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.

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