Division 1 Playoff Final, 31/5/99
Team: Chamberlain, Bazeley, Kennedy, Page, Palmer, Robinson, Ngonge, Hyde, Mooney, Johnson, Wright
Subs: Hazan (for Wright), Day, Smart (for Ngonge)
Scorers: Wright (38), Smart (89)
Bolton Wanderers 0(0)
A good day out
Report by Baz Barry
Perhaps my nerves hadn't had time to recover from their battering at Birmingham. Perhaps it was because we had young Sam with us, which is always a distraction, and I had promised his mum (and granny) to protect him from the disappointment of losing. Perhaps I was again limiting the damage on my own emotions but I surprised myself by not being able to get excited about this match of all matches. Throughout the weekend I was quizzed about the game, what an adventure the day would be and how would we do. My responses were honest and level. A "50/50 chance of winning" and it should be "a good day out" was the best I could give.
My biggest anxieties on Monday morning were about the journey to our Mecca, not the golden chalice at the end. I fretted about the journey up from friends in Wiltshire, allowing for a three-hour leeway in case we broke down. Once in Watford there was no enjoyment from the fastest lunch ever. My body told me I wasn't hungry but I knew I would need the fuel later. The walk down to the station was at marching pace and then, horror of horrors, the longest twenty-minute wait in my life, for the next train to Wembley. It was just after 1pm.
Fortunately, normality was restored on arrival at Wembley Central. With the first unified Hornet chant echoing around the cavernous platform as we disembarked, the hairs on my neck stood to attention and didn't step down until 1am the next morning. Looking down to Sam, singing along with his saucer eyes, and I knew we were away. The walk to the ground was in a reassuringly happy stream of yellow, red and black. By the time we got to the stadium it was a massive, huge river. Here and there were nervous outcrops of white, looking far from relaxed.
And inside the stadium Hornetdom got bigger and louder and more positive. Normally we have to time our taking of our seats to about twenty minutes before kick-off, otherwise the boy gets bored. This time we were there at 2pm and he was in awe for the next four hours. I excused myself for a widdle and steeled my nerves with a quick bottle of plastic beer. A solitary, secret but necessary act. It was later that I learnt that my mate, Boogs, had done exactly the same. We were sitting low, level with the top of the tunnel and directly behind the goal. Surreptitiously, I checked out those around us to make sure we would be all right when things got exciting. All looked promising. A father and teenage daughter behind, some twenty-year-old chaps in front and to one side. Not many shirts though. Later and a couple of rows in front of us, a chap was wearing a single glove, obviously a discard from AC, which he held high for others to slap every time the great man made a save. I scanned the crowd further afield to try and spot some of the listees I might recognise. Zero success but a one in a thousand chance worth taking. I briefed myself one last time to take it all in and cleaned the memory banks but sadly from 2.30pm it goes all hazy.
We started slowly, nervously. Bolton started brightly, having three good chances early on. A low shot from one side, the huge miss when it seemed easier to score and the shot from the deflected free-kick which enabled Alec to do his customary super save. We weren't coping with their long angled balls behind our centre halves and early on I kept thinking Johno was playing too deep. In retrospect it was probably because he was playing too deep that their onslaught ended and we started to give as good as we got. He and Hyde were everywhere. I never understood the fuss about Bryan Robson in his playing days, I can't understand what others see in Roy Keane and it's taken me eighteen months to learn what Johno is about, but now I'm a convert. Big time. One more huge performance, not as individually BIG as Grimsby, but the very heart of another enormous TEAM performance.
From where we were sitting, action down the other end was difficult to comprehend. A free-kick from the right looked as if it could have been threatening. Wright stole the ball and squared to Ngonge who delayed too long for his drive to be blocked. Nick Wright everywhere causing mischief. Bazeley went on a clever run ending in a corner. A succession of corners which were a relief from the anxiety of their attacks. And then the goal. Not that I saw it really. I think I saw Wright connect but there were bodies in the way before I saw any more. From there on I felt calm, confident and comfortable. Bolton lost their way and the will to fight. Gardiner got a lot of the ball but his end product was dire. Their foreign striker became more and more selfish and they were playing as individuals. Later I was to say they had too many "sens" and "sons" in their team. All those Nordics are too liberal to play with passion. Have you ever seen an Icelandic get excited? Exactly.
We capitalised on the space they were leaving behind as they pushed forward. An attack down our left ended at Johno's feet but was blocked. How I would have shouted if he had scored. Another break down the other side saw Kennedy lash a shot wide when he had time to pick his spot. Hyde and Johno having the time of their lives, flicking and kicking their way around their disappearing midfield. A cross from the right headed wide by the unmarked Moonster. The sound of the Watford fans getting louder and louder. The acoustics at Wembley aren't brilliant, lacking a focal point, but the more the team's performance improved so the fans' did off the pitch.
And then that goal. The break, the simple squared ball from Kennedy, the instant finish from Alan Smart, the shot with the outside of his boot, zinging the ball into the net in a gentle arc right in front of us. Complete and utter pandemonium. For the umpteenth time in the second half I lifted Sam in my arms, catching sight as Smart ran, without breaking stride, to the side. And then I saw Chamberlain hugging Page or Palmer near the half way line and I saw Nick Wright, who'd been substituted, amongst the ruck of celebrating players. From there it didn't stop until the final whistle, and beyond. Later I watched the highlights and on the second time viewing I worked out that Allan Smart goes over to where the family terrace is and signals to where his wife must be, miming the shape of her pregnant tummy. A player who is very much part of the Family Club.
I do wish I had a camera on each of the players and staff at the end so I can watch what they all do and where they go and what they say. The Bolton fans disappear and we enjoy the glory for what seems an eternity. Sam, perceptively, says he's so happy he could cry. I do. I spot Gibbs holding the cup and pointing to the crowd. I see Mooney pinching some Wembley turf and tucking it in the top of his sock. I see Bonnot waving a flag. Ngonge insists on taking the cup to the crowd in front of us. I see Mooney alone, perhaps trying to hold on to his emotions, perhaps trying to log the scenes for a later day. Or perhaps reflecting that this journey, his journey, that he played such a colossal part in, was over and his involvement might not be repeated.
Above all, I watch Graham Taylor looking content, soaking up the euphoria. Fully. Completely. And I sing his name as loud as I possibly can.