The old Vicarage Road terrace deserved one last hurrah, a final send-off before being bulldozed and replaced with a smart new stand.
She had looked out upon many a famous night but was due to be pulled down at the end of the season.
Her shallow steps didn’t offer a great view. The lack of a roof meant that the supporters got wet when it rained and the passion and fervour they created evaporated on the breeze.
But it was home and it was welcoming the same way a shabby old sofa can be. Everyone had their favourite spot. You were one of the North East boys or maybe you headed to the North West corner. The faces gathered under the scoreboard that had looked so achingly, science-fiction cool when it first went up in the late Seventies but was now endearingly dated, like a neglected Pacman machine in a video game arcade.
With the team bobbing around in Division One, Watford needed a decent cup draw to create one of those special evenings. A last chance to dance on the terrace, an exhilarating if sometimes anxiety-inducing experience that simply cannot be replicated in the seats.
Once Leeds had beaten Scunthorpe United, it was confirmed. The reigning league champions were coming to town for a Coca-Cola Cup tie.
The excitement was palpable on the approach to the ground. There was a buzz in the crisp, cold air, queues at the turnstiles, and an eagerness to get inside and be part of the hubbub.
Leeds had not started the season well. Their away form was shaky and they had been involved in several Uefa Champions League matches.
‘Howard Wilkinson was the Leeds manager and they were very good at set pieces,’ says Steve Perryman, the Watford boss. ‘We went away to a hotel in Waltham Abbey the day before the game and did a couple of training sessions concentrating on defending against free-kicks and corners. I felt it might come down to who was better at them. We also did a session on the morning of the game.’
For Andy Hessenthaler, the game was the biggest occasion of his career. A year earlier, he’d been playing for non-league Redbridge Forest.
‘This is what I had been waiting for,’ he says. ‘At the time, it was the biggest crowd I’d ever played in front of. When you play non-league, you dream of being involved in big matches like this but you’re never sure how it’s going to affect you. I was going to be up against Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister in midfield. They were the champions. I was determined not to be daunted by them. I liked to play at a high tempo but we started at a pace that we hadn’t played at all season. We were really up for it. They had so many individuals who could cause you problems that you had to forget their pedigree and try to beat the man you were facing. We rolled our sleeves up and we outworked them.
‘Early on, Trevor Putney put in a crunching tackle on Gary Speed and turned to us and clenched his fists. That set the tone.’
Although Watford had started well, they came perilously close to conceding in the 17th minute.
A sloppy pass in the centre circle was intercepted by Eric Cantona, the brilliant, mercurial Frenchman who had been the driving force behind the Leeds title triumph.
Cantona broke forward stealthily, his senses awakened now he had the ball. He was clear through on goal with just the goalkeeper to beat.
This was going to be the opening goal. Surely.
Perry Suckling, the Watford keeper, was suddenly all that stood between Cantona and the goal.
‘Cantona had a great touch and he had the art of dropping his shoulder and making you commit and then rolling the ball the other side,’ says Suckling. ‘Really, he could make a goalkeeper look a bit silly.
‘When I was a kid, I was at Coventry with Steve Ogrizovic, and he was able to play the attacker at his own game. He would drop his shoulder and make it look like he was going to dive, which would make the striker’s mind up for him. As Cantona came forward, I was trying to be big, making sure I didn’t do anything rash. Time was on my side and the pressure was all on him.
‘He was brilliant because he could take the ball on while looking you in the eye. I took my eye off the ball, looked at him and half read the situation and blocked his shot. When you think about critical moments in games, that was one because things went in our favour after that. We should have been one down but I’d stopped it and the crowd went mad, as if we’d scored a goal.’
‘It was a great stop by our goalkeeper,’ says Perryman. ‘Cantona was waiting for Perry to do something but he didn’t panic, he stayed calm and called his bluff.’
Watford were on top for the rest of the half but couldn’t score. Perryman feared their chance was slipping by.
But nine minutes into the second half, Watford got the breakthrough. They won a free-kick on the edge of the box and David Holdsworth ran between Jon Newsome and Chris Whyte to head home from Putney’s free kick. All the work on set-pieces had paid off.
Watford continued to attack and won a penalty when Whyte fouled Paul Furlong in the area. Jason Drysdale blasted the spot kick past John Lukic.
‘The celebrations when Jason scored were fantastic,’ says Hessenthaler. ‘We all jumped on him and we were right in front of the fans.’
By now the Hornets were good value for their 2-0 lead. All they had to do was hang on. Gary McAllister set up a very tense finale when he curled in a superb shot from the edge of the box.
‘I picked the ball out of the net and kicked it upfield thinking that this could be a very long seven or eight minutes,’ says Suckling.
Watford saw it through and when the final whistle blew, the players ran towards the Vicarage Road terrace and allowed the celebrations to linger.
‘It wasn’t exactly a hotbed, Vicarage Road, but that night it was really intense,’ says Suckling.
Back in the dressing room, the goalkeeper was just taking his boots off when Elton John came in. ‘He stood and clapped everyone, then he came up to me and said “Nice save, Perry.” It was the first time I’d ever met him.’
For a surreal split-second, as the goalkeeper let the rock star’s praise sink in a thought crossed his mind: ‘Elton John knows who I am.’
It had been five years since Watford had been in the top flight. The Premier League was in its infancy and football was about to change for ever.
Leeds were the league champions, an impressive and imposing team, but these were days when the giants of the English game at least deigned to walk the same earth as the rest of us.
Leeds had been dumped out of the cup fairly and squarely, not because they had replaced half their team with youngsters wearing squad numbers double their age. This was an giantkilling in the true sense of the word. There were no excuses.
And what of Eric Cantona? This game turned out to be his last for Leeds before he joined Manchester United, and led the Old Trafford club to their first championship in a generation.
In the next round, Watford were hammered 6-1 by Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park, with Alan Shearer in unstoppable form.
But that didn’t take the shine off the feat of beating Leeds. The official gate was given as just over 18,000. But if you were on the terrace that night, unable to move your hands from your sides at times, you’ll perhaps doubt that figure.
It was a magical night, one that seems to stand as the gateway between two distinct eras in the game’s history. A night when we all stood and danced together. And, as the terrace emptied, an impromptu conga started that led out into the street.