Let's All Meet Up in the Year 2000
Colin Payne on why the 1999/2000 season was his favourite year
As we entered the underpass, heads fuzzy with one too many ales, hearts full of joy, and ears resonating to the god-awful wailing of kazoos, a cry went up: “Stop, it’s trap!” The voice was that of Kevin, dressed far too convincingly as Harry Hill, right down to the correct number of pens in his jacket breast pocket, standing out in an otherwise uniform mass of yellow. A cheer went up. A lot of cheers went up that afternoon. Middlesbrough was, no doubt, playing witness to the most unusual celebration it had seen. A relegation party. A large banner declaring ‘WE ARE OUT OF YOUR LEAGUE’ fronting a couple of hundred Hornets being marched the mile or so from the Star and Garter pub to the Riverside Stadium. Once inside, around two thousand Watford fans partied just as boisterously as we had at Craven Cottage and Wembley at the close of the previous two seasons. The 1999/2000 campaign was like that.
It is my favourite season. This is despite the fact Watford only won one game away from home (although what a game to win) and just a further five at Vicarage Road. No one stays up with only six wins. But then, no one stays in the Premier League playing Clint Easton and David Perpetuini. Yet it was a season of joy all the same. For during those torrid nine months, my match-going habits were to change forever. No doubt spurred by the sheer love of Graham Taylor, bloody-minded defiance, and the ability of a turn-of-the-century internet to promote more than just porn, online gambling and affairs through Friends Reunited, Watford’s support came together in a glorious fashion. Obviously, it helped that I was editing a fanzine at the time, but I went from my football being a solitary affair, occasionally nodding to a familiar face, to getting to know so many people, who to this day are still such good friends.
It was a time of websites springing up, fanzines thriving, regional supporters’ groups forming, and the Watford Mailing List acting as a conduit for one to become many. Prior to games pubs were identified as safe and friendly meeting holes, and very quickly strangers became friends, singles became groups and personal passions morphed into shared experiences.
On the field, meanwhile, there were of course some highs: a win at home to Chelsea, every bit as joyful as that at Anfield; Heidar, Nordin and Xavier coming to the party; a display that promised so much against Southampton, but these beacons of light were just too infrequent. Those who we had grown to love and admire so much toiled in vain or sat in the stands with limbs in plaster, and for every Anfield there was a Selhurst Park against Wimbledon, indeed any number of such downfalls. Statistically it was a nightmare.
However, relegation wasn’t my story of that season. Many miles were travelled in the company of the aforementioned Kevin, as well as Graham and Simon. We went everywhere, mostly enduring Kevin’s penchant for cheesy lounge-core tunes. If ever I hear Jackie singing White Horses (which is worryingly frequently as it’s now forever on my playlist) my mind is still taken back to a long tortuous trip to St James’ Park. It became a soundtrack to jaunts up the M1 and M6, along with ridiculous conversation and laughter, so much laughter. We often travelled in hope, left with disappointment, but had a great time all the same, because following a particularly sobering defeat at a sub-zero Valley Parade, it all became clear. Watford weren’t good enough, in truth hadn’t been all season, and really the time to give a fuck had well and truly passed. We knew we may not come that way again, it was time to enjoy it.
That ability to ‘enjoy it’ was enhanced considerably by two men who I really miss dearly – as being a fantastic person does not offer anyone immortality – who to this day encapsulated everything I hold dear about being a Watford fan. Along with a ragamuffin band of exiles in the forsaken lands of East Anglia, Steve Brister and Steve Todd inducted me into the Norfolk Hornets. Thankfully it was an honorary title, with the need to actually reside there waived, but I had become part of the most wonderful group one would ever wish to become part of. Fuelled by love, beer, great humour, and an unerring quest to spin a fantastical yarn, I learnt a valuable lesson which I still hold dear today and which shapes the very ethos of this publication… going to the football is always about much more than the football! Everyone had a nickname, from the Albatross, the Bard, Rubber Perv, Doc, and the Capt’n to some poor soul unfortunately known as the Bitchmaster. For the two Steves, clad in horrendous nylon yellow kagoules emblazoned with the letters WFC, no chair at a table was ‘taken’, no stranger not a potential friend, and no handshake offered if a hug could be given instead. Yes, I miss them both so.
I digress. Back in 2000 as awayday defeats became more and more inevitable, the pre-match revelry was ratcheted up to the max. Pubs in northern cities were packed with singing Hornets, the away ends a non-stop chorus of yellow anthems, and a togetherness forged that would see us through some pretty dour times in the coming decade. Of course, it helped that GT was there – it always helped that GT was there – but going to Watford games, despite getting our arses spanked on a weekly basis, was genuinely fun.
I still look back at that season as a watermark. We accepted what happened on the field with grace and humour, for GT, Kenny and Luther had earned that right to go down with heads held high. As had those players, many of whom had played two leagues lower just a couple of years previously. I think ‘we’ as fans were a bit more tolerant then, forgiving, willing to ‘stick with it’, or maybe we still are, we just read social media too much.
22 years on I see, and enjoy the company of, so many of those who made that year so special off the field. Some I sit near, some write within these very pages, some now work within Watford FC, and one is forever immortalised in bronze. I love them all.