The Lead Up
Sunday May 12th, 2013, Vicarage Road. That was the date and place of the magical game which was an EFL championship playoff match. After not gaining a direct promotion spot to the Premier League, Watford’s last hope was the lottery, where they would hope to get an ‘easy’ team to face off against and gain access to England's top flight of football. Luckily enough for them, the team they would play against in the semi finals was the worst placed team in playoff contention, Leicester City. With high hopes for promotion, Watford were ready to face the challenge ahead of them.
In the first leg of the matchup, Watford were stunned by Leceister at King Power stadium, where they lost 1-0 to a header by David Nugent. This immediately shattered the hopes of many Watford fans, since even though the second game would be in Watford’s home field, a win would be highly unlikely. Nevertheless, some fans were still confident, which is why a nearly packed Vicarage Road (16,142 fans) set the stage for the second match of the playoff semi-final. As the stage was set, Watford had a mission: winning the semi-final to face off against Crystal Palace in the playoff final.
As the match finally got underway, the chants of 16,000 fans were more than enough to push Watford forward, as they got a near perfect start to the match which they NEEDED to win. 15 minutes in, Matej Vydra, who was later named championship player of the year, scored a beautiful volley goal with a pass from Marco Cassetti. However soon later, at the 19 minute mark David Nugent scored once again, reestablishing the lead in the aggregate, which was now 2-1 in favour of Leicester City. With a 1-1 match score, the first half ended, with Watford still having to fight back if they wanted a potential spot in the Premier League next season.
Once the second half got underway, not much happened until the 64th minute, when Matej Vydra proved himself crucial to watford once again, as a brilliant link up with captain Troy Deeney secured a goal, which would make the aggregate 2-2. However, contrary to what most people might think, although the year was 2013, there was actually no “away goal rule”, since the FA abolished the rule in 1999, way before UEFA. This means that even though Leicester had scored an away goal, if the match remained as it was, it would go on to extra-time and potentially penalties. But as we all know, that is not what happened.
With 7 minutes of added time to the match, nearly all 16,000 fans were expecting extratime, and therefore were all undoubtedly nervous. However, completely unprecedentedly, in the final minute of the time added on, Marco Cassetti, who had given the assist to Vydra’s first goal knocked Knockaert down in the penalty area, where Michael Oliver awarded Leicester City a penalty, seemingly making it the last kick of the game. At this point in the match, the situation was clear. Both teams had already used two of their allowed three subs: Forrestieri, Hogg for Watford and Drinkwater, Kane for Leceister. It was also clear that whatever happened after the penalty kick would decide the fate of the match. If Leicester scored, they would go on to play the final against Crystal Palace, but if the penalty was saved or missed, the game would go into extra time and fans would then be in for a breathtaking final 30 minutes. Despite this, surprisingly enough, none of the two happened.
As Knockaert walked up to the spot, two factors stood out to the reporters. Firstly, the fact that this was going to be Anthony Knockaert’s first ever penalty kick for the Foxes in all competitions, and secondly the fact that it seemed as if Knockaert had somewhat dived in the penalty box in order to get awarded the penalty. However, if there is one saying that usually becomes true in football it's the following: Unfair penalties are never a goal. As Knockaert ran up and kicked the ball straight to the center of the goal, Almunia saved it. In near poetic fashion, Almunia managed to save it using only the tip of his foot, as if he were holding on to Watford’s final breath. Despite the save, it was not over yet, as Knockaert would now have the opportunity to score with the rebound. Despite being knocked down, Almunia slowly launched his body in the direction of the ball, clearly still in awe of what he had just done.
Ironically enough, the player who managed to clear the ball was Marco Cassetti, proving himself crucial once again despite committing the penalty. In magical fashion, the ball landed at the feet of Ikechi Anya, who quickly dispatched the ball to recently subbed in player Fernando Forrestieri. While the crowd still roared in happiness at what had just happened, they soon started to notice that they not only had saved themselves from a loss, but they seemed to have a chance at winning the match. With the aggregate tied at 2-2 and the ball at Forrestieri’s feet, the match was about to end in a spectacular manner.
As Forrestieri conducted the ball down the right flank, less than a minute was left on the clock. With a cross whipped into the far post, yet another substitute had a massive impact on the match, and this time it was Jonathan Hogg. With a header towards the center of the box, which seemingly no one inhabited, out came captain Troy Deeney, dashing into the penalty box and smashing a volley into a goalkeeperless goal. This led to the iconic line by the narrator: “Knockaert takes, Almunia saves. Knockaert follows in, Almunia saves again! Absolutely astonishing! Now here come Watford, Forestieri. Here's Hogg, DEEEEEEEENEEEEEYYY! DO NOT SCRATCH YOUR EYES! You are really seeing the most extraordinary finish here!". This line has resonated across social media even 10 years later, and will forever be considered one of the most iconic finishes to a game in the history of sports.
The irony of the missed penalty after diving, the two touches from the subbed in players, the goal from the captain. Everything down to the last second was perfect, even Deeney’s celebration, where he shook his shirt around and jumped in with the fans. Interestingly enough, the time difference between Almunia’s save and Deeney's goal was of only 20 seconds which goes to show how quick the goal happened. The pure despair on Knockaert’s face after Watford scored is also iconic, as he notices that all of Leicester’s chances at promotion were gone.
At the end of the day, Watford did make it to the playoff final in Wembley stadium, where over 80,000 fans presented themselves to watch the matchup against Crystal Palace. Unfortunately, the Hornets’ luck had run out, as they lost 1-0, missing their chance at promotion. Although Watford couldn't complete the job, this will never take away from the brilliant ending they had against Leicester City, as they forever engraved their name in the history of sports.