Pete Bradshaw looks back to a time when fifty points was the target
At a little before 10pm on Monday 20 February 2023, the whistle blew on Watford’s narrow victory over West Bromwich Albion. Fans celebrated the win and that we were back in the play-off places. For those under 25, a top-six place in the Championship is the least that’s expected.
For older fans, this sense of entitlement is laughable. I looked at the league table and saw: ‘Watford Played 33 Points 50’. Fifty. It wasn’t so long ago (well 12 years now) that the main objective at the start of a season was to achieve 50 points and the near-certainty of avoiding relegation by so doing. Sr Pozzo has changed all that, and now we look up rather than down. Although a little bit of me misses the annual nervous ticking off of points to reach safety, I wouldn’t want to go back there. It’s bad enough getting relegated from the ‘top flight’, with its mythic 40-point hurdle. Relegation to the ‘third tier’, would be unthinkable – literally, to those who have only known Watford after Bassini.
Achieving the 50 points without so much as a flicker of relief had me thinking about those days when things were very different. When signing the likes of Vakoun Bayo was unimaginable, and when having Austria’s first-choice keeper would have been a source of pride.
I thought back to one season in particular – 2004/05 – that turned out to be the last of Ray Lewington’s campaigns, and the catalyst for Aidy Boothroyd’s promotion the following year.
We had little expectation at the start, but enjoyed watching our close-knit squad as they put the dark days of the wage deferrals behind them. The autumn saw memorable wins over Premier League sides Southampton and Portsmouth in the League Cup, Heiđar Helguson leading the line with bullish enthusiasm as we notched no fewer than eight goals in those two games. Going into the Christmas period we sat reasonably comfortably in 15th place with 29 points, eight above the relegation zone, nine from the play-offs and well over halfway to the magic 50. And we had a League Cup semi-final with Liverpool to look forward to.
Then we started to tail off. Although we only lost each leg of the semi-final 0-1, both goals moments of sublime Gerrard skill, we were increasingly struggling to replicate the cup form in the League. Between Christmas and mid-March we won only four times, and became used to players falling out with each other during games. After a home defeat to Preston, although we still sat in 15th, we were now only three points above the relegation zone. We had 45 points with seven games to go. Five more still needed. And an international break over Easter to regroup.
It might be a familiar pattern now, but it was a major shock to hear that the board had used the break to sack Lewington and bring in an unknown – the Leeds United youth team coach Adrian Boothroyd. Ray had worked marvels with few resources. Had he really run out of ideas?
With all the hallmarks of David Brent, ‘Aidy’ told us at length how he was going to turn the club’s fortunes around, but defeats at Burnley and Plymouth and at home to Leeds didn’t seem to be steps in the right direction. Players and fans were trying to come to terms with his direct style of play and there seemed increasingly little chance of survival. After 42 games we were now in 21st place, level on points with Brighton in 22nd. Four games to go, still five points to get.
The next game was at bottom-of-the-table and already-relegated Rotherham. Lining up in the centre of defence was Danny Cullip, who had come in from Sheffield United as he recovered from injury. He’d made his debut the week before, in a game that saw Jay DeMerit sent off, and so now he was key. He didn’t disappoint, as Helguson grabbed the only goal. Three games, two points.
Next up was Sheffield United at home. A point gained in a goalless draw. Two clean sheets on the trot. Just one point needed, and it was now Coventry and Crewe whose results we looked out for. It’s not just about 50 points of course, it depends on the results of ‘those around you’.
This was followed by a tricky away game at mid-table Stoke City. Tricky mainly because, well, it was Stoke away. Their team, its attack led by one Gifton Noel-Williams, was a pastiche of all we expected. And we more than matched them. My report at the time (http://bsad.org/0405/reports/stoke/ar1.html) notes:
‘Watford gave us an object lesson in simple football. Adrian Boothroyd will, no doubt, call it winning by not being afraid to lose. But what we had here was a team full of confidence that had been given the freedom to attack in numbers. And to defend in equal numbers. A freedom that came, undoubtedly, from the coaching staff’s drawing boards but also from the opposition’s collective height (lots of it), pace (little of it), directness (lots of it) and guile (little of it).’
With the passing of time my enduring memories of this afternoon at the Britannia were of Richard Lee sitting in the away end, the imperious Cullip repelling all attacks and debutant Al Bangura repeatedly booting the ball as high and as hard as he could. I had forgotten the nervousness brought on by Coventry scoring four in the first half against Derby, or the leading parts played by Doyley, Blizzard and Young. I’d also forgotten that, on the day, we had no idea who Bangura was.
But the real memory was of the result – Helguson again scoring the only goal – and what it meant. We had secured 50 points – 52, no less – and we were safe. The gamble on Boothroyd’s appointment paid off. The crowd in the away end, raucous throughout, were delirious. There’s nothing better than getting to the 50-point safety mark in your last away game. And the youth of today? They just don’t understand it. And no one understands why Danny Cullip is one of my favourite players.