Football: Blissett at home again in boom town

Watford relive old glories as the Premiership beckons.
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The Independent Online
FIFTEEN YEARS after their finest hour and a half, and Watford are returning to Wembley. The prize may be different - a coveted place at the Premiership table is at stake this time rather than the FA Cup - but Sir Elton John's backing group has a rather familiar look to it.

Sitting alongside Graham Taylor on the bench for tomorrow's First Division play-off final against Bolton, will be the two first-team coaches, Kenny Jackett and Luther Blissett. Following their meteoric rise, between 1977 and 1987, from no-hopers in the Fourth Division to runners-up in the First, history is repeating itself for Watford and their most prodigal father and sons.

"There are obvious parallels between the two sides," said Blissett, who rejoined the club for the third time in 1996 when Taylor returned as manager. "What Graham achieved in his first spell was to get together a group of players who were very strong-minded and determined. He brought young players, experienced players and players who were going nowhere, and gave them all direction. He got us all working mentally and physically to achieve our goals. Well, this side is just the same.

"But the club is light years ahead from how it was then in terms of organisation," said Watford's record scorer (148 goals) and most expensive signing (pounds 550,000 from Milan). "When I first arrived in 1975, you had a manager, and assistant manager and a physio. I don't think the club was really geared up in a professional way. These days, the club is very structured and led by people who know what they're doing and what they want out of the game."

A passport to the Premiership, presumably? "Well, to be honest, the success has crept up on a lot of people," said Blissett. "At the beginning of the season we said we wanted a top 10 place. Having just won promotion [as Second Division champions], and with expectations very high from the supporters, we didn't want to put too much pressure on the players. But the club has suddenly gone boom, boom, boom." Blissett emphasised his point with three sharp jabs.

A measure of Watford's success this season can be found in the mixed fortunes of Bristol City, who finished one place and a point behind the Hornets to gain automatic promotion to the First Division last summer, only to be relegated by Easter this year. And while big-spending Wolves and Huddersfield have fallen by the wayside, Taylor's unfancied unit have quietly gone about their business and forced their way into the play-offs. No mean feat when you consider that the club spent a mere pounds 250,000 on players at the start of the campaign.

"It's all down to Graham," insisted Blissett. "He has bought very wisely, bringing in experienced players like Alec Chamberlain [the goalkeeper who came from Sunderland in 1996] and Tony Daley [the former England international whom Taylor also managed at Aston Villa and Wolves] to complement the promising talents [such as centre-forward Tommy Mooney and defender Robert Page]. He knows the club and what is needed to succeed.

"He is also incredibly meticulous with everything he does. Before the semi-final second leg [of the play-offs] against Birmingham, he made all the players practise penalties right through from the first to the 11th kicker. Players may think at first 'Bloody hell!' but they soon appreciate that these little details are sometimes what makes the difference." Not convinced? Watford beat Birmingham 7-6 in the penalty shoot- out to reach the final.

Standing outside the gates of the Premiership, and eagerly awaiting entry, Watford must now crack the Bolton code to gain access to the riches. "I think it will be a bit of an open game," said Blissett. "Bolton have got some great midfield and forward players who are hard to contain, so there should be plenty of chances at both ends. But we've beaten them twice in the regular season [2-1 away at the Reebok Stadium and 2-0 at Vicarage Road], so we know what we have to do in order to get in the top division."

But will Watford know what to do should they get there? Recent history suggests that newly-promoted sides, not least those who fail to invest heavily, make a swift return to the Nationwide League. "Many people have suggested that we are not quite ready for the Premiership, but I just think that if you get there then you must be ready. Of course, we would want to enter the top division when the stadium is ready and all the infrastructure is in place, but in life opportunities come around and only a fool says 'No, I'm not going to take that because maybe I'm not ready for it'.

"I think you've got to grasp your chance and then give it everything you can to make it work. If we make it and then fail, well we will have gained experience from our time in the top flight and we will know exactly what it takes to stay there. Just look at Middlesbrough and what they have done."

Watford do not hold particularly fond memories of Wembley. That FA Cup final appearance in 1984 ended in a 2-0 defeat by Everton. But this member of the original Yellow Brick Road crew has high hopes for the current crop. "We are a very tight-knit group and these players are determined to play for Watford and for Graham," said the pupil turned master. Tomorrow, Elton's boys hope to put a new spin on the old hits.