Captain Fantastic plays the get-out-of-jail card
Going into their final home game of the season, Watford knew they had to win. Defeat or a draw would take their fate out of their own hands. And they didn’t want to travel to Selhurst Park on the last day depending on results elsewhere.
At one stage, just a couple of months earlier, Watford had looked dead and buried but a late revival had given them a chance. One of the three relegation places had already been taken – Peterborough were down but six clubs were still in grave danger and battling to avoid the other two positions.
Watford thought three points from their final two games might be enough. Crystal Palace, their final opponents, were already up, but they still didn’t want to leave it to the last minute so victory over Portsmouth at Vicarage Road was pretty much essential.
When the relegation battle intensifies some strange things can happen. There had been some funny results of late. Oxford had won at Sunderland in midweek when most people had banked on them losing. West Brom also found themselves with a game in hand. It was all incredibly tight.
Watford’s visitors were Portsmouth, who were nice and cosy in mid-table.
‘We were on a good run,’ says Andy Hessenthaler, the team’s captain that season. ‘We were very fortunate that the players Glenn Roeder brought in settled quickly and made a difference.’ Pompey may have had little to play for but they weren’t in any mood to roll over. They went very close early on before Hessenthaler scored.
But a goal in the early stages of the first half settled the nerves. Jason Drysdale hit a ball down the left channel and Hessenthaler timed his run perfectly to spring the offside trap. After a quick glance over at the linesman, he steadied himself and hit a curling shot past Alan Knight.
Late on, Hessenthaler was injured in a collision and had to be stretchered off. ‘It was very tense those last few minutes because we knew an equaliser would undo all that hard work and put us in a very difficult position again,’ he says.
But Watford did hold on and then there was the wait to hear the other results. Oxford lost at Derby and Birmingham could only draw at Bolton which mean that, barring a miracle, Watford were safe. It would take a heavy defeat at Palace and a cricket score for Birmingham to send them down now. And so Vicarage Road could breathe a sigh of relief after another close brush with relegation.
Watford Digweed, Lavin, Drysdale, Dublin, Millen, Foster, Hessenthaler (Ramage 80), Johnson, Furlong, Porter, Mooney (Bailey 61)
Manager Glenn Roeder
Scorer Hessenthaler 18
Why was this match chosen? At the time it was win or bust because no one could have known that Watford would go to champions Crystal Palace on the final day and win. And, in fact, even with those three points at Palace, the Hornets would have been relegated had they not beaten Portsmouth.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? It felt like a great day simply because Watford had saved their skin after a long fight against relegation and had looked doomed after the 3-0 home defeat to Grimsby in mid-March.