The Premiership and its hype and self-importance could be irritating at times but this was one of those rare days when all the pundits had to sit in their armchairs and accept that sometimes might doesn’t mean right.
Even in these pre-Abramovich days, Chelsea spent enough money to keep a small country going. They had two World Cup winners, Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps, and an exciting Italian manager.
And three days earlier, they had drawn 0-0 with Milan in the Champions League and they had a visit to Hertha Berlin to look forward to the following week. A trip to Vicarage Road was treated like an unpleasant inconvenience, like having to complete your tax return between two foreign holidays.
On the other hand, Watford had just beaten Wigan Athletic – they were in Division Two in those days – in the Worthington Cup.
Watford were trying to compete with the big spenders. A week before Chelsea were due in town, Graham Taylor signed Nordin Wooter from Real Zaragoza in Spain or £950,000, which was then a record fee.
Wooter was a 23-year-old Dutch winger who had played in a Champions League final, having come on to play extra-time in Ajax’s defeat to Juventus in 1996. His career had stalled and the fact most of his appearances at both Ajax and Zaragoza had been as a substitute should have tempered the excitement.
On his debut he was magnificent. He ran with short, rapid strides and could twist this way and that. We weren’t to know then that many of his journeys ended up in dead-ends.
From the start, Watford wanted it more than Chelsea. Perhaps the Londoners thought playing in the Champions League meant they had earned the right to dictate games like this.
Watford refused to go along with that. Steve Palmer was a more effective, more willing ‘water-carrier’ than Didier Deschamps. Robert Page and Mark Williams allowed Tore Andre Flo and Chris Sutton to get on with their Premiership histrionics when things didn’t go their way, nicking the ball from under their feet or getting a head to it first.
Wooter added another dimension to the attack. Everything he did was bold, new and exciting. We didn’t realise that the end product he promised would rarely come.
Watford were simply a better and more motivated team than Chelsea in all areas of the pitch and as the first half drew to a close the Blues’ frustration was becoming apparent. But there was the doubt in Premiership matches that no matter how well you played, disaster lurked around the corner. A lapse of concentration or a moment of brilliance can smack you under the ribs and leave you winded.
In the second half, Watford were even better. When Wooter ran at Chelsea they looked terrified. He found the right pass, to Paul Robinson, who laid it off to Allan Smart.
Smart hit a first-time shot early enough to catch Ed de Goey cold. It was an astonishing goal, every bit as impressive as the one at Wembley that helped Watford to the Premiership in the first place. And it came with a new, slightly embarrassing celebration that paid homage to the kilted shot-putter on the Scott’s Porage Oats box. You could almost hear the pundits. ‘A Scotsman, scoring in the Premiership. How quaint.’
‘It was incredible to get my first goal in the Premiership. Talking to Match of the Day afterwards I kind of played it down,’ says Smart. ‘I didn’t want to big ourselves up and I was trying to be respectful to Chelsea but I don’t think the gaffer was impressed.
‘It was a real high but seven days later I was in hospital. How I didn’t get a penalty for what Alex Manninger did to me at Highbury... I pushed the ball past and he came out at me, in the air. My studs caught in the turf and tore my ankle cartilege and ligaments. That was the season over for me.’
Gianluca Vialli’s response to going a goal down was to bring on a couple of handy substitutes, Gianfranco Zola and Dan Petrescu.
As much as Zola’s trickery could be mesmerising, he was not hurting Watford. In fact, the home side went closest to scoring again. There was a glorious moment when Palmer dispossessed Deschamps, strolled forward and smacked a low shot just wide. It thumped against the advertising hoarding as if to say: ‘We’re warning you.’
Towards the end, Chelsea’s discipline deserted them. Tommy Mooney, the hero at Anfield, came on. ‘We had a corner and Desailly tried to put his finger in my eye, so I hit him in the ribs,’ he says. ‘Then I was running down the left and he took me out. I tried to carry on but my kneecap was round the back of my knee.’
Watford saw out the rest of the game comfortably. The pundits didn’t give them the credit they deserved, of course. They focused on Chelsea’s shortcomings and the size of the task ahead of them in Europe.
But you have to wonder what it was about Chelsea’s performance that prompted the Watford directors to think: ‘Their manager could do a job for us in a couple of years.’
Watford Chamberlain, Gibbs, Robinson, Page, Williams, Hyde, Easton, Palmer, Kennedy, Wooter (Wright 65), Smart (Mooney 80, Ngonge 86)
Manager Graham Taylor
Scorer Smart 57
Why was this match chosen? There weren't many days to be cheerful in the season Watford returned to the top flight but this was one of them.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? It was a glimpse of what might have been had Watford been able to keep their best players fit that season. Organised, disciplined, fully committed and capable of moments of quality, it's just a shame they weren't able to do it more frequently against the lesser teams in the division.