League Cup 3rd Round, 4/10/78
Manchester United 1(1)
Team (a-z): Blissett, Bolton, Booth, Downes, Garner, Harrison, Jenkins, Joslyn, Pollard, Rankin (gk), Stirk
Scorers: Blissett 2
Where the glory days began
Report by Ian Poole
This was it. This was the one that made us believe in the impossible dream. To a generation of Watford supporters brought up on a dreary diet of those not so special K's - Keen and Kirby - the previous season's effortless procession to the 4th Division Championship would prove to have been just another once-a-decade blip in the under-achieving annals of Watford F.C. The crown jewels would once again be sold off in the name of financial expediency, the bright young manager would be on his way to pastures new and all that would remain would be unreliable memories of a rare season in the sun. Even the bright start to the following campaign that saw us riding high at the top of the old Third Division could not fool us. We remembered how crap Alan Garner really was, how, prior to Graham Taylor's arrival, Bobby Downes couldn't beat a proverbial egg let alone a half decent defender, how big Ross Jenkins had managed to turn non-scoring into an art form, and how Luther, on his rare early outings on the wing, had woefully failed to master the twin intricacies of beating the full-back and staying on the pitch (being a linesman was not a safe profession when Luther was a lad). So it was with an air of foreboding that this then 19 year old learned of the Horns away draw to the mighty Man U. in the 3rd round of the League Cup.
The first thing to decide was whether to go or not? In these cosy, enlightened times it's easy to forget the good old days of football hooliganism. And this wasn't any old away ground, this was Old Trafford, home of the infamous Stretford End - christ, they'd only just come down out of the trees up there. However, over a few pints, it was bravely agreed that this was a game you just could not miss. But how to get there? Would it be the (t)rusty Cortina Mk. II with the scarves streaming defiantly from the windows or would it be with the much derided supporters club charabanc? We went by coach, we weren't that brave.
Apart from a family holiday to Blackpool, this was my first trip "up north" (well beyond Stoke anyway) and did it look grim. Crawling off the M.63 and down into Manchester in the early evening gloom soon made you realise that Lowry wasn't such a rubbish painter after all - it really was that depressing. The coach dropped us off on the forecourt outside and we snuck into Old Trafford. Once inside we realised we'd stepped up into a different league altogether, a world of internal concourses and huge sweeping stands, a place where you could buy a pint before the match and where the pies were nearly edible. Suitably impressed we took our seats (we really weren't taking any chances were we) and admired the view. It was vast. The huge North stand swept imperiously away to our left while off to our right was the seething mass of inhumanity that was the Stretford End. Having spent the last decade or so in the cathedral-like calm of Vicarage Road I was unprepared for the sheer volume that 45,000 screaming Mancs could achieve. Feeling more than just a tad overawed, the match kicked off to a deafening crescendo of noise.
The first half quickly settled into an ominous pattern of regular United attacks. Sporadic raids from the Horns never really looked like piercing the Man U rearguard and Luther and big Ross became increasingly isolated up front as the red tide flowed remorselessly towards Andy Rankin's goal. The inevitable finally occurred just before half-time when the defence failed to clear a corner(?) and that toothless gargoyle, Joe Jordan, hooked the ball home. To my eternal shame I found myself applauding this calamity in a pathetic attempt to curry favour with the hordes surrounding our little island of yellow lost in the vastness of the North stand. A quick "What the f**k do you think you're doing?" from my companion brought me back to my senses. The whistle finally blew for half-time and the boys trudged off to a good bollocking from GT.
Half time was a depressing experience. Was there any way back? Flicking forlornly through the glossy programme just reminded us how many good players they had. Memory fails me but I think I recall internationals of the calibre of Pearson, McIlroy, Albiston, Nicholl, Buchan, McQueen, Jordan and probably "Honest" Mickey Thomas too. They did, however, have an Achilles heel in the form of Paddy Roche - possibly the worst goalkeeper ever to play in the top flight (Gary Plumley excepted) and clearly an early role model for Jim Leighton. So perhaps there was still hope as the boys trotted back onto the pitch.
For many years after this game I suffered from the delusion that Graham Taylor's team talks must be masterpieces of inspiring eloquence and Churchillian rhetoric. Do I not believe that anymore. However, whatever the "master tactician" said, the Horns were a team transformed. Gradually Booth and Joslyn wrested control of the midfield and the red tide started to ebb. For the first time in the match the defence looked in control while Ross and Luther started to hold the ball up well up front. Then suddenly it happened - we were level. A left wing cross was whipped in and there was Luther rising unopposed to head goalwards. Good old Paddy Roche didn't let us down as the ball rudely brushed his fingers aside and nestled improbably in the back of the net. For a second or two there was an eerie silence until us travelling Horns leapt to our feet more in disbelief than celebration.
You could feel the unease spreading among the assembled multitude as the golden boys proceeded to hand out a footballing lesson. When it came the winning goal had a certain inevitability about it. Another sortie down the right was repulsed and the ball was played back to Dennis Booth coming up in support. An instant cross pinged into the box and once again Luther rose head and shoulders above the United defence. He seemed to hover in the air for an eternity before a flick of the head rocketed the ball past the hapless Roche who never even moved. Seventh heaven descended on our ecstatic band of Horns high up in the North stand. We were at least going to die happy.
The enormity of what they were about to achieve suddenly seemed to get to the players and for the last quarter of an hour it was all hands to the pumps in a desperate rearguard action. Corner upon corner was conceded as we ran out of fingernails, cheering madly at every desperate hoof into touch. Then, with the seconds ticking away, another United corner sailed in and the unmarked McQueen thundered a seemingly unstoppable header towards the top right-hand corner of the net. I could feel the blood start to drain from my features when out of nowhere appeared a gloved right hand to tip the ball over the bar. Andy Rankin had just made the greatest save I am ever likely to see. I remember sinking back into my seat with a big grin on my face, safe in the knowledge that we'd done it: nothing was going to beat Rankin after that. And it didn't. Within minutes the final whistle went and we sat their drained as the players celebrated.
The police kept us behind for ages - an exciting novelty at the time but one that's worn pretty thin since. The net result was that by the time they let us out only the real lunatics were still around and were those boys mad. Our convoy of coaches had a non-stop police escort out of town with sirens wailing, lights flashing and to hell with the traffic lights - which at least gave the neanderthals a moving target. A couple of cracked windows later and we were safely back on the motorway, at last able to savour a famous victory on the long coach trip home. It was a happy band of travellers indeed who disembarked in Occupation Rd in the early hours and took the plaudits of our colleagues at work the next day like conquering heroes.
As for the team that magical night I think it was something like Rankin, Stirk, Harrison, Bolton, Garner, Pollard, Booth, Joslyn, Downes, Blissett and Jenkins. History recalls that we went onto the semis after further memorable nights at Exeter, Stoke and Nottingham Forest. Not bad for a team of third division no-hopers. The Horns had landed and, after this result, with the national press finally on our case, things were never to be the same again. Well, at least not until a certain Mr. Bassett came along. But that's another story. For those of us fortunate enough to be there, this was where the glory days truly began.