For half an hour, Watford absolutely battered Birmingham. On a warm, bright Sunday afternoon the Hornets threw themselves forward and had the ball in the net after just five minutes.
A Peter Kennedy corner was headed in by Michel Ngonge. Yes. The first blow had been landed. Now for another. Come on, let’s get another.
Watford gave everything they had but wave after wave of attack fell just short. They had a string of chances but that second goal simply didn’t come. Nick Wright lobbed the keeper and watched as the ball skimmed the bar. In the second half, Tommy Mooney hit the post with a header.
There was a sense of anxiety among the crowd. A fear that one-nil might not be enough.
‘We played so well and dominated for long periods,’ says Nick Wright. ‘We were very pleased because we’d come up with a plan and it worked well. We played with a front three; Michel in the middle, Tommy and me out wide. They had Gary Rowett, Martin Grainger and Michael Johnson at the back. We knew that of the three, Johnson was the least comfortable on the ball, so the plan was to press Grainger and Rowett but allow Johnson time to be the one to play the ball out. This worked well for us because it meant we won a lot of the ball, often in areas high up the pitch.’
After 19 minutes, Paul Robinson was booked for throwing the ball away – a rush of blood to the head the 20-year-old would come to regret.
In the second half, as Birmingham sought to get themselves off the hook. Trevor Francis threw on Peter Ndlovu.
Quarter of an hour from the end, Ndlovu broke clear and Robinson ran across to challenge him. The tackle was late and rash and Ndlovu made the most of it. The referee showed Robinson a second yellow card and the distraught youngster trudged off knowing he would miss the second leg.
The Blues did come close to getting an equaliser when Alec Chamberlain dropped a cross and had to scramble to stop either Dele Adebola or Paul Furlong from putting it into the net.
When the final whistle went, there was a sense of immense relief but also frustration. The score should have been far more convincing.
In the dressing room, the players sat, slightly deflated, knowing that another goal would have put them in a far, far stronger position.
But on the other hand, they had seen out the match with ten men and kept a clean sheet, which might prove vital in the second leg.
‘We were disappointed because we over-ran them at times,’ says Mooney. ‘Michel and I beat up the centre halves. We were stereotypical, I suppose, but people couldn’t cope with us. We were organised and single-minded, good at set-pieces. It wasn’t rocket science but we focused on what we were good at.’
Taylor told them to forget the game and move on. They had won the game. Now all they had to do was travel to St Andrew’s and see it through...
Watford Chamberlain, Bazeley, Kennedy, Page, Palmer, Robinson, Ngonge (Hazan 81), Hyde, Mooney, Johnson, Wright (Smart 67)
Manager Graham Taylor
Scorer Ngonge 5
Why was this match chosen? A sunny Sunday afternoon at Vicarage Road. A big crowd. Nerves on edge. An early goal to settle the crowd, then the stress of being reduced to ten men and wondering if a 1-0 lead would be enough to take into the second leg. This is what football is about.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? It wasn't a great game, but it meant so much. Confidence coursed through Watford after a stunning end to the season, but to keep the run going against a much-fancied Birmingham side meant we really could start dreaming of a return to Wembley.