First Team 21/05/2019

FA Cup Highlights: Manchester City 6-0 Watford

See extended highlights of the Hornets' FA Cup final defeat to Manchester City.

First Team 21/05/2019

Affleck’s Angle: We’ll Be Back

Kevin Affleck reflects on a bittersweet end to the Hornets' FA Cup campaign...

It’s the hope that kills you.

It was hope that prompted Matt Nadin to hop on four flights and spend 38 hours in the air to make the 12,300 mile trip from Auckland. It was the hope that saw Ian Fuller drive his car from the south of Spain, via Tomelloso, Calahorra and Biarritz, to be there. He started out on the Wednesday. It was the hope that made Rob Burnell think it was a good idea to rack up 23,500 air miles from Queenstown. Jack Ponce made his way from New York, Graham Caygill did likewise from Abu Dhabi. Cult hero Hanson Ho made it over from Vancouver. Tom Wyse from Israel. You get the idea: people came from all corners of the world to be there. Nobody wanted to miss out just in case. 

Troy Deeney had more than 70 come down from Chelmsley Wood to share his special day. Andre Gray was into the 30s with tickets he had to sort out. Heurelho Gomes had 11 members of his family over from Brazil. 

Nigel Gibbs, Tony Coton, Alec Chamberlain, John Barnes, Steve Terry, Paul Robinson, Tommy Smith, Heidar Helguson, Nick Wright, Luther Blissett, Neil Price, Allan Smart, Micah Hyde, Lloyd Doyley and Jay DeMerit were all there. There would have been other ex-players there, too. They were just the ones asked to pose for awkward selfie after selfie. Bill Shipwright, a defender from the 1950s, was on the phone to a senior club official at 7.30am wishing the club all the best. 

They all came because, as Barnes put it in a cameo appearance in a tear-jerking video pushed out by the club on Saturday morning, “I never, ever, ever thought I would see Watford in that situation again.” Note the double use of the word “ever”.

We all looked for a reason for hope, a straw to clutch. Javi Gracia did it against Barcelona in 2015, right? He can do it again. He slays big giants. Wigan won the cup final in 2013 so it can happen, right? Yeah, Wigan beat them last season and we are a better team than them, surely? Yeah. And what about when the Crazy Gang beat Liverpool in the 1988 final? Yeah, come on. We can do this. Get the beers in.

We clung to the fact that we only lost by a single goal to City at Vicarage Road and then kept them at bay for 46 minutes at the Etihad, conveniently forgetting the fact that City had at least 70 per cent of the ball on both occasions. They might also just be fatigued having played 15 more games than us. They are not unbeatable, after all. Even Troy Deeney said so, and we know the weight his words carry in these parts.

But the crushing reality was always that we were right up against it facing a City side who, with the possible exception of Liverpool, are playing a different game to everyone else right now, so much so that it’s almost a different sport. We had a chance, of course we had a chance, but it was certainly wasn’t a 50-50, toss-of-a-coin game like the Wolves one was. It was largely unspoken but we all descended on Wembley in hope rather than expectation. Some had more hope than others.

This is a City team who have racked up a whopping 198 points and 211 goals in just two Premier League seasons. They’ve dropped just 30 points in two campaigns. There is no disgrace in getting beat 6-0 by that group of players coached by someone as talented as Pep Guardiola. The Hornets are not alone in that regard, not by a long stretch. If anything, they may have got off lightly. 

City have this season alone whacked nine past Burton, seven past Schalke and Rotherham, six past Chelsea, Huddersfield, Shakhtar Donestk and Southampton, and rattled five past Burnley twice. The galling thing was it happened to Watford in the cup final, in front of more than seven million watching on the BBC and millions more worldwide. 

Gracia could easily have opted for damage limitation at 2-0, thrown on Christian Kabasele to make up a back five, replaced Gerard Deulofeu with Daryl Janmaat to bolt down the right and then sent for Tom Cleverley to stiffen the midfield. But where is the fun in that? You don’t seek to keep the score down in a cup final. It was the team’s ability to keep going, the Head Coach’s wish for his team to continue plugging away which was partly behind the extraordinary show of support from the fans at the end. Nobody connected with the club was throwing the towel in and it said plenty that the City fans took time out from basking in the glory of a domestic treble to applaud those at the other end. The club didn’t win the trophy but they won plenty of admirers.

There is at least the consolation, and it really is small consolation, of being beaten by a side who may go down as the best to have laced up their boots in English football. I mean, to be able to bring players of the quality of Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sané off the bench is almost laughable if it wasn’t against your team. Phil Foden, one of the brightest talents in the English game, didn’t make the squad, while they missed Fernandinho, their key midfielder, about as much as you miss going to the dentist.

And what about Sergio Agüero? Remember him? He can play a bit. It will probably be a quiz question in 20 years’ time: City won the 2019 FA Cup final 6-0. How many did their record goalscorer score? None. Zilch. That’s because he wasn’t even required. Can you imagine Liverpool leaving out Ian Rush in the 1989 final? Or the Reds doing likewise with Michael Owen in 2001 or Didier Drogba being named on the bench in ‘07, ‘09 or ‘10? 

This is the strength in depth £1.3bn of investment from Abu Dhabi affords you. As a contrast, the Pozzo family paid £500,000 for Watford, spent £10m clearing the debts, loaned the money to rebuild the East Stand and then it’s been largely self-sustaining since then. 

It’s worth reminding yourself at this point just how much a billion is. A million seconds is roughly 11 days and a billion seconds is roughly 33 years. With this unprecedented level of investment, with this complete shifting of the landscape, you’ve got to wonder if it takes the element of fun and surprise out of the beautiful game. What fun is there going into a game of this magnitude knowing that if you don’t take your one and only real chance after ten minutes, then you are toast? That your best hope of an unlikely victory is for the opposition to have a man sent off, for you to get your noses in front and then spend the rest of the game hanging on for dear life, parking the bus, letting the tyres down and throwing the steering wheel out of the window. It’s not my idea of sport, that’s for sure.

What do we all do with ourselves now? There is a real void to fill and it might take a few days for life to return to normal. It's like we’ve all come back from a two-week holiday and it’s now back to work, back to reality. 

We’ve all spent the last five weeks firstly fretting about getting tickets in the first place, fending off those band-wagon jumpers and then making sure we were sitting next to the right people. Then there was the worrying about the Tube strike. Can we justify paying £30 to park our car on someone’s drive? Were we going to meet in Box Park or the Green Man? Are we going out after regardless of the result? A friend of mine, who really does have better things to do and who sourced his tickets on the first release date, was even logging into the ticket system on a daily basis just to see how many tickets we had left. It gripped everybody. 

Every game since the semi-final was viewed through the prism of the final. Was anyone going to be injured or suspended? (Yes, we're looking at you José). If the team won, it was considered a great way to build up to the final. Lose, and it was a big blow to the cup final preparations went out of the window. Interestingly during that period there was only one draw. It was, it seems, all or nothing. That’s generally the way football and life goes.

As painful as it was, as embarrassing and frustrating as it’s been fending off the jibes from people at work and supporters from other clubs, people are still talking about Saturday in terms of how they wouldn’t change a thing about the overall day and how it’s another one for the memory bank. Now, as Gracia has pointed out time and time again this season, it’s time to crack on and we can find real hope in the words of Chairman & Chief Executive Scott Duxbury. “This is the start of what we want to do,” he said in a pre-match interview with BBC Sport. “This is where we should be and will be competing. We are not going to wait 35 years for another cup final.”

We find further cause for optimism in the words of Gracia. “Sometimes you have to live this experience, to lose these games to do it better in the future,” he said. 

And we cling to the hope gleaned from the lengthy post-match debrief Filippo Giraldi and Deeney had on the pitch at full-time. City hadn’t even lifted the trophy and you just know the Technical Director and the captain were already discussing the club’s summer transfer business and what improvements need to be made. 

If nothing else, we’ve got more footage for the next chapter of the brilliant #ImagineIf Highs & Lows series. It’s been a blast.