Thursday, 24 April 2014

Those weren’t the days

For the past couple of years I’ve been training my 11-year-old niece, Susie, to be an apprentice Hornet. She gamely froze her little backside off at the Vic last season during the 4-0 win against Huddersfield (featuring that goal), and on Saturday she enjoyed the Ipswich game – I think it helped that we were sitting directly behind the 1881, so the atmosphere was good. Anyway, she’s keen to go again.

Her parents have no interest in football, but they do live a stone’s throw from Stamford Bridge, so they keep an eye on Chelsea’s affairs. The other week, when I was round there for dinner, my sister-in-law anxiously brought up a story she’d read about Chelsea fans going on the rampage in Paris en route to their Champions League game with PSG. So Susie naturally asked why anyone would do that, and soon we were trying to explain the concept of hooliganism to her.

Inevitably, she eventually asked how much football-related violence I’d actually seen. For those of us of a certain age, this is the equivalent of ‘What did you do in the war, Grandad?’ I automatically played it down, but afterwards I found myself trying to remember what I had actually witnessed. This is what I remember:

  • Standing on the Vicarage Road End terrace once when everyone suddenly started moving away from the central section, because the away fans had apparently ‘taken’ it
  • The home game against West Ham early in our first season back in Division Two, when the Hammers fans invaded the pitch and police horses were used to clear them off
  • My one and only trip to Kenilworth Road, when we emerged after the game to find bricks and bottles raining down on us and had to leg it back to the car

And that’s pretty much it, to be honest.

Much more prevalent, though was the sense of threat that accompanied football matches in the 70s and 80s – especially away from home. It meant that, on visits to grounds like Upton Park and Highbury, we tied our scarves around our waists, under our coats, and didn’t get them out until safely inside the home end; that, on trips to the Midlands, we didn’t dare talk too loudly on the way to the ground, for fear that our accents would betray us to the local psychos; and that we spent a lot of time being escorted to and from grounds by files of grim-faced policemen.

It all seems a long time ago now, in this age of Champions League pomp and circumstance and Sky’s relentless promotion of football as fun for all the family. But the habits acquired in those years have never really worn off. When I went to see the Hornets play at the New Den a couple of weeks ago (travelling on public transport), I didn’t dare wear my Watford shirt or scarf – just in case...

Meanwhile, in the past couple of years, I’ve had a couple of nerve-wracking train journeys in carriages packed with Palace fans where the sense of menace has been palpable, and it felt as if certain individuals just needed the slightest provocation to turn nasty.

And now I read that Watford fans visiting Loftus Road on Monday were subjected to 80s-style police escorts and searches. I was going to say that I hope that, if Susie does go on to become a football fan, her experience of matchdays is free from even the threat of violence. But, even after all these years, I’m not that optimistic.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Telling tales

Back in the late 80s, I regularly attended meetings of the London branch of the (now defunct) Football Supporters’ Association. It was a forum for debating the issues of the day and featured guest speakers from the football world.

At some point in the proceedings, one particular member would invariably stick his hand up and ask a question pertaining to Dulwich Hamlet, who he supported with a rare passion. (I seem to remember that he wore a club scarf, rosette and badges to these meetings.) Indeed, he didn’t seem to be interested in any footballing issue except insofar as if affected Dulwich Hamlet.

Most memorably, he angrily inquired of a senior executive from the BBC why the classified results on Grandstand (readers under 40, ask your parents) didn’t include the Isthmian League Division 1 South, or wherever Dulwich were plying their trade at the time. The chap from the BBC gave a perfectly reasonable answer, but Mr Dulwich wasn’t to be pacified, and it took some time to get the meeting back on track.

He was an extreme example, but I’ve come to realise over the years that most of us football fans have our hobby horse – the issue that we care so passionately about that we lose all sense of proportion when talking about it. For some, it may be the lack of attention given to their club; for others, a particular player, manager or referee. Mine, as you can tell by looking at the Labels column to the right, is Lloyd Doyley: specifically, the persistent failure of the world in general, and successive Watford managers in particular, to recognise the supreme quality of his defensive play.

Bearing this tendency in mind, anyone organising an event where football fans come into contact with real people from the football world runs the risk of it being hijacked by one or more of these single-issue obsessives. On my way to Tales From The Vicarage Live at the Watford Palace Theatre a couple of weeks ago, I was a little nervous as it how it might pan out. I had no concerns about Luther Blissett, a gold-plated club legend, and Sean Dyche is generally well thought of. Aidy Boothroyd was another matter entirely, though. Would he be booed as soon as he walked on stage? Heckled, even? (“Where’s your Plan B, Boothroyd?”)

I needn’t have worried on that score; Aidy got as warm an ovation as his fellow panellists, and there was no heckling. But some of the questions directed at him in the second half of the evening had a definite edge to them, and threatened to cast a chill over the benevolent warmth that characterised the show as a whole. It’s a tribute to his self-deprecating charm that the atmosphere remained light and good-humoured, even when discussing the catastrophic signing of Nathan Ellington. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking that he still talks a better game than he plays – a theory that his career at Watford, and his subsequent downward spiral through the divisions, would appear to support. It’s a shame that Adam Leventhal never got round to asking him, as promised, about his new job in charge of England’s Under-20s.

Adam’s role as MC was central to the success of the evening. I’d previously only seen him sat behind a desk on Sky Sports News, trying to look excited about the latest half-arsed football transfer rumours, but here he was the perfect chat show host, funny and inclusive and acting as a sympathetic bridge between the fans in the stalls and the club legends on the stage.

Others will have made extensive notes on the content of the evening, and a fortnight later, I can’t recall many details of the conversations on stage. A few things stick in the memory, though. For instance, Luther’s obvious, and ongoing, obsession with scoring goals, as revealed in a series of anecdotes. (And I never knew that he won the Golden Boot as the top scorer in the whole of Europe in our first season in the First Division. In my defence, it was my first year at university, and in those pre-internet days it was easier to miss such items of incidental football news.)

Aidy, as mentioned, was funny and charming throughout. But the star of the show was Sean Dyche, who should seriously consider a career in entertainment if football management doesn’t work out for him. (Though I’m pretty sure it will.) Drily witty and quietly serious by turns, he was an enthralling presence on stage, and I doubt there was a single person in the audience that night who didn’t leave thinking more highly of him than they had done before.

I arrived at the Palace not sure what to expect, but TFTV Live turned out to be a joy from start to finish.   Who knew that a live football chat show could be such fun?