Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Get with the programme, pt. 3

Finally, a programme from a home game: Watford v Notts County, a Division 1 fixture from Saturday September 10th, 1983. I have no memory whatsoever of the match, which must have been one of the few I managed to see before going back to university for the start of my second year. I can tell you that we won 3-1 (I wrote the score on the team page, as I continued to do for many years), with goals from John Barnes, George Reilly and Charlie Palmer – the only one he ever scored for the Hornets, according to Trefor Jones’s Watford Football Club Illustrated Who’s Who.

The Notts County team that played that day is studded with familiar names: future managers Martin O’Neill and Nigel Worthington, legendary hardman Brian Kilcline, a sprinkling of foreign exotics – Aki Lahtinen, John Chiedozie, Rachid Harkouk – and the late lamented Justin Fashanu. It’s odd, looking at the league table in the programme, to see County ahead of their local rivals, but behind ours – now a non-league club, of course.

Although the County game was Watford’s first win of the season, the really significant fixture was the next one: the first leg of the UEFA Cup 1st round tie at Kaiserslautern the following Wednesday. Graham Taylor’s editorial is headed ‘Many thanks – now Europe’ and he spends much of it appealing for Watford fans not to disgrace themselves in Germany. Very much a sign of the times, when hooliganism was at its height.

Meanwhile, the fixtures page is mostly taken up with details of travel packages still available for fans wanting to go to the tie. Prices range from £47 for an economy coach trip to £135, which gets you a charter flight from Luton to Saarbrücken, a night in a hotel and a continental breakfast. I wish I’d had the money, or just the gumption, to make the trip (I was studying German – maybe I should have offered my services to the club as a translator), but I stayed home and listened on the radio instead.

The programme as a whole is a lively affair, though surprisingly thin. It’s printed half in colour and half in black and white, and whoever planned the layout doesn’t appear to have thought it through. Thus the reserve team report (with no pictures) and the kit sponsors page are in colour, while the pictorial spread on the recent Open Day, and another two pages of photos from recent games, are in mono.

The overall impression, though, is of confidence: from the large logo on the front cover to the bold yellow and black on the back, this is the programme of a club that knows what it’s achieved and is proud of it. And why not? We’d never had it so good.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Get with the programme, pt. 2

I remember more about this one: Hillingdon Borough v Watford in the 2nd Round of the FA Cup on Saturday December 11th, 1976. I went with a schoolfriend and his dad, who drove us there; it may well have been my first Watford away match. It was freezing cold – much like today, in fact – and I have a very clear memory of sitting in the car after the game, listening to the other FA Cup scores on the radio as we queued to get out of the ‘car park’ (a rutted field at one end of the ground) and waited for the ice on the windows to melt.

I remember the game, too. We were stood directly behind one of the goals (the Leas Stadium didn’t run to terraces), and Andy Rankin let in a soft goal right in front of us. It may well have been an equaliser, but the Hornets eventually won 3-2 against the Southern League side to go through to the 3rd Round – where we lost to another non-league outfit, Northwich Victoria, by the same score on an even colder day in January 1977. I can still picture myself huddled against the radiator in my bedroom, listening to the result on the radio.

The Hillingdon programme is written in an appealingly gauche style. “Here’s to an exciting win with preferably Boro’ going into the hat for the third round draw,” it says in the introduction (the pages aren’t numbered), while the Blues Corner column (written by ‘The Voice’) adds that “after the way our boys played against Torquay there is every valid reason for us to look forward to another league scalp”.

The gaucheness extends to the adverts. Who could resist ‘Dancing in the social hall’ on Saturday 18th December from 9pm to 11pm with Tangent, or the Christmas Eve Special from 9pm to midnight with Midnight Riders? Presumably these acts came from the Norman Jackson Agency, prominently advertised on the inside front cover: ‘For Dance bands, Hawaiian, Steel and Gypsy bands, beat groups, discotheques, toastmasters, folk groups and all forms of cabaret. Speciality: Stag shows and hen parties.’ The fact that they were still hiring out ‘beat groups’ less than a fortnight after the Sex Pistols’ notoriously sweary appearance on Bill Grundy’s ITV teatime show is almost impossibly quaint.

Mike Keen’s Watford team that day included players who would go on to play an important part in the glory years, such as Keith Pritchett and Roger Joslyn, but also long-forgotten journeymen like Tony Geidmintis and Peter Coffill. The ‘pen pictures’ give the birthplaces of the 18-man squad, and they’re all in London or the Home Counties, apart from Andy Rankin (Liverpool), Terry Eades (Cambridge), Arthur Horsfield (Newcastle) and Bobby Downes (Bloxwich).

As for Hillingdon Borough, they went bust in the late 80s, though they’ve since been resurrected and now play in the Spartan South Midlands League alongside the likes of Oxhey Jets and Tring Athletic. Still, as the programme I have in front of me notes, they did beat Luton Town 2-1 in the 2nd Round of the FA Cup in 1969, and you’ve got to say hats off to them for that, if nothing else.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Get with the programme, pt. 1

I was at my Mum’s house the other day, and under my boyhood bed I found four random football programmes – I suppose they must have become detached from the bulk of my collection when it got moved up to the attic. The arbitrary nature of the discovery appeals to me, and over the next few days I’m going to write about each in turn, taking them in chronological order.

The funny thing about football programmes is that they have two distinct periods of usefulness. They give you something to read on the day of the match when you’re waiting for the teams to emerge, and then, years later, you can return to them and wallow in nostalgia. In between, in my experience, they are completely useless; I can’t remember ever having cause to refer to a recent programme, or even one from a recent season.

The appeal of old programmes isn’t just nostalgia, of course. There’s also something vaguer which you might sum up as ‘the benefit of hindsight’. For example, my junior school used to organise class trips to watch England Schoolboys play at Wembley, which was great fun; but it was only on examining the programmes years later that I discovered that I had seen the teenaged Ray Wilkins, among others, in action.

So it is with my first programme: Brighton & Hove Albion v York City, a 3rd Division match that took place on September 4th, 1971. My grandparents lived in Southwick, just outside Hove, and we used to go and stay with them for one weekend a month. Dad took me to this match on one of those weekends. It was less than a year after my first visit to Vicarage Road, and I must have been eager to grasp any opportunity of seeing a game.

My only memory of the occasion is a vague impression of the Goldstone as a pretty ramshackle ground – and this nearly 30 years before it was finally demolished. Still, Brighton were doing well, topping the Division 3 table at this early stage of the season. A quick scan of the teams on the back page doesn’t reveal any familiar names, but there is one in the York squad listed on page 5: Albert Johanneson, described here as “popular South African-born player who signed from Leeds United where he spent nine seasons”, but best known now for being the first high-profile black player to feature in the English league. See what I mean about hindsight?

There’s also a certain historical irony about the lead item in the ‘3rd Div Focus’ on page 7. “Halifax Town were disappointed about the departure of manager George Kirby to Second Division Watford,” it begins. “But there were no hard feelings. New chairman, Nottingham businessman Mr Arthur Smith has promised that the club will make a presentation to Mr Kirby in recognition of the splendid years [sic] work which resulted in Halifax finishing third in the table last season.” Sadly, Kirby’s time at Vicarage Road was to prove anything but splendid, and I doubt that anyone there was disappointed to see him go.

I could go on all night – the ads alone deserve their own post – but I will merely note that, according to Dad’s pencilled half-time scores, Chelsea and Coventry were drawing 3-3 after 45 minutes that day (sounds like a belter), while Albion’s rivals in Division 3 that year included three current Premiership clubs: Aston Villa, Blackburn and Bolton. It really was a very long time ago.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

‘Enjoy The Game’ by Lionel Birnie

When Graham Taylor arrived at Vicarage Road in the summer of 1977, I was 14 years old. When I took my O levels, Watford had just clinched promotion to Division Two, and I was on my gap year when they made the final step up to Division One. So for me, as for many Watford fans, Enjoy The Game is the story of my formative years.

Although its subtitle is ‘Watford Football Club: The Story of the Eighties’, Enjoy The Game is really the story of Graham Taylor’s first 10-year spell at the club, from 1977 to 1987; the rest of the decade is rushed through in double-quick time. Not that I’m complaining. If reading the first 300 pages is like wallowing in a warm bath, the final 40 are the literary equivalent of an icy shower.

In writing a book about the most successful period in the Hornets’ history, Lionel Birnie is pushing against an open door when it comes to winning over middle-aged Watford fans like me. But it’s worth pointing out that Enjoy The Game is an excellent book, expertly structured and written in a fluent, unobtrusive style that lets the story take precedence.

Birnie’s best decision was to base his story on the primary sources. So the bulk of the narrative is carried by candid and revealing interviews with the players who created history: not just the stars (Bolton, Blissett, Jenkins and many more), but also bit-part players such as Charlie Palmer and Neil Price.

There are fascinating insights from the management team, too, especially Graham Taylor, who is predictably frank throughout. I was particularly intrigued by his admission that he screwed up by naming the starting eleven for the 1984 FA Cup final a week in advance; he subsequently wanted to change the team, but realised he couldn’t go back on his word. Who would he have dropped, and who would he have replaced them with? I suspect we’ll never know.

More impressively still, Birnie seeks out voices that can tell the other side of the story. A number of Everton players provide a new perspective on the FA Cup final; bogeymen Dave Bassett and Trevor Senior tell their side of the six months that sealed Watford’s fate in 1987/88; and there’s even an interview with Roger Milford – the referee who denied Wilf Rostron a place in the Cup final, and then robbed the Hornets of a place in the semis of the same competition two years later. Predictably, Milford still thinks he was right on both counts, and I still hate him. But I do also respect him for taking the time to talk to a writer who might have been expected to have an axe to grind.

Borne along by judiciously chosen extracts from these interviews, the story proceeds at a brisk pace. Every now and then Birnie changes gear and inserts a chapter on a particular topic: how the fearsome Tom Walley nurtured the youth team, for example, or Watford’s pioneering role as a ‘family club’.

Quibbles? I’d have liked an index, though I understand why this wasn’t practical. I only spotted one factual error – moustachioed winger Bobby Downes is confused with his Wimbledon namesake, Wally – and a handful of typographical lapses, but certainly not enough to spoil my enjoyment of the book.

Ultimately, much of that enjoyment comes from sharing in the happy memories of the players and staff. I particularly like the story of the day GT told the squad they were going to start their regular cross-country run with a walk. He duly led them to his home near Cassiobury Park, where his wife, Rita, was waiting to serve the players tea and cakes. It’s anecdotes like this that demonstrate why Watford was such a special club in the Eighties – not just to support, but to play for as well.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Everything I know is wrong

I’ve started reading Lionel Birnie’s excellent, evocative book Enjoy The Game, and I’ll post a proper review when I finish it. On the train home this evening, I started the chapter which tells the story of the legendary 7-1 League Cup win against Southampton, and when I got to the bit when Nigel Callaghan talks about looking up at Vicarage Road after he scored his goal and seeing a bus stopped there with everyone on the top deck celebrating, I suddenly found I had something in my eye…

But here’s the thing. For as long as I can remember, I’ve told everyone who cared to listen that when Watford achieved that epic win, we were in the Third Division. That’s how I’ve always remembered it, and I’m rather taken aback to find out now that we were actually in our second season in the Second Division at the time. I wonder what else I’ve been wrong about all these years?