Sheffield Wednesday 1
During Radio Five Live's countdown to Saturday's FA Cup third round, two protagonists were given the chance to dream. Malcolm Crosby, the new manager of Oxford United, and Bobby Mimms, now back in Rotherham's goal, were asked to contemplate Wembley in May.
Crosby, who managed the last team from outside the top flight to reach the final, said the gulf between the Premiership and the rest was now so big he did not believe the feat could be emulated. Mimms said he could not realistically imagine Rotherham at the twin towers.
Rotherham's 5-1 home defeat by Sunderland showed Mimms was right while Oxford's 4-1 loss at Leeds underlined Crosby's argument, but Graham Taylor, writing in the Watford programme before the tie with Wednesday, dared to dream. He noted that "only a referee's decision" had prevented Chesterfield from reaching Wembley last season, a point echoed by Watford's long-serving Nigel Gibbs after the game.
"Chesterfield have inspired us all. Why can't a Second Division club get there?" Gibbs said.
They would need fortune in the draw but, when you remember Chesterfield, and hear about Emley, Stevenage Borough, Coventry and Port Vale on Saturday, anything seems possible. The top clubs may be richer than ever, the gap may be bigger than ever, but, in a one-off match the cliches about the Cup being a great leveller and anything can happen in 90 minutes still apply.
Why is this still so? Part of it is about heart, motivation and preparedness to get stuck in when you are soaked to the skin in a freezing gale. It is obviously easier for Stevenage to be motivated about playing Swindon than vice-versa. But another theory, one advanced by Watford, is that there is little to choose between players in basic ability, the difference is in consistently applying it.
"On our day we can beat them, but we have to play like that week-in, week-out to get in their division," said Gibbs, who almost played for Watford, as an 18-year-old, in the 1984 Cup final and has never been close to playing at Wembley again.
Taylor concurred. "Some people will say we played above ourselves, I don't accept that. The players showed what they are capable of. The reason certain players and teams are in the Premiership rather than the Second Division is that they maintain that level. What we've got to do now is go to Burnley on Saturday and play like that.
"A major difference I have found with lower division players is the disparity in home and away performance. The reason we're top is that our consistency has been the same home and away [Watford, seemingly promotion-bound, have won 27 home points and 28 away]."
Watford certainly looked the equal of Wednesday on Saturday. Two Wednesday players, Benito Carbone and Paolo Di Canio, clearly possessed more skill than anyone else on the pitch, but there was little to choose between the others with Watford's Peter Kennedy, Tommy Mooney, Micah Hyde and Richard Johnson looking very capable of stepping up in class.
Kennedy's performance underlined the talent that can be found at this level and the thin line between success and failure. A former sheet-metal worker in his native Northern Ireland, the 24-year-old joined Notts County last season, but struggled to assert himself in a struggling team.
By the time County went down to the Third he was in the reserves and contemplating returning to what Taylor called "the real world". Taylor got wind of his plight, sought recommendations from Colin Murphy and Gerry Armstrong, and signed him unseen. Eleven goals later the left wing-back's pounds 130,000 fee looks a bargain.
Watford's confident, fluid football belied Taylor's long-ball reputation and troubled Wednesday's nervous defence. However, with Ronny Rosenthal and Gifton Noel-Williams absent they lacked a cutting edge. Nathan Lowndes, 20, was given a full debut but, though he worried Wednesday, he did not have the necessary experience to remain poised in front of goal. Alongside him Jason Lee led the line well but looked no more likely to score than he had at Nottingham Forest.
Not that Wednesday had created much before, after 63 minutes, Di Canio and Carbone combined to set up Niclas Alexandersson to head in at the back post. Watford seemed destined to concentrate on promotion but, 13 seconds after the restart, Kennedy lashed in a 30-yard equaliser which was almost as stunning as Ron Atkinson's tan.
Di Canio was then brilliantly denied by Alec Chamberlain, but Watford finished the stronger and Pressman had to beat away a Gibbs drive to ensure a replay. That, however, is no home banker. "The hard work is still to be done," the glowing Atkinson said.
Before Crosby's Sunderland lost to Liverpool in 1992, Queen's Park Rangers, beaten by Spurs a decade earlier, were the last team from outside the top division to reach Wembley. No side from the lower two divisions have ever done so, though last year, Chesterfield - who were leading Middlesbrough 2-1 when David Elleray failed to give Jon Howard's "goal" - were the seventh to make a semi-final.
It won't be Chesterfield this year, they lost early on to a Grimsby team rapidly emerging as a Cup wild card. But, it could be Watford. Chesterfield won at Bolton last year and Wrexham, in a replay, at West Ham.
"We had to match them," Kevin Pressman, the Wednesday keeper, said. "The West Ham-Emley game shows you might have gifted and expensive players, but it is no guarantee. Everybody expected an upset here, but we rolled up our sleeves."
They will have to do so again in the replay if they are to ensure their superior status is reflected with a place in the fourth round.
Goals: Alexandersson (63) 0-1; Kennedy (64) 1-1.
Watford (3-5-2): Chamberlain; Page, Millen, Mooney; Gibbs, Hyde, Johnson, Easton, Kennedy; Lowndes (Thomas, 83), Lee. Substitutes not used: Palmer, Robinson, Rooney, Day (gk).
Sheffield Wednesday (4-1-3-2): Pressman; Nolan, Newsome, Walker, Pembridge; Atherton; Alexandersson, Rudi, Di Canio; Booth (Humphreys, 78), Carbone. Substitutes not used: Magilton, Nicol, Whittingham, Clarke (gk).
Referee: G Willard (Worthing).
Booking: Watford: Gibbs.
Man of the match: Mooney.