Meetings between Manchester City and Watford have been few and far between in recent years. A couple of FA Cup fixtures aside, the Blues haven’t really been paired with the Hornets too often, though back in August 2001 there was a rather significant fixture.
It marked the start of a new era for City. Following a relegation from the top flight – after two successive promotions – Joe Royle had been sacked as manager and the club had appointed Kevin Keegan as the man to inject some life back into proceedings. Fresh from a disappointing spell in charge of the national team, Keegan was keen to get things off to a good start at Maine Road.
Meanwhile, the board of directors and the fans were equally as desperate to bounce back to the Premier League at the first attempt. The general consensus is that the longer a team stays down following a relegation, the more difficult it is for them to get back up and nobody wanted to see the Blues go on another tour of the football league so soon after finishing the last.
The team that started for Keegan was pretty much the same as had been relegated the year before. The bonus for the club this time they dropped out of the top flight was they had managed to keep all of the key players and, with one or two welcome additions to spark a bit of steel and creativity into the side, they were more than ready for the division. There were two debutants, as Stuart Pearce and Eyal Berkovic both introduced themselves to the Maine Road crowd with a goal each.
City used the game to lay down a marker to the rest of the division. It was billed as something that would be a tight affair, given it was a first game back in English football for two ex-Premier League managers. That summer, Watford had appointed the former Chelsea boss Gianluca Vialli and big things were expected of his side.
The hosts started on top of the match, with the new signing Berkovic running the show. He went close in the first half with a left-footed chip towards the far corner of the net at the North Stand end, but Watford goalkeeper Espen Baardsen touched it around the post. A few minutes later, he also got down well to stop Shaun Goater’s effort from 10 yards, after Berkovic had played him in.
Somehow, the visitors were still level at the break. It was even more of a mystery how they weren’t behind early in the second half, as a Pearce free kick from the right curled onto the underside of the bar and Berkovic and Goater couldn’t put the rebound in. To say the away side were hanging on would be an understatement.
It wasn’t long until Keegan’s team took the lead, however. Laurent Charvet won possession back, with a slide challenge as Watford tried to break from their own half. He played a lovely one-two with Berkovic, where the Israeli set a cute pass through a wall of three defenders to put the Frenchman into the box. He crossed and Goater headed across goal and into the corner.
The second was soon to follow. The pressure was beginning to tell on the away side and they couldn’t hold out under the relentless City attacks – a ball in from the left flank found the head of Paulo Wanchope, but his effort crashed against the face of the bar. The rebound fell to the feet of Berkovic and he showed great skill to resist the temptation to hit it first time towards the open goal.
Instead, he took a touch over the despairing lunge of the defender to set himself up with a chance to finish past Baardsen, as the goalkeeper tried to recover from attempting to keep out the original header. As the angle was closed down, the midfielder slipped the ball underneath the advancing goalkeeper and doubled City’s lead.
It went from bad to worse for Watford when full back Paul Robinson was shown a second yellow card and sent off, before Filippo Galli was lucky not to meet a similar fate when he chopped down Jeff Whitley on the edge of the box. The resulting free kick was left to Pearce, who curled it past the Watford wall and into the far corner of the net.
The Blues might not have had a steady start to the season – going on to lose three of their next six – but this match was the club setting the stall out for the new campaign. It would be a year when the team romped away with the division and played better football than any of their promotion rivals. In the end, the title was won with games spare.
After the match, the City boss was impressed.
“It wasn’t about Keegan or Vialli, although I know why the papers built it up. We were both fairly good players – but when the referee blew his whistle there was nothing we could do, except hope we had prepared our sides right.
“It was a tremendous performance. We didn’t get our rewards in the first half – but the lads kept their heads down and the football we played was breathtaking. But I think we can play better.”
Meanwhile, Vialli thought the result was down to the performance of Berkovic.
“He gave us problems running with the ball, taking players on, and playing between the back four and the midfield four. But having said that we should have done better.
“Manchester City did very well. It was difficult for us to control the game. We did it for a good 20 minutes and then in the second half we started well – but it was too little. If we want to be the best we’ve got to play like that for 90 minutes.
“It’s disappointing but we know we are not at our best yet. We can only get better – we know what we’ve got to work on. We’ve got to be positive; it’s only the start of the season and we’ve got to keep working.”
City: Nash, Wiekens, Howey, Pearce, Charvet, Granville, Tiatto, Dunne, Berkovic (Whitley 77), Goater (Dickov 90), Wanchope (Huckerby 90)
Unused: Murphy, Colosimo
Number one in the UK charts on this day was Atomic Kitten with Eternal Flame.
On the UK box office at the time of this match was Jurassic Park III.
Written by David Mooney.