Ian Richardson and Jimmy Gilligan took their place in the tunnel. The Kaiserslautern players lined up alongside them. Outside, Vicarage Road reverberated to an alien hum quite unlike anything it had experienced before.
The two teenagers had played here scores of times for the reserves but it felt different tonight. Gilligan leaned forward and said to his reserve team strike-partner: ‘We will win this tonight.’
Richardson, at 5ft 7in the small, speedy poacher to Gilligan’s beefy target man, couldn’t help but notice how big the Kaiserslautern players were. Great strapping hulks of men. He swallowed hard, took a deep breath and the line of gold-shirted players in front of him headed out onto the pitch.
A fortnight earlier, Watford’s introduction to European football had brought a mild sense of disappointment. The team bore little resemblance to the one that qualified for the Uefa Cup. Luther Blissett, Ross Jenkins and Gerry Armstrong had all gone. Pat Rice’s legs had gone. Ian Bolton was not the same player he had been.
Graham Taylor had no choice but to throw teenagers in at the deep end. The likes of Charlie Palmer, Richard Jobson and Gilligan played in West Germany.
And it was Gilligan who entered the record books by scoring Watford’s first goal in Europe. The game ended in a 3-1 defeat, although if Jan Lohman’s strike had not been disallowed for offside, the balance of the tie would have been very different.
The common belief was that Watford’s Uefa Cup run would be ending here. They needed to win the second leg 2-0 to reach the next round. Against an experienced team, that looked a tall order.
Between the two first legs, Watford suffered yet more injuries. Taylor was down to the barest bones. Eight of the side that lined up to play in Vicarage Road’s first European fixture were aged 21 or under. Richardson was making his first team debut. Palmer, the right back, only his sixth start.
Kaiserslautern, on the other hand, were seasoned European campaigners. They had a World Cup winner in their ranks, the towering Hans-Peter Briegel.
And they thought they had the tie won. The Germans had scoffed when they heard what Taylor had said after the first leg. ‘We’ve seen what it’s like to play here, now they have to come to Vicarage Road and experience that.’
John Ward, Taylor’s first team coach, watched the Kaiserslautern players arrive and get off the bus. He was irritated to see they were wearing an assortment of tracksuits, t-shirts and jeans rather than official club suits. Their casual dress hinted at a casual manner. He told the players: ‘They think they’ve got this won here.’
Richardson barely had time to be nervous. He had been sent off playing for the reserves at Millwall just two days earlier. When Taylor asked to see him on the morning of the match, he thought he was going to get a telling off. Instead, Taylor told him he’d be making his first team debut that evening.
Lohman had failed a fitness test on the morning of the game and Taylor was forced to rejig his team yet again.
It meant putting Richardson and Gilligan together up front. They had terrorised defences for the juniors in the South East Counties league and for the reserves in the Football Combination but this was the Uefa Cup.
Taylor refused to be daunted by the odds stacked against him and his young team. They had lost away from home and were left with a mountain to climb. All they could do was give it a go.
He thought back three years to the match against Southampton, a night when they made the impossible possible. No one gave them a chance then, either. So he implored the supporters to remember the spirit of Southampton and to arrive at Vicarage Road in a positive mood.
Taylor wanted to bring a dash of European élan to south west Hertfordshire. He urged supporters to bring flags, scarves and banners to make it a truly Continental occasion. For their part, the club handed out hundreds of plastic horns to add to the atmosphere. By kick-off time, there was a crackle of electricity in the air.
Taylor knew that an early goal was of paramount importance but, as usual, he did not stress that need to the players in case they failed to make the breakthrough and became disheartened.
For the manager, attitude and desire, commitment and hard work were the standards by which he judged his team, rather than goals and results.
With such a young, inexperienced team at his disposal he could afford to urge them to throw caution to the wind. They had absolutely nothing to lose. If they lost 2-0, who could criticise them?
Perhaps Kaiserslauten really did think they had finished the job in their home leg. They looked completely unprepared for the all-out assault of the first ten minutes.
Four minutes had been played when Steve Sherwood launched a long goal kick upfield. It was knocked forward for John Barnes to flick deftly with his head into the path of Richardson, who had anticipated superbly and was already on the move. The 19-year-old controlled the ball neatly, took it another stride forwards and slotted it delicately but defiantly into the far corner. Cue pandemonium on the terraces.
Watford continued to bombard the Germans. They played with such pace and aggression, seeking to attack every time they had the ball.
The second goal came when Charlie Palmer broke forward and sent in a low cross from the right-hand side of the Kaiserslautern penalty area. The ball hit Werner Melzer and flew in.
Inside ten minutes, Watford had levelled the aggregate scores – and had the benefit of an away goal. In a way, it could have been the worst possible start. It would surely spark the visitors into life. All Kaiserslautern had to do was score and the wind would be taken out of Watford’s sails.
The remainder of the first half saw the Hornets continue to attack but in the second half things were more edgy. Suddenly the thought of what they had to lose seemed to spread through the team. Even the third goal did not entirely ease the nerves.
Jobson, who had been playing non-league football for Burton Albion a year earlier, crossed for Richardson, who slid in, made contact with the ball and lay on his back watching it loop perfectly over the goalkeeper.
Watford now led 4-3 on aggregate but knew that if they conceeded now, it would be all square again.
Taylor sent Ward over to the far side of the pitch to coax and cajole the players on Watford’s right-hand side. He crouched down in front of the Shrodells stand, yelling at Palmer and Nigel Callaghan to keep things tight and watch for danger, all the time fearing that he’d be in trouble with the referee for leaving the bench.
The clock ticked down agonisingly slowly and Kaiserslautern by no means accepted their fate without a fight but eventually the referee blew the final whistle and Watford reached the second round of the Uefa Cup.
Taylor was full of praise for his young team. ‘This is the greatest result of my career. Perhaps not the greatest performance but certainly the best result. We had seven players unavailable for selection. We’ve tried very hard not to bleat about the injuries but this is a very different Watford team from the team that qualified for Europe. Really, they are just kids.’
Explaining his decision to replace Lohman, a midfielder, with Richardson, a striker, he said: ‘Ian has got natural pace and he’s a goalscorer. On a man-to-man situation I felt it was worth us having a go. But perhaps I ought to tell the truth and say he was the only one I’d got left.
‘I told the players that they could do it. I believe that every team that represents me can win. On reflection, of course, we shouldn’t have had a chance tonight.’
Watford Sherwood, Palmer, Rostron, Jobson, Terry, Bolton, Callaghan, Richardson, Gilligan, Jackett, Barnes
Manager Graham Taylor
Scorers Richardson 4, 56, Melzer og 9,