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Nationwide League Division 1, 9/5/99
Watford 1(1)
Team: Chamberlain 4, Bazeley 4, Kennedy 4, Page 4, Palmer 4, Robinson 4, Ngonge 5, Hyde 4, Mooney 4, *Johnson 5*, Wright 4
Subs: Hazan (for Wright) 3, Day, Smart
Scorers: Kennedy (42)
Grimsby Town 0(0)
My head hurts
Report by Ian Grant

8/5/99 17:52
Hhhnnnnnngggghhhhh. Bloody unbearable. Spent the afternoon vicariously experiencing the highs and lows of football - Charlton's bonkers win at Villa, Carlisle's double-bonkers escape from oblivion, Blackburn hilariously succumbing to natural justice. All of which made the time until Sunday go even slower, standing in the wings and waiting for our cue while others acted out their dramas. Wanted to be in the ground, wanted to be able to sing without the neighbours complaining.

9/5/99 06:47
Sunday, then. Crikey.

Blindly indulged every superstition available. Lucky shave, lucky boxer shorts, lucky shirt (unwashed during April and May - one man's disgusting laziness is another's inspirational magic), lucky view over Watford on the train, lucky programme seller. Qualified virtually every sentence with the phrase "If we make the playoffs...", for fear of tempting fate. Some of these things are clearly stupid, but this was not the time for taking chances. Everyone was in superstition overdrive, Watford had its fingers crossed.

Much as I hate the idea of reserved seating, it does at least mean that you don't need to arrive at the ground three hours before kickoff. The queue at the Red Lion corner turnstiles had already stretched back to the garage.

There was an air of muted terror around Vicarage Road. As throughout the day, people didn't seem to know quite what to do - undecided whether to sing in celebration or scream in pure panic, most settled for quiet reflection and speculation. Watford was biting its fingernails.

Inside the ground, it was much the same. As kickoff edged closer, the sense of occasion overwhelmed pretty much everything. With no players in sight, the occasional songs were flung out as if in dress rehearsal.

Each player was greeted by a gigantic roar as he emerged from the tunnel to warm up. They looked relaxed - Johnno sauntered about in his usual laid-back, just-got-out-of-bed way, while Smart, Mooney and Page broke out into comedy disco dancing at one point (no, honest!).

That feeling spread to the stands. For the first time, there was a sense of forward momentum - when the songs were sung, they were no longer being practised. Also for the first time, we discovered what it sounds like to have both the Vic Road end and the Rookery packed with Watford fans in full voice. It sounds like thunder.

Hallelujah! The club have finally decided that drowning out the fans with music isn't the best way to create an atmosphere, and gave us free rein. So they do sometimes listen after all. The resulting rendition of "Elton John's Taylor-made Army" nearly knocked the planet off its axis. The teams emerged to a blizzard of tickertape, a welcome worthy of the occasion. My throat was already slaughtered.

Steve Palmer collected the Watford Observer "Player of the Season" award, and his long-term admirers are forgiven for finding a lump in their throats. It couldn't happen to a nicer bloke, by all accounts. It couldn't happen to a better player either.

This was not a stunning performance. With two very notable exceptions - Richard Johnson and Michel Ngonge, of whom more later - we were over-deliberate throughout, too aware of what was at stake to express ourselves fully.

The anticipated bombardment of the Grimsby goal simply never arrived. Last time we beat them at Vicarage Road, we scored four times in the first twenty minutes and were disappointed not to have had six or seven...but that was when we'd nothing to lose. This was very, very different.

Had Richard Johnson's rifled shot not been disallowed after seven minutes for a foul on the keeper by Michel Ngonge, some of the considerable pressure would've been lifted. Instead, Grimsby reminded us at length that they'd not just come to make up the numbers. They're an easily underestimated side, full of patient passing and movement, and they look thoroughly at home in this division. In truth, they didn't threaten the Watford defence until nearly half-time. What they did do very successfully, however, was to slow the tempo of the game to way below what we'd hoped for. In the process, they shut the home fans up completely. For a while, things were eerily quiet around Vicarage Road.

There were sporadic attempts from the front players to set the game alight. Tommy Mooney twice headed over from Darren Bazeley crosses; Peter Kennedy twice drove at the keeper from distance; an unkind deflection diverted Michel Ngonge's effort into Croudson's hands; Micah Hyde, who is in absolutely scintillating form at the moment, scraped a shot wide after a run from the right wing. But these were only punctuation for long passages of ineffective probing from both teams. The momentum had slipped away. The only lift came from news of Wolves (who finished seventh) losing to Bradford.

And then, just as the half was drifting away, the two pivotal moments of the match. Darren Bazeley's right wing cross got a touch as Nick Wright and a defender competed, and it dropped to Peter Kennedy. A player who has his fair share of critics, his knack of delivering the goods when it really matters didn't let him down - he smashed the shot home from the edge of the box, swerving it away from Croudson and into the top corner. Fantastic strike, at a moment when we needed something special.

For a couple of minutes after that, we lost our concentration and nearly lost the lead with it. A free kick on the left corner of the box found Handyside unmarked to head powerfully towards goal. It was in all the way, some of us were already hanging our heads, yet Alec Chamberlain refused to give it up. Somehow he got down and across, somehow he got his hand to the ball and clawed it out. It was a staggering save, as good as any you'll ever see, and it won us this football match every bit as much as Kennedy's goal.

Less than a minute later, Chamberlain was in action again, pushing Black's drive over with both hands. The resulting corner ended with Robert Page blocking another shot, as the Hornets somehow survived a desperate spell.

The second half was largely uneventful. The jubilation prompted by news from Molineux, where Wolves (who finished seventh) had conceded something like seventeen goals if you believed the constant rumours, offset some of the tension but it was still knife-edge stuff.

Nobody hid from the challenge, but two players went way beyond the expected. Michel Ngonge was extraordinary, matching Mooney for pure commitment and supplementing that with roaring pace to scare the wits out of the Grimsby defence. The player arrived in the summer, his talent was obviously held up at the airport. Superb. On a day when much of what we did was simply too careful, Ngonge was the least careful player on the pitch...and I mean that as a compliment.

We know all about Richard Johnson, his cause has long been championed on these pages. But this, too late for the awards, was the performance of the season. He was everywhere. There were times when you had to do a double-check - short of tricks with mirrors, it was impossible to work out how the same player could be in so many places at the same time. And everywhere he went, the play bore the hallmarks of his quality - tackling like a tank, spreading play constantly, controlling the game. Ten out of five.

The lapses at the end of the first half were not continued. As we pressed for a second, the coverage at the back was more than adequate, the ubiquitous Johnson adding his presence whenever necessary. The same free kick manoeuvre that had brought Chamberlain's save was given a repeat performance, Handyside heading over this time, and the Watford keeper was also required to push away a wobbling cross-shot from the right. But that was it.

We didn't look like scoring either, to be honest. Nick Wright headed wide from close range, stretching desperately to get his head to the ball, after terrific persistence from Ngonge to win the ball and supply the cross. Mooney thumped in a volley from just outside the box that was deflected over, Johnson curled a free kick narrowly wide, Mooney had another volley inside the six yard box blocked by three defenders.

And then we held on. With Bradford still beating Wolves (who finished seventh) and Grimsby offering little threat, injury time wasn't as tense as it might've been. The final whistle was still a blessed relief, though. Let the celebrations commence....

Emotional moments. To make the playoffs is a massive achievement in itself, to have done it in such style makes it all the more wonderful - as with previous Taylor-made armies, this is not a difficult team to love. The plaudits that will come their way are fully deserved. In glossy May sunshine, listening to a full Vicarage Road roar its approval to a successful team, the dark years since we were last in this position seemed very distant.

That's down to one man. Graham Taylor's having a party, again. His ability to pick out players from the bewildering assortment of free transfers, youth teamers and lower division bargains available is astonishing. Then to bring out new qualities in those players, qualities that even the players themselves may not have seen, is unbelievable. To be able to do that and to get them to play together with such fearsome, gang-intense team spirit and to make the football they play so marvelously adventurous makes him the finest club manager in English football.

Back to the Estcourt Tavern to get tremendously drunk. Perhaps I should've taken notes, since it's all slightly vague from here on. Some things I do recall: hatching insane plans for camping outside Vicarage Road on Friday night; Paul Robinson and Peter Kennedy going past while I was in the toilet; ending up on the floor after being rugby-tackled by Pete Fincham; taking great pleasure in the fate of Wolves (who finished seventh), particularly their very astute decision to sack Graham Taylor; meeting lots of people who were probably hoping for some kind of intelligent conversation, of which I was utterly incapable.

The train journey back to Brighton seemed to last about ten minutes. Half of it was spent ham-fistedly trying to open a bottle of Budweiser, my least favourite drink in the whole world. The other half was spent trying to stop a prolonged bout of hiccups.

10/5/99 07:50
My head hurts and my legs don't work properly. But it really doesn't matter.