David Byrne scored the winning goal with what turned out to be his final touch in a Watford shirt.
His left-footed shot won the goal of the season award and was the catalyst for the most unlikely escape act in the club’s history. It is remarkable to think he never played for the first team again.
The Hornets were six points adrift at the bottom of the table having not won for almost three months.
A 3-0 defeat at home to Blackburn in midweek seemed to have confirmed Watford’s fate. A trip to high-flying Middlesbrough offered little hope of an upturn in fortunes and another defeat would surely make relegation a reality.
Boro had a string of chances but neither side had managed to break the deadlock. With 15 minutes to go, Steve Perryman told David Byrne to warm up. He was going on.
‘Steve and I had fallen out. Colin Lee signed me earlier in the season but he got the sack and it was clear I wasn’t Steve’s type of player,’ says Byrne.
‘Steve told me to go on and do something special. I replied that he wasn’t giving me very long to do it.’
Within a minute of Byrne getting on the pitch, Ian Baird put Boro ahead, beating Glenn Roeder to the ball and applying a composed finish.
It is not overstating matters to say that Watford now needed a miracle.
Ten minutes from the end, they were thrown a lifeline. Gary Porter curled a free-kick from the edge of the penalty area around the wall and just inside Andy Dibble’s right-hand post. Suddenly there was a glimmer of hope.
Time was running out and the game was into the final minute. ‘They had a corner that David James came out to catch,’ says Byrne. ‘I made a run into a bit of space and he threw it out. He had a huge throw so I picked it up on the halfway line.
‘Every step forward I took, their defenders took a step back, so I kept going. It got caught under my feet so to get it free I took it onto my left, which was never my strongest side. I only used to stand on my left foot but they had all backed off instead of closing me down so I thought it was shit or bust.
‘I hit it and as soon as it left my foot I knew the lad Dibble wasn’t going to get to it.’ Byrne pulled off a somersault in celebration and seconds later the referee blew the full-time whistle.
Watford went on to win six of their final ten games to avoid relegation but Byrne didn’t play a part in any of those matches.
He was sent out on loan a few times and eventually joined St Johnstone.
Has a player’s final touch of the ball for a club ever been more influential? Without that goal it is probable that Watford’s incredible revival would not have got off the ground and that they would have been relegated.
Watford James, Gibbs, Drysdale (Denton 83), Dublin, Ashby, Roeder, Callaghan (Byrne 75), Nicholas, Wilkinson, Porter, Falconer
Manager Steve Perryman
Scorers Porter 81, Byrne 89
Middlesbrough scorer Baird 76
Why was this match chosen? Watford were, not to put too fine a point on it, doomed. They needed snookers, if not quite a miracle. David Byrne's goal won goal of the season (if you watch the video, you'll see Porter's goal wasn't bad either). It clinched three points and began a dramatic revival. Watford lost just one of the next nine to survive with a game to spare. The fact Byrne's goal was his final touch of the ball as a Hornet is remarkable too.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? It's a game that goes down in history as one of the club's most important turning points.