Panic was beginning to set in. So much so that Graham Taylor had to reassure Watford’s supporters their team would not ‘do a Swansea’.
The Welsh side and Watford had been engaged in a race through the divisions a few years before. When Watford won the Fourth Division title in 1978, Swansea went up with them. They were both promoted again the following year. Swansea reached the top flight a year before Watford and the meteoric rise by both clubs captured the imagination. John Toshack’s side finished sixth in Division One at the first attempt but were relegated the following season.
On arriving in Division One, Watford did even better than the Swans, clinching the runners-up spot. But by December 1983, the Swans were sinking again and Watford looked like they were following in their footsteps. The sense of déja-vu was uncanny and the prospect of relegation to the Second Division could not be dismissed by the Hornets.
As it turned out, Swansea’s equally rapid return to the basement was well underway. They would be back where they started by 1986. But Taylor had no intention of following them out of the top flight.
However, the 1983-84 season was turning out to be Watford’s equivalent of the difficult second album. The first year had been hit after hit. But the team was barely recognisable from the one that had finished best of the rest behind Liverpool. Pat Rice, the captain, had been forced to accept that his legs had gone. Ian Bolton, who was undergoing a difficult marriage break-up, went to Brentford hoping it would be a fresh start. Luther Blissett, Ross Jenkins and Gerry Armstrong had all moved on.
The rebuilding work was underway but it was not a speedy process. The team that played in the UEFA Cup looked more like a reserve line-up and though they performed heroics in Europe, Taylor had his doubts that the likes of Ian Richardson and Jimmy Gilligan were the long-term solution up front.
Initially, he had considered playing John Barnes as a centre forward, as he had impressed so much in the role alongside Blissett the previous season. But that plan had to be shelved when Paul Atkinson, who Taylor had signed from Oldham and earmarked for a role wide on the left, broke his ankle in his first practice match for the club.
It wasn’t as if the manager had been sitting on his hands, though. In the summer, he bought George Reilly, a forward in the same mould as Jenkins. Reilly cost £90,000 from Cambridge United and some supporters were initially not impressed. They’d seen Blissett leave for a million and his replacement was someone who’d never played in Division One.
Taylor also used his role as England youth manager to cherrypick a couple of promising defenders. He got 18-year-old Lee Sinnott from Walsall and David Bardsley, a 19-year-old from Blackpool. The most expensive new arrival was Maurice Johnston, who was a raw but undoubtedly exciting striker from Partick Thistle. While Everton and Spurs hesitated about the 21-year-old’s ability to step up from the Scottish First Division, Taylor took a chance and paid Partick £200,000.
Johnston made his debut at Old Trafford, two days after he joined the club, partnering Barnes in attack. They lost 4-1 to Manchester United and dropped into the relegation zone for the first time since reaching the top flight. Watford’s defence was porous, to say the least. They’d thrown away the lead against Leicester, drawing 3-3 and they were thrashed 3-0 at Sunderland before the United defeat.
In fact, had it not been for the European games the spotlight might have been more firmly on the poor run in the league. After a fine 4-0 win at Stoke on September 17, the Hornets were on a run of two draws and seven defeats in the nine league games as December approached. The last of those was a home defeat to Luton Town which left them in the bottom three with only Leicester and Wolves below them.
Johnston and Reilly had been signed after the registration deadline for European competition so were not in the squad to face Sparta Prague. It meant they had a whole week to train together. They worked hour after hour with the reserve team, perfecting their runs and learning each other’s moves.
On the Saturday, after Watford lost 2-1 at home to Luton the supporters were getting nervous. But there were signs that the two Scottish forwards were dovetailing nicely.
Taylor revealed that a fan had written to him, urging him to drop the attacking 4-2-4 formation, arguing in favour of 4-3-3, saying that an extra midfielder would make the team less vulnerable to conceding goals.
No chance, said Taylor. He was going to stick to his guns. He told the Watford Observer the Hornets would not go down. ‘I know the league table does not make pleasant reading,’ he said. ‘We are still relatively new to Division One. We were never going to continue in the same way as last season. Our job is to consolidate and establish ourselves as a First Division club. We will not go down.’
When the two sides met at Molineux, Wolves were also in dire straits. They had managed just one win, which came the previous week at the home of their fierce rivals, West Brom.
This was early December, a bit soon to start talking about relegation six-pointers, but defeat would have been a severe blow to Watford because the gaps above them were starting to open.
Fortunately, Maurice Johnston and George Reilly clicked into gear and Johnston, in only his third match for the club, made himself an instant hero, scoring an eight-minute hat-trick. He scored the first goal after 13 minutes and before long the game was won.
The Wolves defence simply couldn’t handle the physical threat of Reilly, the movement of Johnston or the way the wingers and midfielders played the ball in behind them.
Sherwood made a great save when it was 3-0 to steady the ship when Wolves were threatening a revival. Given Watford’s defensive woes, this was a more significant stop than the score might have indicated. In the second half, Reilly scored twice and a famous, if short-lived, partnership – one which was to steer the club to Wembley – was born.
Wolves chairman Derek Dougan said afterwards: ‘That was a travesty. There were never five goals between the teams.’ Taylor replied: ‘I won’t say anything. I don’t want to add to Derek’s problems. He has enough.’
For Taylor, victory at Molineux – still the club’s biggest-ever top flight away win – was the turning point he had been so confident would come. Having lost nine from their first 15 league games of the season, they pulled away from the relegation places and finished the season in the comfort and security of 11th.
Watford Sherwood, Bardsley, Price, Jackett, Sims, Franklin, Callaghan, Johnston, Reilly (Porter 72), Rostron, Barnes
Manager Graham Taylor
Scorers Johnston 13, 21, 22, Reilly 58, 61
Why was this match chosen? This was the match that gave birth to the Reilly-Johnston partnership which may not have lasted as long as the Blissett-Jenkins one but which was so effective for a short while. And it remains the club's biggest away win in the top division.
How do I feel about this match now? It definitely deserves its place, even though Wolves were in a terrible mess that season and went down with only 29 points, 21 adrift of safety.
Further reading: Transcript of the George Reilly interview for Enjoy the Game.