Rarely had the self-appointed guardians of the game had their noses put so firmly out of joint. And they didn’t pull their punches when they filed their articles for the Sunday newspapers.
After frustrating Spurs for 90 minutes and then knocking them out cold at the death, Watford were in danger of offending their illustrious hosts.
During the early weeks of their first season in the top flight, Watford had been a refreshing curio. They had scored goals and created headlines.
Thrashing the likes of Southampton or Sunderland was one thing. When they ran into one of the big boys they were expected to know their place.
Tottenham were the darlings of Fleet Street, even though they had not won the championship since 1961. Spurs played the game the way it was supposed to be played.
Few journalists would admit they went to White Hart Lane to admire the passing, but devoid of any emotional investment in the outcome of a match, they were free to enjoy a style that was, admittedly, easy on the eye. Watford were the ugly ducklings to Tottenham’s graceful swans and many of the gentlemen of the press failed to appreciate that Graham Taylor’s team were supremely fit and played to their strengths.
After an impressive start, Watford had slipped to eighth in the table after draws against Birmingham, Norwich and Coventry and defeats to Aston Villa and Notts County.
They had gone five matches without a win and had yet to meet any of the big four. The bubble was about to burst and the sophisticated Spurs looked like being the ones to provide the prick.
Far from being their comeuppance, the Hornets’ visit to north London was proof that even the most famous and fashionable teams were simply flesh and blood. They could be beaten to the ball and tackled just like everyone else.
Watford accepted that they didn’t have players capable of the same level of artistry as Glenn Hoddle or Ricky Villa. But they knew that if they were to allow Tottenham’s best players time on the ball and space to operate they would be punished. So Les Taylor and Kenny Jackett, Watford’s midfield duo, did the work of four men. They chased and harried. They closed people down and tackled with a ferocity that was fair but unequivocal.
Watford showed they were nobody’s patsies. Suddenly, when put under such pressure, Hoddle’s passes looked less like perfectly placed pennies from heaven but great lumpen hoofs forward.
It was a frustrating experience for a team that was used to expressing itself.
With time running out, Watford were on the verge of a hard-earned point and the journalists were preparing to dip their quills in bilious ink.
They were ready to castigate the First Division new boys for their approach. They painted Watford as a team that relied on booting the ball upfield and running after it with all the grace of a lumbering rugby pack.
And then, to add insult to injury, Watford scored.
Three minutes from the end, they won a throw-in. Luther Blissett ran over to take it quickly and Les Taylor surged forward.
Usually he took up a position outside the box but he decided to make a run, leaving Hoddle unmarked. Taylor says: ‘I can still hear the gaffer now, yelling “No, Les, no.” It’s probably the only time I’ve ever disobeyed him.
Luther took the throw, the ball fell to me and I just poked it in.’
There’s nothing a football reporter likes less than having to rewrite their copy at short notice. As Graham Taylor, the son of a local sports journalist, later said: ‘I have a good relationship with most journalists. There are one or two exceptions. They talk about the game but when there’s been a late goal I do like to wind them up a bit. “Now you’re feeling the pressure, aren’t you boys?”’
The following day, Jeff Powell of the Mail on Sunday described Watford as a ‘pack of wild dogs’.
Powell was not the only critic. Most of the papers had someone available to wring their hands and fret over the moral future of the game should every team play with the pace and controlled aggression of Watford.
‘It was mathematical and it took the creativity and artistry out of the game,’ says Powell. ‘The pressing game was not an issue but it was the regimented style that grated. It was formulaic.
‘Even John Barnes will tell you that he could only play with freedom in the final third. And the idea that football couldn’t be played neatly, in triangles, through the midfield, has been confounded these days.’
Has it? Hasn’t football always been a simple game? You put the ball in one net and try to keep it out of the other. Watford may not have been fancy but they were often better than Spurs.
Watford Sherwood, Rice, Rostron, Taylor, Sims, Bolton, Callaghan, Blissett, Jenkins, Jackett, Barnes
Manager Graham Taylor
Scorer Taylor 87
Why was this match chosen? Watford had made a good start to life in Division One but had yet to meet the so-called big boys on their own patch. This was their first trip to face one of the big London clubs. And what a stir it caused. In many ways, this was the game that determined Watford's reputation and saddled them and Graham Taylor with a tag they didn't deserve and struggled to shake off.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? What a result. The fact that the goal came so late was sweet, of course, but the reaction in the media was even more delightful.