Tuesday, 28 December 2010


There’s no other word for it: this afternoon’s demolition of Cardiff City was simply stupendous. Add in a similarly stylish performance against QPR and the win against Leicester before that, and you have to conclude that this Watford team is in the middle of a purple patch.

There was so much to admire today: Will Buckley’s speed and trickery on the wing, leading to Lee Naylor’s humiliating substitution with less than half an hour gone; the strength and movement of Graham and Sordell up front; the tireless running and challenging of John Eustace and Jordan Mutch that stopped Cardiff ever dominating the midfield; and a solid 90 minutes from the whole back four, even if the Cardiff goal did highlight their unfortunate tendency to give opposing strikers too much room at times.

All this and not one but two penalties for the Hornets – and we even scored one of them, which is frankly remarkable. (Cudos to Danny Graham, too, for having the balls to take the second after making such a hash of the first.) Oh, and they actually scored three goals at the Rookery end, equalling the total for the season to date, I believe.

All in all, I haven’t enjoyed a football match so much in ages. As with last season, however it ends up (and I’m still not taking anything for granted), you have to give Malky credit for making Watford so damn good to watch.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Get with the programme, pt. 4

And so, finally, to Stamford Bridge for Chelsea v Watford on Saturday November 1st, 1986, a Today League First Division fixture. I have no memory of Eddie Shah’s long-since vanished newspaper sponsoring the league, but I remember the match. A 0-0 draw on a cold, grey autumn afternoon. A dull game, made worse by being forced by the police to wait inside the ground for ages afterwards, supposedly for the home fans to disperse – though we suspected it simply gave the local bovver boys time to get in place for an ambush. It was raining by that time, and then they switched the floodlights off, and I vividly remember a sense of over-riding grimness that corresponds to so many accounts of football in the dark days of the mid-80s.

This may well have been the first Watford game I travelled to from my own home, as opposed to my parents’. Having graduated the previous summer, I’d moved into my first shared house in the autumn, a few weeks after starting my first job. I suppose I still used my parents’ house in Bushey Heath to store stuff, though, which is why this programme was there.

Like I say, Stamford Bridge was a grim place in those days, and Chelsea were anything but a glamour club. Some of the names that lined up against the Hornets that day mean nothing to me at all now – Tony Godden, Darren Wood, Keith Jones. There are no fewer than three who would go on to play for Watford (Keith Dublin, Joe McLaughlin and Kerry Dixon), but the most impressive name on the team sheet to me is that of Pat Nevin, the punk rock-loving, NME-reading exception among professional footballers.

Both teams were near the bottom of the table at the time, but the most striking statistic is the average home attendance listed there: Watford’s was 17,009 (close to our best ever), but Chelsea’s was just 15,528. Chairman Ken Bates’s column is full of phrases that suggest a beleagured club: “John Hollins [the manager] has my full support”; “I want the players to know that I am totally behind them”; “We have enjoyed the good times, let’s stick together in the rough”; “As for the knockers – stuff them”. You tell ’em, Ken.

Instead, it’s the Watford team that is healthily stocked with internationals – Barnes, McClelland, Jackett – not to mention classy players like Tony Coton, David Bardsley and Kevin Richardson. Indeed, I remember that we were disappointed not to win that day. Yet when Watford were drawn away at Stamford Bridge – now the closest ground to my home – in the FA Cup 3rd Round last season, I didn’t even bother to go, so certain was I that we would be soundly thrashed. It’s ironic to think that we were the club that used to get slated for buying success through our millionaire owner…

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Get with the programme, pt. 3

Finally, a programme from a home game: Watford v Notts County, a Division 1 fixture from Saturday September 10th, 1983. I have no memory whatsoever of the match, which must have been one of the few I managed to see before going back to university for the start of my second year. I can tell you that we won 3-1 (I wrote the score on the team page, as I continued to do for many years), with goals from John Barnes, George Reilly and Charlie Palmer – the only one he ever scored for the Hornets, according to Trefor Jones’s Watford Football Club Illustrated Who’s Who.

The Notts County team that played that day is studded with familiar names: future managers Martin O’Neill and Nigel Worthington, legendary hardman Brian Kilcline, a sprinkling of foreign exotics – Aki Lahtinen, John Chiedozie, Rachid Harkouk – and the late lamented Justin Fashanu. It’s odd, looking at the league table in the programme, to see County ahead of their local rivals, but behind ours – now a non-league club, of course.

Although the County game was Watford’s first win of the season, the really significant fixture was the next one: the first leg of the UEFA Cup 1st round tie at Kaiserslautern the following Wednesday. Graham Taylor’s editorial is headed ‘Many thanks – now Europe’ and he spends much of it appealing for Watford fans not to disgrace themselves in Germany. Very much a sign of the times, when hooliganism was at its height.

Meanwhile, the fixtures page is mostly taken up with details of travel packages still available for fans wanting to go to the tie. Prices range from £47 for an economy coach trip to £135, which gets you a charter flight from Luton to Saarbrücken, a night in a hotel and a continental breakfast. I wish I’d had the money, or just the gumption, to make the trip (I was studying German – maybe I should have offered my services to the club as a translator), but I stayed home and listened on the radio instead.

The programme as a whole is a lively affair, though surprisingly thin. It’s printed half in colour and half in black and white, and whoever planned the layout doesn’t appear to have thought it through. Thus the reserve team report (with no pictures) and the kit sponsors page are in colour, while the pictorial spread on the recent Open Day, and another two pages of photos from recent games, are in mono.

The overall impression, though, is of confidence: from the large logo on the front cover to the bold yellow and black on the back, this is the programme of a club that knows what it’s achieved and is proud of it. And why not? We’d never had it so good.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Get with the programme, pt. 2

I remember more about this one: Hillingdon Borough v Watford in the 2nd Round of the FA Cup on Saturday December 11th, 1976. I went with a schoolfriend and his dad, who drove us there; it may well have been my first Watford away match. It was freezing cold – much like today, in fact – and I have a very clear memory of sitting in the car after the game, listening to the other FA Cup scores on the radio as we queued to get out of the ‘car park’ (a rutted field at one end of the ground) and waited for the ice on the windows to melt.

I remember the game, too. We were stood directly behind one of the goals (the Leas Stadium didn’t run to terraces), and Andy Rankin let in a soft goal right in front of us. It may well have been an equaliser, but the Hornets eventually won 3-2 against the Southern League side to go through to the 3rd Round – where we lost to another non-league outfit, Northwich Victoria, by the same score on an even colder day in January 1977. I can still picture myself huddled against the radiator in my bedroom, listening to the result on the radio.

The Hillingdon programme is written in an appealingly gauche style. “Here’s to an exciting win with preferably Boro’ going into the hat for the third round draw,” it says in the introduction (the pages aren’t numbered), while the Blues Corner column (written by ‘The Voice’) adds that “after the way our boys played against Torquay there is every valid reason for us to look forward to another league scalp”.

The gaucheness extends to the adverts. Who could resist ‘Dancing in the social hall’ on Saturday 18th December from 9pm to 11pm with Tangent, or the Christmas Eve Special from 9pm to midnight with Midnight Riders? Presumably these acts came from the Norman Jackson Agency, prominently advertised on the inside front cover: ‘For Dance bands, Hawaiian, Steel and Gypsy bands, beat groups, discotheques, toastmasters, folk groups and all forms of cabaret. Speciality: Stag shows and hen parties.’ The fact that they were still hiring out ‘beat groups’ less than a fortnight after the Sex Pistols’ notoriously sweary appearance on Bill Grundy’s ITV teatime show is almost impossibly quaint.

Mike Keen’s Watford team that day included players who would go on to play an important part in the glory years, such as Keith Pritchett and Roger Joslyn, but also long-forgotten journeymen like Tony Geidmintis and Peter Coffill. The ‘pen pictures’ give the birthplaces of the 18-man squad, and they’re all in London or the Home Counties, apart from Andy Rankin (Liverpool), Terry Eades (Cambridge), Arthur Horsfield (Newcastle) and Bobby Downes (Bloxwich).

As for Hillingdon Borough, they went bust in the late 80s, though they’ve since been resurrected and now play in the Spartan South Midlands League alongside the likes of Oxhey Jets and Tring Athletic. Still, as the programme I have in front of me notes, they did beat Luton Town 2-1 in the 2nd Round of the FA Cup in 1969, and you’ve got to say hats off to them for that, if nothing else.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Get with the programme, pt. 1

I was at my Mum’s house the other day, and under my boyhood bed I found four random football programmes – I suppose they must have become detached from the bulk of my collection when it got moved up to the attic. The arbitrary nature of the discovery appeals to me, and over the next few days I’m going to write about each in turn, taking them in chronological order.

The funny thing about football programmes is that they have two distinct periods of usefulness. They give you something to read on the day of the match when you’re waiting for the teams to emerge, and then, years later, you can return to them and wallow in nostalgia. In between, in my experience, they are completely useless; I can’t remember ever having cause to refer to a recent programme, or even one from a recent season.

The appeal of old programmes isn’t just nostalgia, of course. There’s also something vaguer which you might sum up as ‘the benefit of hindsight’. For example, my junior school used to organise class trips to watch England Schoolboys play at Wembley, which was great fun; but it was only on examining the programmes years later that I discovered that I had seen the teenaged Ray Wilkins, among others, in action.

So it is with my first programme: Brighton & Hove Albion v York City, a 3rd Division match that took place on September 4th, 1971. My grandparents lived in Southwick, just outside Hove, and we used to go and stay with them for one weekend a month. Dad took me to this match on one of those weekends. It was less than a year after my first visit to Vicarage Road, and I must have been eager to grasp any opportunity of seeing a game.

My only memory of the occasion is a vague impression of the Goldstone as a pretty ramshackle ground – and this nearly 30 years before it was finally demolished. Still, Brighton were doing well, topping the Division 3 table at this early stage of the season. A quick scan of the teams on the back page doesn’t reveal any familiar names, but there is one in the York squad listed on page 5: Albert Johanneson, described here as “popular South African-born player who signed from Leeds United where he spent nine seasons”, but best known now for being the first high-profile black player to feature in the English league. See what I mean about hindsight?

There’s also a certain historical irony about the lead item in the ‘3rd Div Focus’ on page 7. “Halifax Town were disappointed about the departure of manager George Kirby to Second Division Watford,” it begins. “But there were no hard feelings. New chairman, Nottingham businessman Mr Arthur Smith has promised that the club will make a presentation to Mr Kirby in recognition of the splendid years [sic] work which resulted in Halifax finishing third in the table last season.” Sadly, Kirby’s time at Vicarage Road was to prove anything but splendid, and I doubt that anyone there was disappointed to see him go.

I could go on all night – the ads alone deserve their own post – but I will merely note that, according to Dad’s pencilled half-time scores, Chelsea and Coventry were drawing 3-3 after 45 minutes that day (sounds like a belter), while Albion’s rivals in Division 3 that year included three current Premiership clubs: Aston Villa, Blackburn and Bolton. It really was a very long time ago.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

‘Enjoy The Game’ by Lionel Birnie

When Graham Taylor arrived at Vicarage Road in the summer of 1977, I was 14 years old. When I took my O levels, Watford had just clinched promotion to Division Two, and I was on my gap year when they made the final step up to Division One. So for me, as for many Watford fans, Enjoy The Game is the story of my formative years.

Although its subtitle is ‘Watford Football Club: The Story of the Eighties’, Enjoy The Game is really the story of Graham Taylor’s first 10-year spell at the club, from 1977 to 1987; the rest of the decade is rushed through in double-quick time. Not that I’m complaining. If reading the first 300 pages is like wallowing in a warm bath, the final 40 are the literary equivalent of an icy shower.

In writing a book about the most successful period in the Hornets’ history, Lionel Birnie is pushing against an open door when it comes to winning over middle-aged Watford fans like me. But it’s worth pointing out that Enjoy The Game is an excellent book, expertly structured and written in a fluent, unobtrusive style that lets the story take precedence.

Birnie’s best decision was to base his story on the primary sources. So the bulk of the narrative is carried by candid and revealing interviews with the players who created history: not just the stars (Bolton, Blissett, Jenkins and many more), but also bit-part players such as Charlie Palmer and Neil Price.

There are fascinating insights from the management team, too, especially Graham Taylor, who is predictably frank throughout. I was particularly intrigued by his admission that he screwed up by naming the starting eleven for the 1984 FA Cup final a week in advance; he subsequently wanted to change the team, but realised he couldn’t go back on his word. Who would he have dropped, and who would he have replaced them with? I suspect we’ll never know.

More impressively still, Birnie seeks out voices that can tell the other side of the story. A number of Everton players provide a new perspective on the FA Cup final; bogeymen Dave Bassett and Trevor Senior tell their side of the six months that sealed Watford’s fate in 1987/88; and there’s even an interview with Roger Milford – the referee who denied Wilf Rostron a place in the Cup final, and then robbed the Hornets of a place in the semis of the same competition two years later. Predictably, Milford still thinks he was right on both counts, and I still hate him. But I do also respect him for taking the time to talk to a writer who might have been expected to have an axe to grind.

Borne along by judiciously chosen extracts from these interviews, the story proceeds at a brisk pace. Every now and then Birnie changes gear and inserts a chapter on a particular topic: how the fearsome Tom Walley nurtured the youth team, for example, or Watford’s pioneering role as a ‘family club’.

Quibbles? I’d have liked an index, though I understand why this wasn’t practical. I only spotted one factual error – moustachioed winger Bobby Downes is confused with his Wimbledon namesake, Wally – and a handful of typographical lapses, but certainly not enough to spoil my enjoyment of the book.

Ultimately, much of that enjoyment comes from sharing in the happy memories of the players and staff. I particularly like the story of the day GT told the squad they were going to start their regular cross-country run with a walk. He duly led them to his home near Cassiobury Park, where his wife, Rita, was waiting to serve the players tea and cakes. It’s anecdotes like this that demonstrate why Watford was such a special club in the Eighties – not just to support, but to play for as well.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Everything I know is wrong

I’ve started reading Lionel Birnie’s excellent, evocative book Enjoy The Game, and I’ll post a proper review when I finish it. On the train home this evening, I started the chapter which tells the story of the legendary 7-1 League Cup win against Southampton, and when I got to the bit when Nigel Callaghan talks about looking up at Vicarage Road after he scored his goal and seeing a bus stopped there with everyone on the top deck celebrating, I suddenly found I had something in my eye…

But here’s the thing. For as long as I can remember, I’ve told everyone who cared to listen that when Watford achieved that epic win, we were in the Third Division. That’s how I’ve always remembered it, and I’m rather taken aback to find out now that we were actually in our second season in the Second Division at the time. I wonder what else I’ve been wrong about all these years?

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Fortune vomits on my eiderdown once more

I was fully intending to go to tonight’s game against Ipswich, until the FPO phoned up in distress at about four o’clock and persuaded me that I was urgently needed elsewhere. So it was no surprise to me that Watford won: clearly, it was because I wasn’t there.

Indeed, it is now mid-October and I still haven’t seen a Watford victory this season. I’ve been to every home game bar three – and two of those have been our only home wins. I didn’t even get to see us beat Norwich on live TV, as I was on holiday abroad at the time.

The bad news is that, unless another extreme emergency occurs, I will be at the Scunthorpe game on Saturday. Sorry everyone.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The rivals

It all started innocently enough, with an email from my Brentford-supporting friend Stuart. He’d just worked out that the Bees had played more league games against Southend than any other club, and idly wondered if I knew who Watford’s most frequent opponents had been.

I didn’t, of course, but I had to find out. So, taking his tip and using statto.com, I spent a lunch hour at work looking up how many times Watford had played a variety of opponents – all the teams I could think of who had a shot of making the top 10, basically. I reckoned it had to be a club who we’d have played in the days of Division Three (South), where we spent nearly 40 of our 90 years in the Football League, so I didn’t bother with anyone north of Coventry.

It struck me in the process that this ought to be a fairly good guide as to who Watford’s natural rivals are. After all, most of the great derbies are fought out on a regular basis; think of those in Liverpool, Manchester, north London and so on. Conversely, even teams in the same city can cease to hate each other if they never meet; Nottingham Forest, for example, regard Derby County as the sworn enemy, while Notts County have presumably been forced to forge a rivalry with Mansfield Town, or another vaguely local club who tend to play in the same division as them most seasons.

This is all extremely relevant right now, given that our so-called rivals aren’t even in the Football League any more. I for one would be very happy to forget all about Luton and embrace new emnities.

So, without, further ado, here are the five (well, seven actually, because of ties) teams Watford have played most often in the Football League – in reverse order, naturally, for dramatic effect:

5= Brighton, Crystal Palace & Reading – 92 meetings
4 Bournemouth – 94
3 Southend – 98
2 Swindon – 100
1 Queen’s Park Rangers – 104

(Luton, incidentally, are way down the list with 76 league meetings, and don’t even make the top 10.)

I find this rather pleasing, as I’ve often thought QPR would make excellent arch-rivals. I know other league clubs are closer as the crow flies, but Rangers are the ones we tend to play most seasons, as the statistic shows. And although it was before my time, I believe that during the 1960s they were seen as our sworn enemies, before they became First Division regulars and thus literally out of our league.

Maybe that’s going to happen again, if their early-season form holds. All the more reason to get in there now – there’s nothing like a hefty dose of jealousy to stoke a good rivalry.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Memories are made of this

While I’m in reflective mode, I thought it was about time I came up with a list of the five most memorable games I’ve attended in my 40 years as a Watford fan. It says something about how spoilt we Hornets have been in that period that I’ve been able to leave out an FA Cup final, several semi-finals and promotion-clinching matches, three UEFA Cup ties and two 8-0 victories!

5) Arsenal 1 Watford 3, FA Cup 6th round, 14/3/87
Of all the glorious FA Cup ties I’ve witnessed, this is the one I remember most vividly – more so than the semi-finals, which were generally anti-climactic (or, in the case of the one game we actually won, unbearably tense). I’ve written about the game at Highbury before, but it’s worth repeating the sheer exhilaration of watching Luther Blissett steaming towards the Watford fans in the Clock End in the final minutes, completely alone (the Arsenal team up the other end having stopped in expectation of a whistle that never came), and scoring the third goal that sealed victory.

4) Watford 4 Bolton Wanderers 3, Division 1, 23/10/93
Doubly memorable, both as the last Watford match my younger brother (a West Ham fan, for reasons I’ll go into another time) attended with me, and as the greatest comeback I’ve ever witnessed. After an hour, Bolton were 3-0 up and Watford hadn’t had a shot. The atmosphere in the ground was flat as we waited patiently for the referee to put us out of our misery. Except that it didn’t work out that way. A scrambled Gary Porter goal heralded the start of a miraculous recovery, which Porter fittingly finished with a last-minute penalty, to seal the only hat-trick of his long Watford career and a 4-3 victory. I could tell that Chris was impressed, despite himself.

3) Watford 4 Hull City 0, Division 3, 14/5/79
As I say, we’ve been spoilt, especially in terms of promotion games, but this is the one that stands out for me. Watford went into the game needing a win to be sure of promotion (having been top for most of the season, before a late wobble), but it turned out we needn’t have worried. On a gloriously sunny spring evening, the goals came easily (Blissett, Jenkins, Bolton, Joslyn – a roll call of heroes of the Golden Age) to seal promotion to the Second Division for only the second time in the club’s history. At the end, I ventured onto the hallowed turf for the first time to join the jubilant throng in front of the Main Stand.

2) Watford 2 Bolton Wanderers 0, Championship Play-Off Final, 31/5/99
I didn’t have to look up the date of this one, for the simple reason that it was two days after my father’s death from a sudden heart attack. I talked it through with Mum and there didn’t seem to be any reason why that should stop me going to Wembley (as it was a bank holiday weekend, it wasn’t possible to start taking care of the formalities until the following day anyway), so Watford’s big day was one of churning emotions for me. Nicky Wright’s overhead kick was special, but it was Allan Smart’s second goal that did it for me, as I cheered and cried simultaneously. Football as catharsis? No question about it.

1) Watford 7 Southampton 1, League Cup 2nd Round, 2nd Leg, 2/9/80
When I started thinking about this list, I knew at once what would be number one. How could it be anything else? Having attended the depressing 4-0 defeat in the 1st leg, I went to this game with low expectations, only to be blown away by the best display of sustained attacking football I’d ever seen, even from a Watford team that had come to specialise in such things. Unless my memory is playing tricks, I watched this from the terracing in front of the Shrodells Stand, because I’m sure I kept looking at the electronic scoreboard to check that the score really was what I thought it was. In a typically innovative move, the club handed out yellow biros at the next home game that had ‘Watford 7 Southampton 1’ printed down the side, and I still haven’t quite got over the loss of mine.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

It was 40 years ago today

In an ideal world, my first Watford game would have been one of the greatest in the club’s history. But the truth is that until Watford were drawn at home to Liverpool in the quarter-finals of the 1970 FA Cup, I wasn’t even aware that there was a professional club in the area.

Where I grew up, in Bushey Heath, all my friends in the playground supported the big London 1st Division sides: Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea. Indeed, on the basis that my best friend when I was six was a Spurs fan, I decided that I was too. I even persuaded Mum to buy me a white football shirt and sew a Tottenham badge onto it. (The replica shirt business was still in its infancy.)

Then came that FA Cup draw and I realised that professional football wasn’t just something that happened in places I couldn’t possibly visit. We went to Watford every Saturday morning to do our shopping; surely Dad could take me there to see a football match, too?

Sadly, he demurred. I can’t remember his excuse, but it was probably something to do with the difficulty of getting tickets. He did, however, mollify me with a promise to take me to a game later in the year. And thus it was that, instead of seeing Watford beat Liverpool 1-0 to reach the FA Cup semi-final for the first time in their history, my introduction to the Golden Boys was a 0-0 draw against Carlisle United on September 12th, 1970.

In some ways, the matchday experience hasn’t changed much in 40 years. Yesterday, as in 1970, I parked in Watford Fields and walked over the railway bridge, along Cardiff Road, and then up Occupation Road to the ground, past the allotments. Then, as now, Watford were one of the poorer, less fancied teams in the second tier of English football, having finished 19th out of 22 clubs the previous season (at the end of which, incidentally, Blackpool had been promoted to the top tier). Even the result was the same.

In 1970, Dad and I sat in the Main Stand Extension. Now I sit in the Rookery, encased as it is in low-cost housing for nurses, having tried all four sides of the ground in the interim. At least the Extension is still there, and I spent some of the duller moments of the first half yesterday trying to identify the seat where I first experienced live football – or at least, what I could see of it round the pillars that held up the stand and through Dad’s pipe smoke, which always seemed to blow in my face those first few seasons.

My memories of that first game are chiefly of colour: the orange of the seats, the green of the pitch, the golden yellow of the Watford shirts, the royal blue of the opposition’s. (For a while I laboured under the misapprehension that all Watford’s opponents had to wear blue shirts and white shorts, as my next two games after Carlisle were against Cardiff and Birmingham.) The noise, too, made an impression on me – though in retrospect, I doubt that the crowd of 10,462 (I just looked it up) got too worked up over a nil-nil draw.

I wonder if it ever occurred to Dad, when he took me to the match that autumn day, what an important role Watford FC would come to play in my life (and, indeed, just how much money I would spend following them)? Probably not - he was more of a rugby man, though he claimed to have spent some time on the terraces at Sincil Bank in his younger days in Lincoln. Anyway, he’s not around to ask any more. I’m just grateful that he indulged my boyhood wish. I hope he knew that.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The myth of home advantage

[NB: this article also appears in the current edition of Clap Your Hands, Stamp Your Feet]

There’s no such thing as home advantage.

There, I’ve said it, and now I feel like that kid in the fairy story who notices that the emperor is parading around in his birthday suit. But can I really be the only person to have questioned the assumption that it’s somehow easier for the home team to win a game of football than it is for the away team?

I can tell you’re going take some convincing, so let’s run through the factors generally viewed as contributing to the phenomenon of home advantage:

The pitch
I’m sure there are plenty of park pitches where there’s a genuine advantage to be gained by knowing, say, that there’s a large pothole over by the corner flag that’s never been properly filled in, or that one side of the pitch is liable to turn into the Somme after five minutes of light drizzle.

But at the professional level, pitches are much of a muchness, generally well tended and flat. Ever where there are local variations, it’s hard to see how this gives an advantage to the home team. Take Vicarage Road. Does playing on a boggy quagmire once a fortnight during the winter months help the Hornets? I rest my case.

The ground
We’ve all heard about the dastardly ruses teams employ to cause their visitors maximum discomfort: ‘forgetting’ to turn the hot water on in the away dressing room, neglecting to mend the wonky leg on the massage table and so on.

Maybe this really does have an effect. But you’d have to hope that professional sportsmen, with all the expensive training and psychological conditioning they receive, can rise above the trauma of having to wait a bit longer than usual for their pre-match massage.

The travelling
On the face of it, this is more plausible. We all know what it’s like sitting on a coach for three hours, and it’s easy to imagine that by the time you get off, the last thing you feel like doing is playing a game of football against a bunch of players who’ve just strolled over to the ground from their nearby homes.

But that’s not how it works, is it? For one thing, players don’t live locally any more. To give just one example, during his playing days, Alec Chamberlain lived in Northampton – so when we played Luton* at Vicarage Road, he had to travel further to get there than they did. Did he therefore forfeit home advantage on an individual basis? It’s a nonsense.

The idea that travelling in itself puts you at a disadvantage would be more acceptable if it wasn’t assumed to apply equally across the board. When Liverpool play Everton, they can get there by ambling across Stanley Park if they want. Dundee and Dundee United are famously sited on the same street, and it’s not that long. So why is the away team at a disadvantage in that fixture?

The crowd
Ah yes, the famous ‘12th man’, the passionate home crowd that can spur on a team to great heights. And I don’t doubt that this is true, sometimes at least.

But shouldn’t that logically mean that the clubs with the loudest, most fanatical supporters ought to win everything? Clubs like Newcastle, Man City, Sunderland, Wolves... By the same token, the grounds where the singing is occasional and tentative ought to offer easy points to the visitors – grounds like the Emirates and Old Trafford, for example.

So the idea that having the home crowd on your side gives you an automatic advantage is plainly tosh. Again, look at Vicarage Road. Yes, we can make a bit of noise when the mood takes us, but I don’t believe that any footballer ever looks at the fixture list and shudders at the thought of having to play in front of the naked aggression of the Upper Rous.

Above all, it’s hard to take the concept of home advantage seriously when it’s applied so indiscriminately. If someone came up with a formula that took into account the distance the away team had to travel, the average decibel level generated by the home crowd and other factors, and then calculated the home advantage as a percentage, say, then I might be prepared to accept it.

Now I know what you’re going to say: if there’s no such thing as home advantage, why are there more home wins than away wins most weeks? The answer brings us to the crux of the problem, and the reason that it matters: tactics.

The myth of home advantage relieves managers of the stress of having to think too much. If you’re at home, you know you’re expected to win, so you line up in an attacking formation and batter the opposition until they concede. If you’re away, you play defensively, avoid taking risks and hope you might snatch a goal on the break. The reason there are more home wins is that most away teams’ defences simply aren’t good enough to withstand the pressure they’re put under.

In an ideal world, I’d take one of those memory-wiping devices Will Smith used in Men In Black and use it on every footballer and every manager to rid them of the notion that there is any such thing as home advantage. Then they’d be forced to approach every match on its own merits – work out how to neutralise the opposition’s best players and devise a system that allowed their own to shine.

For proof of how this can work in practice, think back to the 2006 Championship Play-Off Final. On neutral territory in Cardiff, Aidy Boothroyd went toe-to-toe with Kevin Blackwell, and only one of them got their tactics right. Imagine how much more fun football would be if you could turn up every week and have no idea how each team was going to play.

*Come on, you must remember them. They’re a non-league club now, but they used to be quite big.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The benefits of being boring

There’s an article in the latest edition of the ever-excellent When Saturday Comes in which a Coventry fan bemoans the (remarkable) fact than in the last 40 years, the Sky Blues have never finished in the top six of any division. They spent years battling relegation from the top division, and since they finally succumbed, they’ve been similarly mediocre in the Championship.

Coincidentally, 40 years is also the amount of time I’ve been following Watford, and we’ve finished in the top six of various divisions a total of eight times in that period. Partly as a result, the longest period we’ve spent in a single division since 1970 is the eight seasons from 1988/89 to 1995/96 when were in what was initially called Division Two, then League One (and is now the Championship, of course).

The naming system isn’t the only thing that’s changed in English football since the early 90s. I haven’t got the time (or the energy) to go into the financial inequalities that increase with each passing year, but suffice to say that they’ve led me to an uncomfortable conclusion: we need to beat that record.

Promotion to the Premiership is clearly not a good thing for a club like Watford. Twice we’ve gone up, and twice we’ve been driven to the brink of financial ruin as a direct result. A third time might finish us off, at least in our current financial circumstances.

Relegation to League One is equally undesirable. The idea of going down, rediscovering the joy of being one of the big clubs in the division, and coming back stronger, is a nice one, but it’s not always that simple – look how long it’s taken Leeds. And the latest change to parachute payments means the gap between the Championship and League One is only going to get bigger.

So what Watford need is a nice long stay in the Championship: 10 years ought to do it. That would give us time to complete the financial reorganisation that already seems to be fairly well advanced, and then to re-establish the club on a sustainable footing. That will depend largely on the Harefield academy producing a steady stream of young players who can contribute to the first team for a few seasons before being sold on for a fee to a bigger club. The model that Dario Gradi established at Crewe, in other words.

Boring? Perhaps. Unambitious? Well, no, actually. Because I think the football bubble is going to burst in the next few years, and the chances are that some professional clubs are going to go to the wall. I’ll be happy to witness 10 years of mid-table stability (hopefully leavened by the occasional cup run) if it means the club is still there to compete at the end of it. And that is a worthwhile ambition, in my book.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

We’ve (still) got Lloydinho

As usual, it falls to me at this time of year to name my favourite Watford player. And as usual, it’s Lloyd Doyley. Need I say more?

Well, apparently I do. A couple of weeks ago I read a comment on WML about the threadbare nature of our squad (no argument there) which said something like, “If Hodson gets injured, we’ve only got Doyley as back-up”. It seems that after 300-odd first-team appearances, there are still some Hornets fans who haven’t realised that Lloyd is the best defender at the club, has been for several seasons now, and hopefully will be for a few more years to come.

Indeed, I confidently expect to be writing much the same blog post this time in 2013, by which time Lloyd will still only be around 30. After all, that big move to the Premiership probably isn’t going to happen now, and anyway, why would we sell our best (and best-loved) defender?

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Watford win European Cup!

And the season before that they did the Premiership and League Cup double. Well, they did on my computer, anyway. I’ve been spending an excessive amount of time recently playing the Excel version of Championship Manager. Someone sent it round the office where I worked a few years ago, and a couple of weeks ago I found it online and downloaded it again.

For those who haven’t seen the game, it’s a far better demonstration of the power of Excel than anything work-related I’ve ever seen. You start off at the bottom of the 4th division and work your way up the leagues, using gate receipts to build up your transfer funds and increase the ratings of your players. But there’s enough randomness build into the program to ensure frustrating defeats to teams with hugely inferior rankings.

It’s not going to keep me occupied much longer: in my ninth season, I’ve already run out of players to buy and won almost everything that’s on offer, though I’m still chasing that elusive quadruple. But if you’re looking for a simple, free game to while away the long summer nights, I recommend it. Just Google ‘Championship Manager Excel’ and you’ll find it.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Random World Cup memories no.2

1970 was Year Zero as far as my football education was concerned. True, I was aware of the professional game – I even professed to be a Tottenham fan for a couple of years, on the basis that my best friend in the playground at Merry Hill Infants said he was one, so I wanted to be one too.

Then Watford reached the FA Cup quarter-final and I suddenly realised there was a proper club right near where I lived. Dad wouldn’t take me to the Liverpool game, but I read in the paper the next day that Watford had won and would play Chelsea in the semi-final. That was the first game I ever listened to on the radio, and it set a painful precedent (fleeting hope, swiftly replaced by despair) that has been repeated many times since.

But by the end of the 1969-70 season, I still hadn’t actually seen a live game of football, either in person or on TV. The former would have to wait for the autumn, but in the meantime there was the World Cup in Mexico. I watched England’s group games in all their technicolor glory, not fully understanding what was going on but gripped nevertheless.

Then came the quarter-final against West Germany. It was great – England were 2-0 up at half-time, and to my eight-year-old mind, nothing could possibly go wrong. Of course, it did, horribly so. Alf Ramsey took Bobby Charlton off to rest him for the semi-final, substitute keeper Peter Bonetti had a mare (Gordon Banks having succumbed to food poisoning), and the Germans won 3-2 after extra time. And thus was established a pattern that’s been repeating itself ever since, with subtle variations each time.

So forgive me if I can’t get too worked up over England’s latest debacle against the Germans. I’ve seen it all before.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Random World Cup memories no.1

Watching Jay Demerit playing for the USA against England just now reminded me of the first time I ever saw a Watford player in the World Cup.

It was the summer of 1982 and I was living in a village in (West) Germany called Rüchheim, just outside Ludwigshafen, where I was supposedly perfecting my German, prior to going to university, by working in a printing works. (All that really happened was that I acquired a Rhineland accent, which is roughly the equivalent of a nice middle-class boy from Berlin coming to the UK and learning to speak English like Noddy Holder.) It was a miserable, lonely few months for a teenager who’d never spent more than a fortnight away from home before, but at least the owners of the house where I was boarding allowed me to watch their TV occasionally.

It wasn’t an offer I took them up on very often (if you’ve ever seen German television, you’ll understand why), but when the World Cup rolled around I was grateful. Which is how I came to be watching when Northern Ireland played Spain in a fateful group match. And when Gerry Armstrong scored what turned out to be the only goal of the game, I practically leapt out of my seat. “Der spielt für meine Mannschaft - für Watford!” I gibbered, flabbergasted at seeing a Watford player not only appearing in the World Cup (and I’m pretty sure he was the first one ever to do so), but playing a leading role there. I spent the rest of the match trying to explain to my baffled hosts why I was so excited.

Since then I’ve seen John Barnes come within a whisker of putting England level against Argentina (‘hand of god’ notwithstanding), but apart from that, Watford-related World Cup highlights have been thin on the ground. The funny thing is, I can’t remember a single goal Gerry Armstrong scored for Watford, even though I must have seen plenty of them.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

All’s well that ends well

Random thoughts from a very welcome final home win of the season:
  • Lucky for us that Reading had already left for their summer hols, mentally at least. The last time I saw such slack defending, Watford were doing it
  • Danny Graham may never get a better chance to score a hat-trick; it’s a good thing the two shots he volleyed high over the bar didn’t affect the final score
  • The Mexican wave has no place in a football ground, and I will refuse until my dying day to take part in one
  • And those red, yellow and black balloons someone in the Rookery blew up in the second half and chucked around were fun for about two minutes, and then became extremely annoying
  • I wonder what Arsène Wenger thinks about Henri Lansbury? He sent us a promising, ball-playing midfielder, and after nine months at Vicarage Road he’s about to take return delivery of a first-rate hoofer - some of Henri’s clearances upfield yesterday were positively agricultural. I blame the pitch
  • I really hope that’s not the last time I see Heidar Helguson in a Watford shirt, but I fear it will be. For what it’s worth, I’d sign him like a shot if it were feasible: with his injury record, he’s unlikely to be available for a full season, but he’s worth a place in the squad for his effect on opposing defenders alone

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Hope reborn?

I said in my last post that I couldn’t see the Hornets winning another game this season: I’m happy to be have been proved wrong this afternoon. It was scrappy and ugly, and Plymouth offered precious little in the way of resistance (it’s odd to see an opposing team play with even less confidence than Watford), but still, a win’s a win.

As it stands, the maximum possible target for safety is 54 points (the most that Sheffield Wednesday, in the last relegation place, can get), which would meaning winning two of our last four games. Then again, if we beat Leicester next week and Wednesday lose (they’ve got their derby against United, incidentally – not a good time to be playing your arch rivals), our real points total and their maximum possible will be the same, making us as good as safe. Statistics can be comforting sometimes, can’t they?

Finally, in the style of Match Of The Day 2, here’s my ‘2 Good, 2 Bad’ from today’s game:

2 Good – Dale Bennett. God, that boy is a good defender. I think he won every single header he contested, and dealt with everything that came his way simply and effectively. I’ve never been so reassured by the presence of a teenage centre-back.
2 Bad – Liam Henderson. Has there ever been a Watford substitute whose arrival on the pitch leads to such a collective lowering of expectations? That was his 21st substitute appearance, and I honestly can’t remember him doing a single thing in any of those games that led me to believe he’s ever going to be worth a place in the starting line-up. I know it’s tough, being sent onto the pitch with 10 or 15 minutes to go with instructions to make things difficult for opposing defenders (at least, that’s what I imagine Malky tells him) – but does he have to do it in such a lumpen, clumsy and downright incompetent fashion?

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The death of hope

In the 15 minutes between the end of the first half of tonight’s game against Palace and the start of the second, all the hope drained out of me. It was the strangest thing. Like everyone else, I’d spent the first half leaping out of my seat every couple of minutes, clapping and singing and yelling and generally trying my damnedest to spur the Golden Boys on to glory.

And when none of it worked, something inside of me just gave up the ghost, in tacit acknowledgement that this was it. Those 45 minutes had been our chance to save our season, and we hadn’t taken it. I can’t pretend to have foreseen the second and third Palace goals, but they didn’t come as a surprise either.

It’s odd, because I’m normally a glass-half-full person when it comes to Watford, able to glimpse hope in the darkest hour. But during the second half tonight, I couldn’t even raise the energy to clap or shout. I wasn’t the only one, either. When Danny Graham scored our consolation goal, most of the people around me didn’t even stand up to celebrate. (I did, out of some kind of residual reflex.)

Maybe I’ll feel differently by the time the next home game rolls around. But right now, that feels like the defining game of our season.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Bees hate Hornets

My friend Stuart, who is a Brentford fan, sent me an email a few days ago headed ‘33 years of hurt’; apparently March 23rd, 1977 was the date of Brentford’s most recent victory over Watford.

This matters a lot to Stuart, who regards Watford as one of Brentford’s natural rivals. It’s not just the similarity in the town names and nicknames; when we both started watching football, in the mid-70s, Brentford and Watford played each other a lot as we both bounced around the bottom two divisions. Back then, they had the greater claim to being a big club, having spent some years in the First Division before World War Two, while we were still trying in vain to escape the Third Division (South).

Brentford’s ongoing inability to beat Watford is one reason they harbour a grudge against us. The other is the quality of the ex-Hornets who have subsequently pitched up at Griffin Park. To this day, I only have to mention the name Ian Bolton to send Stuart into a lather. Evidently GT extracted every drop of talent and effort from Bolton before selling him to the Bees, because the hapless figure Brentford fans remember bears no relation to the defensive colossus we hold dear to our hearts.

Since then, a steady stream of former Watford players have enjoyed (if that’s the right word) inauspicious spells at Brentford. They currently have Lionel Ainsworth and Toumani Diagouraga on loan (neither of them any closer to being the finished article than when they left us, by all accounts), while Steve Kabba has been shipped out on loan to Burton Albion. The only honourable exception to this dismal litany is Dean Holdsworth, who established himself as a goalscoring hero at Griffin Park.

So while we smugly patronise non-league Luton (and I confess I smiled as I typed that) and idly debate who we should now regard as our arch rivals, spare a thought for Brentford fans, who may well be secretly hoping our current struggles continue, and that they finally get a chance to end their 33-year wait for a win over Watford next season.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Commercial break

If you’re reading this, the chances are that you’re a Watford fan, which means that you may enjoy my new novel, First Time I Met The Blues.

The story starts in 1964, when three teenagers meet on the terraces at Vicarage Road. Bonding over their shared love of football and music, they form a blues band, and the novel charts their erratic progress over the next 25 years.

As the title suggests, the book is more concerned with music than football. But supporting Watford is a thread that runs through the central characters’ lives, to differing degrees – and that leads directly to a pivotal moment in the lives of one of them.

If you’re interested in finding out more, check out my other blog, First Time I Met The Blues, which also forms part of my website. And if you like the sound of it, please buy a copy while you’re there.

And that’s the end of the commercial break. Normal service (ie inconsequential ramblings about Watford and related matters) will resume shortly.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

These little town blues

Recently I’ve been dipping into The Book Of Watford, a lavish publication that my friend Stuart found in a second-hand shop and gave me for my birthday last year. Subtitled ‘A portrait of our town’, it’s a collection of historical photographs of Watford accompanied by extracts from the local papers, and it makes for fascinating reading.

But while the details of the evolution of the town are lovingly covered (with particular emphasis on roads and buildings), there are some glaring omissions. In the entire section on the 1960s, for instance, there’s only one mention of the local football team (a cup tie against Liverpool towards the end of the decade – and not even the most famous one, though admittedly that took place in 1970).

It doesn’t get any better in the 70s and 80s. I may be biased, but I was under the impression that Graham Taylor’s propulsion of the club from Division 4 to Division 1 helped to put Watford on the map, giving the town a recognisable identity to people who previously only knew it as the last town on the railway line before London, or the first major junction on the M1 heading north. At one point in the 80s, the local tourist board was even marketing weekend minibreaks in Watford, with a trip to Vicarage Road as the focal point.

But apart from a brief mention of the celebrations that followed the 1984 FA Cup final, all this goes unrecorded in the book, which seems quite bafflingy. I don’t think it’s just that I’m so wrapped up in my support for the Hornets that I’ve lost all sense of perspective. The fact is that, even when the team weren’t doing so well, 10,000-odd citizens of the town spent alternate Saturdays at Vicarage Road, their moods rising and falling with the fortunes of the team. How can you create a ‘portrait of our town’ and not take that into account?

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Is half a game worse than no game at all?

For the first time that I can remember, I missed a Watford goal – two of them, in fact – on Tuesday, having only arrived at half-time. Not my fault, but the result of one of those hugely frustrating cock-ups that only the British railway system seems capable of, which meant that I spent the best part of an hour on an overcrowded train at Euston, waiting for it to leave. I won’t bore you with the details.

Having arrived at Watford Junction at 8.15 and run/power-walked to the Vic just in time to hear the half-time whistle, I then had to sit through a second half that made a mockery of the effort I’d made to witness it.

I was going to write that this was the first time I’d ever missed the entire first half of a football match, but then I remembered that it wasn’t quite true. Back in the late 80s I went Interrailing with my friend Andy, and we spent a hectic (and sweltering) August day in Munich: Dachau concentration camp in the morning, the obligatory visit to a beer hall in the evening, and in between, what else but a trip to the Olympic Stadium to watch Bayern Munich in action. (I’m sure the city has some fine museums, galleries and historic buildings, but we only had one day and you’ve got to get your priorities right.)

It was a cunning plan, and I thought I’d cracked it when I consulted a tube map and found there was a station right by the ground. True, there was an asterisk leading to a note that said ‘only open on matchdays’, but that was no problem; this was a matchday, wasn’t it?

I don’t know if I misread the map, or if there was some exception to the rule I wasn’t aware of. I just remember the train ending its journey at the station before the one we wanted and the conductor turfing us off. Okay, we’ll get a bus, we thought – except that there weren’t any due at the stop outside the station for hours. The whole area was deserted, in fact, as only German towns can be on Saturday afternoons, when the shops close and everyone stays at home.

And so we ended up walking to the Olympic Stadium, through a vast residential area that was originally the 1972 Olympic Village, arriving – yes – in time to see the second half of the match (though we still had to pay the full ticket price,). I can’t remember who Bayern were playing, but I do remember that the inside of the stadium was unlike any I’d been in before and since –and that the 45 minutes of football I saw that day was a damn sight more entertaining than the second half against Bristol City.

Next time I’ll be getting an earlier train, that’s for sure.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

This is getting ridiculous

Having finally seen (and thoroughly enjoyed) my first Watford game since mid-December last night, I was disappointed to hear that the Palace match on Saturday 13th has had to be postponed because of their continued involvement in the FA Cup.

It can’t be helped, I suppose, but it does mean that Watford’s first home game on a Saturday afternoon in 2010 will be on February 27th - which is, quite frankly, ridiculous. I enjoy midweek games, but they are a bit of a chore to get to and from, especially in the depths of winter. Then there’s the inevitably smaller attendance for midweek games (I’m sure Sheffield United would have brought more fans down on a weekend), which hits the club’s bank balance at a time when every penny counts.

I’ve just worked out that of our 17 remaining league games, a maximum of five will take place on a Saturday afternoon at Vicarage Road - and that’s assuming that none get moved for TV. Like I said, ridiculous.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

You’re my favourite

Trying to think of something to write to usher in the fourth year of this blog, I realised that I’ve never listed my all-time top five Watford players. Those who’ve been reading carefully won’t be surprised to find that all five came through the Watford youth system (albeit that one of them signed fairly late) - somehow I can never feel the same affection for a player we’ve bought as I do for those we’ve raised.

5) Lloyd Doyley
No surprise here, either. A Watford legend in the making, and (I suspect and hope) destined to be an example of that increasingly rare phenomenon, the one-club man. The thing about Lloyd is that, unlike far too many footballers, he actually gets better as he gets older. Who’d have thought he’d be so good playing on the left, for example, or that he’d produce so many useful crosses this season. And as for the goal - no let’s not go there, the memory of missing it is still too painful.

4) John Barnes
Only number four? It’s true that if this was a list of the best footballers I’d ever seen in a Watford shirt, Digger would be right at the top, no shadow of a doubt. From the moment he came on a sub in a game against Oldham (I was there), it was obvious we had something special on our hands. So many memorable goals - one at home to Liverpool in the league (mentioned on WML today, funnily enough) sticks out in particular - and the kind of sublime skill most players can only dream about. And yet, churlish as it may seem to point this out, he wasn’t the most consistent of players. Maybe that’s inevitable - maybe gifts like that don’t lend themselves to consistency - but he’s the only player in this list who was capable of disappearing for a game or two.

3) Keith Mercer
Ah, my first favourite. I’ve written at length on Keith in an article that appeared in BSAD’s ‘Tributes’ section (you can read it here), so I won’t repeat myself. But I will repeat the description of the goal that typified his never-say-die attitude:

“One-nil up in a Second Round FA Cup tie against Colchester in 1977, Watford were still looking shaky when a clearance went bouncing harmlessly towards the Colchester penalty area. As the left back sauntered across to collect the loose ball he became aware of a bulky yellow and black object bearing down on him like a jet-propelled battering ram. Having sprinted half the length of the pitch, Keith had built up enough momentum to run straight through a brick wall, never mind reach the ball first. The hapless defender went flying like a skittle and Keith slotted the ball past the startled goalkeeper.”

2) Nigel Gibbs
I don’t need to explain to Watford fans why Gibbsy is so high on this list: say the phrase ‘model footballer’ and he’s the one I picture. Having said that, I think my championing of him was largely born of frustration with a succession of managers who relegated him to the sidelines in favour of ‘wing-backs’ who were better than him at getting forward and crossing the ball – and, repeatedly, worse at doing the job the full back is actually there for, ie defending. Darren Bazeley, Des Lyttle, even Patrick sodding Blondeau - they all kept Nigel out of the team, and thus denied him the all-time appearance record his ability and loyalty had earned him.

1) Luther Blissett
Still, if Nigel had to be kept off the top of the appearance list by anyone, it might as well be Luther (also the man who took Keith Mercer’s first team place, incidentally). As with Gibbsy, there was perhaps an element of protectiveness in my attitude to Luther, a reaction against the papers that labelled him ‘Luther Miss-it’, ignoring the fact that for every chance he missed, he scored from another. Even when he hit a hat trick on his England debut (in a 9-0 win against Luxembourg at Wembley - and yes, I was there), the press focused on the chances he spurned. He couldn’t win. But those of us who watched him every week knew his essential qualities: a born trier who would never let you down. The fact that he came back to the club twice after leaving only enhanced his legend.