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The Owen Goal

From the April 2001 edition of The Yellow Experience the forever-missed Steve Todd recounts an event which defied physics


Whoaaa! Cough! Splutter! Gah! Gah! Goaaaal!

An ecstatic Rookery erupted from its stunned amazement. Men on the pitch in golden shirts and socks, and black shorts, rushed with arms aloft to the side of the pitch. They mobbed the slim, fair 24-year-old who stood with arms aloft, not fully realising what had happened – nor how he had done it. Other men in white with royal blue collars stood frozen like statues. A couple of them protested, bewildered, unsure. Rovers’ keeper Jimmy Cumbes stood scratching his head, mystified. A bald-headed geezer in black, named Oliver from Leigh-on-Sea, blew his whistle and pointed to the centre circle. All hell let loose in the darkness of the Rookery. The ball lay in the net, and no one dared touch it, in case it took off again!

A knees-up had kicked off… ‘Eeeeyi eeeeyi-bloody-yoh’.

The crowd bounced, jostled and swayed haphazardly up and down the terrace, as a party-like frenzy took hold. “In the name of Christ, what the fucking hell was that?” I asked my mate John Rowe, who was out of his head, rapturously levitating up and down beside me. Like the other 13,300 bewildered fans, we queried in total disbelief at what we had just witnessed. Magic? Trickery? An illusion maybe? What mystical forces were at large this night?

Was it the intervention of some divine being? Nah.

The hand of God? Bollocks!

Who the hell cared? We had come from a goal behind, and now we were in front. If it stayed this way, we would be top of Division 3!

It was just about eight o’clock on the evening of 11 March 1969. Cold and blustery weather prevailed as the Hornets played their 33rd League game of the season. Tranmere Rovers, who also had their sights set firmly on promotion, were the visitors. We held second place behind Swindon Town, with Alec Stock’s Luton hot on our tail.

It was not a night for the weak-hearted.

Rovers had gone in front, against the run of play, in the ninth minute, from a John McNamee goal. The GBs’ 24-year-old Welsh powerhouse, Tom Walley, had equalised on 19 minutes with an amazing goal of sheer class. Playing a slick one-two with the dazzling Brian Owen, he rounded two defenders, before beating a third and placing a brilliant unstoppable drive low into the net past Cumbes. It was his eighth goal in 102 appearances, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Just like watching Brazil, it was fan-bloody-tastical! The atmosphere was buzzing, and confidence was high all around the ground.  We were going to win now, everyone was certain. The Hornets were on fire, and everything changed up a gear.

I had been a fan of the Hornets for almost 16 years at that time, but nothing was to have prepared me for the spectacle that was to happen nine minutes later. 

It started, as most attacks did back then, with Stewart Scullion jinking head down, going on one of his darting runs down the right… Meep! Meep! Road Runner eat your heart out. Scully didn’t know the meaning of ‘out of breath’ until his bum sucked in grass. He was like some demented Tasmanian Devil in footy boots. His cross found Owen lurking on the edge of the area. Brian had joined Watford as a 17-year-old amateur in 1961, from Hertfordshire schools’ football. Like a lot of wingers over the years his form used to suffer, and injury and inconsistency had seen him in and out of the ‘stiffs’ most of the time. On this night, however, Brian was playing out of his brain, a genuine Man of the Match blinder. 

Taking the ball from Scullion, Brian was about to be put under immediate pressure from the closing McNamee. Looking up, he hurriedly sliced at the ball as the tackle came in. No one was sure if it was a cross, a pass, a shot on goal, or had McNamee made contact even? The ball soared high into the night sky, to the sound of a resounding “DOH!” from the Hornet hordes. The ball seemed destined to hit the Watford Observer clock, or even go completely over the stand into the allotments. A possible corner looked on the cards. “CORNER!” we roared hopefully.

But no… wait… what the fuck’s happening? Where’d it go? Time appeared to have stood still, or so it seemed. Thousands of necks strained to see the magical ball’s reappearance.

I was standing in my favoured position, three steps back in the Rookery, behind the goal. Following Brian’s hack the ball had veered wildly about, some 50 feet up, apparently over the goal line. It had reached a coordinate just wide of the goal, then started to descend under gravity. At the same time, for some unknown reason, be it wind, the earth’s magnetic field, or some mystic force, it behaved in a retrograde manner. It retraced its course a little, then plummeted down, swerving at increasing velocity.

Cumbes was frantically trying to readjust after moving out for the interception. His arms flailed about, panic-stricken. Some say the ball bounced. Some say it hit his arm. Others say it hit the post. It was difficult to say even with the slow-motion time warp that prevailed. One thing was for sure though it suddenly took a 90-degree turn, and shot high into the net with an apparent mind of its own.

Over the years I heard many wild and bizarre interpretations of what actually happened.  Some swear the ball travelled out of the ground. Many say it orbited inside the Rookery, like some alien spacecraft. Claims that it had flashed across the sky in King Street, and set dogs barking, are a bit over the top.

I even looked towards the bench, and half-expected to see a smug-looking Ken Furphy, holding some kind of remote control device in his hands.

So many different views. All still have me thinking to this day that something very strange had happened. A quirk of surreal time perhaps, had it transported us to some personal parallel universe, and we, the chosen ones, had all acquired individual visions of the ball’s amazing trajectory?

Barry Endean added a third before half-time, and that was how it ended, the second half failing to live up to the first 45 minutes.

That goal had been extraordinary, one that had defied the very nature of physics itself. A ball had taken the scenic route, checked, then momentarily frozen time, before continuing to meander into the net. A crowd-thrilling turning point that, to this day, is known simply as ‘the Owen goal’.

I concluded then that amazing things happen at this football club. I was sure that, at that precise moment in time, we were destined for bigger things. We were going to the Second Division for the first time in our lives.