The First Man
Colin Payne looks back to an incredible couple of months in 1982 when Gerry Armstrong put himself into the Watford record books forever
In glorious August sunshine, Pat Rice leads the team onto a green and lush Vicarage Road pitch. The crowd is predictably buoyed up and eager, the atmosphere special – statistics say another 8,000 people could have fitted into the ground that day, but it’s hard to see where, as the Vicarage Road Terrace swayed and moved as one. It was electric in there, we’d waited so long for this – although in fact we hadn’t really, for this hadn’t come onto our radars until very recently. This is Watford’s first game in Division One and everything matches the occasion.
Throughout the early stages of the game Watford harry and pressurise the visitors – no ball is considered lost, and nothing left unchallenged. Four decades on, the ‘press’ would come into vogue – this looked remarkably like it, played to perfection.
With the benefit of hindsight and YouTube it is clear that this Watford side were so bloody special, the levels of fitness and ability belie the fact that within the starting line-up are no ‘summer signings’, no big-name recruits brought in to bolster Graham Taylor’s newly promoted side. This is the team that took us up, and they are clearly worth their places.
The ground echoes with the refrains of a high-pitched “Watford-Watford” and a more ‘manly’ “C’mon you ‘Orns”. The songbook was limited back then, the 1881 would need to wait a third of a century before being invented, but the two-song repertoire is belted out loud and proud, the joy of the day is all too evident.
21 minutes in, Gerry Armstrong is brought down midway between the 18-yard box and the halfway line – he’s been a nuisance to Everton all game. Nigel Callaghan fires the free kick into the box just an inch too far ahead of the oncoming Jenkins, whose toe sees the ball edged to Armstrong, just a foot from the goal line. In truth any of us could have knocked it in from there, had we been on the field, but we weren’t, and Armstrong was, and so Watford’s first top-flight goal was scored. The ground erupts, Gerry is swamped by his team-mates, and history is made. Watford go on to win the game 2-0, the second goal even less of a candidate for Goal of the Season, as Neville Southall comically walks the ball over his own goal line as he takes hold of an effort from Rice – the shock of Pat delivering an attempt on goal clearly leaving him dazed and confused.
Watford had started life in the big time as they meant to go on, and that season would see them achieve even more remarkable feats and memorable occasions, but no one else could score that first-ever goal.
It had been a good summer for Gerry Armstrong, this being perhaps a massive understatement – it had been a monumental summer for the Ulsterman.
Prior to then he was best known among Watford fans for costing £250,000 from Spurs and for not being Luther or Ross Jenkins. He had come from White Hart Lane after five years in which he scored ten goals in 84 games. Graham Taylor had used him well, and some of his best moments in a yellow shirt had been when stripping off the dark blue romper suit and coming on as a substitute, where his undoubted athleticism, strength and bursts of energy could change games.
But it was for the World Cup in Spain, just a few weeks prior to his historic goal at Vicarage Road, that Armstrong will be best remembered. Selected to play for his native Northern Ireland he had missed the opener against Yugoslavia, which had ended in a nil-nil draw, and scored in the second game, against Honduras, which finished one apiece. This had put him in the Watford record books as the first Watford player to not only play, but score, in a World Cup tournament whilst at the club. Yet his pinnacle was still to come. Needing to beat the hosts, Spain, if they were to progress any further, Northern Ireland certainly faced a challenge few expected them to rise to.
That evening in Valencia will forever be remembered, not just by those residing in the six counties, but by anyone who watched it. With a line-up also featuring past and future Hornets Pat Jennings and John McClelland, it was a display that really was the stuff of legends. Armstrong scored the only goal of the game, steaming through the middle of the pitch before combining
with Billy Hamilton, who crossed for him to fire home after the Spanish keeper had fumbled the ball. Mal Donaghy’s dismissal with 30 minutes left the men in white and green shirts facing an onslaught, but to a crescendo of whistles and jeers they held out. A further Armstrong goal in the next stage against Austria saw him finish top British scorer in the tournament, before Northern Ireland bowed out following a 4-1 reverse against France.
He would feature in a further 18 games for Watford, scoring just one more goal, before returning to Spain to play for Real Mallorca. In truth his standing in the Watford all-time greats list is probably outside of most fans’ top 100, but his place in the record books can never be taken away. Gerry Armstrong scored Watford’s first top-flight goal.