The sound of inevitability
By James Frankland
You're not taking it all in. Not really. You can't.
And why should you? The events you've just witnessed don't happen to lowly Watford. You're standing in someone else's dreamland, a fantasy world of yellow and red confetti - delight, delirium and disbelief are the dominant emotions.
You're aware of the scene unfolding before your eyes, but it doesn't seem real. You liken the experience to some sort of inverse sensory deprivation, where your eyes and ears are assaulted with a cacophonous crescendo of colour, sound and noise that defies rational explanation and forces your brain to regress to a primitive state of smiling, clapping and cheering. You're screaming with delight but you can't hear yourself above the pandemonium erupting all around you. Your only thought is that you are happy, so very, very happy.
You've experienced this feeling before, earlier on in the day - three times, your brain tells you. That can't be right - surely you'd remember this sensation, this joyous, wonderful feeling where right now, right at this moment, everything is right with the world and we are Premier League, say we are Premier League.
In an effort to come to terms with what your brain is telling you you've just seen, your mind backtracks. You awake in the normal way, light filtering in through the curtains stirring you from your restful slumber, but you're not where you would usually be. Having taken advantage of a relative's residence in Swindon, you're halfway to your destination already - Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.
After breakfast, you and your travelling companion join the M4 motorway and begin the trek towards Wales. Almost immediately you are swamped by cars clad in yellow and red, with scarves, flags and shirts fluttering in the wind as you tear towards the border.
This is a race, and there's only going to be one winner. At this moment, all roads from Leeds and Watford merge in South Wales. The road out will lead to a very different place for one of us. You marvel at the scale of the Severn Bridge, and hand over the preposterous £4.90 to cross it without even flinching.
A flashback - you're at the stadium, but the teams involved are not Watford and Leeds, but Preston and West Ham. You remember you were there, taking in the atmosphere and wondering if your club would ever get to grace such a magnificent arena. You remember dismissing the idea out of hand.
At the final whistle you leave, for the outcome does not really affect you. What does have an impact is the startling contrast of emotions between those wearing white, and those in claret and blue. You hope, as you head for your car amongst those glum, crestfallen natives of Preston, that you never have to experience what they are going through.
You find a parking spot fifteen minutes from the stadium and make your way to the ground. Here there are many people wearing yellow and red, faces by turns familiar and unfamiliar. You check your tickets - Gate Three, Stairway 26, Level Six. You ascend into the belly of the beast. Here there are many people wearing yellow and red.
You find your seats, merge into the crowd and pick up your souvenir programme, but you can't read it. Not now. You're transfixed by the scene in front of you, a cauldron of colour which sways and swells as the clock ticks down towards three o'clock. You're aware of a large expanse of white away to your left, but it barely registers on your radar.
And then there is noise. A deafening din permeates every level of your being. Suddenly the sky is filled with colour as small pieces of red and yellow paper flutter down around you, balloons are swatted around by all and sundry. You find yourself doing it too. On the vast expanse of green, ten men in red and yellow and one in green become the focus of your attention.
As does a man in a dark suit with closely-cropped hair. According to the people around you, his name is Aidy Boothroyd and he is a Football Genius. You find yourself agreeing.
The game commences, but you are still standing, clapping, chanting and cheering. Leeds have an early chance when Shaun Derry hits a low shot into the side netting after your man in green fails to claim a cross from the left flank. Something tells you his name is Ben Foster, and later you realise this is the only thing he got wrong all day.
You become aware that you know the names of each of those in yellow and red - there is Jordan Stewart, the reborn left-back, nearest you. On his right you find Malky Mackay. He has played in this stadium before. Twice. And won. Twice. He is joined by Jay DeMerit, who, in an article in the programme you read later, was pulling pints in a bar in Wisconsin four years ago, and came to England with less than £1,000 in his pocket. You hope he didn't have to buy too much petrol to get around. Lloyd Doyley completes the defensive quartet, a stubborn natural defender with a monstrously long throw and who runs all day for fun.
Ahead of him is James Chambers, a versatile, hundred percent player who has grabbed his chance to stay in the side with two storming displays in the semi-finals. To his left, Matthew Spring. He's all right now, the crowd helpfully inform you. The captain comes next - Gavin Mahon, a stern organiser and midfield anchor, he provides the perfect cover for Ashley Young, the livewire winger who looks destined for great things.
Ahead of them are the big guns, and one of them appears particularly big - Darius Henderson looks as if he could run through a mountain without pausing for breath. Alongside, in front, behind and generally everywhere else is Marlon King. You feel that there is not much more you can add to what Marlon King is, so you just say to yourself - "We've got Marlon King" and leave it at that. Others join in, and you repeat it a few more times.
And then there is noise. Seconds before this latest assault on your senses, Ashley Young sends in a pinpoint delivery from a corner, which Jay DeMerit locks onto, tracks on its inbound trajectory and smashes the ball off its path and into the net.
It's too much to take in, but you find yourself trying. You're leaping off your seat, screaming into the sky, clenching your fists in pure uncensored joy as all around you similar tensions are released. The confetti rains down, the balloons, which had almost disappeared, are back, and you're punching them and clapping so hard your palms hurt. The large expanse of white at the far end is very still. Everyone in the stadium knows what this means - it is 1-0 to the Golden Boys.
The interval approaches with Leeds having the best chance to level the scores. Eddie Lewis, an American winger who is going to the World Cup while Jay DeMerit is overlooked in favour of players such as Fulham's Carlos Bocanegra, hits a left-footed free-kick just over the crossbar. Ben Foster has it covered, and the teams march off the pitch.
Half-time passes in a blur, and before you know it the teams are back on the field. Forty-five minutes to go, forty-five short minutes that determine the success or failure of forty-eight games of football that both sides have played to get to this point. But it is 1-0 to the Golden Boys. We remind the large expanse of white in case it has forgotten.
Twelve minutes into the second half that chant becomes outdated, its use irrelevant for it no longer accurately reflects the state of play. James Chambers, who has rampaged around the pitch from right to left to centre to right again, finds himself with a shooting chance in the box. Lewis tries to defend it, but his half-deflection proves the undoing of his goalkeeping colleague. The ball spins up, hits the inside of the post, rebounds onto the back of the grounded stopper, and trickles across the line. Not bad for your first of the season.
More noise ensues, delight and delirium return, but disbelief is strangely absent. Deep down, you know what this means. It means the Horns are going up. At least that what everyone else seems to think. Now you're going to believe us.
A great man - possibly the same fellow on the touchline with the dark suit and short hair - once said: "luck is preparation meeting opportunity". If this man, this Football Genius has taught us anything, it is that with the right preparation, you can create your own luck. Goals like this simply confirm that someone up there, high above the enclosed roof of this yellow-tinted arena, wants this to happen.
Time starts to pass very slowly. You will the clock to hasten its countdown, ticking ever closer to zero hour, but there is more drama yet to unfold. Marlon King breaks into the penalty box and, with a deft flick of his right leg, moves the ball out of the path of the charging Shaun Derry, who clatters into the striker and leaves referee Mike Dean with the simple task of raising his whistle to his lips and signalling a penalty. This is taken by Darius Henderson, who dispatches the spot-kick with a daisycutter shot under the arms of Neil Sullivan and wheels away in delight, his emotions matched by the throng of yellow and red in the stands around him. We are Premier League.
You are wiping away tears because you know that with six minutes left, there is no coming back. No doubt about the result, no question of the outcome. All that is left is to see out time. Leeds throw everything at the yellow-shirted defenders, but they are no longer supported by the vocal range of the large expanse of white, as it is pockmarked with rows and rows of blue and green seats. Malky Mackay and Jay DeMerit repel all airborne invaders - you'll never beat DeMerit, says one. Soon more are saying it.
The final whistle is blown, but you don't hear it. You hear nothing but cheering and shouting and clapping and whistling and the sounds of unabridged adulation. On the pitch the players are donning t-shirts proclaiming that Watford are winners of the 2006 Coca-Cola Championship Play-Offs. The helpful tannoy announcer reminds us that this means we will be in the Premier League next season. We're going to Manchester, you're going to Colchester.
The drive back to Watford is strangely surreal, but all along the journey there are signs that things are not as they were this morning. Those in white bear faces almost as ashen as the replica shirts they are wearing, whereas those in yellow are full of colour and smiles. Swindon services are a mass of red and yellow as many stop to refuel before continuing home. Many are visiting a gentleman called the Burger King. One of his serving wenches provides you with something called a Whopper. You take a bite. It tastes good.
Soon you are aware of road signs for a place called Watford. You are strangely drawn to this place, a scene of so much joy and despair over recent years. At this moment, one place in particular springs to mind, a focal point for an outpouring of delight nearly seven years ago. A place called The Pond.
You realise you are tired. It has been a long day, and you have spent most of it behind the wheel of a car. You forego the urge to go for a swim and instead continue on home. Your route takes you through an area of Bedfordshire where you suspect the inhabitants will not be so fulsome in their praise of your team's efforts. You don't care.
Because we're going to Manchester. You're going to Colchester.