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Playoffs 1998/99
Playoff glory
Report by Chris Lawton

Watford reached the playoffs thanks to a superb run of form that saw us win seven and draw one of our last eight matches. The turning point had been matches 37, 38 and 39 - or Oxford, Bury and Tranmere. Against Oxford and Bury we were useless and failed to score against two sides that would ultimately be relegated. So the players were booed off the pitch after the home match with Bury and that sparked something off. The management and the players sat down and decided to go for it. To play with some Tommy Mooney spirit and see what happens. Match 39, Tranmere at home. A dodgy penalty, two players sent off and the crowd supporting the team to victory. The charge had begun.

So it was a few weeks later we found ourselves facing Trevor Francis's Birmingham in the playoff semi-final. We had the home leg first and should have killed the tie off in the first twenty minutes with Kennedy spurning two glorious chances to add to Ngonge's fine early header. After the sending off of Paul Robinson we hung on a bit and were somewhat glad it stayed one-nil rather than two-one.

The importance of not conceding a goal became all too clear at Birmingham the following Thursday. Just two minutes had elapsed when the tower juggernaut that is Adebola bundled the ball home. Backed by a vociferous travelling support the Hornets dug deep and battled on in a tough physical contest. Holdsworth was sent off but through a combination of outstanding goalkeeping (Chamberlain) and wasted delivery (Bazeley) neither side could score.

Penalties it was then that resolved this tie. We only missed one. Player of the year Steve Palmer scuffed his wide. Chmaberlain, however, saved two and we were through. Scenes of utter euphoria swept through the three thousand or so travelling fans as the players rushed over to join in the celebrations. In that one save, years of poor football and broken dreams were washed away. We were going back to Wembley and we had a new dream - going into the Premiership. Whatever happened at Wembley we had achieved something this season, we had upset the form book and proved many so called experts wrong. But Wembley was about to serve up something even better....

We were not expected to be there. We were not expected to win. But we were and we did. The consequence is that in 1999/2000 Watford and not Bolton, Ipswich or Birmingham will be playing top-flight football.

We got to Wembley on the back of a storming end of season and a dramatic penalty shoot out win over Birmingham. Bolton, by contrast, had scraped into the playoffs having looked like going up automatically for much of the season. They endured a nerve wracking playoff semi-final against Ipswich to find themselves back at Wembley. Pre-match thinking suggested it would be close, Bolton with the flair players, Watford the passion and determination.

Arriving via train to Wembley, as I had done some fifteen years ago, I was surprised to be outnumbered by Bolton fans. The balance was quickly redressed, however, as hundreds of Watford fans came into view as I made the short walk up to the stadium. As far as they, and I, were concerned we were not here to make up the numbers. We were going to have a party.

The game was not a classic but was graced with two outstanding goals that were fitting of the occasion. Nick Wright became the first Watford player to score at Wembley for the club. Ironically his overhead kick had all the hallmarks of a former owner of the number eleven shirt, John Barnes. Late in the game substitute Smart drilled the ball home from fifteen yards out to secure a famous victory.

At the final whistle there was a mixture of delight, disbelief and sheer pandemonium. Both sets of players seemed caught in a time warp as the enormity of the result hit them. The fans knew what it meant but for the players the realisation was somewhat slower. Then all of a sudden the players were up and celebrating. I glanced the other way. Eleven Bolton players were stood as lonely figures on the pitch as their fans left as rapidly as their dream of Premiership football. I know that if Watford had lost we would have stayed and cheered the lads for their achievements this season. Perhaps for Bolton it was one broken dream too many.

The biggest cheer in Watford history was still to come. When last, but by no means least, Graham Taylor walked up the steps at Wembley, shook some hands, and thrust aloft the playoff trophy. We knew what it meant to us, to the club and to Graham Taylor. It meant that Watford, yes Watford - not Bolton, Ipswich, Birmingham or Wolves who allegedly deserve to be the Premiership - are there. We deserve it because when the chips were down we held our nerve and played with sufficient desire to earn our way into top-flight football.

So the best of Birmingham got even better and what's more we did it on live television.