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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
99/00: Reports:

FA Carling Premiership, 18/12/99
Watford
versus
Everton
 
The golden era
By Matt Rowson

Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Kids are breakdancing on the street. Ghostbusters, Beverley Hills Cop and Police Academy at the cinema. Indira Ghandi is shot. Reagan re-elected. Horrific pictures from Ethiopia. Purple Rain, The Wild Boys. War is stupid and people are stupid. Transformers, robots in disguise. And Watford in the Cup Final. Against Everton.

It doesn't seem real. A long time ago, maybe. I'm not getting old, not yet I'm bloody not, but eleven years old was a long time ago. Which probably contributes. And although I can remember bits, I can't remember the Cup Final, not really. I remember yellow and blue remote aeroplanes trying to knock each other's antennae off as part of the pre-match entertainment. Can't remember who won, though. I remember a big bag of crisps, from a time when own-brand packs still contained half-an-ocean of salt. I can remember the one nervous Everton fan on the tube, all the colours, Kevin Ratcliffe lifting the trophy and that bloody goal.

But it's all artificial. I'm not even sure if I genuinely remember it, or whether I just remember remembering it...as if I painted a picture of the image in my mind at the time, and still look at the image now that the memory of the day has faded. The frightening thing about littering your memory with something as precise as a set of fixture lists is that it is immediately obvious how far back you can't remember....

So not real, maybe, but wonderful anyway. Doesn't matter that I can't really remember it clearly. The memory is tarnished by Roger bloody Milford's contribution, and by the fact that we lost. But only a bit. It was still wonderful, and particularly so during the years between GT's spells at the club when smaller successes had to satisfy us.

In the intervening sixteen years, much has happened both to Watford and Everton. After four more years in the top flight we began sliding back towards what GT would call our natural position. For Everton, the Cup Final heralded the start of a period where they were genuinely one of the two strongest sides in the country. Since then, they too have stumbled towards what might be a more natural position, fluctuating between mid-table and the relegation zone.

(Incidentally, it's interesting to note, at a time where the country seems resigned to an impenetrable "mini-league" of five clubs at the top of the Premiership, that in 1986 people were saying the same of Liverpool and Everton. And three years ago of Man United and Newcastle. So there's hope for Tottenham yet - ha ha.)

The current Everton squad is relatively small, a situation contributed to in no small part by financial restrictions which the arrival of Bill Kenwright in place of Peter Johnson has yet to rectify. An intriguing "chicken or egg" situation exists with goalkeeper Thomas Myhre, for example. Despite half-hearted protests to the contrary, Myhre's failure to make the bench for last Saturday's tie at Sunderland is externally acknowledged as being related to the 300,000 owed to Tromso in the event of a eightieth appearance (sub or otherwise). Now it might justifiably be argued that if the player is on the way out anyway, paying an extra instalment is not really desirable. On the other hand, Myhre is Norway's first-choice keeper; that he is third choice on merit seems unlikely.

Apparently ahead of Myhre in the pecking order are Paul Gerrard, finally getting a run at Goodison some years after arriving from Oldham, and Steve Simonsen, a youngster recruited from Tranmere whose weighty appearance-dependent transfer increments could also ultimately steer his Everton career.

The side's formation varies, but a three-at-the-back system enables Walter Smith to indulge in his penchant for large centre-backs. The evergreen Richard Gough, David "who wears the trousers?" Unsworth, Richard Dunne and Portugese international Abel Xavier all featured on Saturday. David Weir missed that game and Scotland's tie with France due to a back injury, but is expected to be back in contention.

Several of the above have also operated in wide defensive positions in a squad which is limited in this department. Last season's story Michael Ball is out of favour and largely confined to the bench during this campaign, whilst Alec Cleland is a long-term absentee with a calf injury. The delightful Mark Pembridge has been employed in a wing-back role, but his performances at Goodison have not matched those on the road, presumably distance from the Everton boo-boys being a factor.

In midfield, John Collins has been in excellent form since it was announced that he might leave in the summer. Recent recruit Stephen Hughes is still not quite match fit, but his influence appears to be growing. Nick Barmby seems to be attempting to kick-start his stalled career again with some impressive showings. The pointless Scott Gemmill is cover, and Danny Williamson has been injured forever.

Up front, injuries to the vital Campbell and to Francis Jeffers (knee and ankle respectively) have seriously blunted Everton's attack, and the current run of five without a win, despite dominating possession in several of these games, reflects this. The current preferred forward line appears to be Joe-Max Moore, without a goal in this recent run after a bright start, and rentathug Mark Hughes, who has yet to impress. Hughes received a suspension-inducing 265th booking of the season a fortnight ago, but misses next week's game at Leicester and not this fixture by virtue of the critical booking being a day too late - Sunday 12th.

Danny Cadamarteri seems to have re-emerged as a viable option despite appearing to be on his way out at the start of the season. However Dreamtalk speculation suggests that Don Hutchison ("a poor man's Gary McAllister" - The Times) could make a start alongside Hughes in as uncomplicated a forward line as the sexy modern Premiership would have seen for some time. I'm tempted to write something along the lines of Walter Smith needing to realise that playing the prank after midday on April 1st traditionally makes the prankster look like an idiot...but that would be tempting fate, so I won't. At any rate, Hutchison's reception in such an event, following his recent attempts to leave or double his salary to more than 15,000 a week, would be interesting.

15,000 a week...you can bet your life that Andy Gray wasn't on that money for bundling that second goal at Wembley. Nor were Luther, Wilf, or any of the other heroes who adorn our memories of this, Watford's golden era.

Thing is, this is a golden era too. We're in the Premiership for goodness sake - how plausible did that feel when we were losing at home to Norwich the year we dropped into the second, or after the legendary home defeat to Grimsby? How inappropriate is it that so many of those that are old enough to remember will still base their greatest ever Hornets side around the team of fifteen years ago? (It was my Dad, who by virtue of his recently celebrated fifty years would have far more right to behave like an old fart than I do, that pointed that one out.)

My abiding memory of Wembley last May, and of the Craven Cottage game the season before, was of desperately, desperately trying to drink it all in, to make the most of the exquisite celebration. But we should be drinking all of this in, every week. Apart from anything else, GT will be gone in two years time.

We've got the whole of the summer to look back. For now, let's just do it.