Arsenal FC vs Watford FC
FA Cup Sixth Round
Sunday 13th March 2016
The Emirates Stadium, London
“It’s five letters with a little comma in the air, he’s got black hair and I think it’s either Sunderland or Southampton,” ponders my seven-year-old son in the passenger seat. We’re an hour down the M1 keeping ourselves entertained with a new game he’s downloaded to his Kindle.
After gently introducing him to the beautiful game over the last couple of years, he’s now an unbridled addict. Narrowing a home jersey down to two is just a glimpse of his newfound footballing knowledge.
Only yesterday, he took a break from the bouncy castle at our goddaughter’s first birthday party to show off his Match Attax cards to the group of Dads. We encouraged him to rejoin the other kids as he began to leaf through two or three Adam Johnson ‘swaps’ he’d presumably acquired from more streetwise collectors on the playground.
“An apostrophe? John O’Shea?” I ask. “YES! I didn’t even have to show you that one!” he replies with delight as the footballing cross between Guess Who? and Hangman rewards him with more points. Developing the ability to identify Irish internationals without even taking your eyes off the road; quite literally life in the fast lane.
Eight teams now had Wembley in sight, making our choice of game ever more narrow. With Everton, Chelsea, Man. United and West Ham all separated by just 11pts, there wasn’t much scope for an ‘upset’ there. With Palace visiting Reading, the only side remaining from outside the top flight following Arsenal’s competent dismantling of Hull in midweek, there was an obvious choice. We had other ideas.
“I’ve just seen someone in an Arsenal shirt,” my son says as I balk at the prospect of paying twenty quid to park half a mile from the ground. I think of the Sky Football trailer where a bunch of cheerful fans plonk their car on a road in view of the Emirates and head towards the floodlights. Whoever wrote it has clearly never been to the football in their life.
“We’ll be seeing a few of those today,” I tell him, as I register the distaste he’s already picked up from me via osmosis. “Try not to pull that face when you see one or we’ll end up getting our heads kicked in.”
Committing to go to every round of the FA Cup is a ridiculous thing. To do so for a second season, after your most fearsome rivals lift the trophy twice in a row, is a form of self-harm. With Tottenham’s promising route to Wembley abruptly halted by an out-of-form Crystal Palace, the BBC PR Department’s ‘anything can happen’ was in full effect. A shame we couldn’t have found a few more upsets since the Extra Preliminary Round, then.
Having turned down a Villa ticket to effectively complete our FA Cup journey, there was plenty of motivation for getting behind today’s visitors. Watford are a side I’ve always quite liked without ever really having a connection to. Growing up with mates of every London club from Arsenal and West Ham to QPR and Brentford, there was that sense of guarded kinship that football rivalry brings from an early age. Not so much with the Hornets, whose M1 exit we pass some half an hour before arriving in actual North London.
Also making the short trip to the Capital is Mike Parkin. A host of popular Watford podcast From The Rookery End, he’s just the chap I need to get the inside view on Watford’s impressive first season back in the top flight:
“We moved down to the area when I was 8 or 9,” he tells me, while making a cup of tea early on Sunday morning. “My Dad’s actually a Geordie but, on the basis that we never moving back up there, we started supporting Watford as a family. My first game was an FA Cup replay against Walsall that ended 4-4 in 86/87. It’s not difficult to see how me and my brother got hooked. Unfortunately, our next game was the semi-final at Villa Park where we got thumped 4-1 by Tottenham. That’s almost 30 years ago and we’ve been season ticket holders for most of the time since.”
I quickly discover Mike and I have something in common. Keen to turn his football addiction into something creative, he became involved in the ‘…Rookery End’ podcast six years ago.
He continues: “We spend a lot of time watching it, talking about it with mates and getting annoyed about it so I thought it might be quite cathartic to have the opportunity to talk about the game and your feelings rather than the usual football fan thing of letting them fester away and taking it out on other people.”
It’s an interesting observation, and also something I recognise in myself without having realised it before.
“Watford were in the doldrums financially when we first set it up,” he adds, “so it gave us something else to think about. It’s nice to take your mind off things when it’s going a bit crap! We shared a couple of episodes with the Club and they really liked it. From an early stage they could see we weren’t there to take the piss or make the players look silly. There’s people who work at Watford who care very deeply for the Club and know what it means to the community.
“We started out with just an iPhone; I don’t know how many other Clubs would let three middle-aged guys loose with their players and an iPhone! We’ve looked at the Academy, the Ladies’ Team, spent a day with the Club photographer. We’ve had sit-downs with players, managers – including Gianfranco Zola which was unbelievable. He just had that special aura about him. The guy’s played with Maradona for heaven’s sake!
“But the best thing about it has been the people we’ve met – not just Watford fans but opposition supporters too. From a social side of things, it’s been incredible.”
Mike’s praise for his local team seems to fit with my perception of Watford as being a Club that’s maintained a healthy relationship with the fans through good times and bad. It’s certainly a lesson a few of their Premier League rivals could learn from.
He continues: “A lot of teams call themselves a family club but at Watford that was woven into the very fabric of the organisation. They’ve gone through lots of different guises since Taylor and Elton John were steering things but, whoever’s been in charge since, the one thing they’ve recognised is that they can’t balls up that link between the Club, the community and the supporters.
“Even the guys they’re signing now from La Liga and Serie A are still expected to do the community stuff. Watford is a small place, 90,000 people, and 9,000 are going to Arsenal today. 10% of the population. We’re very proud of our little club, because that’s what we are.”
And that loyal fanbase has had plenty to cheer about since Watford lost just one of their final fourteen Championship games to seal automatic promotion last May:
“It’s been magnificent,” Mike tells me. “As Watford fans, we thought we had a decent chance of staying up. We knew it would be a battle and a fight but it’ll be interesting now to see where we end up. There was a bit of concern about the change of manager with Jokanovic not starting the season. Sanches Flores had done well, winning the Europa League and was well-respected. He made us tough to beat and defensively solid very quickly which was our main concern last season.
“Deeney and Ighalo have managed to get that partnership going for most of the season but it’s been extraordinary. It’s very difficult to keep things in perspective because it’s happened so quickly for us. We’ve gone from almost being bankrupt four years ago to being a decent Premier League side. It’ll be interesting to see how Watford fans keep a lid on their expectations, but also how far we can go.
“The Pozzo’s have an extraordinary scouting network that takes in places other Clubs don’t go. Alexis Sanchez is the poster boy for that after they took him to Udinese. The future looks really bright and exciting.”
Finally, I ask what a day like today means to fans like him who’ve perhaps seen more rough than smooth over the last few decades – can Watford beat Arsenal?:
“Whatever happens, if you take 9,000 football fans to a match, it’s gonna be a good day even if we lose 4-0. We’ve achieved our main aim this season so now everything is a bonus. People say ‘The FA Cup’s lost a bit of its magic’ – well the FA Cup always loses its magic when you’re knocked out of it! If you’re in it and you’re invested in it then you’re excited by it. I’ve been looking forward to it since the draw was made.
“I’ve learnt in my time watching football that there’s more than just the result. If we have a good old sing-song and we enjoy it, I know it’s a cliché, but that’s a win. I just want to see us go for it. There’s a boycott by some Arsenal fans, they’re not happy with the management so there might be some pressure there. They’ve not lost an FA Cup game for about a billion years but if it’s 0-0 after half an hour then they might start to feel that.”
He continues: “If we reach an FA Cup semi, brilliant. But there’s a bigger picture for Watford fans at the moment. We’re in no rush to enjoy ourselves because I think we’re pretty confident there are some good times ahead.”
We leave things open-ended on meeting in a pub near Highbury House later. As I hand over £20 to park my car after an unsuccessful lap for an alternative, we find a nearby McDonalds for lunch. Parking Jacob on a chair while I queue for a Happy Meal surrounded by dozens of Gooners, I keep a close eye to ensure he doesn’t starting flicking the v’s at anyone dressed in red.
There’s little argument that the Emirates Stadium is an impressive sight as we approach. Most commonly spotted in the background of viral rants by home supporters on Arsenal TV for anyone outside of N5, it has the influence of some of Europe’s top stadia with a healthy dose of traditional nostalgia thrown in. The ‘Brothers in Arms’ of some of Arsenal’s greatest players is impressive, although I’m pretty sure David Seaman’s best days were pre-ponytail.
There’s a few nice touches too. A temporary sign at the Clock End bearing the Watford crest welcomes visiting supporters, while the security checks many football fans have become accustomed to are oddly less intrusive than usual. That said, I’m caught off-guard when a steward gestures enthusiastically towards my semi-zipped coat and I ask him: “Up or down?”
A quick pre-match loo break introduces us to our first chant of the day, and one we’d be hearing plenty more of throughout the afternoon: “We’ve got Capoue, Etienne Capoue, I just don’t think you understand…”.
Jacob smiles and we both join in. Given that the Frenchman was one of the few players offloaded by Tottenham in the summer that I’d like to have kept, I’m happy to sing along.
One former Spurs favourite (of sorts) I won’t have the opportunity to cheer on today is Heurelho Gomes, replaced in the line-up by Cup ‘keeper Costel Pantilimon. A cult hero for a while at White Hart Lane, I’ll never quite be able to disassociate the Brazilian with a long-awaited Champions League away day at the San Siro. His rash charge and subsequent red card as Spurs went 3-0 down to Inter Milan inside 15 minutes was thankfully forgotten by most thanks to some lad called Gareth restoring a little pride later on. Gomes, too, has restored his reputation as a solid custodian at Vicarage Road.
I’m not a big fan of the rise of the Cup goalkeeper. It’s a position where ‘resting’ isn’t really an issue and confidence is more of a factor than match fitness. Wheeling a different bloke out to guard the goal in a knockout game seems an unnecessary risk for me, but maybe it’s a contractual thing these days. With Pantilimon having recently joined from Sunderland, though, there’s no doubting Watford’s strength in depth between the sticks.
Finding our seats near the front of the Lower Tier, I take in the view behind us. A Club Level around the whole stadium, containing more than a few smart suits and tourists, splits us from the Upper tier where thousands more visiting fans create a sea of yellow. Given Arsenal’s infamously inflated ticket prices, I imagine these are the £100+ seats that cause such consternation among the old Highbury faithful concerned by the corporate direction of their Club.
Worse still, the perceived lack of recent success to match their ever-increasing personal investment, despite two consecutive FA Cup wins, continues to sour what once seemed an unbreakable bond between Wenger and the home fans. By contrast, Watford have subsidised their allocation considerably to ensure no visiting fan pays more than £36.50.
As the teams head out, we’re invited to swap our seats on the fourth row for the first by an enthusiastic bunch of fans who’ve already got flags waving and a sing-song orchestrated. We take them up on their offer so Jacob can sit down with an unobstructed view and they’re great company for the rest of the game.
“They haven’t been in our half much,” he observes as we reach the 20-minute mark. An offside goal aside, it’s a fair observation as Arsenal dominate possession but toil to penetrate the Watford defence despite the occasional promising flash.
“S**t Tottenham Hotspur, you’re just a s**t Tottenham Hotspur!” sing the Watford fans. Jacob flashes me a grin and I nod my approval while indicating that he’s not to blow our cover or join in, all in one facial expression. It’s one of those special skills Dads have alongside a Jedi power for identifying John O’Shea.
A half-hearted chant of ‘Arsenal’ midway through the second half receives an ironic cheer as another blast of Capoue’s name echoes out from the Clock End. Beyond that, the home fans whistle in protest at Pantilimon’s ‘relaxed’ goal-kick style that eventually sees the Romanian booked for time-wasting.
A nasty looking challenge causes uproar in the 29th minute as Gabriel and Deeney crash into each other. As Deeney writhes on the floor, Andre Marriner waves away the furious protestations of the Watford players. Replays suggest the Arsenal man was lucky to stay on the field.
A couple of blasts over the bar from Elneny later and it’s half-time. Embracing their corporate tag, an ad break plays out over the big screen before a couple of players from Arsenal Ladies are interviewed on the pitch. For their faults, Arsenal’s investment in the Women’s game to create a professional side is to be applauded.
We pass the remainder of the break by reading the signs around the ground. There are nods to the famous league win of ‘89, the Invincibles side and a couple of mentions of White Hart Lane, thank you very much. Jack Wilshere appears more times on the hoardings than he has on the pitch this season.
“Can you be quiet please? This is the Emirates. We’re trying to watch the football,” announces a new friend to our right as the second half gets underway. It might be loud enough to be picked up in some areas of the home end.
The game explodes into life in the 50th minute. Deeney’s knock on from a throw-in takes half the Arsenal back-line out of the game with one touch before Ighalo, who’s looked low on confidence so far, takes care of the rest with a swift turn and shot into the bottom corner. Our view of the goal couldn’t be much better, and plenty more have joined us within seconds as the whole stand goes crazy.
I look down to see Jacob screaming with delight as the players celebrate in front of us. A few lads stood on chairs are forcefully pulled down by stewards who look as happy in their work as Wenger does in press conferences. They remain in the seats to our left for the remainder of the game.
It’s not a bad spot to witness Ighalo almost double the lead in the 60th minute as his outstretched foot comes close to connecting with Ake’s cross from the left. It doesn’t take long for another chance to materialise though.
Winning back possession in midfield, Watford swarm on the ball and play it forward to Deeney who holds up superbly once again. Holding off Mertesacker, he plays the ball for Guedioura who blasts the ball from the corner of the box. It’s the kind of connection that might have found Club Class on another afternoon – but not today.
As the ball flies into the top corner beyond the static Arsenal defence and the helpless dive of Ospina, it’s delirium in the away end. Someone hugs me from behind and a few fans threaten to spill over the advertising hoardings while others hold their heads in disbelief. There’s not much about my reaction that suggests we’re ‘neutral’ either.
As Arsenal trudge back to the halfway line, players remonstrate with each other. It’s a world away from the selfless display of Flores’ men who committed three players to winning the ball back before turning defence into attack, in no small part down to the tireless work of Deeney.
The singing goes up a notch as the Watford end bounces in delight. Meanwhile, Wenger throws on Welbeck, Iwobi and Walcott to chase the game. It almost works.
Arsenal kick into gear in the final ten minutes. A succession of wasted chances is eventually halted in the 88th minute as their passing takes on long overdue urgency. Ozil’s backheel releases Welbeck who finishes smartly. The joy in the away end is quickly replaced by unbearable tension.
From then on, it feels like wave after wave of Arsenal attacks. As the board showing injury time is readied, Pantilimon makes a reaction save that spills the ball out into a melee of players before Welbeck turns and somehow fires over with the whole right side of the goal seemingly at his mercy.
“Please no! Don’t do this!” says the lad next to me. He’s actually got his back to the game, having Facetimed several Arsenal-supporting mates since the second goal asking them what their plans were for Wembley. See what I mean about that kinship through rivalry?
Watford hang on. Wembley is booked. I ready Jacob for the reaction at the final whistle and it’s really something as the players celebrate in front of us. Deeney throws his boots into the crowd, presumably because they’re below the legal tyre tread given his running throughout.
We chat to a man with a tin foil FA Cup as we queue to get out. Reliving the game in disbelief, it seems Welbeck’s missed chance is the main talking point. The fans cheer the goals for a second time on the big screen.
“Another magnificent day delivered by a magnificent football club,” is Mike’s summary post-match. “Beating Palace in the semi and Everton in the Final would go some way to making up for previous Wembley heartache. This is a special club that keeps delivering more special occasions than we have a right to expect.”
Listening to Tottenham close the gap on Leicester and West Ham coming close at Old Trafford, we pass the journey home by naming as many Spurs players as we can, interspersed with the occasional rendition of the Capoue song and a curious game called Goat Simulator that reduces him to tears of laughter.
Like last season, I’m hopeful, if not optimistic, about my chances of getting Wembley tickets next month. If it is to end here, though, so be it. I’ll take victory at the Emirates with a little boy who joined me at Penistone Church FC back in August as a fitting way to wrap things up. It’s a connection with Watford we won’t forget.
The Underdog Blog record 2015/16:
P 11 W 3 D 3 L 5 F 8 A 17 GD -9
Arsenal FC vs Watford FC
FA Cup Sixth Round
Sunday 13th March 2016
The Emirates Stadium, London
Arsenal FC 1 – 2 Watford FC
Welbeck 88’ Ighalo 50’; Guedioura 63’
Arsenal: 13. Ospina; 21. Chambers, 4. Mertesacker, 5. Gabriel, 3. Gibbs; 35. El-Nenny, 34. Coquelin, 28. Campbell, 11. Ozil, 17. Sanchez, 12. Giroud
Substitutes: 14. Walcott, 18. Monreal, 20. Flamini, 23. Welbeck, 24. Bellerin, 45. Iwobi, 49. Macey.
Watford: 18 Pantilimon; 2. Nyom, 5. Prodl, 15. Cathcart, 16. Ake; 8. Behrami, 23. Watson, 29. Capoue, 17. Guedioura; 24. Ighalo, 9. Deeney.
Substitutes: 1. Gomes, 4. Mario Suarez, 7. Jurado, 10. Oulare, 11. Amrabat, 21. Anya, 22. Abdi
Referee: Andre Marriner