The GT Years Ranked: 9 - 1997/98
Nick Catley presents his list of GT's greatest seasons at Watford
Of my 43 seasons following Watford, this remains the only one where we finished top of the league we were competing in, and might therefore deserve a higher place in the rankings. However, by 1997/98 we were used to being in the top two divisions – a legacy of Taylor’s first spell – so this only really felt like us retaining our rightful position. Even so, it’s difficult to overstate just how good the initial months of the season felt, as our new signings – Jason Lee, Peter Kennedy and Ronnie Rosenthal – plus improvements in those already there made us look a cut above the rest of the division. GT was back and we were going places again.
Those first few games – dominating wins, Ronnie’s mazy run against Blackpool, Lee’s rocket against Wycombe, and of course That Day at Kenilworth Road – were some of my favourite times as a Watford fan. One moment, at Swindon – a division above us at the time – in the League Cup, in just the second game of the season, seemed to sum everything up. We put our own wall in front of a free-kick – the famous ‘explosion’ – and Kennedy hit the bar, with Gifton Noel-Williams heading in the rebound. In that moment, it really felt like we’d got the band back together.
It is, however, easy to forget that this was a season of two halves, split slightly improbably into the first 20 games and 89 minutes, and the subsequent 25 games and one minute. Had we beaten Wrexham in our 21st game, something a Rosenthal effort had placed us a minute away from doing, we would have had 51 points from those 21 games. Instead, Mark McGregor equalised – I can still distinctly remember fuming about it in a lecture the next day – and we only managed 39 from the remaining 25, play-off form at best. Promotion was already a racing certainty, and no one showed any desire at all to catch us, but much of the second half of the season was a nail-biting wait for confirmation of our elevation.
This relative loss of form did lead, however, to perhaps the fondest memory of that season – the last day at Fulham. Promotion was achieved at Ashton Gate on Easter Monday on an American Football-disfigured pitch, but that came more as a relief than an explosion of joy. By the time of the Fulham game, though, we’d been second-favourites for the title for some time, so needing to better Bristol City’s result on the last day, and doing it, particularly on such a glorious day at such a glorious ground, and going on the pitch to celebrate, couldn’t really be bettered. As near as days get to perfect.
Oh, and Steve Palmer got a nice collection of shirts.