Three Golden Seasons
Geoff Wicken interviews Steve Palmer about those three special seasons when Watford went from the third tier to the Premier League.
Steve Palmer is a very engaging and interesting man to interview. After a playing career that spanned 17 seasons he continues to work within the game, his speciality now the analysis of performance data. Steve’s recollections of how information was used in his time at Watford, and of Graham Taylor’s innovations, will appear in Volume 6 of the Watford Treasury. When interviewing him, though, I couldn’t resist also asking about his Watford memories – especially the three seasons of 1997/98, 1998/99 and 1999/2000. Those two consecutive promotions and the unexpected year in the Premier League, all under Graham Taylor, are fondly remembered by Watford supporters, and Steve regards them as the most memorable of his career…
This was the season in which Steve achieved fame for wearing all 14 numbered shirts. At one level an amusing curiosity, which became a useful distraction at the climax of the season, it served also to illustrate his adaptability. At the end of the season, the Watford Observer published a supplement to celebrate the Division 2 Championship. It quotes Graham Taylor about Steve: ‘An absolutely superb season. A fierce competitor, reliable, a good professional, he has done extremely well for the team. He has great athleticism, is a powerful lad who is not slow. He is fit and will run all day.’ I show this to Steve and he chuckles. “Couldn’t play, but could run around a lot! That’s nice though. I was quick at the time.” Graham added more: ‘He also knows what it means to come into football with a Cambridge University background: sod all.’ To which Steve says: “That was the point. I wanted to be respected for being a footballer, and not as a university graduate, because what relevance has that got to running round on the pitch?”
That was the first of three stand-out years. Steve’s memories of all three are very clear. Watford spent the entire 1997/98 season in the top two, and were promoted by a margin of 16 points over the third-placed side, Grimsby. But did he feel throughout that promotion was likely? “No. My dad was keeping an Excel file, he had a record going on of what the possibilities were. And despite the fact that we were miles ahead, with three points for a win the gap was only four games, so if we’d lost our last four games and somebody else had won theirs, they’d have caught us up. So despite the fact that we were ahead, there was always the ‘what if’ scenario going on.” To celebrate, the squad were rewarded with a trip to Israel. “It was amazing to experience that culture at that time. We visited the Dead Sea and had a team photo done covered in mud, and went to the Wailing Wall. There were two schools – the golfing school, which I was part of, and the other school, the party school shall we say. Eight of us, Kenny, Luther, Nigel, Alec, Darren Bazeley, Stuart Slater, John Alexander the secretary and myself played golf twice a day on this fantastic course, and we’d meet up with the other lot in the evenings. Good days!”
In Division 1 in 1998/99 Steve ended up being voted the club’s Player of the Season, although early on he had a spell out of the team. Then came what Steve identifies as a turningpoint in his time at the club. “I was room-mates with Darren Bazeley, and we were both not selected for a few games in September-time, and feeling a little bit sorry for ourselves. There’s an interesting dynamic there because you want the team to do well, but you also want to be in the team, and the only way a team changes is if it’s not winning. So the team had a few bad results, and the next game was mid-week away at Bolton, who were one of the big teams in the league, and Darren and I were then selected to play. You think ‘great, we’re back in, but it’s Bolton away on a Tuesday night!’ However we won, and Darren and I then played every game for the rest of the season.”
He recalls the late-season run to the Play-Offs getting under way with the fractious match at home to Tranmere. “There were the two sendings-off in that game. It has a gelling effect when something like that happens. My recollections of individual games in that run aren’t great. I can’t remember specific incidents until we got to the Play-Offs. I recall the feeling, the emotion generated as the momentum grew. We were chasing, and in some ways that’s a pretty good thing to be doing.”
Preparations for the first Play-Off match at home to Birmingham were disrupted: “We were staying at the Hilton Hotel. I was sharing with Darren, and his wife was pregnant, very pregnant. The night before the game, she went into labour. Darren obviously had to go but didn’t want to miss the game, so we wrote a note and snuck it under Graham’s door, and went off to the hospital. We came back in the morning, played, and we won the game 1-0. Darren’s daughter was christened Tayla.”
The end of the second leg didn’t go entirely to plan for Steve: “We’d practised and practiced penalty shootouts, but nothing can fully prepare you for the moment itself. I was up for number two and unfortunately wasn’t successful, but Alec came good and we were in the Play-Off finals at Wembley. I think that’s the fastest I’ve ever run, to greet Alec after he saved that penalty!
“The way that season culminated means it would have to go down as the best one, and as a single event that Wembley game was the most memorable of my career. I have clear memories of walking out for the start, with fireworks going off and pop music playing, looking around at a full Wembley that was half yellow, half white. I have a vision of sitting on the pitch afterwards trying to take in what had happened to us in that time – little old Watford had had two promotions and got back into the Premier League. We went on to Sopwell House and had a big party, I think – I can’t really remember!”
Steve emphasises that the two promotions were a collective achievement. “The ethic was that we were a team, rather than outstanding individuals. However I respected all of them, because it was built into the philosophy of what the place was all about. I still hold those values very close to me now, and I think that’s what Watford Football Club is all about and has been since the 1970s.
Although Watford didn’t find it easy in the Premier League once promoted, Steve looks back on it as a valuable experience. “My approach to that season was to make the most of it. I genuinely remember thinking ‘this is a fantastic opportunity to play in the biggest stadiums against the best players.’ So I look back on that with – I can’t say a professional pride because we got relegated – but pride in the fact that I was ever-present in the Premier League. As an achievement that was the highlight of my playing career. I hang my hat on that.”
Steve’s reflection on that season overall isn’t so different from that of many Watford supporters: “We were unfortunate in that as a team we had been promoted twice and needed our best eleven to be available for the majority of the season if we were going to be competitive.” I ask whether the outcome ever seemed inevitable, which he rejects: “It’s almost the reverse of how far ahead we were in getting promoted a couple of years earlier, in that there’s always the possibility of going on a run, and until it’s done it’s not done.”
As to whether any games stood out, his pick isn’t a huge surprise. “I can’t get past the win at Anfield. That didn’t necessarily change anything, but I was a child of the ‘70s, when Liverpool were the number one team. I was a bit emotional at the start of the game when ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was echoing around Anfield, and we were there. And then to win was quite something.”
Steve played more than 500 games in professional football. Of all those, alongside the Wembley victory over Bolton a few months earlier, he regards that as the highlight. As a memory to look back on, a win over Liverpool takes some beating. That September 1999 game in which Steve played still stands as one of the great Watford results; a little over 20 years later we now have another one that bears comparison.