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.