Eighteen extraordinary seconds. That was all it took for the pendulum to swing from dejection to delirium for Watford almost seven minutes into stoppage time, with Manuel Almunia keeping out Anthony Knockaert’s penalty with his feet, then blocking the rebound with his chest before Troy Deeney rifled the ball home at the other end to send the club into the Championship play-off final at Leicester’s expense. That freakish finale is the maddest moment Vicarage Road has witnessed.
Tuesday marks seven years since Almunia’s saves allowed Marco Cassetti to hack clear and inadvertently set up a counterattack that had devastating consequences. “From that moment everything was just perfect,” recalls the former Watford defender Matthew Briggs. “Ikechi Anya’s first touch was unbelievable. He took it down the pitch and played it to [Fernando] Forestieri, who carried on to the byline and chipped a perfect cross for [Jonathan] Hogg. Any other player … anyone else, when the ball gets crossed to them at the back post in that situation, they are going for goal, but the awareness and composure Hogg showed was amazing, to see Deeney was in a better position and head it down for him.”
Deeney’s finish was emphatic, prompting home fans to spill on to the pitch. A minute earlier Knockaert had zoomed beyond Briggs into the box, where he fell despite little contact with Cassetti, luring Michael Oliver into awarding a penalty, a decision Watford’s then manager, Gianfranco Zola, said the referee apologised for last year. “I felt my mistake led to Cassetti giving away the penalty,” Briggs says. “At the time I was blowing, jelly legs and nursing a groin injury. Knockaert dropped a shoulder and I couldn’t move my feet quick enough. I was gutted but if that doesn’t happen then Deeney’s goal doesn’t happen … I still watch it back on YouTube now and get goosebumps every time.”
Zola galloped down the touchline but tumbled as a delirious Jonathan Bond, Watford’s back-up goalkeeper, attempted to get to grips with him. The scene of stewards, substitutes, supporters and coaching staff entangled and engulfed by the celebrations is reminiscent of a Renaissance masterpiece. Briggs hauled his teammate Joel Ekstrand, grounded amid the chaos of the pitch invasion, to his feet and spotted a friend mobbing Deeney, who had whipped off his shirt and jumped into the crowd to embrace his brother, Ellis. For Deeney, it was a moment of ecstasy at the end of a season that began behind bars at Winson Green prison in Birmingham.
For Rob Mackenzie, the buildup to that day began in earnest 200 miles away in the directors’ box at Bolton. On the final day of the regular season Mackenzie, then Leicester’s head of technical scouting who is now head of scouting at OH Leuven, was tasked by the manager, Nigel Pearson, with feeding updates to the Leicester dugout at Nottingham Forest. Leicester had to better Bolton’s result against Blackpool to sneak into the play-offs and Knockaert scored an injury-time winner to edge out Bolton on goal difference.
“I was on the phone for what felt like an absolute eternity for the last five minutes of stoppage time, relaying what was going on,” Mackenzie says. “I wasn’t sure what to do. Do I commentate? Do I just sit here in silence? The final whistle goes and I was out of that stadium as quickly as possible. I ran to my car and I felt like Mourinho wheeling down the touchline. I was the only person in that stadium who was happy that day. To go to that game I had to give up usher duties at a friend’s wedding in south Wales but I somehow managed to get there before the speeches.”
Mackenzie was responsible for opposition scouting and set to work on how to beat Watford. The first leg went to plan, Leicester winning 1-0, but the second ended in tears, Matej Vydra scoring either side of a David Nugent header before Deeney lashed in Watford’s third. Vydra’s opener was a sumptuous volley but, at the end, only one Watford striker’s name was on the lips of supporters. For the second half, Mackenzie was behind the away dugout.
“It was like panning a widescreen camera from right to left,” he says of the decisive passage of play. “A couple of weeks earlier Doncaster got promoted from League One when Marcello Trotta hit the crossbar for Brentford with a penalty and they broke down the other end and James Coppinger walked the ball in to win the game. I thought: ‘Is this normal now?’”
After the final whistle several Leicester players, including Andy King, were stranded on the pitch for 15 minutes. Others battled back to a sombre dressing room. “Everything you’ve worked for has just gone out of the window,” King says. “No one knew what to do with themselves. It took a long, long time to get over. I remember my parents watching the final at home and I didn’t want to watch it, because I felt like we should’ve been at Wembley. I don’t think we fully got over it until the next season. On the first day of pre-season Nigel and Shakey [Craig Shakespeare, assistant manager] addressed it and we put it behind us.
“I remember thinking when we got into the play-offs: ‘It can’t be any worse than last time,’ when we lost to Cardiff on penalties [in the 2009-10 semi-finals]. But it was a lot worse. It was sickening but, looking back, it spurred us on to make sure we were not in the lottery of the play-offs again. There was no way we wanted to be in that situation again and everyone came back so focused and so fit in pre-season. I think it started the journey we went on to win the Premier League [in 2016]. You can look back on it now and smile and see it as a character-building thing but at the time it was devastating.”
Knockaert was cut up, Kasper Schmeichel angry. Others were speechless. Mackenzie, trying to keep himself to himself in a room off the Watford tunnel, was well-placed to capture the contrast of emotions. “When they [Watford] saw the badge on my tracksuit, they were almost a bit apologetic. Troy Deeney made sure he went around to people and shook their hand and said: ‘Good luck, all the best,’ and interrupted what they were doing to take the time to see it from another point of view. Everyone was fully entitled to celebrate and embrace the adulation, but I got a sense that day of the class of everybody involved at Watford. There was no rubbing it in faces.”
Knockaert, having won the penalty, was determined to finish the job but a teenage Harry Kane, on loan from Tottenham and a second-half substitute, also wanted to take the spot-kick. Unused on the bench was Jamie Vardy, who signed from Fleetwood the previous summer and had four league goals for Leicester; he now has 119. Knockaert said he didn’t sleep for three nights but he returned revitalised the following season, when Leicester were promoted as champions under Pearson. “If ever there was a strength-of-character test, then that was it,” says Mackenzie, influential in signing the winger from Guingamp.
In November 2013 Knockaert scored in a 3-0 win at Vicarage Road as Leicester recorded their 14th win in 19 league matches. “I think that showed the character the team had and he had, and I remember that was a really big win for the lads in terms of mentally putting that game to bed,” says King. “Fair to play to him for being able to brush something like that off. And it would have been easy for the Leicester fans to turn after a situation like that but they still love Anthony now.”
When Watford’s players returned down the tunnel, the majority topless, Zola praised their resilience and character. “And then it was like: ‘Now celebrate,’ and we opened a crate of beers,” says Briggs. “It felt like we had won the final, just because the game was so dramatic.” The then Watford midfielder John Eustace, a substitute, recalls a party atmosphere. “It was rocking in the dressing room,” he says. “As soon as we went in, everyone sat down and shook their head. Nobody could believe it.”
Zola has since said Watford over-celebrated. They lost to Crystal Palace in the final and, ironically, the only goal came from a penalty after Cassetti fouled Wilfried Zaha. That was nothing compared with the drama a fortnight earlier. “You try to re-rationalise what you have just seen and what has happened but you can’t,” Mackenzie says. “We shook our heads all the way home. Your brain does not consider that a possible or suitable end to a football game. But it very much was, unfortunately for us.”