Thursday, 16 September 2010

Memories are made of this

While I’m in reflective mode, I thought it was about time I came up with a list of the five most memorable games I’ve attended in my 40 years as a Watford fan. It says something about how spoilt we Hornets have been in that period that I’ve been able to leave out an FA Cup final, several semi-finals and promotion-clinching matches, three UEFA Cup ties and two 8-0 victories!

5) Arsenal 1 Watford 3, FA Cup 6th round, 14/3/87
Of all the glorious FA Cup ties I’ve witnessed, this is the one I remember most vividly – more so than the semi-finals, which were generally anti-climactic (or, in the case of the one game we actually won, unbearably tense). I’ve written about the game at Highbury before, but it’s worth repeating the sheer exhilaration of watching Luther Blissett steaming towards the Watford fans in the Clock End in the final minutes, completely alone (the Arsenal team up the other end having stopped in expectation of a whistle that never came), and scoring the third goal that sealed victory.

4) Watford 4 Bolton Wanderers 3, Division 1, 23/10/93
Doubly memorable, both as the last Watford match my younger brother (a West Ham fan, for reasons I’ll go into another time) attended with me, and as the greatest comeback I’ve ever witnessed. After an hour, Bolton were 3-0 up and Watford hadn’t had a shot. The atmosphere in the ground was flat as we waited patiently for the referee to put us out of our misery. Except that it didn’t work out that way. A scrambled Gary Porter goal heralded the start of a miraculous recovery, which Porter fittingly finished with a last-minute penalty, to seal the only hat-trick of his long Watford career and a 4-3 victory. I could tell that Chris was impressed, despite himself.

3) Watford 4 Hull City 0, Division 3, 14/5/79
As I say, we’ve been spoilt, especially in terms of promotion games, but this is the one that stands out for me. Watford went into the game needing a win to be sure of promotion (having been top for most of the season, before a late wobble), but it turned out we needn’t have worried. On a gloriously sunny spring evening, the goals came easily (Blissett, Jenkins, Bolton, Joslyn – a roll call of heroes of the Golden Age) to seal promotion to the Second Division for only the second time in the club’s history. At the end, I ventured onto the hallowed turf for the first time to join the jubilant throng in front of the Main Stand.

2) Watford 2 Bolton Wanderers 0, Championship Play-Off Final, 31/5/99
I didn’t have to look up the date of this one, for the simple reason that it was two days after my father’s death from a sudden heart attack. I talked it through with Mum and there didn’t seem to be any reason why that should stop me going to Wembley (as it was a bank holiday weekend, it wasn’t possible to start taking care of the formalities until the following day anyway), so Watford’s big day was one of churning emotions for me. Nicky Wright’s overhead kick was special, but it was Allan Smart’s second goal that did it for me, as I cheered and cried simultaneously. Football as catharsis? No question about it.

1) Watford 7 Southampton 1, League Cup 2nd Round, 2nd Leg, 2/9/80
When I started thinking about this list, I knew at once what would be number one. How could it be anything else? Having attended the depressing 4-0 defeat in the 1st leg, I went to this game with low expectations, only to be blown away by the best display of sustained attacking football I’d ever seen, even from a Watford team that had come to specialise in such things. Unless my memory is playing tricks, I watched this from the terracing in front of the Shrodells Stand, because I’m sure I kept looking at the electronic scoreboard to check that the score really was what I thought it was. In a typically innovative move, the club handed out yellow biros at the next home game that had ‘Watford 7 Southampton 1’ printed down the side, and I still haven’t quite got over the loss of mine.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

It was 40 years ago today

In an ideal world, my first Watford game would have been one of the greatest in the club’s history. But the truth is that until Watford were drawn at home to Liverpool in the quarter-finals of the 1970 FA Cup, I wasn’t even aware that there was a professional club in the area.

Where I grew up, in Bushey Heath, all my friends in the playground supported the big London 1st Division sides: Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea. Indeed, on the basis that my best friend when I was six was a Spurs fan, I decided that I was too. I even persuaded Mum to buy me a white football shirt and sew a Tottenham badge onto it. (The replica shirt business was still in its infancy.)

Then came that FA Cup draw and I realised that professional football wasn’t just something that happened in places I couldn’t possibly visit. We went to Watford every Saturday morning to do our shopping; surely Dad could take me there to see a football match, too?

Sadly, he demurred. I can’t remember his excuse, but it was probably something to do with the difficulty of getting tickets. He did, however, mollify me with a promise to take me to a game later in the year. And thus it was that, instead of seeing Watford beat Liverpool 1-0 to reach the FA Cup semi-final for the first time in their history, my introduction to the Golden Boys was a 0-0 draw against Carlisle United on September 12th, 1970.

In some ways, the matchday experience hasn’t changed much in 40 years. Yesterday, as in 1970, I parked in Watford Fields and walked over the railway bridge, along Cardiff Road, and then up Occupation Road to the ground, past the allotments. Then, as now, Watford were one of the poorer, less fancied teams in the second tier of English football, having finished 19th out of 22 clubs the previous season (at the end of which, incidentally, Blackpool had been promoted to the top tier). Even the result was the same.

In 1970, Dad and I sat in the Main Stand Extension. Now I sit in the Rookery, encased as it is in low-cost housing for nurses, having tried all four sides of the ground in the interim. At least the Extension is still there, and I spent some of the duller moments of the first half yesterday trying to identify the seat where I first experienced live football – or at least, what I could see of it round the pillars that held up the stand and through Dad’s pipe smoke, which always seemed to blow in my face those first few seasons.

My memories of that first game are chiefly of colour: the orange of the seats, the green of the pitch, the golden yellow of the Watford shirts, the royal blue of the opposition’s. (For a while I laboured under the misapprehension that all Watford’s opponents had to wear blue shirts and white shorts, as my next two games after Carlisle were against Cardiff and Birmingham.) The noise, too, made an impression on me – though in retrospect, I doubt that the crowd of 10,462 (I just looked it up) got too worked up over a nil-nil draw.

I wonder if it ever occurred to Dad, when he took me to the match that autumn day, what an important role Watford FC would come to play in my life (and, indeed, just how much money I would spend following them)? Probably not - he was more of a rugby man, though he claimed to have spent some time on the terraces at Sincil Bank in his younger days in Lincoln. Anyway, he’s not around to ask any more. I’m just grateful that he indulged my boyhood wish. I hope he knew that.