...And madness ensued
Report by John Blake
All of us who support a team for any length of time will have "favourite games" to look back on, and many of these are commonly-held by all supporters of that team, for obvious reasons. As a Watford fan of more than thirty years, I have been lucky enough to watch many of them : Southampton at home (1980), Forest at home (1980), the FA Cup run of 1984, Kaiserslautern in the UEFA Cup and more recently, Luton and Fulham away in '98, Wembley and the play-offs in '99, to name but a few. (NB I have left Sunderland at home in '82 out of the list, as, to my ever-lasting shame, I missed the 8-0 demolition.)
But nearly all of these games were high-profile matches, certainly by Watford standards, and therefore were much more in the public domain. They have been discussed and analysed, many were televised and others have been re-run on video highlights for years afterwards.
In addition to these, however, there are others that have a special meaning and a fond remembrance on an individual level, which go far beyond the game itself and the result.
One such was the bizarre match against Bolton Wanderers at the Vic in the October of the 93-94 season. For the ten thousand plus souls who were actually there, it was a memorable occasion, eventually, and for me, personally, particularly sweet.
At the time, Bolton were in one of their "riding high in Division 1" seasons, as opposed to a relegation dogfight in the Premier League. Typically for those years, we were skulking around near the bottom of the table, ultimately securing survival only in late-April, on the back of the Mooney/Bailey/Foster/Millen signings, which suddenly transformed the season.
The game was disproportionately important for me, however, as a group of mates from the north-west were coming down for the game: Dave, Carol, Janet and Fake (all Bolton fans), plus Steve and Chris (a Blackpool fan and a Liverpool fan) who had mainly come along for the pre- and post-match beers.
We met as planned at Watford Junction, and had plenty of time for catching up and indulging in a bit of banter over a few beers, before setting off for the ground. For this match, I had changed from my usual vantage-point in the Vicarage Road end, and we all sat together in the Main Stand.
This was the Bolton team that had enjoyed a number of recent cup giant-killing successes, notably at Anfield and Highbury, and contained a few "household names", such as Alan Stubbs, Alan Thompson, Jason MacAteer and John McGinley. At the time, Watford's "star" player was probably Gary Porter - you get the picture.
For seventy minutes, I died several deaths, as Wanderers toyed with Watford without really needing to be anything better than average. We were simply awful - bland, toothless, error-prone and woefully lacking in confidence or creativity. A cold, gray game, played out in a cold, gray and near-silent ground, with the exception of the away contingent, who were probably surprised by the ineptitude of their hosts. Even they seemed too embarrassed to celebrate fully.
Bolton appeared able to score pretty much at will, and did so after about twenty minutes and again shortly before half-time. My pre-match idle bravado had disappeared by now, I spent the half-time interval trying to put on a brave face whilst Dave and Carol gave me a bit of verbal. Fake grinned inanely and Chris and Steve shuffled around, bored by the lack of excitement and uncompetitive nature of the match - and Steve is a Blackpool fan, remember.
The sight of John Barnes (Liverpool were playing in London the following day) a few seats along just reinforced my sense of despair. I did not even have the sanctuary of any fellow Hornets with whom to share the misery.
For the first time ever, I seriously considered walking out of a game after an hour, when Thompson scored Bolton's third from about a foot after another Watford defensive fiasco. Only Chris's persuasion made me stay (thanks, Chris!), but I slumped down in my seat, frantically wishing away the last thirty minutes.
You know how you nearly always have hope? Whatever the situation in a game, you have that last desperate glimmer of optimism, that the Golden Boys will come back from two down with five minutes to play, never quite admitting the inevitable defeat until the final whistle? Well, there was none of that on that day - I just stared bleakly out at the awfulness of the performance and the personal implications of the result.
Perhaps Bolton eased off (although as they had got to 3-0 without really breaking sweat, it was difficult to see how they could have taken their foot off the pedal), and as a last, forlorn gesture, Watford put Ken Charlerey on as a sub. I am sure Ken is a really great guy, but I never rated him in a Watford shirt, so my mood was hardly improved by his appearance in what was already a lost cause.
After seventy minutes or so, a goal-mouth scramble resulted in Gary Porter scoring with what I am fairly sure was Watford's first shot on target in the whole game. Not exactly a seismic shift in the course of the game, but at least it restored a bit of pride. Chris patted me reassuringly on the shoulder, and then said something incredibly patronising like "There, you're back in it now". Yeah, right.
Amazingly, about two minutes later, we were back in it. A neat finish from Porter made it 2-3, and suddenly my friends from the North were shifting nervously in their seats.
Come on, Watford. Come onnn!
With about eight minutes left, a flick-on let Charlerey through on goal, twenty-five yards out. This was our chance.
To my horror, instead of controlling it and taking it in on the keeper, he tried to hit it first time. I sank back in my seat, expecting another "Ken special" to home in on the Watford Observer cameraman, well to the left of the goal. Instead, incredibly, it flew into the bottom corner. Transformation complete, or so we thought: 3-3.
Now Dave and Carol and Fake were on their feet, shouting and harrying their team for throwing away such an impregnable-looking lead, and at the referee for, er, allowing it to happen.
I would have happily settled for the draw, as would have any Watford fan in the ground, but with two minutes to go, McGinley had a great chance to steal the points back. He fluffed it from only a few yards out. Relief.
Relief turned to bedlam a minute later - a corner to Watford, clearly but needlessly handled away by the Bolton right back at the far post, when under no real pressure. Penalty.
Up stepped Gary Porter to smash home the winner, only seconds before the final whistle, and madness ensued. As the players trooped off to a standing ovation, my personal memory was of John Barnes, as excited as any of us, hanging over the top of the stand to shake hands with Gary Porter in the tunnel as he came off the field. Immediately next to him was Bolton Dave, bellowing at the referee about the injustice of it all.
And he was right, of course - it was an injustice. A boxing referee would have stopped it after sixty minutes as a "no contest", to prevent us from having to soak up further punishment.
The highlights on ITV the next day confirmed that Watford had scored four times in nineteen minutes to completely turn the match around. The seventy-one minutes of gloating I had received from my Bolton mates were also comprehensively over-turned in the pub that night.