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The night after the day before

Considering how many managers complain about fixture congestion and the demands placed on players today, how would Arsène Wenger react if he was told his side had to play on consecutive days?

And imagine the furore there would be if the mighty Gunners were beaten not once, but twice, by unfashionable opponents. That’s what happened when, in the space of 30 hours, Watford beat Arsenal 5-0 on aggregate to pile the misery on the managerless club.

‘When I tell young players today that we once beat Arsenal two days in a row, they don’t believe me,’ says Nigel Gibbs.

Watford had been due to face Arsenal at Vicarage Road on Boxing Day but the game was postponed because the pitch was frozen. The match was re-arranged for April 1, to kick off just 27 hours after the two sides were due to meet at Highbury.

Until about a decade ago, it wasn’t that unusual for teams to occasionally be required to play two days in a row, particularly at Christmas.
Arsenal were in disarray and two meetings with Watford were the last thing they needed. Their manager, Don Howe, had recently quit the job because of rumours the board were about to make an approach for Terry Venables.

Watford showed no mercy, despite being without half a dozen first team players. At Highbury, as the home fans protested against the board, Watford won 2-0.

The Hornets’ teenage Welsh striker, Malcolm Allen, scored his first goal for the club and John Barnes got the other.

If Arsenal’s fans thought it was a fluke they were in for more of the same the next day. Rumour has it the Arsenal’s players drowned their sorrows that evening and some of them were still a little worse for wear when they faced Watford again the following night.

The first goal came when Barnes crossed and Neil Smillie’s header was blocked by John Lukic only for Smillie to react smartly to stab the ball home.

Five minutes later, Martin Keown pulled down Barnes right on the edge of the box. The referee gave Watford the benefit of the doubt and pointed to the spot. Kenny Jackett scored the penalty. In the second half Allen scored his second goal in as many days when he finished off a fine passing move involving Barnes and Brian Talbot with a flourish.

The press focused on Arsenal’s humiliation, of course, but there was no doubt that Watford had been far the better side.

Watford Coton, Gibbs, Rostron, Talbot, Terry, McClelland, Smillie, Bardsley, Allen, Jackett, Barnes
Manager Graham Taylor
Scorers Smillie, Jackett pen, Allen
Attendance 18,635

Why was this match chosen? Watford had a very good record over the Gunners in the 1980s but beating them twice in two days was  remarkable.

How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? By this stage of Watford's stay in the First Division results like this were perhaps beginning to get taken for granted by some but with the benefit of hindsight this was a period when it felt like the club had established itself in the top flight for the long term.