Peter Morgan looks at promotion in 1998/99
Let’s face it, as far as Watford were concerned, season 1998/99 started on 3 April 1999, 38 games from the official start of the season. I’d go as far as to say that we were three-quarters through the game played on that date against Tranmere before our season burst into life and we showed real fight…literally, in Alan Smart’s case!
Yes, there had been some earlier highlights, but having been third in the table on Boxing Day, our record thereafter until the end of March was won two, drawn six, lost five – not exactly promotion form. Frankly, our season was petering out quicker than the recently proposed European Super League.
So, it took a game where we had two players, Richard Johnson and Allan Smart, sent off in front of our lowest home crowd of the season (8,682), to ignite an improbable run. The game was named number 22 in Lionel Birnie’s 100 Greatest Watford Wins, but may have been totally forgotten if what transpired between then and the end of May had been different. The game would have been simply a quizquestion answer in years to come. ‘Name one of the four games Guy Whittingham started for Watford.’ Forgotten about him? Me too!
Even after this 2-1 win, we lay seven points behind Wolves, who were in sixth, the last play-off place, with seven games to go. Those seven games included fourth-placed Birmingham away and fifth-placed Bolton at home.
It was that Birmingham game that really instilled belief amongst fans. This took place just two days after the Tranmere game, on Easter Monday, with GT pulling a masterstroke and playing ex-Villa winger Tony Daley against the Blues, something no-one saw coming. Booed consistently by the home support, he rose to the challenge in what was to be his last-ever Watford game. He crossed for a first-half assist for Tommy Mooney and scored the decisive second with a header. If Tony Daley can score with a header, surely anything was possible?
Suddenly there was a feeling that something amazing was happening, and a few days later 13,001 turned up at the Vic to see us play Bolton, now only four points ahead of the storming Hornets, in sixth place. A play-off place had seemed impossible just a week earlier, but a win here would have fans ‘doing the math’, as they say in the States. And win they did, with Micah Hyde and Tommy Mooney goals sending the crowd home in excitement, tinged with the question ‘was this possible or, like Arnhem in World War Two, perhaps one bridge too far?’
The next obstacle to traverse was at Crewe, where Tommy Mooney again was the difference, before we took on Palace at home. As in the previous home game, goals by Micah Hyde and, of course, Tommy Mooney, secured our fifth consecutive victory, in front of 15,590.
The following Tuesday we were at Port Vale, for a game postponed from the previous week due to rain. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and it was that man Mooney again with two more goals, which propelled him to legend status, in a 2-1 win. More importantly, we were now in the play-off positions for the first time in months. Had we timed our run perfectly, or was there to be a final twist?
With two games to go, our progress to the play-offs was in our hands, but first up was Barnsley at Oakwell, on May Day. Would we be dancing around the maypole come five o’clock or wanting to knock it down? Barnsley were a Premier League team the previous season and were still a good side. Michel Ngonge, who was now a fixture up front, scored, as did, inevitably, Tommy Mooney, as the Golden Boys fought out a 2-2 draw. This left the Hornets fifth, two points ahead of Wolves in seventh. It all came down to the last game, at home to Grimsby.
We knew a win would be enough, but a draw might not. Squeaky-bum time! A Peter Kennedy goal calmed the nerves as we won 1-0, securing a play-off semi-final against fourth-placed Birmingham City.
In the first leg, Michel Ngonge put the Golden Boys ahead. Paul Robinson was later sent off, but we held on for a narrow win.
Taking a lead into the second leg, the old football cliché, ‘we must not concede an early goal’ was trotted out …and ignored, as Dele Adebola scored within two minutes. It was backs against the wall for the rest of the game, even after ex-Hornet David Holdsworth had been sent off. Extra time and then penalties ratcheted up the tension, as Alec Chamberlain joined Mooney in the legend category, with a pair of crucial saves. His second one came from the sixteenth penalty. Watford were on their way to Wembley to play Bolton Wanderers.
Growing up, just six stops away on the Met Line, Wembley was so near, but so far in football terms. Yes, I had been there in 1984, but I, and many others, wanted Watford to win under the Twin Towers before the planned rebuilding of the stadium as much as to achieve Premier League football.
Bolton, particularly Eidur Gudjohnsen, had good chances, and frankly in the first half we were second-best, but what better place to score not only a goal, but a ‘worldie’, than at Wembley Stadium, just before half-time. Step up, or rather somersault backwards, Nick Wright. That knocked the stuffing out of Bolton and we were less troubled in the second half, but there was still only one goal in it until Allan Smart finished off a flowing move with only a few minutes left. The party began in earnest, as we realised ‘little’ Watford were now ‘Premier League’ Watford.
I personally had witnessed five promotions since 1970 and all were masterminded by one man – Graham Taylor. As he came close to us at the end of the game, no wonder he seemed beyond mortal.