Report by Ian Grant
And we thought that we'd seen all the perfect days this season had to offer....
Damn it, this was brilliant. Arguably the best team performance of the season, rising
to meet a daunting challenge full-on. One of those mammoth efforts, all gritted teeth and stubborn
refusal to let the enemy pass and constant "COME ON!" clenched fist Mooney-isms, that culminate
in a feeling of utter triumph at the final whistle.
And that was just the match against the Birmingham mailing list in the morning. A 1-1 draw,
a superb result produced by some truly heroic efforts and an ever-strengthening team spirit, and the most that I've ever enjoyed myself on a
We were playing as we'd want Proper Watford to play. With pride and with passion, but also
with control and nous. We'd done our bit to make the day memorable...
...then they did theirs. Christ, this was an absolutely magnificent away victory, one of the truly
great Watford performances of recent years. They took the intensity and aggression from the last twenty
minutes of the Tranmere game as a starting point. Then they added discipline, intelligence,
astonishingly astute tactics, finishing, bravery, patience, unbroken concentration, resolute
confidence, ambition. After weeks of suffering from a chronic inferiority complex, we finally proved
The scoreline is probably an accurate reflection. But don't let that fool you into thinking
this was a close contest. Although only one goal might've separated the sides, the unbreakable
strength of the Watford rearguard made that seem like a massive margin of victory. After Daley's
crucial second, you could look at Robert Page and Steve Palmer and know that they
were never, never going to let us concede two goals. Even in the usually frantic last few
minutes, Birmingham were banging their heads against a yellow brick wall.
From the outset, it felt like we were taking the initiative. Given the benefit of hindsight, the
surprising tactical changes were overwhelmingly positive ones - born not of the desperate need to fix
problems within our own team, but of the desire to cause trouble for the opposition. The new
formation - a kind of mutant 4-3-3 with Alon Hazan and Peter Kennedy joining Richard Johnson ("the pride of the southern hemisphere", according to the
programme - yep, he's the name on everyone's lips in the streets of Sao Paulo and Cape Town) in the midfield to the
huge benefit of all concerned - was genius; the surprise return of Tony Daley to a ground where
he was bound to take plenty of stick from the crowd was vintage Graham Taylor. Back on the
offensive, back to what this team is really capable of.
We recaptured that exhilarating feeling of kicking the asses of the First
Division elite. It's time we realised that the likes of Birmingham, Bolton and Wolves - all clubs that mistake
expensive for classy - are there for the taking. As shown by the deathly quiet Birmingham crowd, their fans
are no happier for watching a side that's been assembled with the aid of a hefty chequebook - spending
millions makes you nervous of failure and daunted by expectation. They've got so much more to lose than us!
So we took the field with heads held high and more than matched them in absolutely every department from
beginning to end. Sure, there were some early scares - Holdsworth and Bradbury wasting free headers,
Chamberlain tipping over a long range Hyde drive - but it was hardly the kind of pressure we'd
The players started to believe in themselves, more and more, minute by minute. You could see it in everything we did and, after suffering
so many stuttering performances and appealing for patience amid so much disappointing mediocrity, it was genuinely moving to watch. Allan Smart was back to
his battling best, and proved to be more than a match for the new look Birmingham defence - with each
ball that was played up to Smart and laid off neatly, the green shoots of our attacking play grew. Smart volleyed wide, Hazan fired in a
shot from the edge of the area that the keeper nearly spilled.
The first goal was not a surprise, then. But it was still a fabulous moment - Daley booed furiously
by the home fans as he twisted and turned on the left wing, Mooney all alone on the end of his
pinpoint cross to head neatly past Poole. We've made goalscoring look so difficult lately, this
time it seemed so beautifully easy.
From then on, we had control. Apart from an Ndlovu shot at Chamberlain from the edge of the area,
we were secure until half-time. The Birmingham supporters were silenced, becoming increasingly frustrated
with each fruitless minute - we were doing to other teams what they've done to us and it felt
Underneath the stand at the interval, the noise was incredible. Song after song echoed around
the concrete. We took that noise upstairs for the second half as a chorus of "Elton John's
Taylor-made Army" erupted and ensured that the team didn't falter for a second, suffocating
City's efforts to start an early revival. Despite occasional attempts by the home fans to drown
it out, we refused to shut up. We'd waited for this for too long to keep quiet.
Only one thing stopped the chant, and that was the second goal. It was all inspirational Tommy
Mooney, picking up Kennedy's neat pass on the left wing, waiting for support to show itself, then beating an opponent to get to the byeline to fling
in a brilliant cross. And Daley was there, rising above his marker to head decisively home. Mooney
just stood there on the touchline, arms raised and triumphant, while his followers saluted him.
Back in a Brighton pub later that evening, two of us were trying to explain the power of football
to a non-believer. More than slightly incoherent by that point, we probably didn't do a very
good job of it. But it's like this. There are times, following a football team, when they flood
your heart with so much pride that it feels like you're going to choke and when the only way to stop
yourself from exploding or crying is to release the emotion by screaming songs so loudly that you can hardly
speak afterwards. Find me other things that can do that and I'll gladly travel the length of the country for them too.
For the remaining thirty minutes, we were that good. Apart from a late Holdsworth header from
close range and a deflected curler from Forinton, Birmingham were locked out completely. When they had the ball
in defence, Smart and Mooney hurried them into misplaced passes; when they had it in midfield, Johnson, Hyde and
Kennedy were all over the place in pursuit. And when they got as far as our defence, they found Page, Palmer,
Bazeley and Robinson in monstrous form.
There was no way through. When you win away against one of the top sides, you expect some moments
of panic, some close calls, some inspired saves, some help from the woodwork. My notebook reveals
none of those things. The quality of our defending in that second half defies description - Page and Palmer (who, along with
Mooney, receive the first ever shared 'man of the match' award) were gigantic, unpassable. In particular, their
tackling in and around the penalty area was of a supreme standard. We were in control - it was an incredibly
one-sided game, it's just that the one side happened to be doing a lot of defending....
For me, the final whistle was the most emotional moment of all. We gave those players one
hell of a send-off, we made absolutely bloody sure that they knew how proud of them we felt. And
they did know - Allan Smart, socks round ankles, stood there for ages like he'd only just remembered
that being a footballer doesn't have to be miserable, the rest were barely able to stop themselves
from doing a lap of honour. Simply beautiful.
One of the most wonderful days I've ever had following Watford. And who's to say that there
aren't even better days still to come?
See also: Planet Blues