‘We beat Bournemouth on the Tuesday night to keep ourselves in with a chance of winning the championship,’ says Jason Lee.
‘The manager had us in the following day to start the build-up to the Fulham game. Graham gave us a bit of a speech. He said that we’d done well to win promotion but to go up as champions would be special.
‘It sounds obvious but it really hit home. He said we’d put in too much work and got too close not to give it everything. There’s a big difference between just going up and winning the title. We would be remembered as the team that won a trophy for the club and that would stay with us.’
The trophy wasn’t quite there for the taking. Watford were relying on Bristol City slipping up at Preston.
Taylor didn’t focus on the importance of the result too often but on this occasion he reminded his players that they needed to win. The match was vital to Fulham too. They needed a draw to make sure they made the play-offs.
Lee arrived from Nottingham Forest in the summer and loved playing for Taylor’s team. ‘We played with quite a strange system, certainly for the Second Division,’ he says. ‘We had full-backs who were more like wingers. Tommy Mooney was at centre half and he didn’t look out of place. Richard Johnson and Micah Hyde went together perfectly in midfield. Ronnie Rosenthal had a bit of guile that most teams couldn’t handle. The emphasis was on attacking and creating chances. As a centre forward I loved it. Gifton Noel-Williams was just coming through and you could see how much Graham liked working with him.
‘I’d been at Forest where they had a fitness coach but Graham was so far in advance of what they were doing. We got so fit and so powerful. We never eased off in matches.
‘Gifton and I worked well together. I tried to help his game. He had such great physique I couldn’t believe he was only 17. There was a running joke that I had three kids at 26 and he had three with one on the way.’
But Lee and Taylor had a bumpy relationship at times. ‘When I signed, I agreed to move down to London because the manager had this rule about the players living within a certain distance of the training ground,’ he says.
‘Being from London I thought it would be easy but the reality was that it wasn’t. My children were settled at school. Graham and I didn’t fall out but he wasn’t too happy that I was the one player who hadn’t relocated. I pointed out I could have moved somewhere within the range and spent an hour and a half on the M25 every day.’
Having decided against moving, Lee sensed that he might be on his way from Watford in the summer. ‘I really enjoyed the season but it was a strange one. I did have an inkling the Fulham match might be my last game,’ he says. As it turned out, Lee stayed all summer and scored the winner at Portsmouth on the opening day of the following season before being sold to Chesterfield. His instincts had been correct. ‘I didn’t want to leave but I thought, if Graham was going to move me on, I wanted to win the championship first.’
Watford’s fans were ready to party on the banks of the Thames. Their team was hungry to get their hands on some silverware.
‘We had this new kit, blue and grey stripes,’ Lee says. ‘We’d already seen it and I don’t think the lads were too impressed. What I remember most about it was how tight the shorts were. I was looking around to see if there were any slightly larger ones.’
For Taylor there was the added motivation of getting one over on his very good friend John Ward, the Bristol City manager.
‘You can’t influence what happens somewhere else,’ says Lee. ‘But you get a feeling from the crowd. They take great delight in letting you know. As players, you’re supposed to say “Oh, we were concentrating on what we were doing,” which, of course, we were, but when your own fortune hinges on what’s going on in another game it’s impossible to block it out.’
In the first ten minutes, Bristol City fell behind, got themselves back on terms and then conceded again.
‘It was tough to get into the game,’ says Lee. ‘Fulham played a completely different way to us and it took a while for us to get going. We were playing a high tempo, trying to get forward and then they were getting the ball, trying to pass it and it took the sting out of us.’
Ten minutes before half-time, Noel-Williams opened the scoring. ‘We had something to lose now,’ says Lee. ‘I’ve seen it a million times before. Graham said all the right things about not sitting back, not settling for what we had got and to keep playing aggressively, to keep going forwards.
‘But no matter what the manager says, there’s a fear factor. Instinctively, you want protect what you’ve got.’
Fulham equalised but Watford still had one hand on the trophy, as long as Bristol City didn’t equalise at Preston.
Five minutes after Beardsley’s goal, Lee had the chance to win the title for the Hornets. ‘It came after quite a nice bit of build-up play,’ he says. ‘I didn’t catch it the cleanest. I caught it well enough but it wasn’t a sweet strike. The feeling of relief when I saw it go in was fantastic. I’d got my goal and hopefully that would be enough.
‘When the final whistle went, the fans came on the pitch and it was about getting to the dressing room with a stitch of clothing on you. I gave my shirt away but they’d have done well to get the shorts off me.
‘It was only afterwards I got to reflect on it and realised that I scored the goal that won the championship.
‘The medal is nice to have. It’s a tiny thing. My son can’t believe it’s a proper medal – he’s won bigger ones playing kids football.’
For only the third time in their history, Watford had won a cup to put in their trophy cabinet.
Taylor, Lawrence, Brevett, Smith (Trollope 76), Coleman, Blake, Beardsley, Bracewell, Moody, Peschisolido (Thorpe 72), Collins
Goal Beardsley 61
Manager Kevin Keegan
Chamberlain, Bazeley, Kennedy, Lee, Millen, Mooney, Noel-Williams (Robinson 68), Hyde, Palmer (Gibbs 26), Johnson, Hazan
Goals Noel-Williams 35, Lee 71
Manager Graham Taylor