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The GT Years Ranked: 8 - 1986/87

Nick Catley presents his list of GT's greatest seasons at Watford


The highest of the top-division seasons (apart from the first one), and not just because of the league position – ninth place, which remains our second-best ever, despite a spirited challenge in 2018/19. We were evolving nicely – suddenly, the differences from the team that won promotion were noticeable. Tony Coton and John McClelland were proving they could sustain their initial brilliance, and Kevin Richardson and Mark Falco played their only seasons for us, bringing midfield solidity and a decent goal tally respectively. Meanwhile Luther Blissett, Kenny Jackett and Wilf Rostron were still going strong.

At this distance, though, a couple of memories stand out. The first is how John Barnes, always an incredible talent, gradually proved he had matured into one of the country’s finest players. This was showcased in a 2-0 win over Liverpool in December, in which he took the ball some distance inside his own half and owned Gary Gillespie to the extent he must still be untying the knots, before advancing on goal and powering home from the edge of the area. Coming against the previous year’s double-winners, it’s a game that perhaps deserves a more prominent place in the Hornet pantheon. It also arguably added to the frustration of our near miss in the FA Cup quarter-final a few months before. It’s probably a simplistic view, but you can’t help wondering if that was the day Kenny Dalglish decided he had to have Barnes in his team the following year. He got his man in the summer, of course, for £900,000. It slightly annoys me when people bemoan the low fee, particularly when they ask ‘How much would he go for today?’ The answer, of course, is nothing – Barnes was out of contract, which lowered the amount significantly, but not to zero, as Jean-Marc Bosman was still an unheralded Standard Liège midfielder at the time.

The other comes from a game widely accepted as the last truly great one of the first Graham Taylor era – the 3-1 win at Highbury in the FA Cup quarter-final. Yes, the appalling and utterly uncharacteristic mix-up between McClelland and Coton, yes, the beautiful Barnes header to put us ahead, yes, Luther’s iconic celebration which later featured on the Match of the Day titles, yes, the absolutely hilarious explosion of Steve Williams at Taylor at the final whistle, yes, of course, the two-goal-swing conversation between the (controversially selected) referee and linesman for the twice-celebrated Blissett clincher – but from a very rich pool, the first thing I think of from that day is England international full-back Kenny Sansom repeatedly being left for dead by David Bardsley, including in the run-up to the first two goals. 

Bardsley was, remarkably, still only 22, and coming into his own with a vengeance having moved from full-back to right-wing after Nigel Callaghan’s February departure. If the Arsenal game was his finest, he was fantastic for the whole season, his only full one in the team. Indeed, the biggest complement that can be paid – perhaps only Watford fans know just how big – is that we didn’t really miss Callaghan. Of all Dave Bassett’s crimes against the club, getting rid of Bardsley may just have been the most heinous.

It wasn’t perfect of course – Elton was starting to lose interest, Taylor was getting frustrated and thinking of new challenges, and the Arsenal win led to a semi-final that was, for a number of reasons, suboptimal. But it was a very good year nonetheless.

y a distance the most comprehensive of the three times we have topped a division in our 103-year Football/Premier League history, the season brought with it the sense of revolution and boundless possibility. If three points for a win had come in four years earlier, we’d have (Alan) garnered 101 points and finished 16 points clear. Even that underestimates our dominance, given that we’d taken our foot off the gas and drawn five games in a row after the title was secured, before beating Southport in their final Football League game (something a Sandgrounders fan got very excited about when he discovered my loyalties on a trip to Haig Avenue a few years back).

Given the sense that this was a complete break from what went before, it’s worth noting that only four new players played more than a couple of games, with just two – Ian Bolton and Sam Ellis – significantly involved in the season-starting run of 14 wins from 17 games, which created a five-point lead and made the title Watford’s to lose. Taylor transformed a team (and a club, and indeed a town, though that would take a little longer) that was already there, rather than having one bought for him. Ellis was ever-present during that run but played only sporadically thereafter, and it seems remarkable that someone who looms so large in the club’s history appeared only 40 times for us – but perhaps that prominence reflects the importance of those first few Taylor months in the club’s history.

Promotion was secured at Bournemouth in early April, with seven matches still to play, while the title was sealed at Scunthorpe, Taylor’s hometown, a few days later (with a metaphorical lap of honour at Grimsby, the club for whom he played most games, the following Tuesday). This pair of wins are not widely remembered, largely because the title was a matter of when, not if, from that autumn run onwards.

The transformation in confidence, attitude