For most of the Nineties, the Premiership looked like it had slammed its doors shut to the likes of Watford. But they were about to burst their way in.
Having reached the play-off final, it was the prospect of going to Wembley that was initially so thrilling. The idea of winning a golden ticket allowing entry to the exhalted, almost unreal world of the Premiership was secondary.
‘There was a lot of excitement about the fact we were going to Wembley,’ says Nick Wright. ‘But after a couple of days it was clear we weren’t going there to enjoy it. We were going there to do a job. We had a hard week. There was a lot of running, then some recovery time and then we worked on set-pieces.’
Watford were in a perfect position. They approached Wembley with the magical combination of incredible form and underdog status. They had also beaten Bolton home and away in the league. Confidence was high, but Taylor ensured nothing was left to chance in the preparations.
Steve Palmer says: ‘My over-riding memory is of Graham trying to get everything organised early on. Tickets for the players’ families can become a real pain so they were sorted early so we could minimise the emotion in the couple of days leading up to the game.’
The squad made a trip to Wembley to familiarise themselves with the place. They checked out the dressing rooms and the tunnel. ‘Graham told us to go onto the pitch and check out the areas where we’d be hoping to make a difference,’ says Allan Smart.
‘I went to visualise putting the ball in the net. Peter Kennedy went to look at the corners, because he’d be taking a lot of the set-pieces. Graham wanted us to feel relaxed about the place and get the fact that it was Wembley out of our system before the day.’
Over the course of the week, the manager asked each player to prepare a speech to give to his team-mates. One that sticks in Smart’s mind was by Alon Hazon. ‘Manchester United had just beaten Bayern Munich in the Champions League final with those two late goals,’ says Smart. ‘Alon’s speech was very moving. At the end he asked us if we wanted to be United or Bayern Munich.’
There were no surprises when the manager named the starting line-up at the hotel on the morning of the match. Paul Robinson was back from suspension and regained his place.
‘Graham didn’t name the subs,’ says Smart. ‘I knew that his two changes in the run-in had been myself and Alon Hazan but until it was announced I was like a cat on a hot tin roof. I had to ask Robert Page to go and find out from the gaffer if I’d be on the bench.’
The team boarded the coach and made their way through a sea of red and yellow. ‘We went from Watford to Stanmore and Kingsbury and it was yellow all the way,’ says Palmer. ‘It was a great trip but I was very conscious of the fact that I didn’t want to get distracted from the job I had to do. If I found myself getting caught up in it all I said “No, come on, concentrate on what you’re going there to do.”’
Palmer had played at Wembley before, in the Varsity match for Cambridge University, but doesn’t feel that experience counted for much. ‘It was not the same at all. You can’t compare the two occasions in any way.’
When they first caught sight of the twin towers, Tommy Mooney thought back to all the childhood visits he’d made with his father. ‘When I was growing up, we’d go to internationals and cup finals as often as my dad could afford,’ he says.
‘On that day, I really wasn’t thinking about promotion. I just wanted to play at Wembley, win at Wembley. To me, if you could do that, no matter what else happened, your career was worthwhile.’
Before the match, the players noted that their approach differed to Bolton’s. The Trotters arrived in tracksuits and were trying to treat it as if it were just another game. For Watford, it was a cup final. There was a sense of occasion.
‘I am not sure Bolton’s way would have worked for us,’ says Chamberlain. ‘We knew what it all meant and I think it would have been a mistake to try to take all that emotion out of it.
‘Before the match, we went onto the pitch and I remember talking to Bob Wilson and feeling that I wasn’t really there. I was just nodding along to what he was saying, really. I just wanted to get my kit on, warm up, touch the ball and get on with it.’
Taylor gave his final team talk and the Watford players readied themselves to go out into the tunnel. The psychological battle started here. ‘Ciaran Cosgrave wanted us to go out late, to make them wait for us,’ says Palmer. ‘I still believe part of winning the match was done in that tunnel,’ says Wright. ‘We were very controlled but we were loud and quite aggressive. They had international players but they were very quiet.’
Then came the moment the hairs stood up on the back of seventy thousand necks. Fireworks and Fat Boy Slim. The arrival of the two teams. ‘That was incredible,’ says Palmer. ‘I knew I wanted to be able to remember that so I was making an effort to look around and take it all in. Whenever I hear Right Here, Right Now by Fat Boy Slim I am taken back to that moment.’
The early exchanges went Bolton’s way. The fact the opposition had the better chances suited Chamberlain. ‘Before the game, I caught sight of myself in a mirror and I was as white as a sheet,’ he says. ‘Bolton had some good chances early on. Robbo made a bit of a mistake and they had that shot that went past me but went wide. When I made a save from Eidur Gudjohnsen I really felt I was in the match. A free kick hit the wall and he turned and hit it on the volley and I had to react quickly. I felt like I’d made a real contribution to the game and it settled me down.’
It wasn’t just the goalkeeper who was eager to get into his stride. ‘For the first ten minutes, I was running up and down, covering a lot of ground but I didn’t get a touch of the ball,’ says Wright. ‘I was waiting for the game to settle into a rhythm. Darren Bazeley was playing behind me and he loved to get forward and he was getting a lot of the ball, so I was doing a lot of dropping back to cover as he went forward.’
But Wright’s moment would come.
As the first half drew to a close, Watford won a corner after Bazeley had burst into the Bolton penalty area. Kennedy went over to take it. ‘We had a few corner routines but I was trying to deliver the ball into a dangerous area and hopefully one of our players would get on the end of it,’ he says. Wright took up his position on the edge of the six-yard box. ‘The manager wanted me there because the theory was I’d be able to pick up the ball if it was headed clear by a defender,’ he says.
Kennedy’s curling delivery was very awkward for Bolton to deal with. It was swinging towards the goal but the keeper was prevented from coming out for it because of the bodies in his way. Instead, Andy Todd headed it out. The ball fell to where Wright was lurking. ‘GT said that Nicky was there for a reason, and he was,’ says Mooney. ‘It wasn’t luck. We worked very hard on set-pieces and felt we had the edge on most teams.’
For the Watford supporters, time seemed to stand still. All eyes were fixed on the little red-haired figure in yellow as he flung himself in the air.
‘Usually if the ball fell to me there, I’d have laid it back to Robbo,’ says Wright. ‘But there was no one there, so I did what I did.’
He dismisses the suggestion that his athletic overhead kick was simply a speculative effort to get it back into the goalmouth. ‘I was not helping it back on,’ he says. ‘I was aiming for goal. It was an instinctive thing. I am not saying I picked my spot but I was trying to hit it towards goal with enough force and good technique.
‘All I was thinking was get a good contact on the ball and get it on target. If I did that, it would have a chance.’
As Wright fell to the floor, he could tell his connection had been sweet. As he landed, he peered through the forest of legs between him and the goal.
‘I didn’t see it go in,’ he says. ‘I was waiting to see the net ripple. There was a shout of “it’s in” and then the crowd roared and that’s when I knew.
‘I turned and sprinted towards where my parents were sitting in the crowd, but I didn’t get there because Robbo rugby tackled me. Then Michel Ngonge was on top of me telling me he loved me. Then the whole team piled on.
‘And then you realise you are one-nil up but you still have the game to play. You have to calm yourself down and regain your focus very quickly.’
The second half was just as tight but Watford seemed to play with more composure. For Mooney, it evolved into a strangely frustrating game. ‘I had been such a big part of the run-in but we played a slightly different way in the final,’ he says. ‘Darren got a lot of the ball on the right and between him and Nicky, they gave Robbie Elliott a hard time. We didn’t get as much down the left, so I wasn’t as involved.’
With 15 minutes to go, Taylor put Smart on in place of Ngonge. ‘I can’t remember a word he told me just before I went on,’ says the Scot. ‘There’s a shot on the video of him talking to me but I was just thinking about getting on there and getting a touch of the ball.
‘I’d not been on long when Peter got down the left and shanked one and I gave him a bit of stick for it.’
With three minutes to go, Wright was substituted. By now, the Watford fans were whistling for full time.
Two minutes were all that remained when Smart made a crunching tackle on Scott Sellars in his own half. A couple of years earlier, Smart broke his ankle playing for Carlisle in the Auto Windscreens Shield final at Wembley. But he didn’t think twice about going into the challenge hard.
‘I was a bit lucky there because I went into it with absolutely everything. I don’t think either me or Sellars even touched the ball,’ he says. ‘I got the break and Micah Hyde got the ball. My leg was killing me but all I thought about was getting up and getting forward.’
Hyde played it on to Kennedy, who was in plenty of space on the left. This time, Kennedy’s pass was so well-placed, he may as well have delivered it on a silver platter.
‘Peter’s pass was absolutely perfect,’ says Smart. ‘The gaffer said to me that he knew Micah would make the pass, he knew Peter would play the right ball but he wasn’t sure what I was going to do.’
Smart had several options and time to think, so often the enemy of a striker in a pressure situation. ‘I knew I was going to take it first time,’ he says. ‘I just wanted to strike it cleanly. I reached the ball at full tilt and hit it hard.’
‘It wasn’t a conventional finish, with the outside of the boot, but it was a lovely finish,’ says Wright, who ran half the length of the pitch to celebrate with his old Carlisle team-mate.
That sealed it. Bolton were out on their feet. ‘After the second goal, the body language of the Bolton players was destroyed,’ says Chamberlain.
‘I asked the referee about five times in the last couple of minutes how long there was to go,’ says Palmer. ‘Then there were the celebrations, getting the cup and taking it down to the end where our supporters were. I sat on the pitch by myself and just took it all in.
‘Looking back, it’s hard to separate what you actually remember and what is a sort of second-hand memory from what you’ve seen in photos and on the video. A few days after the match, I watched the television coverage and when the second goal goes in the camera pans up to the Watford crowd and there’s a dad going absolutely crazy and his daughter is looking up at him, slightly embarrassed. I thought that was great. It meant so much to him, he’d completely lost it.’
The team had surfed a wave of positive vibes. As Smart says: ‘Ciaran Cosgrave didn’t score a goal or make a tackle but he hit us at the right time. He must have thought he was the messiah after two months with us.’
Shortly after Watford had clinched the Second Division title ahead of Bristol City, Graham Taylor splashed out a modest sum on two forwards from relegated Carlisle United. On June 12, 1998, a letter from a supporter was printed in the Watford Observer. We’ve spared the writer the embarrassment of naming him but we wonder how he felt as he celebrated the win over Bolton less than a year later?
WHEN Watford FC put the season ticket prices up for the new season, the fans were given a couple of reasons for the increase. The first was to fund the pitch and stadium redevelopment, which looks like it could be a sound investment for the future of the club.
The second reason was for the funding of new players and GT promised that Premiership players would be top of the list, so who the hell are Allan Smart and Nick Wright?
While Bristol City have spent £2.2m on Ade Akinbiyi and Tony Thorpe, which proves their intention for the new season, we spend £175,000 on a couple of Carlisle rejects. I have paid £210 for my new season ticket and these are not the quality of players I have paid to watch and I am sure everyone else felt the same way when they found out about the new signings.
Watford were in the Premiership. Of course, the question of whether they could survive followed with indecent haste. Taylor had done it again. And two relative unknowns from Carlisle scored the goals to take them there.
‘Wrighty had a real bee in his bonnet all season about the guy who wrote to the paper,’ says Smart. ‘He came in one day saying “Have you seen what this bloke said?” I used to say to him that the fella had a point.’
Taylor signed the pair after they’d impressed for Carlisle at Vicarage Road. ‘We were getting relegated and they were going up but we outplayed them,’ says Wright. ‘We lost but Graham came into our dressing room, shook our hands and said we hadn’t deserved to lose.’
They took a little time to settle. ‘People thought we were strike partners but we’d never played as a front two for Carlisle,’ says Smart. ‘I don’t know if Graham intended to play us together but if he did, we soon put him off the idea. We played up front together in pre-season and I said to Wrighty as we came off “We’ve had a shocker there. We look like we’ve never seen each other before.” As the season went on we established our roles.
‘After the game, we had to do the media and when we got to the dressing room everyone was changed and had gone to the bar. Nicky and I ended up in the big bath together with a beer, just the two of us, one on each side. “Look at us now, two blokes from Carlisle.” We wondered if the fella who wrote to the paper was out there celebrating.
But the architect of it all was Taylor, the man who had repeated history.
The Premiership turned out not to be the dream destination we’d hoped it would be. But the journey was magical, a dizzying head rush when everything came together perfectly.
And that is why Watford’s victory at the home of football has to be considered the greatest ever. Well, for the time being, anyway...
‘If we win on Monday, some of them might never play outside the Premiership again...’ Graham Taylor knew that the play-off final could change the lives of some of his players.
But it didn’t quite turn out like that. The play-off triumph didn’t transform many careers.
Of the 14 players involved in the final, only Paul Robinson went on to play regularly in the Premiership, for West Brom and Bolton, although Mooney was successful with Birmingham City.
Darren Bazeley decided to join Wolves and ended his career without playing a Premiership match. Injuries struck Peter Kennedy, Nick Wright and Richard Johnson.
‘I was due to have a knee operation a few days after the final,’ says Kennedy. ‘When Allan Smart scored the second goal, I jumped up and when I landed my knee collapsed under me. Robbo came and lifted me up. Two days later I was on the operating table but it was a constant niggle. I had three or four operations while I was at Watford, plus I had a back problem in the Premier League season.’
Johnson got injured playing against Liverpool. At one point, Leeds United were very interested in signing him but the injuries scuppered the move.
Wright’s career should have progressed after that Wembley goal but it proved to be the peak.
‘I am so pleased for Nicky that he scored that goal and can look back at that,’ says Kennedy. ‘He was a really great lad and such a good player but he hardly played again.’
Wright had injured his groin in the days leading up to the Wembley match. ‘During training, I went to shoot and Micah clipped me from behind and I did a bit of an air shot,’ he says. ‘I felt something go in my groin. I had a few painkillers and anti-inflammatories because there was no way I was going to miss out on playing at Wembley. I got through the game and then went to speak to the physio, who did an x-ray.
‘I had played with a fractured piece of bone in my pelvis. It was an avulsion fracture, where the tendon had pulled a piece of the bone away. If we’d known, I probably wouldn’t have played.
‘I missed pre-season and had some groin problems that were related. I was only getting through half a game at a time and I couldn’t sprint. I had a hernia operation and felt I’d recovered. I played a couple of reserve games and felt strong.
‘In December, we played Birmingham in the FA Cup and when I was taken off the crowd booed. I’d done well even though it hadn’t been a good team performance. I thought I was on the way back.
‘Graham Taylor wanted me to play the next reserve game to get a bit more match fitness so I could be fully fit for the next Premiership game.
‘It was against Coventry reserves and after about three minutes, I went past the full back and Dominic Foley played me in. The turf was wet, the ball ran on and I collided with Steve Ogrizovic. My leg turned sideways. I tried to play on but it was clearly something serious.
‘The physio told me I’d be out for three weeks. Three years later I retired without making a proper comeback.
‘It was a horrible time but it taught me a lot about myself. I was trying everything to get fit but I couldn’t get the strength back in my knee. I couldn’t sprint or bend it fully. I played a few times in the reserves but was only at 80 per cent.
‘It wasn’t a consolation at the time but I do have that game and that goal to look back on. Over the years, I’ve met Watford fans who named their children born around that time Nick or Nicky.
‘Most players don’t get to experience what I did. It’s an awesome thing. You know you have done something that means a lot to the supporters.’