By Pete Fincham
There is a game we play on the way to a Watford away fixture. It is commonly known as 'scores on the doors', and harks back to the early '90s when travelling from Hull with Jim, Andy and The Chief, we livened up away trips with predictions for the day's fixtures, with a small cash pot for whoever got most correct.
Over the past decade, the game has mutated only slightly, but one of the inclusions is a mandatory Scottish lower league game, which is known as the 'Monkey Tennis' game. A game so potentially ludicrous that your score prediction must reflect the somewhat random and chaotic world of Scottish lower league football.
On Saturday, Monkey Tennis came to Turf Moor.
To put this game into the perspective, it demands a flick through Trefor Jones, and to an era that I would be amazed if anyone in the away end on Saturday remembered. In 1937, Watford were managed by Neil McBain. We finished fourth in the old Division Three (South), and on April 10th that year, the players completed a league double over Torquay by winning 7-4 at Plainmoor. Only 2,277 watched the game, and one would hazard a guess that of those, only a handful would have been Watford fans.
On an individual level, to score four in a game is an achievement. We can remember Luther notching four against both Sunderland and Sheffield United. But away from home you have to visit Harry Kent's spell as manager in 1923, and Mummery's five goals away to Newport for the last time a Watford player scored four or more away from home.
1923 and 1937 were the two previous landmarks before Saturday 5th April 2003. For the record, there were probably two hundred Watford fans there in the crowd of just 10,208. So small was the turn-out that we were put into a tiny area of about ten rows, right at the back of the stand so that the TV certainly would not pick us up, but it in fact gave a tremendous view of each of the 11 (eleven) goals!
Still with no Marcus Gayle, Gavin Mahon filled the right back position, while Wayne Brown slotted in alongside Neil Cox at centre back. The welcome return to the side of Allan Nielsen at left midfield allowed Vernazza and Hyde to re-familiarise themselves with each other, while Ardley took on his more conventional career position of right midfield. As at Sheffield Wednesday, where the team scored two away goals in the league for the first time since December, Smith and Chopra joined forces. Meanwhile Robbo got a run out, but it was in the Grand National at Aintree, costing me £2 when he fell early on! Paul Robinson took his place on the bench.
The game kicked off, surprisingly, at three o'clock. I say "surprisingly" as this was the last thing to occur that did not defy some sort of logic. Gareth Taylor showed early on that he was capable of once again causing the Watford defence some problems, and used his height advantage over Neil Cox to have the Watford defence worried early on. The fact that Taylor went onto score a first half hat-trick lent weight to the idea that Marcus Gayle's performance in the Cup Quarter-Final a few weeks ago was indeed one of the best by a Watford player this season. Taylor simply ran the defensive pairing of Cox and Brown absolutely ragged for large parts of the opening forty-five minutes, while at Vicarage Road he was given little space and consequently did not score.
The opening goal came directly from a corner won by Tommy Smith. Ardley's cross found Brown, who headed firmly past Beresford for 1-0. Burnley looked shaken, as their limited passing came to an immediate halt as they sought out the corners against the two relatively inexperienced full-backs. As Robbie Blake danced past Gavin Mahon, his cross from left wing fell onto the head of Taylor who rose highest to equalise with just fifteen minutes gone. The crowd rose to jig a merry dance in time with their celebration ditty, a ditty that would be mimicked on six more occasions by the away following!
Less than a minute later, Mahon's curling cross from the right eluded the defence to find Micah Hyde in the centre, who stretched for the ball to slot home from twelve yards out. The fact that Hyde was so far advanced up the field was almost as exciting as the goal itself. There is the feeling that when Micah is on fire, the team is on fire, and over the last two years Micah's absence in the opposition box is often a crucial reason for why we have lacked attacking edge.
With Benners behind me reminding us that Watford had now scored four goals in less than ninety minutes of football away from home, the stats were already beginning to flow, as the "Do I not know that!" team - although only two thirds of it reunited for the day - began to feel in their element. Another Ardley corner found Cox to replicate Brown's earlier effort as 2-1 became 3-1 (three away from home for the first time since Walsall in December 2001), but just two minutes later, Michael Chopra scored the first of his four, and his first goal for the club. With brilliant control, the on-loan striker controlled a Vernazza pass, before lobbing the advancing Beresford with a lob of exquisite proportions from twenty-five yards.
At this stage the stats were out, the phones were ringing, the stay-away thousands were in various states of joyous depression, as no one believed that this was the end of the scoring. The defences were just so bad, and the finishing so clinical, that the term "Monkey Tennis" was used for the first time that afternoon. Literally, it could end up at any score.
Unfortunately, Watford's defence joined in the spirit of generosity, when ex-Luton defender Steve Davis headed home a Taylor knock-back, once more stemming from a Blake cross, before Taylor bagged his second with another header from six yards. 4-3, still in the first half, and you just knew that Sky Sports would be in fits of hysterics already. So much for the dour "friendly" that certain people predicted. This was about to re-write history.
Chopra decided to score another before the break, as Glass' cross found the nineteen-year-old, who shot home from inside the box. Taylor was having none of it, as he wrestled the ball from Cox to beat Chamberlain from ten yards. 4-5 at the break, and Chamberlain from just in front of us shook his head in a genuinely perplexed state of confusion. You don't concede four and win! Or do you? Unfortunately Trefor Jones' 'Season by Season' does not give a break down of scores at half time, so I cannot tell you how the scoring went at Torquay back in 1937, but as we tried to watch the Grand National on a 22" TV with no sound underneath the echoey away stand, there was a genuine sense of being shell-shocked. Phones were ringing, text messages from friends who had stayed at home were becoming more frantic, but at least Hendon were drawing 1-1!
With no changes for Watford at half time, one of two things was going to happen. Either the game was going to continue in this most ludicrous fashion, or there would be no more goals. Burnley had already lost 6-5 this season away at Grimsby, and at home had conceded five to Reading and six to Rotherham, and married to the fact that we had beaten them twice this year, at least the season's statistical omens were good. However in the background, we knew that we had only ever won one point at Turf Moor, back when Lee Nogan and the anti-vandal paint proved so memorable in November 1994.
Chamberlain saved well from Taylor from the kickoff, and from the resulting corner, he equalled the effort to deny Gnohere and preserve the now-fragile Watford lead. Ten minutes later the efforts of Hyde and Chamberlain on the line thwarted Taylor, who was once again denied a fourth and equalising goal. But it was Watford, and Michael Chopra, who restored the two goal advantage. He turned home Ardley's cross, after a solid battle in right midfield to win the ball, set off down the line and provide the clinical delivery. There was no elaboration with the Chopra finish. The ball was there, he put it in the net. No extra touch, no beating the man, no delay. The guy is a striker who sees the ball and hits it. In the reserves, Fitzgerald shows similar instinct, albeit in a much more raw form. But our lack of goals over the last few years does stem from the mis-belief that what you need to do to score is look good in your approach. The best way you can look as a striker is when your team mates are hugging you in celebration after you have scored!
With a slight lull in proceedings, one wag took the opportunity to phone up the Burnley front desk to request a refund on his ticket, arguing that the game was becoming boring and he had not seen much action for a few minutes. The response from the lady answering the phones was rather to the point. "You have to speak to the ticket office on Monday," she yelled in a rather harried and distressed tone, before it was pointed out that this was a joke, as from the away end the match action could never be considered boring. "Oh. Okay." I suppose you had to be there!
Chopra's fourth goal was delayed until the final minute, but shortly after the hour mark the linesman's flag denied him, with the teenager having lobbed Beresford once more from thirty yards. It was simply exquisite, and with the defence firming up to repel the route one methods adopted by Ternent, it seemed as though Watford were finally going to close out for the win. Vernazza tried his luck from the edge of the area, and Beresford finally gathered well, before the final salvo saw the introduction of last week's hero Jason Norville for Tommy Smith who, whilst having contributed to the team effort, did not have a single shot of note against a quite catastrophic set of defenders.
Having been on the pitch for less than a minute, Norville collected a Vernazza pass on the half way line, before running forty yards and squaring for Michael Chopra to round the stranded keeper for his fourth, and Watford's seventh of a quite bizarre game of football. The players left the field to a chorus of cheers, laughter and boos from the home end.
I am sure that you wish you were there. I expect the number of fans who claim they were there will rise from two hundred to about two thousand over the next decade, in the same way as, at last count, thirty-five thousand claim to have been at the Sunderland 8-0! But this is a lesson to all those who claim there is something peculiar or mental about going to Burnley on a Monday night (2001), Preston on a Thursday (2002), Sunderland on a Tuesday (1996), Plymouth on a Tuesday (1997) or even the Isle of Man! For you just never know what will happen. The assembled souls will always remember this game. It was history, and while memories fade there will always be the books and the videos and maybe even a DVD of the match to give the memory a little jog from time to time. What can never be found on a TV or in a book, though, is the experience of travelling three hundred miles with no hope, and travelling back with a huge grin, an inner giggle and the knowledge that you had been part of something totally chaotic, totally frantic, totally unforgettable. This was what being a Watford fan is occasionally all about.
So, see some of you at Selhurst Park, and all eighteen thousand of you at Villa Park on Sunday then.