LONDON -- With about 15 minutes remaining and the score at 0-2 in their FA Cup semifinal against Wolverhampton, some Watford fans seemed to head for the exits. By the time they would have made it to Wembley Park station, an extraordinary comeback that would see the Hornets reach their first final since 1984 was underway.
The man behind that comeback had only just come off the bench, but instantly almost got himself sent off. Gerard Deulofeu was pumped, unleashed after stewing for more than an hour among the substitutes, and he immediately went nose to nose with Joao Moutinho, shoving his head onto the Wolves man in that way footballers do, like posturing stags, trying to assert an alpha-male mentality without any actual aggression.
There was no harm done, but it was the sort of act that often results in dismissal. Had the on-pitch referee and then VAR taken another view, how different things could have been.
Deulofeu, once one of the most promising and hyped graduates of Barcelona's La Masia talent factory, started the turnaround with an extraordinary effort, a sort of curled flick that arced way above the massed Wolves defenders and dropped into the corner of the net. It was a goal as original as it was impressive, the sort of thing most players wouldn't even spot, let alone attempt, let alone pull off.
"In that moment he was angry [about being on the bench]," said Watford manager Javi Gracia afterwards. "But I like to see my players this way, with that attitude. When they feel angry, they want to show what they're able to do."
And after Troy Deeney hammered home an injury-time penalty, Deulofeu manufactured a winner in extra time, speeding past a punch-drunk Wolves defence to carefully steer Watford into the final. A player who, in his time with Barcelona, Sevilla, AC Milan, Everton and now Watford, has punctuated long stretches of anonymity with flashes of remarkable talent, timed his latest burst of the latter to perfection.
Then, 10 minutes later he was gone again, the substitute substituted after going over on his ankle. Deulofeu had been on the pitch for about 45 minutes in total: as it turned out, more than enough time to completely change this semifinal. "The little man," said Deeney afterwards, "added magic."
What a semifinal this was. For a while in the first half it felt like these two teams were too evenly matched, their respective qualities cancelling each other out. Then Wolves took the lead, doubled it and were cruising.
At the time it seemed fitting that Matt Doherty, the one member of this Wolves squad who has been with them since they dropped down to League One six years ago, had scored the goal to set them on the way to their first FA Cup final since 1960. Raul Jimenez, signed from Benfica, got the second, the two sides of modern Wolves combining to put a cap on their remarkable rise.
When Nuno Espirito Santo arrived in 2017, he was their fifth manager inside a year and found a team that had just finished 15th in the Championship. This seemed like it was the culmination of an extraordinary couple of years. "We had it. We had it," repeated Nuno afterwards.
Enter Deulofeu and Deeney. Watford won this game with the former's skill and the latter's nerve. For a moment, think about how you might feel in Deeney's position: you're tasked with taking a 94th-minute penalty; you were fouled for that penalty; it's for the club you're captain of, for whom you've played since 2010; the club who gave you a second chance after spending three months in jail for affray in 2012. If you score, the momentum is with you for extra time. If you miss, the best chance you'll probably ever get of making the FA Cup final is gone.
The tension was inflated by a delay as the award of the penalty was confirmed by VAR. In this time Deeney stood apart from the other 21 players, looking into the middle distance and clearing his head. He placed the ball on the spot, then decided he wasn't quite ready, picked it up, stepped back before putting it down again. "I calmed myself down and put myself in training mode," he said afterwards, which is easier said than done when you've got 80,000 people screaming at you.
"In that moment, I was full of confidence," said Gracia. "I was calm, because I knew he would score." It turns out the man who took the penalty and his manager were the only two calm people in Wembley.
When Deeney eventually struck it, the ball nearly removed the net from the posts. From that moment it felt like Watford had broken Wolves and would inevitably win, but you need someone to convert that potential into reality. "We knew before the game, when we started with other players, Gerard would be important [when he came on] with more space," said Gracia. "We knew."
Gracia insisted that neither he nor his players would be thinking about the final against Manchester City on May 18, and he did so with a straight face. Naturally he can't expect anyone to believe that, but for the moment Watford will bask in this glory.
"We tried until the end," said Gracia, "and sometimes it happens if you believe."