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Walking in a Mooney wonderland

The birth of a terrace hero
 

Tommy Mooney thinks he knows the reason for his popularity. ‘The fans took to me because I played the game like they would if they had the chance to pull on the shirt,’ he says.

In the spring of 1994, when the 22-year-old first arrived on loan, Watford had a relegation battle on their hands. Mooney was one of a number of men Glenn Roeder brought in just before transfer deadline day in a bid to avoid the drop.

Mooney came from Southend on loan while Dennis Bailey, who was a product of Watford’s youth system in the Eighties, came from QPR. Although both players were short-term measures to bolster the bid to avoid relegation, Roeder hoped to sign one on a permanent basis in the summer.

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Early on, the smart money was on that man being Bailey, who had scored from the bench in three consecutive matches. He was a poacher, and with Paul Furlong certain to leave, the more potent replacement.

But Mooney had battling qualities that not every player possessed. He was a fighter. The fans did identify with him because he was their representative on the pitch. He chased lost causes, he clenched his fists, he bulldozed through opposition defences. And over the next seven years, he was to establish himself as one of Vicarage Road’s modern heroes. However, the love affair between player and supporters almost didn’t happen.

Roeder was the player-manager at Gillingham when he first noticed Mooney. ‘I was 37 or 38 and I played six games for them because we were so short,’ says the former Watford boss. ‘I found it very tough but I could use my experience and my know-how to get out of trouble. I was always a good reader of the game and I found most strikers in the bottom division were quite predictable.

‘We played Scarborough and I was very impressed with Mooney. He played very well but he wasn’t just strong, he did things that players in the Third Division didn’t usually do. He was a cut above that division anyway.’

When Roeder first showed an interest in the Scarborough man he missed out because Mooney joined Southend for £100,000, which was more than Watford would have paid. Things went sour at Roots Hall for Mooney after Barry Fry left. Peter Taylor arrived and he didn’t rate Mooney.

‘It was pretty clear that Peter wanted to sell me and get someone else in even though I had scored a few goals for them,’ says Mooney. ‘Around Christmas time a couple of clubs came in for me, looking to take me on loan. One was Watford, the other was Middlesbrough, my home town club. Now, I would have jumped at a move to Middlesbrough because I had no allegiance to Watford at that time. Peter stopped me from going but he still didn’t put me in the team.’

As transfer deadline day drew near, Mooney could see his season fizzling out. ‘Glenn was ringing me to say he was still interested but Peter wouldn’t let me go so I went into the manager’s office and had to threaten him. I said: “Look, I am going to kick off here if I don’t go somewhere I can play football. It’s going to spoil everything. You’re going to ruin my career, I’ve already lost six months.”’

Taylor relented and Mooney joined Watford on loan until the end of the season. His first match was a 2-0 defeat at Sunderland, which dropped the Hornets to 23rd place in the table. Relegation was looking increasingly likely.

‘That trip to Sunderland was the best way for me to start, even though we lost the game,’ says Mooney. ‘It was an overnight trip so I had a couple of days to get to know the lads.’

Although it was a difficult first month, Mooney felt things were slowly improving. But there was one date looming on the fixture list and Mooney wanted to be a part of it.

‘Nowadays, players who are on loan cannot play against their parent club,’ says Roeder. ‘But then, you could do it if you got permission.’

Mooney remembers Taylor trying to stop him playing against them but Roeder says it was not an issue. ‘Peter is a very fair and honest man. He wouldn’t have been vindictive about it.’

Mooney was in no doubt that he was going to play. ‘There was nothing written in the contract, so there was no way they were going to stop me playing.’

With Furlong suspended, the two loanees played up front together. Watford had the dream start, with Bailey scoring after 44 seconds. Twelve minutes later, the inevitable happened and Mooney scored. ‘I had been doing quite well but I hadn’t managed to get a goal,’ he says. ‘As a forward, the longer you go without scoring, the more pressure you feel. To get one against my own club was special.

‘It took all my willpower not to run over to the bench and celebrate right in Peter Taylor’s face. I’d promised my dad I wouldn’t do it. He said it would look more gentlemanly to be dignified about it.’

This was the day a terrace chant was born. From now on, we’d always be walking in a Mooney wonderland. Two minutes later, Colin Foster scored the third and all the anxiety ebbed away. Watford weren’t safe yet but for the first time during an impossibly tense run-in, people began to believe that they were going to get out of trouble.

Watford Digweed, Lavin, Drysdale, Foster, Millen, Dublin, Mooney (Bazeley 85), Hessenthaler, Bailey, Porter, Johnson
Manager Glenn Roeder
Scorers Bailey 44sec, Mooney 12, Foster 14
Attendance 8,554

Why was this match chosen? After a couple of close calls, Watford's number looked to be up and relegation to the third tier was looking like an inevitability. They had two home games and two away to save themselves, with the final match at champions-elect Crystal Palace. This match was a must-win and the relative ease with which it was achieved was so surprising. It was also the match that saw Tommy Mooney score his first goal for the Hornets.

How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? Considering the tension surrounding the match, to put all the fears to bed within quarter of an hour was sensational. Watching the goals now on YouTube it's interesting to note that all three were ugly, scrappy efforts that were bundled or hammered over the line from close range. But as the cliché goes, they all count.