I really can’t cope with the tension of the Championship promotion battle any more, and the idea of having to wait nearly a fortnight for the next instalment of the story is agonising. So let’s go back in time to an altogether simpler age. An age when Watford sometimes got easy FA Cup draws – that’s how long ago it was.
It’s December 1996, and Watford’s reward for struggling past Northampton Town in the 1st Round of the FA Cup is a home tie against Ashford Town of the Dr Marten’s Premier League. Who of the what? You may well ask. Ashford went bust in 2010, though the town now has a new club (Ashford United) which plays in what is basically the Kent county league. As for the shoemakers, they were sponsoring the Southern League at the time. All in all, a fairly straightforward tie for Kenny Jackett’s team, then sitting 8th in Division Two (that’s League One in old money).
A cursory glance at the back page of the programme reinforces the impression. That day the Hornets had Miller in goal; Gibbs and Robinson at full-back; a classic central defence pairing of Millen and Page; Bazeley and Slater on the wings; and Mooney, Noel-Williams and Penrice forming what was presumably an attacking trio, with only Palmer left to hold down the centre of midfield. That’s pretty much a classic mid- to late 90s line-up, and not that different from the one GT would take all the way to the Premier League a couple of seasons later.
Appearances can be deceptive, though. It turns out this was only Robbo’s 6th first-team game and Gifton’s 11th, while Slater had only made his Watford debut the previous week. Still, there should have been enough skill and experience to see off Ashford. Yet at half-time it was 0-0 and the atmosphere was starting to get a bit twitchy.
Enter a new hero (or so it seemed at the time). Say what you like about David Connolly (and plenty have), he’s scored goals wherever he’s played: brought on for Mooney, he scored a second-half hat-trick. Two goals for Bazeley against the tiring non-leaguers made for a slightly flattering 5-0 scoreline.
The programme is in the same garish, PC-inspired style as the one from 1997 I looked at a while ago. On the cover is Gary Porter, currently sidelined with a broken leg, while Steve Palmer gets the centre spread interview, in which he talks positively about having to play in defence, despite being a midfielder by trade. How little he knew of what lay ahead.
Also in the future lay the extensive career of Ade Akinbiyi, highlighted for scoring the winner for Norwich against Watford’s reserves in a recent game. Altogether less extensive would be the career of Richard Flash, a player so elusive that many Watford fans still refuse to believe he actually existed. Yet he’s listed here in the reserve team line-ups, so at least a few must actually have got to see him play.
As for Watford’s FA Cup run, it was ended in the 4th Round by Manchester City. Some things never change.