It isn’t often that a manager is sacked after seeing his team win 2-0 with nine men but, in truth, the Watford board had made up their mind about Mike Keen long before.
Keen knew his job depended on Watford winning promotion from the Fourth Division. And he knew that a bizarre run of matches over Easter had probably done for him.
Watford spurned penalties, gave away leads and ended up with just one point from their games against Brentford, Stockport and Aldershot. Now they were ninth in the table and although there were still seven games to go, the writing was on the wall.
Keen’s final game was an extraordinary win over Huddersfield Town. An eccentric display of refereeing meant Watford had two players sent off. First to be shown the red card was Tony Geidmintis, who retaliated after one of a number of bad challenges the referee appeared to miss. Later on Alan Mayes joined him for an early bath and Keen’s tenure looked to be over.
Keen was so enraged by the referee’s display he considered asking the chairman’s permission to take his team off the pitch. But Keen didn’t want to give up. He may not have been a successful or a lucky Watford manager but he was not a quitter.
The Vicarage Road crowd rose to the occasion. For once they weren’t chanting ‘Keen out’, which had become something of a terrace anthem as the season wore on. Instead, they roared their nine men to an unlikely victory. Keith Mercer scored twice in the final 19 minutes as Watford showed the sort of fighting spirit Keen could have done with more often. The previous week the players had asked for a meeting with Elton John to plead the case for giving Keen more time. Now they rallied for their manager but it was too late.
On the Monday morning, the board gave Keen the news he had been braced for. He took it well and his final column in the Watford Observer was a dignified exit from a man who was aware of his shortcomings but always tried his best.
With Elton’s money at their disposal, Watford knew they could take their time selecting a new manager and let coach John Collins take the team for the final games of the season.
The list of candidates was lengthy. As soon as he heard the news, Ken Furphy, who had taken the club to the Second Division eight years before, phoned from his holiday in Barbados to say he was interested. Ron Atkinson, who was leading Cambridge United to the Fourth Division championship, was another name that was suggested. And, of course, we know that Elton offered the job to World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore. But in the end the job went to a chap at Lincoln City. Graham something. And that was about to change everything.
Watford Sherwood, Geidmintis, Pritchett, Bond, Garner, Walley, Downes, Coffill, Mercer, Horsfield, Mayes
Manager Mike Keen
Scorer Keith Mercer 2
Why was this match chosen? One of those games where everything was against Watford and their beleaguered manager Mike Keen. Reduced to nine men they still managed to score twice in the last 20 minutes to secure an unlikely win. The fact that it turned out to be Keen's final match lends it even more historical significance because we all know what happened next.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? Supporters who were there remember this as an extraordinary match during a period when patience was beginning to run very thin. Keen had steered the club to seventh in the Third Division during his first season but the trajectory had been consistently downwards since then and there was little evidence that Elton John's fame and fortune was going to transform the prospects of a club in the doldrums. So to stick in the memory of so many more than 40 years later counts for a lot.