Vicarage Road bids farewell to the Eighties in fine fashion
How fitting it was that Vicarage Road should sign off at the end of the club’s most successful decade in such emphatic style.
At the start of the Eighties, Watford were just getting to grips with the Second Division. With the decade drawing to a close, the man who had been the team’s left-back then was now the manager. Steve Harrison’s programme notes drew inspiration from the success that had gone before.
This match could almost be seen as symbolic of the entire decade but, sadly, rather than being a catalyst for further success, the
result was just a pleasant blip on a chart that showed mostly a downward trend. After ten years of feast came ten of famine.
By his own admission, Harrison was not cut out for the manager’s chair. His first full season in charge had seen the team fall agonisingly short of a return to the top division. They were the first club to be knocked out of the play-offs without losing a match. Two draws against Blackburn Rovers in the semi-final meant they were eliminated on the away goals rule.
Although there was optimism for the new campaign, Harrison continued to wrestle with the demands of the job. A brilliant coach who found it easy to strike up a rapport with players, even if his exuberance strayed over the boundaries of taste once or twice, he found the
distance a manager had to keep from his squad artificial. He didn’t cope with the stress and although he had no problem making decisions, he found the dialogue with disappointed players exhausting.
Too often, he was confrontational. ‘By the end, I didn’t even like myself,’ he says. Then there were the comparisons to the Taylor era. Desperate to be his own man, he felt pressure to recreate the dynamic wing play of his predecessor’s most successful team. Barely a week went by without the local paper making a reference to Taylor’s old team. Glyn Hodges had his strengths and shortcomings weighed up against those of John Barnes and yet he was one of the best players in the side, gifted, dynamic and the sort of talent a team could have been built around had expectation levels eased just a bit.
With the team sliding down the table after a not-too-bad start, Harrison decided to change his approach and do things more his own way. He signed Gary Penrice, a forward from Bristol Rovers. Penrice had a moustache that captured the imagination of the fans (perhaps betraying their nocturnal viewing habits) but he also had a touch and vision that were far more subtle than some of the battering-ram centre forwards Harrison had previously employed alongside Paul Wilkinson.
The start of the season had been quite encouraging. But two home wins and two away draws were undone by a heavy defeat at Sunderland before the Hornets unravelled alarmingly in the autumn. They went ten games without a win and slumped to 19th place.
That was when Harrison decided to change things. Rather than playing Hodges as an out-and-out winger, he gave the Welshman a free role. Lee Richardson, a young midfielder who had joined from Halifax towards the end of the previous season, was improving. Harrison used him to hold the midfield together, allowing Gary Porter and Liburd Henry to get forward from deeper positions, while Hodges and Penrice roamed.
Everything slotted perfectly into place against Bradford City to give the Watford supporters an early Christmas present. As Gary
Porter said afterwards, the signs that someone was about to get a hammering had been there. Watford had won three in a row before this. It helped that they were fast out of the blocks, scoring after just three minutes when Penrice set up Paul Wilkinson. An early goal at Vicarage Road was straight out of the Graham Taylor playbook. Richardson scored with a delightful chip and two minutes later Porter made it 3-0 with a searing shot. Penrice scored his sixth goal in as many games before Barry Ashby made it 5-0 just before half-time.
David Campbell and Jimmy Quinn pulled goals back for Bradford in the second half before Wilkinson and Henry added the sixth and seventh.
There was a great sense of optimism as the players left the field that evening but it was to prove misplaced. It was not quite the result to kick-start a promotion push. Instead the season spluttered like a diesel engine that has been treated to a gallon of unleaded. They reached the heady heights of eighth place after a win at Barnsley the following week before slipping back to mid-table anonymity. After that it was mostly downwards for the next seven years.
But there is a lot of joy to be derived from seeing such a wholehearted and skilful display out of the blue. It was different to the days of that irresistible front four but it was no less exciting. And as the supporters turned to leave the stadium, they could have been forgiven for thinking they saw ghosts in the shadows cast by the floodlights. They were the figures of the Eighties, of Barnes and Blissett, Rostron and Callaghan. This was a different team but it was still so hard to let go of the memories. If an entire decade could be summed up by a single scoreline, it would be this. Seven-two.
Watford Coton, Gibbs, Ashby, Richardson, Holdsworth, Roeder, Henry, Wilkinson, Penrice, Porter, Hodges
Manager Steve Harrison
Watford scorers Wilkinson 3, 71, Richardso 17, Porter 19, Penrice 28, Ashby 43, Henry 76
Bradford scorers Campbell 60, Quinn 66
Why was this match chosen? Its symbolism was irresistible. This was the last home game of the finest decade in the Hornets' history and it was as if the old place wanted to rouse the spirit of the 1980s and say farewell to an era with one final flourish.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? It falls into the category of a good hammering that came out of the blue and deserves inclusion for that and the fact that even when everything seems to be going in the wrong direction football still has the capacity to surprise and delight.