The GT Years Ranked: 2 - 1981/82
Nick Catley presents his list of GT's greatest seasons at Watford
This was, of course, the season when the impossible dream became reality, the fulfilment of a vision we didn’t dare to believe achievable. We’ve won promotion to the top division since, but never for the first time.
In the midst of what turned out to be an incredible League campaign, we had a couple of memorable wins against a pair of First Division Uniteds – Manchester and West Ham. These would be highlights of most seasons – but the role of the cup victories was instead largely to emphasise our top-flight credentials. 1981/82 was all about the League.
Taylor started the season with the famous “It’s time we were moving on” quote, and we showed our intentions on the first day. Nigel Callaghan scored an absolute screamer at St James’ Park – a strike which won Goal of the Season, despite being witnessed by only the few hundred Hornets who’d made the trip, perhaps the last great Watford goal not to be recorded for posterity – and we held on for a 1-0 win with our backs to the wall after Luther Blissett had been uncharacteristically sent off. Emy Onuora sheds some light on the issue in Pitch Black: The Story of Black British Footballers, noting that ‘Blissett was sent off for kicking an opponent after suffering a racist taunt’. The mix of brilliance and grit summed up what was to come, although the team stuttered a little in the next couple of games before truly finding their feet at Chelsea, as described by Geoff Wicken in Volume 10 of The Watford Treasury. Not coincidentally, it was John Barnes’ first start for the team, partly enabled by Blissett’s suspension, and completing the famous four-pronged front line (albeit with an occasionally changing cast in the centre) that so enthralled us over the next few years.
The team gathered momentum as the autumn progressed, most notably in a 3-0 televised demolition of Norwich (a game which gave Steve Terry his iconic headband) which made Big Match viewers aware of Barnes’ precocious talent, as he gave Willie Donachie in particular a torrid afternoon.
However, the season was perhaps not as much of a procession as is sometimes remembered. On 16 January, Watford conceded two late goals to lose 3-2 at home to Newcastle on a bitterly cold day. Fans had helped clear the pitch of snow that morning, and probably ended up wishing they hadn’t bothered. Watford entered their next League match in third place (the final promotion position), but only two points ahead of eighth-placed Chelsea, just one of a morass of teams chasing runaway leaders Luton.
Then, things kicked up a gear. We lost just two more League games until promotion had been secured, starting with three matches in a row all memorable for different reasons. The first, against Derby, was won 6-1. The next, at Rotherham, saw Ian Bolton score from inside his own half, before Barnes scored a late winner. And if September’s match at Chelsea saw the full debut of a player who would have a huge impact on the next few years, so, in a sense, did the return match in February, a 1-0 win. Wilf Rostron had been recruited from Sunderland as a winger in 1979, with limited success, and had been in and out of the team since then – but mostly out. Left-back Keith Pritchett was injured at the end of the Derby game, and while right-back Mick Henderson filled in at Rotherham, Taylor went with a hunch against Chelsea and Rostron was a fixture from then on. Meanwhile Pritchett and Henderson played four more League games for the club between them. No one said football wasn’t cruel.
We were looking better and better as the spring progressed, but the game that convinced us that the impossible was not just possible but a racing certainty pitted us against our closest rivals Sheffield Wednesday in late April. Four first-half goals left us five points clear of them with five to play, and with an eight-point cushion over fourth-placed Leicester.
A win at Charlton would have sealed it, but in retrospect it was more appropriate that we made history at home, and even more fitting that the player who put us ahead in the first half, then sealed the deal right at the end, was Ross Jenkins – the longest-serving player at the club, and one of four (with Blissett, Ian Bolton and Steve Sherwood) who’d been on the whole journey from Division Four – but the only one playing seven years earlier as Watford slipped to 92nd place in the Football League. That impossible dream had been achieved, and it was extremely hard to imagine how any season could possibly top 1981/82. But it did. And it didn’t take long…