We deserve more than this.
Anthony Knockaert puffs out his cheeks as he rocks from foot to foot. The exhaustion of the tie tells in his frantic breathing. The fan stands stock still, palms firmly pressed to his crown. Where the Frenchman pants, for the fan there is only one solitary gulp. The penalty seemed soft, but with all that’s happened in the last week, who’d trust their eyes enough to say definitively? Whatever the case, it was over. All that was left was for Knockaert to deal the crippling blow.
With a stride to his right he starts his run-up, in front of him Manuel Almunia bounces on his toes. One step, two step, three, and a low strike. Clean and down the middle. The keeper falls to his left, but spreads himself. The toes of his leg, dangling behind him, dig the ball into the ground. It skips up and spins back into the path of Knockaert.
The fan lets out a yelp, a fleeting release of reflex hope, before the brain realises the grim reality at hand. This is merely a brief stay of execution.
Almunia sprawls on his knees, eyes fixed on the ball turning slowly away from him. He tries with all his might to shift his weight, to smother the ball; but as slowly as time moves, his body moves slower. He’s only halfway up as Knockaert arrives first. The Frenchman’s left foot stabs toward the gaping net. But with one final push, a burst from the depths of Almunia’s reserves, he pushes off from his left knee and jabs his right wrist across goal.
Barely has the fan’s yelp subsided into reason when a roar emerges. Looping from Almunia’s forearm, the ball meets the welcome boot of Marco Cassetti, the lone yellow shirt among three lurking Foxes. As it flies into the air and safety, he can finally let himself go. He grabs the shoulder of his neighbour and bounds with joy. As he continues to bounce, a voice from behind: ‘no way…’
Ikechi Anya stares into the blue sky. While all about him is activity, the dull blue of the Hertfordshire firmament presents a welcome sanctuary. It’s only the roar of thirteen thousand disbelieving voices in his ears and the small orb of leather emerging from the cloud cover that pull him back to Vicarage Road. The orb gets bigger and falls right into his path.
Bringing it down with his thigh, Anya pokes the ball ahead of him and takes off. At this stage, all that matters is getting the ball away from the goal. He heads for the right channel, tracked very step of the way by the tireless Andy King. The legs that have carried him through some two hundred minutes of intense football in the last sixty-six hours are still turning, still scurrying with all their might into the open space. There’s no point stopping now.
King falls away. His legs have failed him. As Jeffery Schlupp cuts in front of Anya, desperate to halt his progress, the winger produces one last surge, he stretches and prods the ball down the line into the path of Fernando Forestieri.
By now the fan has composed himself. As much as one can. He’s gazing upon the action with an otherworldly glaze shrouding his eyes. Though he sees what’s happening, he doesn’t comprehend. But it doesn’t matter. He already knows how this ends.
He can’t explain it, nor does he have time to, as Forestieri has scurried onto the ball. He looks up, taking the opportunity to see what the hell is actually going on. All he sees is Wes Morgan, the beastly centre back, bearing down on him. Taking him on round the outside, he pushes past the mountainous Leicester captain and wraps his foot around the ball, looping it towards the far post.
Seconds earlier, when Marco Cassetti was frantically clearing up the pitch, Jonathan Hogg had been there lurking in his own penalty area, desperate for a sniff of the action. Now, a 90-yard dash later, here he stood, five yards from the Leicester goal with a wild Dane lunging at him, arms spread like a flying squirrel tumbling out of control through the canopy. Over his shoulder came Forestieri’s cross. Here was his chance, a goal at last.
But there, in the corner of his eye, was Troy Deeney, trotting into space on the edge of the area as the Leicester defenders who hadn’t gone after the ball beat a hasty retreat to their goal line. He watches as the ball threaded through the flurry of limbs and cushions it perfectly off his forehead.
As the ball drops into the cavernous space around the penalty spot, 16 142 pairs of eyes plus 21 on the pitch track its interminable movement, skipping once off the turf, and arcing down onto the swinging foot of Troy Deeney.
Troy Deeney. A man who’s season started in prison. Who clawed his way back into the Watford team and the affections of a host of sceptical fans. Whose nineteen goals had put his team in this position in the first place.
Schmeichel is horizontal, wildly flinging his frame across Deeney’s path, but there’s no stopping him. His laces explode through the ball, the fan inhales, the net bulges.
In the stand the fan drops to a crouch. His face sinks to his chest and his fists clench. From the depths of his abdomen a primal roar bursts through his throat. He bellows into his knees, he knows not why. When he rises, to find his brother and father still embracing those around them, bleary eyed, speech still failing them, he turns to the pitch and sees a sea of hysterical supporters storming onto the pitch, falling to their knees, hugging absolute strangers.
Do not scratch your eyes.
It’s been twenty five seconds since Anthony Knockaert exhaled and took his first step.
The best twenty five seconds of that fan’s footballing life.
Check out the videos from those twenty five seconds here
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