It was in the days when the League Cup Final was beamed live from Wembley
by ITV and the "Big Match" team on a Saturday afternoon, when lower division
clubs habitually got to the final and won (QPR, Swindon etc). The Wembley
pitch, having been cut to ribbons by the Horse of the Year show, was covered
in sand and mud, which gave the likes of Mark Lazarus and Don Rogers the chance
to become home-town heroes by scoring the winning goal, only to be denied a
place in Europe by some obscure UEFA ruling. This rare live TV football
event meant that, once a year in March, Watford played a Friday night home
game to avoid clashing with the TV game.
So it was that we faced Tranmere at home on a wind-swept Friday night,
on 1st March 1968.
Being an exiled Horn' even in those days, it meant getting dropped off from
the school bus at Old Stratford traffic lights, to run the mile into Stony
Stratford to catch the 4.17 bus to Newport Pagnell, via Wolverton railway
station, the home of the Royal train.
It was always touch and go whether I caught the 4:40 train. The Wolverton
Works hooter went at 4.30pm and if the bus was a minute late, the human stream
of flat capped men, with roll-up Rizla's hanging out of their mouths and all
carrying those strange plastic fabric bags with a 'square pattern' on the side like
Grandma used to take shopping, would stream across the Stratford road from the mile
long factory complex.
At each bus-stop the conductor - with pipe hanging out from the gaps between
his extremely large, yellowing teeth - would shout "New-der-port-der-pag-ernell". Everyone
would laugh as he said it in that daft attention-seeking voice, even though they
had heard it a million times before.
Traffic just came to a standstill. It was no use getting off the bus
and running to the station, as five thousand men attempted to walk or cycle
in the opposite direction. It was like swimming against the Thames
The North-Western Hotel was about four hundred yards from the station and, as this was
level with the most easterly of the exits, I learned that getting off there
meant that I could join the throng, as they made their way to New
Bradwell, Haversham and Newport, passing the station on the way.
Usually dashing into the ticket office, I would only buy a ticket to
Bletchley and charge headlong down the steep wooden stairs of the Victorian
station (built to be a stop-off point for Royal train journeys northwards)
to just about catch the train as it pulled away.
A bit strapped for cash, I would wait at Bletchley for my Dad to arrive
back on the 5:40 from Euston and borrow his season ticket for the rest of the
journey. Legal? Of course not, and since I was barely five feet tall in those
days, and wearing a school tie and grey V-necked jumper, I was always a target
for the ticket inspector. "Season Ticket to Barbican is it, sonny?"..."Yes"..."How old are you, then ?"..."Sixteen"..."Don't look that old to me. Where do you work, then?"...this was where my well-rehearsed routine came in handy..."GPO headquarters, training division, Barbican"... Usually this had
him staring at me over the top of his horn-rimmed glasses in disbelief. I
always got away with it.
Looking back at it now, I am completely gob-smacked at the cheek of it. My
Dad's complicity in it, the rehearsal with him of what to say if
questioned, the wide-eyed innocent way that I did it without worrying about
the consequences. Maybe the inspectors were not used to such bare-faced
cheek in those days, but I was never caught out. Good job that season
tickets did not have photographs on them in those days!
Dash from the Junction (I'll never forget the News of the World headline, the
day after we drew at Old Trafford in the Cup: "It's up the Watford Junction
for Busby's stars") through the town to the player's entrance. Fumble in my
pocket for my ball-boy's entry pass (often I forgot it, but the bloke on the
door knew me, and let me in okay) and down the steps at the back of the Main
Stand, through the door and into the inner sanctum.
Straight ahead was the old players' tunnel. No longer used by the players, it
was where club secretary Ron Rollitt used to stand to make pre-match
announcements and team changes. However, it WAS where us ball-boys would
run-out into the open air whilst imagining the roar of the crowd. Actually
all we ever heard was Tommy Vance and his recorded music programme and the
occasional laugh of the kids as they saw our baggy, unwashed purple
track-suits that we wore with pride.
Just to the left of the tunnel was the store-room, next to the visitors'
dressing room, where us ball-boys would change. No seats, no hooks for clothes, just chuck your
clothes on the floor and get the least smelly track-suit or at least one that wasn't
baggy and stretched at the neck. The most important place of all for any self respecting
ball-boy was the sliding door leading to the visitors' dressing room itself. Always
closed, I just wanted to see what was going on inside.
If you could get there early enough - just as the visiting team coach
arrived - you could get in there for autographs without the manager shouting
at you, or Les Simmons the groundsman grabbing you by the neck and bundling
you out onto the pitch. Most of the players thought it was funny to have
kids hanging about and made nervous jokes about us to their team-mates. On
this particular night, I remember their 6' 4" centre forward, Alan Waddle,
towering above me and Stan Ternent (more recently Burnley manager) for some strange
reason doing a Hitler impression, using his blue tie as his moustache and
goose-stepping around the changing room. They thought it was funny, but I
was none the wiser and only cared about getting the whole team's signatures on
my Tranmere page. "Can you sign please?". If you asked them outside the
ground, the inevitable answer would be..."After I've had a drink in the bar.
See me after", but in here they all signed. Anyone not signing would have
been ridiculed by their team-mates.
Out into the cold, windy open-air through the tunnel, round the pitch, past
the Vic End terrace and behind the goal (keep off the pitch at all times) and
I'd take my place on the Shrodells side usually, nearest the Rookery, just in
front of all my school mates the other side of the fence. It mostly depended
on where Keith Furphy wanted to station himself, that determined where we
would stand, but one particularly tall kid used to insist on going behind
the Rookery goal and was the only one to stand-up to Keith. Not that Furphy
junior was particularly obnoxious or anything, just that he was the manager's
son and everyone wanted to be his friend.
Within fifteen minutes, we were 2-0 down. The first a bullet header from Waddle.
The second a wonderful strike from thirty yards that almost broke the net at the
Vic End. Later Waddle would be transferred for big money to Liverpool, but
never quite made it.
The wind was at gale force by now and it was blowing Tranmere's way.
Then Brian Owen got the ball just in front of the Main Stand, ran forward a
few paces, cut inside and got tackled. Just as the ball bounced away from him,
he lashed out at it and sent it about fifty or sixty yards into the air. The ball
got caught by the swirling wind and seemed to stay up there for an age. Jimmy
Cumbes, the England fast bowler in Tranmere's goal (he went to WBA later on),
was completely mesmerised by the sight of the ball, or was he blinded as he
tried to pick it out against the background of the Vicarage Road end
floodlights? Whatever the reason, he flapped hopelessly at the ball as it
dropped toward him, only to lose it and see it take a strange bounce on the bone-hard pitch and straight up into the roof of the Rookery goalnet.
Brian, wearing his trademark green cold weather gloves (I seem to remember
him wearing black tights once on a snowy day, to much derision) could not
believe his luck and looked rather embarrased.
Tom Whally got an equaliser with a piledriver of a shot, so typical of him and
we ended-up winning 3-2. The first time I had witnessed a come back of such
epic proportions. The Rookery sang "Nah Nah Nah Nah, Nah Nah Nah Nah, hey
hey hey, Watford FC" to the tune of the old 'Steam' top ten hit and the evening
So as to make the 9:25 train from the Junction, I always had to leave
midweek games early. So, at about 9:05, I dashed back through the town, my school tie stuffed into
my coat pocket and my black school shoes (no trainers in those days!) clump-clumping as I
ran past the Palace Theatre and the YMCA. Always arrived at the junction at 9:20 or so, to find others who
had also left early to catch the train, freezing as the wind whipped through the wind-tunnel of
No inspectors on the train home, as it was too late for them to be bothered
with me. Read my programme. Letters to the manager. Always from someone in Rickmansworth.
"Why do we kick long balls up to the centre forward everytime the keeper gets the ball? We lose out on most of them"...
Furphy answers that since signing Terry Garbett and using the tactic of
moving towards the sidelines for Garbett to head the ball inside, we have apparently won eighty percent of such kicks.
Wow. Is that right?
The train arrived at 10:10 and then it was a run through a deserted Wolverton,
alongside the mile-long Works wall, imagining that I was Peter Snell, winning the Olympic 1500 metres, and
then turning out in the Cup Final for Watford (a last minute signing, forced on Mr Furphy by an injury
crisis). I had to keep looking over my shoulder for the last bus, but had to keep running to get out of Wolverton as the fare
from out of town was only 10d (that's d not p).
The ancient single decker would always be used for the last bus to
Northampton via Potterspury and Yardley Gobion. The driver would struggle to 'double clutch' as the gear-box refused
stubbornly to engage up the hill and the bus would slow to a crawl. Run home from the bus-stop (I always ran
everywhere!) and hope to see Mr Russell on his way home from the pub. "I bet the Cobblers finish higher than Watford
this season" he always said. I did not have the courage to take him up on that one, but would have been safe as they
were still on their downward slide from a brief sojourn in the top division, a bit like Watford in 1999/2000.
At least I was safe from the Monday morning mickey taking of school friends, who all supported Man Utd or Leeds.
Nothing's changed there, then.