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.