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 evolution. 

Mention Watford to anyone of my generation and they will regale you with various stories from the late seventies and early eighties. 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 the “new age” of corporate plastic.

The FA Cup in the mid eighties was still a thing of thunderous and quasi-mythical beauty, a cup that shined and glimmered and seemed, to most City supporters, to be so far away as to be ephemeral and dreamlike. City’s reveries had long since turned to nightmares in those days of thud and blunder. There was Shrewsbury Town, 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 this fellow, already a wheezing octogenarian at the time, was tasked with this 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, David Coleman was beside himself.

There was Halifax Town, with their stadium called The Shay, which resembled an allotment after a steady three week 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, scarred from these terrible places and awful occurrences, drew Watford in the 3rd round of the FA Cup in 1985-1986. It seems strange to relate now, but at the time, the home side were unstable and as fragile as freshly whipped meringue, whilst the visitors from Hertfordshire, backed by the untold millions of popstar chairman Elton John, were brutal and ultra effective in their Graham Taylor inspired route-one football. Taylor, later to take charge of England in one of the national team’s many forgettable periods, was a straightforward gent, who believed in getting the ball as swiftly as possible to the point of greatest danger. This meant that his Watford side quickly built a reputation for itself as a no-nonsense, up and under football team that the so-called purists hated to play against. Far from being anything approaching purist, City went into the game with hopes high that something positive might transpire.


What followed was a series of three bitterly contested cup ties, where the two 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, City’s slowest ever front pairing but, comically, one that I remember with the greatest pleasure. Lillis cantered down the right wing, swung in a cross that invited the lumbering 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. (In those days, penalties could be given for the most obtuse of reasons).

 

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 forst had given way to slush and mud in Hertfordshire, making the difference between City's sky blue and Watford's traditionally 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 the third game. A second replay. Televison 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 snowswept 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. 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 disapated as Watford scored three and City managed 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 avoiding the desperate arms of Mark Lillis. 

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

Mark Lillis seems unprepared for the late tackle that is about to be carried out
How times have changed.

This article first appeared on the pages of ESPNFC.

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