I never imagined as a 15-year-old it would be possible to experience the dizzying highs of Graham Taylor leading Watford back to the top table of English football. Stories of the club’s golden period – namely Taylor guiding the team to the 1984 FA Cup final and finishing First Division runners-up – were legendary.
These extraordinary tales seemed incomprehensible with the club I had grown to know and love. Watching the team meander through the lower divisions was the norm and the Premier League appeared a distant dream. That was until Taylor revived the club by returning for a second remarkable reign. His Midas touch immediately rubbed off on the team with Watford winning the Division Two title in 1998. Little did I know one year later we would be celebrating back-to-back promotions and a first season in the Premier League.
Winning the play-offs is so often about timing and momentum. Watford possessed this potent formula in May 1999, winning seven of their last eight matches in the Division One season. After they took a 1-0 lead from the home leg against Birmingham, I queued in the early hours with a friend to secure a precious ticket for the St Andrew’s decider. The second leg was one of the most excruciating nights of my life, with Birmingham quickly levelling the tie and bombarding Watford for the remainder of the 120 minutes.
It went to penalties at the opposite end of the ground and my nerves were only worsened after being politely asked by an elderly woman in the row behind if I could crouch down as my lanky teenage frame was restricting her view. With Watford leading 7-6, Alec Chamberlain brilliantly clawed out Chris Holland’s effort sparking uncontrollable ecstasy. We were on our way to Wembley to face Bolton.
Walking towards the famous arches was surreal. I had never seen so many Watford supporters and it felt like everyone from the town was here for this occasion. It was my first notable match at Wembley (watching England draw with Saudi Arabia a year earlier certainly didn’t count) and I knew there would ultimately be a fine line between elation and agony.
The first half was unbearably tense but Watford opened the scoring before half-time with an unforgettable finish. Peter Kennedy’s corner was headed away by Andy Todd but Nick Wright arrowed an exquisite bicycle kick into the corner of the net. It was a thing of beauty, instantly etching the winger’s name into Watford folklore.
Bolton still carried a threat during the second half, with Eidur Gudjohnsen threatening on several occasions. Pushing forward desperately in the 89th minute, Bolton were caught in possession and Watford ruthlessly pounced. Micah Hyde picked up the ball and sprayed the ball out to Kennedy on the left wing. The Northern Ireland international, whose magical left foot had provided so many goals during the season, delivered a pinpoint pass into the path of Allan Smart and the substitute buried his shot past goalkeeper Steve Banks.
There truly is no better way to win promotion than in a Wembley final and on that day sheer delirium spread across one side of the stadium, with golden flags waving in front of our triumphant team. A moment when we realised champions Manchester United, along with teams such as Arsenal and Chelsea, would be playing at Vicarage Road next season.
Who would have thought two former Carlisle United players, Wright and Smart, would join the club the previous summer and be instrumental in guiding Watford into the top flight? It was this type of man-management and ability to mould unheralded individuals, including Tommy Mooney, Steve “the Professor” Palmer and captain Robert Page into a successful team that characterised Taylor’s unprecedented achievements with the club.
Watford have enjoyed a few momentous days since, with last season’s FA Cup semi-final comeback against Wolves and Troy Deeney’s extraordinary winner against Leicester in 2013 standing out. But watching Taylor celebrate successive promotions in front of his adoring fans at Wembley remains difficult to top.