The GT Years Ranked: 3 - 1998/99
Nick Catley presents his list of GT's greatest seasons at Watford
Most retrospectives of 1998/99 focus almost exclusively on the final 11 matches. This one won’t be an exception, but before we get there, let’s remember some of the best moments of what was, by the end of March, already a pretty decent season for a promoted team. We won our first three games. We beat all the other teams in the top six, including runaway champions Sunderland in an epic late-January encounter in which the two main talking points both involved Gifton Noel-Williams – a superb winner, followed by a dreadful Paul Butler tackle which forced his substitution. He was 19 years and 9 days old, and just coming into his own. After that day, he was never the same player again. Sadly, we’ll never know just how good he would have been.
February and March saw just one win in eight games – a 2-1 victory at QPR sealed with Tommy Smith’s first senior goal – and we gradually accepted that a good season was petering out as a fatigued side that had probably slightly overachieved came back to its natural level.
Then Tranmere happened. The events of that match have been minutely chronicled elsewhere, and it was certainly quite an afternoon. But the Tranmere game only became THE TRANMERE GAME in retrospect, certainly from my point of view. We remained seven points off the play-off places, and I saw it more as an entertaining end-of-season match that, pleasingly, showed we still had a bit of fight, both metaphorically and literally.
However, the following Monday, we went to Birmingham, and Tony Daley scored one and created another for Tommy Mooney while being booed for his Aston Villa connections. It was his only significant role in the Watford FC story – but what an important one. Suddenly, we were just four points behind sixth-placed Bolton, our visitors five days later, and it was all on. The momentum was unmistakeable as we swarmed all over them, essentially winning by sheer force of will to move within a point, and we didn’t let up until the end of the season. Wins over Crewe, Palace, Port Vale and Grimsby followed, and we felt unstoppable, to the point that one of my most vivid memories of that time is my disbelief that Barnsley had equalised against us late on in the season’s penultimate game. That kind of thing just didn’t happen to us anymore – it felt like the natural order had been disturbed.
Then, of course, those two famous Birmingham games (the away one in particular), and Wembley. In retrospect, it seems we were destined to go up, but of course we weren’t. Like everyone else I found St Andrew’s nerve-racking, especially the penalties (and getting away from the ground afterwards, if I’m absolutely honest), but I have never been as tense at a football match as I was at Wembley until that Allan Smart goal. Yes, I was desperate to watch us in the top division, to go to all the big grounds – the last time we’d been in that company I was 12, without the ability to travel independently – but mostly, I wanted it for Graham Taylor, his redemption in the eyes of the nation six years after his absolutely shocking treatment by the media. Indeed, if Taylor didn’t take the opportunity to use the turnip back page as toilet paper, then go and leave it on the sports desk of the Sun, while telling everyone there what he thought of them, he was a better man than me. But then, of course, he was.
It was the sheer joy of that run, and its unexpected nature, as well as what it signified for that decent, brilliant man – this was the seventh season he’d managed Watford in which promotion was possible, and the fifth time he’d succeeded – that earns it such a high spot. The next season could have gone better, but in retrospect it doesn’t matter a damn.