Sunday, 19 January 2014

‘Tales From The Vicarage, Volume II’, edited by Lionel Birnie

I never got around to reviewing the first volume of Tales From The Vicarage, mainly because I was a contributor, and thus somewhat lacking in objectivity. Such scruples are unnecessary this time, as I’m not in Volume II, so I’m free to give it both barrels.

Only kidding. Like its predecessor, Volume II is a joyous read for any Watford fan; 13 pieces that cover a range of topics related to our beloved club, all long enough to engage without overstaying their welcome.

Although it’s a miscellany, a couple of themes emerge. One, unsurprisingly, is Watford’s links with Italy. Paolo Tomaselli’s guide to the Pozzos, including interviews with key figures in the regime, is essential reading, and worth the price of the book on its own for its insights into the way the club is likely to develop over the next few years. Someone should send a copy to every journalist and pundit who’s lazily expressed the view that “the Pozzos were Everything That Was Wrong With English Football”.

That’s a quote from the second Italian-themed article, editor Lionel Birnie’s account of Gianfranco Zola’s season in charge of Watford. It’s impassioned and well crafted, though for me it’s too soon after the event to need recapping. The true significance of 2012/13 will take a few years to become clear.

Maybe that time lag explains the proliferation of pieces on the 1990s, the other main theme of the anthology. My favourite of these is Ian Grant’s characteristically droll survey of the ‘doldrums’ of the mid-90s, embroidered with his trademark gift for metaphor. Take this one:

“Games against Luton in the nineties had a private, depressing darkness about them, utterly incomprehensible to the outside world, like a squabble over half a can of cheap lager between two street drinkers descending into squalid, disgraceful wrestling in a suspiciously-coloured puddle.”

I wish I’d written that.

He bookends his story with an impressionistic account of the day we came out of the darkness, the 1999 Play-Off Final victory against Bolton, and his BHaPPY co-editor Matt Rowson provides a complementary piece on the night that made it possible, the semi-final second leg at St Andrew’s. He evokes the tension of the penalty shoot-out beautifully – it took me right back to the pub in Central London where I watched the game with 100-odd Hornets fans, and ended up hugging total strangers.

Also on the 90s theme, Nigel Gibbs picks his Watford ‘dream team’ from those he played with or coached at Vicarage Road. There are no surprises in his selections, but his insights and stories are interesting. One of his selections, Kevin Phillips, gets a whole chapter to himself as Lionel Birnie  interviews the striker who ended our Premiership dreams in May. All these years (and clubs) on, it’s salutory to be reminded of the strength of character that took him from part-time football for Baldock to Watford, and eventually the England team.

Away from the 90s, Mike Walters’ memories of his trip to Sofia in 1983 to watch Watford in the UEFA Cup inspired me to watch the grainy footage of the goals on YouTube, though I didn’t really need the extended quotes from Graham Taylor and Neil Price that bulk out the story.

I’m not going to go through every piece, but I can’t end without mentioning Olly Wicken. As in Volume I, he provides the only piece of fiction. His tale of a deceased Watford supporter who ends up in a conflicted Hornet Heaven is surprisingly thought-provoking, asking difficult questions about what we, as fans, take from our club’s past and want for its future. It’s also both touching and extremely funny, with gags that creep up on you unawares. I particularly enjoyed this one:

“He had to make do with thinking the word ‘bugger’ time and time again in the surrounding silence. It felt like sitting in the Upper Rous.”

If that made you smile, buy this book. You won’t regret it.

No comments: