First Team 3 weeks ago

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.”

First Team 3 weeks ago

Alternative Awards: The Highs & Lows Of The Season

Kevin Affleck reflects on a rollercoaster of a season for the Hornets in 2018/19.


GOAL OF THE SEASON

This is a controversial one as I’m not going to go with the obvious Gerard Deulofeu in the semi-final of the FA Cup. Yes, I know, but hear me out. I thought it was always going to take something special to prevent Roberto Pereyra running away with it after his delicious strike at Molineux. To caress the ball into the far corner, with his weaker left foot and while running at full pelt, takes the sort of skill only a few players possess. It was a goal of the highest, highest order.

But, for sheer mental fortitude, for the sheer drama of it and for the sheer, dare we say it, cojones, Troy Deeney’s penalty at Wembley wins it for me hands down. It was so laced with significance and subplots that it warrants a 14-and-half-minute interview with the captain on it. Hang on a minute...

To do what he did, under that sort of pressure, with John Ruddy playing mind games and with the delay of VAR adding to the drama required a special sort of composure. And you can, quite rightly, say, ‘He was always going to score it,’ but we all thought that when he lined up to take ones against Blackpool, Brighton, West Ham, Newcastle and Arsenal and looked what happened there. There were sweeter and technically better goals than his this season but none matched his in terms of significance. 


TACTICAL SWITCH OF THE SEASON

Javi Gracia showed his tactical flexibility away at Burnley in only the second game of the season when he took off Andre Gray, brought Ken Sema on the left and played Pereyra in the No. 10 role. He showed that was no flash in the pan when he outfoxed Nuno Espirito Santo at Molineux by playing Deulofeu just off the front man for the first time. The most stand-out tactical manoeuvre, however, came at the London Stadium just before Christmas.

Felipe Anderson was the star of West Ham’s four-match winning run and the danger man when the Hornets went to East London, but he barely got a sniff that afternoon. Gracia asked Kiko Femenía and Ken Sema to double up on the Brazilian and it was difficult to remember a meaningful contribution from the £36m man. Sema did his job so well that Deeney applauded him off when he was substituted. The job Watford did on him that day was only really put into perspective the following week when Anderson scored twice against Southampton.


TACKLE OF THE SEASON

Étienne Capoue’s one in the second half against Chelsea on Boxing Day is right up there, the one where he slid in like a cricketer attempting to prevent the ball racing to the boundary and then dispossessed Pedro, got up and drove away in one cohesive, balletic movement. He really does make the game look so easy at times. Deulofeu’s unlikely recovery run in the quarter-final win over Crystal Palace also deserves a mention, but Deeney wins it for knocking over Davinson Sánchez in the riotous 2-1 win over Spurs.

It represented so much more than simply a centre-forward shoulder charging over a centre-half. It spoke of the physical work Deeney had done in the summer – he lost nearly two-and-a-half stone – and showed this team were not going to roll over against the big boys anymore. In flooring Sánchez with a display of brute strength, Spurs were shaken to their very core and it laid the platform for a stunning comeback.


PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON

To avoid this becoming the Troy Deeney show and picking his performance against Leicester at home, I’m going to go for Miguel Britos’ towering contribution at Queens Park Rangers in the FA Cup. Deeney was running hot at that stage and was in the zone whereas Britos came in from the cold against QPR for what was only his third start in ten months. That’s what made what he did that night all the more impressive. QPR threw the kitchen sink, the dishwasher and the fridge freezer at the Hornets on that thunderous evening. It was tough going indeed.

The team needed people to stand up and nobody did that better than Britos. He kicked and headed everything away and you saw exactly then why he has played nearly 100 times for Napoli. The Uruguayan feels his performances against Norwich and West Ham United in his first season were the best for the club, probably because they were against Premier League opposition, but this was a masterclass in how to defend when your back is against the wall. If that was to be his last 90 minutes in a Watford shirt, then what a way to bow out.


RECOVERY OF THE SEASON

José Holebas once gave up on a ball against Huddersfield Town in a depressing 4-1 home defeat, so it says much about the upturn in his Watford career that he is even in contention for this award of sorts. In the home game against Everton, Richarlison looked to be streaking clear on goal following a ball over the top, but Holebas made up a gap of at least five yards against someone nearly 13 years younger than him to firstly catch up with him, then overtake him and then make a clearance. Vicarage Road bounced with delight. It was testament to the Greek defender’s levels of fitness and his will to win. He showed it was no fluke by doing the same to the even-speedier Kyle Walker in the cup final.


QUOTE OF THE SEASON

There is a cracker to come from Britos when the Uruguayan discusses that tackle on Anthony Knockaert in a wide-ranging interview to be aired later this summer. There was lovely line from Gracia on how his sons were singing the 1881 songs at home ahead of the semi-final and there was much chortling in the room when Capoue took his ambivalence for the game away from a match day to new levels by stating there is “no way” he would have watched the FA Cup final had Watford not been in it.

But when it comes to quotes, it’s difficult to look past Holebas. He had just scored a contender for Goal of the Season against Cardiff and seen his team pick up three Premier League points, but that wasn’t enough to please him. He wanted more, much more. “I’m not happy,” he barked in a TV interview when asked how he pleased he was with his peach of a goal. “3-2 when you’re 3-0 up at home – that should not happen. I don’t care if the goals are great or s***, it’s unacceptable. I’d rather win 1-0 and keep the clean sheet. We need to learn from these mistakes.”

He was dead right. With competitors like this in the dressing room, with such a relentless pursuit of standards, this team will continue to get better and there will be less throwing away of leads than there used to be. 


CELEBRATION OF THE SEASON

There was the double fist pump from Capoue following the home win over Crystal Palace. There was Isaac Success going mad after the thrilling win over Tottenham Hotspur, despite only being on the field for 20 minutes. And I quite liked Gracia’s more animated than usual celebration in front of the away fans at West Ham. But Capoue wins it for the dance towards the corner flag at the end of the semi-final.

To see him do that was to see a man so happy in his work and confirmation just how much this club, this team and his football means to him right now. He said before the cup final he feels like a 22-year-old and he’s certainly now playing with the freedom and youthfulness of a player of that age. It was apparently a dance he performs at home with his kids and was a lovely snapshot of the nice balance he’s got between his profession and his three kids. He does everything right now with joie de vivre and long may that continue.


PASS OF THE SEASON

Craig Cathcart’s cushioned over-the-shoulder one to Will Hughes in the move that led to Gray’s winner against Everton was pretty special and much-overlooked. It showed the Northern Irishman has more in his locker than just defensive nous. But the one that took my breath away was the exchange between Deulofeu and Pereyra at the London Stadium. It was the sort of interchange that the likes of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry used to pull out of the hat regularly for Arsenal, leaving pundits purring and reaching for the book of superlatives.

The weight of the exchange was perfect, the movement off the ball was the sort of thing coaches dream of and it was all done in a flash. The West Ham defence didn’t know what had hit them. By the time they knew what was going on, the pair were wheeling away and celebrating in front of the disbelieving away fans. It was confirmation of why one of these players played in a frontline with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez and why the other has played in a Champions League final. That’s the calibre of player this club now has.


DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE SEASON

It still rankles with me now. No, not the FA Cup final defeat. That can happen, especially against a club that has benefited from £1.3bn worth of investment. No, the one that really sticks in my throat was the 1-0 defeat at St James’ Park. It still takes some working out how the team managed to have 16 shots on goal, including 14 in a lop-sided first half, and boarded the return flight to Luton having lost 1-0. It is no exaggeration of the truth to state the Hornets could have been at least four up at the break.

Newcastle United legend Malcom Macdonald spent the whole first half sat behind us, chuntering about the state of his beloved team who were joint bottom of the table and without a single win after 10 games. The Geordies protested long and loudly afterwards so imagine what they would have been like if Watford, as they should have done, got their noses in front early on? It’s the sort of game you need to be winning if you have aspirations of finishing in the top half. You need to go for the jugular and put the game to bed. That’s part of the evolution of a team and you have to remember sometimes this group is still in its infancy. 


SAVE OF THE SEASON

Only Łukasz Fabiański and Neil Etheridge made more saves than Ben Foster this season. He made seven at home to Huddersfield and away at West Ham, and nine in that bonkers game at Bournemouth. It felt like he made more in a remarkable performance at Brighton, but the stats say he only pulled off four that day. He really was quite busy for a side in pursuit of seventh for so long. The video editors at the club would have had a real job editing down his highlights for the Players’ Player of the Season montage.

But perhaps the best came when there was nothing really at stake, when the game had been long won so that tells you everything you need to know about his attitude. The Hornets were 4-1 up and cruising against Fulham when Jean Michaël Seri bore down on goal late on. He looked certain to bag his second-ever goal for the Cottagers when he hit the ball hard and low to his right, but Foster stuck out his big left-hand and palmed it away to safety. They were the lightning-fast reactions of a world-class goalkeeper. Seri couldn’t believe he hadn’t scored. Foster just shrugged it off as another save. He was just doing his job.


GESTURE OF THE SEASON

There were lots of examples of Watford players giving away kit at the end of games and probably countless more cases of players doing unseen work for good causes behind the scenes, but Rafa Benítez went up several notches in my estimation. A Geordie friend of mine was diagnosed with stage three blood cancer and I thought a small way of trying to lift her spirits was to get Benitez to sign a card wishing her well after the league game at Vicarage Road. Some may have just hastily scribbled their signature on the card and scurried off, but Benítez asked for her name, asked if she was going to be okay, how the treatment was going and wrote a lovely message in the card. It was a classy touch from a thoroughly decent bloke.