The noise was almost suffocating. You had to hand it to the Blues’ supporters, they had created a fierce atmosphere. When they sang their anthem Keep Right On to the End of the Road, instinct made you put your hands over your ears. The Watford fans tried to fight back, to sing with every ounce of effort they could muster. But you could barely hear yourself think.
The players had to block out all that noise and focus on the job in hand. That wasn’t going to be easy. It was like trying to run into a force ten gale.
Within two minutes, the ball was in the net and Watford’s defenders were on their knees.
The stadium erupted. The Hornets’ hard-earned 1-0 lead had been wiped out before they’d even managed to settle. It was going to be a long, long night.
Watford left nothing to chance in their preparations for the second leg. For a few weeks, they had ended each training session with a full-scale penalty shoot-out. Just in case.
‘Between the two games, I had this unbelievable feeling it was going to go to penalties,’ says Allan Smart. ‘We had practiced a lot. We knew our penalties. There were some days when I’d taken 20 or 30 penalties. I had developed my routine. All the players had. We knew exactly what we were going to do. Of course, in training, all our kicks were being saved, because the goalies knew where they were going.’
Their preparations for the game were not ideal. ‘We stayed at a different hotel to normal,’ says Mooney. ‘For league games in Birmingham we stayed in the New Hall but it was booked up so the gaffer took us to The Belfry. As a creature of habit, I didn’t like that.’
The team bus left the hotel in plenty of time but got caught in traffic. ‘That added to the anxiety. We were rushing around and there wasn’t a lot of time. Because there was some building work at the stadium, the changing room was a portacabin.’ says Alec Chamberlain.
‘We got there with about 45 minutes to kick off,’ says Smart. ‘Chambo was going absolutely ballistic because he didn’t get to do his proper warm-up.’
The stadium filled up very early and the atmosphere was as hostile as it was intense. ‘We did our warm-up, running back and forwards across the width of the pitch and some of the abuse we got when we were near the touchline was really nasty,’ says Nick Wright.
By the time the game kicked off, the place was really rocking. ‘I’ve been to Ibrox and Celtic Park but the buzz in St Andrew’s that night topped them,’ says Smart, who was on the substitute’s bench. ‘When the goal went in, you could feel the ground shaking. I was sat there, on the bench, thinking we were going to get pasted.’
Perhaps the lack of warm-up did affect the way Chamberlain started the game. ‘I was disappointed with the goal,’ he says. ‘It was a corner that didn’t get cleared properly. It was played back in and it was really hard to judge the trajectory. I tried to deal with it but didn’t do one thing or the other and it bounced loose.’
Dele Adebola bundled the ball over the line and all hell broke loose. Now Watford had to stand up to the onslaught and hope they were strong enough. ‘For the next ten minutes it was just a case of standing with our backs to the wall,’ says Chamberlain.
‘The noise when they scored that goal was what made me decide to join Birmingham a few years later,’ says Mooney. ‘You couldn’t hear yourself think. I was shouting to Peter Kennedy, who was only about ten yards away, and he couldn’t hear me.’
Watford threatened so little but while the aggregate score was level, the onus was on Birmingham to attack.
‘Our ball retention wasn’t great and we didn’t attack much but everyone worked so, so hard to stop them,’ says Chamberlain. ‘I had quite a lot to do and I would say it was my best game in a Watford shirt. There was some heroic defending too.’
None more so than from Nigel Gibbs, who was standing in at left-back for the suspended Paul Robinson.
David Holdsworth was sent off for Birmingham early in the second half which meant the pressure on Watford eased a little bit.
Extra time meant another half-hour of tension. A goal now would probably settle it but penalties seemed inevitable.
Kennedy volunteered to take the first one, and scored it. ‘I was careful not to react,’ he says. ‘We were taking them in front of the Birmingham fans and I didn’t want to get carried away and make it harder for my team-mates.’
Paul Furlong, a former Hornet, was up next. Kenny Jackett gave Chamberlain a tip. ‘Kenny knew Furs well,’ says Mooney. ‘He knew he’d change his normal penalty because he was playing against us, so he told Alec which way he’d go. And he was right.’
‘Kenny told me Furlong would go to my right and I thought, that’s good enough for me.’ Chamberlain stopped it and Watford had the upper hand. For a minute, at least.
Steve Palmer missed his shot. He couldn’t get the ball to sit neatly on the spot. ‘It bobbled as I hit it,’ he says. ‘I almost got away with it because it hit the outside of the post. No one wants to miss one but it was early in the shoot-out so it wasn’t disastrous.’
The penalties kept flying in and for Watford, the practice was paying off. ‘I’ve never felt so nervous, yet so in control,’ says Mooney.
In the end, someone had to miss. ‘I was so disappointed I wasn’t getting near them,’ says Chamberlain. ‘But poor old Chris Holland’s kick wasn’t the best. I think you can see I’m smiling before I’ve actually stopped it.’
Watford had done it. They had stood firm in the face of overwhelming odds and could now look forward to playing at Wembley.
And amid all the joy there was also a sense of relief for Steve Palmer. ‘You’ll see from the photos and the video that I’m the first person to get to Alec,’ he says. ‘That wasn’t a coincidence. I was so happy he’d stopped that one.’
Watford Chamberlain, Bazeley, Kennedy, Page, Palmer, Gibbs, Ngonge (Hazan 87), Hyde, Mooney, Johnson, Wright (Smart 87)
Manager Graham Taylor
Birmingham scorer Adebola 2
Why was this match chosen? Although it was technically a defeat over 120 minutes, this was one of the nights of high drama that had the travelling Hornets barely able to watch at times. Has there ever been such a committed, backs-to-the-wall performance when so much was at stake?
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? The moment the final penalty kick was stopped by Alec Chamberlain has to be one of the single finest moments in the club's history. It meant a return to Wembley after 15 years but so much more.