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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two Play-off Final, 21/05/06, 3.00pm
Leeds United
By Ian Grant

"Anything is possible."

It's the best phrase of the day, undoubtedly. And it comes from, if you like, the best man. Anything is possible. Not anything's possible, a shrug of the shoulders to say that, hey, it just might rain five pound notes tomorrow. That's not Adrian Boothroyd. No, take out the apostrophe: anything is possible. A defiant, substantial statement of intent. A summary of the man, perhaps.

But then, perhaps not. Y'see, that philosophy is what brought us to the playoffs, no further. It's brought others so far too, when they weren't given much of a prayer; when it happens, it's always a great story, a reminder that football hasn't yet lost all of its romance amid rampant commercialisation. It's a splendid philosophy, one upon which so much of Watford Football Club has been built, one with which Adrian Boothroyd has clearly worked magic.

But this - this, an achievement so huge that I'm still skirting around its edges, trying to find somewhere to start - was built on something else. Something new. Tangible and new. As a Watford supporter, I've never known anything like it. Not in this context, not in situations where true, lasting glory is at stake. Not in these moments of explosive emotion, when every nerve is supposed to be shattered and shot through, and merely breathing should be an achievement in itself. Bloody hell, we've just won the playoffs...and I still have all of my fingernails, most of my hair, and some of my sanity. My voice has seen better days, mind.

"Some things are certain."

That's it. Right there, that's it. Anything is possible, but some things are certain. A slight contradiction, perhaps, but then, Adrian Boothroyd doesn't quite do logical like everyone else. He certainly doesn't do the playoffs like everyone else, that's for flippin' sure....

Unnatural and disorientating, it is nonetheless unavoidable during the long journey down to Cardiff in the morning. Confidence. Not over-confidence, not the billowing bluster of our opponents, the usual Top Trumps played by big clubs with big ambitions and mediocre teams. Just a quiet, solid belief in the ability of the manager and his team to plan ahead with almost inhuman thoroughness, to get it right when getting it right will nearly always be enough. Some things are certain. It is possible to win these games before you've even got your boots on, if you prepare and listen and understand and think...and then breathe in very deeply before you go out to do your job. Somehow - and it's entirely unfamiliar to me, a natural pessimist - there is the sense that Adrian Boothroyd will simply not allow us to come so far without taking that extra, final step. That he will not fail us.

And he doesn't fail us. They don't fail us. You can argue through all kinds of issues over the course of the season, so many different decisions that can be analysed to death. But it comes down to this, in the end: three clean sheets, six goals, promotion and celebration. For forty-five minutes at Selhurst, we rode our luck...and when our luck didn't throw us headfirst into a ditch, we took the reins in a firm grasp and galloped towards the sunset and over the horizon. Rarely can opportunity have been seized so decisively. Rarely can pressure have been brushed off so lightly. Rarely can the apparently improbable have become so absolutely certain. It's not the Watford way, perhaps...but we were never going to lose this, were we? We were simply never going to let that happen.

Thus, there isn't the delirium of '99, when a team that appeared to be disintegrating suddenly lifted itself to unimaginable heights. There isn't that dream-like sense of wonder and amazement, of genuine shock and surprise. That came at Selhurst, where we suddenly realised just how ruthlessly we were going to seize the moment, how little attention we were going to pay to playoff convention. There's no Allan Smart moment, not this time. It's a more considered and controlled victory altogether. A masterpiece of planning and teamwork and utter composure, no overhead kicks required. A new Watford, apparently afraid of nothing at all. I don't understand it. I absolutely love it, but I don't understand it.

You will watch the match again, I'm sure. Perhaps you don't really need to, though. The only regret is that we didn't give the assembled media something rather more elegant to write about, for we've scored some truly gorgeous goals over the course of the season and these very definitely weren't their equal. Then again, there's a certain functional beauty to be found here too: the sense in which, having done all of the hard work to reach Cardiff, this was almost deliberately understated, just a couple of set pieces and a penalty. That'll do. Right, where's the trophy? Having already established our right to promotion, we only had to sign the paperwork.

Which sounds terribly arrogant, and that's not quite right. Rather, I refer to Adrian Boothroyd's very astute comment about playing the game rather than the occasion; for much of these ninety minutes, we were the only team on the pitch with its minds concentrated solely on winning one single match. A very winnable match, and a match that we had every right to win. Another day's work. The most important hurdle that we've faced, undoubtedly...but we appeared to achieve a perfect balance between awareness of that importance and ignorance of the occasion that surrounded it. We came, we played and won a fairly ordinary game of football, we celebrated like absolute loons (bless you, Al). Everything in the right order. Who needs icing on the cake, if the cake is perfectly glorious in its own right?

And who needs heroes, when you have a team so full of heroics? Just as the playoffs have been an absolute triumph for the manager - no doubt now that he is much, much more than an exciting, eccentric wannabe - so they have also proved to the team's crowning glory. A month ago, you waited to see who'd emerge from the squad as a match-winner, as a name for the history books; now, a dozen or so names present themselves with equal validity, and the team remains everything, above and beyond those names. Christ, just look at the celebrations. Look at the group huddled together after each of the goals, everyone united in a common cause. Look at the way that nobody is hanging around, left behind, not part of the gang. If anything eclipses '99 - and it doesn't seem possible, given Graham Taylor's capacity for building team spirit - then it is surely that.

There are no individuals here. There are some truly mighty performances, but there are no individuals. You can't separate Gavin Mahon from Matthew Spring and analyse his ninety minutes, for they exist as an engine room rather than distinct entities; you can't look at James Chambers, who has typified the ethos by slotting into the right of midfield as if he'd been happily playing there all season, without reference to Lloyd Doyley, one of the main beneficiaries of the new regime. You can't linger there for long, without your eyes moving across to the colossal defensive partnership that's been formed between Malky Mackay and Jay Demerit, or without remembering what a vital role the much-maligned Jordan Stewart has played over the last three games. Or without thinking of Ben Foster, who, you suspect, will always carry something of Watford with him when he goes onto still greater things. And so on, throughout. Marlon King gets all of the headlines, and rightly, but Darius Henderson is a great big beefy monster of a centre forward, worthy of comparison to some mighty predecessors. The sleek but increasingly competitive Ashley Young, the utterly irrepressible Al Bangura.

These are more than cogs in a machine, to be sure. They're players in a team, individual contributors to a unique whole. At Selhurst, they stood with arms linked on the halfway line and faced their opponents without fear. Here, they celebrated goals in a circled group, key voices raised to ensure that nobody lost focus until the job was done. It is hard to imagine a tighter, more cohesive unit. Incredible to think, really, that the squad was still undergoing extensive surgery even as the season kicked off. Incredible to think, full stop.

Hard to think, in the great cacophony of the vastly impressive Millennium Stadium, where the noise rolls slowly around underneath the closed roof like a viscous liquid. The acoustics are terrible for chanting, breaking up the syllables as they swirl around, but it's a terrific racket nonetheless, and you can finally release some of that pent-up tension by bellowing into the huge space, vaguely responding to whatever song appears to be forming from the general hullabaloo. As always with these things, you just want it to start. From the moment that the nerves hit like nausea as you jump off the train at Cardiff Central and find yourself buried in crowds and noise and chaos and then dwarfed by a stadium that seems entirely out of scale with everything else and then lost in a chaotic, deafening pub with a beer that doesn't seem to have any effect at all and then finally inside and up-up-up and up again to seats that offer a dizzying view of the just-about-familiar figures below and then everything is obscured by half a ton of chopped-up Yellow Pages as the teams emerge, you just want it to start.

When it starts, you'd be quite happy for it to finish right away. If this particular half of football had been transferred to, say, the League Cup Second Round at Vicarage Road, it'd have been played in front of a gentle buzz of idle chit-chat, punctuated by half-hearted grumbling and an occasional anti-Luton chant from the back of the Rookery. It's not attractive football. Instead, it rattles by, time accelerated by intent concentration and vibrant nerves; fifteen minutes have gone before you know it, and you realise that your only memories of Wembley, other than the goals and the celebrations that followed, come from the video.

It's tight and scrappy. We start positively, forcing a couple of early corners and establishing a pattern by belting them into the heart of the six yard box from either side, Jordan Stewart and Ashley Young combining to deliver some wonderful crosses throughout the afternoon. From one of these, Darius Henderson fails to make a connection when well-placed...and, intelligently, we take that as good reason not to bother with any significant variation on the theme for the rest of the match. It's not the route to victory that we'd have predicted, I guess, but it represents a decisive opportunism that's not at all untypical of our remarkable season.

The first goal is vital, clearly. For all our meticulous planning and preparation, we allow Leeds that possibility, just as we allowed Palace to have their opportunities before we slammed the door in their faces. A long throw, Ben Foster's flap is one of very few lapses, and it leaves Derry with a clear sight of goal, a rare thing at either end. He stabs the ball towards the target and it's in, unless Ashley Young instinctively sticks out a toe to divert it into the side netting. It's not in. Mercifully. We don't offer up a comparable chance until the game is almost out of Leeds' grasp.

Very occasionally, we see flashes of the sweeping attacking football that's characterised the team's finest moments - Ashley Young flicks on a long pass from Malky Mackay, then collects the return from Marlon King before slicing rather hurriedly wide from the edge of the box - and we hope that more will follow, for Leeds don't appear comfortable with the pace and the movement. Frankly, Leeds don't appear comfortable with very much, as befits a team burdened by the expectation of seven hundred thousand supporters, or however many tickets they could've sold. Malky Mackay and Jay Demerit usher Hulse around, while Gavin Mahon and Matthew Spring start to get a grip on the midfield; one of these teams is waiting for its moment, the other is just hoping.

That moment comes after twenty-five fleeting minutes. Another of those corners...and we haven't been especially effective from corners under Adrian Boothroyd, but these are absolutely delicious, flung violently into the danger area as if propelled by ancient weaponry. And there's Jay Demerit, hurling himself at the ball at the far post as only he can, and using all of that momentum to smack an unopposed header into an unguarded net. One of the most famous goals in the club's long history...and one of the simplest. The marking is their problem, not ours. Up in the heights, we're losing our heads; back on the pitch, they're already settling themselves down again, passing instructions around, keeping the team together. It's a fantastic start, nothing more.

Well, apart from the fact that Leeds heads are already starting to drop just a little. And we believe, even more than before. And the rest of the half scampers frantically by as well, only now framed by the knowledge that we've already done enough. That we only have to stop Leeds from scoring...and Leeds really don't much look like scoring. Hulse shins a half-volley wide from miles out; Gregan climbs to meet a cross from deep, but heads well wide. It's our game, if we want it to be. And bloody hell, we very clearly want it to be.

In injury time, Marlon King brings a bit of class to proceedings by doing that thing - you know, the control-and-turn-and-wallop thing - but Sullivan just about gathers the shot before it beats him. Even further into injury time, Lewis curls a free kick over the wall and, it turns out, pretty comfortably over the bar with Ben Foster in attendance; from high above, it's not nearly such relaxing viewing. Anything is possible, still. There is an obvious outcome to this football match, a well-trodden path for it to follow. We're not quite there yet. Not far, but not quite.

And the Leeds fans lift themselves ahead of the second half, flags waving furiously even before the teams have emerged. We watch on and munch different flavours of Jaffa Cakes instead, which probably says quite a lot about something-or-other. They want this, that much is very clear. But there's a desperation within that desire, born of a strongly-implied right to claim the prize; it's a distracted, worried performance and it only sporadically gains any momentum at all. Which isn't to say that we fill the afternoon with sensational football, obviously. It is to say that we do more than enough, though. The scoreline takes care of itself, pretty much.

Indeed, the Leeds revival falters pretty much as it starts, and Blake's arrival in place of Richardson never makes much of a difference. We go closer right away, Marlon King gathering up the distance from halfway before passing to Darius Henderson, only an untypically heavy touch from the forward preventing Matthew Spring's late burst into the penalty area from coinciding with the ball. Then James Chambers finds Henderson again, gaining a yard on the left of the box before blasting in an angled shot, tipped over at full stretch by Sullivan. It's not relentless, not by any means. But we're starting to play football...and Leeds really don't want us to play football. We're quite good at that, y'know.

As it happens, the second goal is football in the most basic sense: you kick the ball at the goal and you see what happens. It yields the afternoon's defining moment: via Lewis' shin and the inside of the post and Sullivan's elbow, James Chambers' speculative attempt ends up on the goalline. For a fraction of a second, it just sits there. It's long enough to think, "That's got to go in, hasn't it?" It's long enough to look for a yellow shirt near enough to force it over the line. It's long enough to realise that if it does cross the line...and then, before you can get any further, it spins a little more and the world does that wonderful Selhurst Park thing again, disintegrating into nothing more than noise and lunacy and quite a few tears. A great goal, in its own peculiar way: every bit as rubbish as Nicky Wright's was brilliant, and yet just as easy to love.

There follows a brief flurry of Leeds attacks, one last try at rescuing something that's long since drifted out to sea. They do go close: Healy arrives from the bench to drive a shot at Ben Foster, and you wonder whether this might've been a different game if Kevin Blackwell had played more of his attacking hand at the start. Perhaps, you conclude. But perhaps not. Perhaps we'd have been too much for them, whatever. Then, our second lapse, as Derry is left free at a corner and James Chambers sticks out a foot on the line to divert the header wide. Lewis smacks a firm drive at Foster from another corner, and we've had to hang on for the first time. We expected that, I guess, at some point. A goal at this stage, and....

Yeah, whatever. Bored of Leeds already. Shall we score another? Or shall we faff about a bit first, perhaps by describing Matthew Spring darting a shot at the near post for Sullivan's fingertips to flick wide? Or Marlon King's fierce free kick, hammered narrowly over the bar to great excitement from up above? No, I think not. Let's score another. A classic BoothroydWatford break: Matthew Spring storming urgently through the midfield, denied once by a challenge but insistent; Marlon King on the end of the pass, prowling around in the penalty area in search of prey. Ball received, right-angle turn past Derry, and Mike Dean's easiest decision of the afternoon.

I'll confess. Quietly, as Darius Henderson prepared to take the penalty, I put my notebook away. No longer necessary. As the neat strike evaded Sullivan's hand, any remaining doubt evaporated, leaving nothing but pure celebration. Nothing but yellow and tears and confetti and an awful lot of shouting and absolute, unfettered freedom. No worries whatsoever, just another ten minutes of wallowing in the knowledge that it's all done, all finished. Game over. The end of a long, long road. Some things are certain.

The rest...? Just a hopeless blur. Every so often, you emerge from your own celebrations, from gazing at something down there, lost in thought or tears...and you look up to the screen to find that Al Bangura is still hogging the camera, no need to contain that natural exuberance any longer. Or you turn around and hug someone, again. No need to hold anything back, not now. By the time that everyone starts wandering out, and the team has finally disappeared into the tunnel, we're dazed, exhausted, rather confused...and quite impossibly happy.

We've done it, and it can never be undone, whatever happens. Back in '99, a decade of failure had blunted our hopes, and another visit to the top flight seemed to be beyond anyone's dreams, until it happened. That was the peak, right there. It was utterly glorious, perhaps even more glorious, in a strange way, because of what happened afterwards. Somehow, you don't get the same impression this time around. Even as we enjoy the immense achievement, you don't get the feeling that we've finished just yet, nor that this will be as high as we go.

"Anything is possible," said young Adrian Boothroyd. The world is already starting to run out of ways to prove him wrong.