The discovery of a superstar
Two years before this, shortly after winning promotion, Graham Taylor had seen his Watford team lose 2-0 at Stamford Bridge and decided he had to make some serious changes if they were to cope with the Second Division.
Since then, Watford’s progress had been steady, rather than spectacular. Having survived relegation during their first season in Division Two, they had hauled themselves up to mid-table with a strong finish to their second.
But Taylor’s view was they had to make a strong challenge for promotion in the 1981-82 season or momentum might be lost. It was another match at Chelsea that suggested to him that he had discovered the final piece of his jigsaw and that Watford were ready to push on.
Once in a while a young player comes along who everyone agrees has something special that sets them apart from the rest. After winning 3-1 at Chelsea, Taylor thought to himself: ‘We may have found a jewel here.’
The 17-year-old winger John Barnes had handled the racist abuse from the unenlightened on the terraces and the rough challenges from the Chelsea defenders with the sort of strength and maturity that belied his years.
Barnes had been quietly impressive ever since he first played for the junior and reserve teams but it wasn’t until he spent the summer training with the first team that he began to demonstrate the full range of his skills and ability.
Often, the club captain and right back, Pat Rice, would have to mark Barnes in training. It wasn’t an experience he particularly enjoyed. In fact, when Barnes gave him a particularly hard time one day, he feared his own career might be drawing to a close.
‘The thing about Barnes was he had this easy confidence,’ says Rice. ‘And the nightmare for defenders was that he rarely did the same thing twice in a match. He wasn’t a one-trick pony like a lot of wingers. He had pace, he could pass, he could make space for himself, he could beat you by going outside and by cutting inside.’
Bertie Mee, Watford’s assistant manager, gave Rice a lift home from training one day and asked him whether he thought Barnes would be ready to make his first team debut in the coming season. ‘He’s ready now,’ was Rice’s unequivocal reply.
Although Barnes was quiet during his brief appearance as a substitute against Oldham Athletic he got into the team against Chelsea because Luther Blissett was suspended following his dismissal at Newcastle on the opening day of the season.
Barnes was the star of the show at Stamford Bridge. Watford welcomed back Ross Jenkins, who had spent the summer playing in the United States to help him recover from injury.
Nigel Callaghan gave Watford the lead before half-time only for Clive Walker to equalise shortly afterwards. In the second half, the two teenage wingers, Barnes on the left, Callaghan on the right, began to stretch Chelsea. With Jenkins winning everything in the air, Watford bombarded them.
Wilf Rostron, who was to be converted into an attacking left-back in the home match against Chelsea later in the season, scored the second after bursting forward from midfield.
Gerry Armstrong got the third to seal a comfortable win that meant the Hornets would be marked down as early contenders for promotion.
But it was the discovery of Barnes that excited Taylor. ‘It gave the whole team an extra dimension,’ he says. ‘We had a balance to our attack and he was a very different style of winger to Nigel on the other side. Suddenly we had two very potent attacking options, which was very hard for teams to cope with. When you look for key moments, finding John Barnes was one of them.’
Watford Sherwood, Rice, Jackett, Taylor, Sims, Bolton, Callaghan, Armstrong, Jenkins, Rostron, Barnes
Manager Graham Taylor
Scorers Callaghan 39, Rostron 62, Armstrong 81
Chelsea scorer Walker 42
Why was this match chosen? In many ways this game marked a significant milestone for Graham Taylor's side. The team had improved so much in the two seasons since reaching the Second Division and a confident, comfortable away win at Stamford Bridge gave an early indication that promotion to the top flight was within reach. And, of course, this was John Barnes's first start.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? This is the game that announced Barnes's arrival on the scene. By the end of the season he'd be an England under-21 international.