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98/99: Review:
End-of-season review
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 to be....

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.