By Kevin Affleck
He’s only gone and done it again.
Not content with dramatic winners off the bench against Everton and Leicester City, Andre Gray stormed on to bag the most important one of the lot and send the Hornets through to an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. That’s why the club paid a club record fee for him, so he can decide big games like this. He’s turning into this team’s answer to David Fairclough or, for the younger readers, Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
Gray had only been on the field for two minutes when he ghosted in between two Palace defenders to guide a cross from Roberto Pereyra past Vicente Guaita with 11 minutes left of a full-blooded cup tie. It was another instinctive finish from Gray who seems to be at his most dead-eyed when he has little time to think about it.
Gray will probably still be on the bench for the semi at Wembley but that won’t bother him as he sees the bigger picture and his place in things right now. He gets to be part of a team that is only the seventh in the club’s long and storied history to play in the last four of the greatest cup competition in the world.
The Golden Boys lost to Palace the last time they got there but there was just no way they were losing this one, even though they made hard work of it by gift-wrapping Michy Batshuayi an equaliser and almost messing up it in stoppage time. But this was Watford’s day, it was Gray’s day and no-one was spoiling it.
The opening exchanges didn’t quite live up to the pre-match fanfare and cacophony of noise. There were streamers, giant flags and some old-school club anthems as Vicarage Road really bought into the significance of this one. It couldn’t have been more Watford unless you had Sir Elton John singing ‘I’m Still Standing’ in the middle of the pitch.
Perhaps it was the absence of Wilfried Zaha, that pantomime villain, but this one took a little while to catch fire. Perhaps it was that Palace turned Watford round and had them unfamiliarly kicking towards the Rookery End in the first half. There were only two shots inside the first 20 minutes, one for each side and they were pretty comfortably dealt with by Heurelho Gomes and Vicente Guaita.
But the Hornets slowly released the handbrake and got stronger and stronger as the half wore on. There was a nice bit of link-up play down the right between Troy Deeney and Deulofeu, a cross from Roberto Pereyra that was just a bit undercooked after Guaita had sprinted out of his goal and then Will Hughes stood one up from the other side. Watford were knocking on the door louder and louder, trying to bash it down through Deeney and unpicking the lock through Hughes, Pereyra and Deulofeu.
They forced four corners in five minutes, the last of which was won by Craig Cathcart, of all people, attempting to take on James Tomkins round the outside. That was the type of ambition the team were trying to play with. And it was from that set-piece won by the defender that led to Étienne Capoue side-footing high into the roof of the net. It was a goal wildly celebrated in front of the Rookery End as it was so important to draw first blood in games as big as these.
It almost got better in the remaining 15 minutes of the half. Deulofeu almost slammed one in the top corner from an angle and then tried his luck from distance. It was an afternoon when the Spaniard ran hot, when he showed he can do the hard yards too, not least when he raced half the length of the field to dispossess James McArthur.
Palace had a couple of half chances, most notable through Max Meyer, but Watford went into the break in front and in charge.
The Eagles were sent back out much earlier than the Hornets, perhaps with a flea in their ear from Roy Hodgson, and they forced the first chance of the second half, Gomes having to move smartly to his right to keep out a header from Meyer. It was a sign that this tie was still very much in the balance and that there was much work to be done still, particularly after the injured José Holebas failed to appear after the break.
Adam Masina was booked soon after coming on in a sure sign Palace were upping the ante. Gomes had to push over a free-kick from Andros Townsend and then Batshuayi fried into the side-netting. You half suspected an equaliser was coming, but it was particularly tough to swallow when it was handed to Palace on 62 minutes by a mistake from Adrian Mariappa. Batshuayi still had plenty to do after he charged down Mariappa’s clearance and, to be fair to the Belgian, he did it well. It was now game on and anyone’s from here.
The Hornets tried, slowly but surely, to get back on the front foot and had a couple of cracks at goal through Pereyra and Doucouré after Guaita made a hash of a cross from Masina. Gracia did his best to ensure his team stayed there by bringing on Gray for Hughes in a positive attacking move.
It worked a treat as two minutes later, Gray had Watford in front with another deadly piece of finishing. It was classic Gray and knocked the stuffing out of Palace.
Watford were not about to give the lead up again, not for a second time, and there they stayed. Gracia locked things down by bringing on Tom Cleverley and barring the odd scare right at the end, the Hornets hauled themselves over the finishing line and the chants of “que sera, sera” started. This thrilling journey under Gracia continues. Next stop Wembley.
HORNETS: Gomes (GK), Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas (Masina h-t); Hughes (Gray 77), Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu (Cleverley 87), Deeney.
Subs not used: Dahlberg (GK), Janmaat, Success, Kabasele.