Great Football League Teams 19: Watford 1998-9
Our nineteenth Great Teams post conpletes the trio of promoted clubs from the 1998-9 season. I remember cheering wildly as a neutral in front of ITV as Watford won a surprise victory over Bolton at Wembley; following on from a dramatic semi final against Birmingham City. Here, Matt Rowson of BHaPPY, one of the sites from which we drew the most inspiration when starting this football blogging lark two years ago, supplies his account of a heart rending season.
You know the story about Watford reaching the top flight. The famous one. Fourth Division, Elton John, Graham Taylor, Luther Blissett, John Barnes, three promotions, second in the league, Cup Final, UEFA Cup. Bang. That’s a great story.
This isn’t that story.
Graham Taylor’s departure for Aston Villa in 1987 precipitated a steady decline in the club’s fortunes. A brief and calamitous spell under Dave Bassett, for which he’s never been forgiven in West Herts, contributed to relegation the following season. Watford settled down as a mid-to-lower table second-tier side, occasionally flirting with relegation and even more occasionally a tilt at the play-offs.
In 1996, an injury crisis contributed to a collapse in form that saw Glenn Roeder shown the door in February with the Hornets in deep trouble. (Re-)enter Graham Taylor stage left, after eventful periods in charge of Villa, England and Wolves. Improvement was gradual but ultimately dramatic; however even consecutive home scorelines of 4-2, 5-2 and 6-3 in the April were ultimately insufficient and the Hornets went back to the third tier after 17 years on the final day of the season.
During the first season in the third tier, Watford competed near the top of the table for most of the season under Kenny Jackett, with Taylor now in a General Manager role. Always solid defensively, the side struggled for goals in the face of underinvestment — and more injuries, Kevin Phillips and David Connolly missing much of the campaign. Prior to the last home game of the season against Bury Taylor took to the pitch with a microphone, announcing the return of Elton John as chairman fronting a new consortium.
The mood changed immediately. Taylor resumed the hot seat, and was given licence to spend money that summer recruiting young Cambridge captain Micah Hyde, Notts County reserve Peter Kennedy, target man Jason Lee and veteran Ronny Rosenthal. Watford were promoted at a canter, securing the title on the last day of the season in a dramatic game at Craven Cottage.
The following summer saw modest investment; Allan Smart and Nick Wright were signed in a job-lot from Carlisle United, Dean Yates on a free from Derby, Michel Ngonge arrived from Turkey via a notorious spell of unknown duration lost on Watford’s ring road; Jason Lee moved on to Chesterfield and Rosenthal’s involvement all but ceased. Otherwise Watford stuck with the squad that had gained promotion.
The season started well, the new signings impressing. Wright was an eyecatching, effervescent winger with a penchant for running himself into the ground for an hour, Smart a tidy intelligent striker who tied the attacking play together. Well in the hunt by February, form tailed off and Watford slipped down the table. At home to Tranmere Rovers on Easter Monday, a drab first half that extended the lifelessness of preceding goalless draws with Oxford and Bury saw Watford a goal down to a David Kelly strike and on their way to mid-table obscurity. Not a disgrace for a newly promoted side, but hardly justifying a tribute in this series.
We owe Tranmere Rovers a lot. Or rather, we owe John Aldridge a lot. The game was there for the taking for Rovers, had they played it calm, slowed it down, protected their lead. Watford hadn’t scored in three games, and the crowd were beginning to turn. Rovers weren’t a side to play it calm though; spiky, aggressive and intimidating, they were never likely to settle for an efficient three points if a good barney was the alternative.
The Rovers game became the stuff of legend. My memory has John Aldridge furiously bouncing onto the pitch to get Watford’s Johnson dismissed with the score still 1-0. Actually it appears that we’d already fashioned an equaliser from somewhere at that point. Whatever, the indignation lit a fire under the crowd and the team; we ended the game with nine men following an epic punch up, but a punch up that had followed our winning goal. Pure bedlam, and a game that’s still vivid in the memory.
Two days later Watford beat Birmingham City at St. Andrews, with ex-Villa man and recent recruit Tony Daley having his best game in a Watford shirt. The following Saturday, Bolton were murdered at Vicarage Road. Momentum built very quickly, and soon a juggernaut was heading for the Premiership; two points were dropped in the final eight games as the Hornets crashed into the play-off places and a two-legged semi-final against Birmingham City.
The final was special. I’m not spoiling the plot by jumping to the final I hope — this was twelve years ago after all (crikey…). If you don’t remember Watford getting promoted you’ll probably have guessed where this is heading. So, yes, the final was special, and we’ll get to that.
But it’s the semi-final, and specifically the insane away leg at St Andrews that I remember as the most intense football match I’ve experienced. We’d wilfully escalated that intensity ourselves of course. Every successive win (in a run fuelled by an unprecedented prolific streak from fist-waver in chief Tommy Mooney) diminished one’s capacity to think about anything other than the charge up the table. Several hundred of us kipped outside the stadium overnight in anticipation of away-leg tickets going on sale, our bravado only moderately dented by the fact that folk were wandering up to buy tickets unhindered by any queue (let alone an overnight one) later the next afternoon.
We won the home leg. I don’t remember much about it; a prelude, a support act that you remember enjoying but can’t remember why, or what they sounded or looked like. Ngonge scored five minutes in and that was it, despite respectable levels of action in each penalty area. And excitable left back Paul Robinson got sent off, which will be as easy to believe for anyone who’s followed his subsequent career with West Brom and Bolton as it was to us at the time. 1-0 going into the second leg. It felt all square.
Dele Adebola bundled a scruffy equaliser within two minutes at St Andrews, and the extraordinary volume of noise that had pinned us down into our seats from the off went up a notch. What followed was drama of operatic proportions; a performance that characterised — perhaps defined — that side. A side made up of capable individuals, but united by a ferocious will to win that’s ever so easy to get behind and believe in. With the ‘orns somehow still level, the dismissal of ex-Hornet David Holdsworth in extra time eased the pressure somewhat.
When Alec Chamberlain saved the sixteenth and crucial penalty in the shootout, the collective release of stress was extraordinary. It was as if the preceding month or so had seen us twist and twist into an ever tighter coil, and that save of the unfortunate Chris Holland’s kick was the point at which all that tension was released and the coil unfurled itself, spinning faster and faster. That momentum carried us to Wembley and flattened Bolton Wanderers, who were beaten before they stepped onto the pitch. The two Carlisle lads got the goals… Nick Wright scoring the club’s first at the Empire Stadium with an extraordinary bicycle kick before Allan Smart sealed the win with a breakaway goal that was less showy but almost more emotional. That was it. Game over. Two years after finishing in the bottom half of the third tier, we were in the top flight.
That was the high point, not just for that side but for most of the individuals that comprised it. Watford beat Liverpool at Anfield at the start of the following season, and recorded another early win to beat Chelsea, but needed a favourable hand with injuries to stand a chance and never got that. When we travelled to Highfield Road for a soul-sapping 4-0 drubbing at the end of October, fourteen senior players were unavailable due to injury or suspension. Several would never fully resurrect their careers.
That only Robinson went on to have a long career in the top flight is something that baffles and saddens me to this day. Richard Johnson, the driving force and fulcrum of the midfield, was one of several to miss big chunks of the season. He’d already had two spells out when he ruptured ligaments against Manchester United, an injury that kept him out for two years. He returned a pale shadow of the rock on which the promotions had been built, and the clubs he drifted to as his career in England fizzled out never saw the terrifying midfielder that we had seen.
Another, Gifton Noel-Williams, had bowed out halfway through the promotion season after an unforgivable challenge from Sunderland’s Paul Butler. He did return during the Premiership season, but only briefly, and although he forged a respectable second tier career with Watford, Stoke and Burnley he’d lost his pace and mobility. An England prospect had become a second tier target man.
Nicky Wright’s last game, the last game in which he was properly fit, was that play-off final. Injured during the close season, it was on the return from that injury that he picked up another, playing for the reserves, which effectively put pay to his career.
Mooney was to return briefly to the top flight with Birmingham City, but like left-sided Peter Kennedy probably lacked the pace to stay there; if sheer bloody-mindedness had been enough, mind, he’d have set appearance records. Micah Hyde, Johnson’s midfield partner-in-crime, had the ability, but possibly not the drive to demonstrate it at the highest level.
There isn’t a member of that gutsy, inspiring promotion side that isn’t regarded at least warmly; even Darren Bazeley, winger-turned-full back who surprised everyone by joining Wolves on a Bosman that summer. Goalkeeper Alec Chamberlain was already 35, but hung around long enough to play a role in Watford’s next visit to the top flight in 2006. Nigel Gibbs, who capably deputised for the suspended Robinson at St Andrews, had been a key player in Watford’s prolonged top flight spell in the eighties.
A year after the play-off triumph we watched and chortled as Birmingham crashed out of the play-offs at the same stage in the same fashion. With the second leg at Deepdale, Trevor Francis made an issue out of which end the penalty shoot out should be held claiming that the referee in question had agreed to stage it at the end shared between home and away support and trying to take his team off when the official chose the home end. We hadn’t remembered such an even-handed approach from Francis a year earlier as we’d strained for a distant view. Their confidence comprehensively undermined by their manager, City failed again.
Watford were already back in the Championship themselves, beaten but unbowed. Well relegated, we had resisted the temptation to throw money at long odds and the club was stable as a consequence, our most extravagant signing a well-spent £1.5m on Heidar Helguson from Lillestrà¸m. We had stored up our folly for a year later, and the arrival of Gianluca Vialli.