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FA Carling Premiership, 6/5/00
Going down with a smile
By Ian Grant

This is our reality. We shouldn't have to explain or justify it, and we've finally stopped trying. Which is perhaps why I was walking through Middlesbrough town centre on Saturday, accompanied by a bunch of freaks in shorts, wigs, hats, face (and beard) paint and t-shirts, playing kazoos and carrying Winnie the Pooh balloons. There were a few sarcastic comments...mostly, though, we were greeted with looks of comical bemusement.

"Hang on, aren't you supposed to be miserable?"

Well, like I say, this is our reality. Judging by Saturday's glorious festivities, I'm not exactly alone in feeling that we've got more to celebrate than we have to be depressed about. Yeah, we're supposed to be miserable, we're supposed to have been humbled by the Premiership experience...but, speaking for myself, that's really not how I feel.

Whatever is in the past and whatever is in the future, I am happy and proud to be a Watford fan right now. No embarrassment, no shame, no apology. It is a splendid thing to be, as anyone looking in from the outside on Saturday would surely have seen. The last nine months may not have fulfilled my dreams on the pitch...but, hey, I've got enough memories of the triumphs that got us into this position to keep me going for the rest of my life. Besides - and this is where we've really strayed from the Premiership party line, albeit by necessity - it's not all about results.

I mean, the club - my club - is so much stronger than it was twelve months ago. Not just financially but also, crucially, in terms of a developing relationship between board, officials and fans - after years of antagonism, we finally seem to be discovering common interests and goals. In my preview of the season, I wrote with great bitterness about the gulf between the romanticism of Graham Taylor's team-building and the cynicism of the board's money-grabbing. I no longer feel that way, which is in itself cause for joy.

But there's more to it than that. Any thoughts that the increase in support for our Premiership campaign was going to result in a break-up of the club's core following could not have been more wrong. From a personal point of view, the sudden strengthening of links between like-minded fanzines, websites and supporters' groups has been the highlight of the season. It is what made something as special as Saturday happen.

So, if any confused Boro supporters are reading this in an attempt to work out what all the nonsense in the away section was about, here's one final explanation. We were celebrating us.

And it felt bloody great. Drinking champagne out of paper cups in the pub car park was not an act of defiance but of genuine celebration. We have things that are worth celebrating. Anyone without football knowledge who stumbled into the Star and Garter before the game would've found no indication that we weren't preparing for a trip to the Cup Final. My only regret is that kazoo distribution and other things dragged us away earlier than we might've hoped and we missed the parade from pub to ground, referred to by several people as the best part of the day.

By that time, Pete Fincham had arrived with a Madonna-style pointy bra with yellow and red decorations - I have a thesaurus but I've no idea where to start looking for appropriate adjectives. The magnificent "We're out of your league" banner, complete with Nationwide banner, had also arrived. You had to be there. If you weren't, then the best description I can find is that the mood of pride and joy was almost identical to the one on Wembley Way twelve months ago. This time, our fate was already decided...but that was forgotten and irrelevant.

So we strolled back to the car to collect more kazoos and a tray of beer for the stewards, then walked through an industrial wasteland to the stadium. We might as well have been from outer space, although any alien landing is unlikely to involve Winnie the Pooh balloons. Having been told for the two billionth time that "you'll never get in with that beer, lads" (yes, we know - we have ground regulations in the south too), we arrived.

The party slowly transferred itself from the pub to the ground and, by kickoff, it was in full swing. The team was welcomed by a blizzard of confetti and a great crescendo of noise, like we were about to play the most important game for years. Despite a futile request over the PA, we stayed on our feet and sang and sang and sang. Any fears that the idea might not strike a chord were simply blown away as the entire following chanted "WE ARE OUT OF YOUR LEAGUE" and "WE'RE GOING DOWN WITH A SMILE", occasionally applauded by the otherwise silent home fans.

As you'll have gathered by now, I won't be writing very much about the game itself. I've scribbled frantically through thousands of minutes of football this season but, on this occasion, my notebook stayed in my pocket. Anyway, the first half was dire and barely worthy of description. We struggled to string enough passes together to threaten the Boro goal, managing just one on-target effort in forty-five minutes - a half-blocked shot from Dominic Foley that trickled through to Schwarzer. Early on, we went close with a Micah Hyde free kick that bent round the wall and over the bar...but, really, we didn't look likely to score.

Frankly, and despite expectations of a goal spree to mark their last home game, Boro weren't much better. Indeed, they were fortunate to enjoy a half-time lead. It was another gift - David Perpetuini's turn to hit a feeble backpass, then Chris Day's full-blooded challenge on Stockdale resulting in the ball rebounding into the net. The celebrations were somewhat sheepish - indeed, by the time the usual annoying music had started blasting out over the PA, everyone had sat down again.

We weren't going to let that dampen our spirits. As Boro tried to put the game beyond our reach - Juninho curling a free kick onto the roof of the net, Day brilliantly saving Mustoe's driven shot from twenty yards - we just carried on. All this season's greatest hits - "SHALL WE HELP YOU SING A SONG?", "ARE WE MAKING TOO MUCH NOISE?", and so on. Attempts to get some kind of response from the thoroughly bored and boring home fans reached new levels of desperation. "BORO, GIVE US A SONG!" became "STEWARDS, GIVE US A SONG!" and "OLD BILL, GIVE US A SONG!" before an extended bout of dissent from Ricard ended with a booking and, inevitably, "RICARD, GIVE US A SONG!". Later, after a particularly ludicrous tumble in the area, the chant was changed to "RICARD, GIVE US A DIVE!".

We paid slightly more attention during the second half, mainly because it was a much better game. Ultimately, we might've grabbed an away win to ice an already ample cake but we rode our luck initially as Ricard hit the outside of the post, Festa smacked an explosive free kick just wide and Day produced a quite superb double save to keep out well-struck shots from substitute Marinelli.

For the first time, the party atmosphere was broken slightly by concentration on the game and chants were ended by roars of encouragement as we broke from defence. We needed to score to set it all off again. After increasing pressure, inspired by the bravado of Mooney and the trickery of Wooter, we did score. After a corner had been half-cleared, Neil Cox's deep cross reached Tommy Smith and, as the ball flashed across the face of goal, Darren Ward pounced to prod home from close range. The party was back on.

The ceremonial release of Winnie the Pooh, who floated up to the roof, then drifted around for a minute or two to take a bow before climbing skywards, brought the most bizarre chant of the day. "POOH BEAR, THERE'S ONLY ONE POOH BEAR!" we sang, saluting our honey-loving friend as he waved goodbye. You could almost see the disapproving looks on the faces of Messrs. Lineker, Hansen and Lawrenson, annoyed that we weren't taking their Premiership lessons entirely seriously. We're supposed to understand that we've got it wrong and feel a bit stupid...yet most of us still believe that we've got it right, even if we haven't avoided relegation. So, while Sheffield Wednesday fans were jeering their team at Coventry, we were again demanding a wave from our manager and triumphantly belting out "WE LOVE YOU WATFORD, WE DO!".

A winning goal would've been celebrated with complete abandon, such was the passion being generated by the away section. The cries of "COME ON YOU 'ORNS!", a personal favourite, that greeted corners were louder than at any time this season. In the end, we created two great chances and missed them both. The culprit, unusually, was Heidar Helguson, heading straight at Schwarzer from a right wing cross and then blasting the ball against the Boro keeper from close in. A few minutes later, Tommy Smith was just inches away from connecting with another cross and sending us into joyful delirium. As so often recently, it wasn't to be.

Indeed, it could've been worse. Late on, Marinelli tricked his way past Ward in the box and left a shot bouncing gently towards goal. It looked for all the world as if it had nestled in the bottom corner, to the extent that I put my head in my hands and was only aware that it had hit the post because of the huge roar from all around me. Even later on, Juninho should've scored but booted over the bar instead.

So it ended all square, our first away point of the year. And the players and management came over to the fans, receiving a gigantic ovation. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who came over all misty-eyed at the sight of Graham Taylor once again waving in acknowledgement of supporters chanting his name, just as he had at Wembley twelve months ago. These were wonderful, emotional moments, glorious scenes that will be mentally replayed and cherished almost as much as the ones that ended the last two seasons. We'd done them proud. In contrast, the Boro players went on a lap of honour and were greeted by largely empty stands.

In 1998, we finished with a pitch invasion to celebrate the Second Division Championship at Fulham, followed by drinking and singing and joy in Trafalgar Square. In 1999, we finished with victory at Wembley, with tears and ecstasy and everything else. In 2000, we finished with relegation...but we reacted just the same and we'll be telling generations to come about Saturday every bit as much as those other famous occasions. This is still a great time to be a Watford fan.

To all those who made it happen, huge thanks. Three cheers for us.