I had to travel to the US for work again this week. Leaving after the City game and returning on Thursday morning, meant I didn’t have too much time to prepare for this match. The crucial thing was not forgetting the paper ticket that had been sent out. This was taken with me to the US as I was scared that jet-leg would lead to me leaving it in a drawer.
Due to the early kick-off, I decided to stay in London overnight on Friday. On waking, and before I had really had time to think about my plans for the day, the nerves had already kicked in. I caught the 9:24 from Euston to Watford and settled down with a coffee while noting that others on the train had already started on the beer. Contemplating which podcast should accompany me, I decided to have another listen to the previous week’s From the Rookery End. If I needed any more inspiration for the day, the rallying cry from the Parkin men, Mike and Arlo, certainly did the job. As I passed Wembley on the train, I stared at the arch. The new stadium hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for us, but that has to change one of these days and I wanted the chance to return (although I wish it wasn’t for a semi-final, those should be at Villa Park). When the train emptied at the Junction, as it often does, it made a nice change to see that those disembarking were fans of football rather than Harry Potter.
I reached the West Herts a few minutes before the doors were due to open at 10 and there was already quite a crowd waiting. When the doors opened, we took up position at ‘our’ table and were soon enjoying a pint and a bacon roll. Breakfast of Champions.
Just to spite us, the clock there was running 30 minutes slow, but we noticed early enough to ensure that we left in plenty of time. As we walked along Vicarage Road among the crowds, the anticipation built. I noted that Wolfie had already sold out of programmes and hoped that my usual lady still had some left when I entered the ground (she did). As we turned the corner into Occupation Road, I glanced over at the statue and knew that I had to greet GT. I went over and took his hand, knowing that today would be a day he would have savoured.
The 1881 had put incredible efforts into making sure that there would be a tremendous atmosphere. When we took our seats, the ground was already full of people waving flags. The big screen was showing footage of earlier quarter-finals. I enjoyed watching John Barnes lobbing Tony Coton in 1984, but it is the Arsenal game in 1987 that always comes to mind. I loved that day out at Highbury.
The Palace fans had been given their required allocation, no more, no less. Due to problems with segregation in the Vicarage Road end, this meant that the Palace fans were housed in two blocks in the stand with a netting area between them and a banner wishing the Hindu community Happy Holi India for their festival on Thursday this week. It was an odd sight and one that had infuriated the visiting fans.
Team news was that Gracia had chosen what most would consider to be his strongest team with the exception of Gomes coming in for Foster for what would probably be his last game at Vicarage Road. What a game to go out on. It was interesting that Femenía had been chosen in place of Janmaat, who had done well recently. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney. The major news for Palace was that Zaha would miss the game through injury. While he is undoubtedly a very talented player, he often seems to go missing. So I wasn’t sure that his absence would have a major effect on the game, although it may have changed Harry Hornet’s game plan. Of course, the lovely Ray Lew was back at Vicarage Road in the opposition dug out. He managed us through times of penury, but still took us to an FA Cup semi-final. He will always be a legend to me for that.
As the teams came out, the flags waved in the home stands, there were streamers and the Legends banner was unfurled from the Upper GT stand, meaning that Nigel Gibbs found himself sitting under his picture. That had to be a good omen.
My niece, Maddie, had enjoyed the Leicester game so much that she made a late decision to come to this one. Her seat was in a part of the Rookery away from the rest of us, but she hung around just in case one of the seats in our section remained unoccupied. That didn’t happen, but the crowd in the Rookery forgot to sit down, so the extra person in our row was not apparent and we were able to enjoy the match together.
The game kicked off and the Rookery were in good voice singing “Is that all you take away” to the Palace fans, before launching into “Heurelho Gomes baby” for our veteran keeper. He was in action early in the game as the first goal chance fell to the visitors as Townsend played the ball back to Milivojevic whose shot was saved by Gomes, although it was off target anyway. Watford’s first action of note came from a free kick, Holebas floated it into the box where McArthur took Hughes down, but the referee. Kevin Friend, waved away our appeals for a penalty. After a quarter of an hour, there was a break in play as the players burst a number of red and blue balloons that were invading the pitch in the corner in front of the Family Stand. Having found a pitchfork somewhere, Harry joined in with some enthusiasm.
Watford’s first chance of the game came as Deulofeu burst into the box and shot from a narrow angle, but the Palace keeper, Guaita, stood tall and blocked the shot. Palace won a free kick in a dangerous position, but Gomes rose to make a comfortable catch. Watford then had a spell when they were in and around the Palace box, but couldn’t fashion a shot on target. Instead we won a series of corners and, as each one was repelled, I hoped that we wouldn’t regret missing those chances. Then, from yet another corner, the ball fell to Capoue and he knocked it into the net to send us all crazy. Just what we needed to settle the nerves a bit. The Hornets could have had a second as Deulofeu advanced into the box and hit a gorgeous shot but Guaita did brilliantly to get a hand to it and keep it out. The first booking of the game went to Milivojevic for a foul on Hughes. Watford had another great chance to increase their lead as Deulofeu hit a free kick over the wall, but Guaita was down to make the save. Palace made a rare foray into the Watford half as Townsend broke forward, but was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Holebas who was injured in the process. Thankfully, he was able to continue after treatment. Palace had a chance to equalise just before half time as Wan-Bissaka chipped the ball to Meyer but the shot was weak and easily gathered by Gomes. The visitors had one last attack in time added on but Deulofeu was back to make a superb tackle on McArthur and avert the danger. An unexpected and very welcome showing in defence from young Gerry.
So we went into half time in a deserved lead. It had been a dominant performance from the Hornets, who were not giving their opponents any space to play. We should really have been further ahead, but I was happy with what I had seen.
Half time and the first talking point was a hornet onesie that was being worn by a woman in the Rookery. It was an interesting fashion choice. Back to the official entertainment and the special guest was Tommy Smith who was asked about his appearances in previous cup quarter finals. His goal from the game against Burnley was shown, I couldn’t help remembering that Ray Lew then left him out for the semi-final after Chopra’s heroics in another game against Burnley. Tommy had also played in the game against Plymouth in 2007 (as had Mariappa). I had forgotten that game, until he mentioned it. It was truly dire.
Watford had to make a substitution at the break as Holebas was unable to continue, so was replaced by Masina. The Hornets had the first attack of the second half as a poor goal kick from Gomes was rescued and flicked on to Deulofeu who put in a decent cross, but nobody was on hand to connect with it. Then a Palace corner was flicked goalwards by Meyer, but Gomes pulled off an excellent save to deny him. Masina was booked after taking Meyer down soon after executing another robust challenge. Townsend took the free kick and it was on target, but Gomes tipped it over the bar. Batshuayi should have done better when he received a ball from Schlupp, but he knocked it wide of the near post. He did much better soon after as Mariappa dwelled on the ball instead of clearing it, the Palace man nipped in to dispossess him and shoot across Gomes into the opposite corner to draw the game level. It was a howler from Mariappa, who would have been devastated given his history at Palace. At this point, the nerves set in with a vengeance again. Surely Palace wouldn’t snatch this from us. Watford had a chance to regain their lead as Deeney played the ball back to Deulofeu but his shot was straight at the keeper. The Hornets had another great chance as Guaita punched a cross from Masina only as far as Pereyra, his shot was saved but Doucouré could only put the follow-up over the bar.
Gracia then made his first unforced substitution bringing Gray on for Hughes. I dare not say it out loud, but my mind was screaming “super sub!” A lovely exchange of passes deserved a better finish than a cross from Doucouré that was too heavy and went out for a goal kick. The second goal for the Hornets was a thing of beauty as Pereyra dinked a ball over to Gray who finished past Guaita sending the Watford fans crazy again and also giving us the opportunity to see a Gomes celebration in front of the Rookery for what may well be the last time. With 10 minutes remaining, I was hoping that we would hold on, but the visitors then won a free kick in a dangerous position. I held my breath as Milivojevic stepped up to take it, my joyous shout of “into the wall” may have been stating the obvious but it indicated my profound relief. Hodgson made a substitution at this point, replacing McArthur with Benteke. Watford could have grabbed a third, but Deeney’s powerful shot was parried by Guaita and Wan-Bissaka managed to clear as Deulofeu closed in on the rebound. The Hornets had another great chance as Cathcart met a corner with a header that was cleared off the line by Milivojevic. Gracia made his final change bringing Cleverly on for Deulofeu who left the field to an ovation and some laughter as, when the referee went over to tell him to speed up his departure from the pitch, he innocently turned and shook his hand. As the clock reached 90 minutes, the visitors had a chance to take the game into extra time when a corner reached Tomkins, who seemed to be taken by surprise and turned it wide of the near post. Late into time added on and the visitors really should have been level as the ball fell to Wan-Bissaka and we watched despairingly as his shot appeared to be heading for the opposite corner before rolling wide. I noted something in my notebook at this point, but my hand was shaking so much that it is totally illegible. When the whistle went to confirm our place in the semi-final, Vicarage Road erupted with joy.
I was distracted at the sight of Harry Hornet running on wearing a Superman style cape, so missed the moment when Gracia warmly embraced Gomes. The keeper was then hugged by Deeney and it was apparent that he was in tears. The crowd were cheering him on and he was very emotional in his response. It was lovely to see the mutual respect between the player and the crowd. Finally, as he always used to, he brought his sons on to the pitch to enjoy the applause with him. While this was going on, the tannoy had Que Sera Sera playing and the Watford crowd were singing along with gusto. It was all fabulous.
Normally we stay to applaud the last player off the pitch, so the stands are empty by the time we leave (everyone is in Occupation Road). It is a mark of how much this win meant that when the pitch emptied the stand was still full and, for the first time in years, we had to wait to leave our row.
As we reached the Hornet shop we noticed that they already had t-shirts commemorating the semi-final in the window. Being a sucker for that sort of thing, we all went in and bought the shirts. Then came out and had a family photo with GT.
When I finally got back to the West Herts, my group were happily sitting outside celebrating the victory. It is hard to analyse a game when the result is all that counts, but it had been a great performance from the Hornets and the win was well deserved. Deeney may not have scored, but he had put in a great Captain’s performance which was noted by us all. I have to say that I had almost forgotten how good Femenía is, he had a tremendous game and certainly justified his inclusion. While enjoying our celebratory beers, I had a quick read of the BBC online match report and was a little taken aback to see a comment to the effect that the win mean that we had reached “only” our sixth semi-final. Actually it is our seventh, but we are a small town club and to have reached seven semi-finals is actually a tremendous achievement. I am still pinching myself.
When I finally decided to head for home, the walk through the town centre to the station was to the sound of Watford fans singing Que Sera Sera. It was a lovely feeling.
The draw for the semi-final took place when I was in the car driving home this afternoon. When Alan Green announced that Watford were playing Wolves, I screamed with relief. They will not be easy opponents, they are a very good side. But at least we go into the game knowing that it is winnable and that is all that you can ask at this stage. Troy has been on the losing side in a previous semi-final at Wembley and he will certainly not want to repeat that experience. It should be a great day out.
I am still buzzing after that win. Over the past 40 years, I have many wonderful days following the Hornets, but also some very miserable ones. We go week in, week out, sometimes travelling a long distance to see our team badly beaten, but days like this make it all worthwhile. There is a tremendous spirit around the club at the moment, so I hope that we can sell out our allocation and roar the boys on to a cup final. That would be a fitting end to what has been a wonderful season.