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FA Carling Premiership, 14/8/99
Showing Liverpool the way...
By Ian Grant

And now you're gonna believe us....

All the tedious, heard-it-all-before early season Liverpool hype; all the pundits' blandly cynical predictions; all the doubts voiced after two defeats; all gone. Watford have arrived in the Premiership.

You know it's the Premiership because the motorways and service stations are full of Liverpool fans on pilgrimages from all over the country, something that doesn't really happen when you're on a trip to Chesterfield. You know it's the Premiership because the traffic jams that agonisingly delay the coaches on their arrival in Liverpool are full of football supporters rather than Saturday shoppers. You know it's the Premiership because you pass the Liverpool shirts on high streets throughout the country, and their owners never show the slightest flicker of recognition for your Watford colours. Well, they might recognise them now....

Anfield is still an awesome experience. Around the away end, looks of bewilderment and disbelief as our heroes warm up in the shadow of the looming, ugly new Kop stand. Whatever anyone might try to tell us, we've earned the right not only to visit these places but to try and make ourselves at home. And, on this memorable day, we didn't just make ourselves at home - we raided the fridge for a beer, swiped the remote control, put our muddy boots all over the couch, and sent our hosts out to get us a take-away.

Slowly and beautifully it's sinking in as the story of the season begins. Liverpool, whose timeless "You'll Never Walk Alone" soars above the stadium before kickoff (pretty much the only noise the home fans made until booing at the final whistle, mind), are in the same division as us. To begin with, it extends no further than such thrilling disbelief. We're playing at Anfield. To think beyond that is to try to imagine the unimaginable - there have been occasions during the last two seasons when expectations have swamped the team and this wasn't one of them. Personally, I'd have settled for anything that didn't involve utter humiliation.

Which makes this the 99/00 equivalent of Bristol City away last season, the moment when everything fell into place, when we suddenly began to believe in ourselves and when Matt Rowson began his report with the line "Oh Graham, strike us down with a thunderbolt from heaven for ever having doubted you". Except, clearly, that this is victory at Anfield and that's not the equivalent of anything at all. Like victory at Wembley, it's something not even those vintage, revered Watford sides of yesteryear achieved. We're still making history, and it still feels absolutely bloody wonderful.

Whatever the shortcomings of yet another new-look Liverpool, this was an astonishing performance by the Hornets. It's no great surprise that we were the more cohesive unit - after all, it should never be forgotten that spending £25 million on new players only takes you further away from the collective strength which brings all the best sides through their toughest challenges. But all over the pitch we were superior as individuals too - simply stronger, both physically and mentally.

The glowing praise of Alan Hansen, hardly easy to impress, on "Match of the Day" was something to treasure. Not because he's important, but because he was right. I listened as he complimented our work-rate and our passion, I waited for a "but" that never came. This was a result that needed no qualification.

Liverpool, for all their undoubted individual quality, were simply never able to deal with our intensity and organisation. Like Bolton before, it just came down to wanting it more, to that insatiable hunger lurking in Tommy Mooney's belly. Not just on Saturday afternoon, but all week in training. Anfield sat back and waited for a goal spree that never came, and the thrilling thing is that you know it won't be the last time that happens this season....

With Graham Taylor pulling the wool over everyone's eyes - sudden, hang-on-I-thought-they-were-only-half-fit Premiership debuts for Paul Robinson and Micah Hyde - the initiative was ours from the very start. Liverpool ambled lazily around for ten minutes, secure in the knowledge that they could walk the ball into the net at will, and we hit them with a classic sucker punch. Indeed, we damn nearly knocked them out in the first fifteen minutes.

The fluency of some of our football remains deceptive, and the move to create our first chance in front of a disbelieving Kop was delightful. Hyde broke through from midfield, sliding the pass out to a rampant Ngonge on the right wing. Mooney was at the far post to meet the low cross and touch it back for the supporting Johnson, whose ripping drive was fended away by Westerveld and eventually cleared. With that, any thoughts of merely avoiding humiliation were banished.

The goal which followed five minutes later had none of that quality. Yet it was a microcosm of the match. Watch it again (as if you need any encouragement), see the confusion as Kennedy's right wing free kick drifts into the box, bounces off both yellow and red shirts, and finally ends up around the penalty spot. Then see Matteo turn to clear decisively and get mugged by a blur of tackles from Page and Williams, reacting quicker and piling in stronger, men against boys. Ninety minutes of unflinching commitment like that is why we came away with a famous victory. Mooney was there to end the confusion by prodding the ball home, greeted by stunned silence from the majority and equally stunned celebration in the away section.

From then on, it was all about reaching milestones. Avoid an immediate equaliser, get to half an hour, get to half-time. As the rain became torrential and the surface became slippery, Liverpool played their best football and the much-maligned Chris Day emerged as a new hero. His reaction to Redknapp's sweetly-struck twenty-five yarder was supreme, down swiftly to flick it away as it arrowed towards the bottom corner. When Fowler set Berger free, he was there again to hurry and deny a poor finish with his legs. And his readjustment to tip over Redknapp's deflected free kick was again superlative. He has filled his boots.

For a while, we were clinging on. But it was only a short while. Liverpool simply didn't have the imagination to do anything more than throw men forward and hope for inspiration. Berger's fine chance aside, everything they did was policed by our magnificent defence - Fowler shackled, Camara anonymous. Like Birmingham away on Easter Monday, this was a game that we always dominated, even when our opponents had possession.

Much has been made of Liverpool's defensive frailties and lack of midfield presence, and we exposed both on Saturday. But, unless I've missed something, lack of firepower hasn't been too much of an issue. Yet we rapidly reduced them to desperation, Page and Williams (what a signing!) performing heroically to deny an allegedly international class strikeforce anything but the most fleeting glimpse of goal. Half-time was greeted and filled with the kind of rapture usually reserved for the final whistle of the most glorious victories.

Expectations were still resolutely realistic, the inevitability of a second half Liverpool onslaught daunting. But it just got better, a defensive performance that can rarely have been improved upon in Watford history. Impossible to exaggerate how stunning this display was, equally impossible to do it justice.

By the end, Liverpool were a shambles. In their ever more frantic and always unproductive search for a face-saving equaliser, they lost all organisation and only charitable finishing prevented a truly extraordinary scoreline. Repeat: Watford made Liverpool look shabby and amateurish.

At no point did a red-shirted player have an unchallenged shot at goal. Always a tackle coming in, always a block to protect Day, always a tracking run to clear the danger. Redknapp volleyed over, Thompson headed wide, Camara headed weakly at Day, Fowler headed over...clearcut openings turned into half chances by the ferocious defending of that precious lead by the Watford players. When they did get free (as when Berger's left wing cross found Fowler in space), they always found an opponent (the superb Robinson in this case) in the way of the shot. We set the Liverpool attack a challenge that they could not meet.

The time ticked by, more milestones passed. By the half hour mark, any equaliser would've been a monstrous injustice. Only a worrying injury to Richard Johnson had disturbed our rhythm...even then, with Micah Hyde playing the game of his life, we remained undistracted.

The last ten minutes were the most astonishing. Exasperated, our illustrious opponents were reduced to making schoolboy errors. The sight of Liverpool defenders surrendering pathetically on their home turf to the incessant pressure of the Watford midfield is something I'll never forget. For eighty minutes, we made Liverpool look ordinary; for ten minutes, we made them look like twats.

In the space of sixty seconds, they twice stabbed at the self-destruct button. Steve Palmer, the unsung hero of this performance, was the first beneficiary. So much sharper and more aware than his opponent, he darted in to intercept in midfield and was almost embarrassed in being allowed to lumber forward unchallenged and shoot at Westerveld. The stray pass which immediately let in Clint Easton for a similar run was one that I'd have been ashamed of, the most laughable attempt at finding an opponent, a disgrace to the famous turf.

It wasn't that Liverpool were over-committing, it was that they'd fallen to pieces. Again, watch the video of Mooney's two late chances. No shortage of defenders, but they're galloping randomly around like a herd of startled giraffes - red-faced and hapless, Matteo is playing like a schoolkid who's just got a tongue-lashing from his PE teacher. Mooney was ponderous and over-reliant on his left foot both times, allowing Westerveld to dive out and block. On the first occasion, the rebound fell to Hyde whose perfect long range chip was cleared off the line by Song; on the second, Westerveld got lost on his way to claim the subsequent corner and Kennedy slashed wide from a tight angle. So, if Liverpool fans want some consolation, they might find it in the fact that it should've been three or four.

Fowler, sharp but superbly marshalled, looped a shot over; Thompson snatched at another half chance and sent it wide. Injury time was an agonising eternity, during which Day was outstanding once more in pushing Song's cross away from danger. The final whistle was sheer jubilation, the players running over to a booming chorus of "WE ARE PREMIER LEAGUE!", the victory celebrated with clenched fists and embraces all around. Under the stand, underneath the away end at Anfield, each rendition of "ONE-NIL, AND WE SPENT F*** ALL" (definitely the song of the season) is louder than the last. Close to tears at a Watford match again.

I was twelve last time I visited Anfield. It was truly humbling - the ground, the atmosphere, the team, the defeat. On that day, we held our heads high both on and off the pitch. It was a proud day, one of the best I've ever experienced following Watford.

Much has changed since then. Liverpool no longer have that aura and, for a long time, Watford no longer had that pride. On Saturday, we showed Liverpool the way....