Play-Off Final 1999: Player & Staff Memories Of Graham Taylor

By: Watford FC Staff

On May 31, 1999, Graham Taylor took the Hornets to the Premiership for the first time with a 2-0 play-off final win against Bolton Wanderers at Wembley Stadium.

The achievements of the club's greatest ever manager are well documented, but the impact he had on those he worked with are long lasting.

Here, in their own words, the playing and coaching staff from that 1999 squad recall their memories of GT, that season and that match...

Steve Palmer

“Graham had basically mapped out what we had to do. It said something like, 'Nine games to, 27 points and that means play-offs. That means two games, win that and you end up at Wembley and then if you win that, you end up in the Premiership.' It was a pipe dream, shall we say, when we first saw it, but then as things unfolded and as you started to walk past it every day, you realised it was starting to ring true and that it could happen. Everything evolved from that prophecy in the end. I have no idea what prompted Graham to do it, but he was just the master psychologist. He just knew how to motivate players.”

Tommy Smith

“He was massive for me, just huge. He helped me go from a boy to a man. I was never one destined to be a first-team footballer but the fact I did become one was down to him and his belief in me. He was brilliant. I remember he told me I couldn't have an agent and that my dad should do the negotiations. After we went up that season to the Premiership, he promised me a new contract. He told my dad to just come in with a figure we might want. My dad went in with something fair and Graham told him to put it away. We weren't asking for a lot but we thought we'd blown it, but he ended up giving us a better contract than the one we asked for. He was a great man and my whole family has huge admiration for him.”

Michel Ngonge

“He knew how to use me. 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.”

Johann Gudmundsson

“Two days before the game [against Port Vale] the gaffer came to me and said, 'I'm going to start you on Saturday.' He said, 'I'm only telling you so your dad can come over.' If it was one of the young English lads he said he wouldn't have told them.”

Robert Page

“GT wasn't afraid to make changes and although you didn't always agree with them and wanted to play in every game, you accepted it.”

Darren Bazeley

“I didn't leave on bad terms [when leaving the club after earning promotion in 1999]. I had the utmost respect for Graham and we kept in touch long after I left, sending Christmas cards every year.”

Alon Hazan

“Once I got there, it was very easy to fall in love with Watford. GT was a great coach, but he was like a father and a best friend. It was cold at the airport but he made me feel so warm. It usually takes time to feel something like that so I thought, 'If not now, then never.' So I signed, even though we were in the second division. On the first day, I got a call from reception saying I had a guest downstairs. It was Graham Taylor. This was a former England coach who had come down to speak to me and greet me. He said, 'I know you only came today, but I wanted to be the first one you saw.' It gave me the feeling of, 'What can we do for you? – not what can you do for us.'”

Gifton Noel-Williams

“Graham Taylor took me everywhere to see every possible doctor and every possible specialist. Everyone told me to retire as they couldn't see me playing with arthritis. They said if I did that I'd be crippled by the time I was 40. Then Elton intervened. He had been speaking to GT and said he'd seen an article in a newspaper in America about this drug to help with arthritis. He paid for my treatment in Boston and thanks to him I was able to have the career I did. It was amazing for a man of that stature to do that for me. I was really touched and I will always be forever grateful.”

Kenny Jackett

“He would generally say to me ‘You run the training ground, take the sessions and then I’ll come in and out when I see fit’. So I would run 50-60 per cent of the sessions and he’d come in later in the week, take meetings and dip in and out. It worked very well. He’d always have something planned and, between us, we had most of the season covered. His management was fantastic and he showed exactly why he had worked as a club manager for such a long time and then he had that international experience, too. Some of the decisions he made that season were fantastic and were things I hadn’t even thought about.”

Nick Wright

“The manager was honest when I signed and said if I deserved to be playing then I would be. I'd had a good pre-season, scored a few and then wasn't picked. So I remember what he had said to me when I signed and I knocked on the door. It was quite daunting as this was obviously a former England manager, but I felt comfortable doing so and he picked me the next week. It was against Huddersfield, we lost 2-0 and I was rubbish. But he kept me in for the next game against QPR, I was man of the match and I stayed in pretty much throughout after that.”

Paul Robinson

“Graham kept his cards close to his chest. I never had an idea all week and he left it to the last minute. To be named in the team, a young lad going to Wembley, was something special. Part of me was devastated for Gibbo as he was a top pro and had played so well in the semi-final. I honestly thought he would go with Gibbo as he did such a great job in the semi-final.”

Nigel Gibbs

“The boss pulled me day before the final and told me he was going to bring Robbo back in. I always felt he was going to go that way and if I was the manager, I would have done the same thing. To miss out totally was disappointing, but I fully understood. I said I was going to be ready if he wanted me.”

Richard Johnson

“Getting the club to the Premiership from Division Two, and in terms of getting the fans on board and making Watford an ‘inclusive club’ like including the fans, there's no one in the country who has ever done what he did for a football club. I owe my Watford career to him.”

Micah Hyde

“He was like a father figure to me. 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.”

Peter Kennedy

“Would we have done what we did with any other manager? Probably not. Kenny, Luther, Ciaran, the physios did really well, but Graham’s man-management was just brilliant. He knew how to treat everybody and he really looked after me. He backed me, he did me favours and was just a great man. I was very sad to hear about his death.”

Psychologist Ciaran Cosgrave

“Graham rang me one night and said they'd had an unbelievable training session. He asked me what I'd said to them. I eventually showed Graham the hurling video and he fell in love with the sport after that. Him and Rita came over to visit me and Graham stayed up until 4am on the first night watching hurling. He kept asking if there were any rules.”

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