First Team 27/05/2019

Twenty Years Ago: Micah Hyde

Twenty years on, Kevin Affleck speaks to key figures from Watford's historic 1998/99 promotion-winning campaign...

Micah Hyde played youth football alongside David Beckham, played in World Cup qualifiers and strutted his stuff in the Premier League. Yet the 1998/99 campaign will always represent the high point of his career. It will always trump the rest for two reasons.

“We got promoted at Wembley and my son was born,” said Hyde. Tyrique Hyde was born on April 8, 1999 and Micah marked his arrival two days later with his first goal of the season, a screamer against Bolton at Vicarage Road. Ian Grant, writing for the Blind, Stupid And Desperate website, described it as a ‘gem of a goal’. It was ‘absolute perfection’, he wrote.
 
“Hyde picked up a loose ball 20 yards out, surrounded by opponents. And he didn't hesitate, flicking a shot with almost casual grace that arrowed its way into the top corner.” It might have won Goal of the Season in any other campaign but then Nick Wright went and did what he did at Wembley. “We did the rocking the baby celebration,” said Hyde. “I didn't score many so it wasn't as if we could plan for it. We just did it off the cuff.”

Hyde got one in the next home game, too. He doesn't remember much about that one against Crystal Palace but, for the record, it was not a thing of beauty. “A low ball through the six-yard box...whether by goalkeeping error or defensive deflection, went all the way through and into the bottom corner,” wrote Grant.

Hyde only scored two goals in 50 appearances that season. He really should have got more for a player of his prodigious ability. His goal return was perhaps a reason why he was only eighth in the pecking order when it came to the penalty kicks at St Andrew's. Nigel Gibbs was due to step up after Hyde and he's on record as saying that Hyde ‘was so nervous. He wasn't looking the best so that didn't fill me with confidence’.

“I was up for taking one, but I'm glad I didn't,” said Hyde. “I would have gone across my body and gone bottom left, but perhaps nerves got the better of me that night.” Rather than seek the glory of goals and assists, Hyde was content to take a backseat and build attacks from deep. 

“I played in a deeper, creative role,” said Hyde. “Perhaps the one regret was that I didn't play more box-to-box. Instead I sat back a bit and admired passes I was playing for other people.”

Hyde didn't immediately strike you as a GT sort of player, but the greatest manager in the club's history showed he could get the best out of technicians as well as terriers.

“He was like a father figure to me,” said Hyde. “He was fantastic. He suited me down to the ground and just tried to get me to make better decisions. He allowed me to express myself and never once asked me to lump it or just hoof it. Those who just said he was a long ball manager were very harsh. I played under John Beck at Cambridge and that was long ball. Graham wanted the ball in the final third and understood how to win football matches.”

GT also knew the importance of partnerships, whether it be Paul Robinson and Peter Kennedy down the left, Steve Palmer and Robert Page at the heart of the defence or Richard Johnson and Hyde at the heart of the midfield. “Johnno and me were chalk and cheese but we had a great partnership,” Hyde said.

“I'd never met him before I came to Watford but we got on so well on and off the pitch, probably a bit too well off the pitch once or twice. I still speak to him now. When I first signed I had the option to wear number 10 or number eight and I didn't think I could carry off wearing the number 10 as that tends to be a bit of a luxury player, so I wore eight. But in the end, I should have worn 10 and Johnno the eight as I had the guile and he had the power. When I came I think he'd had a few injuries and I'm not sure the fans were having him, but I think I helped him kick on and we got the balance right.”

Hyde made a half-century of appearances that season and Johnson played 44 times. Neither player made more appearances in a season before or after that. It was a career high in more ways than one. “I can't speak for Johnno but my fitness used to get on the others players' nerves,” Hyde said. “When we finished for the season I didn't do a thing, not a jot. Others used to go swimming, get on the bike or go to the gym but I did zero. But when we got back for pre-season I used to run for days. I was just naturally fit.”

Hyde also bought into the psychological side of things as well as the physical. He fully embraced what psychologist Ciaran Cosgrave was preaching when GT astutely added him to the mix as that season neared the business end. “I was all in,” said Hyde. “I really appreciated the mental side of things. I knew I had ability and I didn't believe anyone was better than me. My dad drilled that into me. When Ciaran came in he was like a breath of fresh air and encouraged you to close your eyes and visualise things. I was really into that.”

The team needed to draw on their mental reserves that season because things were not all plain sailing. There were two sequences of five matches without a win, 4-1 hammerings at Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion, and a nasty throat infection that left the team without their manager and inspiration for a couple of months.

“We had a rocky patch then,” said Hyde. “But, if anything, it took the pressure off us a bit and we just got on with it. Kenny [Jackett] took over and eventually we did well again and we got the belief back. Kenny was a good coach.”

All the planets started to align and the Hornets finished the season like a steam train, with seven wins from their last eight league matches. Birmingham were just about seen off in the play-off semi-final and that set up a Wembley date with Bolton. Hyde had only been to the home of English football once before and that was a trip with the school to watch England against Italy. Yet the silky-smooth midfielder and his teammates played with such confidence and with no trace of nerves that it looked like Wembley was their second home.

“It was a great experience,” said Hyde. “I didn't feel nervous at all. There were more nerves in the semi-final. I was just hungry to go there and play and show what I could do.” Hyde played so well that the vaunted Bolton pair of Claus Jensen and Per Frandsen barely got a kick. “They were very good players, but me, Johnno and Peter [Kennedy] dealt with them. We admired them and respected them, but we were just that bit more confident and assured. Neil Cox played for them and when he joined us, he confirmed that we were the superior side on the day.”

Hyde had his mum, dad and sisters at the game and managed to pick them out during the celebrations. His mum then threw a party for friends and family. He has still got his winner's medal, the programme and a framed picture to add to his prized collection. “I've got one of me and Vialli, one when we got promoted at Fulham and then the one from Wembley is pride of place. That was a tremendous day.”

First Team 26/05/2019

Twenty Years Ago: Michel Ngonge

Twenty years on, Kevin Affleck speaks to key figures from Watford's historic 1998/99 promotion-winning campaign...

There is a perception that the Golden Boys' charge to promotion was part of some carefully thought-out plan, that Graham Taylor had it all worked out.

Now, GT did ensure the players were ready for a sprint finish by pounding them during a gruelling pre-season. He also put a roadmap on the wall outside the dressing room at the training ground, showing how the final nine games could pan out. He also left no stone unturned when it came to penalties, making the players metronomically practise after every training session following the end to the regular season. 

But when it came to selection, he was forever tinkering with his team, trying to come up with a balanced XI that worked. Take the front two, for example. He tried 17 different combinations in attack that season, from Ronnie Rosenthal and Jason Lee on the opening day, to Guy Whittingham and Tommy Smith against Bury and even Allan Smart up on his own. 

He eventually plumped for Tommy Mooney and Michel Ngonge, and everyone will remember they were the two players who spearheaded the attack at Wembley, but theirs wasn't a partnership long in the making. They only played together for the first time at the end of April – and even then it was because Whittingham came off injured in the previous game against Crystal Palace. 

“Graham Taylor had lots of strikers,” said Ngonge, who was one of seven that season. “We had a big squad and there were lots of options for him, but me and Tommy had a good partnership and we were quite good. It was a nice combination. We were really strong together and we would win the battle with the defenders. The defenders were struggling with us.”

Mooney and Ngonge only started six games together but what six games they were. They beat Port Vale, drew with Barnsley, beat Grimsby to land a play-off spot, saw off Birmingham City over two legs and then wiped the floor with Bolton Wanderers in the final. Ngonge scored five league goals in 25 appearances, 16 of which were starts, that season and Watford were never on the losing end of things when he found the back of the net.

“I didn't realise that,” he said. “When I was in the team, I just wanted to show my teammates exactly what I could do: I can run fast and I can really attack balls from a cross. I should have scored more.”

He wanted to score more to repay the faith Taylor had shown in him but groin surgery ruled him out for two months around the turn of the year. GT took a punt on the then 31-year-old that summer, signing the journeyman striker from Samsunspor on the say-so of Rosenthal. GT never saw him play live.

“He knew how to use me,” said Ngonge. “He always told everybody to bring their best to the pitch and the rest will come. He made you go on the pitch feeling big, feeling confident. He made me feel like Maradona. The manager was his title, but he was like your father. He would manage people but he would talk to you from his heart and touch people. He would get the best out of players. I will never ever forget him.

“Even when I asked to leave to join QPR he said, 'Okay, no problem. You have done your job for this club.' I scored for QPR against Watford and I didn't celebrate. He came up to me after the game and said, 'Well done.'”

Ngonge got plenty of pats on the back from GT during the 98/99 season, especially after he got the only goal of the game on his debut in the win against Bradford in the opening home game. He scored in the cup game with Cambridge United, the 3-1 win over Bury, the memorable 2-1 victory at home to Tranmere, the 2-2 draw at Barnsley and then the only goal of the game in the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Birmingham City, heading in a corner from Peter Kennedy.

“Graham knew I was the best in the squad with my head,” said Ngonge. “It was something we worked on in training and when it happened, I was like, 'Wow'. It was a beautiful goal and I was really pleased to score such a typical English goal.”

The result left the tie in the balance heading to St Andrew's for the second leg. Dele Adebola scored for Birmingham inside 180 seconds and then it was backs to the wall on a thunderous night in the Midlands. “We were really scared,” said Ngonge. “They scored straight away and they were pushing us so hard. The crowd were really screaming and really aggressive. We managed to hold the pressure and we started to fight. We were not close to scoring, but we were prepared to fight. I was holding the ball up with Tommy Mooney and trying to defend. Alec Chamberlain had an unbelievable match. He made some great, great saves.”

Perhaps the easiest of the saves Chamberlain made was the one to his left to keep out a tame penalty from Chris Holland. Ngonge had been subbed by that point, replaced with three minutes to go of normal time having run his socks off. Would he have had the nerve to take a penalty had he remained on the pitch? “The players will laugh, but I used to take penalties when I was in Belgium and Turkey but nobody trusted me at Watford,” he said. “They never let me take one. Graham already had his shooters and if somebody had hesitated, I would put the ball in the net, don't worry about that.”

Ngonge didn't need to score against Bolton either. Smart and Nick Wright saw to that with two of the great Wembley goals. Ngonge had his then wife, his parents, his cousin and plenty of friends in the crowd. “Even the president of one of my former clubs in Belgium came,” he said. “He didn't tell me – he just bought a ticket. There were also two journalists from Belgium and they had a camera just on me. That made me really proud.”

Ngonge, 51, is now assistant coach of the Belgium Under-17 team. His son, Cyril, 18, is at Club Brugge and played in the Champions League this season. Life is good but even when it isn't sometimes, he has something in the memory bank to act as the perfect pick-me-up.

“If sometimes I feel down, I get the tape out of the final and watch the game,” he said. “Straight away the confidence comes through my mind. It was a really special day and I hope all footballers can experience something like that. This is why we play football: to get this kind of sensation. It's writing history.

“When I talk to the Under-17 players I talk to them a lot about what we did at Watford, how everybody is part of the team, not just the 11, not just the subs, but the players in the stands. When you do this, you are strong and you can do anything.”

Like winning promotion to the Premier League.