It's difficult to remember an end to a season which had more twists and turns as the WFC faithful rode a rollercoaster of emotions, culminating in the retirement of the legendary Graham Taylor and the appointment of Gianluca Vialli. Even on the pitch, Watford launched themselves from pitiful away defeats to stunning home victories through March. Then having spent much of April dropping points all over the show, finally killing all hope of the play-offs and dawdling to a ninth placed finish.
Looking back at the games from the run-in, it's easier and nicer to pick out the good performances as a lasting reminder of the great man's last few games in charge of our club. You're ahead of me here as I mention Norwich, a sumptuous slaughter of the Norfolk men who had us spitting feathers earlier in the season. The game will be remembered for Nordin Wooter's stunning goal and all-round display, never has a player more deserved a standing ovation when stretchered off. Then there was the 3-0 beating of Nottingham Forest, watched by a certain Italian. Not a flowing performance as Norwich was, but the game came slap-bang in the middle of a very memorable week for this writer. Watford FC proved once again how they could always be relied upon to play a part in a rollercoaster of personal highs and lows, for ninety minutes at least.
If GT had hoped that the announcement of his retirement would inspire his players, that hope was blasted away in the second half at West Brom. Watford produced as derisory a performance as we had seen all season as the Baggies took us apart. Then we hit the self-destruct button and threw away leads at home to Crystal Palace and at Grimsby, though the defeat at Blundell Park was unable to dampen a thoroughly entertaining away day. Then again at home to Wolves against ten men before Heidar Helguson's last minute winner kept the season alive. The defeat at Preston in a rollercoaster of a game sealed Watford's fate. There was to be no last promotion for GT.
Why did Watford fail? There has been much talk on the subject and the finger is well and truly pointing at Watford's defence. Our defensive record was among the worst in the division. The seasons of Neil Cox, Robert Page, Paul Robinson and, to a lesser extent, Darren Ward were strewn with basic errors. Steve Palmer played more games in defence as the season went on but even the reliable Smoker caught the bug and defended badly. Only Ward, who it should be remembered played his first full season of first team football this term, and the impressive James Panayi emerge from the wreckage that was our defence with any credit. That all bar these two and Robinson have been placed on the transfer list (while being slightly harsh on loyal servants like Page and Palmer) speaks volumes. Whether it was GT or GV who made those decisions, they would, I'm sure, have both agreed.
Elsewhere within the squad there is much for Gianluca Vialli to work with. Richard Johnson's overdue return to the fold at the end of the season is a major plus. Having the Australian midfield man back for August will be like having a new signing. In the second half at Gillingham he was simply superb and showed just how much we have missed him. Paolo Vernazza continues to show glimpses of what he is capable of, maybe he just lacks a bit of consistency but he certainly looks set to grace the team next season. Allan Nielsen may have tailed off towards the end of the campaign but his experience and knack of scoring vital goals still showed through.
For me, the star of the season just gone has to be Tommy Smith. He has come on in leaps and bounds and is now looking like being a key player next season. He should also be relishing the prospect of learning from Vialli. How much longer we can hang on to him is open to debate but there can be no doubt that Tommy Smith is going to the top. Tommy Mooney's goalscoring exploits will be sorely missed if he does move on from Watford while Gifton Noel-Williams and Heidar Helguson will hope to be more consistent next year. In particular, Gifton was a very important player to the team under GT, when he was fit and on form the team generally played much better for having his strength and ball holding abilities. There are still players who could bounce back under the new manager - Micah Hyde and Allan Smart both have good football brains and may flourish again next term.
Around the rest of the division, the season never looked like going to the wire as far as the top two places were concerned. Fulham fully deserved the plaudits for winning the league. While there is much to despise in Mohammed El-Fathead's attitude to Fulham and to football in general, it would be churlish to allow that to detract from Jean Tigana's achievement in winning the title in style. Up at Ewood Park, old Sourpuss managed to get over the disappointment of losing at home to the Golden Boys to lead Rovers back to the Premiership. Though it pains me to admit it, they probably deserved it too.
The play-offs certainly produced a highlight of this or many a season at the semi-final stage but I prefer to look at the final. Bolton versus Preston at Cardiff - a fitting finale, as these two sides were certainly the next best after Fulham and Blackburn. Preston under David Moyes are very reminiscent of us two years ago, a side with no real stars that works hard for each other. In Macken and Healy, they have two quality forwards. Bolton are another good side and have the experience of missing out for the last two seasons, as did Ipswich this time last year. The final should be a good one. Did I mention Trevor Francis?
I can't finish without making mention of the farewells to the greatest manager this club is ever likely to have. Writing and selling the "One Graham Taylor" fanzine was our way of saying "thankyou" and was a great experience. The lap of honour after the Tranmere game brought a tear to my eye I must admit, as did the bow and waves at Burnley and the magnificent Watford support that day. My one regret is that, the Gillingham game excepted, the players were not able to raise their games in those closing weeks to give the great man a fitting send-off, but the host of memories of great games, great players and great occasions will always outweigh that.
The time has come, though. GT must be removed to the memory, the focus must now be on Gianluca Vialli and his attempt to return us to the Premiership. Quite rightly, he must be allowed to make his decisions and be given a fair crack of the whip. Comparisons are inevitable in football but Vialli's decision to list six players cannot be compared to Dave Basset's wholesale destruction of Watford in 1987. The club is in a very different position now. I feel Vialli must have some signings wrapped up as, if all the listed players go, we will be left with few defenders and even fewer left sided players. One thing is for sure, with the rumours flying around at the moment, we are in for another rollercoaster ride this summer....