The last week has seen so much press and television coverage of the arrival of David Moyes as Hammers’ manager that it is easy to forget that the new man and his entourage have still to make their managerial debuts at the London Stadium. The Watford game would have had great significance even with Slaven Bilic still at the helm, so how much more so now, with all eyes focussed so intently, and perhaps so critically, on the managerial newcomer.
I hope that it is not tempting providence too much to say that, with West Ham having a pretty good against Watford, this is a fixture where history is very much on the side of the new manager.
The Hammers did not play Watford in a Football League fixture until 1979; their first pairing in the F. A. Cup had been a year earlier, in 1978, and in the League Cup they did not meet until 1986. Yet Watford have, in fact, been around for even longer than West Ham, having been founded in 1881 as Watford Rovers (14 years before Thames Ironworks appeared on the scene).They first entered the F. A. Cup in 1886 and were members of the Southern League from 1896 until 1920.
Thames Ironworks met Watford in the Southern League during the 1898/99 season, the teams drawing 0-0 at Watford and the Ironworks winning 2-1 at the Memorial Grounds. This was the Ironworks’ first season in the Southern League and they finished top of the table, rounding off their League fixtures with a 10-0 home win over Maidenhead.
West Ham and Watford were regular opponents during those far-off Southern League days before the First World War, 28 fixtures resulting in 15 wins for the Hammers, 5 draws and 8 wins for Watford. The Hammers scored 42 goals in the process, conceding 32, six of which came in one match, when Watford won 6-0 on April Fool’s Day, 1914.
After the Great War, the clubs went their separate ways, the Hammers into the Second Division of the Football League in 1919 and Watford into the Third Division a year later. Remarkably, war-time football excepted, their respective first teams were not to meet again for over 60 years. When they did so, in the F. A. Cup in January 1978, Watford were in their Elton John/ Graham Taylor/ Luther Blissett era; the Hammers won 1-0 thanks to a late ‘Pop’ Robson goal, but were relegated at the end of that season, while Watford were Champions of the Fourth Division.
With West Ham failing to secure promotion back to the First Division and Watford achieving a second successive promotion as runners-up in the Third Division, the two teams faced one another in the Second Division in the 1979/80 season, Watford winning 2-0 at Vicarage Road and a late Billy Bonds equaliser earning a 1-1 draw at the Boleyn.
A few years earlier, in the mid-1970s, the Hammers had enjoyed a successful couple of years, winning the F. A. Cup in 1975 and being runners-up in the following year’s Cup-Winners Cup. A key figure in those campaigns was a former Watford player, Billy Jennings, signed from Watford for £110,000 in September, 1974. For the next three seasons, Jennings was a regular goalscorer, with, arguably, his most important goals coming in a Cup-Winners’ Cup Quarter-Final, away to the Dutch side, Den Haag.
All seemed lost when Den Haag led 4-0 at half-time in the first leg, but Jennings scored two second-half goals to turn an impossible 0-4 deficit into a difficult but achievable 2-4 reverse, setting the scene for one of the most memorable of Cup nights at the Boleyn. Willed on by a crowd of nearly 30,000, and inspired on-field by Billy Bonds and Trevor Brooking, the Hammers pulled back one goal, then another, and when Tommy Taylor was fouled in the Den Haag penalty-area it presented Billy Bonds with the opportunity to put the Hammers ahead on aggregate from the penalty spot. The tension was, as they say, unbearable, but Bonzo converted the spot-kick, West Ham were 3-0 ahead on the night, 5-4 on aggregate. More tension followed when Den Haag scored in the second-half, but the Hammers held out to go through, thanks to those two Billy Jennings away goals.
The early 1980s were good years for both West Ham and Watford. The Hammers won the FA Cup in 1980, promotion in 1981, with two more exciting Cup runs, losing to Liverpool in the Final of the League Cup and being beaten by the eventual winners in the Cup-Winners’ Cup. After a short spell of consolidation in the Second Division, Watford made it into the First Division, where, in their first season they finished a highly creditable 2nd, with Liverpool the Champions and the Hammers in 8th place.
In 36 meetings with Watford in the last 40 years, the Hammers have won 22, with 5 draws and 5 defeats. Watford have, however, had their moments, with a 5-0 win in 1984/85 and two 4-2 successes at West Ham, the last of which was the most recent. So, whilst the Hammers’ record against Watford should inspire some much-needed confidence, the memory of last season’s capitulation, when a two-goal lead was surrendered and four goals conceded in a spell of little more than 20 minutes play, must act as a warning.