Nick Catley looks at the player who literally did it on a Tuesday night in Stoke – and changed a season
At 4:15 pm on 3 April 1999, Tommy Mooney’s Vicarage Road career seemed to be gradually coasting to a halt, as he sat on the bench – not an unfamiliar spot for him that season – watching the Hornets trail Tranmere. Watford’s promotion hopes appeared similarly moribund.
If it had all ended there, he would still have been extremely fondly remembered. Signed as part of a deadline-day quartet five years earlier which inspired a run to safety, he played a significant role in the subsequent years, including being named Player of the Season in the 1995/96 relegation campaign. He had occupied all the positions in an L-shape between left-winger and centre-back – a kind of knight’s move utility player – rivalling even Steve Palmer for versatility.
As we know, though, it didn’t end there. Part of a triple substitution that day, Mooney crossed for Peter Kennedy’s equaliser in a 2-1 win that would echo through the ages as kick-starting the run to the play-offs. In yet another example of Graham Taylor finding a way to get the best from his players, Tommy was galvanised by a switch to an out-and-out striking role. He contributed a goal and an assist at Birmingham two days later, and suddenly it was all on.
The game that sticks in my mind, though, was the next one, at home to Bolton. The improvement in the team – the sheer confidence coursing through it – became immediately apparent, to the point that, when Allan Smart won a penalty around three minutes in, a goal already felt overdue. Tommy missed, but it didn’t matter – Micah Hyde put us ahead, before Tommy met a deep cross from Darren Bazeley with the sweetest of headers, unstoppably low to the keeper’s left. I can still see him standing there, arms outstretched, taking the adulation of the crowd almost before the ball had crossed the line. It was probably only a split second before he was engulfed by yellow shirts, but it seemed much longer, and a huge moment. It felt like he knew. He knew he’d found the role that suited him, he knew he was in the form of his life, and he knew something special was happening. In that moment, we all sensed it too. He seemed to be telling us to trust him. He had this. Further wins followed, at Crewe and against Crystal Palace, both complete with the now-obligatory Mooney strikes.
Tommy’s image was always as the ultimate no-nonsense player, a kind of anti-maverick who prevailed through sheer force of will – essentially the epitome of the player who can do it on a Tuesday night in Stoke. Handily, that’s exactly where the next game took place – well, Burslem anyway – and he lived up to the reputation. Having put us ahead of Port Vale with a smart finish, he reached a rebound first to restore the lead after we’d been pegged back, with the kind of fist-pumping, teeth-gritted determination for which we’ll always remember him. He did something similar at Barnsley the following
Saturday, hurling himself at a loose ball and ultimately putting it in the net with his back, for his seventh goal in under a month. Not getting there just wasn’t an option. Indeed, while pace isn’t high on the list of things you remember about Tommy, he didn’t get beaten to very much.
However, that image isn’t quite fair. It’s difficult to shift, because, simply, he wanted it more than any other footballer I’ve ever seen, but he also produced stunning moments of skill – a half-volley in front of the Rookery building site against West Brom springs to mind, as does a long-distance effort against Stoke almost a year later. Most crucially, though, during that spring of 1999, he showed he had the most sought-after skill of all – the ability to score goals. He contributed plenty to the rest of the play-off run, including a penalty in the shoot-out at St Andrew’s, but didn’t add to those seven goals. However, apart from the man on the bench, he’d done more than anyone to inspire that miraculous run.
The story didn’t end there, with Tommy famously scoring to secure what remains our only win at Anfield the following August. However, he missed much of that year, and it’s difficult not to speculate what might have happened without his and other injuries. His next season turned out to be his last at Watford, but may actually have been his best, as he confirmed he’d found his best role by scoring 21 goals and winning Player of the Season again. But I’ll always remember him with his arms outstretched, soaking in the crowd, as that promotion dream started to become a reality. Tommy knew.