The FA Cup has come in for a lot of criticism lately. To the big clubs it has become a chance to give the bit-part players in bloated squads a run out, while the other fourteen-or-so Premier League clubs, all desperately fighting off the spectre of relegation, see it as an unnecessary hassle in a period where every game counts.
For many clubs scratching a living in the lower echelons of the Football League and below, the magic of the cup has become one of conjuring much-needed funds rather than causing the disappearance of veritable giants. For them, the financial gain from a big tie can be the difference between life and liquidation.
In the middle sit clubs like Watford. For us, the cup can be a blessing or a curse. Despite the increase in the size of playing squads in the Championship, fixture congestion is still an issue, especially around the turn of the year when injuries and rescheduled games are piling up. For this reason ties like our third round contest with Bristol City often pale into insignificance.
But when a club of middling size is drawn against a club of Manchester City’s standing the ramifications can mould the shape of the entire season.
Take the 2000/01 season, for example. Following a record-setting relegation from the Premiership the year before, Graham Taylor’s wiles were setting the club up for a swift return. By the end of October, we were sitting pretty in first place, having accrued 36 points from a possible 42 in the season’s first 14 games. Fulham were admirably trying to keep up, but promotion was assured.
Then Manchester United rolled into town for the third round of the Worthington Cup. Sir Alex made nine changes to his side as Watford entered the arena with a swagger. They left with their tails between their legs as a second choice United side romped home 3-0 winners thanks to a goals from Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and Dwight Yorke.
Before the game, when faced with Stockports and Crewes, it was easy to believe that we had improved and that we would return to the top table with more of an appetite and a bigger set of cutlery. But when a team is confronted by the object of their desires and so roundly beaten, it can do disastrous things to their confidence. In the next nine games, the Hornets picked up four points – a run that culminated in that horrible 5-0 Boxing Day lashing at one-time promotion rivals Fulham. The season floundered from there, and finished with Watford in ninth place and down a legendary manager as Graham Taylor bowed out from the game.
It can, of course, go the other way. Just two years ago tomorrow, Tottenham – chugging along on their now-customary doomed quest to break into the top three – came to Vicarage Road to take on a Watford side that was struggling to keep their heads above the treacherous waters of relegation. Sean Dyche had assembled a side of experienced but flawed journeymen who had struggled to grind out results.
By the time the third round of the FA Cup came around, they sat in 18th place, while Spurs were roaring along and were comfortably situated in third place of the Premier League. Though Harry Redknapp, still embroiled in his tax evasion trial, did without Gareth Bale, his side still boasted talents such as Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart and Danny Rose. Dyche, on the other hand, gave a full debut to an 18 year-old Sean Murray.
Murray, and Watford, shone. They peppered the Spurs goal with chances in a dominating performance and were beaten only by a hopeful shot from van der Vaart that Scott Loach should have done better with.
From then, ignited by the presence of the youthful exuberance of Murray and Fulham loanee Alex Kacaniklic, the Hornets went on a run of eight wins in thirteen games, having only managed seven in their previous twenty seven. The form died away towards the tail-end of the season, and with it went the faint hopes of making the playoffs – hopes that seemed worlds away at the turn of the year. But the tone of the season was completely changed. Instead of a downward-spiralling club abandoned by a top young manager and stripped of its stars, we were reborn with a realistic desire to better Malkay Mackay’s almost-success.
There were other factors at work, of course – much like that season over ten years ago when Taylor’s group imploded so dramatically – but matching up to such a strong team when expectations had been set so low showed both the side and the fans that more was possible: that if you can cause a Champions League side so much trouble, what’s a midweek trip to Millwall?
The fear going into this weekend’s match with Manchester City was that the free-scoring Blues would lay such waste to Watford’s porous backline that what little self-confidence Beppe Sannino had managed to instil in them would be lost. It was simply case of how many we would lose by.
But after an aggressive display that forced Europe’s form side to make three desperate substitutions and put all their might into grinding out a result, everyone around the club is buzzing. This side has so much more to offer than the first half of the season has shown.
Of course, City’s attacking intent and lackadaisical mind-set played into our hands, and Messrs Deeney and Forestieri won’t find that much space afforded to them by the more conservative play of Championship sides, but the quality of the goals and build-up, as well as the impressive play of a young makeshift midfield against the best central player in the world can only stimulate the players to make sure they’re facing up against this sort of team for a third consecutive year next season.
It’s a massive ask to make the playoffs from here. But in the Championship, much like Space Jam, anything is possible. We have the players, we have a manager clearly not lacking in hunger, drive and tactical awareness and now, maybe, we have the belief.