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A Bona Fide Legend - Tribute to Andy Rankin

David Harrison pays tribute to Andy Rankin


I’ve noted, in this publication as well as others, references to ‘Watford Legends’ where the subject has invariably been a decent player, typically with us for a few seasons before drifting off to continue their career elsewhere. The awarding of ‘Legend’ status will remain, quite rightly, in the gift of the donor.

However, with the death of Andy Rankin, on 21 August at the age of 79, we lost a bona fide Watford Football Club Legend.

Andy left Vicarage Road in October 1979, meaning only those aged 50 or over will have any meaningful recollection of seeing him play for the club, so a few basic facts might be helpful.

Andy was born in Bootle on 11 May 1944. He joined Everton as a 17-year-old amateur, having left Liverpool City Police where he was a cadet. He turned professional with the Goodison Park club in October 1961.

He was given his first-team chance in November 1963 when regular keeper Gordon West was dropped, but although Andy recorded 104 first-team appearances, he could never quite nail down a permanent place.

He is probably best remembered at Goodison for a 1970 European Cup tie against Borussia Mönchengladbach that went to a penalty shoot-out in front of 42,000. In a game described in the Everton club history as one of ‘nail-biting intensity and high drama’, Andy’s crucial penalty save took the Toffees through to the Third Round. However, although he made 33 first-team appearances that season, his time on Merseyside was almost up.

Andy signed for Watford in November 1971, with the club in the early stages of a calamitous downward spiral. Remarkably, in a season containing just five League wins, his debut heralded a precious victory, one greeted with tremendous excitement on the sparsely occupied terraces.

Burnley were beaten 2-1 that day, a week after Luton Town had suffered a similar fate. Those back-to-back shocks gave rise to wildly optimistic and entirely unjustified hopes that George Kirby’s hopelessly inadequate squad could somehow still avoid the drop.

Sadly, Kirby’s threadbare group was nowhere near good enough and of the remaining 24 League games, just one resulted in victory. This dreadful run included a stupefying spell of 685 minutes without a League goal. The only positive, or certainly the only one I can recall from this distance, was that supporters got to see just how good a goalkeeper we’d signed.

Rankin only missed a handful of games through injury and when the club introduced their first Watford Observer Player of the Season Award in 1973, there was only one possible winner. He picked up that trophy again in 1975 as well as winning Display of the Season in 1979. 

That latter recognition would of course be heartily endorsed by a couple of thousand travelling fans who ventured to Old Trafford on Wednesday 4 October 1978, as well as by a sizeable network TV audience when highlights of our stunning win were shown later that evening. 

But before the excitement generated by GT’s arrival, there were more days of misery to endure. Plenty of them.

Andy was in goal when we lost at home to Walsall, sealing relegation to Division 4, just as he was there the following August when we lost at Darlington to drop to the bottom of the Football League. Had Rankin not been in goal, I dread to think how much worse things would have been.

He gave the impression of being well-nigh indestructible, despite a suicidal penchant for throwing himself, face first, at the feet of onrushing forwards. In fact, one of the few long-term injuries Andy sustained was suffered in the confines of his own back garden. He reportedly ventured out one cold winter’s evening, to bring in some coal. He slipped on a frosty path and sustained a nasty shoulder injury, earning him the nickname ‘Anthracite Andy’ in our part of the old Shrodells Stand. 

Steve Sherwood signed in April 1977. He was roughly ten years younger than Andy but the older man had no intention of quietly stepping back. 

It’s interesting now to look back at the players GT inherited when he arrived at the club. At 33 Rankin was, by some distance, the oldest. In fact he was two years older than striker Arthur Horsfield, who was actually 31 but shuffled around like a man well into his forties.

The likes of Horsfield and Dennis Bond were quickly moved on but not only did Rankin remain with the club, he made another 78 appearances under GT. Even the great Tom Walley was younger than Andy before he was moved, with huge success, into a coaching role.

But Rankin was in goal for those heady April 1978 games when promotion and then the title were clinched, in front of Vicarage Road crowds that had more than doubled over the course of the season. 

In fact Andy racked up a run of 50 consecutive games before the younger man eventually claimed the gloves, following a protracted battle. Their rivalry was intense but amicable. “I’m not complaining, I know my time will come,” said Sherwood in October 1979. “What more can you expect when we have such an experienced bloke as Andy Rankin around? In the meantime I’ll continue to pick up hints from Andy.”

Andy’s longevity appeared to take the Vicarage Road hierarchy by surprise, but any detractors didn’t have much longer to wait. Rankin’s final appearance for the club came in a 3-0 defeat at Wrexham in October 1979. But when Andy’s time at Watford was finally up, he was replaced not by Sherwood but by Eric Steele, surprisingly signed by GT from Brighton for £100,000.

At the age of 35 Andy, who had immediately been christened ‘Arthur’ by Dennis Booth, was allowed to leave Vicarage Road and join Huddersfield Town on a free transfer. At Leeds Road he again became immensely popular with supporters, making an additional 81 first-team appearances for the Terriers before injury eventually forced his retirement, in May 1982.

My overriding visual recollection of Andy Rankin is not THAT save at Old Trafford, although I can still see the ‘green blur’ flying through the air to claw away McQueen’s late header, but rather an image of a journeyman goalkeeper, minus teeth but caked in mud and sweat, having given his all in the cause. 

Andy was in goal when we lost at Northwich Victoria, just as he was when we won up the road at Old Trafford. Almost unbelievably, those two defining cup ties were separated by less than two years.

I was lucky enough to see Pat Jennings keep goal for the club, performing extraordinary feats for a teenager. And of course I was in awe of Tony Coton, the finest Watford goalkeeper of my lifetime. However, Andy Rankin made more Watford appearances than either and deserves to be held in comparable esteem, alongside those legendary figures.

Andy Rankin. Never showy but always effective, loyal and utterly fearless. 

One of the very best.