Friday lunchtime at Liverpool’s Lime Street station. The Watford players arrive wearing their club tracksuits. Graham Taylor liked to travel to away games by train if it was possible.
It was quicker and more comfortable than the coach and, having been to Sunderland and back three days earlier, he wanted to give his players every help because their bumpy introduction to the Premiership was not about to get any easier. Their next stop was Anfield.
The players walked across the station concourse and out to where the coach that would take them on to the hotel was parked. ‘We had to walk past the taxi rank,’ says Tommy Mooney. ‘All the taxi drivers waiting for their jobs were standing at the front of the line of taxis, leaning on the bonnet, chatting, as they do. I was at the front, walking next to Richard Johnson. Knowing the Scousers, I knew they wouldn’t let us pass without saying something.’
Mooney braced himself. And then it came, in the thickest Scouse accent you’ve ever heard. ‘Like lambs to the slaughter, boys, lambs to the slaughter…’ Then came the laughter.
‘We smiled and tried to laugh it off but when we were out of earshot, I turned to Johnno and said “I hope they’re not right but there’s every chance they could be.”’
Already, Watford had learned that the Premiership could exact a cruel and twisted form of justice. The opening match at home to Wimbledon had been such a whirlwind of emotions. A goal down after ten minutes, level and a man up seven minutes later when Dean Blackwell was sent off for a cynical foul on Michel Ngonge and Peter Kennedy hammered home the penalty. Watford fell behind again before half-time but an equaliser from Ngonge with 19 minutes to go offered hope of a fairytale finish.
Richard Johnson had been immense in midfield but with 12 minutes to go he made a mess of things in the area. He tried to chest the ball back to Chris Day, who failed to commit himself.
Johnson’s desperate attempt to clear the ball was sliced high into the roof of his own net. It was an undeserved blow and one that would have the experts on Match of the Day shaking their heads and muttering about naïve defending. Then came a perfunctory defeat at Sunderland, another promoted team but one whose faces fitted better than Watford’s. Taylor complained that the referee, Jeff Winter, was on first-name terms with their players.
And so to Anfield and certain defeat. This was Liverpool’s first home game of the season and the atmosphere was bristling. After a summer starved of their beloved Reds this was another new dawn, and a chance to give a newly-promoted side a footballing lesson.
Watford were without their goalkeeper Alec Chamberlain, who had dislocated a finger during the pre-season trip to the Isle of Man. ‘I tried to play with a splint but Graham was not keen,’ says Chamberlain. ‘I said I was fit but we did some finishing and one hit my hand and it was very sore.’
Paul Robinson and Micah Hyde had missed the Wimbledon and Sunderland matches but the sight of them warming up offered a glimmer of hope. Eight of the team that had won the play-off final at Wembley were back together.
For Mooney, this was the realisation of a childhood fantasy. ‘The last time I’d even been to Anfield was as a kid, wearing a Liverpool tracksuit, on the stadium tour,’ he says. ‘To go there wearing the number nine shirt was incredible. This was everything I’d wanted to do.’
Kennedy was a Liverpool supporter as a child too and he had to fight the urge to just stand and take in the sight of the stadium filling up when they went out for their warm-up.
Only someone with the emotional responses of a stone statue could have been unmoved when they began to play the famous anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone. Steve Palmer admits he was welling up. ‘Normally the away fans boo it but the Watford fans sang along,’ says Mooney. ‘That was fantastic. The Watford fans know how special that song is and they didn’t just respect it, they joined in. The atmosphere was absolutely incredible. I’ve played there since and it’s never been the same. It was the first home game of their season and there was all that hope, optimism and excitement.’
But Watford were not there to roll over for their hosts and Liverpool made the terrible mistake of beginning the match in lackadaisical fashion, all loose passes and admonishing body language.
For all their stature and history, Liverpool have a tendency to allow their confidence to become arrogance at times. The attitude among the fans can transmit to the players. ‘Come on lads, we should be beating these.’
After ten minutes they had a wake-up call when Johnson stung Sander Westerveld’s palms with a searing shot. The warning went unheeded.
Four minutes later, Watford were given a free-kick on the right-hand side. Peter Kennedy took it left-footed and the unusually flighted ball bounced around, causing chaos. It hit a Liverpool defender and a Watford attacker and squirmed across the area. Dominic Matteo swung a boot at it but he was beaten by both Robert Page and Mark Williams, who were fighting for the same ball. It fell to Mooney, unmarked in the six-yard box, and he had the simple task of turning it home. A quick glance across to the linesman to check he wasn’t offside and then the celebrations began.
Mooney’s dream was complete. ‘I was shouting “I can’t believe I’ve scored in front of the Kop,” over and over. I still get ribbed about it now,’ he says. ‘That goal epitomised what we were all about. We were braver than they were, more committed than they were. Williams and Page almost tackled each other going for that ball. They both got there before any Liverpool players. That was how much we wanted it.’
A goal up after quarter of an hour meant nothing. This was dangerous territory for the division’s newcomers because Liverpool would surely be stung into action. The onslaught never came. Watford kept chasing, challenging and forcing mistakes. Expensive players signed for sums beyond Watford’s wildest dreams were made to look cumbersome and ordinary.
Then the steady drizzle became a torrential downpour. Oddly, the sun never quite disappeared, despite the rain. The romantics might be tempted to believe they saw a rainbow in the sky above the city but that would be stretching things.
At one point the rain was so heavy the ball was beginning to snag on the wet turf. Mooney turned to the referee, Alan Wilkie, and joked: ‘Don’t you dare call this off. I’ll find out where you live.’ Wilkie replied: ‘There’s plenty of football left in this.’
He was not wrong. In the second half, the pitch began to dry out and the surface became slick.
This coincided with Liverpool’s best spell. They began to pass the ball with pace and a little verve, stretching Watford’s disciplined formation almost, but not quite, to breaking point.
Every man in a golden shirt stuck to his task with defiance. There were heroes all over the pitch but the man between the posts, Chris Day, was inspired. He had been criticised for his hesitancy against Wimbledon but on this occasion he was flawless. Alec Chamberlain, watching in the stands, frustrated to miss such a big game because of injury, was willing his young understudy to keep them out. Day was superb. Alert, eager to organise the defence, never slow to take responsibility. He stopped shots and claimed crosses. He pushed his defenders out of the way in order to get to the ball. ‘It was a brilliant performance,’ says Chamberlain. ‘It was a hard day because he had to cope with all sorts of weather. Bright sun one minute, torrential rain the next. They are always the most difficult conditions for a goalkeeper but he was totally in the zone that day.’
Even when Richard Johnson was injured after a strong challenge by Steven Gerrard early in the second half, Watford’s focus was not disrupted. Houllier brought on Karl-Heinz Riedle, the German international forward, with half an hour to go. It was the sort of substitution that could have deflated the Hornets had they allowed it to. After an hour of Watford holding out, Liverpool still had more to throw at them.
Liverpool had chances, of course, but Day was equal to them. He stopped a great shot from Jamie Redknapp and another from Patrik Berger.
Robinson threw his body in front of Robbie Fowler as the Liverpool striker was about to take aim, and blocked the ball. It was desperate stuff at times but Watford must have been encouraged by the fact that Liverpool’s defence at the other end had only a fraction of their commitment or courage.
Mooney continued to cause problems, bumping and bullying their centre halves, whose response to the whole-hearted assault they were subjected to failed to live up to the finest traditions of Hansen and Lawrenson. Towards the end, Palmer was allowed to stroll forward with the ball. They backed off him until he had a shooting opportunity and although Westerveld stopped it, the way in which Watford had imposed themselves on their illustrious opponents, forcing them to retreat in fear, said everything about the way the visitors had taken control of the match.
As the clock counted down Watford’s supporters grew impossibly nervous while Liverpool’s became exasperated. Those final ten minutes seemed to last for ever. And when the final whistle went, ninety minutes of tension was released with a booming chorus of ‘We are Premier League’ from the away supporters in the Anfield Road stand.
If your eyes had been trained on the bench, you’d have seen the private reaction of the architect of another extraordinary result. Graham Taylor applauded the Kop, shook Gérard Houllier’s hand, put his glasses in their case, snapped the lid shut and then allowed himself to clench his fist. This was not a great, triumphant fist in the air, more a small gesture to himself.
After everything that had happened with England and Wolverhampton Wanderers, Graham Taylor was back at the top.
The players savoured things a little longer. They celebrated with their supporters but as they turned to walk off the pitch they must have been almost bursting with pride. The Kop, home of arguably the most discerning football supporters in the country, was still packed. The majority had stayed to the end to applaud the Watford players from the pitch. ‘To be clapped off the pitch by the Liverpool fans was absolutely amazing,’ says Robinson. ‘It was one of those times when you couldn’t quite believe what was happening. When I was a kid, Liverpool were the best team in the country by miles. We’d just beaten them and they were clapping us.’
Back in the dressing room, Johnson’s knee had already been strapped. He had an ice pack on it to keep the swelling down. He’d at least been spared the ordeal of having to watch the last ten minutes hoping his team-mates would hold on.
As soon as Mooney opened the door, he went straight to Johnson. They both said the same thing at the same time, mimicking the taxi driver’s Scouse accent from the previous day. ‘Like lambs to the slaughter, boys, lambs to the slaughter…’