To the Zenith and Back
Mark Evans boldly goes where no man has... ever really wanted to go
It’s 21 November 1989 and Watford are about to begin their Zenith Data Systems Cup campaign at Ipswich Town. Interest in Hertfordshire is hardly fanatical, there will be no club coach and even my most loyal Hornet chums are swerving the game so there will be no lift. This was no Kaiserslautern away, this was a game only for the most diehard and desperate fans unwilling to miss even the most mundane of fixtures. Had we swept our way to Wembley, no doubt the absentees would have made the short hop and been nothing more than glory hunters. By the way, Zenith Data Systems were sponsoring the Full Members’ Cup, the cup which had several sponsor names before being scrapped. You can put this fixture in the obscure category in the company of the likes of the Anglo-Italian Cup tie at Southend with a crowd of 1,881.
Pre-internet, swotting up on train times involved scanning printed timetables, and getting to and from Suffolk on a cold winter evening seemed like a pain. Rather than miss a game, I had a cunning plan. Baldrick was actually still on the telly back in 1989. My brainwave was to ask if I could travel with the team as a reporter for a Watford fanzine. I am not sure who I wrote to with a plea to mix with my heroes – probably under-pressure manager Steve Harrison, who must have responded to the idea of a bit of positive PR. Being a nightclub-goer in the late 80s, I actually had a suit smart enough to allow me to mingle with our fresh-faced athletes. I played a bit and was yet to deteriorate into a middle-aged fatso. Hemel’s finest barbers had given me a trendy haircut.
Time clouds the memory but I remember boarding and being allocated a seat at the front just behind the manager, chief executive Eddie Plumley and the rather stern Tom Walley, who really must have wondered how a non-playing wally had infiltrated the world he was part of.
It wasn’t until we arrived at a hotel outside Ipswich that I was introduced as a fan who writes for a fanzine. Willie Falconer was unimpressed.
“Aren’t you the ones giving us stick?”
“No, not me!”
He obviously hadn’t read my biased, illogically positive words about the 17th-placed Hornets who were lucky to get five-figure crowds as the post GT slump started to grip the club.
I remember I had scrambled eggs and toast – my heroes in those days didn’t have dieticians and sports scientists to maximize their potential. I got to chat to Eddie Plumley. In a rare moment of journalistic probing, I asked him why we had sold Rick Holden, who was a jinky winger who had gone to an Oldham side that got to the League Cup Final and an FA Cup semi with Ricky starring for them. Reluctant manager Harrison had fallouts with players, and went from being a relaxed joker as coach to a tetchy manager.
We then travelled to Portman Road where I was ushered out of the dressing room before the team talk. Whatever was said, it couldn’t have been very inspiring... This was a Watford side in freefall, and 5,078 fans saw us lose 4-1. Even in my naive youth I realised it was going to be a crap journey home. During the day I had noticed that the players didn’t seem to have much love for Harrison, and the whole vibe was one of crisis. Gary Penrice, a £500,000 buy from Bristol Rovers, had scored, and he must go down as one of our most remarkable players given how he was scoring in a team that created very little for him. I had forgotten that he was in the side that night. I met him a few years ago and he is a lovely chap.
The players retired to the bar after the game, and being a keen drinker I was pleased that we could have a few pints. Tony Coton left the bar with some cans for the journey back, and it shows how times have changed that professional athletes were consuming alcohol so soon after a game in front of their manager. I remember Jason Drysdale looked particularly fed up with being given the run around by Louie Donowa. It really wasn’t a great night to mix with the players. John Wark had a look into the bar, gave a disapproving look at our beaten but drinking team, and went home for an early night.
The journey home saw Harrison sitting in silence at the front, stuck in his thoughts. I told him not to worry, we would beat Wolves at home – and we did, 3-1. Harrison would last until the spring when results slumped again.
I got to join David Holdsworth, Tony Coton, Jason Soloman and Barry Ashby in a game of cards. Holdsworth still owes me a few quid! In a moment of great shame I had to get the coach to stop so I could get rid of some of the beer. That got me a bit of stick, but I felt the players had treated me well.
I am not planning to ask Scott Duxbury if I can repeat the experience in the modern age, the contrasts between then and now are big. I got a lift back to Hemel in Paul Wilkinson’s modest car – these players, although well paid by the decade’s standards, were earning considerably less than their counterparts today. The big hitters were sold off that summer, Elton’s last spending spree on Falconer and Wilko to back Harrison gave way to Petchey’s parsimony. This was a team with no foreign players, the tactics rarely changed, week by week, season by season, and you didn’t get the intensity of criticism we see from fans online and on the Watford Observer’s angry fan-comment section.
The team that night was: Coton, Gibbs, Drysdale, Falconer, Soloman, Roeder, Pullen (Thomas), Wilkinson (Ashby), Penrice, Porter, Henry.