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Fifty Shades of Yellow: Motor City

Peter Morgan recalls some of the lesser-known Watford games during his first 50  years following the Hornets – this edition he is sent to Coventry


For those, like me, who were teenagers in the 1970s, Coventry City were very much an established First Division team.  However for most of the inter-war years, and all bar one from 1952 to 1964, Watford had been in the same lowly division as the Sky Blues before Coventry left us behind.

So away games against Coventry City only came back on the horizon once GT had dragged us into the higher echelons. The first meeting took place in December 1980 in the League Cup, in which competition we had already beaten First Division Southampton 7-1 and European champions Nottingham Forest 4-1 that season at Vicarage Road. A pulsating 2-2 draw at the Vic meant a week later we travelled to Highfield Road for the replay.

What people may not recall about this game is that GT dropped Eric Steele because he felt, as in the old Dracula/goalkeeper joke, Eric feared crosses. He therefore gave Steve Sherwood a start for what was to be the beginning of a run as first choice keeper that only ended when Tony Coton arrived in September 1984.* My brother went to the game in his yellow-tinted spectacles and I recall him saying afterwards “We did have a couple of great chances!” “Andy, we lost 5-0!”,  I exclaimed. 

Two years later and we were playing Coventry in the First Division. Often driving to Coventry was quicker than getting to some of the London grounds and our dad was happy to be the chauffeur. In March 1983 we duly nipped up the M1, stopped for fish and chips a mile away, as we would do for the next four seasons (not superstition, just nice nosh!) and took our place on the terrace behind the goal. At the time, with Watford second in Division One and Coventry sixth, this was a top-of-the table clash. A goal from Les Taylor was enough to take the three points back down the M1, with silk scarves fluttering from the windows.

For the next encounter, on 14 January 1984, Coventry were again in sixth place, but the Hornets were down in 17th. In the days when squad rotation meant players simply turning around in a circle, the hardy twelve on duty could have claimed ‘tiredness’ had they lost this game. The previous Saturday they had drawn 2-2 in the FA Cup, only 16 miles up the M1, and then won 4-3, after extra-time, three days later in the reply. 

It was a very blustery day as we stood again on the terrace behind Steve Sherwood’s goal. In the 13th minute he collected an overhit Coventry pass and, as we had seen him do hundreds of times, he launched his kick upfield. The Watford fans could see Cally moving towards the kick, challenging the keeper, and then the ball was in the net. Was it a foul on Steve Ogrizovic, the Coventry goalkeeper? How did Cally beat 6’4” ‘Oggy’ to the ball? Had this been a couple of years later, we may have wondered if the Hand of God was involved, but at this point God had not interfered in games of football. 

Then the reaction of the players told us that Steve Sherwood had scored, direct from his kick. Overshadowed by Steve’s goal, can anyone remember who scored the last-minute winner (I couldn’t!) to give us a vital 2-1 win? Answer at the bottom of the article.**

In January 1986, Coventry must have become sick of the sight of the Hornets as they won at Highfield Road twice in 15 days. A 3-1 triumph on 4 January in the FA Cup, with goals from Colin West (2) and Kenny Jackett seeing Watford through, was followed on the 18th by a 2-1 win, courtesy of two goals by John Barnes. 

By September 2005 both clubs were in the Championship and Coventry had just moved to the Ricoh Arena. Despite being the fifth visiting team that season, the stadium and environs still resembled a building site for our midweek game, during which there was a power cut before someone put another 50p in the meter. I think someone had forgotten to order signage, with a piece of cardboard denoting the away end. Early season optimism was eroded further as we lost 3-1, but the following May we were at another new(ish) stadium, in Cardiff,  getting promoted!

In April 2009 I introduced the next generation to the delights of Coventry, when I took my two nieces to watch the Hornets in action at the Ricoh Arena. Being aged nine and eight, I tried to make the day not just about football, but also educational, making me either a boring or an enlightened uncle, depending on your viewpoint. We saw where Lady Godiva had ridden naked (too young?) and the ruined cathedral – the Second World War was being studied at the time by the eldest (gold star for me).

Inside the present cathedral, resplendent in our yellow Watford shirts, we were approached by some bloke called ‘Dean’, who asked us what brought us to Coventry and the cathedral that day. I felt like saying “I’ll give you three clues” (pointing to our shirts), but before I could, the penny dropped that he was THE dean of the cathedral, so I went back into polite mode. He clearly was not a fan of the beautiful game, but a lovely man, who wanted people to see his cathedral. I may have called him “Dean, mate” once, but I think I got away with it. 

As for the game, having gone 2-0 down after 54 minutes, Watford triumphed through goals by Tommy Smith, Tamás Priskin and Grzegorz Rasiak. The two girls slept all the way home after a 3-2 win. Could it get any better?

*Useless/interesting fact – both Steve Sherwood and Tony Coton started their extended runs in the team by conceding 5 goals 

**George Reilly scored the winner in 1984