Lower-division clubs up against the big boys have their eyes firmly on the prize these days.  the prize being financial survival rather than a serious chance of glory. David Harrison reports

Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and… well, Watford actually. The last four of the Carling Cup surely comprised precisely the mix that the sponsors would have ordered up. Three of the self-styled Big Four, plus one of those lovable minnows – lauded and patronised by the media in roughly equal proportions.

But reality simply doesn’t reflect that apparent promotional panacea. In fact there’s clearly something pretty seriously wrong with any competition where the semi-final stage is marked by acres of empty plastic, despite heavily discounted ticket prices. Which was the depressing and slightly surprising scene that had greeted 6,000 excitable Watford fans on arrival at Anfield for the first leg of this semi-final.

Liverpool edged that game 1-0, giving them a slight advantage ahead of this Vicarage Road return. The winning goal, depending on your affiliations, was either earned through a rasping 20-yard drive from the inspirational Steven Gerrard or donated, courtesy of a typically comedic attempt to clear, by Neil Cox, who appeared cemented to the spot as the ball arrowed towards his head. Either way Watford had most em­phat­ically done themselves justice and left this second leg nicely in the balance.

They had also earned themselves, in relative terms at least, a veritable shed-load of cash. And that, in the new economic reality of the Championship, is what really matters. So much so that the Watford Observer’s head­line piece following that game proudly trum­peted Hornets set to net £1m cup run cash boost. No mention of Jay DeMerit’s heroic defending or Heidar Helguson’s selfless running, purely the reduction of the club’s debt mountain. They were right, too. The money has now become the most important aspect of both domestic cup competitions for all bar a handful of non-Premiership clubs.

For Watford the financial scars were self-inflicted. Replacing Graham Taylor was always going to be tough, but in Gianluca Vialli they managed to find the most staggeringly inappropriate man for the job. In some ways, it’s difficult to blame him. After all, the directors gave him a brief (to win promotion) and a budget (vast, by Watford’s standards) then stood back to bathe in the reflected glory. And while Vialli will always be seen as the villain of the piece, all he did was spend the money they gave him. The fact that he then went back and asked for more, which the star-struck board lamely coughed up, only added to their collective culpability. But they’ve all gone now, leaving heroic fan Graham Simpson to pick up the pieces of Taylor’s lovingly constructed club.

And this, totally unbudgeted, Carling Cup adventure has proved an absolute godsend to a club still desperately trying to stay clear of administration. That debt mountain has been reduced from Himalayan to mere Alpine proportions and, God knows, if these cup-runs keep coming, they could be mere Chiltern in a couple of years.

In the build-up to the game, the national press didn’t so much embrace Watford as trample all over them, digging frantically for an angle. DeMerit pro­vided just such an opportunity. The American de­fender had played against the club in a pre-season friendly for local Ryman League side Northwood, with whom Watford had already built an excellent, if somewhat one-sided, relationship through the acquisition of last season’s top scorer Scott Fitzgerald. In their rush to cobble together something vaguely acceptable, the facts were rarely allowed to obstruct the story. The Sunday Telegraph, for instance, had DeMerit joining from a non-existent club and recently achieving a lifelong ambition when marking that “icon of American soccer, Fulham’s John McBride”.

Anyway, from a Watford perspective, this fixture concerned far more than just getting to Cardiff. It represented another step on the tortuous climb back towards some form of financial equilibrium. Which was just as well because, despite the patronising guff in the broadsheets, this was no classic. In fact it never got going at all.

Watford had to chase the game, to some degree, but for Liverpool the imperative was very different. Rafael Benítez may be a top European coach but his flagrant disregard for domestic cup competitions (no doubt born of Spanish experience) had already produced a quite appalling display and deserved early exit from the major knockout tournament at Turf Moor. And with that shocker sandwiched between league defeats by Manchester United (narrowly) and Southampton (convincingly), there was a distinct air of concern surrounding the visitors. Concern that would probably have turned to full-scale lynch-mob fury had they screwed up at Vicarage Road.

After those defeats Liverpool’s priority was not to concede and so diligently did they apply themselves that the home side were unable to seriously stretch goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, culpable against Manchester United, at any stage. It was a compliment to Watford that Liverpool were prepared to defend quite so deep and to tackle quite so tigerishly.

The ground was full, noisy and awash with yellow but somehow – and certainly not for the want of trying – the whole event simply spluttered. For the most part Watford couldn’t and Liverpool wouldn’t. The two sets of fans traded verbal insults, but in distinctly half-hearted fashion. Even the request made of Milan Baros – to reveal the whereabouts of his mobile Romany home – was posed with much less rancour than in the first leg when, it appeared, the striker had to ask Gerrard to explain what the fans were chanting at him.

The home side huffed, puffed and defended hero­ically. The ludicrous mismatch of DeMerit (ex-University of Illinois) marking Fernando Morientes (ex-Real Madrid) – a prospect that evidently reduced the home dressing room to helpless laughter when pre-match dead-ball marking plans were announced – turned out to be nothing of the sort. Just a thoroughly decent tussle between two committed, talented performers. Wat­ford’s other defenders – Neil Cox, James Chambers and Jermaine Darlington – remained generally in control, but further forward the incisive tackling and instant closing that had proved too much for South­ampton and Portsmouth in earlier rounds never threatened the composure of a far more impressive Premiership outfit.

It had been the second-half introduction of Baros that had turned the first leg, as the Wat­ford defence were initially caught short by his blinding pace. An even later substitution in this game saw the arrival of Florent Sinama Pongolle. An introduction followed, just two minutes later, by his departure with what appeared to be a serious leg injury. The home crowd held their breath as the stretcher-bearers were summoned – not so much out of affection for the Frenchman but more in recognition of the fate that befell the last man to be similarly removed from that part of the ground.

Pierre Issa, another of the clueless mercenaries recruited by Vialli, had also been scooped off the Vic­­­arage Road turf and on to a stretcher – only to be fired straight back on to his previously dislocated shoulder when one of the bearers slipped and landed on his arse. It was a rare moment of humour during the least humorous season in the club’s history. Even Issa was said to have seen the amusing side, although to be fair his reaction was delayed by some weeks while for the rest of us it had been immediate.

Sinama Pongolle’s injury, unfortunate though it was, clearly demonstrated the potential of Watford’s diminutive winger Anthony McNamee, who delivered an exhilarating 15-minute cameo when replacing Paul Devlin. McNamee’s running had twice left Steve Finnan gasping for air before he caused the Frenchman to back-track so desperately that, without contact of any sort, he injured himself sufficiently seriously to put participation in the remainder of Liverpool’s season into considerable doubt.

Ultimately, though, the difference between the sides was brought into sharp focus by just one man. Two goals across three hours of football and both scored, from the edge of the box, by the same player. “Gerrard’s going to Chelsea,” chortled the home fans, in response to the predictable, “We’re all going to Cardiff” which had drifted down from the Vicarage Road end of the ground. So he may – but not soon enough to keep Watford in this competition.

Liverpool’s starting XI may well have cost more than £35 million and comprised nine full internationals, in possession of 276 caps, but it really all came down to a man who cost them not a penny. Gerrard’s energy, especially given questionable current fitness levels, is extraordinary. He makes the game look simple. He demands the ball, gets it and gives it. In between he leads by example. And scores goals. Apart from that, he was barely in the game.

Now I have no idea if he was at Vicarage Road, but as self-confessed Liverpool fanatic and new Football Association chief executive Brian Barwick shuffles his feet under the Soho Square glass and chrome, he’s doubtless casting around for that “quick win” so beloved by those fluent in marketing psycho-babble. Well Brian, here’s some advice for nothing. I should make it the introduction of video technology, because the other obvious initiative – breathing life into domestic cup competitions – won’t be quick and probably won’t be a win, either.

From WSC 217 March 2005. What was happening this month

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