When Aidy Boothroyd talked to Sky television after as comfortable an away win as you’ll ever see, he was in bullish mood. By the time he spoke to the written press a little later, he had toned things down a bit. Perhaps he realised his mistake.
‘You ain’t seen nothing yet,’ he said at first. ‘We are nowhere near our best. There’s a lot more to come.’
Shortly afterwards he said: ‘It’s a very open league. There are plenty of teams who can stop us. But it’s great to win when you’re not playing well.’
Goals from Tommy Smith and Marlon King gave Watford their fifth win in a row and moved them six points clear at the top of the table.
Adam Johnson, the winger on loan from Middlesbrough, was in sensational form. He terrified the Palace defence every time he got the ball and created King’s goal with a brilliant run and cross. But the warning signs were there that perhaps Watford were relying on Johnson too much.
It had been a brilliant start and Watford looked well set to challenge for an immediate return to the Premiership. The victory over Palace was their tenth in their opening 13 matches.
But they were about to be brought crashing down to earth. The following Saturday they lost 3-0 at home to West Bromwich Albion.
That kicked off a run of four wins in 16 matches that saw the team slip out of the automatic promotion places. It wasn’t just that the wheels fell off. They rolled into a ravine and exploded into flames.
Johnson went back to Boro so the creative edge was lost. Crucially, Boothroyd’s assistant, Keith Burkinshaw, left because his wife was seriously ill.
Jay DeMerit says losing Burkinshaw had a big effect. ‘Keith was Aidy’s voice of reason,’ he says. ‘Aidy was a fiery guy who took a lot of risks. He wore his heart on his sleeve. Keith reeled him in a bit. There’s something to be said for being over-confident.
‘The goals dried up, then we started leaking silly goals. We had a bigger squad and you need nine or ten guys to be on the same page driving it forward. If you have a few who are questioning the leadership, it’s a problem. Suddenly, instead of working together, people are blaming each other. The manager then starts to question the players and he thinks we’re not listening.
‘It’s hard to put your finger on one thing, but I think we lost what got us to the Premiership in the first place. All that togetherness wasn’t there. We started to rely on just one guy.’
At Selhurst Park there was no hint of the deflating run to come. On the surface, everything looked fantastic as Watford sliced Palace into pieces. But appearances can be deceptive.
Watford Lee, Stewart, Shittu, DeMerit, Doyley, Mahon, O’Toole, Johnson, Smith (McAnuff 68), King (Ellington 75),
Henderson (Priskin 75)
Manager Aidy Boothroyd
Scorers Smith 32, King 67
Why was this match chosen? It was the last great result of the Boothroyd era, at a time when Watford were flying and looking like making an immediate return to the Premier League. But just as had happened under Graham Taylor six years earlier, the wheels fell off in spectacular style shortly after this win.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? It's difficult to appraise Adam Johnson's contribution to this period without also taking into account his subsequent crime.