Twenty one days after the slaughter of Southampton, Watford put paid to Portsmouth’s Carling Cup hopes. Both south coast clubs were in utter disarray as autumn turned to winter and the Hornets made sure they took full advantage.
Pompey had just lost their manager, Harry Redknapp, who resigned unhappy at Milan Mandaric’s decision to appoint Velimir Zajec as director of football.
Watford were also reeling. Three days earlier, they had led 2-0 after 21 minutes at Upton Park only for West Ham to come back and win 3-2.
Ray Lewington sensed Portsmouth might be vulnerable but there was no doubting that, even without their talismanic and charismatic manager, they were far better opposition than their neighbours had been.
However, when Lewington saw the visiting side’s team sheet before the game, he was puzzled. ‘They had been playing 4-4-2 but when I saw their team sheet I wondered how he was going to get that formation out of the players he’d picked,’ he says.
‘When the game kicked off, it was clear they were going with three at the back, which suited us down to the ground because we had wide players who could get behind them.’
After surviving an early scare, when Linvoy Primus caught the Watford defence cold only to send the ball over the bar from six yards, Watford began to stretch Pompey.
From a Neil Cox free-kick, Heidar Helguson leapt with his customary desire and defiance. He outjumped the goalkeeper, Jamie Ashdown, who had, perhaps unwisely, decided to come out to the edge of his area to get the ball.
Helguson’s header sent the ball looping in the air. There was a pregnant pause as Watford’s fans held their breath hoping it had enough power to get over the line. Desperate lunges by a couple of defenders couldn’t stop it.
At half-time, the occasion took a bizarre and slightly pantomime sinister turn. With a Watford scarf round his neck and over his long black leather trenchcoat the Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne, together with his wife Sharon, walked onto the pitch to a surprisingly rapturous reception. They were there to film a piece for the ITV show X-Factor. Was it an omen?
Surely, with the Prince of Darkness on their side, Watford couldn’t fail.
In the second half, Portsmouth changed their formation to try to cope with Watford’s wide play but it didn’t do them much good. If anything, Watford played even better.
Jermaine Darlington sent over yet another cross for Helguson to slot his second of the game. Four minutes later, Bruce Dyer capped what was probably his finest performance in a Watford shirt when he scored from close range after Ashdown had blocked a shot from James Chambers.
Three-nil and it could have been more. Neal Ardley hit the underside of the bar and Paul Devlin was also denied late on. The Premiership side had been well and truly stuffed.
Just as the cheers were beginning to fade, the victorious Hornets came out of the tunnel for an encore and the supporters nearly lifted the roof off.
For the second season in a row, and on a budget of little more than buttons and pocket fluff, Ray Lewington had taken Watford to a major semi-final. No wonder it felt so good.
Watford Lee, Darlington, Dyche, Cox, Doyley, Ardley, Mahon, Gunnarsson (Blizzard 45), Chambers, Dyer (Devlin 79), Helguson (Fitzgerald 88)
Manager Ray Lewington
Scorers Helguson 24, 57, Dyer 61
Why was this match chosen? It was a brilliant cup victory over a team from the Premier League that took Watford into the semi-final.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? On-pitch highlights were few and far between during an era when the sound of coins rattling in buckets stalked the corners of Vicarage Road. It was a night when we could forget the ever-present threat of administration and enjoy the football.
One evening, less than two months after Watford had lost to Liverpool in the Carling Cup semi-final, Ray Lewington took a call from Oliver Phillips of the Watford Observer.
‘Oli said to me “I hope I’m wrong but my sources tell me you’re getting the sack in the morning.” At ten past seven the next day, the phone rang. I knew as it was ringing who it would be.’
It was Graham Simpson, the club’s chairman, who wanted Lewington to meet him at the stadium.
‘I knew what was coming but there hadn’t been the normal signs. Usually there’s a build-up to a manager getting sacked. The crowd are getting edgy and people look away when they see you in the corridor. Of course some fans were frustrated but I don’t think everyone fully appreciated the restrictions we were working under.
‘The disappointing thing was that I wanted to say goodbye to the players but I was told I was barred from the training ground. I didn’t think I deserved that.’
A few days later, one of the players got in touch and said they’d like to meet Lewington in a pub near the training ground in London Colney so they could say their farewells ‘That was nice of them. We had a drink and I wished them all the best,’ says Lewington, who went on to work for Fulham in a range of coaching capacities.
Only in retrospect did Lewington piece together the changes that had been happening behind the scenes at Vicarage Road.
‘We hadn’t paid any agents a penny for two years and then we took James Chambers from West Brom. The chief executive [Mark Ashton] had worked at West Brom and he said he could get him. We paid money for him and I later found out that an agent had been involved too. Slowly the penny drops.
‘A couple of weeks before I left, there were a few things happening that made me wonder. I heard that the chief executive had a meeting with a player from another club, offering him a place and telling him he’d be captain. As it turned out, the player didn’t join, but it was clear that things were being talked about that I wasn’t party to.’
The Hornets replaced Lewington with Aidy Boothroyd, who had been a youth development offer at The Hawthorns when Ashton was there.
Lewington says: ‘The worst thing was seeing that suddenly there was money available for players. I had done what I had set out to do. We brought the wage bill down from ten million to £2.3m. We couldn’t sign players unless we had money from elsewhere.’
Lewington was only able to take Paul Devlin because Elton John paid the wages.
‘I looked at who they were now signing and I knew what the wages would be. These were people I’d have had no chance of getting because there simply wasn’t the money.
‘The one thing you know as a manager, one day you’ll get the sack. I don’t have any regrets. I loved it at Watford. Graham Simpson was great for the first two years but he seemed to have a change of personality in the third year.’
The supporters may have been frustrated with the lack of progress in the league but given the budget cuts, it was an achievement just to keep the team in the division.
And Lewington is the only manager other than Graham Taylor to take the club to two major cup semi-finals.