Keen Out - But Not Today
Pete Bradshaw goes back to April 1977, and the day Mike Keen got sacked
In YBR! 32, Nick Catley recalls the many memorable games against Huddersfield. For those of us of a certain vintage there is one game that needs to be added to that list. One that precedes all of Nick’s. He is to be excused that of course, as he isn’t old enough to remember it. But it’s a day that is etched in my memories of Vicarage Road and one that provided the most pyrrhic of victories for manager Mike Keen.
April 16th 1977. Watford 2, Huddersfield Town 0. The bare statistics do not tell much of the story – nor the run-up to it.
Going into a hectic schedule of three games in four days over Easter, Watford sat in sixth place, just two points behind the last of the promotion places (four up, no play-offs) and only eight off leaders Cambridge United. Even in these days of two points for a win it wasn’t beyond the imagination that we would get out of the bottom division this season just two years after being relegated in the awful capitulation at home to Walsall. Indeed, in the eight home games since the turn of the year we had won seven and drawn one, and so hopes were high despite our poor away form.
Fast forward a week and things looked very different. In his programme notes for the Huddersfield game, director Muir Stratford wrote ‘Last Saturday must go down as Black Saturday as far as Watford FC is concerned.’ In that first of the Easter games we had lost at home to Brentford. The game finished 1-0 to the visitors despite us missing two penalties and playing with three strikers (Mayes, Mercer and Jenkins with a fourth, substitute Poole, on the bench). We then got a draw at Stockport on Easter Monday and lost at Aldershot the very next day.
Promotion looked to have passed us by as we were now five points adrift with eight to play. Supporters were increasingly on the back of manager Mike Keen whose four-year stint had been littered with dashed hopes and the aforementioned relegation. A popular figure as a player and, at first, as manager, patience with him had worn thin.
As we assembled in Vicarage Road for the game against Huddersfield, rumours were that he was going to be sacked. Nevertheless, there he was with coach John Collins as the teams came out. We noticed that he seemed to be much more involved than in recent games, or perhaps that was just hindsight. A lone figure on the far touchline, urging his team on, and getting more and more exasperated as the score remained goalless. Enter the referee, and enter Tony Geidmintis.
Geidminitis had been signed from Workington the previous summer having been with the the Reds for 12 years, coming through the youth ranks and making his debut at 15 – no other player who played for Watford had made his senior debut so young. But he probably looked 25 then. The son of a Lithuanian refugee, he lived his first nine years in the East End, and was a tough-tackling full-back who first came to my notice earlier in the season when he ended Peter Taylor’s involvement in a League Cup game at Palace with a two-footed lunge after just nine minutes, setting up a memorable win over Malcolm Allison’s superstars. He didn’t get sent off for that (he would have today, several times over) but he had been dismissed the previous month at Bournemouth. In his programme pen picture, in answer to the question ‘Most difficult opponent?’, he had answered ‘No one in Division 4’. I think only the first two words were needed – he feared no one.
After half an hour, Geidmintis went in with his customary, erm, zeal and was given his marching orders – his second sending off of the season, something that hadn’t been seen in Watford in modern times.
Ten minutes after half-time that most gentle of players, Alan Mayes, was dismissed for a challenge that had nothing in it, and we were incensed. As was Keen. Mayes just wasn’t that sort of player – in his pen picture he had said that ‘All of them’ were his most difficult opponents.
As the game heated up, the fans got more passionate in their support, making far more noise than a sub-7000 crowd would do normally. Matching this, Keen became more animated on the touchline. After a season of ups and downs we were united with him and the players in our support, the noise making the crowd seem much larger than it was.
On 71 minutes Keith Mercer, leading goalscorer, who had kept the then-ineffectual Ross Jenkins on the bench, scored the opening goal. The nine men roared forward and before the end Mercer made it 2-0, taking his personal tally to 22 for the season. He was the hero, the nine men were heroes, and Mike Keen was a hero. We cheered him and the players off but we were never to see him again.
On Monday morning Keen was sacked. John Collins was put in charge as the season ended in the most bizarre fashion with Collins taking the team down to Newport and Swansea for games in midweek and on the Saturday. They were due to stay and train in Wales between games. A 0-3 loss at Newport was described by Stratford as the worst performance of the season. Collins was so incensed he brought the team back to Watford and made them play for the reserves against Brentford the very next evening (won 2-1) before returning to Wales. This seemed to do the trick as the Hornets ran out 4-1 winners at the Vetch Field, probably the best League result of the season.
Despite this minor success of man management, Collins was only ever an interim, and during the summer Graham Taylor was recruited. The rest is history, but the nine-man victory over Huddersfield was in many ways a precursor to those great times.
A footnote about Huddersfield concerns Ross Jenkins. As mentioned above he really struggled to make an impact under Keen, the £25,000 price tag weighing heavily round his neck. During a previous close season he was to be sold to Huddersfield, but instead decided to stay and fight for his place. I am so glad he did.