First Team 30/05/2019

Twenty Years Ago: Nick Wright

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

It must have been a right barrel of laughs in the room Allan Smart and Nick Wright shared at the Hilton Hotel in Watford the night before the play-off final against Bolton Wanderers.

Smart has explained how he was fretting over whether he would be named as one of the three substitutes. Wright, meanwhile, has revealed for the first time that he spent the night dosing himself up with painkillers and desperately trying to ensure the staff did not get wind of an injury he was secretly carrying.

“In the training period between the semi and the final we were playing a small-sided game and I went to shoot,” said Wright. “Micah Hyde clipped me from behind and I did an air shot. I felt something a bit weird and I thought ‘Oh Jesus’. 

“I said nothing about it and just carried on. I took painkillers, dosed up and iced it. I didn't tell anyone as I didn't want to miss out. If it was going to negatively affect my performance I would have said something as I wouldn't let the team down. I just played on through it and I didn't feel it as I guess that was the adrenaline and the anti-inflammatories. After the final I went and had an X-ray and it turns out I had an avulsion fracture. A piece of bone had come off my pelvis."

Against that backdrop, Wright's acrobatic overhead kick, seven minutes before half-time, becomes all the more remarkable. 

“It was just spontaneous,” said Wright. “Anybody who says they are always doing that in training is a liar. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. When the ball comes over you have got a fraction of a second to weigh up the options and I chose the right one. I'm pretty pleased I did.”

Wright had a penchant for the spectacular that season and probably scored the team's second best goal, too. Away at QPR, on a cold Saturday in February, Wright got his sixth of the campaign after just 16 minutes. Ian Grant, writing for the Blind, Stupid and Desperate site, labelled it ‘a strike of blazing brilliance’.

“That one stood out as they were a decent side,” said Wright. “Alec kicked it long out of his hands, the defender slightly misjudged it and I hit a dipping volley into the far corner past Ludek Miklosko. I'd like to say it was from 30 yards, but it was probably closer to 20.”

Wright's first for the club, against Swindon in mid-September, would not have made any end-of-season showreel, but it will stick in the winger's mind for a different reason.

“I scored a minute before half-time from about three yards out, but then I got dragged at half-time. I was feeling good, I'd just scored my first goal and then the manager subs me. To add insult to injury, all the players who hadn't played were made to do laps around the running track at the end and I had to do it. It was a little bit weird having scored.”

It was GT's way, one guesses, of keeping Wright's feet on the floor, a way of reminding him that he had not cracked it by scoring against Swindon. GT's handling of Wright that season was fascinating as he didn’t involve him in any of the first seven games, not even as a sub, not even in the two-legged League Cup game against Cambridge United.

“The manager was honest when I signed and said if I deserved to be playing then I would be,” Wright said. “I'd had a good pre-season, scored a few and then wasn't picked. So I remembered 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."

 

Wright scored seven goals that season and the Hornets never lost when he was on the scoresheet. “I'm never entirely happy with my return, but I'm not an out-and-out forward,” Wright said. “It's a good return for a winger, but I always want more. I never put massive pressure on myself to score a certain amount of goals and just as important was making sure I worked hard defensively. Are we winning and am I contributing was far more important than goals.”

Wright was a lucky omen with the significance of his goals, but he also held another record that season. “I was the most subbed player,” he said. “I spoke with Graham about this and because my game was all-action, I was probably knackered by the time I was taken off. I never wanted to let a defender have a moment's rest and I prided myself on working harder than the opposition. Could I have paced myself? Yeah, easily. Would I have been as effective? Probably not. I wouldn't have had the same edge. I was never happy to be subbed.”

 

Wright, like most that night, ran his socks off against Birmingham in the second leg of the play-off semi-final and was replaced with three minutes remaining for the eighth match in succession and the 21st time of the season. It did, however, spare him the agony of taking part in the penalty shoot-out.

“I was disappointed as I wanted to contribute, but it was probably harder watching than playing when it went to extra-time and then pens,” he said. “I would have taken the sixth penalty had I stayed on. I'd done quite a lot of practise as GT was meticulous in his approach and I'd put myself forward to take a pen.

“I think it was just the players in the centre circle so I was watching it from the dugout with my hands clasped. We took some very, very good pens and then Alec saved one at the end. I remember sprinting over to celebrate as I was just so excited to play at Wembley. I'd always dreamed about playing in an FA Cup final at Wembley since I was five, so this was going to be a massive experience.”

The day was everything Wright hoped it would be and then some. “Singing the national anthem was a big thing for me as I'm very patriotic,” Wright said. “Then obviously going to collect my medal and scoring that goal. It was an incredible occasion for us as a team and for me individually. It was the culmination of loads of hard work.”

Wright has a framed picture of his goal and the shirt he wore that day, but is still deciding where it should go after moving house in the Midlands a couple of years ago.

Cruelly, Wright only played seven more games after the zenith of Wembley because of a knee injury. Tommy Mooney only played two more seasons for the club, likewise Smart. Darren Bazeley never played for the Golden Boys again, Michel Ngonge was gone the following season and Peter Kennedy and Steve Palmer left a year after that.

“We were always unsure how good that team could be,” said Wright. “And we never got the opportunity because of injuries and so on. We were such a young, hungry, dynamic team and it was brilliant to be a part of. I'd love to see the Opta stats now in terms of ground covered and sprints etc. As a team and individually we would have scored pretty well, I reckon. That collectiveness and team ethic was a big part of our success.”

First Team 30/05/2019

Twenty Years Ago: Robert Page

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

Penalties are tough enough to take as it is. Making that dreaded walk from the centre circle knowing it could be your one that costs your teammates, that your legacy will always be the guy who choked from 12 yards.

Imagine then the pressure on Robert Page, Watford's sixth penalty taker on that high-octane night at St Andrew's in May 1999. He's the leader, he can't miss. If he does, it could be all over as we are now into sudden death. You get few second chances when the stakes are so high.

So, Page strides up to the penalty spot, rolls his foot nervously over the ball, bends down to re-spot it and then, just as he's about to focus and look Kevin Poole in the eye, he spots something amid the kaleidoscopic scene behind the goal.

“There is this Birmingham fan to the left of the goal,” said Page. “He's got his pants pulled down and he's slapping his backside.”

Graham Taylor was a stickler for detail and made the players practise penalties until they were blue in the face once the regular season was over, but not even the great visionary could have replicated a scene like that.

“I just had to refocus,” said Page. “I was never changing my mind. I was always going to smash it down the middle, so I just closed my eyes, hit it as hard as I could and hoped for the best.”

There were a few heart-in-mouth penalties that night, a few that you thought when they were first struck that they were going over the bar and into orbit. Page's was top of the list, but he judged it perfectly, slamming it high into the roof of the net.

Perhaps the firmness with which he struck his penalty was a bit of venting of frustration at not being able to be bed side with his then wife at the birth of their first child. The fact Page played so colossally at the heart of the defence that night, winning the Man of the Match award after repelling wave after wave of Birmingham attacks, was remarkable considering his mind would have been forgiven for being elsewhere.

“My wife was in the QEII Hospital in Welwyn Garden City,” Page said. “She was supposed to be induced that night, but she gave birth the day after. I went straight there after the game and we had Corey the following day. It was a mad couple of days.”

It got even more dreamy 10 days after his son was born as Page led the Hornets, the club he'd been at since the age of 11, out at Wembley. It was Roy of the Rovers stuff.

“The best moment of my personal life was seeing my son born and then I had the best moment of my career walking up those steps to collect the trophy," said Page. “It was such a proud moment. It was an unbelievable period in my life.”

The belief the players had in the outcome of that unforgettable day at Wembley was totally unwavering. Whether it be the attention to detail with the suits – Bolton wore tracksuits – the emotional rendition of the team song, (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, in the dressing room or the way they kept Bolton waiting in the tunnel and then looked them fearlessly straight in the eye, the Hornets were never doing anything that day except win promotion.

“Absolutely it was our day,” said Page. “We planned for every scenario. We rehearsed penalties, we turned up smart and we even had the training pitch marked out to the exact dimensions of Wembley. There was a great feeling in the tunnel and a great camaraderie, standing shoulder to shoulder. And then Eidur Gudjohnsen missed that early chance and you thought, ‘This is our day’.”

When Allan Smart rammed in the second goal on 89 minutes, the game was up, everybody could start prematurely celebrating and the fans could go through their rendition of songs before the final blast of Terry Heilbron's whistle. It also enabled Page to bank a few mental pictures.

“I remember they had a shot late on and it went way over the bar,” he said. “I asked the ref how long left and he said, ‘That's it’. I remember standing on the 18-yard box while Chambo was getting ready to take the goal-kick knowing before nearly everyone else in the stadium that that was it, he was going to blow his whistle. It was the best feeling ever.”

It was the culmination of a remarkable season, full of twists and turns, ups and downs. There were 4-1 defeats at Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion, a miserable run of one win in eight, but then there was that thrilling victory against Tranmere with nine men, the double over Bolton Wanderers and the toppling of runaway champions Sunderland at Vicarage Road.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Page, either. He may have finished the season proudly lifting the trophy aloft and playing 44 times, but he was dropped after the 2-0 defeat at Wolves in August and spent the next six games on the bench or out of the squad completely.

“It was a wake-up call,” said 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. The big test as a footballer comes when you are not involved, that's when you show your true character. I was the captain and I just wanted us to do well.”

It's a mis-conception that everything GT touched turned to gold that season. For long periods, he was chopping and changing, striving for the right formula. For example, he couldn't find a place in the XI for Tommy Mooney for 22 games and we all know how crucial his purple patch of nine in 13 games turned out to be. It was the same at centre-half. GT tried various combinations of Page, Keith Millen, Dean Yates and Steve Palmer before eventually settling on the partnership of Palmer and Page following a 2-1 win at Bolton in late October.

“Yatesy came in that summer and had loads of experience and we were always wondering who the gaffer was going to pick,” said Page. “You ended up trying to second guess him, but he eventually went for me and Palms. We just clicked really well. We just understood each other. He was quicker than me, very intelligent and read the game, whereas I wanted to go for every header whether I was winning them or not. We complemented each other really well.”

While Palmer could put his feet up, go on holiday and celebrate after events at Wembley, Page had one more assignment at the end of an exhausting season. He was called up by Wales to play against a star-studded Italy side featuring Paolo Maldini, Christian Vieri, Gianluigi Buffon, Filippo Inzaghi and Fabio Cannavaro. This was five days after the momentous, emotionally and physically draining efforts at Wembley, but it says plenty about Page that there was no sign of a phantom calf or hamstring injury that others would have used to pull out.

“I had to leave the promotion party early because I had to meet up with Wales,” said Page. “I could only have a couple of drinks. But I got there and I was still on cloud nine. Mark Hughes was the manager and he and his staff sat me down, congratulated me and asked me all about it. On top of the birth of my son, it was an unbelievable couple of weeks.”