In the penultimate Tales From The Vicarage serialisation, from the new book Rocket Men, Mike Walters looks back on the club’s sole European season with legendary goalkeeper Steve Sherwood.

The May day in 1983 when Watford qualified for Europe was, statistically at least, the high-water mark in the club’s history.

The season came to a sunny conclusion with a 2-1 win at Vicarage Road over runaway champions Liverpool.

Steve Sherwood remembered it vividly: “Bruce Grobbelaar came into our dressing room and said, ‘Well done – for you to finish second is a better achievement than us winning the title,’ and I think he meant it.

“He said they didn’t lay down and let us beat them because it was Bob Paisley’s last game as manager. That was big of him to be so complimentary.”

First stop on the Hornets’ European tour was Kaiserslautern. The perceived wisdom was that Watford would need to return from Germany with only a minimal deficit to overturn in the second leg at Vicarage Road. 

They went down 3-1, but the margin of defeat was slightly harsh and Jimmy Gilligan’s away goal was a useful bargaining chip as well as a unique footnote in the club’s history. But the result was not all it may have seemed.

“Before the game, the plan was to get there early, have a meal and grab a couple of hours’ sleep in the hotel,” said Sherwood.

“But when we got to the hotel, there were loads of German fans hanging around outside, blowing whistles and ringing bells constantly.”

An injury crisis had not abated by the time Kaiserslautern arrived for the return.

But manager Graham Taylor had sensed an air of complacency about the Germans, who evidently believed the tie was already won. 

Taylor sneaked in to watch Kaiserslautern go through their paces the night before the second leg – a covert operation to gauge the opposition’s mood. 

He was struck by the ‘frivolous’ nature of their drills and hotch-potch dress code of jeans, trainers and casual clothing.

“They didn’t know what hit them,” says Sherwood. “The atmosphere in the ground that night was fantastic – I remember running on the pitch through a cordon of flags and one of the flags wrapped right round me. 

“The boss wanted to create a more ‘continental’ environment, to set the game apart from normal home fixtures, and his wish was granted.”

Within ten minutes, Kaiserslautern’s lead had been wiped out. Ian Richardson, on his debut, gave Watford the perfect start and then Charlie Palmer’s cross bounced over the line after a ricochet off Werner Melzer.

Richardson, stretching to meet Richard Jobson’s cross, somehow managed to funnel an improvised finish to put the Hornets ahead after the break, leaving Watford more than half-an-hour to negotiate – which they did.

When Levski Spartak of Sofia held Watford to a 1-1 draw at Vicarage Road in the first leg of round two, it looked as if the Hornets’ European tour would be short-lived.

But when Watford ventured behind the Iron Curtain for the return, they produced arguably the greatest single result in the club’s history.

Nigel Callaghan scored before delivering an inch-perfect corner in extra-time for Steve Sims to apply a telling flick and Wilf Rostron soared to head the Hornets in front.

Richardson snatched another to make it 3-1 on the night.

“Cally was certainly the best crosser of a ball I’ve ever seen,” said Sherwood.

“Sofia was one of Cally’s best games for Watford. He was superb that night – in fact, the whole team was fantastic. They really came out of the blocks at us, and the noise from the crowd was incredible.”

A naive performance at home against Sparta Prague in the third round – when Watford went to Czechoslovakia 3-2 down from the first leg – proved too great a handicap. 

On a rutted, frozen pitch, the Hornets were caned 4-0 in the second leg and their only European campaign to date met a frozen end.

“We were well beaten, but the conditions were so farcical it didn’t take any of the gloss off what we had achieved in the earlier rounds,” claimed Sherwood.

“When we trained on the pitch the night before the game, it was firming up but it was playable – but on the day there was about three inches of snow.”