Matt Rowson recalls the 1997/98 season
This was a significant promotion in many respects. Looking back, it was probably the last time prior to this season that we dominated a division; we’ve had good teams since, won promotions, dominated divisions for bits of seasons, but even in 2015 (our only other automatic promotion in the interim) it was a memorably late and tight call. More remarkable about 1997/98 however was not really what followed, though 1998/99 was equally startling, but the contrast with what had gone before. The slow crumbling of the club that Graham built (helped build) that began on the day his move to Villa was announced in the spring of 1987 was finally, dramatically, decisively arrested. As an aside, conclusive evidence here that ten years lasted much longer then than it does today.
For all that the title was only secured at a giddy, sun-drenched Craven Cottage on the final day, promotion itself had long since been assured. At the end of November the Hornets were sixteen points clear of third place, locked in a tussle for the title with John Ward’s Bristol City that would go the distance and, arguably, motivate both sides in keeping the pace up. Sixteen was the margin at the end, and it had never dropped into single figures in the interim. Realistically, it was never in doubt.
The campaign had been preceded by Graham Taylor taking to the pitch at the end of the disappointing preceding season (a season that remains our lowest league finish since 1978) to announce that “Elton’s coming home”. That he was, at the vanguard of a consortium that bought out erstwhile chairman Jack Petchey who had hamstrung Kenny Jackett’s efforts the previous season by refusing to endorse investment in a centre-forward.
Instead the Hornets saw a wholesale overhaul of the playing squad in the summer of 1997. Two similarly dramatic rebuilding jobs would follow at four-yearly intervals, but at the time this was unprecedented – revolution rather than evolution. Out went Kevin Phillips, Kevin Miller, David Connolly, Craig Ramage and the veteran Gary Porter, along with a number of less celebrated names. In came Micah Hyde, deft and clever in midfield, and Peter Kennedy, an irrepressible source of goals and crosses from left wing-back. Ronny Rosenthal fizzed and banged like a gaudy firework before burning out into the night sky in around November. Jason Lee proved a solid, reliable, functional target man for a year, scoring that critical scruffy winner at Craven Cottage whilst famously, notoriously, refusing to relocate to within his manager’s required orbit of Vicarage Road. But the stalwarts were refashioned, repurposed weapons that had already been at the club. Nigel Gibbs had re-established himself the previous season after injuries had decimated the preceding four. Robert Page emerged as a leader and a captain. Gifton Noel-Williams blossomed from a gangly sixteen-year-old into a force of nature. Tommy Mooney, for whom it was always ‘how’ rather than ‘where’, spent the season on the left of a back three. Most of all, Richard Johnson matured with devastating effectiveness to dominate the midfield, a heavyweight compliment to Hyde alongside him, peppering his season with long-range strikes against Carlisle, Gillingham and Brentford that were already a trademark.
The highlights were many. The point at which those who were there – I was abroad until November, so like this season was following from a distance in all the ways possible at the time – cite as ‘when they knew’ was an early win over Brentford at Vicarage Road in which the previous season’s play-off finalists were put to the sword. It would get worse for the Bees, who were destined for relegation on the final day – sadly for all concerned, Burnley’s late escape didn’t save Chris Waddle’s short-lived managerial career.
Elsewhere there was a fondly remembered resetting of the balance of power with our friends up the M1, Ronny’s last flash and bang to see off Blackpool, Nigel Gibbs bottling Paolo Di Canio up at Hillsborough in the Cup until his frustrated adversary got himself sent off, Tommy Mooney scoring the Mooniest winner of his career against Bristol Rovers, and Steve Palmer wearing all 14 shirts as he dutifully did whatever job was asked of him.
Finally, despite our promotion long having been telegraphed, we had the see-saw excitement that confirmed the title on the final day and saw Hornets celebrating in the fountains in Trafalgar Square after what remains, 23 years on, our last game in the lower divisions.