The comic book story of the teenager who stunned United
The story of a teenage striker coming off the bench to score the winner against Manchester United is the stuff of schoolboy dreams.
Iwan Roberts was 18 years old, six feet three, but still feeling his way, hoping he had what it took to become a professional. As a lad from north Wales, he was one of Tom Walley’s boys, which meant that life was all about hard work and discipline.
‘I was doing okay for the reserves but the great thing about Graham Taylor was that he was not scared to put young players into the first team if he had to. We didn’t have a big squad and even as a teenager, you were made to feel part of things. If you were the reserve team centre forward, you knew that if anything happened to the first team number nine, you would get the call.’
Roberts had made his debut against Ipswich Town in the pouring rain in March. Colin West got injured against QPR but Taylor hoped he would be fit, so left the decision as late as he could.
‘On the Friday, Graham called me into the office and told me to ring my parents and tell them to come down from Wales because I was definitely going to be on the bench,’ says Roberts. ‘The club paid to put them up in the Hilton hotel on the A41 and they sat in the family enclosure. It was a proud day for them. He didn’t tell me I was in the team until Saturday morning but I had a sleepless night anyway.’
The Ipswich game was goalless and few chances fell his way. ‘I was up against the England centre half, Terry Butcher, who was a tremendous player.’
Despite holding his own against Butcher, Roberts made only three more substitute appearances that season. West moved to Glasgow Rangers in the summer and Taylor started the season with John Barnes and Luther Blissett playing through the middle.
Then Barnes got injured so the manager put Nigel Callaghan up front at Norwich and it worked well. Watford won 3-1 and Callaghan impressed in a central role. The next visitors to Vicarage Road were Manchester United. They had not started well and Ron Atkinson was under increasing pressure.
Taylor persisted with Callaghan as a striker but put Roberts on the bench. ‘In those days, with only one sub, you knew that if the manager wanted to make a change, you’d be going on,’ says Roberts. ‘But Graham wasn’t one to make substitutions for the sake of it. I was just hoping I’d get to come on near the end.’
Although United were struggling in the league, having won just one of their first five games, they still had plenty of quality, although goalie Chris Turner, the man who had let in eight at Vicarage Road playing for Sunderland probably still had nightmares about the place.
United dominated the first half. They had more possession and more chances, eight to Watford’s one, a Steve Terry header that went straight into Turner’s arms.
Brian Talbot was doing a sterling man-marking job on Bryan Robson but it was the equivalent of the little boy using his finger to plug the dam. You sensed that eventually it was going to burst and Watford were going to get washed away.
At half time Roberts didn’t get long to dwell on what he was ahead of him. ‘Graham put me on at half-time because I think he felt I could win a bit more in the air against Moran and McGrath, who were excellent defenders but they weren’t the tallest,’ he says. ‘Graham told me to just play my normal game, forget the opposition, forget the surroundings, just do what I always did.
‘I remember winning my first header and it settled me down a bit but United were a very good team in a false position and it was hard to get into the game.’
United continued to create chances while Watford’s impact in the final third was minimal. And then Roberts got a chance, only the second clear-cut opportunity Watford had in the game.
‘Cally put me in on the right-hand side and I knew I had to hit it first-time. If I waited against a side like United, I knew they would shut me down. I just wanted to hit it as sweetly as I could.’
Roberts timed his shot perfectly. The ball flew low, skimming across the turf, into the corner, just out of Turner’s reach.
‘I was still concentrating on the game but your head is swimming,’ he says. ‘I was a Liverpool fan as a kid, I’d come on as a sub and I’d scored against United. As much as it’s selfish to say so, I was desperate for us to hold on because to say you’ve scored the winner means so much more.
‘As long as I live I will remember two goals, my 200th, at Gigg Lane, Bury, when I was on loan for Cambridge, and my first against United.
‘A TV crew from Wales had been filming Malcolm Allen and me all week. I can picture them interviewing Tom Walley afterwards. Tom said exactly the right thing. “Yeah, he’s done okay. He’s scored the winner against Manchester United but it’s only one goal. He hasn’t done nothing yet.” That was the best thing Tom could have said.’
Watford Coton, Talbot, Rostron, Richardson, Terry, McClelland, Bardsley, Blissett, Callaghan, Jackett, Sterling (Roberts 46)
Manager Graham Taylor
Why was this match chosen? Watford had thrashed United 5-1 at Vicarage Road at the end of the 1984-85 season but United's focus had been on the FA Cup final a few days later. This was a tight game and Graham Taylor had to tweak his formation and tactics to cover for the absence of the injured John Barnes. Roberts's goal was the stuff of comic book strips too.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? It is one of the greatest Vicarage Road nights of all time and it piled the pressure on United's manager Ron Atkinson, who would only last another six weeks before he was replaced by Alex Ferguson.