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Division 1 Playoff Final, 31/5/99
Watford 2(1)
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)
If you want to get to heaven let me tell you how...
Report by Nick Grundy

It's funny how the little things bring it home. Whoever it was who mentioned Panini sticker albums (I haven't had one since, I think, 1984, which may or may not be an omen; to be honest, I don't care) had it just about right; between stickers, squad numbers and named shirts, Watford football club has a great deal to take in before next season. If we manage to absorb just fragments of what was achieved on the last day of May nineteen-ninety-nine, though, we're going to be fine. Just fine.

And fragments is probably all you'll get from me again, I'm afraid. I mean, watching the game again in the Iceobar in Watford that evening, I could feel each pass, each tackle, each shot as it happened, recall moments before they recurred on the TV screen, as if the whole match were lurking somewhere in my bloodstream. Even watching it again, secondhand, knowing the result, it passed in a couple of heartbeats, no more, and when I saw Kennedy's corner curl across the screen, or his pass arcing across in flickering miniature, for those moments I wasn't actually sure we were still going to score, as if the video was about to rewrite the day, as if I was back at the ground with every atom of my being in the game.

That was what it was about, you see. I'm not sure I'm going to get a copy of the video of the game - I may even delete the shots of the goals from my computer when I've shown them to everyone I know at least thirty times - because it was about the whole day, not just the game that was at the heart of it all. I remember waking up in the morning only because Laurence called me to check what time we were meeting to get a lift down; then, quite without pause, I'm telling Chloe that there's room in the car if she wants to come down and that I can get her a ticket; then Mark is parking in Watford and we're walking to the pub, and then - seamlessly - we're walking down Wembley way in a sea of red and gold and white and blue, and getting in to the ground in a mass of shouting, screaming belief.

Not certainty, mind - that would just be something you thought. The way I felt before the game, and the way I felt afterwards were to do with belief, with something you just feel in your heart or your bones or whatever passes for them, and it wasn't even about winning - I didn't know we'd win - it was just about feeling that here was a Watford team which had already made me prouder than I'd thought possible, and which had the chance just maybe to have something tangible to show for that. I'm tempted to say that it wouldn't have mattered if we'd lost - I'm not sure that's quite what I mean, but if we'd played as well as we did, and if the players had shown the skill they did to go with the heart we all knew they had, I'm not sure I could have been really upset at the end of the match. Allan Smart's tears at the end of the game would have been just as right if we'd lost as when we won.

That may be rubbish, of course. I don't know. What I do know is just how right it all felt. I told the guy behind me that I'd take my stupid hat off just after kickoff, but he still asked me to, just as someone had at Luton a year and a half earlier. That reference to Luton, incidentally, is not being parochial. It's having a sense of history, just as the chants of "Are you watching Luton Town?" just before the start and just before the end of the game were so f***ing wonderful because they brought home to me - to us - the magnitude of what it was we were attempting, had achieved.

Momentous is probably the word. I can't remember the start of the game - it's all there, but it's in emotional order, not chronological order. So the first thing I can really remember is seeing Robbo swipe at a long ball which Bolton's tidy midfield had aimed at Gudjohnsen, miss, and watching in heart-stilled slow-motion as he sliced the ball over Alec and perhaps a centimetre and a half past the post. Then it's watching Bolton produce some neat passing moves around our box, only for Hyde or Johnson to nick the ball away from any and all of their players as he looks for space around the box, and watching Kennedy or Wright pick up the loose ball and sweep it forward.

Or watching the same two players making mockeries of their opposition numbers. I find it so amusing reading all the newspaper reports which write off our chances of staying up on the basis that Elton John is not willing to bankroll us - or, in idiotspeak, "put his hand in his pocket". Replay, if you can, the confrontation between Nick Wright and Robbie Elliott. Wright, signed for - say - 120k from third division Carlisle having played all his first team football there, played against Robbie Elliott, signed for 2.5 million pounds (call it twenty times what Wright cost) from Premiership Newcastle, where he'd played all his first team football. Or replay Peter Kennedy, signed for 120k from third division Notts County, against Neil Cox, signed from Middlesbrough for 1.2 million having played not only for them in the Premiership, but for Aston Villa too, and won a League Cup winner's medal as part of the Villa side that beat Manchester United in 1994.

As I say, you shouldn't think too much about football. If you did, you might come to some conclusions which would look very stupid on the evidence of Monday afternoon, or indeed on the evidence of just about any afternoon. Football isn't about how much you spend on a player; it's about belief and about heart and about wanting something so much it hurts, so much that you don't care if you're playing against someone who costs ten or a hundred times more than you, because you know you care more than them, and that, when it comes down to it, they've got no answer to that.

Of the team who got my football club promoted to the Premier League two days ago, four were signed from third division teams. Our two goalscorers - Nick Wright and Allan Smart - from Carlisle; Peter Kennedy, who set both goals up, from a Notts County side who weren't even playing him; and Micah Hyde, whose composure and dazzling skill on the ball were more than a match for any of Bolton's players even without the fearsome and tireless tackling they lacked, from Cambridge United.

Only another four - eight from thirteen in total - commanded transfer fees; Alec Chamberlain, without whose consistent excellence throughout the season and inexpressible brilliance (I'm thinking of that double save from Ndlovu as much as that stop from Gudjohnsen's fierce eight-yarder) in the moment we would never have made it, cost 40,000 pounds (and no, I haven't missed a nought out there) from Sunderland. Tommy Mooney, whose grit and determination and bloody-minded heart saw him equal our record for scoring in consecutive games as well as forcing us into the playoffs, cost 95,000 from Southend. Steve Palmer, who was quite deservedly our player of the season (and in this season that's all the compliment I think I need), cost 135,000 from Ipswich. I remember Glenn Roeder, when he signed him, comparing his signing to that of Mark Atkins at Wolves, and commenting that he felt he'd got a comparable player for a tenth of the price. Love him or hate him, Roeder was righter than he realised in many ways. Alon Hazan - whose main contributions to the season have been cameos like his madcap celebrations at Wembley - is our most expensive player at 200,000. Michel Ngonge, who was just as much of a handful as ever, most notably when both he and Tommy Mooney left their markers for dead as another Kennedy free kick was swung in. Ngonge headed it against the feet of Steve Banks, and had Tommy not gone up for the ball as well, he'd have had it in the back of the net. One of the Bolton centre halves so conspicuous by their absence at this and other moments was signed from Serie A side Lazio, and had no idea what to do with Michel. The Bolton website describes Mark Fish as "charming and mannerly"; it almost seems a shame that for 2.5 million you can't buy pace, power and simple hunger. Michel Ngonge, who showed all these three traits for all that he wasn't charming or mannerly, cost Graham Taylor nothing from Turkish side Samsunspor.

The remaining four of the thirteen who played at Wembley are all products of the youth-team: Darren Bazeley, who needed all his new-found ability to - well, defend(!) - to hold off world cup player Ricardo Gardner, and all the intricate footwork and biting pace he's always had to turn the first Bolton player inside out and nutmeg the second as he came in for the tackle before putting a cross over which was header behind for a corner in about the 39th minute or so (like I said, it's all in there). Robert Page, who is and was the guv'nor. All game. Put it this way - he made "Super" Bob Taylor seem less warhorse than carthorse, no problems. Paul Robinson, whose thumping tackling is getting more refined with each game, who kept the (on this evidence inexplicably) highly-rated Michael Johansen quiet enough that he was taken off in the second half (to be replaced by another of Bolton's ineffectual ex-Premiership players), and who is basically my hero. Richard Johnson, who would be my hero if he weren't so much the heart of the team that it seems unfair to take him out of that context.

It comes down to that, you know. It's just heart, that's all. We may well get relegated next season, but it doesn't matter. If we do stay up or if we don't, we'll do it our own bloody and passionate way, and we'll do it because we're all in it together, and we'll do it because this Watford team and more than ever that this Watford manager have courage, and they have pride, and they have belief, and they care. So remember Nick Wright's overhead kick, people - god knows it deserves it - and remember Palmer nipping in ahead of Gudjohnsen on the edge of our box, breaking up the Bolton attack, and knocking a ball up to Mooney. Remember Hyde checking and feinting before knocking an exquisite reverse pass to Wright, and remember Allan Smart tackling Scott Sellars in midfield, Hyde picking the ball up and weighting the perfect ball through for Kennedy. And remember looking up and seeing that Smart has run on, and has got goalside of a defender who was ten yards ahead of him when he made the tackle, and remember the ball sweeping its way into the back of the net.

But more than that, remember how we did it. Remember Johnno dancing after the final whistle in this dazed, incredulous way, remember Page lifting the trophy, remember that our whole team cost less than most Premiership players, remember Allan Smart wheeling away, arm aloft, and then crying afterwards because it mattered so much to him and everyone else that winning was so good it hurt. And remember Graham Taylor, and the look on his face as he lifted the trophy. Also, if you get the chance, watch the Sky footage of Wright's goal when it switches to him, because if you look the moment Wright hits it, Graham mouths, "That's in", and then he's out of his seat.

I get the feeling that he knows what he's doing, you know. If we're going to get relegated next season, then let's get relegated our way. The Bolton or Birmingham way - big spending, little players - doesn't work. Let's see if ours does, and even if it doesn't let's bloody a few noses along the way, and remind some of the corpulent, overstuffed Premiership sides what football is about.

Because, as I say, I reckon it's about heart, people. Heart, emotion, caring, being a part of something. And if we continue to sign players who have heart, and have passion, and who care, then they and we can beat anyone. I have this odd, unshakeable feeling - and I can't explain it, because it's something in my bones, or my blood, or something - I have a feeling that I'm going to enjoy next season.