Nick Catley ponders Tony Crane’s undeserved place in the record books
The autumn of 2000 was one of those occasional times where it feels the world has slipped slightly from its moorings (albeit in a way that would make a time traveller from the Covid era smile wryly, then laugh hollowly). Fuel blockades paralysed the country in September (a few intrepid Hornets made it through to see Watford win at Blackburn), while the fallout from the Hatfield rail crash in October meant that getting anywhere by train was at best extremely slow, and at worst impossible. Added to this, it seemingly rained continuously for three months, to the point I constantly expected to find I had gone mouldy.
Watford, however, were running very smoothly. 39 points from the first 15 games of the season – and 61 from the last 23 at that level, going back to the run to the playoffs two years previously – meant that on November 7 they entered their game with Sheffield Wednesday, a team in the bottom three that had recently ended an eight-match losing streak, as firm favourites. That night, though, the chaos and confusion of the outside world would come to Vicarage Road.
For starters, Watford’s eleven featured Richard Jobson, returning after 16 years away. Things didn’t start well as he scored an own goal just before half time, and the quality of the performance can be gauged from the fact there were two half-time substitutes. One of them, Tommy Smith, levelled early in the second half, and Watford seemed set to continue their run. Then, in the 66th minute, an incident occurred which still puzzles me now.
It was a pretty important goal, in retrospect. Without it, it’s possible we’d have got over a poor performance and found a goal from somewhere. If we’d done that, maybe our early-season momentum would have held up. If it had, presumably we’d have got substantially more than the one point in eight games we actually achieved from the Wednesday game onwards. Without that run, maybe our confidence wouldn’t have been shattered and we’d have at least had a shot at promotion. And if that had happened, maybe GT wouldn’t have decided he’d had enough…you get the idea.
Anyway. It was a goal that summed up the shambles our season was about to become. Tony Crane headed goalwards from a corner, beating Espen Baardsen’s dive. Luckily, Allan Nielsen had been positioned on the line for just this eventuality, and put his boot through the ball. Unfortunately, this happened just as Baardsen was hitting the ground. The ball cannoned off his back, past Nielsen, and into the net. A vaguely comic own goal. They happen from time to time.
And yet, to this day, Crane is credited as the scorer. The video footage perhaps explains why – after the header (free to a point that remains frustrating two decades later), the ball disappears underneath Baardsen, then appears again the wrong side of Nielsen’s legs, which are hidden by the keeper’s torso. Rather than the distinct pinball effect of clearance and rebound which was clearly apparent from behind the goal, it just seems that the ball has somehow sneaked through. The media, and PA announcer, would have had a similar view, albeit from the other side of the pitch.
The Wednesday players must have known it was an own goal. Crane scored seven times in the league in his career – he probably wasn’t keen to chalk one of them off, and his team mates presumably didn’t want to deny the then 18-year-old. The Watford players must have known, too, but Baardsen wouldn’t have wanted an own goal on his record, and he wasn’t someone you’d want to argue with. What amazes me still is that several thousand people in the Rookery knew it was an own goal, but the incorrectly recorded outcome suited all concerned, so nobody bothered to ask them. I’d suspect a conspiracy, if not for my belief that conspiracy theories are spread by the men in grey suits to keep our minds off what’s really going on.
It’s small beer, of course, in the general course of things, that the record of a goalscorer from the century’s early days is now wrong in perpetuity. But over the years, my mind has often drifted back to that Tuesday evening. No matter how many people saw what actually happened, what was documented has become the truth.