The second programme I’m keeping from my Nineties hoard is from January 1999, and the visit of Sunderland. That may immediately ring a bell with you, but I must admit that it wasn’t until I looked at my annotations on the back cover that I remembered why this particular game was significant. In my usual barely legible scrawl I’ve recorded that Watford won 2-1, with one of the goals coming from Gifton Noel-Williams, who was making his 100th appearance that day. There’s also an asterisk against his name, denoting that he was substituted.
The reason, as most Watford fans will remember, was a horrible challenge by Paul Butler that knackered Gifton’s knee and ruined his career. True, he carried on playing for another decade, but he was never the same player after the injury. It was especially tragic because he had a fantastic game against Sunderland, who were leading Division One at the time (not least thanks to the deadly striking duo of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips). Still only 19, he was showing signs of becoming a truly great striker, but it was not to be.
The cover of the programme triggers another sad memory. It shows a group of colourfully dressed African dancers performing on the Vicarage Road pitch before the previous week’s home game to welcome fellow Igbo tribesman Ben Iroha to the club. The Sunderland game was his seventh for Watford, but he would only manage another three before problems with bunions stopped him playing, forcing him into retirement little over a year later. When you consider that the team against Sunderland also included Nick Wright, this was, in retrospect, a particularly unlucky XI.
Inside the programme, there’s a big feature on the newly laid Desso pitch, which stopped Vicarage Road becoming a mudbath in the winter – at least until the board of the day neglected to replace it once it had worn out, a fault that was finally rectified last year. There’s also a massive foldout poster of goalie Alec Chamberlain, accompanying an interview which speculates (accurately, as it turned out) that if Watford were to make it to the play-off final, Alec would get “an opportunity to finally play on the hallowed turf after three near misses”.
The other current Watford employee to feature in the programme is – who else? – Lloyd Doyley, in the line-up for the Under-17s in their recent 4-0 win over Peterborough. The fact that the next most memorable name in that line-up is that of Gary Fisken is a reminder of how the odds are stacked against young players when it comes to forging a lasting career in the game.