Amid the sort of drama that saw Watford first lift the FA Youth Cup in 1982 with a 4-4 draw at Vicarage Road in a second leg tie with Manchester United, the Hornets bowed out of the competition on penalties this evening.
Twice in front and ahead with 45 second of normal time, David Horseman’s side were taken to extra time and then beaten, 4-2, on spot-kicks. It was rough that Charlie Rowan, in particular, and Michael Folivi missed as they were Watford’s stand-out players on a bitterly cold night under the lights at Vicarage Road.
Although the coaching staff will put this down to the steepest of learning curves and all part of the players’ development, Watford only really have themselves to blame as they had the game won.
Max Makaka, a talented musician, had his teammates doing a jig of delight in front of the Sir Elton John Stand after he come off the bench to grab what everybody thought was the winner in the 82nd minute. But Alfie Egan, the visitors’ best player by some distance, grabbed an equaliser with less than 40 seconds on the clock to send the match into extra time. The Watford players couldn’t believe it.
They had, however, been given a couple of warnings just before that and it required two smart saves from Watford’s goalkeeper Andrew Thomas, the England Under-17 wicketkeeper who showed his fielding prowess to dive low to his left and then high to his right to keep out two goal-bound efforts.
Featuring seven of the squad who lost 3-1 at Swansea at the same stage of last year’s competition, Horseman’s side would have expected an easy passage after Folivi finished so confidently after nine minutes against a Dons side who are struggling in the Football League Youth Alliance. In scoring his 13th of the season, Folivi showed the type of pace, composure and clinical finishing that will see him begin next season as a professional.
But Watford, who are riding high in the league and lost just one of their last nine, didn’t kick on from there. The visitors pulled one back on the stroke of half-time from the spot with a hotly contested penalty awarded against Connor Stevens and were the better side for much of the second half.
The intensity went up a couple of notches in the second 45, with Brandon Mason yellow carded for clattering into Neset Bellikli and Folivi booked for his part in a bit of handbags on south east corner.
Rowan was Watford’s best player. The second-year scholar is an old-fashioned centre-half, more of a Nemanja Vidic than a Rio Ferdinand. He was towering in the air, muscular on the floor and even blocked two efforts with an area of his body that had everybody wincing.
So it was harsh on him that he missed Watford’s first penalty from 12 yards and when Folivi followed suit with the next, the game was up. Thomas offered some hope with a flying save to keep out AFC Wimbledon’s fourth penalty and just for a minute your mind wondered back to the night Alec Chamberlain, the academy goalkeeping coach, was the hero at St Andrew’s in 1999. But, despite successful spot-kicks from Andrew Eleftheriou and Max Ryan, it just delayed the inevitable.
Watford: Thomas (GK); Eleftheriou, Rowan (c), Stevens, Mason; Sesay (Obi), Cook, Charles (Roe), Ryan, Pereira (Makaka); Folivi. Subs not used: Lacy
AFC Wimbledon: Mannion, Mensah, Marchant, Sibbick, Kalambayi, Stripp (c), Bellikli, McKillop, Ano, Egan, Olusanya. Subs: Wood, Wingate, Chapman, Williams-Bowers, Carpene