‘Someone was smiling on us that day,’ says Ray Lewington. A twice-taken penalty by Tommy Smith was enough to give Watford victory and plunge the Stadium of Light into darkness.
Sunderland were on their way to a record low Premier League points total of 19 and had the look of a side that knew its number was up.
‘We did feel they might be there for the taking,’ says Lewington. ‘We knew the crowd might not be too patient with them. They had some chances early on and if they had taken them, it would have been a completely different game.’
Kevin Phillips should have scored after just nine minutes but he managed to shoot wide after being sent clear by Tore Andre Flo. That early miss seemed to shatter Sunderland’s already fragile confidence. Watford didn’t create many clear-cut chances but they did control possession, playing with the sort of poise you’d expect from the home team.
But if the Premiership experience had taught Watford anything, it’s that possession is not nine tenths of the law. You can appear in command one moment yet be dumped on your backsides the next.
Even dreadful teams can conjure up one moment of invention. The longer it went on, the more the Watford fans feared Sunderland would shake themselves out of their trough of mediocrity and create a chance.
On the hour, Sunderland made a double substitution, replacing Julio Arca and Flo with Talal El Karkouri and David Bellion. It did little to lift the home team but it has to be said, Watford didn’t look like scoring either.
Referee Mike Dean gave Watford a penalty. Heidar Helguson went down when he was sandwiched between Jody Craddock and Jason McAteer. Smith’s first penalty was weak and hit Thomas Sorensen’s legs. Sunderland thought they had got away with it. But Dean ordered it to be re-taken because Sorensen had moved off his line before Smith had kicked the ball. Smith’s second shot was not much better but it squeezed into the corner off Sorensen’s palm.
Alec Chamberlain had to rescue Watford a number of times in the last 20 minutes as Sunderland flooded forward in desperation. Howard Wilkinson blamed the referee for robbing his team but as Lewington said: ‘Yes, we got the benefit of a decision, which you don’t always get away from home, but you make your own luck.’
Waford Chamberlain, Ardley, Cox, Gayle, Robinson, Nielsen, Vernazza, Hyde, Mahon, Helguson, Smith (Doyley 86)
Manager Ray Lewington
Scorer Smith pen 65
Why was this match chosen? Watford were still reeling from the successive budget cuts and knew a cup run could bring in some vital cash. The fifth round draw had not been too kind – away to a Premier League club – although it offered hope because Sunderland were struggling. The twice-taken penalty added a bit of drama too.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? Ray Lewington worked miracles, really. Through no fault of his own, the squad got weaker with each passing year. There was still a lot of ability in the team at this point and a run to the semi-final of the FA Cup that season (where they lost to Southampton at Villa Park) gave plenty of reasons to cheer. This match was the outstanding result in that cup run.