Sorry Seems to be the Final Word
Nick Catley on Watford's seeming inability to win that last game of the season
The Pozzo years have, indisputably, been a golden era for the club – one of very few not presided over by Graham Taylor. In living memory, you could potentially add the Holton and Furphy eras, and not much else. And yet, success’s golden boot has contained an enormous Achilles heel. Why have we been so bad at the end of seasons generally, and on the last day in particular? The eight completed Pozzo seasons have arguably had ten final days – twice, there’s been a scheduled one, and a Wembley finale, in itself a sign of our achievements. But in these ten games, our record reads won none, drawn two, lost eight, scored eight, conceded 29.
Part of the reason, of course, is that promotion led to us playing extremely good sides. Our 5-0 defeat at to Manchester City at Vicarage Road in 2017 has been nothing out of the ordinary in recent years – a few months later, they beat us 6-0 at home and I maintain we didn’t play badly. A club can’t normally be a bogey team if you keep losing to them simply because they’re just much better than you, yet our run against Manchester City has been so sustained, and involved so many goals conceded, that it’s difficult not to think of them in this way. One of the last days, of course, was 2019’s Cup Final. I desperately want to look back with pride at the fact that we got there in the first place, and sometimes I manage to, but sometimes I don’t, despite our flag-waving defiance.
Partly, the games have been meaningless end-of-season fixtures – another indicator of relative success, or at least comfortable Premier League survival. Even then, though, we’ve often found ways to plumb the depths fairly impressively. One of the two draws was in 2016 against, effectively, a Sunderland reserve side, who’d just secured safety and made nine changes from the previous week. Two years previously, we’d put in a shocking performance to lose 4-1 to a fairly innocuous Huddersfield outfit. Talk of open revolt was rife at that time, with rumours that Alexander Merkel was among the ringleaders, and certainly the club’s response when Merkel’s London home was burgled that summer, after his contract had ended, of ‘Merkel is not with us now so it is nothing to do with us’, did little to suggest he’d left on favourable terms.
The 1-0 defeat at Manchester United in 2018 might count as the best final day of the lot, given the absurdly poor competition. 2019’s last League game, a 4-1 loss at home to West Ham, could be forgiven for a team about to play a Cup Final, but even then it was worryingly comprehensive, a third consecutive defeat, and appeared to have led to José Holebas missing the big game through a later-rescinded red card.
Then there are the ones, other than the Cup Final, that still hurt even now, to a greater or lesser degree…
Funnily enough, neither of 2013’s last days fit this description particularly. Looking back, the series of pitfalls surrounding the last League game, at home to Leeds, feel almost cartoonish, as if we were Wile E. Coyote blundering into the Road Runner’s traps – Almunia’s pre-game injury, Bond stretchered off, and poor Jack Bonham left to face the music. Deeney’s dismissal gave the whole day an air of hopelessness long before Bonham’s final fumble, though we came closer than I gave us credit for at the time.
We just didn’t turn up for the play-off final, of course, though I wasn’t especially surprised. Brighton and Palace drew the first leg of their semi-final at Selhurst Park, so a Wembley date with Albion had looked on the cards. This would have been a fantastic day – both teams played attractive football that year, and there was little enmity between the fans, so we’d have gone to Wembley, had a lovely time – and won. We’d have let each other play, and we were better at that than they were.
However, when Palace went to Brighton and won 2-0 to reach the big game, I was immediately apprehensive. Three months earlier, on a Friday night at Vicarage Road, we were 2-0 up on Palace within 15 minutes, after which we barely got a kick, and were lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw. Sadly the 120 minutes at Wembley were essentially a continuation of those 75. Defeat has never felt so inevitable.
Even that memory has faded, though – we got there in the end, and promotion that year might have been too early. And if the Leeds game had gone to plan, That Goal would never have existed, and Doncaster’s similar winner at Brentford from two weeks earlier would have an awful lot more YouTube views.
The defeat at Ashburton Grove on 2020’s last day should probably have been a painful one, but we had long since ceased to look like a team that could go to Accrington and win, never mind Arsenal, although the extent to which survival was there for the taking does remain frustrating, even now. Not being there to see it has also lent an air of distance.
Which leaves just one. A day which remains my most painful in a football ground by some distance.
All fans want their clubs to win trophies, but despite Leicester’s 2016 title win, the main cups still seem almost impossibly out of reach for a club our size. If anything, the 2019 Cup Final served to emphasise just how far we were away from winning something significant.
So what’s the biggest title within our realistic reach? How about winning a division we’d never won before? How about winning the highest league within our grasp? How about putting that beautiful trophy on our metaphorical mantelpiece, confident old money compared to the Premier League’s tawdry bauble (which, incidentally, looks like something an overindulgent parent with too much money might consider buying a temperamental child for being ‘best at hugs’ or similar, or that an owner of a personalised numberplate might consider just a little too tacky)? How about seeing that distinguished senior citizen being cavorted about the Vicarage Road pitch?
Well, we were nearly there. As stoppage time began, the heart-stopping, gut-churning realisation that that Heurelho wasn’t going to reach that bouncing effort which provided Sheffield Wednesday’s equaliser on 2015’s final day remains the worst feeling I’ve ever had at a game. The whole thing was, of course, made infinitely worse by those invading the pitch believing it didn’t matter. Even now, I can’t face the possibility that these idiots may actually have influenced the result. I sat down and put my head in my hands. It’s still the only final day I’ve yet to properly come to terms with. Why would I relive this cavalcade of misery? Two reasons, really. One can be summed up by REM – ‘I know that this is vitriol/No solution, spleen-venting/But I feel better having screamed don’t you?’ or, more succinctly, by Bernie and Elton – ‘Sad songs say so much’. It’s been cathartic for me, and hopefully for you too. More than that, though – we’re due. At the time of writing, it isn’t clear exactly what will be at stake at home to Swansea on the last day, but a glorious era is due a glorious season finale. So let’s have it.