Monday, 25 October 2021

1980/81 League Cup: Watford v Southampton

Watford face Southampton this weekend in the Premier League. The meeting will have to be something special to match the drama of the 1980/81 League Cup second round between the two clubs.

We often hear how a two-goal advantage is a dangerous lead in football. Atalanta and Spartak Moscow may agree with this particular theory, their recent reversals against English opposition in Europe adding credence to this. So what leads are safe?

As an Arsenal fan I have sadly seen that a four-goal lead can be no guarantee of victory. The 4-4 draw against Newcastle in 2011 was an embarrassing episode, something that should be brushed under the carpet, never to be mentioned again. 

Arsenal's capitulation was a remarkable achievement. Admittedly they had been reduced to ten men, yet with 22 minutes remaining, their four-goal lead was still intact. History has shown us that this example is the exception rather than the norm, but in September 1980 there was another club putting their supporters through this painful experience.

In fairness to Southampton, the four-goal lead that they squandered was in a two-legged affair against Watford in the League Cup second round, although this was possibly of little consolation to manager Lawrie McMenemy, his players, and the fans on the evening of Tuesday September 2. Losing to a Second Division club was bad enough; the circumstances surrounding the cup exit were devastating.

There seemed little danger of a cup shock after the first leg of the tie. Southampton were enjoying a fine start to the season, the signing of Kevin Keegan from Hamburg adding to the experience and quality already in the squad, such as Chris Nicholl, Dave Watson, Steve Williams, and Mick Channon. 

Even without the 1979/80 Division One top scorer Phil Boyer, the team would only drop one point in their opening four league matches, with Charlie George proving an able deputy. The good league form continued in the League Cup, with Graham Taylor's Watford put to the sword in the first leg at the Dell. 

Two goals from George and a brace from Nick Holmes - his second from inside his own half after a clearance from Watford keeper Eric Steele - gave Southampton a 4-0 win that appeared to make the second leg a formality. Taylor labelled the display "woeful" and "inept", as the club counted the cost of the heavy defeat.

Originally the second leg at Vicarage Road was declared an all-ticket match, with a crowd limit of 30,000 set. However, the result on the south coast understandably led to slow sales, resulting in Watford selling tickets on the evening of the match. Keegan being ruled out with a hamstring strain did little to boost the attendance.

Even without Keegan, there seemed little chance that Watford could cause a scare. Yet as the first half developed, hope ever so slowly entered the equation. A 10th minute goal from Malcolm Poskett got the ball rolling, and when Poskett and Wilf Rostron combined to set up Ray Train for the second goal ten minutes before the break, the comeback was on.

Taylor would later describe the display as "simple, old-fashioned football". McMenemy bemoaned the fact that once momentum built behind the home team, there was simply no way back. "Once Watford had banged in two goals it was like a tidal wave. It was like being at the foot of Niagara trying to climb up."

Most in the 15,992 crowd looked on in joy and growing excitement when Martin Patching smashed home a loose ball in the 57th minute, after Ross Jenkins had failed to convert a Luther Blissett cross. But then a pin burst the bubble with 16 minutes remaining, as Graham Baker fired a 20-yard effort towards goal that was turned into his own net by Steve Sims.

Surely the Saints had weathered the storm and Watford's brave effort would fall short? Losing 5-3 on aggregate, the home team needed a quick response and they were handed a lifeline just a minute after Southampton's goal, with Ian Bolton driving home a penalty after Nicholl had fouled Jenkins.

With just five minutes remaining, Jenkins would feature again, firing home from close range, to send the home fans into ecstasy and the match into extra-time. "I told the players before extra-time that I needed another goal at least, otherwise Southampton would go through," Taylor revealed. He got his wish.

Five minutes into extra-time, 17-year-old substitute Nigel Callaghan scored with his first touch, and after Williams missed an opportunity to level the tie, Poskett completed the scoring, skipping past the stunned Yugoslav keeper Ivan Katalinic and slotting home. Watford 7 (SEVEN) Southampton 1: 7-5 on aggregate.

Through it all, Watford chairman Elton John was hanging on the telephone, listening to the match via the USA hospital broadcasting system from his LA home. "I couldn't afford to talk to Elton - he always reverses the charges," Taylor joked, as he celebrated the remarkable turnaround. "Everything happened - it was a tremendous game of football. I had trouble keeping the score."

For McMenemy the evening was a personal nightmare. "We are bitterly disappointed, humiliated if you like, and I blame myself partly. I was aware of the dangers of being four goals up from the first leg. I've had experience of cup football as a manager in all four divisions. I've been involved in the qualifying stages of the FA Cup and been to Wembley. Obviously, I have failed to convey to my players enough of the knowledge I have accumulated on the cup front."

The manager did get a reaction out of his players, winning their next match 3-1 against Brighton. But perhaps there was a delayed hangover from the Watford defeat; losing eight of their next 13 league matches, the club dropped down the table. Fortunately, from the end of November onwards the form returned, allowing McMenemy's men to claim a UEFA Cup spot at the end of the campaign.

Watford continued their adventure. A 2-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday was then followed up by another big scalp, with Nottingham Forest hammered 4-1 at Vicarage Road. The run would end in the quarter final, as Coventry won a replay 5-0 at Highfield Road. Nevertheless, the League Cup wins provided excitement and encouragement for the future.

"I hope this rekindles the enthusiasm," Taylor said after the Southampton win. "It was football without frills, with the emphasis on attack. And that is the way the game should be played." These comments clearly reveal the Taylor blueprint at Watford.

The next three seasons would see the club promoted, finish runners-up in Division One, play in Europe, and reach an FA Cup final. Often Taylor's style of football was criticised. But you could not argue with the results. Just ask anyone associated with Southampton after that chilling September night in Hertfordshire.

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