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…