Good omen, bad omen
By Philip Vaughan-Smith
Someone has spotted an opportunity too good for a marketing department to miss. They realised that this year would offer the possibility of releasing a film on 06.06.06. Would they unveil another Exorcist film? We have had two fairly mediocre prequels in the last couple of years but neither could wait for June of this year to roll around. Instead, we will have a remake of "The Omen", probably with a higher budget and worse performances.
Are there any clues to possible parallels with the Division Two Play-offs? They too arose out of a marketing idea. Sell more tickets to more fans, extend the season and increase TV revenues (even if it didn't reward the best football team over the season). With Vialli's horror show, we definitely had a higher budget and worse performances, but then again we never got to the play-offs. Would '06 be a remake of the '99 classic?
As we set off from Gloucester, we considered the omens. Pulling up at the petrol station to fill up, the people carrier at the next pump had a number ending in WFC. Were they fellow fans with a personalised number plate on their way down to the game? It seemed unlikely. Closer inspection revealed a lack of stickers and scarves and a couple prepared for a long walk in one of Gloucestershire's many woods. So it must be coincidence? Absolutely not: it was a good omen. Why should it be good rather than bad? Why wasn't this the writing of a play-off defeat writ large on the wall of a random number plate? Because we were already quietly confident, but no one dare say it. Yes, we howled down Radio 5 every time they described Watford as favourites. It is how superstition works: however stupid it is, it allows you to articulate hopes and fears that would be even more stupid if stated as rational opinion.
How could we be driving down to Cardiff for the Play-off Final?! How could we be going with even the faintest hope of winning? Even recalling the words on a Christmas card from a Forest fan marvelling at what Boothroyd had managed to make of Marlon King, it wasn't rational. Trusting to superstition made more sense. However, the wheel of fortune can be an uncertain master. The pre-game pyrotechnics failed to fire properly on the Watford side of the centre circle. Bad omen? We laughed it off.
More encouraging was the pre-game spirit amongst the fans. Stepping into a pub near the ground, filled with gold and smiles and pints in plastic glasses, the noise was intimidating. This was a primal force much exploited by the unscrupulous in other eras and contexts. I have little affection for the town of Watford, having long left the area and gone west, but I could sing "I'm Watford 'til I die" and mean it with complete sincerity.
The gladiatorial air of the Millennium Stadium with the roof on generated all the atmosphere needed. All the peripheral razzamatazz served to irritate. The Royal Marines waving the sponsor's banners were surplus to requirements. These men are trained to kill for their country: why should they endorse a fizzy drink? If they had supplied a marching band it might have felt more like a Cup Final. Why is the National Anthem "led" these days? An unwelcome innovation, I'll say.
This judgement doesn't apply to Jay DeMerit. I grew up in Chestnut Avenue, Northwood, opposite the allotments, cricket and football pitches. Aside from benefit matches, both cricket and football, the most memorable occasion was when the pavilion burnt down one frosty night in the mid-eighties. Coming from Chicago Fire to light up Watford via Northwood Town, DeMerit blazed in at the far post.
The second goal almost made me feel sorrow (no, pity) for Leeds. It wasn't the manner of its scoring - that sort of thing happens in football - but the Leeds reaction. They were beaten at that point. You could forget the next half-hour. We were there. Sullivan didn't grab the ball out of the net and bowl it to the centre circle screaming "Come on! Let's get back at them. We can still do it", punching his fists in the air. Instead, his lack of body language said it all: "We've lost."
We needed the third goal to rejoice in the victory as little as an excess of red and yellow streamers and a podium to bounce on. Was it irony, fate (or even an omen) that the player who ended AB's playing career brought down King for the penalty? Thankfully, it was more innocuous but rightfully awarded. The manner of its taking by Henderson was fantastic.
The game wasn't a remake of a 1999 classic, however. Neither the match nor the performance was as good. No-one played the Nick Wright role; no one really played his heart out as he did that day. Leeds were extremely poor: I almost wanted a comeback to make it interesting. They were certainly nowhere near as good as Bolton in 1999. Gudjohnsen showed the class that day that took him to Chelsea: Leeds showed nothing but a lack of spirit and guts this year. Perhaps I am just seven years older and more cynical, but the occasion fell flat because of this.
However, when the reality of being in the Premiership sunk in the next day, I felt much more confident than in the last Millennium. Something felt different. Watford 1999-2000 was about "enjoying the experience whilst it lasted", giving the boys a go at the big time and praising GT (rightly) for his final achievement as a manager (promotion not survival). Watford in 2006 is different. Aidy Boothroyd is hungry for his next achievement. He won't bin a load of players for not being Premiership class or stick by them out of mere loyalty. He will keep things moving along - he knows that team spirit is the best chance we have. This is no mere "good omen"; this is justifiable confidence.