Sunday, 4 December 2011

A pleasant change

Bradford City at home in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup? That will do me just fine.

Over the past decade or so, we’ve drawn a series of Premiership teams in the 3rd Round, most of them from London: since 1999 we’ve gone out at the first time of asking to Tottenham, Arsenal, Everton, Fulham, Bolton and Chelsea (twice). The board may have been grateful for the gate money, but the logic doesn’t hold. Surely the whole point of a cup competition is that the further you progress, the more money you make?

On the occasions when we’ve been presented with a fairly straightforward 3rd Round draw, it’s been a lot more fun. A 2-0 away win at Macclesfield in 2003 was the start of a run that led us all the way to the semis, as was a 4-1 home defeat of Stockport in 2007. Both were both more enjoyable, and more profitable, than losing in the 3rd Round to a Premiership club that can’t even be bothered to play their best team in the early rounds, as so often happens.

So bring on Bradford, 22nd in League Two at the time of writing, and surely beatable by a Watford team that slowly seems to be finding its feet. And after that, let’s have another easy home draw in the 4th Round, and so on for as long as possible. Because that’s the other thing about cup runs: once the FA Cup is over for another year, no one remembers who you beat and by what score, only what round you reached. That’s the only figure that matters.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

‘The 100 Greatest Watford Wins’ by Lionel Birnie

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of list books. Whether it deals in fiction or fact, I like a book that tells a story – a book you’re reluctant to put down because you’re desperate to find out what happens next. Books that list things, however informatively or amusingly, tend to get kept by the loo in my house.

However, The 100 Greatest Watford Wins is a superior example of the genre. That’s because Lionel Birnie has avoided the temptation to cut corners. It would have been easy to fill the book with match reports recycled from newspapers, topped up with personal reminiscences and a bit of empty rhetoric. Instead, as in last year’s Enjoy The Game, Lionel has clearly spent a great deal of time interviewing primary sources – the players and managers who were involved in the matches he features.

From Tom Walley talking about key games in the late 1960s to Lloyd Doyley on his debut goal a couple of years ago, the contributions are uniformly entertaining and enlightening. To pick just one example, Ray Lewington’s detailed explanation of the financial constraints he had to work under makes the cup runs he masterminded even more remarkable in retrospect than they were at the time.

The other main strength of the book is the variety of treatment afforded to the 100 games. Some get one page, others five or six, depending on how much there is to say about them. A wide range of statistics help to put the games in the context of the season when they occurred, and of Watford’s overall history. There are league tables, details of cup runs, lists of bests and worsts and lots more, often with accompanying commentary.

Then there are panels on relevant issues, like the sad story of Lewington’s sacking, or the more amusing one about the letter writer to the Watford Observer in the summer of 1998 who complained vociferously about the signing of “a couple of Carlisle rejects”. The pictorial treatments also vary, from action shots to post-match celebrations and programme covers. Even the headlines that introduce each match are in a range of different typefaces.

A book like this isn’t going to find much of an audience beyond the Hornets faithful, but for that audience it is pretty much perfect. If it has a fault it is that, as with most lists of this kind, there is an inbuilt bias towards the recent past. Given that Lionel describes the book in the introduction as featuring “Watford’s finest post-war victories”, I can’t help wondering whether there really wasn’t a single game between 1945 and 1960 that merited inclusion. Last season’s 6-1 win at Millwall is included, presumably in the category of “a right hammering that came out of the blue and lifted everyone’s spirits”, but there must have been equivalent games in the 50s. A quick flick through Trefor Jones’s Watford Season By Season reveals that we had two 6-1 wins in 1953/54 alone, and a 7-1 the following season.

But now I’m being churlish. Much of the pleasure of this book comes from the memories it stirs up, and there aren’t many Watford fans left who can remember the 50s. I was at six of the top 10 games in Lionel’s list, and 12 of the top 20, and he evokes them all beautifully.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Noise annoys

The ins and outs of yesterday’s win against Portsmouth are already being dissected in other forums, but one thing no one has mentioned yet is the extremes of noise we witnessed at the Vic yesterday.

At one extreme, the deafening volume of the new tannoy in the Rookery drowned out all attempts at pre-match chat with my neighbours. It was like being in one of those nightclubs where the music is so loud that conversation is reduced to miming and sign language.

Sure, it’s nice to have some proof that Mr Bassini is actually spending some of his money on the club. At the same time, as the bloke next to me said (this was after the match had started and the ringing in our eardrums had stopped), if you’d made a list at the start of the season of all the things at Vicarage Road that needed money spending on them, the tannoy would barely have scraped into the top ten.

Maybe the entire home end had been stunned by the volume of the pre-match entertainment, because once the game started, there was a depressing lack of any kind of singing, or even shouting, from the Hornets fans. Even a second-minute goal barely roused us from our collective torpor. I know we’re not renowned as one of the more passionate sets of fans in the Championship, but this was ridiculous.

I thought the announcement of the formation of the Yellow Order at the start of the season might go some way towards improving the situation, but since they moved to the bottom left-hand corner of the Rookery, it’s actually got worse. They seem to throw in the towel the minute they realise they’re outnumbered: “Look, lads, they’ve got a bloke with a bell, and someone who can play the trumpet out of tune for 90 minutes. We can’t compete with that. Maybe if we win a corner in the second half, we can have a go at ‘Come on you ’orns’…”

The thing is, I love singing, and will happily join in pretty much anything if it spreads to my part of the stand (near the middle, about halfway up). But in too many matches this season, the Rookery has sat in silence while the away end sings and chants throughout the match. Frankly, it’s getting embarrassing.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Colin who?

One of the pleasures of reading Lionel Birnie’s excellent book The 100 Greatest Watford Wins, as I am at the moment, is looking at the team line-ups for each game and picturing that team in action.

Over the past 40-odd years I’ve watched hundreds of players representing the club, and in most cases where they played more than a handful of games, I can conjure up some kind of mental image of them. Sometimes it’s their appearance – a hairstyle or moustache, say – that I recall, sometimes a facial expression, sometimes just the way they ran, or jumped, or celebrated a goal. Sometimes it’s just their sheer uselessness that makes them stick in the memory. (Yes, Jamie Moralee, I am looking at you.)

But there are a few who remain resolutely anonymous, no matter how hard I stare at their name in a team line-up. Here are five of them, in order of the period when their Watford career took place:

1) Tony Geidmintis (60 games + 1 substitute appearance, 1976-78)
These were key years in my Watford supporting story, as the misery of successive relegations gave way to the joy of the GT era. I can picture most of the players from this period as clearly as if they were in the room with me now – Pollard, Downes, Mayes, Mercer, Rankin, Pritchett, Bolton, Jenkins… – but I have no memories of Tony Geidmintis. A right-back, according to Trefor Jones’s The Watford Football Club Illustrated Who’s Who; maybe anyone who had to step into Duncan Welbourne’s shoes was destined to pale by comparison.

2) Joe McLaughlin (53 + 0, 1990-92)
I know he was a centre-back and that we signed him from Chelsea, but his Watford career seems to have passed me by. I’m astounded to learn from Trefor Jones that he was actually the club captain in 1991/2.

3) Gerard Lavin (141 + 6, 1992-95)
Another right-back, and in this case it may be the fact that he apparently took Nigel Gibbs’s place during his long period out with injury that has induced some kind of amnesia. I’m looking at his picture now in Trefor’s book and it stirs no memories whatsoever. Presumably he must have something about him to play nearly 150 games, but I’m damned if I can remember a single thing he ever did.

4) Paul Okon (14 + 1, 2002)
Okay, maybe it’s stretching a point to call 15 games a ‘career’ at Watford, but Okon really was the epitome of an anonymous player. I remember watching games when he was playing and wondering where he was on the pitch and what he was doing. You could come away from a match and rack your brain for hours trying to remember a single thing he’d done in the 90 minutes. The most pointless of Vialli’s many pointless signings.

5) Jermaine Darlington (34 + 1, 2004-05)
It’s not that long ago, but beyond a vague memory that he played on the wing, his year at Watford seems to have vanished from my memory, even though I must have seen around half of those 34 games. The most interesting thing about him was the fact that he shared his surname with another football club. Sadly, he never played for Darlington.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Books do furnish a room

A conversation with Lionel Birnie on Twitter today reminded me that I meant to finish off my inventory of the Watford-related items in my home with a list of the relevant section of my bookshelf. So here it is, in no particular order:

Drawn Game – Terry Challis
A selection from 25 years of weekly cartoons in the Watford Observer. The sports pages still don’t seem the same without them.

The Official Centenary History of Watford FC – Oliver Phillips
A magisterial (and often moving) account of the club’s history. I’m shocked to realise that it’s now 20 years since this came out. High time for an update.

Four Seasons – Lionel Birnie & Alan Cozzi
Subtitled ‘The remarkable story of Watford Football Club from 1997 to 2001’. In hindsight, maybe that should have read ‘Where did all the money go?’

You Are My Watford – various
A compilation of memories in aid of WST. Includes an account of the incident that gave this blog its name.

The Golden Boys – Oliver Phillips
Another lovingly crafted and beautifully produced official work from Oli. It’s a shame the club doesn’t commission books like this any more.

Watford: A Tale Of The Unexpected – Geoff Sweet & Graham Burton
The story of the 1982-83 season – much of which I missed by virtue of it being my first year at university.

Watford FC On This Day – Matt Rowson
On this day in 1889, Watford Rovers beat Buckinghamshire side Schorne College 2-1 in an FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round tie. I love the fact that I can find that out from a book.

Enjoy The Game – Lionel Birnie
A great tale, superbly told. I refer you to my review.

Watford Season By Season – Trefor Jones
One of the standard works of reference for any Watford fan. Only goes up to the end of the 1997/98 season, though, so another that could do with an update…

The Watford FC Illustrated Who’s Who – Trefor Jones
… As could this, the other standard reference book, published in 1996. In an ideal world, the club would fund the publication of updated editions at regular intervals – say, every 10 years.

Team Shirts To Ticket Stubs – Nick Davidson
A real gem to finish with; a great idea, lovingly realised.

Although they’re not strictly books about Watford FC itself, honourable mentions also go to Nick Corble’s novel Golden Daze, and to Dave Hill’s thought-provoking biography of John Barnes, Out Of His Skin. As far as I know, it’s still the only biography of a player who is mainly associated with the Hornets. (All right, I know Liverpool have a claim too, but we had him first.)

As to what’s missing, the obvious gap in the market is for a biography of Graham Taylor, which would make for fascinating reading. Or maybe an autobiography, which would be even better – but maybe we’d better let GT concentrate on running the club for the time being.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

And the winner is…

Having just entered the competition on Lionel Birnie’s website to choose my top 10 post-war Watford wins, it seemed like a good idea to try to narrow it down to a personal top five:

 5) Watford 1 Liverpool 0, FA Cup 6th Round, 21/2/70
The game that effectively turned me into a Watford fan. Up to that point, I vaguely supported Spurs, simply because my best friend did. (I should point out that I was only seven at the time.) I wasn’t even aware that there was a team in my local area until I saw the front-page story in the Watford Observer about the forthcoming FA Cup quarter-final against Liverpool. Dad wouldn’t take me, but once Watford had won, I was hooked enough to be upset when we got thrashed by Chelsea in the semis. I made my first visit to Vicarage Road the next season, and that was that.

4) Manchester United 1 Watford 2, League Cup 3rd Round, 4/10/78
Another seminal cup tie that I didn’t attend. But I managed to avoid hearing the score (it was much easier in those days) so that I could watch the highlights on Sportsnight without knowing the result. I can still remember my elation as Luther scored the two goals that launched him as a true Hornet hero, and the tension as I prayed that we could hold on. We did, and the feeling that Graham Taylor was creating something really special was starting to grow.

3) Watford 8 Sunderland 0, 1st Division, 25/9/82
This result (still astonishing nearly 30 years later) had much the same effect. Watford had started their first season in the top flight well, with four wins out of six, but this score made the country sit up and take notice. With four goals for Luther, two for Ross and two for Cally, it serves as the examplar of every demolition of unsuspecting opponents GT’s team unleashed in those glorious years. It was also the last game I went to before leaving for university – not a bad send-off.

2) Watford 2 Bolton Wanderers 0, 1st Division Play-off Final, 31/5/99
I’ve written about the personal significance of this game elsewhere, so let’s just celebrate the achievement of Aidy Boothroyd’s team in building a late run to the play-offs that culminated in what was actually a fairly comfortable win over a Bolton team that never really turned up. Nicky Wright’s overhead kick is the best goal I can remember a Watford player scoring in a high-pressure game, while Allan Smart’s second relieved that pressure in the most glorious, cathartic way imaginable.

1) Watford 7 Southampton 1, League Cup 2nd Round, 2nd Leg, 2/9/80
Again, I’ve already noted this as my most memorable game, all the more so for coming a week after we’d succumbed 4-0 in the away leg. If I ever forge a career as a motivation speaker (which is highly unlikely, frankly), I will use this tie as a prime example of the importance of not accepting the inevitability of failure when things go against you initially. And yet the same team lost heavily again in the 5th Round of the League Cup that season, 5-0 in a replay at Coventry (who were, admittedly, a 1st Division club at the time), as if to remind us that they were only human after all.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

A house full of hornets

The guys from From The Rookery End are currently on a mission to identify 100 objects that define Watford FC. Their quest reminded me that I’ve been meaning to compile an inventory of all the Watford-related objects in my house – so here it is, room by room.

4 coffee mugs
  • A white one mug with yellow stripes, with the old ‘angry hornet’ logo on one side. Early 70s?
  • A black one, originally with gold and red trim, probably from the 80s. The gold has all washed off
  • A yellow 1992-92 Official Centenary mug listing that season’s fixtures in red and black lettering. In this case, it’s the red that has faded to near invisibility
  • A mug depicting Watford strips through the ages, which my Mum bought me last Christmas from a stall in Watford Market
1 beer tankard

3 replica shirts
  • The classic long-sleeved yellow shirt from the early 70s, when I started watching Watford
  • A yellow home shirt with the CTX logo and a red stripe down the right, from the late 90s
  • A white away shirt with the Phones4U logo, from a couple of seasons later
These don’t get worn much; I’m not one of those who puts a replica shirt on over their sweater in the dead of winter, so they only get an outing when it is actually warm enough to wear a flimsy short-sleeved shirt. Oh, and none of them has got a name or number on the back.

2 scarves (striped)

2 bobble hats (striped)

1 BSaD 10th anniversary T-shirt

1 pair of football shorts
Red, naturally. Not worn for many years.

1 tie
Black with narrow red and yellow bands. I can’t imagine when I’ll ever wear this.

1 pair of cufflinks
Worn at my wedding.

1 flag
Given out free at a game during Aidy Boothroyd’s reign; his signature adorns the bottom right-hand corner.

1 clock
Shaped like the club badge, complete with moose. Another of Mum’s purchases in the market.

1 plaque
About 4in square, with a reflective surface. One of the oldest items in my collection, and almost certainly the most pointless.

1 ashtray
Also pointless, as I don’t smoke and never have. Another of Mum’s Christmas presents.

1 framed photograph
Depicting Nick Wright’s goal in the play-off final against Bolton, and mounted with my ticket from the game.

1 water bottle
Given away at a home game a few years ago, adorned with the slogan ‘Watford ’til I’m dry’. I actually use this quite often, whenever I go on a long walk.

1 fragment of Vicarage Road terrace
Encased in perspex. Number 436 of a limited edition of 500.

1 key fob

2 videos
  • The Golden Boys – a compilation of clips of Watford on TV from 1969 to 1992, ie the days when these things were quite rare
  • … And Finally – the complete play-off final against Bolton from 1999. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually watched this
15 books
I’m not going to list them all here – a topic for a separate post, I think.

12 seasons’ worth of programmes
The other 28 seasons’ worth are in my Mum’s attic.

A pile of fanzines

Sundry badges and pens

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Ten years burning down the road

New season, same old favourite player. Of course it’s Lloyd Doyley. Do you even need to ask?

Yesterday’s performance was classic Lloyd. Solid, athletic defending; a few exciting forays up the wing (an increasingly important part of his game in the last couple of years), one of them ending with an exquisite cross to the far post that Craig Forsyth almost converted; and, yes, a couple of embarrassing slip-ups, though they didn’t do any harm.

Even though Lloyd seems to have been around forever, it still seems amazing that this is his testimonial season, celebrating 10 years as a professional. I think it’s because I associate testimonials with players who are close to retiring, whereas Lloyd could be around for a fair few years yet. He’s still only 28, after all.

While waiting for his second goal, I’ll be spending this season watching his progress up the Watford all-time appearance list. With 336 to his name, he’s now level with Fred Gregory in 15th place. He should overtake Skilly Williams, Frank Smith and Stewart Scullion in the next few weeks, but then it’s a long haul to Charlie Williams in 11th place, with 380. After that, who knows?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The rule of five

It was good to see two of Watford’s new signings scoring on Saturday. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll turn out to be successful at Vicarage Road (I still remember Johann Gudmundsson scoring twice on his debut – the very definition of a false dawn), but it’s a start.

I have a theory, honed over 40 years of watching football, that the fate of every batch of new signings will cover the whole gamut from success to failure. More precisely, out of every five signings, you can reasonably expect to get one of each of the following:

McLenaghan – dear old Albert stands as the exemplar of the player who is signed and then disappears, rarely (if ever) to be seen again. We’ve had plenty of these over the years, visible only to the keen-eyed, or those who attend reserve matches. Richard Flash springs to mind, mainly because his name promised so much. Then there’s Sietes, Andy Ferrell, Adrian Bakalli… You can’t help wondering what happens: does the manager genuinely expect them to make an impact, only to be gravely disappointed? Or are they just the result of a cheap punt that doesn’t work out?

Mayo – one step up from the McLenaghan is the player who does at least get a run in the first team, only to be discarded again and vanish from view. Like Paul Mayo, who played 27 games at left back before Ray Lewington decided he wasn’t worth playing just for his long throw. A variation on the Mayo is the player whose Watford career is fatally hampered by injury, like David Barnes or ‘Bunion’ Ben Iroha.

Mackay – our former manager epitomises the middle of the range: the player who is neither a huge success nor a complete failure. Someone who plays a fair number of games, but never becomes an automatic choice, either because of age, injury or competition. Someone who divides the fans, in some cases – a Nordin Wooter, say (though I’ll forgive him anything for that goal against Norwich), or a Danny Webber.

Millen – this is what you want all your signings to be, really: a player who arrives at the club and does exactly the job they were intended to do. Like Keith Millen, who quietly racked up nearly 200 appearances in the centre of defence without ever becoming anyone’s favourite player. Marcus Gayle was another, though in his case he ended up doing a very different job from the one we’d signed him for. They don’t always stay so long, of course. Don Cowie was arguably a Millen, for example.

Mooney – and then, if you’re lucky, one of your five signings will go on to be a club legend. A Tommy Mooney, a John McClelland, a Heidar Helguson – add your own favourites here.

Obviously, this is all highly subjective, but it does provide a yardstick against which to judge a manager’s performance in the transfer market. Let’s look back at the summer of 1997, for example, when GT signed Micah Hyde, Peter Kennedy, Ronny Rosenthal, Jason Lee and Lars Melvang: I make that a Mooney, two Millens, a Mackay and a McLenaghan – an above-average return on our investment.

Now look at Aidy Boothroyd’s first batch of signings, in the summer of 2005: Marlon King, Jordan Stewart, Adam Griffiths, Martin Devaney, Sietes and Ben Gill: a Millen, a Mackay and four McLenaghans. He got better at picking players, obviously, but it wasn’t an encouraging start.

Right now we have six new players. Which will be a Mooney and which a McLenaghan? Only time will tell.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Confessions of the world’s worst ballboy

Over the past 40-odd years, I’ve watched football matches from all four sides of Vicarage Road, and in varying degrees of comfort, from the rib-crushing exhilaration of a packed terrace to the cosseted luxury of an executive box. But only once have I watched a game while standing on the hallowed turf itself, and it’s an occasion my thoughts often turn to at this time of year.

It was the summer of 1973, I think, which would make me 10 years old. My father was in the Air Force and we lived on the RAF estate in Bushey Heath, a few roads away from a colleague of Dad’s who was a qualified football referee, and who had a son of about my age. In those days, Watford used to train at RAF Stanmore, and that summer they invited a team from the base to provide some gentle opposition for a pre-season friendly at Vicarage Road.

I only became aware of this unlikely combination of circumstances when Dad came home from work one day and asked if I would like to be a ballboy at a Watford game. His friend was going to be refereeing the friendly, and his son and I could help out if we liked. Well, as a Watford fan, I wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity like that, even if I was a bit hazy on the details of what a ballboy was actually supposed to do.

The details of the day itself are equally hazy at this remove, but I clearly remember being stationed at the Vicarage Road End and instructed to return the ball to the appropriate team if it went out either side of the goal: to the goalkeeper if the attacking team had touched it last, and in the direction of the corner flag if it had come off a defender.

All this I understood. What I hadn’t bargained for was the wall that ran along the front of the Vicarage Road terrace. It wasn’t a particularly high wall: however, I should confess at this point that I wasn’t a particularly athletic 10-year-old. (This won’t come as a shock to anyone who knows me.) In my orange Adidas rip-off tracksuit – two stripes instead of three – I looked a bit like a basketball with arms and legs.

The first time a shot fizzed over the crossbar and onto the terrace, I ran up to the wall and tried to vault over it. Then I tried again. And again.

It was no good. I couldn’t get my leg up on top of the wall so that I could swing over it, and I certainly didn’t have enough upper body strength to pull myself up and over. It was a pattern that would be repeated ad nauseam in gym lessons when I got to secondary school, where I never once managed to vault over the horse or climb a rope. But for now, I was just embarrassed when one of the players got bored of waiting, hopped effortlessly over the wall and retrieved the ball so that play could continue. This happened several more times during the course of the game, to the point where I stopped even pretending to try to get over the wall.

What else do I remember? It was a warm day, and during half-time my fellow ballboy and I sheltered from the sun in the Main Stand, where we were introduced to the manager’s son, who was slightly older than us and apparently quite good at football. In my memory he was called Kevin, but I’ve just checked and Kevin Keen would only have been six in 1973, so it can’t have been him. Maybe he had another son, or maybe I’ve just been harbouring a false memory all these years.

We kept to the same ends in the second half, so I never got a chance to discover whether I could have made it over the wall into the Rookery End. The match ended 4-2 to Watford – for some reason, I’m certain of that, though I’ve never been able to check. Afterwards, the referee told us to wait in the corridor outside the dressing rooms while he changed, and I took the opportunity to get out my autograph book (which, up to that point, had only seen service at the annual pro-am tournament at Hartsbourne Golf Club) and accost the Watford players with it as they emerged.

I’ve looked at the collection of scrawled signatures I gathered that day many times since, but I’ve never managed to match a single one with the name of a Watford player. This isn’t entirely surprising, since (as you’ve doubtless guessed, though I didn’t realise till much later) this was a reserve fixture. I mean, come on – it’s true that Watford were on the slide in the early 70s, but they weren’t so bad that they would have played a first-team match against a side from a local RAF base, and on a midweek morning at that.

I did make it onto the playing surface a couple of times in subsequent years – but only as part of mass pitch invasions when the Hornets had just sealed promotion. And so, all these years later, I still look back fondly on my day as a ballboy. Even if I was absolutely rubbish.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The story of a shareholding

Back in the summer of 2001, I was relatively flush. I was single, with a decent income and a manageable mortgage. For the first – and probably last – time in my life, I was spending less than I earned each month, and thus building up some savings.

So when Watford announced that they were going to float on the Alternative Investment Market, the idea of owning shares in my beloved club was both attractive and achievable. I dutifully read the glossy prospectus - newly installed manager Gianluca Vialli with Elton John on the front, Tommy Smith and a kid with his face painted yellow and red on the back – but all the detail about cash in- and outflow and fixed assets didn’t make a lot of difference to me. I just liked the idea of having a stake in the club I’d been following since 1970. So on July 24th, 2001, I wrote a cheque for £1,000, and in return I received a certificate showing that I was now the owner of 100,000 shares in Watford Leisure plc.

By December 2002, Vialli (and Elton) had gone, as had ITV Digital, and new chairman Graham Simpson launched a further share offer to try to make up some of the shortfall caused by the combination of the two. By this time I was engaged and planning a wedding, and had to be a little more conservative with my cash. This time they were offered at just 0.1p a share, so for £350 I received a further 350,000 shares, taking my total holding up to 450,000 shares.

After this it gets a bit hazy, because I’m not a financial expert. I know that in late 2003, Simpson went back to the well again, but this time I didn’t participate. Like many fans, I was beginning to feel that I’d poured enough money into the club over the years, and that maybe the board should do their job and work out a way of making the club pay its way.

Because I didn’t buy any more shares, my existing holding was subsequently diluted (by a mechanism I still don’t really understand) by a factor of a thousand, to just 450 shares. Which seemed a bit harsh, somehow.

Fast-forward to 2006 and there was yet another financial crisis. This is the most confusing of all, because as far as I can see, even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t invest any more money, I received an additional 1,080 shares. The prospectus talks about a ‘12 for 5 Rights Issue’, and simple maths shows that 450 times 12 divided by 5 is indeed 1,080.

So, until recently, I was the owner of 1,530 shares in Watford Leisure plc. What I never factored in was the possibility that I could be forced to sell them, but of course, that’s just what has happened. Now I’m sitting here with a cheque for £15.30, which is all I have to show for my 10 years as a shareholder in Watford Leisure plc.

I suppose I ought to cash it. I could spend it on a takeaway pizza and some garlic bread, perhaps, or a couple of paperback books. It might even pay for my admission to a Watford cup tie, now that they’re no longer included in the price of my season ticket.

Looking back over the annual reports from this last decade, I notice that in both 2003 and 2004, one of Mr Simpson’s stated targets for the club was to ‘return value to shareholders’. That aim was quietly dropped in later reports, and in retrospect it’s easy to see why. It was a promise they were never going to be able to keep.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Everyone’s a winner

Despite the disappointing run-in, there’s no doubt that 2010/11 was a good season for the Hornets. We were never in serious danger of relegation (a first in recent times), achieved a comfortable mid-table finish in a competitive division, and played some lively, entertaining and goal-strewn football. Oh, and we did all this with the youngest team in the Championship.

So, without further ado, here are my personal end-of-season awards – although, as the title of this post says, everyone’s a winner:

Player of the season
I can’t find fault with the official club award here. Plaudits to Martin Taylor and John Eustace in particular, but Danny Graham was the stand-out player, a striker who contributed off the ball as well as mastering the all-important skill of whacking it into the net at regular intervals.

Young player of the season
At the start of every season, there are a clutch of youngsters who seem to be on the verge of breaking into the first team, but most end up spending more time on the bench than the pitch. Of this year’s hopefuls, Matt Whichelow showed a lot of promise, giving new impetus to the attack when coming on as a sub, and Piero Mingoia showed signs of being the new Gary Porter. But the award has to go to Marvin Sordell: 15 goals in his first full season is not at all shabby, even if he couldn’t quite maintain his best form week in, week out. That will come.

Most disappointing player
This is all relative, of course, especially given the age of the players involved. Having said that, Scott Loach’s increasing flakiness as the season went on was worrying for a player who’d already appeared in a couple of senior England squads – although if it’s put off potential buyers for a while, that’s no bad thing. As for Will Buckley, his pace and trickery are so thrilling to watch (when he’s on song, at least, though there are also games when he vanishes) that it’s frustrating that he delivers so little end product.

But my biggest disappointment was Danny Drinkwater, the latest in a long line of loanees from Old Trafford, but the first to completely fail to ‘get’ it. He looked promisingly skilful for the first half an hour of his debut, but it soon became apparent that he just didn’t fit into this Watford team. The fact that Malky only gave him three starts and nine substitute appearances in half a season suggests that he agreed.

Invisible man
An honorable mention to Josh Walker, who arrived from Middlesbrough with an impressive pedigree, but made only five substitute appearances and spent most of the season on loan. Then there’s Liam Henderson, who didn’t appear in a Watford shirt at all, but kept up his record of failing to score for the first team (any first team) at Colchester, Aldershot and Rotherham. I doubt he’ll be back in August.

But the real invisible man was Tom Aldred, signed (or so it seemed) to provide much-needed cover for Taylor and Mariappa in the centre of defence. All he has to show for his first season as a Hornet is seven appearances for Stockport (the last of them in January) and a random 90 minutes on the bench against Coventry in April. And when we were desperate for a defender in the last game of the season, it was 17-year-old Tommy Hoban who Malky turned to, not the older Aldred, described on the official site as a “commanding centre-half” who we had to fight to sign, so coveted was he by other clubs. Very strange.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

You’re gonna lose in the playoffs

Having written in my last post about the logic of adopting Queens Park Rangers as Watford’s new rivals, there was a certain grim satisfaction in the way Saturday unfolded at Vicarage Road. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is already looking forward to their return, tail between their collective legs, in a couple of seasons’ time - or, indeed, next season, if the Football League impose the points deduction their own rules would seem to mandate.

It’s taken me a few days to get around to writing about the QPR game because I was just so angry at the time. Angry at the QPR fans who not only infiltrated the home end, but then brazenly celebrated their team’s opening goal, inviting trouble; angry at the Watford fans who rose as one to watch the ensuing shenanigans rather than the match; angry at the twats who invaded the pitch, and especially those who decided to taunt the Rookery at the end of the game; and angry at the stewards and police officers who made so little effort to catch the worst offenders.

Above all, I was angry that an occasion for celebration - the last home game of a fine season, on a sunny Saturday afternoon - had been hijacked, not just by another club, but by a reminder of the stupidity and nastiness of days gone by. The much-delayed lap of honour by the players and staff was less enjoyable than usual as a result – and from the general lack of singing while it was happening, I suspect many others felt that way too.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The campaign for real rivals

[NB: this article also appears in the latest issue of Clap Your Hands, Stamp Your Feet]

Be honest now: do you miss derby games against Luton?

No, me neither. The news story a few weeks ago about a march through Luton by the racist thugs of the English Defence League (which was founded there) reminded me of the element among the Hatters’s support that always made derby days so deeply unpleasant.

The good news is that there’s a real chance that Watford and Luton Town will never meet again in a competitive football match. Luton are three whole divisions below us now, and every season they spend in the Conference weakens their finances and fanbase.

In the meantime, we’re free to start a new rivalry. After all, there’s no law that says two football teams have to be yoked together for all eternity, and there are plenty of cases where rivalries have shifted as circumstances changed. For instance, Nottingham Forest realised years ago that they weren’t going to meet their near-neighbours Notts County very often, and turned their attentions to another County in the next, um, county. Forest v Derby is now a bitterly contested, um, derby in the East Midlands, while Notts have fostered a more realistic rivalry with Mansfield Town.

So what does it take to create a new derby? I’d suggest that the two key elements are proximity and frequency. The perfect rivals are close enough for the two sets of fans to meet in everyday life, and of a similar standard, so that the two teams play each other most seasons. A bit of history helps as well, of course.

On that basis, let’s take a look at the five clubs that are based closest to Vicarage Road and assess their qualifications to be our new rivals:


Distance from Vicarage Road:
9.01 miles
Previous league meetings: 0
Pros: It really isn’t that far from Watford to Barnet, and they’re even in the same county. They have a similar nickname (Bees) and strip (yellow and black) – it’s almost as if they aspire to be us.
Cons: Two cup ties (the only competitive meetings between the two clubs) aren’t enough to build a rivalry on. Unfortunately for Barnet, they’re only a few places higher up the pyramid than Luton, and the chances of the two teams ever meeting regularly are remote. Maybe they could take the Hatters off our hands, though…
Rivalry rating: 1 (out of 5)


12.07 miles
Meetings: 60
Pros: Like the Hornets, Brentford (another bunch of Bees – what is it with north-west London clubs and stinging insects?) have strong roots in their local community. As the only team in the western half of London outside the top two divisions, they’re sorely in need of a proper derby match. Oh, and Griffin Park has pubs on all four corners of the ground.
Cons: Fans who started supporting the two clubs since the 1970s will have few memories of previous meetings to draw on. There’s no sign of hostilities being renewed, either – though it only needs Watford to have one bad season or Brentford one good one.
Rating: 3

Queen’s Park Rangers

12.18 miles
Meetings: 105
Pros: After the war, large numbers of bombed-out residents of Shepherd’s Bush were rehoused on the newly build South Oxhey estate, on the southern edge of Watford. As a result, Watford-QPR matches in the 1960s were extremely ‘tasty’. It was a proper rivalry, in other words, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be revived. Especially as we’ve played Rangers more than any other league club, as far as I can make out. Their sugar-daddy owners are a further reason to dislike them. And I haven’t even mentioned their manager…
Cons: That manager could be on the verge of propelling them out of the Championship and into the Premiership. If that happens, and they stay up in their first season, it may be a while before we play them again.
Rating: 4


14.40 miles
Meetings: 16
Pros: In our Division One days, we had a satisfyingly good record against Arsenal, and the 1987 FA Cup quarter-final win at Highbury remains my all-time favourite away game. These days, of course, we’re nothing but poor relations, but that’s no bad thing when it comes to stoking the fires of enmity. Also, there’s no shortage of Gooners in the Watford area, so there’s plenty of scope for banter.
Cons: Sadly, the chances of Watford and Arsenal ever meeting regularly are remote. In any case, the Gunners’ long-established rivalry with Spurs isn’t going to end any time soon.
Rating: 1


14.46 miles
Meetings: 18
Pros: Yes, I was surprised to find that Fulham is the fifth-closest club to Watford, too. I’m really struggling to find anything to hate about them, beyond the obvious – and even the way Mohammed Al-Fayed bought success for Fulham pales in comparison with the more recent exploits of the owners of Chelsea and Manchester City. Noble history, glorious riverside location… Nope, I’ve got nothing.
Cons: See above.
Rating: 0

So there you go. QPR and Brentford look like our best bets, with the Rs front-runners, provided they don’t get promoted at the end of the season.

Obviously, I’m not expecting the boys at the back of the Rookery to sway their anti-Luton chants for anti-Rangers ones just like that. But over time, as new fans join the ranks who’ve never seen Watford play Luton, chances are they’ll turn their attention to another club. And why not? At least you can spend an afternoon or evening in Shepherd’s Bush without having to worry about getting your head kicked in.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Something to celebrate

The concept of Tax Freedom Day - the day of the year when we start working for ourselves rather than the government, essentially - is well established. (This year it’s May 30th, by the way.) I think there should be an equivalent term to describe the day when Watford’s Championship survival is assured for another season.

Passing the 52-point mark - universally agreed as ensuring that relegation is all but mathematically impossible - on Saturday was certainly a great relief, even if we did it in rather strange circumstances. Last season it took us until late April, so celebrating Championship Survival Day* in mid-March is a great improvement.

And there’s much more than that to celebrate, too. Leaving aside the imminent takeover - which may, if nothing else, lead to the Vicarage Road pitch being relaid - we currently have a club that seems to be functioning well at almost every level, from the CEO to the youngest youth trainees. It’s been particularly heartwarming to see the contribution Watford’s youngsters have made this season, from Marvin Sordell’s goals to Matty Whichelow’s impact as a substitute and Adam Thompson’s confident performances at the back. It’s a sign of how well the system is working that the likes of Ross Jenkins and Lee Hodson are viewed almost as veterans these days, despite being 20 and 19 respectively.

So now we can relax a little and enjoy the rest of the season. As I wrote a few months ago, it really wouldn’t be a good thing for us to get promoted, but a final league placing of around ninth or tenth, which is eminently achievable, would represent a successful season for a club of such limited means. It would also tie in with Graham Taylor’s oft-stated, and admirably realistic, ambition for Watford to establish itself as “a top-30 club in English football”.

*All ideas for a better name gratefully received…

Saturday, 5 March 2011

If it sounds too good to be true…

I got the call a few days ago. I’d been expecting it, having heard about this scam from other members of the Watford Mailing List. Because I was curious as to how it worked, I let the caller give me his entire spiel. I’m still none the wiser, though I have a couple of ideas.

The caller was from a New York-based firm called Harris James Associates. He was contacting me about my shares in Watford Leisure plc: would I be interested in selling them? He said his firm is representing a multinational company that wants to buy a majority stake (ie 51%) in Watford Leisure, on account of its “special assets and licences”. Later he also said that the deal was tax-related.

He claimed that 43% of the company’s institutional shareholders have already made a commitment to sell their shares, and wanted to know if I would do the same. The price would be between £8 and £17 a share, to be paid 30-90 days after the transaction was completed. There would be a requirement to lodge a bond as insurance against the deal falling through, but the “good news” was that the purchaser would pay most of that, and I would only be required to contribute a small amount.

Finally, he asked for my email address so that he could send me a confidentiality agreement that I would have to sign before proceeding any further with the transaction.

Now obviously I have no intention of going along with this scheme. As the old saying goes, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Watford Leisure plc shares are currently trading at 5p each, and their peak value in the past 12 months was 11.25p. So why would anyone possibly want to pay £8 each for them? It would have to be one hell of a tax dodge.

So, assuming it is simply a scam, how does it work? My initial thought was that it might be something to do with the bond that was mentioned, with the “small amount” eventually turning out to be a significant sum. That would fit the pattern of other well-known scams, such as the “You have won the [name of country] lottery” con, where you’re asked to send a fee to an intermediary, who will then pass on your winnings to you.

Alternatively, maybe it’s as simple as harvesting bank details. They already have my name and phone number, and presumably my home address as well; if I gave them the details of my bank account, they could wreak all kinds of havoc.

If anyone reading this has any other ideas, do post a comment below. I’m intrigued to know exactly what’s going on here.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Would you Adam and Eve it?

I see that Watford defenders Lee Hodson and Adam Thompson have been called up to the full Northern Ireland squad for their game against Scotland tomorrow night. Obviously I’m pleased for them, and it’s further proof that our youth development system is working well. But what do their call-ups say about the state of British football?

Lee Hodson is a promising full-back, no doubt about it, and at 19, he’s got plenty of time to develop. He’s started 43 times for the Hornets – but most of those starts were last season. Yes, he’s in the team at the moment, but we all know that he’s only there until Malky can get Andrew Taylor back from Middlesbrough, or an alternative loanee who can play at left back so that Lloyd can move back to the right.

He looks like a wizened old pro, though, in comparison to 18-year-old Adam Thompson. I’ve seen Adam’s entire senior career, as it happens. It was the League Cup 2nd round game against Notts County at the start of the season. That’s it. One first-team game, in a team packed with similar tyros - and Northern Ireland think he’s ready for international football?

The thing is, that one League Cup tie is probably the only competitive match Adam has ever played against a team of grown-ups. Reserve team matches, as far as I can tell, are basically an opportunity for clubs to field a team of under-21s – the current youth team and recent graduates. The days when they were peppered with senior players trying to win back a place in the first team are seemingly long gone. So Adam’s entire career to date has consisted of games against players his own age, or a year or two older.

Like I say, this is no reflection on two talented youngsters who will hopefully have long and successful careers. I feel for Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington, though, whose talent pool is so shallow that he has to pick players with minimal experience just to make up a full squad. It’s a further indictment (as if any were needed) of the way the Premiership’s riches have largely gone into the pockets of foreign players, while reducing opportunities for talented youngsters from the British isles to play at the highest level. Heck, even Fabio Capello has been reduced to picking the odd Championship player. Where will it end?

Sunday, 30 January 2011

It’s not a *@%&ing panto!

Okay, I know people are strapped for cash at the moment. I certainly am, but I still wasn’t going to miss a home FA Cup tie, and £15 seemed reasonable to me for a 4th round clash with Brighton.

Obviously not to my fellow Rookeryites, though. Of the six seats to my left and right, only one was occupied by its usual resident. Taking the same block of seven seats in the row in front of me, there was only one regular; in the row behind, two. That makes five out of 21 season ticket holders who could be bothered to watch Watford play in the only major tournament we had any chance of winning this season.

In their place, for the most part, were families with kids. And I mean young kids – the ages of the ones around me ranged from five to eight, I’d say. I was nearly nine when I went to my first match, and I don’t think I’d have been able to concentrate on 90 minutes of football much before then. But I hope I wouldn’t have spent the entire game kicking the back of the seat in front of me, as the irritating brat behind me did. Or whining for a hot dog, or chasing a balloon up and down the row, like his pals.

The two boys directly in front of me were positively angelic by comparison. Possibly a bit wet, judging by the fact that their parents had brought a blanket to wrap round them, but fair enough, it was bloody cold. In the second half, though, whenever Watford were on the attack and people in the Rookery stood up, Dad would hoist one little lad onto his seat and Mum the other. This clearly took a lot of effort, so the parents were unwilling to lift them down again until the excitement was definitely over. As a result, I spent far more time than I wanted to staring at the backs of two little boys while the ball was down the far end of the pitch.

Don’t get me wrong: I know we need to encourage the next generation of fans to come along to Vicarage Road. But one of the reasons I choose to sit behind the goal in the Rookery is so that I’m surrounded by passionate, noisy fans (though those terms are relative when it comes to Watford fans, obviously). If I wanted to spent an afternoon surrounded by whingeing brats with short attention spans and an obsession with junk food, I’d go to my local multiplex. Now I understand why Graham Taylor created the Family Enclosure all those years ago.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Confessions of a groundhopper

I’ve seen a few non-league games over the years, mainly featuring Kingstonian, who my friend Stuart supported for a while. I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of getting closer to the grass roots of football – the knowledge that everyone in the ground is there because they love the game, and their club, rather than being motivated by money or fame.

Yesterday my better half and I drove up to the town of Ossett in West Yorkshire, where she grew up, and where we’d been invited to a family party in the evening. I had the afternoon to myself, and I was pleased to discover that Ossett Town had a home game against Colwyn Bay in the Northern Premier League. Sorted.

So at 2.45 I strolled up to the gloriously named Stade France (formerly Ingfield, but now sponsored by local scrap merchant Eddie France), right in the centre of town – only to find the ground mysteriously empty. The game had obviously been postponed, for some reason.

Dispirited, I was walking back through the town square when I bumped into one of my wife’s friends and recounted my tale of woe. “Are Ossett Albion at home today?” she asked “You could watch them instead.” I said I didn’t know, but I was willing to go along on the off-chance if it wasn’t far. It wasn’t, and five minutes later I found myself outside the WareHouse Systems Stadium, where there was clearly a match going on. I paid my £3 at the turnstile (there was only the one) and asked the bloke behind the counter who Albion were playing. “Town,” he replied, as if I should have known that. Somehow I appeared to have stumbled upon a local derby.

I took up a position level with one of the penalty areas, on the top step (of three) of what I suppose you could call a terrace and surveyed the scene. There were roughly the same number of people on the pitch as there were around it (the small stand on the opposite site, with half a dozen rows of seats, had one solitary occupant), but all the noise was coming from the pitch. That’s one thing about football at this level; you can hear every word the players, manager and referee say. To be fair, the air didn’t turn particularly blue, though the Town coach did spend most of the match moaning at the referee, like a cut-price Alex Ferguson.

The standard of the football was… okay, I suppose. There were plenty of moments of skill from both sides, but rarely enough in a row to create the kind of football that’s pleasing to the eye. All too often the ball pinged back and forth as one team, then the other, conceded possession cheaply.

At half-time (0-0) I took a stroll round the ground, just because I could. I’d been too shy to ask anyone about the match, for fear of exposing my extreme southernness in this bastion of northern masculinity, but when I drew level with the occupant of the stand, I asked him how come this local derby was taking place. That’s when I learned that what I was actually watching was a reserve match.

It was tempting to leave at that point (I don’t even make the effort to watch Watford’s reserve matches, never mind anyone else’s), but I didn’t. For one thing, like any true football fan, I wanted to see who won. Besides, there was something evocative about the setting that I was keen to nail down. As the light dimmed and the Yorkshire accents clashed on the pitch (“Fooking ’ave ’im!”), with the moors looming behind the ground and the constant hum of the generator that powered the floodlights, I was oddly reminded of the legendary football match in Kes. (Yes, I know that involves schoolboys and takes place in broad daylight, but still, that’s what it felt like to me.)

The game opened up in the second half, as Albion pressed forward and Town’s defenders lost the plot. Albion scored two in a matter of minutes and could have had a hatful. Time and again they sliced through the defence to create a one-on-one or two-on-one situation, only to waste the chance with a poor shot or final ball. Town scored a very late penalty to make it 2-1, but there was barely time for the restart before the ref blew for full-time.

By this time the temperature had dropped several degrees, and the home fans’ joy at the result had been tempered by reports coming in of a 6-0 defeat for the first team at Chester, so no one was going to hang around to cheer the players off the pitch. I certainly didn’t, at any rate.

At the party that night, I told a few people that I’d been to watch Ossett Albion Reserves play Ossett Town Reserves, but I don’t think any of them got it. They doubtless thought that living in London had made me a bit soft in the head. Still, I reckon I’ll go back another time –preferably when the first team are playing. For one thing, Albion play in gold shirts and black shorts…