The FA Cup has a habit of bringing people together from every rung of the football ladder. Part-timers and plumbers can face off against the pampered professionals of the Premier League, men who play for their nations in global competitions. It’s the magic of the cup.
When the draw for the third round was made in early December 2019, I kept a keen eye on Tranmere Rovers, my adopted team from Birkenhead (see my previous trips for a history lesson). As the draw progressed I kept hoping Rovers would receive an away tie to a southern team, so I could get there with relative ease. Finally, their ball was drawn and Tranmere were rewarded with an away visit to Watford, of the Premier League. I was overjoyed and knew I had to be there.
And with that the date was set, Saturday 4th January 2020, and my ticket was sorted thanks to my pal Matt (who was never going to miss this one). I boarded my train in the morning, transferred through London and arrived into Watford shortly after 1pm. I met Matt and a couple of his mates in a local pub for some pre-match drinks. The place had been descended upon by hundreds of travelling Tranmere supporters. There was white and blue everywhere.
A short walk from the town centre saw us arrive at the home of the Hornets, Vicarage Road. The 22,000 capacity ground has played host to Watford for close to a hundred years and is a very sleek and impressive stadium, with a gorgeous pitch. We quickly found our seats and began singing along with the 2,500 plus from Tranmere. The SWA were in fine voice and the Vicarage Road faithful were drowned out by the cacophony of noise from our stand.
For 10 minutes it was going so well and Micky Mellon’s side had acquitted themselves against their Premier League opposition.
Then disaster struck.
Within a four-minute period Tranmere found themselves 2-0 down thanks to a combination of awful defending from the visitors and clinical finishing from the home team. The goals came as a shock and were largely of Tranmere’s making. Watford were making it look easy and Rovers just couldn’t get a foothold in the game.
In the 34th minute Watford extended the lead to 3-0, and you felt the game was dead and buried. The poor chap stood behind us had seen enough. Head in hands, now slumped in his seat, he was in the midst of an existential crisis. “They’re a disgrace,” he said, over and over. Watford’s third goal was all he could stomach, and he was gone soon afterwards, to the pub he said.
The referee brought the first half to a close and we were understandably shell-shocked. Tranmere are just trying to survive in League One this season; what did we expect from a trip to a Premier League team? At 3-0 down, I honestly just wanted to see Tranmere avoid further humiliation and maybe get a consolation goal to restore some pride.
Micky Mellon and his team hadn’t given up hope. The manager made wholesale changes at half time, scrapping his five at the back formation as he restored the defence to a back four. Corey Blackett-Taylor was introduced to take his place on the left wing and instantly made an impact, terrorising the Watford right back with driving runs and fancy tricks. He looked dangerous every time he touched the ball, and Watford knew it.
Suddenly the hosts looked disjointed, a team of teenagers and reserves caught completely off-guard. Had complacency set in? Watford looked like they had already booked their passage through to the next round. Tranmere had other plans.
In the 65th minute, we were given a flash of hope. Blackett-Taylor took a corner only to see it cleared back to him for a second attempt, and his cross found an unmarked Connor Jennings for an easy header to make it 3-1.
Matt and I were in full celebration but I felt a hand on my arm. The woman next to me said, “no, look at the linesman!” I looked to the pitch and she was right, the flag was up. Goal disallowed. I threw my hands in the air at the injustice, our sole moment of joy stolen away.
But this was the FA Cup, at a Premier League stadium, with all it’s bells and whistles. Which meant VAR, that scourge of modern football, had to be consulted. With the possibility of VAR restoring the goal, we began to chant for the technology gods to look upon us favourably.
“V A R! V A R! V A R!“
The referee had his hand to his earpiece. Then he made the square shape in the air in front of him and pointed towards the half way line. The goal was given! We celebrated again, this time safe in the knowledge justice had been served, and the SWA burst into song once more, louder than ever.
I looked to Matt and said, “if we can just get one more, there could actually be a game here.” It was wishful thinking from me at the time.
Watford still had a two-goal lead but they were definitely rattled. Tranmere kept coming at them, with Blackett-Taylor leading the charge.
He was involved once again in the 78th minute. Blackett-Taylor sent a free kick from close to the corner flag into the Watford box and goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann looked set to pluck it safely from the air. But Bachmann dropped the ball at the feet of Morgan Ferrier, whose first-time shot could only hit Watford bodies in defence. The rebound fell kindly to Tranmere centre back Manny Monthe, who turned on the ball to fire into the back of the net to make it 3-2.
We couldn’t believe it. The comeback was well and truly on. Belief that a result could be salvaged was coursing through the players and fans, and our stand was physically bouncing in euphoria.
With time running out, Tranmere pressed for the equaliser. A perfectly timed tackle from Kieron Morris won back possession for Jennings who crossed instantly to Blackett-Taylor (him again.) The winger’s touch took him and the defending fullback to the byline, a race for the ball. As both men entered the penalty box, Blackett-Taylor was hauled down by a sliding challenge.
“Penalty!” we pleaded at the top of our lungs, but the referee was adamant there was no foul. He even (hilariously) made the ball shaped gesture to the enquiring Tranmere players.
Ah, but remember. It’s the FA Cup and VAR needs to be checked, again.
We started up the chant once more: “V A R! V A R! V A R!”
The tension was building with every passing second and I have to admit, the excitement of waiting for the VAR decision only added to the drama and enjoyment. I never expected to say that. The referee soon received news of the decision, he took his hand off his ear, and pointed directly to the penalty spot. The SWA and I screamed in delight: this is it!
Striker Paul Mullin, on as a substitute for the terrific Ferrier, had the ball firmly gripped in his hands the entire time VAR was consulted. Somehow, he just knew the ball belonged to him for this moment. Mullin calmly placed the ball on the spot and prepared himself. His run-up was short and there was no hesitation. Mullin absolutely smashed the ball, put his laces right through it, and crashed past the helpless keeper. The score was 3-3 and somehow, Tranmere had done it. The League One side from the Wirral had completed the most unexpected of comebacks.
Everywhere I looked was pure chaos. Shirts were off, limbs were everywhere, people bouncing and singing in unison and celebrating the moment.
There were still a few minutes left to close out the result. I had the shaky knees by this point. Whenever I get shaky knees in the final stages of a football match, I know it’s a sign the game has been quality.
The Tranmere fans had one more moment to enjoy when pantomime villain Roberto Pereyra (who had been a dick all afternoon) was shown a straight red card for a putting Morris on his back illegally. It was a lot of fun waving Pereyra off the pitch.
Shortly afterwards the referee blew his whistle for the final time and I punched the air in relief and delight, along with the thousands in white and blue around me. We applauded the players and manager as they came forward in appreciation of our support. A replay back to Prenton Park secured!
As we walked back into Watford I was still stunned, struggling to grasp what I’d seen. Together we had witnessed a little piece of FA Cup history, one of the most unlikely comebacks you’ll ever see. We couldn’t merely part ways and go straight home; we had far too much energy to release and so much to discuss. Back to the pub we journeyed for a debrief.
After a few drinks and obligatory tequila, I said my goodbyes to Matt and the boys to catch my train back to London and home. At half time it looked to be one of those forgettable days at the football, one you’d prefer to forget anyway. In the end, it was arguably the best experience I’ve had watching Tranmere Rovers, and one that’ll live long in the memory.
They say football is a game of two halves. Tranmere proved that is still very much the case.