The Nine List
Nick Catley looks at a period where Watford’s number nines were the footballing version of Hogwarts’ Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers
In the recollections of many Watford fans, from the distant perspective of, at best, middle age, it sometimes feels that in those five golden First Division seasons under Graham Taylor between 1982 and 1987, where we didn’t finish below 12th, and the sun always shone, unless we were playing with an orange ball on a frozen, snowy pitch, or getting soaked on an uncovered Vicarage Road end, the team barely changed at all.
Unlike a lot of these memories (the orange ball probably came out approximately twice in reality), this one comes with a fair chunk of truth. Eight players – John Barnes, Luther Blissett, Nigel Callaghan, Kenny Jackett, Wilf Rostron, Steve Sherwood, Steve Sims and Steve Terry – played in the first and last of those seasons (albeit with brief breaks for Blissett and Sims).
However, there was one spot in the team that we could never quite get settled. While stability reigned elsewhere, it seemed we had someone new every season attempting to be the ‘nine’ to Luther Blissett’s ‘ten’ (even though he normally wore the number eight shirt). Essentially, the centre-forward position became Watford’s version of Hogwarts’ Defence Against the Dark Arts teaching post. The following tributes to these players are appropriately brief.
Ross doesn’t really belong in this list at all, of course, with his 339 appearances, 142 goals and club-legend status. However, like Old Major in Animal Farm, he was one of the main instigators of the revolution, but never got to see it fully bear fruit – remembering him as a significant part of our First Division line-up, I was amazed to find that just 20 of those appearances, and five of the goals, were in the top flight. Indeed, he didn’t appear competitively in a Watford shirt after January 1983 – perhaps showing, as if we didn’t know already, that although he backed his players, Taylor never let sentimentality cloud his judgment when deciding whether it was time to move someone on.
George will always be remembered for his partnership with Mo Johnston, on and off the field, even though almost half of his time at the club came before and after Johnston’s departure. His place in Watford history, though, is largely due to a single one of his 19 goals for us, scored on 14 April 1984 in a cup tie against a Third Division team, which just happened to send us to Wembley for the first time ever.
Like Jenkins, a slight squeeze for this list, in his case because he emphatically wasn’t a centre-forward. However, Luther Blissett’s departure to Milan had left us in need of a scorer as well as a line-leader, and Johnston was certainly that. At this distance, it’s his personal life that seems to get most of the attention – Nolan sister(s) and/or half of Dollar seen coming out of the flat above the Hornet Shop in the morning, possibly stopping to buy a Lonsdale-design ‘Watford/Hornets’ sweatshirt from Tony Marks on the way, and so on – but what a talent.
Not particularly strong, or tall, or fast, and without a rocket shot, he nonetheless had that indefinable nose for goal – a heady mix of football intelligence, instinct, quickness of thought and feet, and confidence – that marks out great goalscorers, perhaps seen since at Watford most notably when Kevin Phillips and Odion Ighalo were at their best. He departed soon after Luther’s return, leaving with 27 goals and a lifetime in our memories, for all sorts of reasons.
Colin, by contrast, was very definitely a number nine. Indeed, looking at him, if the phrase ‘burly centre-forward’ hadn’t already been well-worn by then, you’d have had little option but to invent it to describe him. Although born on Tyneside, he looked as if he’d have been equally at home labouring on a Scottish croft as on a football field, and indeed, fully mulleted, he bore a passing resemblance to Hamish Balfour of the Hot-Shot Hamish comic strip. He did pretty well for us, scoring 23 goals in 53 appearances in the obligatory season-and-a-bit granted to strikers at this time, and ultimately became Graeme Souness’s first signing for Rangers, in the summer of 1986, presumably allowing him to get closer to that croft.
Falco spent less time at Vicarage Road than anyone else on this list following his arrival in October 1986. He scored on his debut, a 3-1 defeat at Arsenal much more famous for Tony Coton’s dismissal and replacement by Nigel Callaghan, with its subsequent repercussions for the sixth-round FA Cup match at Highbury the following March, then claimed a hat-trick in his first home game, against Aston Villa. However, he was only sporadically effective after that, most notably scoring the winner in a live TV match against eventual champions Everton, aided by a Blissett handball which was controversial even then. 14 goals in 33 appearances reflected that he’d done OK without pulling up any trees, and his signing by Rangers (which led to West’s departure) for the exact same fee paid for him nine months earlier – £350,000 – seemed about right.
The comings and goings didn’t stop there, of course, but after those five seasons the whole team seemed in a constant state of flux, not just the centre-forwards. Looking back, perhaps the strangest thing is that none of these players really failed, they just didn’t stay around very long – rarer then than it is now. It wasn’t a problem though. We kept finding the players to score enough times to sustain those golden years, and if anything, the summer of 1987 saw us particularly optimistic about our strikers. After all, we had Richard Hill and Trevor Senior waiting to lead us into a brave new era…