Watford Museum presents...
A celebration of the history of Watford Football Club through collections and exhibitions of memorabilia and memories
By Alec Chamberlain
When I joined Watford in 1996, I must admit, the prospect of successive promotions, playing at Wembley, and in the Premiership, seemed far fetched to say the least.
Watford had just been relegated to Division Two, Kevin Miller was the first choice goalkeeper and I was the bloke in the reserves who'd just been signed from Sunderland for a humble �40,000. But what is it they say about never knowing what's waiting for you around the next corner.
The following season, Kevin had moved to Crystal Palace and I was lucky enough to establish myself as Watford's first choice goalkeeper as we embarked on three amazing years.
Having said that, Graham Taylor had already taken Watford through the divisions once, and he was back at Vicarage Road as our manager, so I guess we should have expected nothing less!!
But that said, football had changed enormously since the 1970s and 80s, when Watford reached the then Division One under Graham's leadership. Money was now the driving force in the game, and successive promotions just didn't happen anymore�.did they?
Well, we were about to prove that dreams could still come true. At the start of the 1997-98 season we had a great squad, a terrific team spirit, and started the season well. With Bristol City, it's fair to say we were always heading in the right direction, but like any season, there had to be the odd wobble or two to keep us all on our toes! Happily we went up as Champions, and on a personal note I was thrilled to be named Player of the Season.
We all realised life in Division One would be much harder, but we were confident we could hold our own. We didn't pull up any trees to start with, but we were solid, hard to beat, and well organised, and we were always within touching distance of the play-off places � in reality we never expected automatic promotion!
In March, I'd say we were probably outsiders � but all of a sudden our season took the most dramatic twist. We were unbeaten for our last 10 games, we won our last six, and when we beat Grimsby 1-0 at Vicarage Road on the final Sunday of the season we duly clinched the fourth and final play-off place. We were three games from the Premiership.
But hang on � first of all we had the little matter of meeting Birmingham City over two games. And even if we beat them, we had to win at Wembley!
Birmingham were a strong side, and after a couple of near misses, felt it was their turn to go up. Well, we beat them at home, and set up a nail-biting second leg at St Andrews the following Thursday. What a night it turned out to be.
We gave away a soft goal early on and for 20 minutes they besieged us, and to say I was kept on my toes was an understatement. But I sensed them getting frustrated, and the longer the first half wore on, the more we started getting back into the game, and the more I really started to believe we could do it.
We had fantastic support, and that lifted us all too, but although we were giving as good as we got, we couldn't make the breakthrough, and 1-nil to Birmingham meant extra-time, because we were, of course, level on aggregate.
By extra-time they were down to 10 mean after David Holdsworth was sent off, but nevertheless, they peppered our goal again, and I was really pleased with a save I made late on, and it all meant a penalty shoot-out.
Talk about tension, but we'd prepared really well for such circumstances and were quietly confident - happily I made two saves and we won. The first save was from Paul Furlong, and I have a lot to thank Kenny Jackett for - he told me before hand which way Furlong tended to strike his penalties, and I went the right way.
The second save was the one that got us to Wembley. Obviously on hindsight you feel for Chris Holland, who missed it, but all I was concerned about was that I'd saved it, and that we were through. It was a fantastic night, but we couldn't go too crazy with the celebrations because we then had the little matter of playing Bolton for the right to play alongside the Manchester Uniteds, Arsenals and Chelseas of this world.
Bolton at Wembley. May 31st, 1999. I knew it was going to be a special day, but WHAT a day!
For me, it was a dream come true to play at Wembley. I'd been there with Everton, Luton and Liverpool, but had never played, but here I was walking out of that famous tunnel, on to the Wembley turf, taking in the roar of the crowd as the teams came out.
But there was no time to dwell. We had business to attend to. I was pleased with a save I made in the first half , and then came that fabulous overhead kick from Nick Wright to put us 1-nil into the lead.
As you'd expect, Bolton came at us in the second half � they started the game favourites, and made life hard for us. But we got through it, then five minutes from the end Allan Smart scored our second goal�and then the whistle blew for full time.
Well this time we COULD celebrate, and take it from me we did. Indeed, it seemed the celebrations would never end, but the highlight was the open top bus ride around Watford. Honestly, it meant so much to us all to have won promotion, but it also meant so much to see our supporters so happy.
Alas, Wembley euphoria quickly became Premiership reality once the new season kicked-off. The obvious highlights were the 1-0 win at Liverpool and the 1-0 home win over Chelsea, but it was a long hard season, and though we all gave it our best shot, relegation was always staring us in the face.
But hey � we'd been to the Promised Land. It might have lasted one season, but we had been there with the Man Uniteds, the Arsenals and the Chelseas of this world. It was a fabulous adventure for the players, for the club and for our supporters.
It was an adventure that will live with me until the day I draw my last breath. I think I speak for everyone connected with those three balmy, heady seasons when I say that.
Happy memories. And who'd have thought it possible when I first came to the club. But that's why football's such a great game!
Added to the exhibition on 25/05/2005