It was the summer of 1973, I think, which would make me 10 years old. My father was in the Air Force and we lived on the RAF estate in Bushey Heath, a few roads away from a colleague of Dad’s who was a qualified football referee, and who had a son of about my age. In those days, Watford used to train at RAF Stanmore, and that summer they invited a team from the base to provide some gentle opposition for a pre-season friendly at Vicarage Road.
I only became aware of this unlikely combination of circumstances when Dad came home from work one day and asked if I would like to be a ballboy at a Watford game. His friend was going to be refereeing the friendly, and his son and I could help out if we liked. Well, as a Watford fan, I wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity like that, even if I was a bit hazy on the details of what a ballboy was actually supposed to do.
The details of the day itself are equally hazy at this remove, but I clearly remember being stationed at the Vicarage Road End and instructed to return the ball to the appropriate team if it went out either side of the goal: to the goalkeeper if the attacking team had touched it last, and in the direction of the corner flag if it had come off a defender.
All this I understood. What I hadn’t bargained for was the wall that ran along the front of the Vicarage Road terrace. It wasn’t a particularly high wall: however, I should confess at this point that I wasn’t a particularly athletic 10-year-old. (This won’t come as a shock to anyone who knows me.) In my orange Adidas rip-off tracksuit – two stripes instead of three – I looked a bit like a basketball with arms and legs.
The first time a shot fizzed over the crossbar and onto the terrace, I ran up to the wall and tried to vault over it. Then I tried again. And again.
It was no good. I couldn’t get my leg up on top of the wall so that I could swing over it, and I certainly didn’t have enough upper body strength to pull myself up and over. It was a pattern that would be repeated ad nauseam in gym lessons when I got to secondary school, where I never once managed to vault over the horse or climb a rope. But for now, I was just embarrassed when one of the players got bored of waiting, hopped effortlessly over the wall and retrieved the ball so that play could continue. This happened several more times during the course of the game, to the point where I stopped even pretending to try to get over the wall.
What else do I remember? It was a warm day, and during half-time my fellow ballboy and I sheltered from the sun in the Main Stand, where we were introduced to the manager’s son, who was slightly older than us and apparently quite good at football. In my memory he was called Kevin, but I’ve just checked and Kevin Keen would only have been six in 1973, so it can’t have been him. Maybe he had another son, or maybe I’ve just been harbouring a false memory all these years.
We kept to the same ends in the second half, so I never got a chance to discover whether I could have made it over the wall into the Rookery End. The match ended 4-2 to Watford – for some reason, I’m certain of that, though I’ve never been able to check. Afterwards, the referee told us to wait in the corridor outside the dressing rooms while he changed, and I took the opportunity to get out my autograph book (which, up to that point, had only seen service at the annual pro-am tournament at Hartsbourne Golf Club) and accost the Watford players with it as they emerged.
I’ve looked at the collection of scrawled signatures I gathered that day many times since, but I’ve never managed to match a single one with the name of a Watford player. This isn’t entirely surprising, since (as you’ve doubtless guessed, though I didn’t realise till much later) this was a reserve fixture. I mean, come on – it’s true that Watford were on the slide in the early 70s, but they weren’t so bad that they would have played a first-team match against a side from a local RAF base, and on a midweek morning at that.
I did make it onto the playing surface a couple of times in subsequent years – but only as part of mass pitch invasions when the Hornets had just sealed promotion. And so, all these years later, I still look back fondly on my day as a ballboy. Even if I was absolutely rubbish.