Watford and Wolverhampton Wanderers produced a classic Wembley semi-final as a reminder that this the FA competition can still touch all the sport’s senses.
Watford’s remarkable victory that confirmed their return to meet Manchester City in their first final since 1984 on 18 May, had all the classic FA Cup ingredients.
Manchester City’s win over Brighton on Saturday was a low-key affair, played out against the backdrop of empty seats and an atmosphere far removed from what these occasions should be and used to be.
Fast forward 24 hours and Wembley was a packed house, a cascade of colour dressed in the yellow of Watford and the old gold of Wolves – and playing host to a thriller that can take its place alongside the great FA Cup games.
It was a tale that had a hero, heartbreak, glory, regret and a grandstand finish that tested the nerves of managers, players and supporters to the limit.
The story unfolded in front of supporters who packed Wembley Way in their colourful thousands hours before kick-off, giving the occasion the feel of an old-school final in all but name.
Wolves were narrow favourites in what was almost a 50-50 contest and it looked like Watford would be the team wondering what might have been as goals either side of half-time by Matt Doherty and Raul Jimenez gave Nuno Espirito Santo’s side total control.
The Mexico striker, whose £30m move from Benfica was confirmed days before this semi-final, celebrated lavishly by donning a wrestling mask placed behind the goal that was sent to him by his friend, WWE superstar Sin Cara.
Nuno reacted joyously and the Wolves fans, here in vast numbers, were looking ahead to this great old club’s first FA Cup Final since May 1960, when Blackburn Rovers were beaten 3-0.
What could possibly go wrong?
It is never wise to ask those questions in the FA Cup and in Wolves’ case the answer was Gerard Deulofeu.
This maverick 25-year-old, a player of undoubted talent but unfulfilled potential at Barcelona, Everton, Sevilla and AC Milan, chose what looked like Watford’s losing cause to produce a cameo performance as substitute that will write his name into Vicarage Road folklore.
Lionel Messi would have appreciated the stroke of genius from his former Nou Camp team-mate that put Watford back in the game after 79 minutes, an astonishing instinctive flick from the angle of the penalty area that sent the ball arcing over Wolves keeper John Ruddy into the top corner.
Watford suddenly had the momentum and Wolves subsided under late pressure as Nuno took off his creative forces Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota to stem the tide and see out the win.
Watford keeper Heurelho Gomes was ecstatic when Troy Deeney’s penalty sent the game into extra time and he was in tears at the end of the game
Watford’s talisman was always going to have his say and it came deep into stoppage time when he was fouled by Leander Dendoncker. Referee Michael Oliver waited to confirm the decision in his own mind, called it right, and Deeney remained calm through VAR confirmation to lash the equaliser past Ruddy.
Wolves players slumped to the turf. Their fans were silenced.
It is too easy to criticise Nuno’s substitutions because nine out of 10 times they will go off without incident.
Sadly for Wolves, this was number 10.
Watford were not to be denied and Deulofeu, inevitably, was the match winner with a finish combining acceleration and composure in extra time.
This was the final chapter of a semi-final that revived any lost belief in the FA Cup.