There are only a few standard scenarios where fans get to hear footballers and managers speak, none of them particularly inspiring. There’s the cliché-ridden post-match quickie, of course (“Well, the ball’s come across, and I’ve just headed it in, to be fair”); the set-piece interview where every question, and answer, has clearly been pre-approved by the player’s agent and the club’s PR; and the post-dinner turn, where a long-retired legend trots out a series of tired anecdotes about George Best and Brian Clough.
With the Tales From The Vicarage series of shows, Lionel Birnie and Adam Leventhal are trying to do something a bit different; presenting live interviews with Watford players and managers on the stage of the Palace Theatre in front of an audience of Hornets fans. The first event, in March, was a triumph: would tonight’s follow-up suffer from the phenomenon known to music fans as ‘difficult second album syndrome’?
From the fact that I’m even posing the question, you may suspect that I have some reservations. But first, let me stress that it was a hugely enjoyable evening. As with the first event, the chance to witness key players (and managers) from Watford’s recent history in conversation in a relaxed setting was priceless, and there were many standout moments. Nick Wright was visibly emotional as he relived that goal at Wembley, and the story of how, and how quickly, his career unravelled after that was moving (and new to me); David Holdsworth told a hilarious anecdote about the terrifying consequences for a young player of disobeying Tom Walley’s orders; Tommy Smith was frank about his feelings on being left out of the FA Cup semi-final against Southampton; and Malky Mackay and Ray Lewington both gave fascinating insights into the boardroom turmoil that provided the backdrop against which they were expected to produce winning teams. Funniest of all, though, was Sean Dyche’s response on being asked whether, despite the difficulty Burnley were having winning games, he was enjoying the experience of being a Premiership manager: a vehement, and disarmingly honest, “Am I f**k!”
You’ll notice a lot of names there. Wright, Lewington, Craig Ramage, Holdsworth, Smith and Mackay were all interviewed on stage; Nigel Gibbs spoke from a box on the balcony; Jay DeMerit appeared on a big screen, having dialled in via Skype; and Dyche had apparently been Facetimed, judging by the shaky picture. That’s nine contributors in a little over two hours. By comparison, the first TFTV event featured just three (Dyche, Aidy Boothroyd and Luther Blissett) over a similar time period, and as a result, Adam was able to have an in-depth conversation with each of them.
Inevitably, each contributor to tonight’s event got less time to talk, and at times the conversation dwindled into a series of anecdotes – funny and fascinating anecdotes, it’s true, but that’s not the same as insight. Personally, I’d have been happy to hear more from Lewington, Smith and Gibbs in particular, all of whom are articulate and have, I’m sure, plenty more to say than we heard tonight.
The sheer number of interviewees was probably the reason for the rather self-congratulatory tone of much of the evening, too. I lost count of the number of times someone said “That’s what makes Watford such a special club”, or some such platitude, followed by rousing applause from the audience. We get it, we’re all Watford fans, we all love the club, we love you too… At one point I found myself mentally assembling the cast of an alternative, ‘dark’ TFTV that would guarantee less schmaltz and more bite. How about Dave Bassett, Ramon Vega, Kerry Dixon and David Connolly?
One last thing. I’m happy to applaud Malky Mackay for his achievements as a player, a coach and a manager, and he seems like a lovely bloke, witty and intelligent. I also understand why Adam wasn’t about to ask him any questions about the end of his tenure at Cardiff. But are we all supposed to pretend that the notorious text messages never happened? Or that they did, but it’s okay because he’s a Watford legend? There’s a wider debate here about the difficulty of separating out someone’s achievements and their misdeeds, and this isn’t the place for it. But on balance, if I was in charge, I think I’d have waited another year or two before inviting Malky on stage.
None of this means that I won’t be at the next event, and I’ll be fascinated to see who they can entice on stage. (My wish list would include Tom Walley, Heidar Helguson, Kenny Jackett and Gary Porter.) But I do think that, with events like this, less is more.