MATCH REPORT – Watford 0 City 2

The Championship Play-off Semi-Finals (1st leg) – Sunday 11th May 2008

“Wembley”, we chorused, “Wembley – we’re the famous Hull City and we’re off to Wembley”.

Few constituencies are more prone to erroneous predictions of imminent glory than football fans; few groups more susceptible to concocting manifestly unsustainable claims. For instance, we should graciously concede that we are not the world’s greatest football team, irrespective of our frequently chanted assertion to the contrary. However, in predicting City’s first ever trip to the national stadium, which would arguably be the most glorious achievement in our infamously modest history, one can suspend the cynicism, unleash the optimism, and proudly declare that we are the famous Hull City, and we’re off to Wembley.

Propelling us one step closer to the promised land were: Myhill; Rickets, TurnerBrown, Dawson; Garcia, Ashbee (c), Hughes, Barmby; Campbell, Windass. An unexpected line-up, prompted by Dean Marney’s untimely injury in training, affording Nick Barmby his first start for some time, while Folan was the unlucky forward who missed out with our reversion to a 4-4-2 formation.

For Watford, Nathan Ellington replaced the suspended Darius Henderson, while Lionel Ainsworth came into the side as home manager Aidy Boothroyd attempted to stem the awful form that saw the one-time league leaders barely qualify for the play-offs.

It was a blisteringly hot afternoon at Vicarage Road, and Watford were on the front foot immediately, kicking towards the 2,000 City fans populating the away end. Given the unpromising kick-off time, there was a decent atmosphere in the ground, though we are sorry to report that Watford mainly relied upon a drummer to get them going.

The first two incidents of note both occurred in front of us – firstly, Bromby just failed to connect to a dangerous Sadler corner, but with only four minutes gone Watford thought they had scored. Another excellent set piece delivery, this time from McAnuff, saw Danny Shittu tower above the City defence and bludgeon home a header – however, referee Kevin Friend had already blown for a free-kick, and relief abounded.

Now, we pride ourselves on being fair-minded, so we should observe that there appeared little wrong with Watford’s “goal” – an obstruction on Myhill by Bromby seemed the likeliest candidate, but it was a soft and fortunate decision.

We ruthlessly capitalised. McAnuff had a shot expertly palmed over by the City keeper, and moments later the Tigers led. Campbell fastened onto the ball after some comedy defending by Shittu, he hared into the edge of the area on the right, dragged the ball back to the thoughtfully unattended Nick Barmby, whose low hard shot was too much for Watford keeper Lee, and once we’d concluded that agonising second-long did-it-didn’t-it delay so common to goals scored at the far end, the City fans exploded with delight.

Watford came back, but a little clumsily, their play a little staid and predictable. City, meanwhile, looked threatening on the counter-attack, and when the second goal arrived midway through the half, it owed as much to experience as to the splendid football that fashioned it.

Garcia and Barmby combined to set Dawson free on the left – his cross found Campbell, whose meaty header was deflected onto the crossbar. With Lee still floundering, in stole Dean Windass to firmly head the ball into the goal, and the away end once again detonated.

Watford looked crushed, but gamely sought to stay in the tie, and nearly found a way back when a powerful Ellington shot was superbly blocked by Dawson, the ball spinning behind for a corner that City comfortably dealt with. Campbell was then cautioned for pointing out to Mr Friend that a Watford free-kick was being taken ten yards away from the perceived offence – a silly thing to argue over, however correct his case.

The star of the show was becoming Boaz Myhill, having one of his Premiership days, and with the interval approaching he made another excellent save to foil Smith, but City held on and took a 2-0 lead into the dressing room, along with thunderous acclaim.

The look on many faces at half-time was slightly dreamy – a two-nil lead at the break was certainly towards the upper end of realistic hopes, and with Watford FC miserably failing to provide alcoholic refreshment for their thirsty northern visitors, instead we intoned “bloody hell” quite a lot, and trooped back up in expectation of the classic Watford aerial bombardment, and in the hope we’d withstand it.

Watford did indeed threaten first, a looping header by Ellington going narrowly over, although the peerless Myhill appeared to be in the correct position for a more accurate effort. The City keeper then produced one of the best saves this correspondent can ever recall seeing in person, when a flashing shot by Sadler appeared to have wrong-footed him, only for a sudden change of direction and the thrusting of a giant paw to bat the ball behind for a corner. A truly astounding piece of goalkeeping, and once senses a pivotal moment – Watford began to visibly doubt they’d ever beat him, and moments later their chances took another turn for the worse.

With an hour gone, a horrendous challenge from Watford captain John Eustace prompted some pushing and shoving, with Ian Ashbee involved, though the City skipper was ostentatiously holding his arms aloft to demonstrate his unwillingness to incur Mr Friend’s ire. Once the dust had settled, Eustace was shown a straight red card – whether for his appalling tackle or for the subsequent handbags is unclear, but he petulantly flung away his armband, flounced from the field, and probably took Watford’s hopes along with him.

Shittu was the next to depart, the lumbering oaf hobbling off with what looked like a pulled hamstring – the splendidly named Jay DeMerit replaced him. Campbell flashed a shot over, Barmby went off to a tumultuous ovation (Fagan replacing him), and we luxuriated and partied in the summer sunshine.

A man down and flinging bodies forward, Watford left themselves badly exposed to City’s rapier-like counter-attacks, and the Tigers should have made the tie completely safe on 72 minutes when Frazier Campbell burst through a tiring back line to advance unimpaired upon Lee – however, his shot was hit weakly at the onrushing keeper, it bounced out to Garcia, who shovelled the ball over.

Garcia was then replaced by Doyle, who slotted in on the right-wing, while Boothroyd introduced O’Toole and Priskin, the latter looking quite lively and quickly prompting a smart save from Myhill. Back came City, and Doyle smacked the post with a terrific curling shot from twenty yards after a lovely piece of skill had created a yard of space for himself.

Watford looked quite deflated by this point, and those City fans stood at the top-left of the stand had some sport by cheerily waving farewell to Watford fans sullenly trudging home on the road behind the stand – regrettably, these merry nature of these good wishes were not universally reciprocated, which served only to raise further the spirits of their tormentors.

Meanwhile, Mr Friend advertised that Watford had four minutes of injury time to salvage their situation, but the only side that came close to scoring was City, with Lee again saving from Fraizer Campbell. And that was that.

The City players made a show of not being overly triumphal as they accepted our rapturous cheers at full-time – there’s little sense in providing Boothroyd’s team-talk on Wednesday for him, although a weary, sweaty, madly-grinning Phil Brown maybe betrayed just a little bit of emotion.

And who can really blame him? His charges are now just the avoidance of disaster on Wednesday away from a trip to Wembley. He knows of our history, he knows how much this would mean. It’s worth repeating though, if only because it’s a sentence we maybe thought would never apply to us: City are just 90 minutes away from a trip to Wembley to contest the right to play in the Premier League next season. (AD)