Levski Spartak.....1 Watford.....3
Even after the stunning comeback against Kaiserslautern, few people gave Watford’s young team any chance of making further progress in the Uefa Cup. The European adventure would surely be curtailed in Sofia. A trip behind the Iron Curtain would have been daunting for more seasoned European campaigners, let alone a bunch of teenagers, some with only a handful of first team appearances behind them.
Watford had blown their chance in the first leg at Vicarage Road. Graham Taylor had said before that match that they would need to take a two-goal lead with them to Bulgaria if they were to have any chance. After a 1-1 draw, the manager subtly qualified that statement, insisting that Watford could score in Sofia. The question was whether they could do enough.
When the draw for the second round was made, Watford were pulled out of the hat second, meaning that they were due to play the away leg first. However, Sofia’s other team, CSKA, were also drawn at home in the European Cup, against AS Roma. The European Cup took precedence and the rules stated Watford’s tie would have to be switched.
That presented a slight handicap to Watford’s chances. Going away from home first is always assumed to be an advantage in a two-legged tie. Playing away first Watford would have battled to hold out for a draw, or they’d have settled for a slender defeat and perhaps the opportunity to pinch a valuable away goal would present itself. Then they’d come back to Vicarage Road knowing exactly what they had to do.
Watford had ample opportunity to win the home leg handsomely. In the 12th minute, Nigel Callaghan had a penalty saved by Borislav Mikhailov. The goalkeeper moved very early but the French referee, Georges Konrath did not instruct a re-take. Five minutes later, John Barnes limped off with an injury, something that Taylor later thought was a blessing in disguise because the Bulgarians didn't get to see what a threat he could be and so he presented an element of surprise in the second leg.
Wilf Rostron scored with a superb shot just before half-time but Watford spurned chance after chance before falling to the sucker punch when Russi Gotchev equalised after 74 minutes.
The second leg would be played in the national Vasil Levski stadium, a vast concrete bowl that would hold 60,000 whistling, jeering Bulgarians. In contrast to CSKA, the army team, Levski Spartak were the people’s football club, named after a Bulgarian revolutionary and national hero called Vasil Levski, who sought to free the country from Ottoman rule in the 19th century.
The country was part of the Eastern Bloc, a satellite state of the Soviet Union. In the late 1960s Levski Sofia were forced to merge with Spartak Sofia and the team was placed under the control of the interior ministry, making them a Government tool. It was a move that was deeply unpopular with the club’s supporters but ordinary Bulgarians still preferred them to CSKA.
Watford’s directors were welcomed warmly when they got to Sofia but Eddie Plumley, the chief executive, couldn’t help noticing that the directors he was introduced to in Bulgaria were different to the ‘directors’ he’d welcomed to Vicarage Road. Travel to the West was tightly restricted and sportsmen and women were hugely privileged to see what life was like on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Many took the opportunity to fill their suitcases with clothes and electrical equipment and there were rumours, difficult to verify, that Levski’s players had been on a shopping trip during their trip to Hertfordshire.
Some of Watford’s players were in for a culture shock in Sofia. What little they saw of the city was grey and foreboding. There were long queues at the shops for everyday items such as bread and vegetables. The country was years, if not decades, behind Western Europe.
The night before the match, Watford trained at the stadium and were watched by 10,000 Levski fans who booed and jeered throughout.
Watford’s team was again patched up and the formation was tweaked slightly. John Barnes was fit again and Taylor gambled on the fact that Levski would not have seen much of him in the first leg. They would, perhaps, be unaware of the danger he could cause. Barnes, Callaghan and Ian Richardson played as a front three, with the two wingers dropping deeper at times to avoid being man-marked. With Kenny Jackett still injured and Les Taylor recovering from an operation, the manager had few options. He put Richard Jobson with Ian Bolton and Wilf Rostron in midfield. At the back, 19-year-old Neil Price, never a shrinking violet, was given his debut.
As it turned out, the pairing of Bolton and Rostron added just the right steel to Watford’s midfield. The battle for control in the middle of the pitch got ugly at times and Bolton admitted he winced at of some of the challenges but the extraordinary circumstances demanded the Watford players gave as good as they were getting because the referee was offering little protection.
If the booing during their training session had been off-putting, it was nothing compared to the atmosphere that awaited the Watford players when they took to the field. It was intense. Flares burned brightly all over the terraces. The whistling and catcalling was so noisy the players found it difficult to hear above the din.
As soon as the match kicked off, Levski’s players signalled their intentions. In the first couple of minutes Bolton, Jobson and Rostron were on the receiving end of some aggressive challenges. The Levski players were not concerned about going in over the top of the ball.
Strangely, the referee was slow to punish the Levski players but quick to give them a penalty. After five minutes Iskrenov broke clear and played the ball towards Plamen Tsvetkov. Jobson rushed across to meet him and the Bulgarian crashed into the Watford player and went down. Emil Spassov scored from the penalty spot.
Watford could have been intimidated out of the match before it had even begun but three minutes later, Callaghan scored a phenomenal goal, striking sweetly from 25 yards. For the first time, the Bulgarian crowd fell silent.
After half an hour, Jobson conceded another penalty, this one every bit as harsh as the first. Again it was Tsvetkov who ran into Jobson and fell over. For Jobson this was something he had not experienced before. ‘In England, we didn’t have diving like that,’ he says. ‘To have a player run into you and go down because you hold your ground wouldn’t happen in the English league. But here they were getting penalties for it.’
This time, though, the woodwork came to Watford’s rescue. Spassov fired his kick against the bar. Jobson can remember thinking then that things might turn in Watford’s favour.
And they did, but not without a fight. Price remembers Bolton telling him to go in as hard as he could on the Bulgarian winger. All over the pitch there was a battle but slowly, Watford managed to impose themselves on their opponents.
Levski had hit the bar, the post and they’d had two penalties but Watford were beginning to frustrate them. Maybe the home side were used to teams retreating into their shells after being subjected to such treatment.
Rostron caught one of the Levski players with an elbow. ‘We jumped for the ball and I caught him accidentally,’ says Rostron. ‘He was going mad. I’d split his head and he was pointing to the blood but it was completely accidental.’
Levski continued to create chances in the second half but Watford held firm. Steve Sherwood made a couple of saves to keep them in it. In the first period of extra-time Watford continued to live dangerously but a combination of good fortune and heroism thwarted Levski.
Watford kept going. Five minutes from the end of extra-time, they won a corner. Callaghan went across to take it but was being pelted with things by the crowd. He daren’t look round but when a glass bottle smashed at his feet on the athletics track he ran onto the field and protested to the referee. Steve Sims told him to stop worrying and to get on with it. Callaghan’s corner was flicked on by Sims and Rostron dived in at the far post to head it into the net.
The crowd became even fiercer and the Levski players opted for outright brutality. Ian Richardson was chopped down three times in quick succession by three different players. John Barnes got the ball on the left wing and headed for the corner to kill time, though mindful that missiles were landing on the edges of the pitch. He knew the Levski defenders were going to try to hack him down too but as one of them lunged at him his feet were quick enough to avoid the tackle and skip past with the ball. Suddenly he had time and space to pick out Jobson at the far post, who laid it back for Richardson to score. Three-one, goodnight Sofia.
It was an extraordinary result, one the Daily Telegraph called ‘possibly the most impressive and most unlikely result by an English team in Europe.'
Taylor said after the match: ‘We shouldn’t have had a prayer tonight. We could have lost 4-1 but then again we could have won the home leg 4-1.’
The third round draw was not kind to Watford. In fact, it was horrible. Taylor hoped to avoid another team from the Eastern Bloc because he knew the away leg would be played in the depth of their winter. Sparta Prague were a different proposition to both Kaiserslautern and Levski Spartak. At the time Taylor described them as possibly the most accomplished club side to visit Vicarage Road. Watford fell 2-0 behind in the first leg and although they fought back to 2-2 they conceded again in the last minute. The away leg, played on an ice rink of a pitch in Prague, was no contest. Sparta Prague scored three times in the first 11 minutes and got a fourth just before half-time.
Had Watford managed to reach the quarter-finals, their new signings George Reilly, Maurice Johnston, David Bardsley and Lee Sinnott, who all played their part in the run to the FA Cup final, would have been eligible to play. They had joined the club after the deadline for European registration.
Who knows how the competition would have panned out? It is worth noting that Nottingham Forest reached the semi-finals where they lost to the Belgian side, Anderlecht. Having won the first leg 2-0, Forest were beaten 3-0 in Brussels. The Belgians were given a controversial penalty and Forest had a goal disallowed. Years later it emerged that the club’s president had bribed the referee.
Speculating on how Watford might have fared is academic. But despite the heavy defeat in Prague, the club broke new ground in the autumn of 1983. And the victory in Sofia has to go down as the most remarkable triumph against the odds the club has ever enjoyed.
Injury crisis? What crisis?
Watford’s injury problems were getting beyond a joke but Graham Taylor was determined not to sulk about it. With eight first teamers on the treatment table he considered fitting Billy Hails’ physiotherapy room with a revolving door.
Instead, he placed an advert in The Times appealing for new players. ‘We had this incredible run of injuries,’ says Taylor. ‘It was very concerning. I was questioning myself and my methods. Had they all been soft-muscle injuries I’d have worried about our preparation but it seemed to be just a run of terrible luck.
‘We would get someone fit and then someone else would get a knock. One or two of the injuries turned out to be long-term. It meant we had to play with half a reserve team in Europe.’
Taylor decided to draw attention to Watford’s plight but wanted to do it in a light-hearted way, rather than whine about his misfortune.
He said: ‘Instead of trotting out the same excuses for our mixed bag of results, I thought we could poke fun at ourselves. We are a happy club and if you cannot laugh at yourself then you may as well pack it in.’
The decision to run the advert turned out to be a public relations masterstroke.
Watford received hundreds of letters, many of them in the same jovial spirit as Taylor’s advert.
There were pensioners, children, a few who were suspected of being Luton supporters on a sabotage mission and someone who said that finishing second in a Subbuteo league with his friends made him the ideal candidate. Someone even sent in a photo of their dog, Sheba, dribbling a football.
Watford’s response was to invite a dozen or so of the best applicants (including Sheba) to appear in a special team photograph taken at Vicarage Road.