"The Great Escape"
Report by Chris Lawton
If ever that worthy tune needed to be sung, it was this day at Oxford.
Watford had a disastrous season. New manager Colin Lee was plagued with
problems from the start, with the most significant absentee being Gary
Penrice. By November, he had been replaced by Steve Perryman and Peter
Shreeves who inherited a side seven points adrift of the rest of the
A good run of form, coincident with the return of Penrice, had
seen us rejoin the rest of the league by Christmas. Into the New Year
things had once again gone decidedly pear-shaped and the sale of Penrice
was not exactly welcome. In return we picked up Steve Butler who,
whatever else is said of his time at Watford, undoubtedly helped us stay
By mid to late March, we were seven points adrift again and in need of a
miracle. A bizarre late goal at Middlesborough set us on our way and a
Butler winner on his debut on a horrid afternoon at Swindon seemed only
to spare us from humiliation, not the drop. The form continued and the
Horns played with passion, if not always skill, to go on a run of eight
matches with only one defeat.
So it was in late April/early May, Watford had three games left and
needed between six and nine points to ensure survival. Three of these came
courtesy of a late winner down at Pompey in a relegation dogfight. So
onto Oxford and three thousand five hundred fans piled down the M40 for a date with destiny.
Wearing the white away shirts, the Horns scrapped for everything and, with
James in goal, one always felt we had a reasonable chance if he didn't
drop a clanger. I remember little of the game until about the sixtieth
minute. The Horns won a corner, the cross came in and Paul Wilkinson
(surely one of the better strikers to play for the Horns, even if he
didn't know the offside rule) smashed the ball home. Cue complete and
utter madness on the terraces. Scenes of complete chaos as fans surged
up and down the terrace like the days of old - a somewhat strange
experience with the memory of Hillsborough still vivid.
Suddenly not only was the match on the pitch important but also the
radio. If other results went our way we would be safe with a game in
hand. The Horns battled on and achieved their aim - a victory.
The players came over to applaud the fans for their support. As the
results came through on the radio the fans started cheering and shouting
at the players. Eventually someone, DJ I think, caught on and the
players celebrated, probably in a manner not too dissimilar to the team this
year at Fulham.
The Horns had survived. Sadly the lessons of that season were not
learned, particularly by the board. Continual poor investment and
financial planning lead to the inevitable relegation a few years down the
line, as the player and manager turnover was far too high to sustain
growth. A shame really 'cos in that run in the Horns produced some of
their best football of the inter-Taylor era (as I think it should be