If Brian Talbot was not quite the success Graham Taylor anticipated, Neil Smilie with four goals in 19 appearances was certainly a disappointment. He too joined the Hornets along with Talbot in 1985 but never really looked like making an impact although he provided cover for the seemingly irreplaceable Nigel Callaghan and John Barnes.
Graham was working on the evolution of the team and he was looking to some of the youth-team products to fill some of the gaps. Jimmy Gilligan proved useful but not a striker worthy of leading a top-flight attack and, while Iwan Roberts was coming into the picture, although he led the line well, his return of 12 goals in around 80 appearances was not the stuff of striker dreams.
One young striker who impressed me was Malcolm Allen. While not the tallest of players, his lack of height was not the decisive shortcoming. No matter how hard he tried with exercises and sprint training, he was unable to generate real pace. Had he the pace of someone like Luther Blissett, he would have made a far bigger impact, for he was strong, good in the air and was really effective around goal.
Youth-team product Paul Franklin was in the side that overcame Levski Spartak in Sofia in the UEFA Cup second round second leg at a time Watford were badly hit by injuries. Franklin, then 20, went on to make some 43 appearances for the Hornets. He had been an ever-present in the FA Youth Cup campaign of 1981-82 when Watford lifted the cup for the first time in their history. But he too faded after a promising start and was finally released on a free transfer.
By the 1985-86 campaign, Nigel Gibbs had broken through and become a regular. He did so because of attitude and ability and became sufficiently football street-wise to not let his lack of height prove a disadvantage.
“That has been my one misgiving about Nigel,” Graham told me at the time. “He lacks height and of course the opposition knows that but, despite them playing crosses to the far post, Nigel does not seem to get out-jumped. He has learnt to overcome that.”
Another player breaking through from the youth ranks was Gary Porter, who seemed to spend much of his Watford career on the brink of joining his home-town club Sunderland. I lost count of how many times he was linked with the Roker Park outfit but he finished his entire career with Watford, joining the top-five, all-time appearance makers.
A cultured midfielder, who despite his lack of height was also effective as a full-back, he made 472 outings for the Hornets, passing perhaps the more illustrious names of Duncan Welbourne and Tommy Barnett in the all-time charts.
If you think I am being unfair calling the other two more illustrious, one just has to look at their impact and achievements at the club. Barnett topped the club’s all-time appearance and goals charts for some 50 years and was delighted to be there when Luther overhauled him. He still lies second behind Luther in both categories but his record was unfortunately not deemed sufficient by the modernists who designed the 1881 flag.
Barnett’s claim is undeniable but then Gary, who was also in the top 20 of all-time goalscorers, could argue that I should have included him in the Golden Boys book of Watford cult heroes. I could see the logic of such a claim but, claiming to feel the pulse of the terraces, I included Gibbs instead. Ultimately there is something about their playing image for both products of the Watford youth scheme made equally great contributions to the Hornets’ cause.
It is odd when looking back over that first Graham Taylor era, I note there seemed to be a loss of momentum, which I mentioned in an article dealing with the launch of the Rocket Men book. We had begun to expect new achievements and there was a feeling we were becalmed in Division One just as we had been for a couple of years in Division Two.
During the 1984-85 season we looked likely to reach the League Cup semi-finals but fell 1-0 unexpectedly at the hands of otherwise struggling Sunderland. After that display, Graham decided to transfer George Reilly out of the club. He had had enough particularly as he was annoyed by the unnecessary defeat because: “You don’t lose cup ties at home.”
There was a three-tie saga with Luton Town in the FA Cup, which ended with Luton winning the second replay back at Kenilworth Road. I remember John Barnes had missed the first two ties through injury but came back for the third.
David Pleat, the Luton manager, noted that his dressing room was clearly thrown upon discovering Barnes was in the Watford line-up as they sat waiting to go out for the game. However, I think most discerning Watford fans knew the Luton players had no need to worry. Barnes was always tentative after coming back from injury and if he took and passed a late fitness test, it invariably counted for nothing. It would be better had he failed and come back in with a full week of training behind him the following week.
That season, Watford finished 11th in a season dominated by first place Everton and runners-up Liverpool, while just to rub salt into the disappointment of Watford’s League Cup defeat, Sunderland finished relegated.
Yet the season had a kick in its tail. Golfers will have experienced that moment when in an otherwise indifferent round, you hit the most glorious shot of the afternoon, as if momentarily you have turned professional.
They refer to it as the shot that changes your mind about packing it all in or the one that brings you back for another round. The tail end of the 1984-85 season had just that.