Almost 19 months had passed since the teams had met in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. How things had changed.
Only four of Watford’s semi-final line-up survived the constant rounds of cost-cutting. Southampton were a club in decline. Their new manager, Steve Wigley, was under fire, having gone 10 Premiership games without a win. The Saints were there for the taking.
Watford had proved themselves difficult to beat but were struggling to turn draws into wins.
This was precisely the sort of game they needed. ‘I knew Steve because we played together at Sheffield United,’ says the Watford manager Ray Lewington. ‘He’s still a good friend but he was having a bad time there and I felt that if we could get at them, they might not be up for it.
‘The last thing a team that is doing badly in the Premiership wants is a League Cup tie.
‘Win it and no one gives you any credit and you don’t get any points. Lose it and confidence takes another dive.’
Southampton had to call on their third choice goalkeeper, Alan Blayney, because of injuries and Watford made it a miserable night for him.
Bruce Dyer headed the first from a Neal Ardley free-kick after 39 minutes.
‘We played really well in the first half,’ Dyer says. ‘We ran at them and we could tell they didn’t like it at all. It took a while for us to get the goal but at half-time, the manager told us to really go for them because they were wobbling.’
They certainly were. James Chambers got the next two, the first a volley from Ardley’s corner, the second a firm shot from Dyer’s neat pull-back.
Ardley’s wicked deliveries, Dyer’s unpredictable running and Helguson’s raw aggression were giving the Saints nightmares.
By now, the visitors were falling apart. Heidar Helguson got the fourth. A typical goal from the Icelandic striker, scored with the glorious, emphatic power and subtlety of a shot from a blunderbuss.
‘We dismantled Southampton,’ says Lewington. ‘Okay, so they were very low on confidence but it was a great performance from our players. When you play a struggling team from the Premiership it can go one of two ways. Fortunately for us, they collapsed when we put the pressure on them.
‘I felt sorry for Steve because when we were three up the fans were giving him a lot of abuse. He didn’t last there much longer after that.
‘He was a good friend but we needed that result for ourselves. It meant money for the club, which was absolutely vital. We had lost all the high earners but we were still a good team.
‘The one thing I was grateful for was that Helguson stayed. He is one of my favourite players of all the ones I’ve ever coached. He was adamant he didn’t want to leave and I was delighted he didn’t. If he’d gone, we would have lost so much and it would have upset me.’
Dexter Blackstock pulled one back but within 30 seconds one of the young subs, Hameur Bouazza, got Watford’s fifth. Southampton did get another one back right at the end but there was no hiding the fact this was a drubbing.
For Lewington the emergence of Bouazza and Ashley Young, who also came on, proved Watford could survive the budget cuts.
‘Ashley was a talent but the question was would he make it? He was so painfully thin back then,’ says Lewington.
‘I remember our academy coach Davie Dodds telling me then that he’d play for England one day. He had so much quality but I was frightened people would snap him in half. I knew he had a chance with his ability and the fact he wasn’t intimidated.
‘He was durable. We had Anthony McNamee but I don’t think people realised how serious his asthma was. He had genuine ability but he could hardly run 200 yards and was never fully fit.’
Watford Lee, Ardley, Gunnarsson, Cox (DeMerit 85), Dyche, Dyer (Bouazza 75), Mahon, Darlington, Helguson, Chambers (Young 71), Doyley
Manager Ray Lewington
Scorers Dyer 39, Chambers 52, 62, Helguson 66, Bouazza 84
Southampton scorers Blackstock 84, Ormerod 88
Why was this match chosen? A cagey first half was drawing to an end when Watford broke the deadlock. They then cut loose in such swashbuckling style in the second half that it was reminiscent of another Saints hammering at Vicarage Road. Two late goals for the visitors did nothing to take the shine off.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? Undoubtedly a cup classic, even if Southampton were awful at the time.