It was around this time 24 years ago that a flame-haired new boy arrived at Vicarage Road.
Nobody knew then that Nick Wright would go on to give the town of Watford, the club and its fans a moment at football’s greatest venue that would never, ever be forgotten.
It’s the stuff dreams are made of for a young footballer: signing for a new club, becoming a core part of the first team and then being instrumental in getting them to the Premier League. Not to mention scoring a worldie that has become a meme.
But back in June 1998, Wright was ‘just’ a new signing from Carlisle United. And much like players who will join Watford this summer, he was new to the club, the town, the dressing room and the fans. So what is the process involved in a transfer from one club to another, and how did the move to Watford materialise?
“I remember playing for Carlisle at Watford, and it was the first experience I’d ever had of being man marked,” he said. “I had quite a free role for Carlisle – Allan Smart was playing centre forward and I was able to roam around and run off him. We were struggling in the league though, and going away to face a team like Watford, who were up for promotion, was a big ask.
“We’d had the better of the game and Alec Chamberlain was the man of the match. I was getting into a lot of space early on in, and then all of a sudden this guy just came and stood next to me and didn’t leave my side! He seemed to have very little interest in the game apart from running everywhere I went. I thought it was a bit weird! That guy was Steve Palmer.
“He didn’t say a word to me. I think I said a few sarcastic things about ‘don’t you want to go and play over there’ or perhaps a bit worse than that. I was young and it was my first experience of that sort of marking happening.
“I knew I was being shown some respect by the Watford manager, and then after the game – which we lost – Graham Taylor stood outside the away changing room to acknowledge that we’d played well, saying to us we didn’t deserve to lose and shook our hands. I never experienced that before or after.”
Steve Palmer gave Wright his first experience of man marking
That handshake and the privilege of being shadowed by Palmer, then led to further interest after the season ended, although Wright did most of the ground work himself.
“I’d never, ever signed with an agent,” he explained. “I’d signed for Carlisle from Derby with the understanding that if anyone offered £100,000 for me at the end of the season, I could leave. I was confident, if I played well in the second half of the season for Carlisle, I could get people interested in me at that rate.
“So I got an agent at that point though I wasn’t paying him a fee. It was only when it came to contract negotiations that I paid him. I know GT contacted Michael Knighton, who was the owner and chairman of Carlisle. He ran Carlisle, and he was brilliant to me. He helped sort me out a house, a car, he let me train at Derby some days. He was very good.
“He knew as a result of Carlisle being relegated there would be players who would want to move on. So I was aware that GT had been in contact.
“Another thing I found out was that GT had got my home number and phoned my Dad. It was another of those really nice touches that culminated in me as a player understanding the approach and thinking of the manager. He wanted to sign a person he knew rather than just a player. He chatted with my Dad to find out about me as a person, what the family was like, that sort of thing. All he had known until then was somebody who could run around pretty quick on a football pitch.”
There were other clubs interested in Wright at the same time though.
“I went to speak to the chairman at Chesterfield, which would have been an easy solution as I was living near there and I wouldn’t have had to move house. We had a nice conversation but I didn’t leave feeling excited, and I wanted to be excited about a move,” said Wright.
“I had a chat with Crewe, and I also knew that David Moyes at Preston was interested in me. In fact, Carlisle had beaten Preston 3-0 at their place, and I set up the first and scored the other two. Moyes was marking me, and I think that turned out to be the day he decided to move into management! I was on Soccer AM as a guest once with the current Blackpool manager Michael Appleton, and he said to me ‘Moyesy says you ended his career!’
“I found out that the day after I’d signed for Watford, Moyes did try to put a bid in for me.”
Nick Wright celebrates scoring
Might that have changed anything?
“How can you know? All I do know is I came to Watford, and felt great about a manager who wanted to get you to know you as a person, was interested in your family life and invested time in explaining that this was what Watford Football Club was all about,” said Wright.
“He didn’t offer any crazy promises, and I don’t think he thought I’d be going straight into his first team. But I thought I would – so I said that if I did well in pre-season and I looked good enough to be in the first team, would I be playing? And he said yes. That was good enough for me.
“There was no discussion about promotion to the Premier League. The club had just been promoted anyway, and I can’t recall any conversations about going straight up. There was certainly no negativity though. He talked about establishing ourselves as a strong team in the Championship, developing young players, that sort of thing.
“There was actually a promotion bonus in the contract but to be honest I’d not actually paid much attention to it. I did have a look on May 31 at the end of the season mind you! I’ll say this, I reckon players today would negotiate something far better!
“The thing is, I never played football for the money. It’s absolutely true that the only thing I ever wanted to do from a young age was play professional football. It’s why I never wanted to get into negotiations with a manager, and why I did use an agent purely for that part of the transfer. Even then there was no going backwards and forwards, Watford made me an offer, I thought it was fair. Money wasn’t the most important thing. What was important to me was joining a Championship club, trying to get into the team, and see how high I could go.”
So there’s an agreeable offer, the player wants to join and everything looks set – what happens next?
“The next main thing GT wanted to talk about was location. I was still living in Derbyshire but I’d been living in Warrington in a house that Carlisle had rented so I could travel up a bit easier. I knew that wherever I moved to, I’d need to consider where I was going to live,” he said.
“So I asked him what the agreement was in terms of how far away from the stadium you could live. I liked to be able to be away from the club in the evening so I could relax, and not be always immersed in the club. I never wanted my life to be 100 per cent about football. I wanted a good work/life balance. Football can be intense and I needed to be able to switch off and relax.
“GT’s answer was that a 45-minute commute was the maximum. So I had a look around in places like Milton Keynes, and there was plenty of property in that area. I spoke to the manager and said I can get down the M1 or if that’s busy there are other ways of getting to Watford. I remember saying that without traffic it’s about half an hour. I learned later that on a weekday morning it takes a lot longer than that!
“But he was fine with that, and he understood that all my family and friends were in Derbyshire, and it was important for me to be able to stay close to them too. In football, you see very quickly how many people want to be your friend when things are going well. I wanted to make sure I could maintain the close friendships I’d had with people who knew before I was a professional footballer.
“I wanted to stay grounded, and that was a good way of doing so.”
Having become a Watford player and agreed whereabouts he was going to find his own place, Wright needed somewhere to live in the meantime.
“I was never keen on long spells in hotels. I get bored very quickly and I’m not someone who just wants to sit watching TV for hours on end. I like being outside and being busy,” said Wright.
“When I was at Carlisle, I ended up staying in a guest house for a while where some of the club’s apprentices stayed. They had a dart board and things to do, and there were other players there to have conversations with.
“I had the option of going into a hotel when I first signed for Watford but I said I’d rather look at other alternatives and so I ended up staying in Garston with a lady called Annie. She had housed youth team players in the past, but when I joined she was looking after senior players. Tony Daley was staying there at the same time. My main memory of staying with Annie was eating lots of potatoes! Every night we got lots of potatoes.
“But it meant I got to know Tony which was useful. His body was a shrine! It’s no surprise he moved into that fitness and wellbeing side of the game after retiring.
“Spending time with Tony and getting to know him while living in Garston for the period I was looking for a house in Milton Keynes really worked for me.”
Contract signed, new area to live in identified, temporary digs arranged – the next step was the first day of pre-season training.
“Any pre-season is actually quite nice until you get into the proper work,” Wright laughed. “I was fortunate that on the first day I already knew Tony Daley, I’d got to know Smarty at Carlisle and also we had Dean Yates that I knew well from Derby.
“I was a young player and I wanted to make a big impression. The first few days were mainly ball work and getting to love the ball again, but that was blended in with some long-distance running.
“Later on we’d move onto the shorter sprints, and doggies which people have heard of. The manager had these boards that he’d set out 20 yards apart and you’d have to do a sequence of four sprints between them. It was all timed as well. That became a case of seeing him putting the boards out, and knowing none of the players were looking forward to what was coming next. Sprint repetitions are a tough gig.
“What did surprise me was that I’d always been one of the best endurance runners in pre-season at Derby. When I got to Watford, I wasn’t because there were some exceptional long-distance runners that pre-season. Clint Easton was incredible, he could run all day. And goalkeepers are normally not runners, but Alec was a brilliant long-distance runner.”
Wright celebrates the Hornets’ Play-Off triumph with Graham Taylor and Allan Smart
And from that pre-season came a campaign that no Watford fan who witnessed it will ever forget. However, Wright was not immediately in the team.
“Back in those days you had three subs. First day of the season, away to Portsmouth, I wasn’t even on the bench,” said Wright. “Same again at home to Bradford, away to Bristol City, away to Sunderland.
“So, I decided to go and see the manager. I knocked on his office door, asked if I could have a chat and he was fine. I just said that when I’d joined I’d asked if I would get my chance in the first team if I had a pre-season and was looking good, and the manager nodded. Then I said I thought I’d had a good pre-season and that I was worth a first-team place.
“I remember the manager thanking me for that input! He wasn’t aggressive or rude, he just simply thanked me. The next game was away to Huddersfield, he started me and I had a shocker and we lost 2-0!
“But I kept my place and we beat QPR at home in the next game, then we followed up with a 4-1 win at Swindon. I scored my first goal in that game, just before half-time. I was really chuffed as we came off the pitch…and the manager told me he was substituting me! That was the manager though. Look where we went from then on.”
Indeed, after that the Hornets went on to reach the play-offs and then came the day at Wembley – and that goal.
“Even now, on May 31, I get tagged on videos and pictures on social media by Watford fans saying ‘Happy Nick Wright Day’,” he said.
“There’s no way I will ever tire of it. How could anybody tire of a moment like that in their career? Whenever I come back down to Watford I look forward to it. Everybody is welcoming and kind. I just wish I could have played a few more games.”