A date to remember
By Pete Fincham
Tuesday 12th September 2000. A hardy band of Watford fans brave the adversity of national petrol shortages, to reach Ewood Park for a thrilling game of football. I wrote at the time that:
"the uninitiated central defensive partnership of Ward and Palmer virtually watched as Blackburn raced into a 2-0 lead by the quarter hour. The travellers groaned, as another North-Western adventure seemed over before it had begun."
How wrong we were, as a thrilling Micah Hyde inspired comeback made for the most famous 4-3 away win since April 1994.
Wednesday 12th September 2001. A hardy band of Watford fans brave the historical monotony of the Worthington Cup, to reach Ashton Gate for a thrilling end to a terrible game of football! A season on and the same defensive problems ensured we were 2-0 down, but the comeback was straight out of a children's fairytale book. And if nothing else, the three goals in fifteen minutes that won the game ensured once again that Watford had wound City up rotten!
The local evening paper carried a huge article rallying the City cause, as obviously "City owe Watford one!". Closer examination of the article suggested that Watford were not owed "one" because we had managed to beat them to the title over forty-six games in 1998-99, but because they had spent money, we had not, and we then got promoted to the Premiership, while they returned whence they came! Interesting rationale, if nothing else.
The result, and the way it was achieved, must not detract from the fact that, for large parts of the evening, the "entertainment" was thoroughly woeful. Conditions were not favourable to either side, though. There was the rain that continually stopped and started, and with a very nervy Paul Danson officiating at a most anally retentive level, the game was not a pretty spectacle.
What made the first half worrying was very simple. Watford looked devoid of ideas, and appeared thoroughly thrown by the 4-5-1 formation that they seemed to have adopted. GNW was totally isolated up front, while in the centre of midfield, Noble, Hyde and Fisken seemed to continually get in each other's way, unable to find the wide men in Wooter and Glass, who for much for much of the opening forty-five minutes were spectators. At the back, only Cox seemed to adapt to the tricky conditions, timing his tackles and passing better than his more illustrious colleagues.
After Danson had shown his determination to blow his whistle more times than any other referee in history (ensuring in the process that no advantage was played, something allied to his belief that no throw-in was to be taken from a different blade of grass to the one it should have been), half time came. The first forty-five minutes had been that bad. A couple of half-hearted shots, a lot of balls going out for goal kicks from over-weighted midfield passes, and the odd bit of Thorpe-baiting were the only points of interest from perhaps the dullest forty-five minutes of the season.
Cue a crazy forty-five minutes. With the Watford defence having decided at the interval to give City ten minutes where the back four would not participate in the game, City raced into a two goal lead from virtually identical goals. Firstly, a right wing corner from Aaron Brown was headed home by the diminutive Simon Clist. Seven minutes later, another right wing cross, this time from Scott Murray, was turned home by Thorpe, and the away fans began to believe that the Third Round would not be a place we would visit this year.
Moments later, the necessary changes that were obvious to the fans from the start - aren't decisions always easier from the stands? - came in the shape of Smith and Gayle replacing the ineffective GNW and marginalised Fisken. Immediately the team began to play with something approaching the direction that we know they are capable of. The wide men began to cross the ball with purpose, and with more space in the centre field, Hyde took control. Helguson replaced Noble to add to the attacking options, and moments later a ball into the box was touched on by Smith who was crudely pushed down by Matt Hill. Smith is not a player who falls down on request, and his performance against Wimbledon on Sunday showed that even under a hefty challenge, he would rather stay up and score himself. This time, the conditions won the penalty, as despite being a clear foul, Smith would have not gone down had the pitch not been as wet. Gayle stepped up and with great calmness slotted home to the keeper's left. The influence of Gayle on the proceedings must not be under-estimated. He might have scored merely a penalty, but his endless winning of headers, his totally commitment to winning the ball fairly, and evidently the work that he and Smith have put in together away from conventional training to form this partnership, made him the catalyst for the comeback.
Despite Stowell's clear time-wasting tactics (something that ultimately led to five minutes of very profitable injury time for Watford), Watford carried on the momentum gained from the substitutions. Even the decision by some foolish Bristol City official to turn on the lights in the main stand, as there were many who had chosen to leave early, did not detract from the job that still remained. And it was Glass who was clinically involved in both the equaliser and winner with two impeccable crosses.
As time ran out, Vega remained up-field, to turn home a left wing cross from the Scot on eighty-seven minutes. This started crazed celebrations from the away fans, which only increased moments later, as extra time loomed, when the same player took a right sided corner and Hyde headed firmly past Stowell to record one of the most unlikely and memorable comebacks of recent years.
Maybe there is something about September 12th after all?