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Chopra fires four in 11-goal thriller

  Michael Chopra hits the first of his four goals at Turf Moor. Photograph by Alan Cozzi.

Michael Chopra hits the first of his four goals at Turf Moor. Photograph by Alan Cozzi.

Seven days before an FA Cup semi-final against Southampton, Watford went goal crazy at Turf Moor. They had only scored 12 times away from home all season but the arrival of Michael Chopra, a 19-year-old poacher with an eye for goal, on loan from Newcastle gave them a huge boost before the cup tie.

‘The reason I brought Michael in was purely for his goalscoring,’ says Ray Lewington, who was Watford's manager. ‘We’d been to see him play for Newcastle reserves quite a few times and I felt he was good enough. Bobby Robson was the Newcastle manager and he wasn’t too keen to let him go out on loan but I said: “I tell you now, he will play in the semi-final.” That’s the only reason we got him.

‘Our play up to the penalty box was usually so good but we were so wasteful. I felt that against Southampton we would have less of the ball and so we’d get fewer chances, so Chopra might give us a chance.

‘Chopra certainly scored goals, just not in the semi-final. He transformed a run-of-the-mill, mid-table fixture at Turf Moor into a classic, not that Lewington agrees with that description.

‘I’m not so sure it was a classic,’ says Lewington. ‘It was an absolute freak. It was 5-4 at half-time and I remember turning to Terry Burton and shaking my head. We were leading but I wanted to have a go at the defence because they were struggling against Gareth Taylor.’

At times the game was more like a basketball match. Wayne Brown gave Watford the lead after 13 minutes, heading in from a Neal Ardley corner. Two minutes later, Taylor equalised for Burnley. A minute after that Micah Hyde put Watford back in front.

Then there were ten minutes of relative calm before Neil Cox made it 3-1. Three minutes later Chopra got his first goal and suddenly Watford must have thought they had a comfortable lead. ‘At 4-1 you are in control. Even away from home you shouldn’t let them back into the match,’ says Lewington. ‘But we kept giving them chances.’

There were four more goals in the ten minutes before half-time. Steve Davis and Taylor cut Burnley’s deficit to one goal. Chopra made it 5-3 and Taylor scored again.

‘In 700-odd games I’ve never let in four before half-time and gone on to win,’ says the goalkeeper, Alec Chamberlain. ‘We were a bit embarrassed when we went in because every attack seemed to end with a goal. Ray was trying to calm us all down and he said: “You’ve scored five but you’re really only 1-0 up. They are all over the place at the back so the team that wins this is
going to be the one that sorts out their defence in the second half."’

‘Gareth Taylor was a strange player,’ says Lewington. ‘I worked with him at Palace and I never really worked him out. He could be unstoppable on his day but the rest of the time he could be lacklustre. He was having a lot of success from crosses so I told them that if we kept allowing the ball in the box, he’d have another hat-trick. We worked hard in wide areas to cut out crosses in the second half and it tightened things up.’

At the other end, Chopra got his third and fourth goals in the second half to become the first Watford player to score four in a league match since Luther Blissett in 1982.

It is not an exaggeration to say that in the end it could have been 10-6.

‘Michael was superb that day,’ says Lewington. ‘As a manager, it makes you look good when a lad you’ve got in on loan scores four but I was confident in his ability. You look at a striker and you ask whether they can do it. He scored four away from home in his second game for the team. There are plenty of good strikers who don’t do it away from home too often.

‘Today he’s still a very good player at Championship level but I am a little surprised he hasn’t gone a bit higher. And I suppose, if I was being picky, it’s a shame he didn’t save a couple of those goals for the semi-final but football doesn’t work like that.’

Watford Chamberlain, Cox, Brown, Mahon, Glass, Ardley, Vernazza, Hyde, Nielsen, Chopra, Smith
Manager Ray Lewington
Watford scorers Brown 13, Hyde 16, Cox 26, Chopra 29, 40, 61, 90
Burnley scorers Taylor 15, 39, 45, Davis 35
Attendance 10,208

Why was this match chosen? It was an extraordinary game, with a brilliant individual goalscoring feat. Nine goals in the first half from a teenage striker playing only his second senior game was pretty special.

How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? It may not have much in the way of historical significance but as a one-off game it's one that will never fade from the memory of those who were there, if only for the sheer madness at both ends.