Kevin Affleck's column is all about catharsis, after Watford reached the FA Cup final in the most dramatic of circumstances...
If you’ve watched the Netflix sensation After Life (and if you haven’t, why on earth not?) there is a beautiful scene towards the end of the fifth episode where a grief-stricken Ricky Gervais sits down with a fellow widow on a graveyard bench to discuss how he is going to plot a way forward and navigate life following a failed suicide attempt in the wake of the death of his wife. It really is quite moving and quite profound.
It dawns on Tony, a journalist played by Gervais, that there is indeed much to live for. There is hope. “I realised you can’t not care about things you care about,” he said. “You can’t fool yourself. It’s not all about me and even though I’m in pain, it’s worth sticking around to make my little corner of the world a slightly better place.”
It’s worth hanging on in there, you see, it’s worth going through the slings and arrows life has to throw at you and coming out the other side because of breathless days like Sunday and the unconfined joy it brings. Some still can’t stop smiling.
There were tears everywhere and lumps in the throat because that’s how much this great game means to people, how much this club provides salvation and is a constant for people who have been through the mill. It struck me heading to the game the amount of suffering there is about just in our little corner of the world in leafy Hertfordshire.
One fan of 40 years couldn’t make the game because he took his sick daughter to America for treatment. Two friends of mine tragically lost children at a young age. This writer’s uncle suffered a heart attack the day before the game. One member of staff is picking up the pieces after his girlfriend’s mother died suddenly earlier this year. Another’s wife has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. You will all have suffered your own personal heartache somewhere along the line. It’s inevitable. Others might know about it or it might be personal to you, but you know what I'm talking about. You’ve been there or indeed going through it.
Just because you are a footballer you are not immune from it, either. Club legends Nigel Gibbs and Tony Coton were in the stands with the punters on Sunday. Gibbs lost his father, Dennis, in 2011, while Coton underwent a quintuple heart bypass in October. Troy Deeney was crushed when the man he refers to as his dad passed away through cancer in 2012. He also lost a friend to suicide recently. Javi Gracia’s father died nine years ago.
Grief and heartache is everywhere you look, but what special moments like Sunday do is allow you, even if it’s for a split, joyous second, to forget it all. It’s the beauty of sport. It provides an escape, an ability to heal. It provides an outlet to let it all out and is why you had hardened, grown men crying uncontrollably at full-time. It’s why you have some saying it was the best day of their life, above the birth of their children, above the day they got married.
It’s why you had the usually carefree Étienne Capoue, who sometimes conveys the impression of someone who wouldn’t be bothered if he never played again, firstly rabble-rousing at full-time and then dancing with unbridled joy on his own in front of the fans after this epic, epic win. It’s why the limelight-avoiding Chairman and CEO Scott Duxbury was quite rightly on the pitch at full-time.
Epic wins like that, thrilling denouements such as this make people do things they don’t normally do because you lose your senses. Even José Holebas was smiling. Only football can make you feel like this. It’s unifying and creates a collective bond with the person you were sat with. You'll talk about it in years to come. Sometimes you won’t even need to say anything to the person you experienced it with. It will just be a nod, just a wink that says it all.
You can identify it in the words of Deeney, whose penchant for era-defining moments knows no bounds. “Every now and then you have that moment where it is a wave of emotion that hits you,” he said. “I had a moment with my mum which was special. This moment means everything to me.”
Andre Gray, who lost a very close auntie recently, had to sit down on the Wembley turf to gather himself. It was all too much. It’s been quite a journey for him. “It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “I was overwhelmed. I was just taking it in. It’s not every day that you get into the FA Cup final. I just sat there looking at the emotions of everyone.”
It was hard not to wonder, rather tearily, what GT would have made of it all, two of his former clubs serving up one of the great FA Cup semi-finals. We have half an idea because, not for the first time, he captured the moment brilliantly in an interview after the playoff win in 1998/99. Ever the visionary, you can transfer his words and apply them to today.
“You see 38,000 in yellow and the joy and the excitement,” he said. “When you think you’ve played a part in helping to create that there aren’t words. There arent words to describe how you feel. Those 38,000 people just looked like they were in heaven. You experience things you’ve never experienced before and you will cry.”
The scarcely-believable events on Sunday gripped football fans up and down the country. One punter at a service station in Northampton congratulated the driver of the coach for the club’s Under-23 team bound for Sheffield on the odds-defying win and then an 82-year-old Owls fan felt compelled to come up and share his joy for the club as soon as the bus pulled into the training ground.
“Happiness is amazing,” said the widower talking to Gervais in the graveyard in After Life. “It’s so amazing it doesn’t matter if it’s yours or not. There is that lovely thing: a society grows great when old men plant trees the shade of which they know they will never sit in. Good people do things for other people. That’s it, the end.”
This isn’t the end: it feels like the start of something. But this executive team, this administration team, this coaching staff and this group of players are creating memories that will be talked about for generations and generations to come, long after we’ve gone. We are just lucky enough to be able to say, ‘I was there.’