Sunday, 26 January 2014

How the other half live

When it was confirmed that Watford would be playing Manchester City in the FA Cup 4th Round, I didn’t even consider going to the game. It’s a long way to go to get tonked, as I told friends who asked if I was going to make the trip.

Then a client at work, whose firm is one of City’s sponsors, invited me to attend and partake of the full corporate hospitality experience. (She didn’t actually know I was a Watford fan – she just invited the team she works with.) Suddenly travelling to Manchester didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.

I know, I know. But it’s amazing what the offer of free booze and a comfy seat does to your scruples.

So at about one o’clock yesterday afternoon, I found myself walking into the executive entrance of the Etihad, past ranks of plebs (as I temporarily thought of them) who were standing in the rain, cordoned off by crash barriers, watching a bloke perform ball tricks.

Lunch in the Mancunian Suite was very pleasant; good company, fantastic food courtesy of one of Jamie Oliver’s franchises, a few glasses of Rioja. As kick-off approached and I settled into my padded seat, I was convinced that the pineapple parfait would prove to be the highlight of the day.

That’s the thing about football: you never know when it’s going to catch you unawares. As the drama of the first half unfolded, my main concern was to keep my mouth shut. I just about managed to keep my goal celebrations down to a private fist pump, but I would have loved to be with the rest of the Hornets fans way off to my right, singing and chanting in glee. But in case I needed an incentive to keep quiet, City fanatic and former world champion boxer Ricky Hatton was sitting three seats away, and I sensed it wouldn’t be a good idea to irritate him.

Half-time brought more booze and food (a small portion of chicken curry and rice served in a mug – very odd), and the chance to observe the perplexity of a room full of wealthy City fans who clearly weren’t used to their side being 2-0 down – to anyone, let alone a no-mark Championship team. Then it was back outside for the inevitable denouement, for I was sure our lead couldn’t last another 45 minutes. (Mind you, to show that the fatalism of the football fan is all-pervasive, someone asked Hatton if City were going to get back into the game: “There’s more chance of me making a comeback,” he said.)

As the game entered its final 10 minutes, I was beginning to dare to dream. It’s the hope that kills you... Well, we all know what happened. I managed to applaud politely as those around me roared in relief as City’s third and fourth goals went in (it was around this time that someone, presumably a fellow Hornet, was hauled out of the executive seating near us and firmly ejected, gesticulating wildly as he went), and then it was back inside for a final drink and a dainty little cake, before we finally left our luxury accommodation to queue in the rain for a taxi back to the station.

Befuddled with booze and brooding on shattered dreams, I didn’t enjoy the journey back to Euston. At least I wasn’t in the same carriage as my colleagues, who had to spend two hours in the company of some boisterous Brighton fans determined to celebrate their win at Port Vale as noisily as possible.

I’m glad I went, and I hope it will prove to be the case that I witnessed the turning point of Watford’s season. The corporate hospitality experience is fun, but only as an occasional treat. (I’ve done it a few times before, at grounds as diverse as White Hart Lane and Griffin Park.) If you can’t shout and sing in support of your team, watching football isn’t half as much fun.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

‘Tales From The Vicarage, Volume II’, edited by Lionel Birnie

I never got around to reviewing the first volume of Tales From The Vicarage, mainly because I was a contributor, and thus somewhat lacking in objectivity. Such scruples are unnecessary this time, as I’m not in Volume II, so I’m free to give it both barrels.

Only kidding. Like its predecessor, Volume II is a joyous read for any Watford fan; 13 pieces that cover a range of topics related to our beloved club, all long enough to engage without overstaying their welcome.

Although it’s a miscellany, a couple of themes emerge. One, unsurprisingly, is Watford’s links with Italy. Paolo Tomaselli’s guide to the Pozzos, including interviews with key figures in the regime, is essential reading, and worth the price of the book on its own for its insights into the way the club is likely to develop over the next few years. Someone should send a copy to every journalist and pundit who’s lazily expressed the view that “the Pozzos were Everything That Was Wrong With English Football”.

That’s a quote from the second Italian-themed article, editor Lionel Birnie’s account of Gianfranco Zola’s season in charge of Watford. It’s impassioned and well crafted, though for me it’s too soon after the event to need recapping. The true significance of 2012/13 will take a few years to become clear.

Maybe that time lag explains the proliferation of pieces on the 1990s, the other main theme of the anthology. My favourite of these is Ian Grant’s characteristically droll survey of the ‘doldrums’ of the mid-90s, embroidered with his trademark gift for metaphor. Take this one:

“Games against Luton in the nineties had a private, depressing darkness about them, utterly incomprehensible to the outside world, like a squabble over half a can of cheap lager between two street drinkers descending into squalid, disgraceful wrestling in a suspiciously-coloured puddle.”

I wish I’d written that.

He bookends his story with an impressionistic account of the day we came out of the darkness, the 1999 Play-Off Final victory against Bolton, and his BHaPPY co-editor Matt Rowson provides a complementary piece on the night that made it possible, the semi-final second leg at St Andrew’s. He evokes the tension of the penalty shoot-out beautifully – it took me right back to the pub in Central London where I watched the game with 100-odd Hornets fans, and ended up hugging total strangers.

Also on the 90s theme, Nigel Gibbs picks his Watford ‘dream team’ from those he played with or coached at Vicarage Road. There are no surprises in his selections, but his insights and stories are interesting. One of his selections, Kevin Phillips, gets a whole chapter to himself as Lionel Birnie  interviews the striker who ended our Premiership dreams in May. All these years (and clubs) on, it’s salutory to be reminded of the strength of character that took him from part-time football for Baldock to Watford, and eventually the England team.

Away from the 90s, Mike Walters’ memories of his trip to Sofia in 1983 to watch Watford in the UEFA Cup inspired me to watch the grainy footage of the goals on YouTube, though I didn’t really need the extended quotes from Graham Taylor and Neil Price that bulk out the story.

I’m not going to go through every piece, but I can’t end without mentioning Olly Wicken. As in Volume I, he provides the only piece of fiction. His tale of a deceased Watford supporter who ends up in a conflicted Hornet Heaven is surprisingly thought-provoking, asking difficult questions about what we, as fans, take from our club’s past and want for its future. It’s also both touching and extremely funny, with gags that creep up on you unawares. I particularly enjoyed this one:

“He had to make do with thinking the word ‘bugger’ time and time again in the surrounding silence. It felt like sitting in the Upper Rous.”

If that made you smile, buy this book. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Questions, questions

Don’t worry, I’m not going to share any profound thoughts on being a Watford fan as 2014 dawns damp and dreary, mainly because I haven’t got any.

Instead, here are five rhetorical questions based around issues that bother me slightly, none of which is worth a whole blog entry in its own right. If you have an actual answer to any of them, please let me know, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

1) Why doesn’t Richard Short just ask the Watford players how to pronounce their surnames? I don’t have a problem with his performance as matchday announcer in general, though I know a lot of fans do. However, given that one of the main requirements of the job is to read out the teams before kickoff, I’d say the least he could do is to make an effort to pronounce them correctly.

The Pozzos have given him a lot of easy ones (Abdi, Anya, Cassetti, Ekstrand), but if there is a way of getting a name wrong, he generally does so – repeatedly. For example, I know enough Spanish to be fairly confident that our Spanish goalkeeper is not called ‘Al-moon-ee-ay’, and I’m pretty sure our Italian-Argentinian striker isn’t ‘Forest-airy’.

It’s not just the foreign players, either. On Sunday he managed to sidestep the tricky question of whether our Chelsea loanee is ‘Mac-keck-ran’ or ‘Mac-eek-ran’ by adding a superfluous ‘r’, making him ‘Mac-reck-ran’.

2) Does Lloyd Doyley ever get tired of having to introduce himself to yet another new manager? Mind you, at least Sannino hasn’t started by dropping him, like most of his predecessors, so maybe the message is finally getting through.

3) What is the point of that enormous car park at the bottom of Occupation Road? On most Saturday afternoons, there are two or three cars parked there and hundreds of empty spaces. Why can’t it be used for matchday parking?

4) What’s happened to poor Ross Jenkins? As far as I can tell, he’s still employed by the club (his contract runs out at the end of the season, according to, but he hasn’t got a squad number. Does he still train with the other players, even though he apparently has no hope of getting a game (even in the friendlies they organise for the reserves), or is he left to do laps of the training ground on his own, like a kid who’s annoyed his PE teacher?

I understand that Zola didn’t rate him, but he looked a decent enough player under the previous regimes, so I don’t understand what he’s done to deserve being sent to Coventry.

5) Will Watford ever again have a manager who manages to stay in the job for three full years? Given the way football is going, you could ask the question about pretty much any club, but since Boothroyd (who managed three and half years), we’ve had a succession of one-season managers, and I don’t like that – I prefer stability and certainty.

Of course, in Pozzoworld the stability comes from the regime as a whole, not the head coach, or so we’re told. And from what I’ve read (particularly in the excellent chapter on the subject in Tales From The Vicarage Volume II, of which more soon), they’re prone to changing head coaches at frequent intervals. I’m not expecting Sannino to rival Arsène Wenger for longevity, put it that way. But I’d love to be proved wrong.