Three-nil down with 20 minutes to go . . . Step forward Gary Porter
Only 7,492 supporters turned up to see Watford take on Bolton Wanderers. With 25 minutes still to play and their team 3-0 down, some of the home supporters voted with their feet. The ground was emptying fast.
It had been a terrible performance and the Hornets showed no sign of making it respectable, let alone mounting the most remarkable comeback Vicarage Road has ever seen.
There must have been fewer than 7,000 in the ground when Gary Porter got his first goal, meaning the number of fans who can say ‘I was there’ is pretty small.
Watford fielded the youngest line-up in their Football League history, with an average age of just 22 and a half.
The first half was abysmal. Watford’s defence was all over the place. The centre half partnership was Barry Ashby, who was 22, and Julian Alsford, who was just 20. Behind them was another 20-year-old, Simon Sheppard, who was making only his 23rd first-team appearance between the posts.
Bolton were ahead after 16 minutes when David Lee went past Gerard Lavin and crossed. The ball hit Ashby and fell straight to Jason McAteer whose shot went through Jason Solomon’s legs and past Sheppard.
Although Watford rallied a little, their goal was living a charmed life. Six minutes before half-time, Lee picked up the ball and strode past three Watford defenders. Instead of beating Lavin, this time he crossed early. Lee’s looping ball completely deceived Sheppard. The goalkeeper was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea and he turned to watch it fly over his head and dip under the bar.
Glenn Roeder couldn’t wait to get his players into the dressing room at half-time to sort things out.
‘We were struggling like mad out there,’ he says. ‘There’s only so much you can do from the touchline but when I got the chance, I let them have it. I am a calm person when I talk but people don’t realise that I could lose my temper like the best of them in the dressing room. I can be very vocal. I didn’t like to do it all the time because players can switch off if you’re always ranting and raving. It has to be rare, it has to be swift and it has to be harsh and on that occasion it was.’
When the match resumed, Roeder must have wondered if he’d been talking to himself. Six minutes into the second half, Bolton scored their third. Mark Patterson had plenty of time to cross to the far post. No one challenged John McGinlay, who was allowed to head across goal. Alan Thompson was unmarked in the six-yard box. All he had to do was slide the ball home. Game over.
Roeder decided to put Ken Charlery on in place of young Alex Inglethorpe, who had not caused the Bolton defence too many problems. Charlery did have an impact but Watford were all huff and puff and very little inspiration. Some of the fans were heading for the exit, Gary Porter, the captain, couldn’t blame them.
‘No one wants to hear booing, and seeing your own fans going home with more than 20 minutes to go is even worse,’ he says. ‘But we had been poor. Nothing went right for us at all. Sometimes that just happens. I can assure you, no one goes out to play badly but you get days when you simply don’t get anything right.
‘I saw people leaving. We hadn’t given any sign that we were going to score, let alone get back into the game.’
So what changed? Charlery won a couple of headers and had a half-chance. ‘We had nothing to lose,’ says Porter. ‘Maybe Bolton relaxed a bit and thought they had the game won but we were just trying to contribute something to the game.’
With 70 minutes gone, it was still 3-0. What followed was an astonishing turn-around. Porter played a one-two with Charlery, and Porter shot from the edge of the penalty area. ‘The first one was just a relief,’ he says. ‘You’ve been awful, you’re 3-0 down and then you get a goal so at least you’ve managed to do something. I remember running straight back to our half to get on with it.
‘There weren’t any celebrations because all you’re doing is saving a bit of face. We’d got to 3-1 and you think “If we can get another, maybe we can make it a game.” It was unlikely but you’re just trying to make it difficult for them. I don’t think I believed we were going to get back into it.’
Three minutes later, Porter got a second goal. This time Charlery nodded it down, Lee Nogan laid it back and Porter wriggled between a couple of Bolton defenders before scoring with his right foot. ‘Now this was different. I ran into the back of the net to get the ball and sprinted back to the centre spot with it,’ says Porter. ‘There were still 15 minutes to go and suddenly you think you can get a draw. You feel that confidence go through the team. And for the opposition, the opposite is true. Their shoulders dropped and there wasn’t the same zip in their step. Five minutes earlier they had the game won, now they have a fight on their hands. That’s a very difficult position to be in. The fans who stayed suddenly think it’s on. Maybe we can get a draw here.’
Watford had to wait but with a couple of minutes remaining, Charlery controlled a long clearance from Sheppard beautifully. With a couple of touches he made a shooting opportunity and he fired home from outside the box. The ball was perfectly placed and flew into the bottom corner, just out of Aidan Davison’s reach.
The home side didn’t stop there. They won a corner, which Porter took. The ball was flicked on and Bolton’s Mark Seagraves handled it. The referee pointed to the spot.
Porter placed the ball on the spot. ‘I was very confident,’ he says. ‘I knew this was a chance to score my first senior hat-trick and to win the game having been 3-0 down. I was very confident even though I knew a lot was on it. Imagine missing that penalty, it would have been horrible.’
Within seconds of Porter scoring, the referee blew the whistle. Roeder, though delighted, was not getting carried away. ‘We were celebrating in the dressing room and Glenn was very happy but at some point, when it had all calmed down, he reminded us to look at the game as a whole. We had been dead and buried at 3-0.’
Roeder bumped into Jack Petchey, the club’s owner, in the corridor. ‘I thoroughly enjoyed that Glenn,’ Petchey said. ‘Couldn’t we arrange for that to happen more often?’
Watford Sheppard, Dublin, Lavin, Hessenthaler, Alsford, Ashby, Dyer, Solomon, Inglethorpe (Charlery 56), Porter, Nogan
Manager Glenn Roeder
Scorers Porter 71, 74, 90 pen, Charlery 88
Bolton scorers McAteer 16, Lee 39, Thompson 51
Why was this match chosen? It's one of the greatest comebacks of all time. Watford should have been finished when Thompson added Bolton's third just after half-time. To win it with a last-minute penalty was fairytale stuff.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? It's a match that is still talked about today by fans who were there, simply because any kind of comeback had looked so unlikely.