Thursday, 1 October 2015

‘Tales From The Vicarage: Volume 4’ by Lionel Birnie

Founded in 1960, the group of French-speaking writers who called themselves Oulipo devoted themselves to writing fiction under certain constraints. Most famously, George Perec set himself the challenge of writing an entire novel without using the letter ‘e’.

Perec died a long time ago, but if he was still alive, I reckon I could set him a tougher challenge than that: try writing about pre-Pozzo-era Watford without mentioning Graham Taylor. Judging by TFTV4, I don’t think even Oulipo’s finest could have managed it.

Entertaining and illuminating snapshots of GT crop up throughout the latest volume in the excellent TFTV series. Here he is in 1983, “donning a three-piece suit, bowler hat and stick-on moustache” for a nostalgic friendly against Corinthian Casuals (a game I often think I dreamt, so I’m grateful to have independent verification that it actually took place). Here he is the following year, sitting in a room in an airport hotel in Glasgow, waiting nervously for John McClelland – who has just agreed to join the Hornets – to return from a room down the corridor, where he knows that Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson is trying to gazump him. Here is again in 1996, on his first day back at the club, giving all the players a piece of paper and a pen and telling them to pick a team for the next game (Tommy Mooney not only picks himself, but names himself as captain). And yet again in 1998, persuading Allan Smart to sign on the dotted line in a series of conversations and messages that make him feel “like the best player in the world”.

The credits for the TFTV series have shrunk over time, from the varied cast of writers employed for the first two volumes (myself included on Volume 1) to the two-handed, interview-themed Volume 3.  Volume 4 is a Lionel Birnie solo album, but it’s none the worse for that. That’s largely because of the variety of material covered in the 10 chapters, where extended interviews are interspersed with both topical material (the first three chapters are broadly themed around Watford’s journey to the Premier League) and more nostalgic digressions.

To be honest, the latter were my favourite parts of the book. For instance, the chapter on the friendly games of the early 80s (many of which I attended) makes you realise just how much less seriously professional football as a whole – and Watford in particular – took itself in those days. Can you imagine a team today going abroad to play a friendly just three days before the final game of the season, and one that would determine whether or not they won promotion? That’s what Watford did in May 1979, and that’s not even the strangest part of the story (which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t read the book yet).

I could go on, but you get the point. TFTV4, like its predecessors, is full of wonderful stories and intriguing insights into the club we all love. And pretty much every chapter underscores how lucky those of us of my generation are to have been Watford fans in a period that has encompassed both GT in his pomp (twice!) and the Pozzos.


Anonymous said...

I remember the friendly against Corinthian Casuals. It was in the season that the 4 step rule for goalkeepers had been introduced, and the first time Steve Sherwood got the ball ( from a back pass), he took great delight in running forward and backwards along the 18 yard line, bouncing the ball before hoofing it off into the night air!

Tim said...

I don't remember that bit, or indeed most of the details Lionel recounts. I do remember the old-style kit they wore, though.

Nick Corble said...

Still reading the book, but distinctly remember the game - in another Sherwood anecdote, I recall him bouncing the ball in an exaggerated way before booting it. Didn't GT come on and play?

Tim said...

Yes, that's in the book. And one of the players faked an injury so that Billy Hails could come on and administer the 'magic sponge'.

I wish someone had filmed the match. I'd love to see it again.