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Nationwide Division One, 12/9/00
Blackburn Rovers
A total shock
By Pete Fincham

I've stopped eating chewing gum at football matches. Years ago, you could go a whole game without breaking the slow, chawling, monotonous rhythm. But then something happened, and Graham Taylor became manager. My chewing gum consumption suddenly dropped as, like most people, I can't stand choking on things. We've all been there; just when you least expect it, out of the seemingly predictable comes a total shock, a passionate gasp, and the inevitable swallowing of the chewing gum. Blackburn Rovers away, and from the start of the day to the last kick of an awe-inspiring game, it made me very glad I don't chew at football anymore.

Some people might have been frightened off by the prospect of being stranded up north, victims of this so-called "fuel crisis". What fuel crisis? If this is what occurs in a fuel crisis, then give us fuel crises any day of the week.

Having negotiated the dangers of a sleepless night panicking at the prospect of having to ditch my car in darkest Wolverhampton (the geographical point I estimated my car would run out of fuel, assuming a steady speed of eighty miles per hour from London to Blackburn and back), we actually found that the best way to get through said crisis was to ignore it. Potentially hazardous, I concede, but somewhat necessary given the mass hysteria that seems to accompany anything vaguely out of the ordinary in this country. With Elvis Mark's 'billy can' safely secured in the boot, and a gentlemen's agreement to stop everywhere where petrol appeared to be on sale, we set off in trepidation. And, as if by magic, we arrived at Ewood Park.

Our original estimates of those Hornets mad enough to make this seemingly impossible journey were small. In all honestly, I barely conceived a turnout of more than two hundred and fifty; so imagine our surprise at 5.30pm as we entered a pub near the ground which was full of Hornets. Two hours later we stood watching the pre-match entertainment - a big screen that communicated not only live pre-match discussion but, unlike the screen at the Vic, was even audible - and, to the tune of "O Fortuna" from Carl Orf's Carmena Burna (the Old Spice advert to you and I), the players entered the arena.

Some may say that greatest 4-3 ever was at home to Bolton, Gary Porter's solo act dragging victory from the inevitability of defeat. Others may contend that April 1994 at London Road, Peterborough should be deemed the greatest, the Dennis Bailey ninetieth minute winner. This, however, will rank alongside those two matches forever, and as the long winter nights draw in, thousands upon thousands will wish they had been there. From the off, the game entered a twilight zone as stand-in captain Tommy Mooney won the toss and elected to fire towards the travelling horns, all clearly mentally unstable judging by their mere presence at the fixture.

Mooney's decision seemed to backfire instantly, as the uninitiated central defensive partnership of Ward and Palmer virtually watched as Blackburn raced into a 2-0 lead by the quarter hour. The travellers groaned, as another North-Western adventure seemed over before it had begun. But Micah Hyde had other ideas and, moments after Nathan Blake had put Rovers two up, a stunning twenty yard strike from nowhere found itself well-placed in the corner of the net. The team seemed encouraged in the belief that Tommy Mooney's yellow army were not to capitulate as so many yellow ambassadors had done before them. The unfortunate Jansen was stretchered off soon after and one hopes that, while fans may suggest that to be the real turning point, the contribution of eleven men in yellow will not be forgotten.

Hyde's strike seemed to turn death into life, black into white, and water into wine. It was almost a religious moment, even a miracle. Not the sort of miracle that might conceivably happen, but the sort of miracle that really is the gasp that swallows the chewing gum. We are alive. What seemed like moments later, but actually turns out to be around twenty minutes of panic in the Blackburn defence, a second goal arrived. A cross from the left flicked off Tommy Smith's growing fringe as if to deflect it into the path of the arriving Helguson at the back post. My memory suggest it was a bullet header to give the Icelandic International his fourth goal in four games, although the facts latterly point to the Smith deflection leading to Helgusson neither knowing where the ball was going nor how he had managed to connect to it. I still maintain that on this magical night it was meant to be. Moments later another rush of blood from Hyde, another long range strike, and another goal. This was positively surreal. After all, when you are 2-0 down and you sing about winning 3-2, does it ever happen? Reality doesn't work like that, reality is pants. Reality is running out of petrol in Wolverhampton, reality is losing 4-1 when you go 2-0 down at WBA, and reality is mid-table mediocrity after a promising start fades away (aka 1996-97 season). As Roy Harper said, "Reality is not for me, I'd sooner be completely out my brain".

With the game turned on its head, what was played out before us was less reality, more fantasy. The rampaging Mooney, the effervescent Smith and the rock that is Darren Ward all excelled, governed, of course, by the demonstrative Hyde. On the stroke of half time, a little jink from Tommy Smith beat three challenges and his twenty yard shot was inches wide. 4-2 at half time would have been plain ridiculous.

The expected Blackburn bombardment arrived on queue as the second half began. A year ago, this game would not have been won by the men from Hertfordshire. That has nothing to do with the opposition, merely an indication of the mental toughness and character that this team now possess. Even Nathan Blakes's vain attempts at winding up his man marker, Palmer, were met with nothing more than a cheeky smile and a knowing acknowledgement that the three points were Watford-bound. Whatever Blackburn threw at Baardsen et al did not turn into the equaliser some may argue they deserved; but as the Rovers attacks became less penetrative, Watford took charge once again.

All night he had played like the captain we always knew he could be - a deputy to Page, but nevertheless what a captain to have in reserve. Rising to head home Robinson's corner was the proverbial icing on the cake for Sir Thomas Mooney. A man who must surely be given the freedom of Watford the next time the mayor decides to do something sensible. I remember his debut against Sunderland in March 1994, unaware that the glimpse of skill we saw of him that day, as he tried an audacious shot from fifty yards, was a mere semblance of the unique contribution that Mooney has made to the Watford cause. Tonight, while not as fundamentally decisive as his goal spree in the 1998/99 run in, his performance was equally impressive.

Blackburn, with nothing to lose, threw everything they could in the direction of Baardsens's goal. One almost comical scene ended with Robinson hooking clear after four shots, all on target, were in some way kept out. Unfortunately in the remaining moments a quite confusing piece of refereeing gifted Blackburn a deserved third. Robinson appeared to give away a penalty after a clash with Duff ended in a collision of heads but the resulting drop ball took place some distance from the incident, directly in front of the Watford goal. Blake neatly finished off the loose ball, and the wise move not to eat chewing gum at any more Watford matches paid off further.

Two minutes of injury time seemed like the eternity reality meant it to be, and then it was over. A famous victory, a famous night, and through the midst of applauding players appeared Tommy Mooney, offering the captain's salute as trademarked by Robert Page.

STOP PRESS. 11.30pm. The day has just got even more peculiar. I've just met Tony Cottee in Keele services where there is more than enough petrol to go round.

STOP PRESS. 11.45pm. What a lovely full moon, what a lovely sky. Almost mystical in appearance. A moody moon, on a Mooney night.