- Sunday May 4 2008
Top of the Championship for 99 days and with a nine-point advantage after 12 games, Watford eventually secured their play-off place by the narrowest of margins. "We've got in by one goal," said their manager, Aidy Boothroyd. "It's a huge relief." His emotions were understandable. For 20 first-half minutes, they had effectively been demoted to seventh place by scores elsewhere.
Salvation came in the form of their goal difference, superior to that of Wolves, and from one of their own. Now in his second spell at Vicarage Road, Tommy Smith was born in Hemel Hempstead and is a product of the club's academy. His second-half leveller, after Ben Burgess had put Blackpool ahead in the second minute, was the most meaningful contribution of his long association with the Hertfordshire club.
It was still more significant, too, because it came barely two minutes after his side had been depleted by Darius Henderson's dismissal. "When we needed to pull it out of the bag with 10 men, we've done it," added Boothroyd. While his side reorganised, Smith embarked on a solo run that culminated in a skimming drive, which nestled the ball in the far corner of Paul Rachubka's net.
Watford still required some fortune, not least when Stephen McPhee drilled a low shot against the near post. "It was nervy at the start, it was nervy in the middle and it was nervy at the end," said Boothroyd, though even the final whistle did not bring respite. His players then endured an awkward vigil on the pitch, awaiting the final score from Molineux. Nervous expressions betrayed the feelings of the majority before the confirmation of the extension to their season arrived.
However, they will be without their top scorer for the first leg of the double header with Hull. Henderson's penchant for the illegal has irked opponents all season. Now it resulted in a red card and a one-match ban. Already cautioned for deliberate handball, he clashed with Kaspars Gorkss, leaving the Latvian clutching his face. Boothroyd admitted: "When you're on a yellow card, there is a fine line and when you are a player as intimidating and as physical as Darius is, sometimes your reputation goes before you."
Watford's is starting to count against them. After a succession of aimless punts, the question was posed by the Blackpool fans: "Can you pass it on the floor?" The answer came in the negative as the ball was propelled onward and, especially, upward with the seeming intention of discovering if the Blackpool breeze could divert it into the nearby Irish Sea.
Indeed, Blackpool were the more comfortable in possession. Yet since procuring 35 points from their opening 15 fixtures, Watford's has been the form of relegation strugglers, rather than potential members of the Premier League. They proceed to the play-offs with a solitary win in 14 games, but Boothroyd is adamant that the statistic is irrelevant. "Form goes out of the window," he insisted. "It's about big-game players and being strong and organised and keeping your nerve, and that's what we've got to do."
Their nerve was tested after 65 seconds when Lee Williamson failed to clear Hoolahan's corner and Burgess hooked in his 10th goal of the season. Equipped with the Championship's best away record, Watford responded forcefully. Rachubka made a succession of stops. The first, depriving Nathan Ellington of a rare goal, required an element of luck; however, a double save to deny first Smith and then Henderson could brook no debate.
The eventual equaliser denied Blackpool victory, but the Lancastrians guaranteed their safety. Twelve months ago, they were play-off victors and for manager Simon Grayson, who has quietly moulded an attractive side on a limited budget, survival is the greater feat. "This has got to surpass that," he explained. "The players have been up against million-pound players in front of crowds of 20 or 30,000. They can look themselves in the mirror in the morning and be very proud of what they've achieved."
Man of the match: Wes Hoolahan (Blackpool)
Blackpool (4-4-2): Rachubka; Barker, Evatt, Gorkss, Coid; Hoolahan, Southern, Jorgensen, Martin (Morrell, 75); Burgess (Holt, 87), McPhee (Fox, 87) Substitutes not used: Flinders, Jackson
Watford (4-4-2): Lee; Doyley, Shittu, Bromby, Sadler; Smith, Williamson (Mariappa, 90), Eustace, McAnuff; Henderson, Ellington Substitutes not used: Poom, O'Toole, Ainsworth, Priskin Booked: Henderson Sent off: Henderson
Referee: G Laws