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.

First Team 25/05/2019

Twenty Years Ago: Richard Johnson

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

The parents on the sidelines must have wondered what on earth was going on. Richard Johnson was watching his son play football when he started welling up. And it was not because his boy had just rattled one in from distance like his old man or thundered into a full-blooded tackle. It was because Johnson was recalling the scene in the changing room in the bowels of the old Wembley Stadium just before the players made the long walk up the slope and out into the middle in May 1999.

It's nearly 20 years ago but the emotions are still pretty raw for Johnson. It was that type of season, you see, that type of day and it just shows you how football, when stripped back, can really stir the emotions.

“I read Robbo said we had Bolton beaten in the tunnel, but it was before the tunnel for me,” he said. “It was in the changing room.”

Then Johnson's voice started to quiver. “GT and Kenny Jackett had said their piece and then the players put their arms around each other in a huddle. Bryan Adams' ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ was playing. It might sound a bit corny but it worked for us and summed up the spirit and togetherness we had. It was quite emotional and it's emotional now talking about it. I've never felt that between a group of players before. It was a special feeling.”

It proved the point of difference between the two teams. There were not many of the Watford side who would have made a composite XI of the two teams, but the whole was greater than the sum of its individual parts for the Golden Boys. Bolton had Eidur Gudjohnsen, Per Frandsen, Claus Jensen and Mark Fish, but Watford had something you just can't buy off the shelf.

“On paper, they should have beaten us but we had beaten them twice that season,” said Johnson. “It was just going to be our time and we just knew. Having said that, we were really under the pump for the first five or 10 minutes and I thought ‘Oh, here we go’, but Chambo made a couple of great saves and that settled us down a bit.”

Nobody was settled down, though, when Nick Wright and Allan Smart scored two of the great all-time Wembley goals. The yellow end of the ground went absolutely berserk. In with the Watford fans were Johnson's mum and dad.

“Mum came over [from Australia] just for the final,” said Johnson. “Her and dad stayed in Watford and I think they got a limo to the final with friends. They loved it.” Johnson's father had come over first for the two-legged semi-final with Birmingham. “Expense wise it was a bit much, but he came over when he could,” said Johnson. “It was great he was there at St Andrew’s. He gambled a bit coming over but he just had a good feeling. It was great he was in the stands with all the Watford fans for the shoot-out. I was trying to pick him out and eventually did when we were celebrating. That was a proud moment. We had a good drink afterwards.”

Johnson felt he owed his father a performance and that penalty he rattled in off the bar was probably for him. In October 1996, Johnson Snr came over to watch his boy in action only to spend part of the time sitting in the stands with him. “We were playing Bury away and he was landing that morning,” Johnson said. “He arrived at Heathrow and my wife Vanessa picked him up. But there was terrible traffic on the M1 and they were held up for three-and-a-half hours. They missed the first half and then I was sent off in the second for a straight red. I was then suspended, so he was absolutely fuming because he had come over for a month on his own to see me play.”

Johnson also spent some time on the sidelines at the start of the unforgettable 1998/99 season. He missed the first four games in all competitions after rupturing his thigh in pre-season. He quickly made up for lost time, announcing his return in style, scoring two against Bristol City, including that goal on the volley.

“It was the first time I ever scored two goals in a game and the volley was probably my all-time favourite,” he said. “It made it look better coming off the bar.” When he can strike a ball like that, it was slightly surprising to note that Johnson only scored three more goals that season, something he puts down to perhaps being asked to sit a bit deeper. “I wasn't pushing forward like I used to,” he said.

However, what is interesting to document is that four of his five goals that season came inside the first 10 minutes, suggesting he liked to come flying out of the traps. “I didn't know that stat but I know I always wanted to get myself into the game early on,” he said. “I always wanted to make a few tackles early on to get on the front foot. I wanted to get a few touches and perhaps I wanted to get a few shots away, too.”

Johnson was certainly pumped up for the Tranmere game in April 1999 that is widely considered as the turning point of that season. The Hornets had won one of eight going into that match at Vicarage Road, but beat John Aldridge's side in a lively encounter that day with nine men and then won six of the next seven after that to finish the regular season like a train. Johnson was sent off after 80 minutes and Allan Smart joined him for an early bath seven minutes later.

“I remember getting stuck into Kenny Irons,” said Johnson. “Aldridge jumped up and started piping up and it kicked off from there. Everyone speaks about the Tranmere game as a turning point. I remember that week that Graham had enough and said it sounded like we needed a new voice. We didn't see him for a few days – I think he was ill – and we just had Kenny [Jackett] and this new guy called Ciaran Cosgrave.”

The mental fitness coach has since gone on to earn acclaim with Paris Saint-Germain, LA Lakers and Welsh rugby, but when he was introduced by GT in his now trademark pink shirt at a time when the mental side of the game was not really acknowledged, it is fair to say there were a few naysayers among the squad. Nobody quite made a comment as damning as the one Ray Parlour did when asking Glenn Hoddle’s faith healer for a short back and sides, but the squad needed some convincing of Cosgrave's value.

“My initial thought was that it was just a game of football and we should get on with it,” said Johnson, “but he did help. He got me to just focus on the moment and improve my concentration levels. He didn't want us to get too far ahead of ourselves, he wanted us to focus on the next minute, then the one after that and then the one after that. The mentality helped get everyone on the same page and we knew what we had to do.”

The Hornets never really looked back after Cosgrave came in and they stormed to an unlikely promotion. Johnson is now a Business Development Executive at the club and helped to organise a reunion dinner for the class of 98/99 in December.

“I'll always look back at making my debut at 17 at Cambridge and winning my first pro contract, but I always dreamed as a kid of playing in the FA Cup final at Wembley. It wasn't the FA Cup final but it was pretty close. I've got some amazing photos from the day that I will cherish forever and I couldn't wish to have done it with a better group of lads.”