Monday, 28 March 2016

Nineties nostalgia, pt. 5 – End of an era

The programme for the last game of the 1992-93 season, at home to Oxford, is unusual in that it doesn’t show any footballers. Instead, a photo of the Vicarage Road End terraces is juxtaposed with an artist’s impression (it actually looks as if it’s been drawn by a teenager as part of an art project) of the new, all-seater stand that will replace it. So I’m pretty sure that May 8th, 1993 is the last time I stood at a Watford home match.

The season had been the very definition of mediocrity, with Watford sitting 15th in the table at kick-off, one place ahead of their opponents. They’d gone out at the first stage of the Anglo-Italian Cup and the FA Cup, and after beating reigning League champions Leeds 2-1 in the 3rd round of the League Cup (the highlight of the season by some distance), they’d crashed out 6-1 at Blackburn in the following round.

The programme, a flimsy 26 pages, reflects this with a lacklustre tone throughout, as if the club really didn’t feel it was worth looking back on such an average season. Manager Steve Perryman’s notes (uninspiringly headed ‘Some bright spots, but it’s been a season of inconsistencies’) are brief and consist mainly of paying tribute to the scouting and coaching staff. Everything is bitty, with most pages divided into panels of varying sizes, and nothing gets more than two pages. The nearest we get to a player profile is a centre spread featuring Nigel Gibbs – who, in keeping with the downbeat vibe, had actually missed most of his testimonial season with an injury.

It’s hard to find anything at all to inspire, though Kenny Jackett’s notes on the youth team do mention the six young players who’ve been taken on as professionals, who include Bruce Dyer and Robert Page. Dyer has already been featuring regularly in the reserves, captained by Luther Blissett, no less, who could no longer get into the first team – yet another reason to admire the great man, if any were needed. The reserves were looking forward to playing Barnet in the final of the Herts Senior Cup, but they went on to lose 4-2. Of course they did. It was that kind of season.

As for the first team, and the Vicarage Road End’s last hurrah, we lost 1-0 to Oxford, who leapfrogged us in the table and pushed us down to 16th. I can’t tell you if it rained, but if it did, it would have been entirely in keeping with the mood of the programme, and the season.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Get with the programme special: the young ones

With England playing Germany tomorrow night, it seemed like a good time to write about a programme that’s been sitting on my desk for a while now, waiting to be filed. It dates all the way back to May 20th, 1972, when England took on West Germany in a schools’ international at Wembley Stadium.

If I remember rightly, this trip and a couple of similar ones were organised by my junior school, Ashfield in Bushey, and we witnessed a packed programme of pre-match entertainment with a notably military theme. First up were the Band of the Corps of Royal Engineers, followed by a gymnastic display by the Junior Leaders’ Regiment of the RE and the Royal Air Force Police Dog Team, before the band returned for ‘Community Singing’ conducted by the inevitable Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart. (He used to lead the singalongs that preceded the FA Cup Final, too.) The programme helpfully includes the lyrics to a decidedly mixed bag of songs, including ‘Back home’ (the 1970 England World Cup theme), ‘Consider yourself’ from Oliver, Cliff’s classic ‘Congratulations’ and, um, ‘The happy wanderer’.

Of course, the main fun of such matches in retrospect is discovering which future giants of the game you saw in their formative years. In this case, it’s not a bad haul, with a strong Watford connection: future skipper John Wilfred Rostron of St Thomas Aquinas RC School, and future Assistant Manager Raymond Colin Wilkins of Townfield Secondary Modern. Other names I recognise include John Sparrow and Clive Walker (both Chelsea), John Trewick (West Brom, Newcastle, Oxford) and Trevor Ross (Arsenal and Everton).

The pen portraits of the players are a joy, as you’d expect. Almost every one includes a variation on the phrase “hopes to become a professional footballer”, apart from Terence Pashley, who “plans to train for the catering industry”. (I just Googled him, and it turns it he had a long career at Burnley, Blackpool and Bury; I hope he wasn’t too disappointed.)

Judging by my dad’s notes on the team sheet, England won 4-0, with Wilf Rostron (wearing no. 11, and thus presumably playing as a winger*) scoring one of them. The programme also includes photos from the schoolboys’ previous outing, when England had tonked Holland 5-1. In my 10-year-old innocence, I assumed that glorious days lay ahead for the senior England team once this gilded generation grew up. Sadly, as we know, they didn’t even qualify for the next two World Cups – one of which was won by West Germany, while Holland featured in both finals. If nothing else, it shows that England’s failure to turn youthful promise into adult achievement is by no means a new phenomenon.

*If this sentence makes no logical sense to you, ask someone over 40

Sunday, 6 March 2016

You’re not singing any sense

After Watford played Brentford at home last season, I asked my friend Stuart how on Earth he and his fellow Bees fans could justify singing things like “Is this a library?” when the Rookery End, inspired by the 1881, had been making a racket for pretty much the entire 90 minutes.

He replied that in the Vicarage Road End, they couldn’t hear anything of the sort – and maybe it’s the acoustic peculiarities of the ground that are to blame for my current irritation. Because I’m getting a bit fed up of away fans reeling out the same old tired chants about the Watford fans not singing when we clearly are. The Leicester fans were at it again yesterday.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like my football songs to make sense. I admit that when Watford fans, buoyed by a particularly fine performance, sing “We’re by far the greatest team/The world has ever seen”, it’s not a claim that would pass unchallenged in any court in the land, but we can be forgiven the occasional excess of exuberance. On the other hand, singing “Sh*t ground, no fans” at the newly spruced-up Vicarage Road when there’s scarcely an empty seat to be seen is just stupid.

The more fundamental problem I have with this is simply this: who cares? If you go to a football ground and the home fans don’t sing or chant, what does it matter?

Don’t get me wrong – I love singing, and I think the 1881 have done an incredible job in coaxing the historically reticent Watford fans into creating something that can occasionally, genuinely, be called a cauldron of noise.

On the other hand, no one ever won a trophy because their fans sang louder than the other team’s. Let’s look at the English clubs with the most famously passionate fans: clubs like Wolves, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Manchester City, Sunderland. How many trophies have any of that lot won in the past 20 years or so? Okay, City have won a couple, but it was Abu Dhabi oil dollars that made the difference, not mouthy Mancs.

No, it’s the infamously silent prawn sandwich munchers of Old Trafford and the team that used to play at a ground known as the ‘Highbury library’ that have carried off most of the silverware in modern times. (Chelsea fans aren’t particularly vocal either, unless the caterers have run out of smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels.) In other words, there’s no correlation between the noisiness of a team’s fans and their propensity to win football matches.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sing our hearts out, of course. It makes us feel good, for one thing. Moreover, the players always say they appreciate it, and I have no reason to doubt them when they say it matters to them.

But at the same time, I secretly long for the day when an entire home crowd stays pointedly silent for 90 minutes while their team wipes the floor with the opposition, just to prove that all the playground yah-boo-sucks ‘we make more noise than you’ nonsense actually makes no difference whatsoever.