|History with Mr T, Watford FA Cup Quarter Final 2003|
|Written by davethomas|
|Sunday, 16 November 2008|
The Watford FA Cup Quarter Final Sunday March 9th, 2003.
I still wonder what might have happened to the financial course of events at BFC if the fates had been kind and we had beaten Watford in that damp-squib quarterfinal just two and half years ago. If you remember, club finances then were in dire straits; the collapse of ITV Digital had left many clubs desperately hard up. All the promises of money evaporated when it turned out that the contract with ITV wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. Based on that promise and expectation, Burnley weren’t the only club to have lashed out money on player salaries and three of our players had been bought using finance companies. Somehow we always felt; it seemed to affect Burnley rather more than others.
I’m not suggesting that had we beaten Watford that all our problems would have been solved at a stroke, but even now, all this time later, I still ponder on how our troubles would have been eased by the income to come from a semi final, all the spin-offs, the TV money, and not to mention the better League gates that anticipation and excitement would have brought. One thing though it is reasonable to suppose, is that the agreement between the two clubs to share the ‘prize’ money from the game at Vicarage Road, was a fair indication of how desperate both clubs must have been. Neither was prepared to gamble on a victory, both thought it better to play safe on the certainty of having some of the money, rather than the possibility of none at all.
Sadly we lost. And here we are a few more miles down the road and it’s reasonable to say that the income that a victory would have brought, would not have left us where we are now, or at least would have delayed it – no longer owning the ground, lacking any real assets, the constant pressure to trim costs, cut wage bills, and dependent on the ability and willingness of a chairman and one or two other directors who prop up the club with loans and share buying. The club, in truth, walks a constant financial tightrope and manager Cotterill works playing miracles with a minimal playing staff.
In my opinion, to put it crudely, we blew it at Watford and we’re still paying the price. And then of course, in that game you can then point to the one moment in time that decided the outcome. When Watford scored their first goal, a goal that was so scruffy, so messy, a goal that was scored by a player who hadn’t played for weeks, it confirmed all our thoughts on the day; that the football gods had chosen to smile on Watford and not us. Their second goal was irrelevant; Burnley wouldn’t have scored in a month of Sundays, which in itself was ironic because we had scored in every one of the previous twenty.
At the time there were no recriminations and no blame was apportioned. I suppose really we were all caught up in the spirit of the thing. We had reached the quarterfinals; we had done so well to get as far as that. Little Burnley get to the semis? Surely not, that’s the stuff of fantasies, such things don’t happen to us. When the game ended we applauded loud and long and felt proud of them for their efforts. And I’m sure that in the minds of most people as we drove disconsolately back up the motorways, there was the feeling that we had done our best and that was that.
At the time, just prior to the game, I wrote about the game being decided maybe by just one goal, and that the player who scored would be a hero for life. I mentioned there being a sort of Thomas Hardy Far From The Madding Crowd aspect to all this, as if there are always unseen universal cosmic forces over which we have no control and within these forces we are mere puppets. Fortune being what it is, the fates would have already decided the outcome of the game.
And then there’s luck; the bounce of a ball one way or the other in one split second, a ball that hits a divot, or a hand, a ball that bounces off a post and reaches an opponent first, the toss of a coin and the way it lands, or a ball that ricochets its way round a forest of legs in the penalty area, and reaches the feet of the one person you least want it to who then pokes it home. And that is how the Watford cup-tie was decided.
We didn’t win; we didn’t deserve to win, didn’t play, didn’t create one single worthwhile chance and gave their goalkeeper absolutely nothing to do all afternoon. So much hope, so much anticipation, so much anti climax. We couldn’t grumble at the day, the atmosphere, the sense of occasion, the colour and spectacle, the passion of both sets of supporters, or the camaraderie and the bonhomie of opposing fans. And all on a day when sunshine bathed us all in spring like warmth and softness.
We couldn’t say that any Burnley player particularly let us down or had a bad game or that there was any lack of effort or commitment. So at the end we gave them a standing ovation and both fans and players were united in their heartfelt dejection. But the truth, now that I can look back at that day with a distant objectivity, is that the ovation we gave them wasn’t so much for that particular game, it was for the games and performances before it which took us there.
Players and supporters alike trudged away from that ground sadly. Some of us, just a handful, lingered for quite a while before we wandered away. It was as if we couldn’t quite accept that this was the end of the road. We had played so badly, so ineffectively, that it was as if we couldn’t quite think that it had ended so tamely, and we felt they would all come out again and resume the game. By staying there we delayed the recognition of the truth. Leaving our seats signified acceptance and this we didn’t want to do. Until we left, the result wasn’t real and by staying, somehow the clock could be turned back and we could start all over again and this time there’d be a different result. But the result was real and the drive home was long and miserable.
While that travesty of a game continued, with scarcely a passing move of note, hardly a shot on target, the ball ballooning high into the air over and over again, we cheered, we roared, we clapped and we made a thunderous noise that could have been heard twenty miles away. But it just wasn’t to be. The fates, divine intervention, call it what you will, that indefinable and inexplicable thing we call the run of the ball, the moment when the ball bounces one way and not the other, falling into someone’s path at the right time in the right place, were on the day with Watford… and Tommy Smith. Chance decreed that it would be his day.
It was a poor game that we all knew as the minutes dragged by, would be decided by one solitary moment of fortune, one bounce, one mistake, one stroke of misfortune or just one corner. And that’s how it happened. A corner, not cleared, flailing legs and feet, the ball bouncing around and continuing to Tommy Smith who, falling, poked it home from just a few yards so that it slowly, agonisingly, scruffily, trickled under a despairing Marlon Beresford in goal. And this was the Tommy Smith who hadn’t played a game for four weeks following a car crash. Tell me now that these things aren’t worked out in advance in a ready-made script. Their second goal was an irrelevance; save to say it was scored from a free kick straight over the wall and scored by a player already told by the manager that he wouldn’t be retained for the following season. It was the one moment of quality in a quite hideously drab game that had TV commentators, and the Press using one simple word, ‘dire.’ Burnley had one simple tactic and this was to welly the ball towards centre forward Gareth Taylor’s head. Failing that, hoofing it anywhere was the next best thing.
And if all of those were my feelings and reactions over two years ago when this game took place, and if I wrote them in my diary, and then called it It’s Burnley Not Barcelona, the passage of time then produces different thoughts. Objectivity replaces emotion. Hindsight replaces numbness. It’s now that I remember with a sense of annoyance that our two best and most creative players, Blake and Little, were left on the bench at the start of the game. Both were players who could turn opponents inside out with mesmerising skills and deft touches. And now, I want to know why this was. Here was a game that was there for the taking if only those two had played from the start. What were manager Ternent’s thoughts, what was his reasoning, was he playing for the draw, did he think we could win without them, did he think them unreliable, inconsistent, two luxury players? Whatever his reasons or thinking, when they did come in late in the second half it was all too late. Had they been there from the start, how different it might have been; how the course of not just the game might have been so very different, but also the huge rewards afterwards and the club’s financial fate.
Stan Ternent placed his faith in the enigmatic Alan Moore and the out of position Ian Moore. Neither contributed anything of note. Blake and Little kicked their heels or the gravel on the touchline, until they came on, in Blake’s case far too late to have any impact. Gareth Taylor won everything in the air that day, but the midfield gave him precious little or no support. The longer the game went on the more you knew that Watford would take it. Burnley quite frankly were as good as non existent. The warnings that the favoured 4 – 5 – 1 formation was laboured and limited were on show in the previous game at Millwall. The Watford game cried out for an adventurous approach making use of the players with the ability to cause havoc in an opponent’s penalty area. 4 – 5 – 1 is a system that is inherently defensive and cautious. It’s a formation that is built for avoiding defeat, a system that relies on winning games 1 – 0, in other words, score the goal and then defend and smother the game. When the opposition scored first at Watford, the game was as good as over.
So, sadly for the club finances there was no semi final and no further cash jackpot. To this day rank and file supporters who were there speculate that this was a deliberate attempt to draw the game and bring Watford back to Turf Moor. There was precious little attempt to win it. It didn’t upset me then. Today, it does.
Dave Thomas December 2005.
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