Last Summer, ig's review of the 04/05 season started with the words, "Let's begin with the absolutely bleedin' obvious. This wasn't how it was supposed to turn out." And, to be perfectly honest, I cannot find a better way to start this review. So ….
Let's begin with the absolutely bleedin' obvious. This wasn't how it was supposed to turn out. The Summer of 2005 saw a level of polarity among the fans that was unprecedented in my twenty-six years of following the Horns. Message boards and mailing lists were full of arguments between the "doom mongers" and the "happy clappers", and it appeared that everyone fell into one or other of those camps. The Summer clear-out at Vicarage Road had included both the captain and his predecessor, which comprised our experience in central defence (Jay DeMerit being a one year veteran at that point). Dyer was released and, after a couple of statements from the club reassuring fans that H would be staying, the much-loved Icelander disappeared off to Fulham and with him our strikeforce. The final straw for many was the sacking of Nigel Gibbs. Hard as that was to take, in and of itself, the official website announcement of the termination of his quarter of a century service under the heading 'Hornets Restructure Coaching Team' alongside an article heralding the arrival of Martin Devaney and Jordan Stewart was just rude. With a fan as Chairman, you really wondered how on earth they could get these things so wrong.
So we started pre-season with no strikers worthy of the name and only one central defender with first team experience. Soon after, Boris was shipped out to Reading for a pittance and we recruited the one-footed Junior, Sietes (an aging Spaniard) and Griffiths (an unknown Aussie). In addition, Marlon King, whose career had gone severely off the rails while at Forest and had hardly set the World alight during a loan spell at Leeds, arrived on loan with an option to buy at £500K. What was the manager thinking?
We were soon to find out, as the first steps towards reconciliation between the club and its detractors came with an e-mail inviting people to a Fans' Forum at the club. Trust me to have unsubscribed in frustration a week before. Thankfully, someone posted the invitation on WML, so I was present as the Chairman spent his birthday facing questioning from about two hundred fans in the Lower Rous bar. This was also the first opportunity that most fans had to hear, in person, the opinions of young Mr Boothroyd. Some of his statements were as utterly barking in person as they appeared in the print media but, in context rather than soundbite form, it was clear that he was a lot more than a mass of clichés. And much as some tried to resist, it was hard not to be impressed by his enthusiasm. His promise of flowing attacking football and goals from all over the park were certainly welcome, even if it was difficult to envisage the playing staff at his disposal delivering on his promises. And I was probably not the only person who, after telling him that I had grave reservations about how he was going to achieve his aims, was taken aback at his invitation to "come back and see me when we win promotion." By the time I returned from my brief chat with young Adrian, I had promised to buy him a bottle of something if we won promotion (raised from the first offer of a pint by my certainty that I would never be called upon to pay up).
Towards the end of the last week of the close season, there was a late (and welcome) flurry of transfer activity as Darius Henderson arrived to bolster the strike-force and Clarke Carlisle filled our gap in central defence. Also, surprisingly, Ben Foster, Stoke's third choice keeper who had played alongside Alex Ferguson's son while on loan to Wrexham the previous season and won a contract at Man United was brought in on a season-long loan. He was a prospect, certainly, but we already had one of those in Richard Lee. Lee was soon farmed out to be third-choice keeper on loan at Blackburn playing before two men and a dog at Morecambe. Baffling.
The first week of the season was quite remarkable. It started with the visit of Preston. And started very well indeed with new signing Darius Henderson putting us one up on nine minutes, but it soon started to go wrong as a defence who'd never met played as would be expected in that situation and a green goalkeeper looked completely out of his depth. It appeared that we were in for a long hard season. It went from bad to worse in the midweek game at Plymouth where we were 3-1 down by half-time. According to the Plymouth manager after the game, Betty's opinion of the first half performance could be heard throughout Home Park. It did the trick, though, and the Horns came back to get a point. This momentum continued to Cardiff on the Friday night, where a convincing 3-1 win was staged for the Sky cameras. Seeing the signs for the Millennium Stadium on the way to Ninian Park, there was a wistful desire to see my team in a game staged there. Who could have predicted at that point that the season would end with another three goals in Cardiff? But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
A recurring theme from Adrian Boothroyd's interviews at the start of the season was that he and the players would be "growing and learning". The first couple of games gave our first indication that this was more than rhetoric from the young manager as the training kit that he wore in the opening game was ditched in favour of a smart suit. He later explained that the besuited Billy Davies had been given more respect by the referee in that game, so he determined to look the part and gain the psychological advantage. Intriguing.
From our mixed start, we were to go on a run that saw us reach mid-September unbeaten since the first game of the season. While this all seemed remarkable given the low pre-season expectations, those with slightly longer memories than some cautioned that, actually, this start to the season was very similar to what we had experienced the season before. With a fit Danny Webber scoring for fun, we had amassed sixteen points after eight games, compared to seventeen this season. The downfall during the previous season had been precipitated by injuries to Webber and other key players and loss of form not helped by off-the-field distractions. In the 2005 vintage, Marlon King and Ashley Young had been on fire, but a loss of form or injury to one or other of them, or indeed one of our other key players would leave our paper-thin squad very short of options.
The early period had seen our squad further strengthened by the additions of Malky Mackay and Matthew Spring. This was counter-balanced, however, by the disappearance of the early pre-season panic buys. Junior and Devaney were already gone both apparently due to incidents on the pre-season tour of Denmark, one of which involved an immigration officer and a dodgy passport. And it quickly became apparent to those that actually saw them play that Sietes and Griffiths would never grace the first team.
The Sheffield United game in September was to see us lose both the game, thanks to some gamesmanship, and key players in King (injured) and Mackay (suspended). The small squad had to be quickly supplemented by loan signings, so the traveling Horns were treated to the sight of Trevor Benjamin lumbering around up-front on a sunny afternoon at Gresty Road. A sight that did not fill one with confidence that our promising start would continue.
Indeed, from mid-September to mid-October, we only amassed three points, but, in contrast to the previous season this was not the beginning of an inexorable fall down the table as a win at Portman Road and a Ben Foster inspired thrashing of Wolves started a run of five wins and four draws. It also has to be said that while we were not playing the prettiest football, with the pitch certainly not helping in this regard, the manager was delivering on his pre-season promise of us scoring goals from all over the park and, despite a habit of conceding soft goals, it was encouraging that the players never conceded defeat (and so it rarely happened). Even the lack of style in some performances was greatly encouraging as the idealist, who had articulated his utopian vision in the Summer, showed he could be a pragmatist too. There was a concern, though, that we were winning without playing well and would eventually be found out. So, the pre-Christmas 4-1 defeat to Burnley was welcomed. We hadn't actually played that badly and surely we would learn a lot more from this defeat than from some of the fortunate wins and draws that had gone before. Indeed, we bounced back with a very convincing win over Southampton on Boxing Day (we never win on Boxing Day!) Although the year ended with a poor draw at struggling Millwall and an unlucky defeat, again due to gamesmanship, at home to Palace.
In the second half of the season, far from being found out, the manager fulfilled his promise that he and the players would be growing and learning and that they would get better as the season went on. January started with a welcome win a Kenilworth Road, followed by a major reality check as a second string Bolton team beat us at a stroll in the FA Cup. The slight pause that gave us as we contemplated the possibility of promotion was soon forgotten as we went on a tear. Although, while watching the dour defeat of Stoke, it would have been a brave fan who predicted what was to come. The Stoke game also caused some ructions off the field, as despite the optimism of most of the regulars at Vicarage Road, it has to be said that the team's progress was not capturing the imagination of the wider Watford public. Whether this was a hangover from the disillusionment of the Summer or a result of the home performances not being as entertaining as those on the road, it made little sense that a side which had been established in the play-off places since October and had tecently had a feel-good win against our local rivals could only attract a crowd of 12,247. Adrian was said to be furious. What on earth did he have to do to get the crowds in?
What followed did the trick beautifully as, after twice coming from behind, Matt Spring scored a cracking last minute winner at Carrow Road that had even the most pessimistic and cynical of fans (me) starting to believe. Sadly for me, I then had to go to the US for the best part of two months and missed the team going ballistic. The first three games of my sojourn yielded four Watford goals each, including the thrashing of Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. Talk of the play-offs then started being replaced by whispers of automatic promotion. Surely not.
The goal-fests were followed by a narrow defeat for a team reduced to nine men at Elland Road. Again we bounced back for a run of three wins and two draws, including the goal of the season from the half-way line at the Withdean, and a very creditable goalless draw at the home of the runaway division leaders.
The end of March saw our first run of two defeats in the season, as a poor display at home to a struggling Millwall side was followed by us pushing the self-destruct button at Selhurst Park on a Friday night, a learning experience if ever there was one. The 1-1 draw at home to Luton meant that by the time we faced Wolves on Good Friday, automatic promotion was no longer a possibility.
The Easter period heralded another example of Boothroyd's forward-thinking. With two games in four days over the long weekend, Adrian decided that he would use this as preparation for the play-offs. Looking at it as a two-legged match, the players' routine would mimic that required for the play-off semis in May. Then, towards the end of an enjoyable 2-1 defeat of Ipswich (yielding an aggregate win over the weekend), word came over the tannoy that the Watford fans should stay behind after the game for an announcement from the manager. What followed was a penalty shootout with the Yellows taking on the Reds and the fans under instruction to boo the players as they prepared to shoot and cheer if they scored. How much this prepared the players for the real thing I don't know, but every fan left Vicarage Road that afternoon with a huge smile on their face.
April was to see us unbeaten and finishing the season in third place.
And so to the play-offs and, despite the remarkable achievement of Adrian and the team in making it this far, this was to be Mr Boothroyd's finest hour. While the Watford faithful had a collective belief that we could do it, what none of us could have foreseen was the manner in which this would be achieved. When the teams contesting the play-offs were finalized, Watford had to face the fact that they had beaten none of the other teams during the season. However, Adrian's promise that he and the players would "grow and learn" during the season made that history an irrelevance such that, a dodgy first half at Selhurst notwithstanding, once the play-offs began, there was only one team going to the Premiership. Adrian Boothroyd's management in these games went far beyond picking eleven players to do a job and sending them out with the tactics they were to employ, he had thought of everything and, in doing so, had ensured that his group of players would take the field with an unshakeable confidence.
The first-leg of the semis saw us weather a storm in the first half, make a tactical change and then crush Palace in the second period. It was quite incredible to see the heads of the experienced Palace side visibly drop, while we got stronger as the game went on. And, as the fans stood breathless and disbelieving at the end of the game, Betty still had one further surprise as the players gave a peremptory clap to the fans and then left the field. We knew enough about him at this point to realize that he'd told them it was half-time and they'd won nothing yet and, sure enough, that was the theme of the interviews that evening.
For the second leg, with the away fans in the Lower Rous, Fortress Vicarage Road was not to be breached. Only one match ball was available, as the manager sought to control the pace of the game. Mackay and DeMerit were a wall in central defence. And, even the pitchside brawl that ensued after Fitz Hall and Aidy tangled on the touchline, just led to an incredible show of solidarity from the Watford players and proved one distraction too many for the visitors.
So we were on our way to Cardiff.
The preparations before the final were staggering in their detail. From the mundane: the players visiting Cardiff, staying in the team hotel and taking a tour of the stadium. To the increasingly bizarre: practising on a pitch marked out to the exact dimensions of that at the Millennium Stadium; practising handshakes, for heaven's sake; deciding whether to be quiet or shouty in the tunnel (they opted for [very] shouty). Nothing was to be left to chance. And the result was in no doubt. But 3-0. 3-bloody-0. Even three months later, having been at the game and watched both the highlights and the full game on more than one occasion since, it is still hard to take in how comprehensively we won that game. A deserved third place in the division led to an extremely deserved place in the top division. And a manager disappointed that we hadn't achieved automatic promotion. No pleasing some people.
So, the relegation favourites from last season are now in the Premiership. And our young manager has gone from unknown quantity to media darling. And, while my logical mind finds it hard to see us making the push for Europe that Adrian is suggesting, it is also increasingly hard to doubt anything that the manager says. His message towards the end of last season was "Anything is possible" and how can any Watford fan help but to go into this season believing that anything is, indeed, possible. Come On!