When Watford returned for pre-season training in July 2005, Adrian Boothroyd called his squad together for a meeting.
The players entered the room to find the chairs had been arranged two by two, with an aisle down the middle, like the seats on a bus.
There was one seat at the front, for the driver. Boothroyd sat down in it and said: ‘This bus is going to the Premiership, who’s coming with me?’
Seeing as Watford had only just avoided relegation in May, most of the players thought their manager was barmy but slowly they began to take their seats.
‘It took courage to do that in front of a group of players who didn’t know him that well,’ says Jay DeMerit, who had felt unsettled when Ray Lewington was sacked. ‘Ray was the manager who took me from Northwood. It was strange going in one day and hearing your boss is no longer there.
‘The lads were talking and when we heard who the new manager was, I will be honest, everyone was saying, who the heck is Aidy Boothroyd? I even got on the computer to look him up and find out who he was and there wasn’t a lot of information out there.
‘Immediately his attitude was infectious. We were tipped for relegation but he was looking completely the other way. He was talking about promotion. Maybe people thought he was mad but he was so driven and for a while, that drive really worked.
‘We had a sports psychologist who got us to focus on what we wanted to achieve. That really brought us together and it was that togetherness that got us promoted. Everyone wanted the same thing. The only other time I have experienced that was when I played for the USA and we beat Spain in the Confederations Cup.’
Boothroyd enjoyed financial backing his predecessor could only have dreamed of. His first few signings were questionable (remember Junior, Martin Devaney, Adam Griffiths or Sietes?) but later he hit upon Marlon King, Darius Henderson and Matthew Spring, who helped transform the team.
The rookie manager traded in self-belief and that transmitted itself to the players. The style of play was direct but it wasn’t without a touch of finesse. While some of the tactics were unlikely to win friends among the purists, they were adept at winning matches.
‘We were a winning team,’ says the captain, Gavin Mahon. ‘Everything was focused on winning matches. We broke the season down into blocks of six games and the manager asked us to set a points target. If we met it, we were treated to a night out as a group. One time we all got laptops.
‘It made us concentrate on the short term and take each game as it came. And if we lost a game that we thought we should have won it gave us an extra incentive.’
Having qualified for the play-offs, Boothroyd reset the counter to zero.
‘We had played 46 games but our mentality was we had to forget how we got there, now we had to win three games,’ says DeMerit.
‘When we reached the final, there was such a sense of belief that this was our time, I don’t think many teams would have beaten us.’
Watford went to Cardiff a few days before the final and familiarised themselves with the Millennium Stadium.
‘We had this feeling that Leeds thought they had already won it,’ says DeMerit. ‘That was the sense we had. We used that to our advantage and it really spurred us on.’
Before the match, Marlon King wanted to know the Leeds team as soon as it was announced. As captain, Mahon was able to give him the news he wanted.
‘There had been a question mark about Paul Butler, their centre half, and whether he’d be fit,’ says Mahon.
‘Marlon really fancied playing against him because he knew him and he’d done well against him before. He knew he could run Butler into the ground. You should have seen the look on Marlon’s face when I told him Butler was in. That was probably worth a goal to us.’
In the tunnel, Watford’s players were loud and aggressive. They were shouting and bouncing on their toes. Mahon looked across at their opponents and thought: ‘I know which team I’d rather be captain of.’
That confidence coursed through every vein and sinew of the Watford players. There was an indomitable spirit about the team that it was evident Leeds could not muster.
Watford were gung-ho, they were swashbuckling and exuberant, in fact, they displayed qualities to match the finest teams produced in the club’s history. Leeds were crushed. Saddled with debt, there was so much riding on the outcome of this one match for the Yorkshire club.
Their financial situation implored them to reach for the riches on offer. Watford were driven by something plainer, purer and simpler – desire.
Boothroyd worked the touchline like a master puppeteer. He instructed, he cajoled, he made notes. He was in his element. Little over a year ago, he had been a coach at Leeds, working under Kevin Blackwell. Now he was able to put his knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses to good use. Boothroyd, already hailed as one of the game’s most talented young managers, was in his element.
The early exchanges were tense. The Millennium Stadium had none of the history or shabby chic of the old Wembley but it was an imposing arena which kept the atmosphere bubbling like the lid on a pan of boiling water.
Matches like this can turn on instinctive decisions. Watford won a corner, which Ashley Young prepared to swing into the penalty area.
‘Normally, I would make a run to the near post,’ says DeMerit. ‘That was my move but for some reason I sensed that Rob Hulse knew what I was going to do so I mixed up. I backed off then ran around in a loop.’
The ball curled into the box and time seemed to stand still for DeMerit. ‘All I can see is the ball,’ he says. ‘I am not looking at anyone or thinking about anything. I am just going for that ball.
‘Malky blocked off his guy so I could get through and I can still see it now, flying into the net.
‘That was the goal we were looking for. There had been a bit of uneasiness in the Leeds crowd and that goal really deflated them. Then their team started to lose something, while it gave us something to build on.
‘I often think back at how crazy this game is. It’s amazing to think “What if?” What if I had stuck with my normal run? What if I hadn’t decided to go round the back? What if my header had gone over the bar or the keeper had saved it? What if we hadn’t scored first? Every game hinges on hundreds of thousands of moments like that.’
Watford survived a penalty appeal late in the first half when Ben Foster nudged Paul Butler and after the break they tightened their grip on the game.
There was more than a touch of good fortune about the second goal.
A long throw from Mahon was seized on by James Chambers who turned and fired a shot which spun off Eddie Lewis, slipped from Neil Sullivan’s grasp and rolled in near the post.
With six minutes left, Shaun Derry hauled Marlon King down in the box and Darius Henderson thumped home the penalty. For the third time, Watford had reached the top flight.
Gavin Mahon, the captain, lifted the trophy with his manager. ‘Aidy was such a huge part of what we achieved,’ he says. ‘We had been relegation favourites at the start of the season and when he started talking about promotion there were a few people who thought he was mad. But he had a vision. He was very single-minded and he was very good at getting across to the players what he wanted. It was a very exciting thing to be a part of.’
It took DeMerit a while to come to terms with what he had achieved. The American had come to Europe to try to make it as a footballer.
‘A couple of years earlier, I’d been playing non-league. I used to go to the pub to watch Premiership games on TV. To be honest, it didn’t sink in until the fixture list came out and I saw the dates against Manchester United and Arsenal.’
A few weeks later, Mahon and his wife went to see Elton John in concert at Worcestershire cricket ground. During the season, Elton would often ring Boothroyd after a game and sometimes the manager would put Mahon on the phone for a chat.
Elton arranged for Mahon and his wife to sit in the front row and to go backstage before the encore to say hello. ‘We went and met him and he tried to get me to go on stage but I wasn’t having any of that,’ says Mahon. ‘The thing that struck me was how much it meant to him that his team had been successful. That felt pretty special.’