The Boss Files: Mike Keen

By: Watford FC Staff

To help celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Watford’s move to Vicarage Road, Daily Mirror sports writer Mike Walters recalls his encounters with those who have occupied the Hornets’ hotseat.

Every manager’s reign has its sliding-door moments, and you have to wonder how different Watford’s history might have looked today if providence had been kinder to Mike Keen.

In his four years running the show at Vicarage Road (cue all the lazy jokes from outsiders about how many managers or head coaches the Hornets have had in the last four years), Keen won more games than he lost.

His time in charge at Watford, initially as player-manager, included the fateful night they were relegated to the Fourth Division in 1975 after a traumatic 3-2 home defeat by Walsall, which your correspondent witnessed as an 11-year- old fan from the old Main Stand enclosure.

Keen also presided over the early-season defeat at Darlington four months later, which left the Hornets 92nd in the Football League for the only time in their history. Remarkably, they would be 91 places higher up the ladder after a resounding home win against West Bromich Albion just seven years later.

But in the 1976/77 season, despite their dismal away form, Watford approached Easter with an outside chance of promotion, and hope sprang eternal – only for those slim prospects to disappear, like grains of sand slipping through Keen’s fingers, in 72 hours.

First, on the Saturday of Easter weekend, a paperboy’s pride in his brand-new bike purchased that morning (from Neale’s cycles on the Vicarage Road precinct) was undermined by a traumatic first home defeat of the season against Brentford.

Dennis Bond, in the first half, and Alan Mayes, denied an equaliser, both had penalties saved by Bees keeper Len Bond. By the time Watford had been held 2-2 at Stockport on Easter Monday and then slipped to a 2-1 defeat at Aldershot 24 hours later, with goalkeeper Steve Sherwood making his debut, all hope of promotion – and Keen’s job – had gone with seven games of the campaign left.

Chairman Elton John had been reluctant to jettison a loyal servant, but Keen was informed of his fate before an incredible 2-0 win against Huddersfield.

Referee Trevor Spencer had sent off Tony Geidmintis, for a useful right hook, and Mayes – for reasons far less obvious – and Sherwood was in inspired form before Keith Mercer’s two late goals brought the Hornets’ nine men a miraculous win.

Instead of the chorus “Keen Out” - which had surfaced among Watford’s long-suffering away contingent - the chant was turned on its head, and “Keen In” reverberated around the dog track, but it came too late to save his job.

As an appreciation of his performance, referee Spencer - from the officious, traffic warden end of the spectrum - was donated a free cup of tea by one of the patrons of the Main Stand enclosure by the tunnel, not necessarily still attached to the cup.

Keen’s dismissal led to a chain of events where his successor would take us all on an unforgettable magic carpet ride – up the league, through the divisions, to Wembley and Europe.

But I have often wondered what would have happened if Bond and Mayes had converted those two spot-kicks against Brentford, and Keen had found the key to winning away from home as readily as his successor...

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