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Bridging the Watford Gap
By Sheffield United fan John Phelan, originally written for Blades fanzine Flashing Blade
A couple of years back I was taken to see Saracens (they play something called rugby) at Vicarage Road. As I headed towards the free bar in the Executive Lounge I stopped to have a look at the photos on Watford's 'Wall of Fame'. Cliff Holton, Luther Blissett, John Barnes, Stewart Scullion, Keith Eddy, Tony Currie… it was then that it struck me how many players we've nicked off Watford over the years. The signing of Danny Webber towards the end of last season kept up a long and mostly noble tradition.

According to my dad it all goes back to February 20th 1960. Watford were on their way to promotion from the Fourth Division when they came to Bramall Lane for an FA Cup Fifth Round tie. United won 3-2 with Doc Pace getting a hat trick and Cliff Holton getting both of Watford's goals. The Watford player who caught the eye of John Harris was Barry 'the Kid' Hartle, a slightly built left sided midfielder who was adept at taking free kicks. My dad remembers him as "a quick, skilful player who was impressive in flashes". Indeed, Hartle stuck around Bramall Lane until July 1966 making 117 appearances and scoring 21 goals before joining Carlisle. But solid though Hartle was, he wasn't a patch on the next Watford bargain.

In January 1968, United beat Watford 1-0 in the FA Cup. This opened the way for us to sign the Hornets' highly rated England Youth International, Tony Currie. Currie had arrived at Vicarage Road after being released by Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea who had both tried him at left half. He worked for a building firm for a short time before Watford Youth Team manager Frank Grimes offered him a one year contract and it proved to be the making of him.

Currie was a shy kid off the park, but on it he was all flamboyance. Unitedites remember him sitting on the ball against Arsenal and dribbling down the touchline waving to the crowd against Derby, and one fan who watched him in the Watford Juniors team recalled how Currie would "skip rather than sprint". Grimes decided that this talent would be better used further up the park and moved him into the forward line. It paid off and in September 1967, Watford manager Ken Furphy introduced him to the first team. His performances for the Third Division side attracted plenty of attention and England recognition and towards the end of 1967 John Harris struck a deal whereby United would get the eighteen year old for £26,500, but only when Watford were knocked out of the Cup. When Colin Hill scored United's winner, TC became a Blade. In his eighteen match career with the Hertfordshire club, Currie had scored nine goals.

By May 1971 Currie's awesome performances had inspired the Blades to the brink of promotion when the two clubs paths crossed again in the final game of the season with the Blades needing only a draw to go up. Watford were safe from relegation but came out fighting at Vicarage Road and left winger Stewart Scullion hit the crossbar inside the first ten minutes. After twenty minutes United's Gil Reece jinked his way into the box but was brought down by Keith Eddy, and Alan Woodward put United in front from the penalty. Scullion was as impressive as ever but he couldn't prevent an inspired United side winning 3-0 and going up. Nevertheless, he had done enough to convince John Harris that he was worth taking to Bramall Lane for £27,500.

Scullion had been at Watford since 1965 playing on the left wing, and he was a senior part of the side which finally made it into the Second Division for the first time in their history in 1969. Along the way they earned a famous win over First Division Manchester United in the Fourth Round of the Cup with Scullion getting the winner. The following season Furphy was working on a shoestring (something which impressed the board at Bramall Lane) and one Watford fan remembers that "All that season Scully was a ray of sunshine in often grim team performances". It was his goal against Norwich in the final game of the season which secured the point that kept them up. Indeed, when United had bought Currie they had initially wanted Scullion, but he turned down a move north.

He was a regular fixture in the United team which took the First Division by storm in late 1971, going unbeaten in the first 21 games and topping the table until George Best scored the goal that the BBC never tire of showing and United drifted to a mid table finish. Scullion divided opinion at the Lane, some with high regard for his skill, others regarding him as 'greedy'. The sad fact is that he never settled in Sheffield and after his first season he appeared only sporadically until he was replaced on the left by Jim Bone and he went back to Watford in December 1973, but he was not able to prevent them slipping into the Fourth Division two years later.

In 1971 Ken Furphy had left Watford for Blackburn, frustrated at the shortage of cash. This opened the door for United to swoop on another Vicarage Road old boy, Keith Eddy, in August 1972. Eddy was a talented midfielder who was a regular in Barrow's first team at 18 where he caught the eye of nearby Workington boss Ken Furphy. When Furphy took over at Watford, he made Eddy one of his first signings and he quickly became captain of their 1969 promotion side.

Playing alongside crowd favourite Tony Currie, Eddy took a little while to settle at Bramall Lane but his clever play and work rate were soon appreciated. He was particularly good at playing the ball out of defence, either with a probing run or accurate long pass. As one Blade who saw him (my dad) recalls, "When United played well, Currie played well. When Keith Eddy played well, Sheffield United played well". Indeed, when Furphy got the Bramall Lane job in December 1973, he made Eddy the captain after an unsuccessful experiment with Currie as skipper. With fellow Watford graduate Currie, Eddy was the heartbeat of the team which included Jim Brown, Len Badger, Ted Hemsley, Eddie Colquhoun, Alan Woodward and Bill Dearden and finished 6th in the First Division in 1974-1975. When Furphy joined the soccer boom in the United States as manager of the New York Cosmos in 1976 his first signing was Keith Eddy. His second was Pele.

John Harris' last signing as United manager before handing over to Furphy had been another from Watford, utility man Colin Franks. Franks had been destined for great things at Watford, but had never really settled into a position. His highlight came in the FA Cup quarter final against Stoke in 1970, when he blasted a 25 yard screamer past Gordon Banks. He came to United in 1973, but surprisingly failed to establish himself as a first team starter under Ken Furphy. His chance came in late 1975 when, with United already looking good for the drop, Furphy was sacked and replaced with Jimmy Sirrell. The following season Franks was ever present but with an aging team and crippling debts the rot had set in at United. When Franks had joined Currie, Scullion and Eddy at Bramall Lane in 1973, United had been one of the countries top sides. When he became the last of these Watford old boys to leave, for Toronto Blizzard in 1979, we had slumped to the Third Division for the first time in our history.

During United's disastrous slide through the Leagues between 1976 and 1981 and subsequent, stumbling recovery under Ian Porterfield, the Watford connection lay dormant. Indeed, it wasn't until the next man made the journey from Vicarage Road to Bramall Lane that United got back to the big time. That man was Dave 'Harry' Bassett, who succeeded Graham Taylor in 1987.

Bassett had actually been offered professional terms by Ken Furphy as a youngster, but had turned down the chance to play for Watford and had made his managerial reputation taking Wimbledon from the Fourth to the First Division. On arriving at Vicarage Road Bassett did exactly what he did when he arrived at Bramall Lane the following year; he dumped most of the existing side ("creaking" and "well past its sell by date" according to Bassett) and brought in several players who would later follow him to the Lane.

The first was defender Mark 'Guppy' Morris who had previously played under Bassett at Wimbledon. In his first appearances Morris was played as a holding midfielder and looked lost, so much so that Watford fans began chanting "Off, off, off". Eventually though he slotted in at centre back alongside John McClelland and was impressive enough to finish second, behind McClelland, in the player of the year awards. Unfortunately for Morris he was injured in the opening game of the following season and when he recovered he found that his place in the team had been taken by a youngster called David Holdsworth and he moved to the Blades in July 1989. Bassett made three other signings while at Watford whom he later brought to Sheffield, one great and two not so great.

One of the not so greats was right winger Peter Hetherston who joined Watford from Falkirk. In a side which was battling relegation from the off, Hetherston was impressive in his first game against Darlington in the League Cup when Watford won 8-0, scoring two of the goals, but he was subbed against Southampton the week later and barely played again.

Despite this, he was one of Bassett's first signings for the Blades when he joined in February 1988. Sadly, he rarely looked interested and played only eleven games for United as they slithered towards relegation to the old Third Division. It didn't help that Hetherston managed to hit the woodwork with an alarming regularity. In the end it came down to a two legged tie against Bristol City, the third placed team in Division Three. Away at Ashton Gate United slumped to a 1-0 defeat and Tony Currie described Hetherston's performance as a "disgrace to the profession". Bassett clearly agreed and shipped him back to Falkirk. The other not so great was defender Cliff Powell who made one appearance for Watford as a sub in the Full Members Cup before heading for Sheffield where he was soon injured and appeared just seventeen times in three years before retiring in 1991.

But the great was the ready made replacement for Watford favourite John Barnes, whom Taylor had sold to Liverpool, Tony Agana. By this time Bassett was unpopular with the Watford fans and Barnes had been a hero, and coming from non League Weymouth, Agana quickly found himself at the receiving end of a lot of stick. In January 1988 they faced Manchester United and Agana was the star of the show, playing like the electrifying wizard Blades fans remember. Only an excellent performance by Chris Turner in the Manchester United goal kept Watford goalless as Agana tore the back four to shreds single handed. But luck was not on Bassett's side and Brian McClair remembered "we were absolutely murdered - and won 1-0". Bassett left after one more game and Agana had only 45 minutes under his replacement Steve Harrison before the Hornets were relegated.

This was very much Watford's loss as a month later Bassett, now in charge at Bramall Lane, made Agana and Hetherston his first signings and Agana scored against Barnsley on his debut. If Hetherston contributed little, Agana became a Blades legend when he forged a devastating strike partnership the following season with Brian Deane, the pair getting thirty goals each as the Blades bounced straight back to the Second Division, including an unforgettable game against Chester where both scored hat tricks. The following season saw the Blades tear through Division Two, with Agana getting ten goals, and winning promotion to the First Division for the first time since the days of Tony Currie. Sadly, once up, Agana struggled with injury and seemed to have lost favour with Dave Bassett and found appearances hard to come by. He was sold Neil Warnock's Notts County in November 1991, but no one who was there will forget his two goals against Norwich on the last day of our first season back when we played for the last time in glorious sunshine in front of the old, roofless Kop.

By October 1996 the situation at Bramall Lane had changed beyond all recognition. United had been relegated in 1994 and controversial chairman Reg Brealey had sold out to Mike 'Megabucks' McDonald. He brought in a big name manager, Howard Kendall, and some big name players, Don Hutchison and John Ebbrell for more than a million each. The penny pinching days were over but when the Watford connection was revived again that month to sign the man who had forced Mark Morris out of the Watford side, David Holdsworth was considered a bit of a bargain at £500,000.

Holdsworth came through the youth set up at Watford and was a regular by the time he was out of his teens, by which time he had captained England Under 17's and been an England Youth and Under 21 international. All this proved that he was a player of immense promise, "he's fast, he's strong, he's great in the air, he's aware of what's going on" is how one Watford fan remembered him, but, as another recalled, "I seem to remember him playing well alongside an experienced CB (Glenn Roeder, Colin Foster) but struggling when he was the senior guy". He never grew into the leader the Hornets were hoping for and Watford were relegated to the new Second Division in 1996.

He arrived at the Lane after a couple of what Kendall called "amateurish" results (against Stockport in the League Cup and Southend in the League) and was a steadying performer alongside Doug Hodgson and Michael Vonk as United pushed for promotion. Importantly, he finally developed the responsibility which he'd not shown at Vicarage Road and soon became captain leading United to the heartbreaking Play Off defeat to Palace at Wembley in May 1997.

Holdsworth's newly acquired leadership skills were sorely tested in his time at the Lane. Kendall was off almost as soon as David Hopkin's shot hit the back of the net and Mike McDonald appeared to lose confidence and interest now that a quick return on his investment was out of the question. Nigel Spackman got the managers job for the next season but left in March when Mike McDonald (who resigned as club chairman shortly after) sold the two top strikers, Brian Deane and Jan Age Fjortoft, on the same day and scuppered United's chances of automatic promotion and leading to another play off failure. Another manager, Steve Bruce, was in charge in 1998 and replaced Carl Tiler as Holdsworth's partner. Holdsworth was injured for four months and amid further boardroom turmoil, Bruce left at the end of the season. By that time though, Holdsworth had gone to Birmingham for £1.2 million.

As United's fortunes had lurched from the Premiership chasing of Howard Kendall to the relegation battling of Adrian Heath, Watford had bounced back under their captain, centre back Robbie Page. Born in Cardiff Page had nevertheless come through the youth team at Watford, securing his starting place in the first season in Division Two and Page was made captain by the returning Graham Taylor a year later as well as winning his first Wales cap. Watford won the Second Division Championship in 1998 (with Page playing alongside Tommy Mooney) and the following year they beat Bolton in the Play Off Final at Wembley to return to the top flight. Once up, a Watford fan remembered that "The Premiership season didn't have many highpoints, but Robert Page was one of them". After relegation, the same Watford fan recalls that "it all seemed to go wrong. He began to make too many mistakes. His passing, never good at the best of times, was horribly exposed in its limitations. He seemed to slow down, and was beaten in the air too often. His leadership ability seemed to disappear visibly, and it was a shame." It was to be spookily similar during his time with the Blades.

Neil Warnock signed him for £350,000 in August 2001 once Gianluca Vialli had taken over at Watford, and Page came into a side which was an odd mixture of the old (Keith Curle and Simon Tracey), the new (Phil Jagielka and Michael Tonge) and the exotic (Patrick Suffo and George Santos). It wasn't a mix that worked particularly well and United drifted to a mid table finish. What was memorable were the events of the West Brom game in March 2002 which saw an offloading of players prior to the new season. The following season was a great time to be a United fan as we pushed for promotion and got to the semi finals of both cups. Michael Brown was simply awesome, Paddy Kenny earned legend status, Michael Tonge was dazzling, Stuart McCall ran the show and Phil Jagielka justified his tag as one of the best young defenders in Britain. There were plenty of other stars that season but Page was one of the most consistently impressive, looking calm and authoritative and, against Arsenal in the Cup particularly, a player of some skill.

Sadly the following season Page was made captain and partnered with new signing Chris Morgan and his show veered off the road. Indeed, the words of the Watford fan who described his final months at Vicarage Road applied almost exactly to the way he left Sheffield United. After a reported bust up with Warnock, Page was off to Cardiff for the start of last season.

Which brings us to Danny Webber. The ins and outs of his transfer deserve a whole article of their own; suffice to say he is now a Blades player. When he came on against Reading for his debut he looked as lively as anybody on the pitch and looked the one United player capable of creating something that afternoon. But it was only two minutes into his full debut, against Leeds at Elland Road that he slalomed his way in from the left and finished a fantastic goal. The early indications are good but this is Sheffield United were talking about. The question is will he turn out to be a Tony Currie or a Peter Hetherston?