Sunday 5 February 2023

The oracle

Like all Watford fans of a certain age, I was sad to hear that Oliver Phillips had died. It’s no exaggeration to say that he has had more influence on my Watford-supporting life than anyone not actually employed by the club.

Every Friday when I was growing up, I would eagerly devour every word he had written about the Hornets that week – and he wrote a lot. Not just match reports and previews, but all the news you wanted and needed about the club, much of it straight from the horse’s mouth – that is, the manager’s, for Oli forged good relationships with most (though not all) of those in charge during his time at the Watford Observer, once they realised he wasn’t going to stitch them up.

When I was living in West Germany (as it was then) in 1982, and then again in 1984-85, as part of my university course, my mother used to send me the sports section of the Observer every week, and I looked forward keenly to its arrival. Reading the many online tributes to Oli these past few days, it’s clear that I was far from the only one for whom his writing provided a link to the club, and to home, for those living overseas.

I was lucky enough to meet him once. I did a postgraduate journalism course, with a special module on sport, where one of the first assignments was to profile a sports writer. Naturally I saw this as a perfect opportunity to meet one of my heroes, and a couple of weeks later I found myself in a meeting room at the Watford Observer offices in the Rickmansworth Road, face to face with the man himself.

I say face to face, but Oli was so tall that he towered over me, even sitting down. Allied to his height was a rather stern, forbidding manner. It soon became clear that he took his job, and the craft of journalism, very seriously indeed. He was appalled to find that I wasn’t taking the NCTJ exam (the standard qualification for news journalists) as part of my course, and I didn’t really want to explain that it wasn’t necessary to fulfil my ambition of reviewing rock albums for the NME.

Still, he softened once we got to talking about his career, and about Watford. I’ve still got the article I wrote, printed on the flimsy, yellowing paper they gave us in the computer room at City University. (This was 1989, and no one my age had their own PC.) I note that my tutor gave me a mark of 16 out of 25 – a solid pass, but no more. I wasn’t destined to spend my working life in press boxes at football grounds.

My opening line was: “To anyone who supports Watford FC, Oliver Phillips is the oracle,” and I still stand by that. I went on to outline his career; a false start working in insurance in the City, then a job as a junior reporter at the West Herts Post, and then on to the Observer in 1968. 

There are some nice anecdotes that I’d forgotten, like the story of his first day reporting on the Watford first team, in 1963. “I started the same day as Ken Furphy took over as Watford manager, so I dashed down to the ground to interview him. I was really nervous, and I explained that it was my first day in the new job. He said, ‘Well, it’s mine too, so we’ll just have to bodge through together, won’t we?’”

I also like the fact that he had only missed eight Watford games since 1967, and the last one at that point had been in 1978 – over a decade earlier. He even made it to Vicarage Road on the day of his wedding, though he was at pains to point out that “my wife went too, and I didn’t actually report on the match”.

The piece finishes with Oli saying that he still loved his job, which he’d be happy to do until he retired. His only complaint was that the football season started too early, just when he’d got used to spending Saturday afternoons with his wife and kids. “One day I’ll be thinking, ‘Now, what shall we do next weekend?’, and then I remember that I’ve got to go off to Devon or Sweden or somewhere for the pre-season tour. But by the third week of the season, I’m as keen as ever.”

Rest in peace, Oli. We won’t see your like again.

Sunday 20 March 2022

A question of philosophy

With no Watford games to look forward to for a couple more weeks, there’s an opportunity to think more philosophically about the season so far. And if there’s one thing a philosopher loves, it’s a thought experiment, so try this one:

The day before a Premier League season starts, a genie appears and grants you the power to determine how Watford will fare. The catch is that there are only two options:

A: Watford will stay up, but they won’t win a single home game

B: Watford will be unbeaten at home, but they will be relegated

Now if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly a Watford supporter, so obviously you’d choose A, right? Supporting a club means wanting the best for them at all times, and staying in the Premier League is the best thing for Watford; it means more money to spend on buying better players and to invest in the stadium, the training ground, youth development and community schemes. And it means we get to see some of the best players in the world at Vicarage Road for another season. It’s a no-brainer.

But the thing is, most of us don’t think like that. Human beings are inherently selfish, and what we want from our football-watching experience is the elation of seeing our team scoring goals, the shared experience of cheering on a winning side and the satisfaction of leaving the ground with three points in the bag. I strongly suspect the only people who would realistically choose option A are that dedicated band of fans who go to every away game, and who would reap those benefits anyway.

I’ve been thinking about this, obviously, because of the contrast in Watford’s recent home and away form:

Last five home games: W 0 D 0 L 5, GF 3, GA 13

Last five away games: W 2 D 1 L 2, GF 3, GA 6

Moreover, the two away games before that were draws at Burnley and Newcastle, while the two previous home games were comprehensive defeats by West Ham and Manchester City.

Roy and Ray have clearly managed to tighten up our leaky defence (apart from the suicidal performance at Wolves, which accounts for four of the six away goals conceded), but it doesn’t seem to work at home. And I’m beginning to wonder, a bit like David Mitchell’s Nazi in the famous sketch: are we the problem? Do the team crumble under the weight of the fans’ expectations at Vicarage Road? Does the perceived greater need to win home games (even though the points are the same wherever you win them) force Roy to compromise his defensive principles, with disastrous results?

I’ve written before about my conviction that the concept of home advantage is a myth – or at least, it only exists in so far as managers and players believe it does. (I’m sure the philosophers have a term for that, too.) Last season was an interesting experiment in that regard: the Hornets’ home record – 19 wins, 2 draws, 2 defeats – was outstanding, it’s true, but it was achieved in the almost total absence of home fans. Indeed, the three games where fans were allowed to attend saw one of the two home defeats and one of the draws. The players may have made regular statements about how it wasn’t the same without the fans there, but when they were, they performed worse.

Clearly, promotion and the return of proper crowds means we can’t properly compare this season with last. The fact remains that Watford have performed miserably at home for the most part; take out the first 70 minutes against Villa, the Man United game and the dogged – but ultimately unsuccessful – resistance against Spurs and you’re left with precious little from which to construct a highlights reel.

So bearing all this in mind, while we’ve got a string of potentially winnable home games against teams from the bottom half of the table, it’s probably best not to get our hopes up. The tension in the stands at those games will be almost unbearable (unless the unthinkable happens and we dominate our opponents and win with ease), and it will be transmitted to the players. It would probably be better if we were playing Leeds, Burnley, Brentford and Everton away and Liverpool and City at home.

As for me, I’m trying to view the whole situation philosophically.

Sunday 15 August 2021

Home comforts

Returning to old routines is reassuring, like slipping on a comfortable pair of shoes. It starts, as usual, with lunch at my mum’s, where she still insists on making me fish and chips (the proper way, using a deep fat fryer), as she has done on Saturdays ever since I was a boy, even though she’s now 94 and I’m 58.

Then the short drive from Bushey Heath to Watford, parking as usual in the industrial estate on Whippendell Road (£2 more expensive than it used to be, mind). The walk over the railway bridge, left down Cardiff Road, right up Occupation Road, past the allot... Oh, hang on. Where the allotments used to be is now a building site, with the enormous steel frame of what looks like a warehouse looming up on the hospital side.

From there on in, it’s a mixture of the familiar and the new. Familiar: buy a programme from my usual seller for the usual price. New: queue to use my iPhone to get into the ground. (This early – around 2.15 – the queues aren’t too bad and move quickly, and the technology works perfectly for me and for everyone else, as far as I can see.) New: put on a face mask for the 30-second walk through the concourse. Familiar: discover I’m the first one in my row, and exchange a few words with the old bloke in the row in front who’s always there before me.

From there until kick-off, the level of hysteria gradually rises. The emergence of the three goalkeepers for their warm-up is greeted with disproportionately huge cheers, which are then surpassed when the rest of the team join them a few minutes later.

Once they’ve returned to the dressing room, it all gets rather chaotic. The first showing of the moving montage of Watford fans who didn’t make it through the pandemic is swiftly followed by the announcement of the Graham Taylor Matchday. Is this where we’re all supposed to raise our scarves? Apparently not, but the 1881 take it as a cue to start bellowing the old anthems at a volume which renders the PA inaudible, so I may have missed some instructions. Then the Villa team come out first, followed by the Hornets, though I can’t hear Z-Cars. Do we raise our scarves now? Some do, so I follow suit, but it’s all a bit patchy. Finally, once the hubbub has died down a bit and the players have done that lining up thing, Z-Cars is audible, and all is right with the world.

I won’t bore you with a match report – you can read those elsewhere. But it is worth noting how satisfying it was that all Watford’s debutants distinguished themselves, despite the doom-laden predictions of the many idiots on Twitter who’ve been moaning about the club’s recruitment, as if we’d just picked random names out of a hat. Just because you haven’t heard of a player, it doesn’t mean they’re no good. My instant new favourite of the bunch is Juraj Kucka, who’s built like a bouncer and plays like Valon Behrami on steroids. He’s got ‘cult hero’ written all over him.

Half-time brings another showing of the memorial montage and an impressive parade of NHS staff round the ground - so many that there are still people emerging from the Sir Elton John Stand when the leaders complete their lap. My hands are sore from clapping by the time the last nurse finally disappears, but it’s no hardship. It’s great to see the Villa fans joining in, too – although unless I missed it, they never did raise their scarves for GT.

By the end of the game I’m hoarse from singing and shouting, and my nerves are shot thanks to the late Villa penalty and their subsequent all-out assault on our tottering defence. (We need to get better at closing out games, but that’s an argument for another day.) We held out, though, the final whistle went and delirium was unconfined. In no rush to leave, I waited to applaud the players and then to sing Xisco’s name (we really need a proper song for him).

And then, finally, reluctantly, I left the stadium. My, but it was good to be there again.

Sunday 16 May 2021

Screen break

 I’ve been a Watford fan long enough to witness all but two of the club’s Football League promotions. So many memories: Dad not letting me stay to watch the Divison 4 trophy presentation after the Southport game in 1978 because he wanted to “beat the traffic”; the 4-0 win against Hull on a gloriously sunny May evening the following year; running on the pitch after the win against Wrexham that put us in the top flight for the first time; the bedlam on the terraces at Craven Cottage in 1998 when Jason Lee scored to secure the League 2 title; the emotional turmoil of the play-off final win against Bolton, just 48 hours after my father’s sudden death; the oddly straightforward (and hugely satisfying) dismissal of Leeds in 2006, indoors in Cardiff; and my anger at the way we threw away the chance to win the Championship in the final game of 2015, which almost soured the joy of promotion.

And where was I when the Hornets clinched promotion against Millwall a few weeks ago? Here in my back bedroom, of course, sitting in front of my computer, fending off the cat’s demands for yet more food. I think I yelled “Yes!” and punched the air at the final whistle, which at least got rid of the cat for a few minutes, but it’s not a day that will live long in the memory. I watched the post-match coverage on Hive Live, then went out for a walk and spent the evening watching TV. A few congratulatory texts from friends (including a grudging one from my Brentford-supporting mate) were as close as I got to a communal celebration.

And so this strangest of seasons is over, hopefully never to be repeated. The club have done magnificently on every level, from their support of the NHS to the intelligent recruitment policy, from the superb quality of the pitch to the brave decision to appoint Xisco that probably saved us from the play-offs (or worse). But watching it all on a TV or computer screen was a poor substitute for the real thing, even if I actually got to see more games than in any of my previous 50 seasons as a Hornets fan – I usually only get to half a dozen away games, whereas this year I was able to enjoy pretty much all of them (though enjoyment was in short supply for the first half of the season).

Watching the FA Cup final yesterday (the first for a few years that I’ve watched all the way through) just reinforced the difference that fans make to the football experience. Emotionally, I was there with those Leicester supporters as they celebrated Tielemans’ incredible goal, and then as they chewed their fingernails to the quick while the clock ticked down. And the noise they made – you’d never have guessed the stadium was only a fifth full.

So it was a pleasure to receive the email from the club inviting me to renew my season ticket for next season. By then I will have had my second jab (as will most of the country, with a bit of luck) and it ought to be possible for Vicarage Road to host a proper crowd again. Wild horses wouldn’t keep me away.

Saturday 12 December 2020

The return

I’m sitting in front of my computer, seething with impatience. Our regular Tuesday afternoon all-company Teams call, which was supposed to end at 5.30, is overrunning – today, of all days. I’m already prepared for a rapid departure; in anticipation of a chilly evening I’m wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt, a denim shirt and a chunky sweater, and I’ve donned an extra pair of thick socks. My Watford scarf and woolly hat are sitting on the desk beside me. 

Finally the CEO wraps up the meeting. Without even bothering to shut down the computer, I grab my stuff, put on my warmest winter coat and head out to the car. Vicarage Road, here I come.

Given that we’re in the ninth month of a pandemic and everyone who can is supposed to be working from home, I had naively expected the evening rush hour to be less busy than usual. But after crossing the Uxbridge Road, I’ve joined a stationary queue of traffic heading north towards the A40. In 20 minutes I’ve only moved a couple of hundred metres, and I’m cursing my unthinking obedience to the club’s request that fans avoid travelling to the game by public transport. I could have been sitting on a train now, reading a book.

It’s time for that decision all drivers in a traffic jam have to make at some point: stick or twist? Several cars in front of me take the latter option, doing a U-turn and heading back down the road to find a different route to wherever they’re heading. But I don’t know this part of town very well, and several minutes spent on the Maps app on my phone don’t convince me that any of the possible alternatives would be any better. I decide to sit it out, and finally the traffic starts moving again. 

It’s taken me an hour and three-quarters to travel the 18 miles from my home in south-west London to Watford, but finally I’m here. Normally I need to reach the car park on Wiggenhall Road over an hour before kick-off to be sure of getting in: tonight there’s no queue, and only a few more cars inside than there are men in hi-vis jackets at the entrance.

Walking up Occupation Road in the dark is a surreal experience. Large mounds of earth loom behind the fences of what used to be the allotments, while ahead of me I can dimly make out just two figures. It doesn’t feel like 15 minutes before kick-off on a matchday.

Having got into the ground with minimal fuss, I finally make it to my seat in the Vicarage Road Stand. I haven’t sat here for 20 years, or whenever it was that the ‘new’ Rookery Stand was opened and we all moved over there. I’m just a few rows back from the pitch on the side by the Sensory Room, along with the other singletons, while groups of fans have been accommodated in the middle of the stand.

Because of the parking situation, I’m usually in the ground nearly an hour before kick-off. Tonight, I just have time to get my bearings before the Watford players emerge from the tunnel, to a raucous reception from the 2,000 of us in the ground. It feels good to be here.

It feels even better now, with the Hornets two up inside 15 minutes. Both goals have come at my end, too – the sort of scrappy close-range strikes that have been all too rare this season, as Watford generally seem determined to score only elegant, beautifully crafted goals. I rub my hands (physically, to ward off the cold, and metaphorically) in anticipation of a goalfest.

It’s midway through the second half and a goalfest is looking increasingly unlikely. It’s very generous of the Watford team to spend the majority of both halves at my end of the ground, but I’d really rather they ventured over the halfway line occasionally. The next time I have difficulty falling asleep, I’ll simply picture Foster rolling the ball out to Kabasele, who passes sideways to Troost-Ekong, who sends it out to Kiko on the wing, who gives it straight back to Kaba, who passes to Troost-Ekong, who sends it sideways to Ngakia on the other wing... Zzzzz.

This mindnumbing routine (regularly punctuated by frustrated cries of “Forwards!” from the crowd) is only interrupted when Rotherham decide to stop watching and start pressing, at which point they induce mistakes which, on another day, could easily have got them a point, or even all three. The most comical occurs when Ngakia, in his own penalty area and under pressure, tries to flick the ball over an opponent’s head. Unsurprisingly, he fails and the result is Rotherham’s only shot on target, well saved by Foster. None of this makes for enjoyable watching.

Somehow, Watford have made it to full-time without either conceding or scoring another goal, the latter mainly due to a flurry of offsides when one of our strikers looked to be clean through – impossible to tell from the far end of the pitch how close any of these decisions were.

Nevertheless, unlike on Saturday, the team are cheered off the pitch, and we only have to wait a couple of minutes before the stewards give us the sign that it’s okay to leave. Outside, a light drizzle is falling on Vicarage Road, which is busy enough to give the illusion of a normal matchday.

I head back to my car, knowing that at least I won’t have to queue to get out of the car park for once, and reflecting on the simple fact that Watford have won and I’ve been there to see it. All in all, despite the traffic, the cold, the rain and the frustrations of the second half, it’s been a good evening. I hope I’ll be back again soon.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

Out of sight, out of mind

 It’s funny how quickly I’ve forgotten about the Premier League.

This thought occurred to me one Sunday evening a couple of weeks ago, when I realised that it was the end of the weekend and I only knew a handful of the Premier League scores.

That wouldn’t have happened last season. For the past five years, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say my weekends during the football season were structured around the Premier League, I was certainly aware of what was going on most of the time. As well as attending all of Watford’s home games and half a dozen away fixtures each season, I watched bits and pieces of various PL matches most weekends. Some of them had a direct bearing on our league position, others featured a team we were due to play in the near future. More generally, as a fan of an established PL team, it felt natural to take an interest in the division as a whole – the players, the coaches, the formations, the lot.

Even I’m a bit surprised how little of that interest has survived Watford’s relegation. I suspect much of it is down to the current circumstances – all professional football now has the whiff of a training session about it, however cleverly the broadcasters overlay fake crowd noises. That makes it that much harder to care about what’s going on when you haven’t got any skin in the game, even if that game involves the champions shipping seven goals against a team who only got one more point than Watford last season.

Probably for the same reason, I haven’t replaced my interest in the PL with an in-depth appreciation of the Championship. I’ve watched most of Watford’s games on Sky Sports or Hornets Hive, wishing I could be there, but I’m not much interested in the opposition. There’s been a lot of churn since we were last in this division, and most teams are full of players I’ve never heard of. Maybe that will change as the season progresses; if we build on our steady start and make a concerted push for promotion, I dare say I’ll be tuning into Sky Sports on a Friday night in the hope of watching our rivals drop points.

In the meantime, most of my non-Watford interest in football these days is being channelled into non-league football, where you can actually go and watch proper competitive matches. (Well, not this month, but hopefully normal service will resume in December.) Since the trip to Leatherhead I wrote about last time, I’ve made a couple of visits to the rather less leafy surrounds of King George Field in Tolworth, just off the A3, to watch Corinthian-Casuals in cup action. First up was an FA Cup qualifying tie against Dulwich Hamlet which ended 2-2; that meant a penalty shootout, carried out at the goal right in front of where we standing, which the visitors won. A few weeks later I went to an FA Trophy tie against Hendon, an end-to-end thriller where Casuals triumphed 5-4.

Both games were lots of fun, and apart from a few telltale signs of pandemic compliance (I particularly liked the carefully marked-out 2m intervals on the ground in front of the burger van, snaking around the forecourt like something you’d see in an infant school playground), it felt pretty much like a normal football-watching experience. And oddly enough, I didn’t feel any need to check on how Burnley or Brighton were getting on.

Sunday 20 September 2020

Live from Leatherhead

On Thursday afternoon, for work, I ‘attended’ a virtual industry awards ceremony that opened with the unpromising announcement: “And now, live from our studio in Leatherhead...” Just two days later, having never given this particular town in Surrey a second thought, I was there myself, watching an actual live football match.

The last time I did that was on March 7th, when I was at Selhurst Park to watch Watford demonstrate that the 3-0 win against Liverpool the previous week was a flash in the pan. It was a depressing afternoon, but as the subsequent months showed, it was still better than not being able to go to football matches at all.

So when my Brentford-supporting friend Stuart suggested a trip to Leatherhead to watch them kick off their Isthmian League Premier Division season against Horsham, I immediately agreed. And it was brilliant.

It was about 2pm when we got off the bus just across the River Mole from the ground, so we had plenty of time to stroll to a nearby pub and enjoy a pint of bitter in the garden. Then it was a short walk to the bucolically named Fetcham Grove, where we installed ourselves behind the goal in the home end, shaded from the sun by a corrugated iron roof; a bit like the old Rookery, but much smaller. (Later I noticed that it was called the Bernard Edwards Stand – presumably not after the Chic bassist, though you never know. Maybe the legacy of 70s disco lives on in this part of the Surrey commuter belt.)

While Stuart went to the bar to get us another pint, I read the programme, keeping a wary eye out for errant footballs, as the Horsham players were practicing their shooting just a few yards in front of me. It turns out that Horsham were officially formed in 1881 and are nicknamed the Hornets as the result of a competition among the fans. Sound familiar? Mind you, Horsham’s traditional colours are yellow and green – not a combination I’ve ever seen on a winged insect of any kind.

Nevertheless, when visiting a ground as a neutral, I regard it as good manners to support the home team. That decision looked sensible when Leatherhead scored in the first minute through a superb volley that curled into the top corner of the goal right in front of us, close enough that I heard the sound of the net rippling. After that they had a few more good chances to score, with the right winger pinging over some excellent crosses. Meanwhile Horsham won a succession of corners at the other end, most of which ended with a header soaring over the bar and out of the ground.

At half-time, we joined the Leatherhead ultras (half a dozen mouthy teenagers and a prematurely wizened middle-aged bloke in a replica shirt – every non-league club seems to have one of these) and relocated to the far end, this time leaning against the pitch-side fence to the right of the goal. Inevitably, we spent a certain amount of time checking our phones for news from Hillsborough and the Brentford Community Stadium, where Stuart should have been sitting in his new seat for the very first time. But we also watched as Horsham played their way back into the game, and inevitably made Leatherhead pay for their profligacy by equalising in the 81st minute. The last 10 minutes were predictably hectic, but 1-1 was the final score.

That wasn’t really the point, though, at least for me. It was just so nice to be standing in the autumn sunshine in a tree-lined stadium watching a proper, competitive football match, listening to the banter and watching the players pretending they couldn’t hear the abuse being hurled at them from close range. (Particular vitriol was reserved for one Horsham player who’d previously turned out for Dorking, Leatherhead’s much-hated local rivals.) During one lull in play, I watched as an oak leaf floated gently to the ground, landing close to the corner flag, and thought: “This is the life.”

I haven’t given up on Watford, of course; next Saturday, I’ll be sat here in my back bedroom following the action from Vicarage Road on Hive Live, even though the mere thought of playing Luton makes me nervous. But, as Stuart pointed out, there are plenty of non-league grounds to explore in south-west London and its hinterlands, and for as long as we can’t watch our actual teams in the flesh, this is the best  available alternative. If you’re missing live football, I suggest you check your local fixtures and do the same. You won’t regret it.

Sunday 2 August 2020

The relegation game

One of the benefits of having been a Watford fan for nearly half a century is that you can see patterns across the years and decades. It also lessens the pain of relegation, to a certain extent; I’ve seen it happen before, and doubtless I will again.

In fact, all but one of Watford’s relegations have happened since I started supporting them in 1970. I can’t tell you much about the club’s descent from Division 1 of the Southern League to Division 2 in 1902-03, and Oliver Phillips’ centenary history of the club doesn’t explain what went wrong. He does make it clear, though, that relegation had been coming, with the club finishing 14th out of 15, and then 13th out of 16, in the previous two seasons.

In that respect, it sounds similar to the first relegation I witnessed, from Division 2 in 1971-72. Having finally achieved the longed-for promotion to the second tier three seasons earlier, the Hornets had found the step up a struggle from the start, and didn’t have the money to invest in the quality of players they needed to be competitive. Successive finishes of 19th and 18th out of 22 were followed by last place in a dismal season.

Watford’s first two ventures into the Premier League both ended in similar fashion, albeit after a single season. In both 1999-2000 and 2006-07, we’d been promoted before we were really ready for it, couldn’t afford transformative signings, and injuries to key players sabotaged any hopes of survival.

Our other relegation from the top division, in 1987-88, is also easily explained. In just a few months, Dave Bassett managed to undo pretty much all the good work Graham Taylor had done over the previous decade, weakening the backroom staff and the playing squad and deploying an unappealing brand of football based on the long ball and the offside trap. Despite Bassett’s departure in January, replacement Steve Harrison couldn’t stop the ship sinking.

The reasons for the other two relegations are harder to pin down. In 1974-75, the Hornets followed a season when they’d finished 7th in Division 3 with relegation, and from Oliver Phillips’ account (I was only 12 at the time, and the nuances passed me by), it seems that they sleepwalked into it. Despite the presence of several players who would come back up under GT a few years later (including Jenkins, Garner, Downes and Joslyn), and despite only needing seven points from the last 11 games to be safe, they went down by a single point. (By the way, one of the teams that went down with us was Bournemouth. Like I say, patterns keep recurring.)

Likewise, in 1995-96, we went down from what was then called Division 1 (ie the second tier) after a 7th-place finish the year before. Injuries were certainly a factor here, as was a lack of investment from notoriously cautious Chairman Jack Petchey. Roeder was replaced with a returning GT with 17 games to go, giving us all hope. But Ian Grant catches the mood well in his piece in Tales From The Vicarage Volume II: “Had we conjured up any kind of form, any kind of running start for our dramatic late surge, we almost certainly would’ve escaped; instead, we seemed caught in a hopeless conundrum, as if imprisoned in a windowless room with only a trapdoor for escape.” It went down to a final home game against Leicester where we needed to win and hope other results went our way. We didn’t, and they didn’t anyway.

So how does 2019-20 stack up against these previous examples? We certainly can’t blame underinvestment, given the current value of the squad (though a bit more money spent on defenders last summer might have helped). Likewise, injuries haven’t been a major factor; we’ve had a few, but not nearly as many in previous Premier League seasons, recent and otherwise. We do have to mention the pandemic, though. Who knows how things would have turned out without a lengthy break just after our famous victory over Liverpool?

Overall, though, this year’s relegation most closely resembles 1975 and 1996. At the start of the season, as we did then, we seemed to be on an upward trajectory, with an 11th-place finish and an FA Cup final appearance. But whether through complacency, or lack of focus, that forward momentum not only stopped, but slammed into reverse at a speed that proved impossible to halt. The lesson seems to be that the time of greatest danger for a football club is when it appears to be on the rise. Let’s hope we learn that lesson if and when we get back to the Premier League.

Sunday 21 June 2020

The sound of the crowd

Before yesterday’s game against Leicester, I was trying to remember the last time I’d skipped a Watford home match and watched it at home on TV instead. Not that I have a perfect attendance record at Vicarage Road; there are invariably one or two games a season that clash with a family or work commitment I can’t plausibly get out of.

But on Monday December 7th, 2009, I just wasn’t feeling very well. I’d struggled into work and by five-thirty I felt like death warmed up. The thought of getting myself to Euston, catching the train to Watford Junction, walking across town to the ground, sitting in the freezing cold for a couple of hours and then schlepping back home to South-West London wasn’t very appealing – especially when the game was live on Sky Sports anyway.

So (and those of you with a keen knowledge of Hornets history will know what’s coming) I was lolling on my sofa drinking Lemsip when Lloyd Doyley powered a header past the QPR keeper to score his first goal in 269 Watford appearances. And I missed it. Joy mixed almost instantly with regret. I won’t pretend that I vowed never again to watch a Watford home game on TV, but it did take a global pandemic to force me into repeating the experience.

This time I was sitting in my desk chair watching the game on the BT Sport website on my desktop computer. This time there wasn’t a shock comparable to Lloydinho’s header, though a 93rd-minute overhead kick was a pretty extraordinary way for Craig Dawson to open his own Watford account (albeit after significantly fewer games).

I thought we were good value for the point, overall. Based on the table, this was the second-hardest of our nine remaining games, and with the lack of a crowd supposedly neutralising home advantage, a draw was a decent result. The team looked understandably rusty at the start, but grew into the game and had the chances to win it. Then again, you could say that about all too many matches this season. That’s why we’re in a relegation battle.

It’s impossible to say whether playing the game in front of a crowd would have made the difference. As for the viewing experience, having experimented with both options over the past few days, I definitely prefer watching games with the crowd noise overlaid, rather than having to listen to the shouts of the players and coaches echoing round an empty stadium.

For me, there were two bonuses to the soundtrack of the Leicester game. One was that it was a continuous swell of noise. For all the 1881’s efforts, there are still times in all but the most electrifying Watford games when the crowd falls silent. Not in this strange new world, though.

The second bonus is that the only songs that get played are the positive ones, the ones that celebrate our unswerving love of the Golden Boys. That means I don’t have to listen to any of the puerile playground-style baiting of the away fans that I’ve got increasingly bored with in recent years: “Your support is f*****g s**t”, “Shall we sing a song for you?” and all the rest.

Of course, I’d rather be there singing the songs myself. But it’s some small comfort to know that, for the remainder of the season, I’m only going to hear my favourites.

Sunday 29 March 2020

Glory days

With no new Watford games for us to watch for a while, it was nice of the BBC to show highlights of an old one last weekend: our 1987 FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal at Highbury. It’s still available on iPlayer if you haven’t seen it yet, and I heartily recommend it – not least for the lengthy opening montage tracing the Hornets’ rise under GT, cleverly soundtracked by Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’ (“I just know that something good is going to happen,” indeed).

For those of us who were there, jammed into the open terracing at the Clock End, it was a memorable day. Watching it again 33 years later, there were a few things that immediately struck me:
  • The shorts – good lord, how did they manage to run around in such short, tight shorts? The contrast with today, when some players’ shorts come down almost to their knees (and with tights under that on cold days), is stark.
  • The pitch – I don’t know if it had been a particularly wet winter, but the Highbury pitch is in a dreadful state, with both goalmouths and the centre circle mainly consisting of sand. There are a couple of occasions when Gary Porter gallops forward on the break, and you can see him struggling to control the ball as it bobbles around on the uneven surface. The sides of the pitch, on the other hand, are fully grassed…
  • The wingers – … which is fortunate, because Watford’s game plan is clearly built around getting down the wing and pinging crosses into the penalty area. John Barnes is on the left, while – with Nigel Callaghan having been sold to Derby the previous month – David Bardsley is on the right. I’d forgotten just how good he was, fast and skilful, and it was his crosses that led to both Watford’s first two goals. As for Barnesy, there’s one glorious moment when he tricks his way past Viv Anderson, leaving him flat on his backside, that has commentator John Motson purring: “That was a perfect piece of wing play.”
  • The Arsenal goal – we (rightly) remember the great players for their best qualities, but the Arsenal goal is proof that even the best can get it disastrously wrong. John McClelland tries to shepherd the ball back to Tony Coton, but when he doesn’t come for it quickly enough, Macca belatedly tries to clear it, succeeding only in knocking it to Ian Allinson, who pokes it in the net. It’s one of those goals that would have been the subject of endless recriminations if the result had been different.
  • Mark Falco – there are some players who are completely unmemorable, and for me, Falco is one of them. He only spent this one season at Watford, but he played 33 times and scored 14 goals, and I must have seen a fair few of them (having graduated the previous summer, I had become a regular again after four years of patchy attendance), yet I can’t remember a single thing about him. And in this game, he barely figures in the highlights.
My abiding memory of the game is of course that decisive third goal. Horror as the Arsenal players’ arms all go up, claiming a penalty, and the linesman flags; confusion as Watford play on, Porter hoiking the ball out to Luther Blissett; excitement as Luther steams towards us, past Arsenal defenders still expecting play to be stopped; despair as John Lukic gets a hand to his shot; ecstasy as Luther stabs in the rebound; tension as the Arsenal players surround the referee, demanding it be disallowed; and then overwhelming joy as the ref finally raises his arm to signal the goal.

It was a minute’s play that summed up the crazy exhilaration of being a football fan, and ultimately made the game a classic. It’s sometimes referred to as an upset, but it wasn’t really; yes, Arsenal were top of the table at the time (though they faded badly to end the season fourth, 16 points behind champions Everton), but Watford were a solid mid-table team and finished ninth – still the second-highest league placing in the club’s history.

What we couldn’t know at the time was that this would be the last great day of the Graham Taylor era (until he came back a decade later, but that’s another story). There’s a hint of it in Motty’s comment over the warm-up that Barnes’s contract is nearly up and Liverpool have made a bid (though Arsenal were apparently also interested – I wonder how that would have worked out?). The semi-final saw the Hornets thrashed 4-1 by Spurs with Gary Plumley in goal, and even though it was only the third time we’d reached that stage of the Cup, we didn’t sell all our allocation of tickets. GT noticed, and historians suggest it was a significant factor in his decision that he’d taken the club as far as he could. He left for Aston Villa a few days after the season ended, Barnes went to Anfield, and Dave Bassett duly arrived to ruin everything.

But thanks to the BBC, we can relive the last of the good times. I can’t stop watching. “Blissett’s away for Watford – controversy here looming. He’s onside, is Blissett – and Lukic has saved. Blissett again – a goal!”

Glory days.