"Everyone thinks he looks daft"
Watford v Chelsea, 18/9/99
By Kevin Birdseye
"Ring! Ring! 7 a.m.
Move yourself to go again"
(The Clash: "Magnificent Seven")
7 a.m.? I wish. The alarm rudely interrupts a deep and restful slumber at 6 ruddy 40. It's only mid September, but it's dark and nippy, the latter on account of two cold fronts: one outside, the other emanating from Mrs Kevin's side of the bed.
For the first time today, I feel sharp pangs of guilt. On what could well be one of the year's last mild and sunny Saturdays, any father worth his salt should be planning an excursion for the wife and kids.
Blame it all on a low-sodium count then, 'cos I'm catching a train from Brussels to London, then heading up to Watford to see the 'Orns. What a complete and utter swine.
Get washed. Get dressed. Choose today's preferred replica top. Fix some coffee. Stick the croissants in the oven to warm. Then I'm momentarily distracted by the boy, who's been woken by my clanking about in the kitchen... Shit! Burned the breakfast! Panic! We're gonna lose!
Throughout the day until kick-off, my every move, however trivial, will be seen as potentially crucial to the 'Orns' chances of getting a result. This happens on every trip. No wonder I'm going grey so fast.
Many a Watford fan feels the same, I'm sure. From my rather singular perspective, however, matters are made worse by the uncertainties of the journey I am undertaking.
It's very simple: arrive in London on time = victory; arrive late = defeat. You'd be amazed how often it actually works out that way too.
Back in the 1970s, British Rail famously urged their passengers to "Let the train take the strain". Plainly they weren't thinking about football fans with urgent afternoon appointments when they said it. And I for one find it impossible to relax while travelling to the game.
Breakfast having been a charred mess, I peer in on my still-sleeping daughter (triggering more of those darn guilt pangs), give the now-snoozing Mrs K a peck on the cheek, descend the stairs, pause at the front door, and then sense a hefty lump forming in the throat.
At this point, the angel on my right shoulder whispers in my ear: "It's not too late! You don't have to go, you know! Stay here! Be a proper dad for once!" All of which sensible prompting is drowned out by the devil perched on the other shoulder, who, quick as a flash, bellows: "Chelsea at the Viiiiiiiiiiiiiiic!".
No contest. Beelzebub wins every time. Hell, he's been winning ever since the Channel Tunnel opened back in '94, when the script read Southend, not Chelsea. Once again, I decide to brush up on my parenting technique the next day.
So off I go. The boy is waving from the living-room window now, looking tearful yet still faithfully mouthing "Yooo 'Orns" as his father buggers off and leaves him yet again. The dreaded guilt pangs return. Big time.
8.25: Eurostar departure lounge, Brussels South station. I sip a (rather weak) filter coffee and size up my fellow passengers for the outward leg. Apart from the odd bleary-eyed Brit-in-a-suit, who's perhaps heading back home from a trade fair after one final session on the local beer, the rest are mostly Belgian, and Flemish at that.
Young couples and families with kids (yet more guilt pangs...) are off to take in the sights of London. And then there's me: a man in his mid-thirties who, instead of sensibly doing likewise, is sat on his own in a garish yellow 'Orns shirt.
The quizzical looks that greet my attire set an old pop tune playing in my head. Side one, track one of the debut album by Leeds indie band, The Wedding Present, to be precise. The song's title? "Everyone thinks he looks daft". Frankly, a plate of pork sausages on the buffet table at a Jewish festive gathering would struggle to feel as out of place.
8:50: The Eurostar - a sort of Starship Enterprise on rails - pulls smoothly out of Brussels South station, proceeds on impulse power as far as the beginning of its dedicated high-speed section, then engages warp drive and is soon flashing across Belgium and northern France at 300 km/h. (Good job too, really, as there's bugger all to see: mile upon mile of flattish, uninspiring countryside dotted with clumps of trees and church spires, criss-crossed by canals and power lines, with only a stop at Lille to break the monotony.)
The pangs of guilt ease somewhat... only to be joined now by the nagging concern that something MIGHT go wrong: frozen points outside Lille; a broken-down freight Shuttle in the Channel Tunnel. Both have almost caused me to miss games before.
Now disaster is a word used too readily for things that don't matter a jot within the overall scheme of things. The horrific toll exacted by the Turkish earthquake was a disaster in the true sense. A delayed train journey patently isn't. But try telling that to a travelling football fan.
Yet for a sport based on the team ethic, football manages to bring out the most shockingly egocentric and selfish tendencies in us. For example: who can fail to have been appalled by the atrocities committed by the Indonesian Army and their evil militia cohorts in East Timor? Thing is, Indonesia also happens to be where our Le Coq replica shirts come from. So hands up those of you who'll be boycotting the new away shirt as a result? Thought so. Me neither probably. Awful, isn't it?
"Bing! Bong! Ladies and Gentlemen, in a few moments we shall be entering the Channel Tunnel".
My train plunges into the big hole. What a magnificent feat of engineering it is. The very reason why I can even contemplate living abroad yet still travel to watch the 'Orns. I should bow down and worship its creators each time I enter it ... except there's nothing out there to worship, is there? Perpetual darkness. As wonders of the world go, it's quite a letdown.
I spend an uncomfortable passage, dozing fitfully with one ear listening for signs of the train slowing to a painful stop because of some horrid obstruction. It's happened before. I've arrived horribly late. And the 'Orns have gone on to lose.
This time out, my tense mood is not helped by the loud conversation away to my right. Try as I might to grab some shut-eye, I keep overhearing snippets of the loud exchanges between some Hooray Henrietta and her beau. The talk is of Clarissa's holiday apartment in Cannes and Roger's party down in Putney that evening. Super, darling. I decide that, in the unlikely event of these two liking football, they would most assuredly be Chelsea fans. So I hope that Roger's 'do' is an outdoor event. And that it pisses down all night.
Mercifully, the tunnel segment of the journey is glitch-free today. The Eurostar makes it through in the prescribed 20 or so minutes and emerges into sunny Kent. A positive vibe begins to take hold.
Immediately, though, frustration returns as the Eurostar throttles right back in order to enter the world's busiest rail network: the old Southern region.
On every trip, I groan and curse decades of chronic under-investment in the UK's railways by successive governments (from both right and left), as my state-of-the-art conveyance slows agonisingly to the sort of languid pace that France's former President Mitterrand had in mind when he talked of cross-Channel rail passengers, "Having plenty of time to admire ze English countryside". France 1, England 0.
So up through Kent I bounce and trundle. The sleek train's enforced lower speed frustrates and annoys, but the Tunnel is behind me and the anticipation really starts to build.
I eagerly scan the sights of everyday England in the world outside, and much of it seems to relate to my sad Watford universe. Just outside Ashford, for instance, I spy my first English pub, "The Albion": a reminder of the Indian sign held over us in recent times by West Brom. But who's laughing now, eh?
At Tonbridge, some youngsters waiting for the London stopping service greet the passing Eurostar with customary British hospitality: a flurry of V-signs and wanker gestures. I blame the parents... shit! The guilt pangs hit home one final time.
But no matter. Time for a roll on the drums because... heeeeeeeeeeeeeere's Orpington!!! Hardly the sort of place to get the pulses of normal individuals racing, but it means that, barring a freak chemical spillage at Vauxhall (Paranoid? Moi?), I'm only twenty minutes out of Waterloo.
And the guilt pangs? Banished. All gone. By the time Crystal Palace's floodlights appear off to the left, I've sold my soul to GT for the day. Ten more minutes... PLEASE be on time! COME ON you train!
10:40. London Waterloo International. Bang on schedule. So smooth has this particular journey been that my earlier trepidation about a gubbing from the Kings Road smart-set after burning the croissants has now given way to heady hopes of a draw.
And it gets better. There's no throng of tourists besieging the ticket office in the Underground today. So I pick up my Travelcard in seconds flat, then wait just two minutes for a northbound Bakerloo Line service. Nice! At Baker Street, the door of my carriage opens slap bang opposite the Metropolitan Line exit. Great! I bound up the escalator: how long until the next Watford train? Just about to depart from Platform 1. Wunderbar!
The mood is now one of euphoria. An almost perfect journey. Every connection a logistical triumph. Hell, we might even sneak a win!
So it goes, week in, week out. With the odd, subtle variation on the same theme; like when I start the journey by catching the bus instead of the local train, then find myself viewing each green traffic light as the harbinger of a Watford win, but each red one as .... you get the picture, I'm sure. Believe me, 'sad' isn't the word my wife uses.
So why the hell do it? When leaving the family behind all day is such a wrench. When it's costing an arm and a leg. When the total round-trip time is sixteen hours from start to finish.
One magic moment is all it takes. Against Chelsea, it comes even before Smartie's classy finish for the goal, when Stevie Palmer embarrasses Didier Deschamps (that's the Didier Deschamps), then surges forward at a retreating Marcel Desailly (yep, the Marcel Desailly) before hammering a fierce shot inches wide of the irrepressibly ugly De Goey's right-hand post. Feather-ruffling at its very best. Taylor-made army!
It can't last forever though. The strain, every aspect of it, is too great. No matter where we finish at the end of the season, I've sensibly promised Mrs Kevin that I'll then do what a succession of former Tory cabinet ministers did under John Major, and spend more time with my family. But that day seems a long way off right now. So over the weeks and months until May, plenty more Saturdays will see The Hornet Formerly Known As Dad partying like its 1999/2000. With Grandmaster Graham T laying down the block-rockin' beats.
And what of the journey home? Earlier I mentioned an old pop ditty by the Wedding Present. If fading memory serves, the line after "Everyone thinks he looks daft..." goes something like: "...But you can have your dream". On days when we've beaten the likes of Chelsea at the Vic, the dreams I experience en-route back to Brussels, once exhaustion has won on penalties, are pretty damn sweet.
"Woo-hoo," as 'celeb' Chelsea fan, Damon from Blur, would say. But not when he heard the final scores on Saturday 18 September 1999, I'll wager.
"Hornet on the 19.27"