May 12, 2013. Vicarage Road. Watford versus Leicester. The second leg of the Championship playoffs. We find ourselves in the final moments of stoppage time. The ball is placed on the penalty spot in Watford’s box. Frenchman Anthony Knockaert stands before Spanish goalkeeper Manuel Almunia. The score stands at 2-1 in favor of the home team. Considering the first-leg result in Leicester ended 1-0, a successful penalty kick would send the visitors through to the final. There, they would vie for the third and final golden ticket to the Premier League’s opulent realm – a realm abundant with the riches of sponsors and broadcasting rights. The clock reads exactly 96.30.
The French attacking midfielder gathers momentum and unleashes a shot from the center. Almunia, who played having received injections to withstand the pain from a recent tendon injury, blocks it with his legs. The Frenchman follows through and attempts to slot the rebound from a mere meter away. The Spanish goalkeeper, just a week shy of turning 36, manages to rise and thwart the second shot. The clock shows 96.35, the stadium erupts, and the double save proves significant – a momentous though not definitive victory in a battle that seemed lost when the penalty was awarded. Yet, no one can write you off before the final chapter unfolds.
(On the playing field, there’s someone who knows this all too well. Striker Troy Deeney was absent from Watford’s summer training because he was in prison! In June, he had been sentenced to 10 months in jail for involvement in a brawl that saw Deeney kick the head of a fallen opponent. Due to good behavior and a previously honorable life, he was released after serving 3 months. Defying all who believed his career was over, the team decided to stand by him and give him a second chance. Merely days after his release, in his second appearance in the championship, he scored the winning goal against Huddersfield. As he stated himself, “When people write me off, that’s when I give it my all.” He reaffirmed this at 26 when he committed to studying, took exams, and obtained his Secondary Education Certificate, something he couldn’t achieve when he was younger as he dropped out of school to work in construction.)
Watford (of the eccentric Elton John, of course – who, two years later, personally called Troy Deeney to congratulate him on his first Premier League goal, shocking Deeney and his family: “People, including my mum, keep mentioning that he called me. Personally, I still find it somewhat surreal that Sir Elton John can call Troy Deeney from Chelsea. Even if he gave me his number, I wouldn’t keep it out of respect for him”) exploits the fervor surging through the stadium and launches a counterattack from the right. With the entire crowd on their feet, roaring, and urging the players to make one final effort.
At 96.48, a cross is sent into the box, a home team player makes a header backward, the ball settles around the penalty spot for Deany. The clock now shows 96.52, and what follows is a moment of pure, genuine football ecstasy, the kind that has no limits when experienced, a euphoria where the mind is so consumed by countless sensations of joy that all explode together in fractions of a second. The mind struggles to objectively rank these pleasures, and just as a true, uninspired killjoy would remind you, “Come on, it’s a Championship play-off semifinal, not the Champions League final.”
Deany found himself half-naked in the stands, hundreds of fans from all the other sections of the stadium took the exact opposite route, someone ignited a smoke bomb in the stands, momentarily forgetting they were in England. The Watford bench ended up on the pitch, Gianfranco Zola received the most beautiful slap of his life. The cliché “from hell to heaven” takes its, perhaps, most spectacular football interpretation.
Fifteen days later, Watford faced Crystal Palace in the final at Wembley. In the extra time of the first half of the extension, Palace was awarded a penalty. Surely, the images of the match against Leicester would have crossed the minds of many. Almunia couldn’t save this one either. Jokanović’s team didn’t have a response to the goal, and Palace secured the final ticket to the Premier League, slightly diminishing the objective value of their semifinal accomplishment. However, for those Watford fans who experienced it up close, it’s certain that they will never forget it.