ANOTHER defeat but a memorable one and, if not exactly enjoyable, it was something akin to the recent game against Fulham. The result was a little over the top, but the game was one to savour.

It was odd that Watford had problems beating Villa at Villa Park during that time, whereas Arsenal and Tottenham fell on their home grounds.

It was ironic coming back from that game and saying "Now we will be able to concentrate on the League" because in the past that meant looking to promotion or avoiding relegation.

That year it meant trying to win the League championship.

From The Watford Observer, Friday, February 25, 1983

So memorable even in defeat

WATFORD: Sherwood, Rice, Sims, Bolton, Rostron, Taylor, Jackett, Callaghan, Blissett, Barnes, Lohman. Substitute: Armstrong for Lohman after 65 minutes.

ASTON VILLA: Spink, Williams, Gibson, Evans, McNaught, Mortimer, Blair, Shaw, Walters, Cowans, Morley. Substitute: Bremner did not play.

A DECADE or so ago, a match such as Saturday's epic at Aston Villa would have been sufficient to brighten a season for a Watford follower and be remembered for years afterwards. Hopefully local fans are not too satiated by the effusion of memorable encounters in recent years, to accord this thriller its rightful place in the list of all time greats.

Unhappily Watford lost, which may indeed hasten the dimming of memories, but this game at Villa Park was worth travelling twice as far and paying twice as much to see. As someone put it as they sat just behind the Press box with the match scarcely 20 minutes old: "Seeing these two teams play, brings it home to you just how many boring sides there are in the First Division."

Central Television, thrilled by the action, scrubbed coverage of all other matches and took the unprecedented step of filling their entire programme with highlights from this game - a sufficient tribute to both the quality of play and the degree of entertainment. The video should be sent to the doubters of Fleet Street and made compulsory viewing.

The rest of the national Press and notably the Midland-based men who have yet to see Watford triumph in Division One football north of Harpenden, gave the Hornets fair due for their part in a pulsating afternoon.

Yet in the end, we were left to wrestle with ambiguity of accepting that the division's second highest goalscorers have a penchant for missing too many chances and in particular, the division's second highest goalscorer, Luther Blissett, cannot be relied upon to put away too high a percentage of the opportunities that come his way.

It is akin to taking a Paul Getty to task for squandering money.

That Watford and Blissett have earned a reputation for wasting chances makes one ponder as to what they would have achieved had they been clinical finishers.

The Hornets travelled to Villa Park hoping to prove that they had learnt a lesson from their, previous experiences at the hands of the European champions and, to a degree, they had. But they left knowing that, as the good book says, there is a time for everything.

One of the oldest lessons in the world is to make hay while the sun shines and when Watford had the upper hand and carved the openings, they failed to make the most of it. When Villa's time came, they created one clear-cut chance and made the most of it to alter the entire pattern of the game.

You need luck to progress in the Cup and Villa had this a little later when Tony Morley had a shot deflected past Steve Sherwood.

Villa, with their style and the ability of the individuals are not a side to hand a two-goal start and then attempt to pull back the deficit through all-out attack.

Their speed and skill on the break meant that Watford were always vulnerable and this was magnified by the visitors' one major failing <ETH> not so much the finishing but the quality of the final ball. One can talk about the missed chances on Saturday, but they were not as clear-cut as Gary Shaw's 33rd minute header or Gibson's header in the 57th minute, both almost impossible to miss.

Much has been made of Watford's misses but Blissett, when he hit the bar, had to turn on to a bouncing ball and when Lohman and Jackett missed out on a crucial chance, which was not shown on television, again the initial ball was played a few feet behind them.

Indeed Lohman's cross straight into the arms of Spink, left Watford's midfield stranded in the 57th minute and the side was caught by the break from which Gibson finally scored. Had Lohman hit his cross to a Watford player, the break may never have been mounted.

Blissett also hit the post, a feat he did well to accomplish, from a difficult angle and his final shot was in fact deflected on to the woodwork. And when Spink looked nervous early in the exchanges, dropping and missing out on a few crosses, the ball did not fall kindly for the Hornets. Compare this to the fortuitous deflection Morley's shot received from Villa's second goal.

In short if your name is not meant to be on the trophy there is no way you are going to alter it. Graham Taylor, sitting and watching the first half, saw Villa take the lead at roughly the same time they scored in the League meeting. It seemed to him as if the schedule was being repeated.

Before the match, I and I suspect a few thousand among the Watford contingent, were convinced that the Hornets were going to force at best a replay and that conviction remained unsullied until around the 57th minute when Villa scored their third.

The only consolation for Watford is that they played a great part in a magnificent, vibrant match and never before can I recall Watford supporters making quite so much noise as they did during that first half-hour.

Steve Sherwood, wrong-footed by the deflection, could not be blamed for Villa's goals but defensively Watford were disappointing. Morley was allowed a lot of room and Rice's main objective seemed to be in restricting the Villa man from shooting even at the expense of having room in which to put in a cross.

With Sims covering Rice and Taylor picking up Walters, Bolton was guilty of ball-watching for the first goal while Morley, before shooting for the second, had a lot of space and numerous options.

The third again caught Watford on the break with Callaghan letting Gibson escape and Cowans being afforded a lot of space from which to send over his cross.

The fourth was a result of a magnificent free kick and superb athleticism on the part of Cowans who then went on to score the sort of goal which goes in when you are three to the good. Les Taylor had spotted the threat but could do little to thwart perfection.

The final goal of the afternoon came from the penalty spot and despite Graham Taylor's claim that it was a consolation gift from the referee there can be no doubt that Evans brought down Callaghan without playing the ball.

I intended to agree with Taylor's view at the time, but with the benefit of a few video playbacks, one had to agree conclusively with the decision in an excellent refereeing display. Mr Seel's was the best I have seen this season.

In midfield Watford were superb in the first half hour, but with Kenny Jackett plainly out of sorts, they fell away and Taylor provided the main thrust. Up front, John Barnes was brilliant, although for a man with such a deft and controlled first touch, there should have been some among his eight goal attempts to have extended Spink.

Blissett always had the beating of McNaught and Callaghan again highlighted some ferocious shooting ability which should be used more and to greater effect. Jan Lohman, filling in at number 11 was among the mainsprings of the first half hour of Watford superiority, but fell away after that.

Gerry Armstrong making his first appearance as substitute, came on the right, enabling Callaghan, to show up well on the left, a ploy which may have a longer term future.

One expected Armstrong to move to the centre, putting himself about in the heart of the Villa defence, but Taylor later explained that he did not feel that Armstrong is yet at a level of match fitness to contest with the best in tight situations - a view which was borne out by the display.

Although Watford put in the first real attacks, Villa hit the first shot. Morley sent in an effort which was deflected wide for a corner and from that Shaw drove a magnificent half volley which was missed out in the LWT coverage, but perhaps caught the ball too perfectly, for Sherwood caught well.

At the other end Blissett saw his shot deflected on to the post and from the subsequent corner Lohman climbed well to extract a fine save from Spink who tipped over. "They could have been two goals up at that stage" said Villa boss Tony Barton later.

Lohman was just beaten to a cross from Callaghan in the next attack and Blissett cleared the target form Barnes' cross before Shaw and Walters combined in an attack which was finally cleared by a good interception from Bolton.

A free kick from Barnes had Spink in difficulty but he dropped the ball the wrong side of Blissett and Lohman. Spink saved from Barnes and then an overhead kick from Taylor found Barnes breaking through in the box, the striker squared the ball a fraction behind Blissett who turned. The ball struck his hand, bounced down and was hit on the rise against the underside of the bar. TV cameras proved that the ball bounced back in play and Spink collected the rebound.

Against this sort of background, villa's goal seemed incongruous yet it contained the vital elements of pace and precision as Morley went to the bye-line and chipped into space for Shaw to head home.

Shaw almost added a second when in a breakaway he headed poorly from Walters' pass and Sherwood saved with ease. In the 38th minute Villa broke again via Morley, whose shot clipped Rice and looped into the net but just before the interval first Lohman then Jackett should have converted Blissett's low cross. That would have put the Hornets right back in the hunt.

Indeed at the interval many among the Press corps felt that the tie was far from over. Early in the second half, from a Callaghan inspired break, Barnes sent a shot straight at Spinks and another chance to get back into the game was lost.

It proved costly for after Jackett was booked for a foul on Blair, Lohman ended a break by punting the ball straight at Spink who promptly cleared to Morley. The former England winger's presence was sufficient to draw the defence to the right and when Shaw finally worked the ball out to the left, Cowans had space to go forward and chip neatly for Gibson to head the 57th minute killer goal.

But this tie was still not over. Watford poured forward and Blair was booked for a foul on Jackett before Taylor unleashed possibly the cleanest drive of his life. This too was omitted by LWT, but Taylor's rising shot seemed destined for the top corner, before Spink, who also looks destined for the top, reached up and plucked the ball down. A superb drive and save - moments of athleticism which caused even the referee to applaud.

Armstrong came on for Lohman; Callaghan shot a fine effort just over the angle and Blissett fired a Callaghan cross wide of the target. Blissett had two more attempts - one went clean through from a Callaghan pass, Blissett failed to control and rapped a hurried shot against Spink and Barnes, following up, slotted the ball wide.

Still there was more, Sherwood got in the way of a shot from Cowans, and Shaw headed over the bar, from a good position while for Watford, Callaghan sent in a fierce drive which Spink went full length to tip wide.

Five minutes from time, Blair sent a magnificent free kick through to Cowans who drew Sherwood as he chested the ball under control and then slipped an acute angled shot beyond Taylor's despairing lunge.

Still there was more with Callaghan finally winning a clear cut chance when upended by Evans and Blissett, perhaps only just, gained some consolation from the penalty spot.

"You had to be there to be able to explain it," said Graham Taylor. Indeed it was a privilege to be there and if Saturday's League clash between the two sides is half as good, then Vicarage Road punters will have superb value for money.

January 21, 2002 16:30