Watford, never a dull away trip
WE will head off in great numbers to Watford’s Vicarage Road on Saturday and hopefully, the travelling Throstletariat will once again just demonstrate how critical it is to send a big support to away games as a method of galvanising your team into action – remember Crystal Palace last term as we hovered on the brink?
Watford’s is a stadium much changed in recent times as it’s been widely redeveloped, but it is also a footballing crucible that has oft played a big part in the Albion’s fortunes, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health.
We went there for game three of the season in 1985/86. Our start hadn’t been great, drawing on the opening day at home to newly promoted Oxford United, but a 2-0 defeat at defending champions Everton was hardly disastrous. It was not until we arrived in Hertfordshire that we understood the full scale of the cataclysm that was about to unfold.
On the second Saturday of the season – beware omen lovers – we were ripped apart, losing 5-1. We did not get a win on the board until game 13 in late October and that against Birmingham City who were almost as hopeless as we were that season. Needless to say, we both got relegated and began the long nuclear winter that endured into the 21st century.
A 2-0 win at the Vic in January 1999 offered a false dawn under Denis Smith as we briefly dreamt of a surge to the play-offs, but it was Watford who went up through that route as our challenge quickly petered out.
Gary Megson took us to Watford in December 2000 and an enthralling 3-3 draw was played out, but this was to be a turning point game. It represented the last straw for Megson’s dalliance with an open approach to away games.
Within the month, we’d gone to Bolton and ground out the most functional of 1-0 victories and a corner had been turned. “1-0 to the Albion” was to be a regular feature of the next 18 months, but it had its roots in the chaos of that six goal thriller – or chiller as far as Gary was concerned – at Watford.
The following season, having missed out in the play-offs, the Throstles were back at Vicarage Road in September in what became a seminal game in that promotion season. Overcoming the stuttering start to the season that was seemingly always our lot under Megson, Albion were gradually piecing together a side ready to challenge for promotion again.
Early season hero Scott Dobie putting Albion 2-0 up, including scoring from a penalty rebound as we embarked on a season of missing from 12 yards. Gayle halved the arrears on the hour and almost immediately, Tony Butler was red carded, heralding the arrival of the man lauded as the final piece in Gary’s jigsaw.
It must have been a 10,000 piece affair because the missing bit was the giant Darren Moore who came on to make his debut after his move from Portsmouth.
Albion hung on stoically with what was to become the uncompromising firm of Moore, Larus Sigurdsson and Phil Gilchrist at the back until, in the dying seconds, Russell Hoult conceded a penalty then got up to save it. A 2-1 win and Albion were on their way.
We’d yo-yoed a couple of times by November 2007 when we went to Watford to take on the team that was flying highest at the time while Tony Mowbray’s newly assembled team was gradually coming together. This was the day they really came of age as we dismantled the Hornets 3-0 with goals from Ishmael Miller, Kevin Phillips and Martin Albrechtsen, while the game heralded the debut of a man who would be as crucial to that promotion bid as Darren Moore had been to the 2001/02 campaign, the prolific Roman Bednar coming on as a late sub.
Our last visit came in April 2010 as we were hunting down another promotion. Watford went down to ten men in the 79th minute with the dismissal of Harley, yet took the lead six minutes later through Danny Graham. Our push for automatic promotion looked to be taking a hit until, at the death, up popped Chris Brunt to win a point and set up the clinching game a week later at Doncaster.
Albion in Watford. It’s a soap opera that looks ready for another cliffhanger on Saturday. Cue the drums…