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Nationwide Division One, 6/5/01
Journey's end
By Ian Grant

It wasn't supposed to end like this, was it? Not with a pretty comprehensive defeat against a side that is the very definition of the word "functional". Not with ninth place, perching uncomfortably between the playoffs and the mid-table wastelands. Not with farewell waves and kisses in front of hundreds of rudely intruding Burnley fans, held back by a fragile line of police and stewards. Not with the bitterness and acrimony that surrounds the simultaneous departures of Messrs Jackett, Blissett and Walley.

Then again, it wasn't supposed to end at all. Fairytales always conclude with "happily ever after". When you share so much with someone - not only your hopes and dreams and other lofty things, but your everyday life - then the moment when it all ceases is impossibly painful. Oh, I know that we'll see him again. But I won't ever again wake up on a Saturday morning in the knowledge that I'm going to watch the continued adventures of Graham Taylor's Watford. If you can understand how that makes me feel, then you'll also understand why this report might not match up to the usual standards.

Really, writing about Burnley versus Watford in this context is like reviewing "War And Peace" on the basis of its last full stop. The very instant that the referee brought whistle to lips, it became entirely irrelevant. Indeed, it had been so for most of the second half, as the most gigantic "TAYLOR-MADE ARMY" session sent the great man out with the Hertfordshire equivalent of an earth-shaking twenty gun salute. Even if we don't sing it in a football ground again, we'll sing it to our grandchildren.

Much of this performance was as valiant as we could've demanded, yet riddled with the flaws that've denied us promotion. Despite appeals that Neil Cox's in-swinging corner had been bundled over the line by Michopoulos after twenty minutes, the better chances were created by the home side throughout. No complaints.

On a day when we'd hoped to see one final splurge of extravagant attacking, it was Alec Chamberlain who shone brightest. Although an early kicking error provided Taylor with the chance of scoring the first goal, which he missed by only a matter of inches, the Watford keeper redeemed himself in tremendous style. His stretching save to keep out Taylor's side-footed volley from six yards was just unbelievable, even if it was only seen by those Watford fans still watching the game as the stewards attempted to eject the drummer at the back of the stand.

The remainder was strangely bland. Occasional flashes of skill from Lee Cook or Tommy Smith, the former trying a couple of driven efforts and the latter getting forced wide when sprinting through the middle just prior to the interval. And reminders of how our calamitous defending might've been marginally less calamitous at times, with Richard Johnson around to sweep up the midfield debris. Otherwise, plenty of goal attempts of very little consequence.

When just a quick thought about the true meaning of the day causes you to fill up, you try to avoid dwelling on it. You know that it won't go away, but you also know that you'd rather get to full-time without weeping uncontrollably. So the first half had a true end-of-season feel about it. That is, pretty rubbish football, slightly antagonistic atmosphere, general sense of unimportance.

From the first minute, when Paolo Vernazza spooned a shot over the bar after Tommy Smith's dashing run down the left wing, the game began to rise to the occasion after the re-start. In all honesty, we should've been buried in the opening spell, as Chamberlain spread himself to block Weller from point blank range almost immediately after Vernazza's effort. A couple of thumping shots from Little also kept the keeper on his toes, before he was finally beaten by Moore...who rounded him successfully, then found the angle too tight to hit anything but the side netting. We were getting slaughtered.

But I described the performance as "valiant" earlier. As that final chorus of "TAYLOR-MADE ARMY" built up rolling momentum, so the Watford players fought to get over the halfway line towards its source. They succeeded too, forcing the home side back at a time when a goal seemed absolutely inevitable. Disappointingly, we then failed to get much further than the centre circle, running aground on the jagged rocks of the Burnley defence.

Even more disappointingly, we were also caught repeatedly on the break. Chamberlain saved brilliantly again from substitute Payton, diving low to his left to push the shot away. But he could do nothing about the opening goal, an unmarked Payton nodding firmly into the corner from a right wing cross. In many ways, that was less distressing than an injury to Richard Johnson, who hobbled off to a vast and sympathetic ovation, momentarily interrupting the mantra-like chanting of the manager's name. Lee Cook followed him shortly afterwards, having caught his studs in the turf while turning.

As the atmosphere grew to an overwhelming intensity, there were opportunities to equalise. Most notably, Steve Palmer, on for Johnson, dropped a through-ball into Heidar Helguson's path after thirty-three minutes. The striker's finish got enough of a touch from Michopoulos to allow a defender to get back, intercept from the lurking Smith and clear. As injury time began, Michopoulos saved rather extravagantly from James Panayi's curling shot.

Burnley might've been further ahead by then, though. After Panayi had been comprehensively beaten, a close range effort - I know not who by - slammed against the post and away. Then, in the dying seconds of the game, substitute Mullin broke clear of the defence and beat Chamberlain with a shot into the roof of the net. But don't remember that as the final act of Graham Taylor's managerial career. Remember it as a debut for Fabian Forde, a teenage striker and another glimpse of the future that he's left for us.

The pitch invasion that greeted the goal was repeated at the final whistle. As Burnley fans streamed onto the pitch and players dashed for the tunnel, our emotions were in utter turmoil. While there was little prospect of trouble, it still felt as if our farewell should be worthy of rather more respect and privacy. Certainly, the decision to bring the Burnley players out just as the home fans were returning to the stands was deeply questionable. We wanted to salute our everlasting hero, not trade chants with opponents.

Even if the circumstances weren't of our our choosing, it ended here. With that forty minute "TAYLOR-MADE ARMY" fanfare. With Graham Taylor blowing a kiss to the Watford fans on his way to the dressing room. With his return some minutes later, to stand in front of us and share precious, precious moments that we desperately wanted to last forever. With a final farewell, bringing out Tom Walley and Luther Blissett to take a bow alongside him. And, even then, the absence of the rejected Kenny Jackett was a powerful reminder that all is not as it should be.

Then they were gone, and the rest of our lives began.