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On the team bus, in the dressing room, on the pitch - I lived the dream

Andrew French, hands in pockets, next to Watford skipper Robert Page before the 1999 Play-Off Final at Wembley. <i>(Image: Watford Observer)</i>
Andrew French, hands in pockets, next to Watford skipper Robert Page before the 1999 Play-Off Final at Wembley. (Image: Watford Observer)

It is sadly and regrettably easy to overlook just how lucky I was.

Firstly, just to work for Watford Football Club, my team since the age of six.

Secondly, to be personally hired by Graham Taylor and work for him, alongside legends such as Luther Blissett and Kenny Jackett.

Thirdly, to spend so much time at the training ground and on away trips getting to know the likes of Robert Page, Tommy Mooney, Alec Chamberlain and the rest of the squad during the 1998/99 season.

I class them all as friends (they may not want to confess to the same!) and I like to think that still being able to pick the phone up to them any time, 25 years later, and know they’ll take the call and help me with whatever I’m needing help with, is a sign of a two-way trust and mutual respect.

And lastly, I was so, so lucky that all of the above combined to give me the greatest working day of my life: Monday, May 31, 1999.

Aside from my wedding day and the birth of my two sons, that Bank Holiday is the best day of my 53+ years.

To be a fan and to be part of the ‘playing party’ from the start to the end of the day – you can’t buy that.

Sadly, it was well before phones on cameras and so apart from the odd image that I happened to wander into which others have sent me, I have no photographic memories.

My sister did record the entire Sky Sports coverage of the day (on VHS) while she and the rest of the family were at Wembley, and the footage in the dressing room after the game shows me, shamelessly, eating and drinking and being ultra-unprofessional. But more of that later.

The day started at one of the two hotels that used to be on the A41. I’m not even certain which one it was, or what it’s called now.

But the players and staff stayed there overnight, and I joined them for breakfast on the morning of the game. As with most of my life, food is a recurring theme…

Having travelled with the players to away games for much of that season and stayed overnight in hotels, having breakfast with them wasn’t anything new, though it’s fair to say the atmosphere was a little different.

Subdued, but not in a negative way. Focussed with a hint of nerves would be my way of describing it.

The players who were usually more boisterous were still the same, the quiet ones didn’t change either – but it was like each had dropped down a gear.

After breakfast, GT took everyone to one of the hotel conference rooms and delivered a team talk.

I wish I’d paid more attention to the actual words he said but I can only convey my general feelings and emotions. I would have run through a brick wall for that man.

The way he spoke, the controlled but obvious passion and desire, the regular recognition of what this day meant not just to the players and the club, but to the town and its people.

Graham was a great, great motivator. No notes, no slides, no flipcharts, just words from the head and heart, about Bolton, about what he expected from his team, about the day.

With everyone in their club suits – a dark blue with red/yellow buttonholes – we boarded the team coach.

I generally sat a couple of rows from the front. Graham had the seat nearest the door, with usually Kenny behind him, Luther and Tom Walley across the aisle, and then the likes of physio Paul Rastrick and sports psychologist – or ‘pink shirt man’ – Ciaran Cosgrave around me.

My memories of the coach ride was that as we got nearer to Wembley, there seemed to be more and more yellow – something Steve Palmer also referred to.

Yellow shirts, flags, banners, wigs, face paints. Looking out of the coach window helped settle the nerves as we could see so many people on our side.

That did change a bit as we got to the stadium itself. The entrance to the tunnel was at the end where Bolton fans were housed, and so as the coach slowed on its approach suddenly the colour turned from yellow to white as Wanderers fans surrounded the coach.

While they were nowhere near as unpleasant as the Birmingham fans had been before the away leg of the semi-final, they certainly weren’t rolling out welcome mats.

Off the coach and into the dressing room. It was nothing like as grand as those in the new Wembley, but it was still huge.

Off to one side was a room with the giant bath, the scene of so many post-FA Cup Final celebration pictures.

A member of the stadium staff started to turn the taps on before the game had even started, as apparently it took so long to fill it.

Adjacent to the bathroom was a shower room, and next to that a medical room with tables for massage etc.

Back in the changing room itself, the skips with all the kit and equipment were being unloaded, but my eye was taken by a pair of double white doors in the corner.

GT knew the place inside out from his days managing England, and told me I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Sure enough the doors soon opened to reveal a kitchen, and a couple of tables laden with fruit and various drinks. I’d never seen anything like that before.

However, little chance to nibble as I heard Robert Page tell the players it was time to go and look at the pitch, and I thought I’d better go along as my role was to oversee/organise all interviews, and there would undoubtedly be TV cameras there.

Emerging out onto the pitch, through the early Bolton arrivals, was incredible. The closest I was ever going to get to being a footballer.

There were a surprisingly large number of Watford fans at the far end, and we all strolled towards them.

It’s only when you’re there yourself that you realise why players and staff point at the stands. You can see everyone pretty clearly when it’s not rammed, and I could see my wife and the rest of my family. It was surprisingly emotional.

Back in the dressing room, the volume of the chatter lowered and GT delivered more team-talk as players got changed into their kit. They went out to warm up, I stayed in the dressing room.

Time seemed to go so fast as they were back pretty quickly, and this time there were a few more words and then lots of shouts of encouragement, hugs and back-slapping.

I clearly remember us delaying leaving the dressing room – “Let’s make them wait for us eh lads” was Graham’s suggestion.

Being right at the back of the queue I could see a dot of light at the end of the tunnel, and hear Right Here Right Now by Fatboy Slim. As we moved forward I could see the fireworks.

Stepping out into a full Wembley Stadium – I don’t have the words to describe that. I won’t try. Its what dreams are made of.

We had to walk around the old dog track, and as Bolton fans shouted various barbed comments and insults, Graham just smiled and waved.

“Makes ‘em more annoyed if they think you can’t hear ‘em,” he said.

There were a limited number of seats on the actual bench, so myself and Kirk Wheeler from the club’s Football in the Community scheme were, at Graham’s request, taken by a member of Wembley staff through a door, up some stairs and along a corridor.

We emerged back out into the sunshine to find the ‘overflow’ seats were just in front of the Royal Box…

My memories of the game are probably very similar to those of you reading this. Nervous start, Nick Wright’s wondergoal, on top in the second half, Allan Smart made it certain.

I watched that second goal from the side of the dug-outs, as we had been ushered from our seats to pitchside around the 85-minute mark.

Upon the final whistle I joined the rest of the staff and players on the pitch. I remember a handshake with GT, a big cuddle from Alec Chamberlain and then individually sharing a moment with each player.

It was incredible. I honestly can’t do the feeling of those moments justice in written form. From a six-year-old fan stood on the terrace at the Vicarage Road end in the late 70s to being on the pitch with victorious Watford at Wembley.

Even amid all the celebratory mayhem and loud music, I remembered to look back to where my family were behind the goal.

Seeing my wife, my Mum and Dad, my sister – that was the moment when my own little achievement in a much bigger occasion hit me, and I had to battle a lump in my throat. As so many others have said, to share such a day with those you love is the ultimate in life.

The celebrations seemed to go on for ages, and my one regret was that I didn’t – despite the urgings of GT and others – join the official team photograph with the trophy behind a Nationwide banner.

I felt a fraud because I was only the ‘media bloke’, so I stayed out of shot (in some of the pictures you can see the top of my head behind a yellow/black/red wig that Chris Day had put on).

A small regret, but not one that clouds the day. It was still a privilege. Massively so.

As we headed back to the dressing room I could see a gathering of TV cameras and radio reporters, so I headed to GT.

“I’ll sort them out Frenchy. Go and fill your boots, son. Enjoy the moment. This is a day for all of us,” was pretty much what he said.

So I did. Straight back to the dressing room where, as the players eventually all returned, the party started.

The kitchen now hosted an epic buffet, both of food and drink. I didn’t need asking twice.

Consequently I missed the fact a TV crew was in the room, interviewing players. And so, on that old VHS of the Sky coverage, I am often seen in the back of shot, eating sandwiches and pies, supping lager.

To be honest, while it wasn’t the best look, I actually didn’t care. As instructed by GT, I was ‘filling my boots’, both in terms of the buffet and also the moment.

Players dived in the bath, danced in the showers, sang songs and took turns drinking out of the trophy.

This was pretty much the same group of players I had travelled to Portsmouth with, nine months earlier, at the start of a campaign that I certainly didn’t think would end with promotion to the Premier League. Did anyone?!

From Wembley we headed to Sopwell House, and that’s where my memory disintegrates into an alcohol-infused haze.

I’m teetotal now and have been for a long time, but back then I wasn’t. Much Guinness was consumed, followed by many G&Ts.

I remember the players forming a huddle on the dancefloor for a group rendition of the song that had been used in the dressing room before many a game to signify the squad unity: Bryan Adams’ Everything I Do (I Do It For You). That was a very touching moment.

After that I can recall players walking around swigging from champagne bottles, and someone from Sopwell House being sent out to buy more as we’d drunk them dry.

But that’s pretty much it. I know I had a great, great time . . . the hangover the next day told me that.

Unfortunately, my plans for a long morning in bed were interrupted by a phone call from Vicarage Road.

“There’s two TV satellite trucks here, what do you want us to do with them?”

The Premier League had arrived….