The GT Years Ranked: 5 - 1980/81
Nick Catley presents his list of GT's greatest seasons at Watford
This might seem a pretty high ranking for a season where we only really escaped relegation worries in the last couple of months, ultimately finishing ninth. However, this was the year where we started to think we might be the equal of not just the clubs in our division, but pretty much any team in the country. We began to believe that we might just go even higher, that there might be more of this over the horizon – in short, we glimpsed the promised land. Of course, much more remarkably, what we went on to achieve was beyond our wildest dreams even then. But more of that next time.
1980/81 saw the middle of a four-year run in which our record in cup competitions against First Division opposition was 6 wins, 3 draws and 6 defeats. We were putting together an impressive body of evidence to suggest we could cut it in that company not just as a one-off, but on a sustained basis.
The most storied of those occasions – and indeed, I’ll put my neck out and say the most storied match in the Taylor era, and therefore quite possibly in Watford history (although the 1970 FA Cup quarter-final and 2013 play-off semi-final might just want a word), occurred on 2 September 1980. There’s very little more to add about that game. It’s tempting to say it couldn’t happen now, but actually a comeback like that was just as unlikely then. A Southampton side who were to finish in the top half of Division One, packed with stars – and very little short of full strength in a way that would be unthinkable now – were brushed aside on an irresistible wave of Taylorism. The fact we ended up with a goal to spare in the 7-5 aggregate victory is somehow very Taylor-esque in itself – even in 1980, a team finally taking the lead in a tie like that might be expected to corner-flag it – and certainly to row-Z it – for the rest of extra time, as well as passing just about everything back to the goalkeeper.
Obviously the lack of any footage of the game is a lasting regret – and yet this brings it a certain mythology and romance too, one of the last games of an era where the moving visual record lay solely and unreliably in the minds of those that were there rather than cold, hard video evidence, and where that record died with the individuals involved. It’s much more difficult to turn fact into legend in the Google era – indeed, when writing about the 1987 Arsenal quarter-final earlier in this article, I was convinced Bardsley had actually left Sansom on his arse – rather than just beating him convincingly – on at least one occasion before YouTube’s spoilsport intervention. It’s also sobering that, on a quick calculation involving average life expectancy, maybe half of those personal records of the Southampton game are already lost.
We beat Forest in the next round, 4-1 – European champions Forest – but by this time we expected to beat pretty much anyone who turned up on One of Those Vicarage Road Nights. So much so, in fact, that the draw and replay defeat to Coventry in the quarter-final was not just a disappointment, but arguably a mild surprise too.
The cups definitely overshadowed the League that year, but we filed a formal statement of intent by winning the last three games of the season, the first time we’d manged that feat since the promotion run-in two seasons before. We’d seen the future, and it was yellow.