By Ian Grant
"Don't believe the hype / But you're everything I hoped for..."
Bows, "'King Deluxe"
Bows at the Arts Club in Brighton, the night before Wembley.
It felt like the last day of a wonderful holiday. You know, that sense of real life
looming ominously on the horizon, one final chance to party. And what a party it turned out
Reality's back with a vengeance now, as I knew it would be, but there are enough
holiday snaps to last a lifetime. A season to cherish, so many matches and players and
goals and saves and achievements that'll be talked about for decades to come. We've
lived through something as astonishing as anything in the club's history (and you won't
need me to tell you that there's some moderately astonishing stuff in the club's history) and
we'll tell the tales to those who follow.
We'll remember the occasions when we were blessed with good fortune, from that
absurd, wonky win at Portsmouth on the opening day right through to the mayhem against
Tranmere that not only arrested our decline but decisively propelled us toward the playoffs.
We'll look back on the moments when watching Watford offered an abundance of uncomplicated,
childish fun - trouncing hapless Swindon (still a personal favourite - perhaps the most
classically comical match I've ever seen, "Fawlty Towers" on a football pitch) or pulling
Oxford apart and forgetting to score more than two goals, thereby cruelly torturing them
and making them die slowly.
We'll think of the players who made this possible, and pay them fulsome tribute. Richard Johnson, who was
at his massively influential best just when we needed him to be; Micah Hyde, the flighty, intricate
foil to Johnson's heavy industry; Robert Page, filling his boots; Steve Palmer, who began the season as a
bit part actor and ended it in the lead role; Tommy Mooney and that scoring run, especially
the second at Port Vale; Alec Chamberlain, inspired; Nicky Wright, not only the overhead
kick but the erratic sparks of genius that preceded it; Allan Smart, the target man who pulled
our over-direct attacking play together early on and set the pattern for the season; Peter Kennedy, eighty percent hot air
and twenty percent cold steel; Gifton Noel-Williams, suddenly maturing into the player that
so many claimed he would be; Darren Bazeley, asserting himself at last. More than anything, though, we'll recall
the times when individuality ceased and collective will
became an unstoppable force. All three wins over Bolton, each utterly magnificent in different
ways, and the performance of the season at St Andrews on Easter Monday.
The more you think back beyond Wembley, the more you'll find treasures hidden away
in your memory banks. Some of them have been so thoroughly displaced by the information
overload of recent weeks that they seem to come from a different season altogether. Was that
staggering win over Sunderland really this year? Its hazy, black-and-white detail, the best
that my brain can provide, makes it appear so much further into the past. Did we really
begin the campaign with Jason Lee and Ronny Rosenthal up front?
There's a whole summer ahead to reflect and digest. Maybe that's why the sudden absence
of football fixtures to plan life around doesn't matter quite so much. Lazy weekends
on Brighton beach, dreaming of Johnno's first goal at Bristol and the muffled 'WHUMP' of detonation,
audible even above the commentary on the video, as he strikes that unstoppable volley. For
now, I've seen enough live football...but I'll never tire of watching this season's
highlights on mental replay.
Even the worst bits deserve a mention. It's precisely because we weren't invincible, because
what we achieved was not born of mathematical precision, that the feeling of pride is so
overwhelming. Such a human victory.
So, sporadically and never as often as the spend-spend-spend critics tried to make us
believe, we were bloody awful. Oxford away has only been forgotten because Bury followed it -
two scoreless draws of skull-crushing tedium as the goals dried up and the season threatened to
crawl to a standstill. The thoroughly abject televised defeat at home to Wolves - arguably the only game
in which we didn't even compete - was probably worse, in objective analysis.
Not that objective analysis was getting much a look-in by the end of March. Having begun
the season in hope of avoiding a relegation struggle, vocal sections of the Watford support
simply deserted their team when they were needed most. The abuse dealt out to certain
players - players who'd already contributed fully to a top ten position, yet who were now
being loudly and crassly dismissed as "not good enough" - was more depressing than the
slump in results. And those, only happy when it rains, who began predicting an inevitable return to Division Two for
next season ought to hang their heads in shame.
I told you so? Who cares, it's all in the past. But next season offers an even greater
challenge. We will lose games, we will almost certainly go on bad runs that seem like
they'll never end. How we, as supporters as well as players, react to that situation will determine
our fate. And if we react as we did during February and March, we're going down.
Much has been made of the fact that the team which won at Wembley had undergone only
minor surgery since winning promotion. But it wasn't exactly unrecognisable from
the one that finished thirteenth in Division Two under Kenny Jackett. That's the
power of positivity, motivation, quality coaching, teamwork. That's what ambition really means.
Anyone can spend money. Nobody can buy the ecstasy that we experienced at Wembley on May 31st.
Because, although all supporters feel great pride in the club, this is so much more. This is
pride in the players themselves, joy in not only what they've achieved for Watford but what they've
achieved for themselves. By abandoning themselves to that unstoppable collective
will, they've created something that we can all be a part of. For all the previously-noted
negativity earlier in the year, the relationship between fans and players in the final two
matches at Birmingham and Wembley wasn't just close. It was as one. It was our victory.
Money only ever gets in the way of that. Both in the shape of hyper-inflationary ticket
prices and insane wage demands, it puts up a barrier through which memories as special as
the ones we cling to cannot pass. Expensive signings will never be ours like this glory-drenched team
is ours. Relegation or no relegation, something even more precious
is at stake next season.
What Graham Taylor has given to Watford, to you and to me, is beyond value. The pride that keeps our hearts beating is not for sale.