‘The feeling of relief was immense,’ says Steve Perryman, architect of Watford’s most unlikely relegation escape.
‘While the games were going on, I don’t think I realised what it was taking out of me but when it was all over, I slept for three days solid. I took the odd phone call, including one from Elton John saying congratulations. I had my meals and then I would go back to sleep. I was mentally exhausted.’
Watford had been dead and buried for most of the season. Few were in any doubt they were on their way back to the lower divisions for the first time since 1979.
The season began badly under Colin Lee. They took just two points from the opening nine matches. Lee was sacked after a 1-0 defeat at Newcastle in late November. Gary Porter missed a penalty in that game. ‘It wasn’t a nice feeling missing the penalty and then finding out the manager had got the sack,’ he says.
But the arrival of Perryman and his assistant Peter Shreeves perked things up on the training ground, even if the initial fillip on the pitch proved to be only temporary.
‘The training seemed to pick up,’ says Porter. ‘There was a smile on people’s faces for the first time in a while. We trained differently. Steve was very much into skill work, training with the ball. Peter had a lovely manner about him. But we’d dug ourselves into quite a deep hole.’
When Perryman arrived, Watford were bottom of the table with just nine points from 13 games. Under the new manager, they won three and drew five but were still in the relegation zone.
Because the league was being restructured, only two teams were to be relegated at the end of the season, meaning it would be harder to go down than stay up if they could put a half-decent run together.
But the new year was terrible. They kept losing and by mid-March were destined for the drop. A 3-0 defeat at home to fellow strugglers Blackburn Rovers seemed to spell the end.
‘Someone threw a dustbin onto the pitch from the so-called family stand at that game,’ says Perryman. ‘That was the lowest point of all. That was when I started to think that this was my problem as much as anyone else’s. We weren’t turning it around quickly enough.’
Perryman had been a promising manager at Brentford before taking the Watford job. ‘Before I went there, I had seen a couple of Watford’s games and I knew that division and I felt that things couldn’t get any worse. I thought they were certainly good enough to stay up.
‘First of all you want the players to start enjoying themselves in training and to play without that fear you have when you are at the bottom of the league. But it took a long time to turn things around. I decided to move Gary Penrice on. He was a very bubbly character but I felt that some of the people who can be so ‘up’ can also be very down. I also felt he was being tapped up so I let him go and used the money to bring in Peter Nicholas, who was tried and tested, a Welsh warrior.’
Glenn Roeder had been edged out of the team in Lee’s final days but found himself back in favour with Perryman.
‘Colin Lee had basically tried to retire me,’ he says. ‘He gave me the chance to coach the reserves, to pacify me, and he brought in Keith Dublin and Joe McLaughlin. When Steve and Peter came in as manager and coach, they said they wanted to change the formation and play me alongside two young central defenders, Barry Ashby and David Holdsworth.
‘I was a good talker on the pitch. I didn’t shut up for 90 minutes and I could play deep as a sweeper, mop up any mistakes and organise them.’
Holdsworth got injured before the plan could be tested so Roeder, Dublin and Ashby played together and began to form a good understanding at the heart of the defence. Paul Wilkinson was used as a lone striker and towards the end of the season, Perryman brought old favourite Nigel Callaghan in on loan.
As spring wore on, they still needed snookers to avoid dropping into the Third Division. ‘Even though things looked bleak, Steve and Peter were very upbeat,’ says Porter. ‘They gave us this belief that we would be okay.’
A run of good results meant that Watford hauled themselves up the rock face inch by inch. With two games to go, they needed one win to survive.
The penultimate match was at the Manor Ground, Oxford. ‘I’d been at Oxford as a player,’ says Perryman. ‘It was a tight little ground, held about nine thousand at a push, and it wasn’t, in fairness, the most daunting of places to go.
‘But the pitch had a hell of a slope and I felt that would be crucial.’
More than 3,000 Watford fans made the trip and packed every inch of the tiny terrace allocated to away fans.
David James had played for the England under-21 team in Turkey in midweek. It had crossed Perryman’s mind to pull him out of the squad but he decided the trip might do his young keeper good.
‘I felt we were always in control of the game,’ says Roeder. ‘We were well organised and quite composed by that stage of the season. We had our destiny in our own hands. What seems an absolutely nightmarish and dangerous situation for the supporters watching is not so bad when you’re actually out there, dealing with it.
‘But we did it by the skin of our teeth. It wasn’t a case that we were drowning. We had drowned. But somehow we came back to life.’
Wilkinson got the crucial goal, which sparked incredible celebrations.
‘It felt as good as a promotion, it really did,’ says Perryman. ‘Everyone thought we were going down and the vultures were out for our best players, but we rallied together really well in a tough situation and that is something the players should be proud of.’
Watford James, Gibbs, Drysdale (Denton 83), Dublin, Ashby, Roeder, Nicholas, Wilkinson (Callaghan 85), Butler, Porter, Falconer
Manager Steve Perryman
Scorer Wilkinson 59