Friday, January 24, 2014

JACK RUSSELLS FOR GOALPOSTS

Goals that were and goals that weren't
It could reasonably be said that both Watford and Manchester City have come quite a long way. Not just in terms of history, for, wait for it, all clubs have a bit of that, but in terms of actual "where were you before?".  

Watford in the late seventies and early eighties were a club on the up and up. This was a time when Great Britain was gripped by the iron fist of Margaret Thatcher and the football played on our sceptered isle dwindled to the entertainment value of a gecko’s elbow. 

Some of us, more foolhardy than intelligent, continued to go, week in week out, home and away, building up memories of things, the worst of which should perhaps go unmentioned in delicate environs like this and at best, will be handed down as a badge of honour to any sons, daughters, nephews and nieces foolhardy enough to show willing in this “new age” of look-in-the-mirror vanity projects. Spiegel Spiegel on the wall...

The FA Cup in the mid eighties was still a thing of thunderous and mythical beauty, an old dented pot that shined and glimmered and seemed to be so far away from reality as to be ephemeral and dreamlike. Most of those dreams brought wet beds and chewed pillows, but still, you take what you're given.

City’s reveries had long since turned to nightmares in those days of thud and blunder. There was Shrewsbury Town (just after Rotherham, which is where we start again this season), with their quaint little stadium called Gay Meadow, backed by a vigorously flowing river, where, if Paul Futcher happened to be playing, a man in a coracle, employed to fish errant clearances out of the reed beds, would be paid overtime. Apparently the wizened old chap,  already a wheezing octogenarian at the time, was tasked with the job every weekend, paddling emphatically from left to right and back again, retrieving miss-kicks, slices and wayward corners.

When City visited in the 4th round of the Cup in 1979, David Coleman was beside himself, as was the small man in his rowing boat.

Then there was Halifax Town, with their stadium called The Shay, which resembled an allotment after a steady three month downpour of icy rain. Officionados should reach for the YouTube button and type in “Halifax Shay Manchester City 1980” and sit back and take in the full glory of what that jumbled conglomeration of words actually means. It is ok for us to mention these places, these teams, these long lost games, but to be there, to feel the icy wind of despair, to hear the locals braying, to witness the mudbath deadzone in real time, well let’s just say it tends to age you a little.




City, irrevocably scarred from these terrible places, drew Watford in the 3rd round of the FA Cup in 1986. It seems incongruous to relate now, but at tis time, the home side were as stable as freshly whipped meringue, whilst the visitors from Hertfordshire, backed by the untold millions of popstar chairman Elton John, were brutally effective in their Graham Taylor-inspired route-one football. 

Taylor, later to take charge of England in one of thenational team’s many forgettable periods, was a straightforward fellow, who believed in getting the ball forward as swiftly as possible into that fabled point of greatest danger. This meant that his Watford side quickly built a reputation as a no-nonsense, up-and-under football team that the so-called purists hated to play against. 

Far from espousing anything vaguely purist, City went into the game with hopes high that something positive might transpire through honest running, simple passing and a good deal of lung-busting covering for each other.




What followed was a series of three bitterly contested cup ties, where two reasonably well-matched teams fought tooth and nail for supremacy. In the opening game, watched by 32,000 at Maine Road, City took the lead through the unlikely pairing of Mark Lillis and Gordon Davies, possibly the club's clumsiest ever front pairing but, comically, one that I remember with the greatest pleasure. 

Lillis stumbled down the right wing, swung in a cross that invited Davies to meet it with a glancing header, which sailed past future City keeper Tony Coton for the opening goal. Watford were to level later when referee Heath, tiring of seeing the ball heading in one direction, offered the visitors a penalty after Mick McCarthy looked at Kenny Jacket in a funny way. 
 

City too were to be awarded a penalty, but Lillis - perhaps with his shorts pulled up slightly too far, missed it. 

One-one it ended, meaning a replay at Vicarage Road. We travelled more in hope than expectation, as always in those testing times, but were surprised to be rewarded with a steadfast defensive display (an element missing from the majority of City performances in this decade) that kept the usually prolific home side at bay. The frost had given way to slush and mud in Hertfordshire, making the difference between City's sky blue and Watford's  garish red, black and yellow minimal. 

Nil-nil and what in those days was called "a second replay" beckoned. This was a complicated affair that needed the backing of travel weary supporters, fit and able police forces and willing administrators. Once these traditions were extinguished, football people could simply ask if it would make them any money or not.

But, in the days when these strange things still existed, it would be back to Maine Road for a third game. Television schedules and our busy lives do not allow for such niceties today, but rest assured these events were often high on tension and excitement. It was a dark and snow-swept scene that met fans arriving at the ground that night and long queues to get into the Kippax terraces meant that many, including this correspondent, did not see any of the match before the 20th minute. Thanks to the wonders of the dark days of the 80s, when a fully functioning bus was a minor miracle, they are moments that I will never be able to see again. Never mind, the scene outside the Kippax, dark, cold and reeking of horse manure, would do quite nicely.  

As was often the case in those fabled times, the hope built up over two rugged and evenly contested games that this could be the “year we went to Wembley” soon dissipated as Watford scored three and City replied with just one. My lasting memory of this deflating experience was the sight of a small Jack Russell terrier scampering onto the snow-clad playing surface and giving Mark Lillis the runaround.. 

City were out of the cup for another year and there was a hairy quadruped making fun of our main striker. All we had waiting for us outside was a blizzard, a long wait for the bus and a turgid fight against relegation.


Mark Lillis seems unprepared for the late tackle that is about to be carried out

How times have changed. 






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