Here’s a good quiz question for you – who was the first Watford player to be sent off in a Premier League game?

Obviously that’s a tough one for younger fans as it happened in 1999, but if you said Mark Williams then give yourself a pat on the back.

The central defender was shown a straight red in the 4-1 defeat at Manchester United on Saturday October 16, 1999 – 11 games into the Hornets’ maiden season in the Premier League though not, of course, their first taste of top-flight football.

Graham Taylor presided over the initial promotion to the old Division One in 1982, and it was he that took Watford to the Premier League in 1999.

In the summer after beating Bolton Wanderers in the Play-Off Final at Wembley, Taylor was not overly active in the transfer market but among the new recruits was Williams – a 28-year-old, soon to turn 29, defender who had been pretty much ever-present for third-tier Chesterfield where he had clocked up almost 200 appearances in four seasons.

He had started his career with non-league Newtown before playing more than 100 games for Shrewsbury Town, which earned him a move to Saltergate in 1995.

Alongside him in that Chesterfield defence was another player who would later move to Vicarage Road, first as a player and then as a manager – Sean Dyche.

“We knew he’d go on to be a manager because he was so vocal, and not just on the pitch but off it as well,” said Williams, who is a couple of months short of a year older than Dyche.

“He always had a lot to say, and would interrupt the manager John Duncan in training sessions. Dychey was always very loud, he had a lot about him and I knew if he chose to go into coaching he’d be good at it.

“I lived a couple of doors down from Dychey when we were at Chesterfield, and off the field we weren’t that close. But on it, we had an amazing partnership.”

Williams revealed that while Dyche always spoke as if he had just gargled with hot coals, his choice of hair style was very different when they played together in the mid-90s.

“By the time he got to Watford he’d shaved his head and people just thought he was a hard-nut centre half. But he could play, he was good on the ball . . . and at Chesterfield he had a ginger bouffant as well!” Williams laughed.

“I was the one who used to go and be aggressive and Dychey would want to get it down and play, though he could battle as well.

“He always had that voice too! You could spot his voice all the time, he did a lot of talking and he had great banter. He was captain of that Chesterfield side, and I can’t speak highly enough of him.”

Watford Observer: Williams in action for Chesterfield against Wrexham in the 1997 FA Cup quarter-final.Williams in action for Chesterfield against Wrexham in the 1997 FA Cup quarter-final. (Image: Action Images)

As one of football’s outposts that is generally little more than a result and name in the league table as far as the media are concerned, Chesterfield had become used to not getting much attention. However, suddenly everything changed for Williams, Dyche and co in the 1996/97 season.

They reached the FA Cup semi-final and, but for what TV replays showed was a glaring error by the officials, they would have reached the final too.

“At Chesterfield we didn’t have great facilities, we didn’t have a lot of money, but we had an unbelievable team spirit,” Williams recalled.

“We also had a weapon in Kevin Davies, who went on to be a top Premier League striker. When I first joined he was playing on the wing, and he was proper rapid for a bloke of more than 6ft.

“Kev used to destroy teams, and there was a lot of talk about him going, but then we got on the cup run.

“I scored the winner in the first game against Bury, and it went from there. We won again and again, and then we were drawn away against Bolton who were running away with the Championship.

“We went there and destroyed them. Kev scored a hat-trick and we proper beat them.

“But even then, when you’re at a club like Chesterfield, you don’t start thinking about the FA Cup Final. We were getting more media interest with every round, and then we got drawn at home to Wrexham in the quarter-finals.

“That was a really nervy game as they were in the same division and suddenly having been underdogs, we were expected to win. It was on a Sunday on TV, and one team from our division was going to reach the semi-final.

“We won 1-0, we were in the semi-final and we’re like ‘wow, how did this happen?’ It was unreal.”

Incredibly, a team that had reached the last four of the most famous cup competition in the world didn’t even have a training pitch.

“We used to train on local park pitches, and we’d be moving dog s**t off the grass before we could start,” said Williams

“Some days the players would be out in their cars looking for a decent pitch to train on.

“If the weather was really bad, we’d train under the stand at Saltergate.

“John Duncan never let on how bad the finances were, the players just got on with things and didn’t question it. That squad had tremendous spirit.

“When I look back now, it’s incredible what we achieved. In a way it’s a bit sad as we had a great team that was in the running for promotion, but we had so many games with the cup run it hampered our chances.

“I remember one week we’d had so many games postponed because of the cup we played four league games in a week: Saturday, Monday, Thursday and Saturday.

“With a squad the size of ours, you couldn’t juggle all those games. We had to go one way or the other, and the cup run took priority.”

In the semi-final they were paired against Middlesbrough of the Premier League, managed by former England captain and legend Bryan Robson.

Watford Observer: Sean Dyche celebrates scoring from the spot for Chesterfield against Middlesbrough in the 1997 FA Cup semi-finalSean Dyche celebrates scoring from the spot for Chesterfield against Middlesbrough in the 1997 FA Cup semi-final (Image: Action Images)

“Middlesbrough took us lightly,” said Williams.

“They didn’t realise we had Kev Davies, and then there was Andy Morris who was 6ft 5ins and we’d go so direct to make the most of him.

“John Duncan did really well. He took us to Old Trafford a couple of days before the semi-final, so we could get used to it. Not one of us had played in a stadium like that before. He didn’t want us to be in awe of the place on the day and be staring like a bunch of tourists.

“We knew we had something that could hurt Middlesbrough, and with them thinking they were going to smash us up meant we got a head start.

“We were magnificent and went 2-0 up after they had Vladimir Kinder sent off, and we were still 2-0 up with 25 minutes to go.

“Trouble was, at 2-0 up too many of us, including me, started thinking about Wembley. I thought we were there. I was already getting measured up for my FA Cup Final suit in my head.

“They had Juninho and Emerson, and Ravanelli up front, and he scored to make it 2-1.

“Even then we should have gone 3-1 up. Jon Howard hit a shot, it came down off the bar, dropped over the line and then bounced out. The linesman signalled a goal and started running back to halfway, but the ref – David Elleray – thought he was signalling a foul and disallowed it.

“We were naïve lower league players. We should have surrounded Elleray and got him to go and speak to the linesman. There was no VAR in those days, and the officials didn’t have microphones and earpieces.

“The goal wasn’t given and instead of us being 3-1 up and making it game over, they got a penalty that made it 2-2 and took it to extra-time.

“Middlesbrough went 3-2 up in extra time and we equalised in the last minute through Jamie Hewitt to take it to a replay at Hillsborough.

“We didn’t think our chance had gone, we just knew we had another game at Hillsborough. But in the replay Middlesbrough were wise to us. We barely got a kick in that game.

“They’d taken us too lightly in the first game, but in the replay they were just too good. I can barely remember anything about the replay.”

Out of the cup and with their league form affected by the fixture pile-up, the Spirerites finished 10th and missed the play-offs by five points.

Their star players had spent several months in the FA Cup shop window though, and over time that team was broken apart.

“Kev Davies went to Southampton, then Dychey left, Billy Mercer went, and I was expecting my move to come. There was some talk, but nothing materialised,” said Williams.

“I got into the Northern Ireland squad and played against Germany, and I had a really good game, and that seemed to open up a lot of doors.

“I had interest from four or five teams in the Championship, and although my contract at Chesterfield had run out at the end of the 1998/99 season, they wanted to try and keep me.

Watford Observer: Taking on Tottenham's Les FerdinandTaking on Tottenham's Les Ferdinand (Image: Action Images)

“I loved it there and loved all the people. But I was 28 and I knew I needed to move on for the sake of my career. I’d come from non-league and I wanted to play at the highest level I possibly could.

“I had heard Watford were interested and I knew that Kenny Jackett had been coming to watch me play. Aberdeen were interested, and both Sheffield United and Huddersfield wanted to sign me.

“Chesterfield called me in, and I went out for lunch with John Duncan and the chairman. They offered me a six-year contract on what would have been a record deal for them and, because he knew I loved my cars, the chairman offered to buy me a Porsche if I stayed.

“I was so grateful for that offer, but it was never about money for me. I wanted to go as far as I could in my career. The chairman understood that, but I was just appreciative of the offer they made me.

“From there I knew of Watford’s interest, and I went to the first leg play-off game against Birmingham, and then watched the second leg and the final on TV.

“I didn’t know if getting to the Premier League might change Watford’s interest, so in the meantime I talked to Sheffield United, and I met with Steve Bruce at Huddersfield.

“Bruce offered me a really good deal, that wasn’t much different from what Watford were offering. Bruce was a legend in my position and I knew I could learn from him.

“But then Graham Taylor wanted to talk to me. I met him, and I instantly liked him. I was really impressed that he knew everything about me.

“He’d been manager of Wolves when I was starting out at Shrewsbury and he said he’d followed my career from there.

“It was a big move for me. Watford had got to the Premier League and that swayed me because I had always dreamed of playing in the Premier League.

“I remember saying to Steve Bruce that even if I went to Watford and only played one game in the Premier League, I had to do it. That was my dream, to be a Premier League player.”

Watford Observer: Williams (right) and Peter Kennedy take on Arsenal's Thierry HenryWilliams (right) and Peter Kennedy take on Arsenal's Thierry Henry (Image: Action Images)

Williams admits he arrived at Vicarage Road fully aware that he might initially be warming the bench.

“I did well in pre-season, but that Watford team had just had back-to-back promotions and I understood I had no guarantee of starting,” he stressed.

“GT asked me about that, and I said it was fine, I’d wait for my chance. I think he liked my attitude.

“There was Rob Page and Steve Palmer, who were rock solid at the back, so I knew I might have to wait.

“I’d always been fit and I loved running, so I flew through pre-season and I think the gaffer was impressed at my fitness.

“What I think helped me was the first game of the season was against Wimbledon, a big and direct team that played to my strengths as a defender.

“So I got picked for the first day with Pagey, and Palms played in midfield.

“We were really unlucky to lose to Wimbledon that day, it was only a mix-up that led to the own goal that gave them a 3-2 win. We definitely deserved a point.

“After that I stayed in the team, and we had that great win over Liverpool at Anfield. We beat Chelsea at home and beat Bradford, and we had got nine points quite quickly by mid-September.

“Then we started to lose games, but we weren’t getting thrashed. It was a lot of 1-0 and 2-1. We were playing well and just lacking that little bit of quality.

“I think a lot of us were playing on adrenaline. I know I was. And in the Premier League you can only do so much purely on adrenaline.”

The Hornets had won three and lost seven of their first 10 Premier Leagues games, but only the Dons on the opening day managed to score more than two against them.

They certainly came well under the cosh in away games at the likes of Arsenal, West Ham and Leicester, but all three of those ended in just a 1-0 defeat.

Nobody had really given Watford a spanking. Until that fateful day at Old Trafford.

Watford Observer: Williams sees red at Old TraffordWilliams sees red at Old Trafford (Image: Action Images)

“Yeah, that was our first thumping,” Williams recalled.

“When you’re a newly-promoted team that maybe doesn’t have the quality, you don’t want to start taking thumpings.

“Thing is, we did really well at United for the first half an hour. That United team had just won the treble and we were up against Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, Stam.

“It was 0-0 after half an hour but we were 3-0 down by half time. I didn’t make a good clearance and Andy Cole scored with a scissor kick. That’s the difference: in the Championship a striker might need three or four chances to score, but in the Premier League they are that prolific you get punished.”

When Cole made it 4-0 five minutes into the second half there was a real fear the Hornets might end up on the wrong end of a far more sizeable defeat.

However, a fine strike from Richard Johnson in the 68th minute gave them some consolation, before Williams was sent off two minutes from time.

“There’s a slope off the side of the pitch at Old Trafford, and I’ve gone in and mistimed my tackle on Jonathan Greening. It looked worse than it was, and the big slope meant he went flying,” he explained.

“Alex Ferguson came running out of his dug-out and I got shown a straight red. Both me and Greening ended up way off the pitch because of the camber, and it looked a lot worse than it was.

“I know the gaffer wasn’t happy about the decision, and there was nothing said to me after.”

Williams served a three-match ban as a result, but again he didn’t have to wait to get his place back in the team.

“The gaffer brought me straight back in but then when I lost my place in the team further down the line, he said he thought I’d lost my confidence after the red card,” he said.

“That wasn’t the case as I came back in and did well. It was a loss of form. The team did okay up until Christmas but then Wimbledon put five past us and I was subbed in a couple of games.

“I wasn’t playing well, but that was the case for a lot of the team. I didn’t mind being taken out of the team because my form did dip, and then later I did lose a bit of confidence. I was just upset I never really got another chance.

“There were a lot of rumours around that the time that me and the gaffer had a big bust-up in the changing room and he threw a cup of tea at me that went all over my suit. That was a load of rubbish.

“I always had the utmost respect for Graham Taylor as a person and as a manager. He gave me the chance to play in the Premier League.”

Williams ended the season with 22 Premier League appearances, and a fine goal in the 2-1 home defeat to Leeds.

He only featured in six games in the new year, but fully expected to be fighting for his place after relegation back to the Championship. He had no plans to leave.

“Not at all. In my head, I had three years left and I wanted to prove myself to the gaffer. We were going into the Championship and I was confident that was a level I could play at.

“I’d actually jumped over the Championship and gone from League One to the Premier League, but I was confident in my ability to play in the Championship.”

Watford Observer: Williams in action against Tony Cottee of Leicester CityWilliams in action against Tony Cottee of Leicester City (Image: Action Images)

So, he was surprised when his post-season meeting with Taylor brought him news he hadn’t planned for.

“At the end of the Premier League season, all of us had times for individual meetings with GT.

“I went in, and we talked about the season. Then he said I wouldn’t be playing next season and I needed to get my agent to sort me a move.

“I said no, I’ve got three years left and I want to fight for my place in the team. If he wanted to move me, I said he’d have to orchestrate it.

“I went off and during the six weeks between seasons I trained like a man possessed. I was out running with Tom Walley, I trained while I was on holiday, I came back for pre-season super fit.

“The gaffer even said to me he was impressed at how fit I’d come back, and with my attitude. I thought I might have half a chance.

“But then the first-team squad went away on a pre-season training camp in Devon and I wasn’t taken. That was when it hit me that I really wasn’t in his plans.”

Williams got his head down, and continued work on his fitness ready for the new season, wherever he may be.

“I did a lot of training with Luther Blissett that summer. I loved his training, he’s a really happy guy and very bubbly, and he made the work we did really enjoyable.

“I got a call to say that Watford had agreed a fee with Portsmouth and that I should go and speak to them. Then I got a call from Wimbledon saying they’d like to sign me, and so I headed there instead. I knew their style of play suited my game.

“So I went off to the talk to Wimbledon and the gaffer thought I was talking to Portsmouth!

“The gaffer got the message that I was signing for Wimbledon, and I think he made a joke like ‘how did he get a move to them, he had a shocker there when we lost 5-0!’

“Watford paid nothing for me and sold me for £300,000 a year later, and that felt good in my head. It’s not like they spent money on me, it didn’t work out and they made a loss. I was pleased they made money.

“I had three years left on my contract, I was upset to leave but the gaffer had made his mind up and I was fine with that.

“I was sad but also thankful. Graham Taylor gave me the chance to play 22 games in the Premier League, and nobody can take that away from me. And I’m grateful to him for that, and for bringing me to a club where there was a great set of lads who I still stay in touch with on a WhatsApp group today.

“That was a really strong, tight unit of lads at Watford but we just unfortunately came up short on quality. We had desire, we had commitment – but sometimes that isn’t enough, especially in the Premier League.

"Maybe my level was actually Championship level, and perhaps that was a case for a few of the other lads too if we’re being honest.

“I loved Watford, there was a lovely set of supporters and it was a real family place. Everyone I met in my time there was great.

“I loved Luther, Kenny Jackett was a great coach, Tom Walley is a legend. I just wish it had worked out better for all of us.”

Watford Observer: In action for Wimbledon against Watford midfielder Allan NielsenIn action for Wimbledon against Watford midfielder Allan Nielsen (Image: Action Images)

Like Watford, Wimbledon had been relegated from the Premier League and Williams made a good start to life south of the river.

“I won Player of the Year in my first season at Wimbledon and that proved to me I could play at that level.

“I had three years at Wimbledon, but towards the end the club went into administration and we weren’t getting paid.

“The administrators came in and just started selling players. I was told Stoke had come and taken over the remainder of my contract. They were fighting relegation, there was 10 games to go and I was told if I could help keep them up I’d get a deal out of it.

“I went because it helped reduce the wage bill for Wimbledon, and Stoke stayed up.

“At the end of the season Tony Pulis said what he could offer me at Stoke was embarrassing, so I went to Crystal Palace on trial for six weeks.

“I played all pre-season but there was still no deal on the table, and I was offered the chance to go and play for Columbus Crew in the MLS.

“I signed a three-year deal but by the time I got there in September, their season was nearly over. Northern Ireland had been drawn in the same group as England and Wales for World Cup qualification.

“I wanted to play in those qualifiers but I wasn’t getting picked for Northern Ireland while I was out in America. I got a call from Lawrie Sanchez, and he said if I were playing back in England I’d have more chance of getting back in the team.

“So I came back and re-signed for the Dons. They had sold loads of players and had been left with what was theoretically a reserve team.

“They signed me, Dean Holdsworth and Warren Barton just for a bit of experience to try and help the young lads. That suited me, as I could go back home and have a chance to play in those World Cup qualifiers.”

In a summer that saw Wimbledon become MK Dons, Williams nearly left the club – but by staying he bumped into an old friend and former teammate.

“I’d signed a one-year deal with MK Dons when I first came back and I wasn’t sure I was going to stay because Walsall wanted to sign me.

“Paul Merson was a player at Walsall when I’d had a spell on trial there, and he’d got the manager’s job and wanted me to go there.

“But I’d given my word to MK Dons before I’d gone away on tour with Northern Ireland to Barbados, and so I stayed good to that and signed for another year.

“Then who turns up in pre-season? Steve Palmer! If I’d known Steve was signing I might not have signed because he was another experienced centre-half, like me. But I didn’t want to go back on my word.

“They had a really young squad and I knew they needed experienced heads, so I stayed, but if I knew Steve was going I might have moved because he gave them the experience they needed.

“He was doing his coaching badges, so he was a bit like a player/coach.

“It was good actually, because I got on really well with Steve. We lived in the same block on the Reeds in Watford, and we used to socialise together.

“I know what you’re thinking, we’re chalk and cheese! We were certainly an unlikely pairing, but we got on really, really well.”

In what turned out to be his final season as a professional, Williams had a short spell at a club that exploded onto the Football League scene, and then disappeared almost as quickly – but had a great time along the way.

“I’d gone from MK to Rushden and Diamonds on loan. They were bottom of League Two and struggling.

“What a club that was. The set-up they had was incredible, particularly for a team in League Two.

“They were like a mini-Man Utd. You had dressing gowns and slippers laid out for you when you came in from training!

“I loved my time there. They signed the striker Billy Sharp on loan, and he was banging the goals in. We stayed up with a game to go.

“At the end of the season they couldn’t offer me anything, so I spent the summer sitting and waiting but nothing happened.

“So I thought ‘right, that’s it, I’m going to Spain’.

“So I moved out to Marbella and lived there for five years. I played a lot of golf, pretty much every day. I went from barely being able to play the game in England down to a 10-handicap in two years.”

Unfortunately, life for Williams and his family was about to take a significant turn.

“While we were out in Spain, we discovered my son Luca is severely autistic, and non-verbal. He got to 15 months old and my wife said she thought there was a problem, but I said he was just a late developer.

“I was wrong, and when he got to five we needed to come back home to England and get him to doctors in London to get the best help we could for him.

“I loved Spain, but I wanted to be able to look my boy in the face when he was 18 and say ‘Son, I’ve done everything I possibly can for you’.

“And so we came back to London and I started getting him the help he needed, and by chance I fell into some work as a football agent.”

Watford Observer: On international duty for Northern Ireland against Raul of SpainOn international duty for Northern Ireland against Raul of Spain (Image: Action Images)

It was being something of a father figure later in his career that gave him an insight into life as an agent.

“Towards the end of my career at Wimbledon, when I was 32 or 33, the younger lads used to ask me to have a look at their contracts and help them.

“So I had a bit of experience, and the first player who asked me to work with them was Jamie Mackie. He was doing really well at Plymouth and asked me to look after him, so I started to do that.

“It was going really well and I had around 10 players – I sorted Chris Coleman’s contract with Wales, I took Jamie to QPR and I was loving it.

“But the trouble with the world of agents is all the other agents! They try to jump in on your deals, steal your players, and I didn’t like it at all.

“I was more into mentoring players and taking them through their careers. For other agents it was all about money, and like I said earlier, I was never in the game for the money.

“It came to the point where I just didn’t enjoy it anymore. I’ve never chased money. I just wanted to be the best I could be at whatever I do, and if that brings money with it that’s fine.

“My son was severely autistic and I just wanted to be with him. So I gave it all up to care for him, and that’s what I’m doing still now.

“I’ve been caring for him for the last five or six years, and he’s 18 now and we’ve got him to a good place.

“People have said to me that I should consider going back into the agent work again, but I just don’t like how that world works.

“I found it just wasn’t for me. I just wanted to be with my boy and caring for him.”

Then, seven years ago, Williams made a public statement that he had been abused by the serial paedophile football coach Barry Bennell.

“It all came out in 2016. I was initially interviewed about it in 1998, because he had been my coach from when I was 12 to 18.

“He abused me on two separate occasions, and I knew everything about him.

“I was playing really well for Chesterfield at the time of that 1998 interview, I’d come from a council estate in Manchester and football was my best chance of being successful in life.

“So I buried what had happened to me deep inside my head and got on with life. I said nothing when I was interviewed that first time.

“But in 2016 I decided to speak out. I saw friends of mine, like Andy Woodward, being interviewed.

“I hadn’t said what I should have said in 1998, and I wanted to come out and try and help other people by saying what had happened to me.

“I wanted to make people understand these men were telling the truth, and encourage other people to step forward and that it would be ok if they did.

“People find it hard to say anything because they’re embarrassed. They feel shame, and the key thing is that, as a victim, it’s not your shame.

“They did it to you. You haven’t done anything wrong at all.

“When Bennell was my coach he was a big name in football. No 12-year-old is going to want to say anything.

“In my little head it was my word against this big coach, and I didn’t want to get kicked out of the club for causing trouble.

“I had no proof. I didn’t know he was doing it to other people, I thought it was just me.

“I think he eventually got done for about 50 offences against 12 boys, but we know the actual numbers are much, much bigger than that.”

In mid-September, Bennell died at the age of 69 in prison. It partially closed that awful chapter of Williams’ life, but the 53-year-old said what happened to him has left scars that will never fully heal.

“While I was playing football, I had something to focus on. I could keep what happened locked away.

“But when I stopped playing football, I sat back and realised what had actually happened to me, I couldn’t keep it pushed to the back of my mind.

“So I spoke out in 2016, he was found guilty and got sentenced to 30 years. The only disappointing thing for me was that mine wasn’t among those cases he was charged with, and I didn’t get my day in court.

“Would that have made me feel any better? I’ll never know.

“But most importantly he was found guilty.”

While we were talking, Williams was arranging a trip to the cinema with his son Luca, and the two of them may also soon be visiting a place Williams hasn’t been to for 23 years.

“I’ve not been back to Watford since I left,” he said.

“I’ve always wanted to, but for one reason and another I’ve never been able to.

“I’d love to take Luca to a game and I’ve heard a lot about the brilliant sensory room at Vicarage Road. Hopefully I can sort something out so that I can take my boy to see one of the teams I played for, and pay a visit back to a club I have a huge amount of time for.

“I still look for Watford’s results. I can’t say I know too much about the players these days, but I follow their fortunes and I have only very good memories of the club, the people, the fans and the town.”