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Although seven different goalkeepers appeared for Watford during the 1970s, the position was dominated by one man. Andy Rankin was Watford’s player of the decade, writes Geoff Wicken.

To be a Watford supporter in the early and mid-1970s was, mostly, a dispiriting experience. The six seasons starting from 1971/72 saw almost continuous decline. There were two relegations, in 1971/72 and 1974/75, followed by two years of stasis in Division Four. Then everything changed. The turnaround inspired by Graham Taylor’s arrival brought the two consecutive promotions of 1977/78 and 1978/79. Those six years of gloom were followed by two of dramatic upturn, and by autumn 1979 Watford were back in Division Two, where they had been eight years earlier.

Andy Rankin was the one player who stayed at the club for the entire eight-year period, and so went through the same experience as the fans. It seems fair to describe him as Watford’s player of the decade, both for his abilities, which were first-rate, and for his loyalty and commitment. It’s rare for any player to dominate a position for eight years, let alone through two relegations and two promotions.

Rankin made 329 appearances in goal for Watford during the 1970s. Six other men wore the green shirt (and it was almost always green, except when we played Plymouth. Anything else was considered raffish). Between them they totalled 175 games. Andy was very much Watford’s number one number one. He kept goal through thick and thin (mostly thin), but saw Watford through to a happy ending to the decade. He could have played at a much higher level, but liked it here. That’s clear from the interview he gave to the Watford Legends site in 2013. He made a point of saying thank you to supporters and club staff alike for making his family’s time in Watford so enjoyable. This started from the day he and his wife moved down from Everton – there were delays on the M1, but his next-door neighbours had put the fire on and made up a plate of sandwiches.

Andy Rankin had extensive Evertonian family connections. His grandfather Billy Rankin had played 38 games for Everton between 1902 and 1905, scoring seven goals. His cousin George Rankin had played 39 games for the Toffees in the 1950s, and his uncle Billy Rankin had also been on Everton’s books. Andy signed as an amateur for Everton aged 17 in May 1944. He also joined the Liverpool City Police Cadets, leaving after five months when he signed professional forms for Everton. He made his first-team debut in November 1963. A year later he was picked for an England Under-23 international against Wales at Wrexham. His performance in a 3-2 win was apparently a nervous one, and there was no further international recognition.

In ten years at Everton, he made 106 appearances across several spells in the first team, but never truly established himself ahead of Gordon West. Eventually in November 1971, in search of regular first-team football, he dropped down a division to sign at Vicarage Road. The transfer fee was £11,000. It very soon became clear that Andy was a very fine goalkeeper. The rest of the 1971/72 season was horrible, but no blame attached to him, and he soon became a great Vicarage Road favourite. He won the inaugural Watford Observer award for Player of the Season in 1972/73, a season in which Watford narrowly avoided a second successive relegation, and again in 1974/75, when Watford did get relegated. It’s rarely a good sign when your goalkeeper is voted player of the season, but Andy stood head and shoulders above his team-mates.

In addition to being very reliable, and seldom making errors, he developed a reputation for pulling off exceptional saves. In particular he became known as a penalty specialist. He had saved one in his third game for Everton, against Rangers at Ibrox in the “unofficial” British championship, and was the hero of a shoot-out between Everton and Borussia Monchengladbach in the quarter-final of the 1970 European Cup. A personal recollection is of a stunning full-length save from the spot for Watford at Shrewsbury in 1972. Later on, a match programme caption in August 1978 shows “Andy Rankin leaving the Walsall pitch after having saved his third consecutive penalty”.

Being a Fourth Division player by 1975 was not what he would have expected when signing. Even so, while Watford underachieved in the bottom division in 1975/76 and 1976/77, Andy continued to put in the performances and was the regular first choice other than when injured. Graham Taylor admits in his autobiography to having doubts about some of the players he inherited in 1977, Rankin being one. This was perhaps due to Andy’s age – he was 33 when Graham arrived – or maybe his association with the years of decline. But he stayed, and the club’s reverse trajectory in Andy’s final couple of years must have been very satisfying for him. The two consecutive promotions ended with Watford back where they had been when he signed in 1971.

While initially Graham did prefer Steve Sherwood, partly on account of his longer kicking, by December 1977 Andy was back in the green jersey, and he didn’t miss another game until November 1978. At that point he suffered a bizarre injury, which kept him out of the side for some time. While bringing in the coal at his home (in those days our goalkeepers were made of sufficiently stern stuff to cope without gas-fired central heating), he slipped on the wet patio and broke his collarbone. Sherwood took over until March 1979 when, with Andy fit again, Taylor felt his greater experience would be important for the final third of the season. Sherwood came back in for the last four games of the run-in, when Andy was unable to take goal-kicks due to a problem with his knee. The final three games were won, and Watford were promoted as runners-up.

Following the two consecutive promotions, Watford started the 1979/80 Division Two season with the 1978/79 playing squad. But it was hard going, and the team found itself in the lower reaches of the table. By the autumn of 1979, Taylor felt the need to bring in players who had experience of higher leagues in several positions. The turnover of former favourites was rapid. By the time 1979 was out, Bobby Downes, Alan Garner, Trevor How, Roger Joslyn, Keith Mercer and Brian Pollard had all played their last first-team games. By now aged 35, the same was true of Andy Rankin. In October 1979, Taylor signed Eric Steele from Brighton, and the following month Andy was granted a free transfer in recognition of his service to the club. Watford paid up the remaining seven months of his contract. Rankin joined Huddersfield, where he played for two-and-a-half seasons, before retiring at the age of 38.

At Watford, Andy’s quality and consistency was a constant for most of the decade. He is fondly remembered to this day by supporters from that era for that, his personality, and for one golden moment above all.

On October 4, 1978, as a Third Division club, Watford went to Old Trafford to play Manchester United in the League Cup. Watford went a goal down but, thrillingly, two second-half headers from Luther Blissett brought a 2-1 lead. As the game drew on, United launched attack after attack. But the Golden Boys stood firm. Shots were blocked, tackles were made. Five minutes from time, it seemed that the resistance had been broken.

Gordon McQueen rose to head a corner towards the top corner. It was in all the way. As McQueen put it, “I placed that header perfectly. I knew it was a goal, then I saw a green thing appear with a hand on the end of it. It was one of the most incredible saves I have ever seen.” Graham Taylor went further: “They were all great, but a special word for Andy. Oh!...what a fantastic save that was...the best save I have ever seen...that must be the crowning moment of his career”. At that moment the game was won. It remains to this day Watford’s only ever victory at Old Trafford, and for supporters of the era one of the great Watford moments. The memory can turn eyes misty 40 years later.

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