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When Arsenal lost two league games to Watford in as many days | Football | informazing

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When Arsenal lost two league games to Watford in as many days | Football

In this modern world of ours, it seems Arsenal are only ever a couple of defeats away from a full-blown crisis. When these times of tribulation come, Watford are rarely far away. Last season Arsenal were second in the league when Watford arrived at the Emirates in January. The visitors won the game 2-1 and Arsenal fell into a run of terrible form, going on a run of four defeats in five league games to fall to fifth in the table, where they finished and missed out on Champions League football for the first time in 20 years. Watford also caused an upset at the Emirates with a 2-1 win the season before, when they ended Arsenal’s hopes of winning the FA Cup for a third straight season.

Both losses were met with outrage. But can you imagine the reaction if a managerless Arsenal lost twice to Watford within the space of 24 hours? That’s what happened in the spring of 1986.

Don Howe’s approach of blooding youth team products such as Martin Keown, Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Martin Hayes and Niall Quinn brought Arsenal some decent results in the 1985-86 season. Wins over Liverpool and Manchester United confirmed the youngsters were made of the right stuff, but a 6-1 hammering at Everton and disappointing defeats to Aston Villa in the League Cup and Luton in the FA Cup suggested this was still a work in progress.

For Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood, the 3-0 capitulation to Luton in the Cup in early March was proof things weren’t progressing quickly enough. He met with Howe after the game and told the manager his contract would not be renewed at the end of the season. Initially Howe agreed to stay on until his deal expired and the results were good – Arsenal went on a run of four straight victories after the defeat to Luton – but things came to a head when Howe discovered Arsenal were going behind his back to speak to Barcelona manager Terry Venables.

“If you have been watching developments over the last week it would not be difficult to put together a case for my wanting to be released,” said Howe. “It is the way the whole business has been conducted that hurts and it has hurt me very deeply.”

“My only regret is the way it became public,” admitted Hill-Wood. “Don has done a good job here and it was not our intention to hurt him. It should not affect the results of the team because they still have a lot to play for.” In reality, the chairman should have been afraid. Very afraid. Arsenal had been plunged into complete chaos before a run of three games in four days.



Arsenal manager Don Howe with his assistant John Cartwright at the start of the 1985-86 season. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Chief scout Steve Burtenshaw was installed as caretaker manager for the final 11 league matches, the first of which was a north London derby at White Hart Lane. Arsenal lost a close game to Tottenham 1-0 on Easter Saturday, but their two defeats to Watford on the Monday and Tuesday were a case of the club reaping what they had sown.

The strange nature of the double header needs some explaining. After the original Boxing Day fixture at Vicarage Road had been called off, a winter freeze in early 1986 led to a fixture backlog in the league programme. Finding a date for the rearranged match was not helped when both clubs embarked on lengthy cup runs.

So it came to pass that Arsenal would welcome Graham Taylor’s team to Highbury on Monday 31 March at 11.30am and then travel to Vicarage Road on Tuesday 1 April for a match at 7.30pm. Playing the second match on the Wednesday would clearly have been far too sensible. Come the end of the double date, Watford probably wished they could play Arsenal every day of the week.

The first match at Highbury was notable for the poor attendance – only 19,599 fans came through the turnstiles for the Bank Holiday Monday fixture – and the behaviour of Arsenal fans on the day. Many chose the match as an opportunity to vent their anger at the Arsenal board; some decided the only way to get through it was by applying some gallows humour. Jon Spurling, writing in his excellent book All Guns Blazing, describes the black comedy of that day. “Every Watford attack (prompted by Brian Talbot, who proved his particular point on his Highbury return) was greeted with ironic cheers, showing just how far morale had sunk.”

Arsenal started well, bringing a few fine saves from Watford goalkeeper Tony Coton in the opening 20 minutes. But there was trouble ahead. Once John Barnes had given the visitors the lead, the Arsenal fans turned their attentions to the club’s chairman. The air was filled with songs about the chairman and chants of “Don Howe’s red and white army”. Some fans started to drift away Malcolm Allen doubled Watford’s lead in the 70th minute, but others made their way to Avenell Road to make themselves heard outside the marble halls. Eventually the police were brought in to disperse the crowd.

Hill-Wood was adamant he had made the right decision in not renewing Howe’s contract. “What happened today doesn’t affect me,” he said. “I’ve heard it all before. I would rather they wouldn’t jeer but a couple of goals will change it all. I don’t think it will last.”

John Barnes in action at Highbury.



John Barnes in action at Highbury. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock

A little over 24 hours later, more than 3,000 Arsenal fans put themselves through misery again. With six Watford regulars out of the team, Arsenal again started on the front foot and really should have taken the lead through Tony Woodcock. But as soon as the going got tough, the players disappeared.

Neil Smillie gave Watford the lead on the half-hour mark and the house of cards came tumbling down. Watford were a little fortunate with their second goal. Keown brought Barnes down outside the area only for referee Keith Cooper to point to the spot. Kenny Jackett scored the resulting penalty and Allen’s second goal in as many days clinched a 3-0 win for Watford.

The press did not go easy on Arsenal. Harry Miller wrote in the Mirror: “Watford stuck the dagger where Arsenal’s heart used to be and twisted it to complete the Easter humiliation of one of soccer’s great clubs last night”. Steve Curry was just as damning in the Express: “Watford heaped further humiliation on Arsenal who, in less than a week, have disintegrated into a shambles. Arsenal, like a tired army without its commanding officer, surrendered timidly at Vicarage Road. They were without heart, without will and without discipline. Their spirit eroded and ambition stilled.”

Fittingly, Arsenal drifted along for the rest of the season in a sea of mediocrity. Just 14,843 were present at Highbury for a 2-2 draw against West Brom and they finished off the campaign with a 3-0 humiliation at Oxford on the last day.

The links with Venables died down – apparently the Barcelona manager was not too impressed with the way Arsenal had treated Howe – and instead the club turned to George Graham. He delivered silverware immediately using many of the youth players and signings Howe had introduced to the first team. But, even in Graham’s triumphant first season, Watford still proved a thorn in their side. Their win at Highbury in the FA Cup quarter-finals in 1987 was clouded in controversy, leaving many Arsenal fans raging at the referee. At least the angry Arsenal fans did not have to sit through a repeat performance the next day.

This article appeared first on That 1980s Sports Blog
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