Glenn Roeder can remember seeing Kevin Phillips for the first time and knowing within minutes he was good enough for him.
‘I used to let Nigel Callaghan come in and train with us once a week because he was a nice lad,' says Roeder. 'Nigel was playing at Baldock Town at the time and I asked him what the training was like up there. They used to finish up each session with a game of five-a-side. Nigel told me that if he wasn’t on the same team as a lad called Kevin Phillips, he’d go in and get showered and changed. This lad was the only one on Nigel’s wavelength.’
Roeder made a trip to north Hertfordshire one night to see Baldock play. ‘It was a freezing cold night and they were playing Fisher Athletic. There were no teamsheets and they didn’t announce the line-up but I knew who Kevin Phillips was just by seeing the way he warmed up the goalkeeper,’ he says. ‘There were two or three of them taking shots at the keeper before the match and each time this lad had a go, I thought “that’s got to be him”. He was hitting the ball so sweetly and with so much power.
‘My one concern was his size. He was stocky but he was small. As much as we don’t like to admit it, size is a factor in league football.
‘It was 0-0 at half-time and he hadn’t had a clear-cut chance but I’d seen enough. We got him in the next day for a trial and to play a couple of reserve matches. Although he didn’t score in either there was no doubt about it, we had to take him. His ball retention was excellent. I shouldn’t have worried about his size because he had an unbelievable leap on him and was a terrific header of the ball. Teams always put their smaller central defender on him, which was their first mistake. He could shield the ball well and his movement was excellent. He was a real find.
‘We paid Baldock £10,000 and we gave them an extra £10,000 for every ten first team games. In the end, we paid £30,000 for him.’
Roeder’s search for a striker to replace Paul Furlong defined his time as Watford manager. Although he picked up some superb bargains, such as goalkeeper Kevin Miller, defenders Colin Foster and Keith Millen, the mercurial midfielder Craig Ramage, and, of course, one of the club’s most popular players, Tommy Mooney, his attempt to recruit a prolific centre forward was exhausting and frustrating.
At the end of Roeder’s first season in charge, the chairman Jack Petchey sold Paul Furlong to Chelsea for £2.3million. By his standards, Petchey was generous with the transfer budget and allowed Roeder to pay Millwall £450,000 for Jamie Moralee.
It turned out to be a costly mistake and one that hampered Roeder when it came to doing further deals. ‘At the time I don’t think many people thought it was a bad buy,’ he says. ‘He had scored a lot of goals for Millwall. But I didn’t do enough homework on the boy. I don’t want to be too critical but he wasn’t the right type of person for me.
‘I never complained about the transfer budget. I know the supporters thought Jack was too tight but he ran the club to turn over a profit. He had to bring the ground up to the regulations and he built two new stands by selling Furlong and Bruce Dyer. Whatever people think of him, he was a very clever businessman. He came out of the navy at the end of the Second World War with nothing and created a business that made him an awful lot of money. I have no idea how much it was but it was rumoured to be hundreds of millions.
‘He made it clear to me from the start that there weren’t going to be vast sums of money. He taught me a lot about wheeling and dealing, although that makes it sound like it was beneath the counter. What I mean is he taught me how to get the best price possible.
‘We got Craig Ramage for £90,000. That was an excellent deal. Millen and Foster were not expensive. We got people in for not a lot of money and they added a lot to the squad.
‘But I will never spend a better £10,000 than I did on Kevin Phillips.’
Roeder’s third season as manager had not started well. Far from building on the previous season’s seventh place, they found they were getting sucked into a relegation battle.
At the start of December, they headed to the New Den to face Millwall, who were top of the table. Two weeks earlier, Roeder had sold Gerard Lavin to the Lions for £425,000.
Roeder thought he had found the perfect target man to spend the money on. Sigur Rushfeldt, a Norwegian, was keen to join Watford but the deal fell through when Birmingham’s Barry Fry showed interested at the eleventh hour. It was a recurring theme. Every time Roeder was close to getting someone, Fry would make a call and the price would be driven out of Watford’s league. Even if the players weren’t ending up at St Andrew’s they weren’t coming to Vicarage Road.
The manager was getting desperate. Moralee’s form was worse than ever. Despite Phillips’ obvious qualities, Roeder needed someone experienced to play alongside him.
In the end, he got Paul Wilkinson on loan from Middlesbrough. He had scored a lot of goals during his three seasons at Watford, and had been caught offside with even greater frequency.
Roeder’s experiments in the loan market were erratic and it could be said they were his undoing.
‘I signed a few who weren’t really Glenn Roeder signings,’ he says. ‘It was very hard to get the right players.’
Darren Caskey, a midfielder from Spurs, and Wilkinson were reasonable short-term measures. Gary Penrice came back too, but without the same success. However, Roeder’s final few throws of the dice all landed on ones and twos, rather than fives or sixes.
Steve Hodge and Warren Neill weren’t up to it. Bringing in Kerry Dixon, a former Luton favourite, had the fans turning on each other and against Roeder. Devon White and Danny Hill came in for what turned out to be Roeder’s final game, a dismal 4-0 defeat at Crystal Palace.
Hill, another midfielder from Spurs, looked as if he’d only been introduced to the concept of kicking a ball that very morning. The manager was sacked after that defeat at Selhurst Park and he accepted that the signing of Moralee had undermined him in the end.
A transfer fee can be a weight on a player’s shoulders but it can be a noose around a manager’s neck, poised to be pulled tight at any moment.
‘It was a mistake,’ he says. ‘But overall, I don’t think my record in the transfer market was too bad. If you look at Moralee and Phillips, one of them looked to be worth £420,000, and the other looked about ten grand.’
‘We didn’t have any luck at all that season,’ says Roeder. ‘I always felt we would turn the corner and we’d wriggle out of it. There was still plenty of time and there were signs that things were getting better.’
No match at Millwall looks inviting but there was a glimmer of hope that cold afternoon. Mick McCarthy’s side were top but they were wobbling slightly. They were on a run of three without a win. Watford were exactly the sort of side they needed to face to get themselves back on track.
Wilkinson took the small band of travelling supporters on a wistful trip down memory lane. He was caught offside after just 20 seconds. The Watford supporters cheered and Wilkinson turned to berate the linesman. It was just like old times.
Watford had a lucky break, perhaps their first of the season, when Kasey Keller fumbled a long clearance. Even Millwall’s defenders had turned to run upfield, thinking their keeper had it under control. Phillips, alert like a fox spotting a gap in the hen house fence, pounced and walked it into the net.
Not long before half-time Phillips scored again, as Watford continued to have success on the counter-attack. Although Chris Makin pulled one back just before the referee blew for the break, Watford’s nerves held in the second half. What a fine and unexpected victory to offer hope of a revival. Of course, there was to be no revival.
As away fans ran the gauntlet in the hostile backstreets of Bermondsey, Roeder faced the press. He brushed off the rumours from a national newspaper reporter that Graham Taylor was being lined up to replace him.
Although the signs that bleak winter afternoon in that bleak corner of London had been encouraging, there was to be no recovery.
However, few could have predicted that Millwall would go into freefall and would be relegated alongside the Hornets the following May. And no one would have believed that dark December afternoon that Graham Taylor would on his way back a couple of months later.
Watford Miller, Bazeley, Johnson, Foster, Holdsworth, Palmer, Hessenthaler, Wilkinson, Mooney, Porter (Payne 64), Phillips
Manager Glenn Roeder
Watford scorer Phillips 24, 38
Millwall scorer Makin 45
Why was this match chosen? Context was everything when it came to selecting the matches and it's important to remember that brief glimspes of brightness amid the gloom like this were sometimes all we had to keep our faith. We travelled to this usually inhospitable corner of south-east London as underdogs and held on for what at the time felt like a pivotal win. That things were to get worse before they got better doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the match.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? Perhaps one for the hipsters but it offered a good reason to speak to Glenn Roeder about his two-year struggle to find a striker to put the ball in the net – a search that led him to discover Kevin Phillips playing for non-league Baldock.