Gray’s goal 11 minutes from time booked Watford’s place at Wembley for the second time in four years after a passionate quarter-final at Vicarage Road, which the hosts were good value for edging. They took advantage of increasing first-half momentum to move ahead on the half-hour when Etienne Capoue was teed up by Craig Cathcart after Vincent Guiata missed a punch from a corner. But Michy Batshuayi then levelled after half-time following a horrible mistake from Adrian Mariappa.
Nearly 35 years since their solitary appearance in the FA Cup final under Graham Taylor, Watford now have the chance under Gracia to emulate that famous side by reaching the Wembley showpiece match in May for a second time. The Spaniard’s name reverberated around the stadium at the final whistle as the veteran goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes – who is planning to take up a new career as a pastor at the end of the season – wept tears of joy. “When the team was suffering in the second half they were very important for the team,” Gracia said of his club’s fans. “I think they really lifted our players.”
It had been a long time coming, but finally Watford have their revenge. After losing to Crystal Palace in the 2013 Championship play-off final and the 2016 FA Cup semi-final, they have made it past their bogey team. As the crowd sang loud at the final whistle, Javi Gracia’s side are on their way to Wembley. And in the process they have consigned Roy Hodgson to another season without an FA Cup semi-final appearance.
The tide of confidence was rolling by 11.15. That’s when “it’s bloody Palace, isn’t it?” was swept over and crushed. But in effect the build up to that wave, the little ripples, started at least a week earlier as Palace lost to Brighton, Southampton and Newcastle earned unlikely wins and the Eagles started looking over their shoulders again. So when Zaha pulled a calf muscle in training it was never going to be risked.
The 1881 had put incredible efforts into making sure that there would be a tremendous atmosphere. When we took our seats, the ground was already full of people waving flags. The big screen was showing footage of earlier quarter-finals. I enjoyed watching John Barnes lobbing Tony Coton in 1984, but it is the Arsenal game in 1987 that always comes to mind. I loved that day out at Highbury.
Prior to the game there was a lot of talk about Watford refusing to give Crystal Palace fans the entire Vicarage Road End and instead allocate them the absolute minimum number of tickets they could. This involved a lot of netting having to be put out in the stand…