In the spring of 1994, Watford travelled to Peterborough United in the ultimate relegation six-pointer. It was a must-win game for both teams and proved to be 90 minutes of pure chaos. James Garrett takes up the story...
Strange as it might sound, if I could go back in a Watford FC-themed time machine, the spring of 1994 would be near the top of my list of destinations. It was my GCSE year, full of fun and naivety of course (if we knew then what we know now etc...) and it also brought a fantastic last six weeks of a long season that had seen the Hornets start brightly but suffer a sticky winter. The nadir was a cold night in March watched by 5,139 supporters at the Vic – I had never seen a Watford team play so poorly as that night as they rolled over to Grimsby Town in a shocking 3-0 defeat. Now just one place above the relegation zone, it was a rare moment when the usually mild-mannered home support got angry; I mean running on to the pitch angry after the game and, as legend has it, a few souls tried to storm the directors’ box. The main antagonist of this frustration was the owner Jack Petchey, who was seen in a largely negative light as someone who perhaps could have supported rookie manager Glenn Roeder more in his first season in charge. In Petchey’s defence, that summer he splashed out a then-record fee for Millwall striker Jamie Moralee (£450,000 wasn’t that small in Division One at that time), but he was a huge failure on the pitch, and became more famous for his activities off it. However, the Grimsby match led to Petchey standing down as chairman immediately to relieve some of the tension around the place (although he retained control of the purse strings).
One must also give some credit to the timeshare mogul as he made some funds available to Roeder in the last few days of the transfer window, when it used to close in late March. In just a couple of days Roeder’s skill and maybe just a little bit of luck saved Watford’s season from disaster. A defence that had been leaking goals was boosted by the signings of Colin Foster and Keith Millen, while in attack two loanees were brought in to support Paul Furlong, who was one of very few bright sparks for the Hornets during the season. Neither Tommy Mooney nor the experienced Dennis Bailey (who had played in the Watford youth team) got too many hopes up initially, but by the end of the season the club had been saved from certain relegation. And so to the saga of London Road...
By early April, with seven matches left, Watford sat third from bottom with the Posh in bottom spot, with only two points separating the sides. Everyone knew the importance of that night. Both teams had to win, and a draw wouldn’t help either of them. I remember the significance of the occasion, and feeling the nerves as what felt like 3,000 Watford fans crammed into the away terrace. What we wanted was a strong start, and playing with three central defenders in Millen, Dublin and Page, we were confident. A central midfield pairing of Hessenthaler and Ramage was also encouraging, with Mooney supporting Furlong, perhaps the best striker in the division, up front. However, I can talk to you about tactics and systems all I like but in truth, this game had none, no structure, no skill (well, one moment that we’ll get to) and shambolic defending in every passage of play, yet became a cult classic. A thing of beauty.
Within 90 seconds we were 1-0 down. Of course we were! It was hard to see how we had three centre backs as the Posh ran through the middle of our backline and their player even fell over as he shot to add insult to injury as the ball bobbled into the corner of the net past a hapless Perry Digweed in the Hornets’ goal. Thankfully though, United were about to show us that on this evening they were as bad, if not worse, in defence. After 18 minutes a Porter inswinger from the right was met by Furlong, who bundled the ball into the net completely unmarked. For the rest of the first half, the game calmed down a little, but probably only to get all of us ready for what was one of the craziest 45 minutes we would ever witness.
To get us going, Andy Hessenthaler missed an open goal in the first minute of the second half before a Peterborough penalty made it 2-1, and I remember that familiar sickening home cheer that as a regular away fan I had been used to hearing that season. Shortly after, though, another awful goal saw us equalise as Keith Dublin volleyed the ball via a Posh defender’s head into the goal. It was all square and set up for an exciting last 20 minutes. The fifth goal of the game was the best of the match – in reality it deserved to be the winner of any game of football, and was surely Gerard Lavin’s finest moment in a Watford shirt. The young right-back, who was always fairly steady but largely unspectacular, met a ball on the half-volley from 30 yards out. I can still see the ball screaming into the bottom corner of the net from the terrace. It was a moment of ridiculous skill on a hard, bobbly pitch. For many of us, the celebrations were still going on when moments later Perry Digweed dropped the ball for a Posh player to shank into an open net. It was inexplicable and awful at the same time, but at least there were still over 15 minutes left. It was one of those games where you just knew there would be a final twist, we just didn’t know which way it would go. Fortunately, the Hornets finished stronger and were slightly more composed in the final ten minutes; the winning goal was befitting of the match, another close-range deflected effort that caused delirium in the away end. Furlong’s close-range effort hit the post before looping up to Dennis Bailey who snatched a half-hit volley from six yards out that bounced straight into the ground and on to the head of a Posh defender, who could only guide it into his own net. It is always amusing to reflect how such a terrible goal led to a moment of pure joy for the away fans.
The Hornets hung on for the win; it was party time and I’ll never forget the scarves and horns on the way home down the A1. It felt like we had actually won a huge Cup game, but in reality it was more than just the three points. The win brought us out of the relegation zone on goal difference and the Posh were now rooted to the bottom of the table; Watford stayed up comfortably by winning four of the last six matches while Peterborough only picked up one more point and finished bottom of the league. This had been the ultimate relegation six-pointer; it had been a horrible, nervy, and at times woeful performance. However, we wouldn’t have had it any other way. So, yes, take me back in that time machine for this one, there has never been a better awful match for us to endure and enjoy.