. A draw seemed like a fair result, and surely the Hornets would have the momentum going into extra time. However, it was the Wolves side who had the upper hand in the early exchanges and the first goal opportunity came from a decent shot from Otto that Gomes managed to tip over. There was some bad news for Watford as Holebas went down injured. He tried to carry on, but eventually limped off to be replaced by Masina. I was concerned at this point as Holebas had been terrific. There was another booking for the Hornets as Capoue was cautioned for a foul on Dendoncker. Santo made another substitution as Traore came on for Moutinho. Then, in the last minute of the first period of extra time, Watford broke forward, Gray released Deulofeu who beat a defender before shooting into the far corner past Ruddy to send the Watford fans wild again. Wolves tried to hit back immediately, but their break was foiled by a great tackle from Mariappa. The resultant corner was easily gathered by Gomes. There was a substitution for each side as Vinagre replaced Otto for Wolves and Femenía made way for Janmaat for the Hornets. Wolves had a chance to level the game but the header from Jiménez flew wide of the near post. Then the goal hero, Deulofeu, picked up an injury and had to be replaced by Sema. Watford tried to consolidate their lead as Deeney got into the box and tried to lay the ball off to Doucouré, but the pass was intercepted. Then Traore tried a shot from a tight angle, but it was an easy catch for Gomes. Wolves had one last chance to take the game to penalties, and it was a great one, as Cavaleiro beat Mariappa and rounded Gomes, but Heurelho did enough to put the Wolves man off and he lost control of the ball allowing Mariappa to clear the danger. The whistle went to euphoria mixed with disbelief in the Watford end. There was a lot of tearful hugging among our group. I couldn’t quite believe what I had seen. Amelia was the clearest thinking as she commented that maybe they should rethink the Man of the Match award (that had been given to Jiménez some time before the end of normal time).
After the game, there were rapturous celebrations both on and off the pitch. We stayed in the stand to cheers the lads on and witness their joy. It was lovely to see that this meant as much to the players as it did to us. The cheers of the fans who had remained in their seats were finally rewarded as the players came together to rush towards the crowd behind the goal. It was just joyous. We seemed to be there for an age, but it still took us a long time to leave the ground as we kept bumping into friends for more hugs and expressions of disbelief.
A number of us headed back to central London for a celebratory beverage and to raise a glass to Dee and Toddy who would have loved the day. There was nothing but pride in the team and what they had achieved against a very good Wolves side. The Wolves fans that we had met before the game had returned to the pub and, as they left, wished us well.
I stayed rather longer in the pub than was sensible, so missed the last train from Slough to Windsor. As the taxi dropped me off at the end of my road, I heard a voice. “Excuse me. Were you at Wembley today? Is that your car with the Watford stuff in the back?” It was the guy that I had seen on the train this morning. Turns out I am not the only Hornet in my small street in Windsor. Who knew?
A day later and I have still not quite come to terms with what I witnessed yesterday. To come back from two goals down against a team like Wolves shows the tremendous spirit in this team. They seem to be a group of players who love each other and the manager and that love has transmitted to the fans. This has been the best season that I can remember for decades and it will end with an FA Cup final at Wembley. As someone who has supported an unfashionable team for 40 years, I find it amazing that in that time I have been to six FA Cup semi-finals. On 18th May, I will attend my second FA Cup final and will be accompanied by a large group of family and friends. I have met so many lovely people while following the Hornets and it is really special to share these great times with them.
When Watford lost the Play-off final in 2013, my niece Amelia was in tears and I was devastated. Yesterday she was in tears again, but they were tears of joy and it made the day all the more special. Her Mum and I were at Villa Park for the semi-final against Plymouth and at Wembley for the final against Everton. Now we will all be at Wembley for this year’s final and we can dare to dream. Whatever the outcome, this season will live long in the memory.