1994/95:Elysian Fields (Volume 7)
Nick Catley remembers his favourite season
It’s striking – although perhaps not surprising – that most the ‘My Season’ articles in the Watford Treasury reference a season where the author was between 15 and 20. This one’s no exception. Maybe it’s to do with finding your way in early adulthood, searching for an outlet, a passion – it certainly was with me.
I’d enjoyed – OK, been obsessed by – football, and Watford, since my first game at Vicarage Road, in September 1980. Watford’s barely credible 7-1 win over Southampton on 2 September remains one of the truly iconic Watford matches. Memories of attending despite the 4-0 first-leg deficit and being rewarded by the miracle that gradually unfolded are recounted and swapped by countless fans, some of whom were actually there.
That wasn’t my first match, however. My introduction came on 27 September instead, against Chelsea. We lost 3-2. It feels more appropriate, looking back.
Although my Mum had the longer-standing Watford credentials (her family had connections to the club going back basically forever), I was normally taken to matches by my Dad (seduced by Cliff Holton in the late fifties – and who wouldn’t have been?) He’s a wonderful man, but had the naïve and charming idea that Saturday afternoons were for a variety of family and leisure activities, rather than just going to football. By the time I was old enough to go by myself, I had a Saturday job in WH Smith, limiting me to midweek games. My desperation for some action (insert your own teenage metaphor here if you must) can be gauged by the fact I made a four-hour round trip to one game in the full knowledge I would only arrive at half time. We beat Southend 3-0, I missed all the goals, and it was definitely worth it.
By the time the summer of 1994 came around, my nineteenth, everything was set up. A move to Coventry for an education chosen as much for the handy 55-minute travel time to Watford Junction as anything else, free Saturdays, a Young Person’s Railcard, and my first season ticket – a passport to the Elysian Fields costing £107. The dam of my obsession was fit to burst. 26 years later, the lake’s still filling up.
The team, however, did not seem to have everything in place to the same extent. 1993/94 involved not so much a brush with relegation as a full wax and wheel scrub, with a potent attack ultimately just about compensating for some calamitous defending in a season with plenty of goals. Having lost the magnificent Paul Furlong over the summer in a swap deal for the new Rookery Stand, we were widely fancied for relegation. It didn’t turn out like that, in large part due to a defensive solidity built on the arrival late the previous season of Colin Foster (whose talismanic value was summed up by the ten games after he arrived in March 1994 – played six games, one goal conceded, missed four, conceded eight) and Keith Millen, and the summer signing of goalkeeper Kevin Miller.
For a season where goals were fairly thin on the ground, memorable moments were plenty. The first was Vicarage Road being packed for Jurgen Klinsmann’s first game for Spurs. The fact a genuine world star was coming to play in England showed football was changing; the huge level of interest it engendered shows it was a long, long time ago.
Three matches without a goal to start the season suggested attacking worries might have foundation. Craig Ramage got us off the mark for the year with a three-yard effort in the League Cup against Southend which was greeted – by him more than anyone, unsurprisingly – like a dying-minutes 25-yarder.
Next match, we had an actual dying-minutes 25-yarder to celebrate – the first of Richard Johnson’s ungodly efforts. It was an emotional night as Graham Taylor returned to Vicarage Road for the first time, with Wolves (though actually not that emotional – we weren’t quite as ready with our feelings in 1994. There’s an argument to be made that the country changed in 1997 due to two people – Princess Diana and Maureen from Driving School, the first reality TV star – but that’s probably another article). Johnson’s effort was even later than it might have been as the game didn’t kick off until 8:30 due to traffic. “You should have stayed on the M1” we chanted at the Wolves fans in the Lower Rous, and a definite feature of that season was a decent atmosphere, helped by unreserved seating and a still-new roof.
Miller was sent off against eventual champions Middlesbrough for a challenge on Bryan Robson still debated to this day (my view for what it’s worth – foul and yellow card). We achieved a creditable 1-1 draw that perhaps hinted at the grit we would show later in the season, before a goalless draw at Barnsley and a 2-0 win at Oldham through David Holdsworth and a Gary Porter penalty.
At this point, something strange happened. The 1994-95 season is a good one to write about in many ways. It had plenty of themes to pick out, patterns which were followed – a good defence, a struggling attack, an excellent home record, a dodgier away one, plenty of late winners (as well as the odd late defeat) – of which Johnson’s against Wolves was the first. We were really bad at penalties. It was predictable. That sounds a bad thing for a season to be, but it wasn’t – particularly as someone adjusting to a new and bewildering life in other ways. It also forced up the value of the goal as a currency – there weren’t many about, so they were celebrated hugely.
However, for three games in a row at the end of September, all at home, the rules were thrown away and forgotten about. Essentially, three games that belonged in the previous season were surgically grafted onto this one. The first was a 4-2 loss to Luton that remains, in the face of hefty competition around that time, the most painful derby defeat I’ve seen. Gary Fitzgerald played his only 45 minutes for us, but in truth everyone was poor – even Andy Hessenthaler had a shocker. The upside of this game, of course, is that it remains our last league derby defeat.
We led after 26 seconds of our League Cup tie against Spurs, but ended up losing 6-3, with Klinsmann scoring a first-half hat-trick. My only consolation was saying to my brother, as the goals rained in, “at least Mabbutt will give us an own goal”, a few minutes before he did. (Mabbutt was a very good defender, but always had an own goal in him. Older readers may remember that in the pre-internet 80s, there were only two certifiable football facts – Gary Mabbutt was a diabetic, and Liverpool never lost when Ian Rush scored. After the 1987 League Cup final, poor Gary was on his own.) Porter missed a penalty – and how Ian Walker wasn’t sent off for the foul on Jamie Moralee I’ll never know – but we were well beaten either way.
A 2-2 draw against Reading, throwing away a 2-0 lead, completed the alien trio. In all three, we went ahead and didn’t win; for the rest of the season, if we got in front at home, we won. We conceded 10 goals in those three games; our 25 other home games saw us let in 11.
In truth those games weren’t such a mystery. Miller, an excellent keeper whose kicking was just bad enough to keep him with us for three years, was suspended for all of them, while Foster missed two of the three through injury. It showed, although it also helped that we didn’t run into one of the world’s best strikers again.
A 3-0 defeat at Charlton was followed by a morale-boosting 3-2 win at White Hart Lane in the second leg of the League Cup tie. October saw us clicking into the pattern of home and away form that would become familiar – solid home wins against Notts County and Tranmere, one point from six at Derby and Bolton, Porter missing a penalty at the Baseball Ground. A draw at Burnley was followed by a sweet Tommy Mooney half-volley in front of the Rookery building site to earn another win, against West Bromwich.
In line with the predictions, we struggled up front for most of the season – Moralee as a replacement for Furlong resembled one of those online supermarket deliveries you hear about where someone gets light bulbs instead of half a kilo of mince. Indeed, The Guardian once called Moralee “one of the most flagrant money-bonfires in [Watford’s] history.” Later revelations suggested he’d been pursuing members of the EastEnders cast during this time – whether this impacted on his form, it’s impossible to know, but if only for his sake it was reassuring to hear there was at least one area of his life where he’d been employing solid technique.
The home game against Southend reflected our difficulties. They came for a draw in truth, and conceded possession easily. We dominated the game, but not for the first or last time, couldn’t score. Frustration mounted, as it appeared Southend would escape with a point, despite going down to ten men in the second half. The siege reached an intensity I don’t remember at Vicarage Road before or since, but as the game entered a surely non-existent seventh minute of added time, it seemed we’d have to settle for a draw – until Hessenthaler’s header across goal was met with a diving header by Lee Nogan, in the middle of a purple patch that gave us just enough goals in the autumn, which brought disbelief, then extended ecstasy. It’s one of my favourite goals, even now.
A 3-1 win at Sunderland included a penalty from Mooney, Porter’s miss having seen him taken off penalty duties. It took us seventh, one point off the playoffs, our best late-autumn position for years.
The Sunderland game was significant for me too. I’d never planned to go to every game, it just happened that, whenever Watford played, given the choice of going to the game or doing anything else in the entire world, I chose the game. I didn’t go to Sunderland, but I didn’t miss another game until the following September, where instead of a goalless draw at Grimsby I followed Northants to the NatWest Final at Lord’s. That’s one reason I chose to write about this season – I saw more of it than any other. More than that though, it feels incredibly fresh – most of this is written from memory, and I couldn’t do that, or even get close, for any other season. Partly that’s down to the phenomenal memory of youth. I think though, at least as much as that, it’s that everything was so new, so intense. I’ve been to almost all of these places again, and I’ve had seasons where I’ve gone to most games (though never quite as many). But I’ve never done any of these things again for the first time.
November was rounded off by a goalless draw with Stoke – enough to secure the Manager of the Month award for Glenn Roeder – which was followed by an unlucky last-minute loss at Tranmere and another couple of nil-nils. December was mostly notable though, at this distance, for a couple of demonstrations of the extent to which 1994 was a different country. For the last time, we played on consecutive days, the 27th and 28th (emphasising the fact, the previous Christmas was the last time we had no game on the 26th because it was a Sunday). The 27th saw a 2-0 win over Portsmouth, memorable for a powerful header from distance by Ramage to a cross which was behind him. That season really showed the player Ramage could have been – on his day, he controlled a midfield with accurate passing, supreme intelligence and just the right amount of arrogant swagger. On form, he was also more aggressive than you’d expect and a genuine goal threat. His partnership with Hessenthaler – conversely, consistent and combative but with a level of skill and vision that is sometimes forgotten – was one of the season’s key factors.
We went to Millwall on the 28th, taking with us, again for the last time to my knowledge, a football special train. I jumped up to celebrate Millwall missing a penalty, only for the sad truth to dawn that the ball had come back off the stanchion. Millwall scored again, but Ramage pulled one back and we would have scraped a point if not for another penalty miss – this time from Mooney, late on.
New Year’s Eve saw Nigel Gibbs’s first appearance since October 1992 after an almost unimaginable absence of over two years. The mental reserves required to get through such a layoff can only be guessed at, but he recovered to give Watford what would have been a pretty good career – well over 100 appearances and two promotions – in itself.
We were outplayed that day by the 90s Port Vale team that seemed to return to Watford, pretty much unchanged, year after year. I looked this up, expecting to find that Paul Musselwhite, Allen Tankard, Andy Porter, Martin Foyle and Dean Glover had actually only been together for a couple of years, and my perception of their longevity reflected how quickly things were changing in my life at that time. But no – they were all Port Vale regulars for at least eight years, and were there together between 1993 and 1998. It wouldn’t happen now.
We entered the last minute somehow level at 2-2, at which point Ramage nipped between keeper and defender to dink the ball home for another late winner, this one completely undeserved and all the better for it. Foyle’s second, which had put the visitors ahead, became irrelevant – except it turned out to be the last we would concede for some time – around 860 minutes, in fact.
The trip to Scarborough for the FA Cup third round remains legendary or infamous, depending on who you ask. Some saw the trip to Scarborough as a reminder of everything we’d been glad to leave behind – the limited facilities included an away end which was partially a grass bank, which the away fans clambered up and slid down – sometimes deliberately, sometimes not – as the game went on. Others saw the trip as just about the best of the season, largely for exactly the same reasons.
Everyone could agree that the Scarborough game was bloody cold, and utterly uneventful. I was too obsessed to worry about either of these things.
Goalless draws against Bristol City and Bolton sandwiched the Scarborough trip. We managed our first goals of the year in the Scarborough replay, a relatively routine 2-0 win played in heavy rain, which tipped the pitch from being borderline acceptable (by 90s standards at least) to utter mudbath. A hard-fought 1-0 win over Swindon in the fourth round was our fifth clean sheet in a row.
The game at West Bromwich on a Wednesday night won’t live in many minds now but is lodged inexorably in mine. Deciding that I hadn’t wasted quite enough of my student loan following Watford around the country, I put a quid on a pretty random bet – Watford to win 1-0 with Ramage scoring the goal, at 66-1. I don’t remember much about the game until Ramage was tripped in front of goal with about 10 minutes left. Porter and Mooney’s misses earlier in the season had created a vacancy, and when I saw Ramage placing the ball, I dared to hope. He didn’t let me down, rolling it into the corner insouciantly like a man clipping the ball to the kit man after training.
The last ten minutes were double agony – as well as the usual misery of expecting the opposition to score with every attack, I had the same problem whenever Watford went forward. I don’t bet on Watford games these days for exactly this reason.
Three days later, Darren Bazeley scored three at Southend while another Ramage penalty made it 4-0. The following Saturday we beat Burnley 2-0 in front of 9,000 – in that era, a crowd that made me think we were really going places. Momentum was behind us as we climbed to sixth place.
Crystal Palace looked distinctly beatable fifth-round cup opponents, heading as they were for Premier League relegation. Unreserved seating meant getting to the ground at least an hour in advance for a good spot, so we had plenty of time to stare at the beach which masqueraded as the Vicarage Road pitch that day. An uneventful 0-0 draw at least extended the run of clean sheets to nine.
Arguably, that was as good as the season got. The next game was at home to Sunderland, who broke the streak with a simple Craig Russell header from a cross that didn’t seem at all worthy of ending such a momentous run. I looked on in a disbelief similar to, and yet obviously completely different from, that after Nogan’s goal against Southend. Surely we just didn’t do that sort of thing any more? We were not a team built to chase a game, and in truth Sunderland held out comfortably.
The next two games were no better – a late extra-time loss in the replay at Selhurst Park, and a miserable 4-1 defeat at Reading. Our consolation in the latter game was a smart finish from a youngster bought earlier in the season from Baldock Town, his first professional goal in only his second game. 19 years later, he would score his 246th and last.
Kevin Phillips remains, I think, the best pure finisher I’ve ever seen play for us. He’d been rejected by Southampton as a kid, and it was easy to see why – he was short, had little pace to speak of, and didn’t have the kind of shot that allows you to score regularly from outside the area. Suddenly, though, he’d appear to claim goals that looked simple, but that no-one else had been getting. He’d find the six inches of space that no-one else could. His finishes were never in danger of breaking the net, but they eluded the keeper and found the corner all the same. As the old sages would have it, he knew where the goal was – but perhaps even more than that, he knew where the ball would be in three seconds’ time.
The losses at Selhurst and Elm Parks had effectively ended our season, but I was long past that sort of rational reasoning in deciding whether to attend matches. I set off for Middlesbrough on a Tuesday in the full knowledge that I couldn’t get a train back to Coventry afterwards, carrying a sleeping bag in my rucksack. We lost 2-0, one of the goals being scored by Uwe Fuchs who achieved brief fame partly because a German in the second tier was pretty unusual then, and partly because he had a vaguely amusing surname. Given the amount I’d already spent on Watford that year, it surely wouldn’t have been beyond me to find the tenner or so that a hostel bed would have cost. More than anything, I just don’t think I knew how you went about doing that, and didn’t see a problem, because I was 19 and therefore knew everything. Sleeping on York station (as far as I could get that evening) proved impossible due to cold and lack of space, and I ended up travelling back and forth to Manchester Airport on the one train that ran overnight, paying almost as much in fares as a cheap hotel would have cost.
Phillips scored again in a home win against Swindon in a game also notable for Ramage proving that a nonchalant penalty just looks like a very bad one when the keeper goes the right way, and yet again to secure a point in the last minute at Wolves, setting forth the kind of joy that’s only really possible if there are a few hundred of you in a packed stadium of tens of thousands of fans of a big team going for promotion. A rare home wobble, allowing Barnsley to draw level from two down, was rescued by yet another late goal, again from Phillips, which took us to the last meaningful game of the season.
The trip to Kenilworth Road always had an air of inevitability about it, but much of the season gave us cause for optimism. Despite going a goal down early, we came back into it, equalising through the by-now-inevitable Phillips goal midway through the second half. A few minutes later, we won a penalty for Kelvin Davis’s trip on Peter Beadle, and the chance of a first win over Luton for eight years dangled impossibly in front of us. Impossibly, because we still had to score the penalty, which of course we didn’t, Porter having the bad luck to find himself in possession once more. Looking back, it just made our return 31 months later all the sweeter, especially given the two hours spent in A&E after the game thanks to some idiots hitting my brother.
The rest was essentially fulfilling the fixtures. Defeat at home to Oldham was followed by two trips to Stoke-on-Trent in a week. While I remember precisely nothing about the visit to Stoke City (a 1-0 defeat), I do remember a shot (possibly from debutant Geoff Pitcher) hitting and bringing down part of the ‘N’ on the lettering of ‘THE SENTINEL STAND’, summing up a poor game against Port Vale. We ended up winning though, thanks to a final late winner, scored by Porter in the last couple of minutes. That meant we’d taken six points from Burslem’s finest in a season where we probably didn’t deserve any. On the way home, I found out it wasn’t a good idea to trust the petrol gauge on a 1986 Austin Metro, a lesson learned through the medium of a two-mile walk and the cost of a jerrycan.
The last six games of the season brought wins at home and defeats away. A sliced Pitcher effort defeated Millwall on Good Friday, before a 2-1 loss at Portsmouth on Easter Monday. A 1-0 defeat at Notts County was the season’s last away trip, to a Devon White goal I remember better than any he later scored for us.
I watched the last three home games of the season (Bristol City, Charlton and Derby) from the newly completed Rookery Stand, and was introduced to the novel concept of being able to get to the toilet and back at half time without missing any of the game. All involved goals from Phillips, although even he missed a penalty in the Derby match. Sadly, most of us will remember another penalty he took – and scored – much more clearly. Ramage scored the winner from our second penalty of the day, meaning we’d scored just five from eleven overall. We finished seventh, six points off the playoffs, which felt just about right for a season where we’d been solid and consistent – apart from 1999, it was our highest league position of the 90s – but just not good enough away from home.
As we looked forward to 1995/96, the future looked bright. We had an excellent goalkeeper, who’d just won Player of the Season, a solid defence, a midfield pairing coming off their best season ever, and we’d just discovered a born goalscorer – surely the last piece in the puzzle. Added to that, we had the confidence borne of a better-than-expected season and a manager who had clearly now adjusted to this level, we hadn’t lost anyone significant in the summer, and we now had a big new stand to accommodate all the extra fans attracted by our inevitable promotion push. What could possibly go wrong?
This article is from Volume 7 of The Watford Treasury, to purchase this publication in all its visual glory, please follow the link below: