Hornets survive fuel crisis to leave Rovers running on empty
Britain was in the grip of a fuel crisis. Farmers and lorry drivers had blockaded oil depots in protest at the soaring cost of diesel. Queues formed on the forecourts, then the petrol pumps ran dry.
There was an away game to get to. Watford laid on an extra coach for the supporters as many opted to leave their cars at home. Fewer than 200 Watford fans managed to make the journey but they witnessed a thriller.
With Robert Page injured, Tommy Mooney was made captain for the night. ‘We got to the hotel before the match and the gaffer gave me the news,’ says Mooney. ‘I had been captain before but it’s always special to lead out the side. It’s a very proud day.
‘Graham gave me the complimentary tickets to pass round to the lads but most of them were not given out. Few of the families could make it because of the petrol crisis.’
Watford’s season had got off to a fantastic start with four wins from their opening five league games. Only a draw against Wimbledon, who had also been relegated from the Premiership, blotted a perfect record.
Mooney went to the pre-match meeting in the referee’s room and if he needed any further motivation for the game, Blackburn’s manager provided it.
‘Graeme Souness was not the most likeable chap,’ he says. ‘He was being derogatory about how direct we were, trying to make jokes to the ref that the ball was going to be shelled into the box. He was having a go and trying to get onside with the ref at the same time. I thought, if he’d said some of those things to me in a shopping centre I’d have knocked him out.’ Mooney is only half-joking, it seems.
But it was Watford who were on their knees after little more than quarter of an hour. With Page absent from the defence and Matt Jansen running amok for Rovers, the Hornets were two down and the small band of hardy souls who’d made the journey to Lancashire must have wondered why they’d bothered.
David Dunn scored the first after six minutes, then Nathan Blake scrambled the second over the line after his initial header had rebounded off the bar and fallen at his feet.
Two minutes later, Micah Hyde pulled one back when he struck a fine shot from the edge of the area after Allan Nielsen’s corner to at least give Watford hope.
The turning point came after 20 minutes when Jansen, who was integral to everything Rovers did in attack, was badly injured in a collision with Espen Baardsen and had to go off.
In midfield, Hyde began to run the show. This was one of his finest games for Watford. He dropped deep, he went forward, he linked the defence and the attack and he spread the ball wide. It was one of those days when he seemed to have the ball on a string like a yo-yo and could send it out and gather it back at will.
Watford were level when Heidar Helguson stooped to head in from a Paul Robinson cross and then Hyde gave them the lead with a beautifully placed shot from long range. He found the only available space between the post and Alan Kelly’s outreached palm.
They went from 2-0 down to 3-2 up in the space of 20 minutes thanks to fine attacking play. Mooney made it 4-2 with a thumping header that said ‘Take that, Souness’ before Blake set up a nervy final few minutes with Rovers’ third.
‘It was an amazing game but very surreal to go over to the Watford fans at the end,’ says Mooney. ‘There can’t have been more than a hundred of them there and you could pick out individual faces. They'd made such an effort to get there because you couldn't get petrol at the pumps – some must have been driving on fumes, I guess others came on the coaches or the train. It felt like we’d done it for them.
‘Souness kicked off in the press conference, complaining about the way we played. I didn’t care about that but I do remember getting back to Vicarage Road at one in the morning and worrying if I had enough fuel to get home.’
Baardsen, Cox, Robinson, Palmer, Ward, Hyde, Mooney,
Noel-Williams, Smith, Helguson (Gibbs 82), Nielsen
Manager Graham Taylor
Scorers Hyde 18, 37, Helguson 35, Mooney 65
Blackburn scorers Dunn 6, Blake 16, 87
Why was this match chosen? Watford were on fire at the start of the season. They remained unbeaten in the league until the start of November. But this was an outstanding win, especially after going 2-0 down so early. Blackburn were one of the pre-season title favourites (and in fact went up as runners-up to Fulham) but Watford were so ruthless in front of goal. It was the classic seven-goal thriller.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? With the petrol crisis caused by blockades at fuel depots, travel was getting difficult. I ditched plans to drive to Ewood Park and booked a seat on the club coach instead – not an experience I'd usually relish because it seemed to double the journey time. My memory is probably wrong but it felt like we left at lunchtime and got back in the early hours. The roads were quiet – the away section at the ground was sparsely populated. People swapped stories of how they'd got there, taking trains and buses or conserving their petrol use by driving at 55 and fretting over whether they'd have enough in the tank to get home. When Blackburn went 2-0 up early on we wondered whether it had all been worth it. Of course it had.