Staying Up: Nineties Style
Mark Evans remembers the year Steve Perryman kept us up
If you were watching Watford in the early 90s you were seeing a club in decline and in peril of plummeting back into Division 3. GT had of course gone, Elton had sold the club to Jack Petchey, who ran it purely as a business, and the threat of relegation loomed. This was an era for the loyal and indefatigable. At no point did I consider bailing out, I had missed most of the glory years, and supporting Watford was no longer the trendy thing it had been for a young bloke in Hemel in the 1980s. I am not sure what the trendy thing to do was though! Of course, I wanted success, but if my team couldn’t win a game then I would just try to make more noise next week in my selfless unconditional love for the Golden Boys. Stood exposed to the elements under the scoreboard watching very few goals, jumping around and celebrating was for other fans, this was an endurance. Watching Keith Dublin and Joe McLaughlin defend would send today’s angry fans into meltdown on the forums. The platform for discontent back then was the Watford Observer’s letters page, tame compared to what you read on today’s message boards and social media. Jack Petchey was unpopular but to my knowledge no death threats were ever issued. If you wanted up-to-the-minute news you rang ClubCall for a 50p-per-minute update on that evening’s Football Combination game. Ceefax and Teletext were the cutting-edge technology of the day and there wasn’t today’s 24-hour news and rumour media.
Even top scorer Paul Wilkinson had his critics, mainly because every week the offside laws seemed to perplex him. He always ran over to confront the linesman to argue that he was onside – maybe he was, I was always offside when I played! The truth is that Wilko was a decent striker, just a bit uneasy on the eye with his lanky frame and inelegant running.
Dave Bassett, Steve Harrison and now Colin Lee had followed GT, and things just got worse and worse. An opening day defeat to Millwall was followed by a winless run that extended until October. We didn’t score a goal in the first half of our opening five games, and managed only four goals until October, when we finally won games at Blackburn and Charlton, then went another eight games winless. The decline seemed to be irreversible. Could anyone save us? Crowds were in four figures; cold midweek fixtures saw a sparse scattering of fans.
In came Steve Perryman who had done well at Brentford. He had an immediate impact before another slump, and finally an exciting conclusion to the season. Around 4,000 fans travelled to the Manor Ground to see us win the penultimate game. The key components had been Glenn Roeder at the back, Peter Nicholas in midfield and Wilko’s goals. At least Watford would spend their centenary in Division 2!
Before that Oxford game I had a few pints in the working men’s club near the Manor Ground that Robert Maxwell, that well known philanthropist, had funded. As time went on my mate and I realised that with 4,000 anxious Hornets queuing to get into the ground down a narrow alleyway we would struggle to get in. The terrace down the side for home fans had no queue and we made a low-profile entry to the ground. This was not about infiltration and being pests. I think I was grateful not to be in that mass of Hornet humanity. Wilko’s goal meant that the ‘Great Escape’ had happened, and Mike Vince had a snappy highlights video to present.
I remember the noise from the uncovered away end seemed to drift off into the Oxfordshire air that spring afternoon. It was an impressive sight though. They were fenced in and watched by Thames Valley Police, while I had no one to stop me running on the pitch. I had the latest Umbro tracksuit top to put on and must have looked like a scruffy off-duty player. I was amid the team, hugging them and saluting the away fans as if I had played a part in that afternoon’s drama, whereas I was a curly-haired wassock risking a banning order! If you have a copy of the final home programme from that season you can see my head popping up behind Peter Nicholas on the front cover, a gatecrasher at the party.
Did I ever do it again? Well not until Slough got promoted at King’s Lynn, but the legs were far less nifty and I must have looked like an old scary man when I ran on to celebrate. I think that was my final pitch invasion. George Wells, the left-back, must have wondered if I might collapse!