The FA Cup has still got it. Try as some might to kill it off and downgrade its significance, Watford and Wolverhampton Wanderers produced a classic Wembley semi-final as a reminder that this great old competition can still touch all the sport’s senses.
Watford’s remarkable victory that confirmed their return to meet Manchester City in their first final since 1984 on 18 May, had all the classic FA Cup ingredients.
Manchester City’s win over Brighton on Saturday was a low-key affair, played out against the backdrop of empty seats and an atmosphere far removed from what these occasions should be and used to be.
Fast forward 24 hours and Wembley was a packed house, a cascade of colour dressed in the yellow of Watford and the old gold of Wolves – and playing host to a thriller that can take its place alongside the great FA Cup games.
It was a tale that had a hero, heartbreak, glory, regret and a grandstand finish that tested the nerves of managers, players and supporters to the limit.
The story unfolded in front of supporters who packed Wembley Way in their colourful thousands hours before kick-off, giving the occasion the feel of an old-school final in all but name.
Wolves were narrow favourites in what was almost a 50-50 contest and it looked like Watford would be the team wondering what might have been as goals either side of half-time by Matt Doherty and Raul Jimenez gave Nuno Espirito Santo’s side total control.
The Mexico striker, whose £30m move from Benfica was confirmed days before this semi-final, celebrated lavishly by donning a wrestling mask placed behind the goal that was sent to him by his friend, WWE superstar Sin Cara.
Nuno reacted joyously and the Wolves fans, here in vast numbers, were looking ahead to this great old club’s first FA Cup Final since May 1960, when Blackburn Rovers were beaten 3-0.
What could possibly go wrong?
It is never wise to ask those questions in the FA Cup and in Wolves’ case the answer was Gerard Deulofeu.
This maverick 25-year-old, a player of undoubted talent but unfulfilled potential at Barcelona, Everton, Sevilla and AC Milan, chose what looked like Watford’s losing cause to produce a cameo performance as substitute that will write his name into Vicarage Road folklore.
Lionel Messi would have appreciated the stroke of genius from his former Nou Camp team-mate that put Watford back in the game after 79 minutes, an astonishing instinctive flick from the angle of the penalty area that sent the ball arcing over Wolves keeper John Ruddy into the top corner.
Watford suddenly had the momentum and Wolves subsided under late pressure as Nuno took off his creative forces Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota to stem the tide and see out the win.
It was to no avail – because there is no Watford show without Troy Deeney.
Watford’s talisman was always going to have his say and it came deep into stoppage time when he was fouled by Leander Dendoncker. Referee Michael Oliver waited to confirm the decision in his own mind, called it right, and Deeney remained calm through VAR confirmation to lash the equaliser past Ruddy.
Wolves players slumped to the turf. Their fans were silenced.
It is too easy to criticise Nuno’s substitutions because nine out of 10 times they will go off without incident.
Sadly for Wolves, this was number 10.
Watford were not to be denied and Deulofeu, inevitably, was the match winner with a finish combining acceleration and composure in extra time.
This was the final chapter of a semi-final that revived any lost belief in the FA Cup.
Watford and Wolves showed, and have shown throughout the competition this season, how much this matters, how much the FA Cup still means.
As the strains of Sir Elton John, Watford’s most famous supporter, swept around Wembley stadium, Hornets fans celebrated with joyous disbelief. They had been taken to the heights of elation after facing despair.
In contrast, after giving their players an ovation, the Wolves’ fans were left to their devastation as they left Wembley and headed back up the M40 wondering how what looked like certain victory had been torn from their grasp, the wins over Liverpool and Manchester United in previous rounds now counting for nothing.
If anyone wanted to ask that vexed question about just how much the FA Cup still means, they could have posed it to these two sets of supporters at the final whistle – with wildly differing results.
This, in some respects, was a throwback FA Cup semi-final.
No so-called “Big Six” – simply two fine, well-run clubs throwing everything at each other in the fight for the great prize of a place in the final in a trophy they still feel is within their compass.
Nuno has done an outstanding job at Wolves, producing an attractive, organised side – but it will take some time to recover from this agonising loss.
As for Watford, what a job the under-stated Gracia has done and he was rightly given a hero’s reception as he smiled and waved modestly as their fans when he made his way back to the tunnel after the celebrations.
Gracia has a team with real resolve, tested to the maximum here, talent, steel and a self-belief epitomised by the leader Deeney.
Deeney is not shy. He is happy to talk the talk.
The decisive moment, deep into injury time with everything on the line and the pressure immense, was when he proved conclusively he can talk the talk. He stared at Watford’s fans to compose himself, to take in the moment, before demonstrating such reliability from the spot. He was not going to leave wondering. He thundered the spot-kick into the back of the net.
Deeney and Deulofeu will claim the plaudits but Watford are a team from the top down and this was their reward.