Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Nineties nostalgia, pt. 3 – Ooh ahh

I’ll be honest, I struggled to find a programme worth saving from the 1991/92 season. In the end I plumped for the January 1992 fixture against Newcastle, purely because it was one of the few games from that season that sparked any kind of memory.

A couple of years earlier, I’d done a one-year postgraduate journalism course, and one of my friends there was a bloke called John Mulvey, whose sole ambition was to write for the NME. His admirable single-mindedness had paid off, and by 1992 he was firmly established at the country’s leading weekly music magazine. What’s more, for reasons now lost in the mists of time, he had decided to bring a band he was interviewing to Vicarage Road for the Newcastle game, to add a bit of colour to the piece I suppose. This would be a much better story if I could remember who the band was, but I can’t. Presumably they were Newcastle fans, or maybe they just happened to be in Watford for the weekend.

Either way, I remember meeting John and a couple of guys from the band (and I really wish I could say they turned out to be Blur or the Stone Roses or someone) on the Vicarage Road End terrace before the game and standing with them as the Hornets dashed into a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes. As you do, I was rubbing my hands in anticipation of a record scoreline, but the Watford team of the early ’90s wasn’t so obliging, and the game ended 2-2.

The programme is a thin thing of 32 pages, with a rather old-fashioned look and feel. For all the bright colours, it feels very parochial, and two items epitomise this. One is a paragraph on the supporters club page about unclaimed prizes from the Junior Hornets New Year Raffle, which include Scalextric, a bottle of sherry and a half-bottle of whisky. The other, on a page of miscellaneous news, is an apology for the directions to Cambridge United printed in the previous programme; apparently “they were in fact a good route to Cambridge City!” So near, and yet so far.

Dominating the programme, as indeed he did the era in some respects, is Andy Hessenthaler, who is pictured on the cover, on the centre spread (as part of an interview) and on the news pages. He’d only been at the club since the previous September, but had quickly made an impression. It’s no surprise to learn from the interview that he did a lot of cross-country running as a boy, though I wasn’t aware that he was a self-employed ceramic tiler before Watford gave him the opportunity to play football for a living.

What else is there to say of this underwhelming era, when we were expected to get excited about a team including Trevor Putney, Peter Nicholas, Keith Waugh and Jason Drysdale? Well, one thing that’s noticeable is the number of products of the youth system who featured that season. Apart from Drysdale, Nigel Gibbs, David Holdsworth, Gary Porter and Luther Blissett (in his third and final spell at the club) all started that day, while Darren Bazeley came on as a sub and David James was missing his first game of the season. Richard Johnson had just broken into the first-team squad, Jason Solomon and Barry Ashby had played a few games, and Robert Page was a fixture in the youth team. Whatever else happened during the dog days of the 1990s, we never stopped bringing young players through into the first team. I wonder if we’ll ever see that many Academy products in the starting line-up for a league game again?

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Five on five

I don’t usually comment on games I’ve just watched, and I’m risking trespassing on BHaPPY’s territory, but here are five random observations (definitely not properly thought-through thunks) on today’s tonking of a lacklustre Charlton:

1) It was good to see six former Academy players in the matchday squad, even if five of them started on the bench. It may have been largely down to an unusual set of circumstances – a number of injuries combined with Slav’s banishment of a group of assorted ne’er-do-wells from the first-team squad – but it was pleasingly reminiscent of the Mackay/Dyche era, when homegrown talent was given a chance to shine. Nice to see George Byers make his debut, too. Slav doesn’t strike me as the sentimental type, so presumably he feels the player is a serious contender for future appearances.

2) Still on the subject of homegrown players, what did Tommy Hoban do to annoy his teammates in training this week? He was the recipient of far more awkward passes today than any player has a right to receive in a month, let alone a single game.

3) When the teams were read out for the first time at about 2.15, and Juan Carlos Paredes’ name was called, there was an audible exclamation of  “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” from somewhere behind me in the Rookery. An understandable reaction, given the Ecuadorian’s recent performances. He looked better going forward today – more decisive – but still made errors that might have been more expensive against a better team; getting caught in possession or out of position. He still feels like a luxury player in this league, rather than an essential selection.

4) Odion Ighalo: what can you say? He’s been getting better with every game, and today was the best I’ve seen him play. He’s developing a fantastic understanding with Troy that was demonstrated in numerous nifty interchanges of passes, and his pace, strength and speed of reaction make him a constant danger. It’s just a shame he didn’t quite manage a hat-trick.

5) Nothing’s ever perfect, and the one thing that spoiled the game for me was that period during the second half when Harry the Hornet started a Mexican wave. I’ve always hated this inane ritual, with its implication that whatever you’re watching isn’t entertaining enough and needs pepping up with some audience participation. It’s a professional football match, not a *&$%ing pantomime, and there are 22 players out there sweating their guts out. Frankly, doing a Mexican wave is a bit insulting to them. It may be that this was a one-off to celebrate Miguel Layun’s (excellent) home debut, in which case I’ll let it slide. God forbid this becomes a regular occurence at the Vic.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

‘Tales From The Vicarage: The Interviews’ by Lionel Birnie & Adam Leventhal

When I heard that the third volume in the excellent Tales From The Vicarage series was going to consist solely of interviews, I can’t pretend I wasn’t a little disappointed. I’m obviously a little biased, having contributed a mini-memoir of my Watford-supporting life to the first volume, but I’ve also enjoyed the other personal pieces in both the previous books – not to mention Olly Wicken’s highly original short stories.

What’s more, I have my reservations about the whole concept of interviews with footballers and football managers, as I explained in my review of the recent TFTV live event. A whole book of them sounded as if it might risk being a bit, well, monotonous.

Lionel Birnie and Adam Leventhal were obviously aware of this risk, and have done their best to vary the style and pace of the 11 interviews in the book. Thus, the Sean Dyche interview is divided into themed segments (‘The Man’, ‘The Player’, etc); Adam’s encounter with Paul Furlong is interspersed with vignettes of his 14-year-old self and his hero-worship of the striker; the Ray Lewington chapter is presented entirely in the manager’s own words as he tells the stories behind the major milestones of his eventful reign.

In the days when albums were the yardstick by which musicians were judged, it was said that you should always lead with your strongest song, and Lionel and Adam have heeded that advice. The Sean Dyche interview kicks off the book and it’s a riot. Having seen Dyche at both the live TFTV events, I sort of knew what to expect, but he’s still full of surprises – I’m still struggling to reconcile what I know of the man with his newly-revealed passion for high-quality footwear. Adam’s interview reveals a great deal about a likeable, witty but also deeply serious man who, if there’s any justice, will manage England one day.

The other highlights for me were interviews with players I haven’t heard much from before: Micah Hyde, who – among other things – gives his perspective on the issues facing prospective black managers (of which he is one), and David and Dean Holdsworth, identical twins who prove to be anything but in person.

There are no duds, though I get the impression that Ronnie Rosenthal wasn’t quite as forthcoming as some of the others. Then again, his role in Hornet history is a fairly minor one, albeit important at the time. If I have a gripe (and it’s a trivial one), it’s that too many of those featured had overlapping careers at Vicarage Road. The introduction claims that these stories span 30 years, but the Holdsworths are the only ones featured who played in the 1980s (both making their debut in 1988), and then it was another few years before Furlong and Hyde appeared.

As a journalist myself, I know as well as anyone that arranging an interview isn’t quite as straightforward as picking up the phone and saying “fancy a chat?” But if there are to be future volumes of the TFTV series – and I hope there are – then I’d like to hear from a few personalities from the 70s, or even earlier. There’s one name in particular that crops up in every interview with a player who came through the youth system in the late 70s and early 80s (and the Holdsworths tell a hilarious anecdote about him here): it’s about time we heard from Tom Walley in his own words.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Alternate title

A bonus for New Year’s Day – 10 Smiths songs that could equally well have served as the title for that last entry:

I want the one I can’t have
I started something I couldn’t finish
What difference does it make?
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before
Nowhere fast
You just haven’t earned it yet, baby
These things take time
There is a light that never goes out

Please, please, please let me get what I want

Some girls are bigger than others

How soon is now?

A new year has begun, but the situation for Watford fans is pretty much the same as it has been ever since the Pozzos arrived. Essentially, we are the footballing equivalent of a lovesick teenager, desperate to win over the object of our affection – glamorous, certainly, but not completely unobtainable. In theory, at least.

Seen in this light, the play-off final against Palace was the school end-of-year dance where she arrived as our date, but left with someone else. Last season she wasn’t really interested, despite a few promising moments. And this year we’re back on the rollercoaster, hope alternating with despair.

So the Wolves game last week was that day you bump into her in the street in the rain, can’t think of anything to say, and end up looking wet and foolish. The Cardiff game a few days later was the school trip where, after a slow start, you remember how to be clever and charming and she laughs at your jokes (four times), and suddenly all is right with the world again.

(To extend this simile into the near future, the FA Cup tie against Chelsea on Sunday is the posh dance where you’ve somehow been paired with the richest and most beautiful girl in school, and which is almost certain to end in your complete humiliation.)

Like any lovelorn sixth-former, we spend our spare time agonising over the details that might make all the difference. Should we wear our snazziest shirt to the party on Saturday night, or the smart but understated one? 3-5-2 or 4-3-3? Go all out to impress her or play it cool? Vydra or Ighalo? Decisions, decisions.

Ultimately, all we can do is keep up the pursuit, hoping that the stars will align and we will achieve our heart’s desire. And, just to complicate matters, there’s a dark suspicion at the back of our minds that if we do succeed, the reality won’t live up to the anticipation – but let’s pursue that thought another day. New Year’s Day is nothing if not a time to be hopeful.