By Stuart Campbell
When the draw for the Third Round of the FA Cup comes around, fingers will be crossed for a decent home draw. The horror of horrors is an away tie somewhere northern with a lower league club. Somewhere wet, windy and uncomfortably foreign...like Darlington, Rochdale or Bury.
Bah! You don't know when you're lucky.
A thousand games ago, in my distant youth, long before a move to the Sassenach South, a fixture like Watford versus Rochdale seemed distinctly exotic. Supporting my local team, the fabled Sons of the Rock (shame on you, if you don't know), the fare was decidedly plainer. The regular league diet against the doughty souls of Cowdenbeath, Brechin or Alloa Athletic made for somewhat different Scottish Cup draw expectations.
Dreams were made on a tie with clubs like Motherwell, Dundee or Hibs. Even the Jags seemed like a glitzy prospect. No-one dared whisper the possibility of one of The Old Firm being drawn.
Dumbarton, Stenhousemuir and the like were - and still are - part-time outfits; teams made up of joiners, electricians, labourers and the occasional bank clerk. The other skills even came in handy at times. I well remember a half-time floodlight failure and a tannoy plea for an electrician in the crowd to come and help. Dumbarton's right winger promptly scuttled off, returning twenty minutes later, lights restored, and a cheer louder than his crosses ever produced.
No-one could ever accuse the old grounds of the lower Scottish leagues of lacking character. Comfort wasn't an issue. No-one expected it. And the word 'stadium' never passed our lips. 'Park' was as grand as it got. Proper floodlights were for show offs.
Supporters' Clubs generally ran a (singular) coach to the more popular away venues but as often as not it was a case of careful planning and finding the cheapest public transport route (too young to drive - and few footie families had cars anyway). Tricky business. There was no internet to look up and no directions in the programme. No programmes either, guys! And, of course, you had to have complete knowledge of which town the opposition actually played in. So many Scottish clubs cunningly disguise their home town in romantic, rather vague names which sound wonderful when James Alexander Gordon gets a hold of them, but are pretty useless when pouring over your Dad's dog-eared map. Where are Raith, St Johnstone, Queen of the South, Albion Rovers, East Fife? Puts the great English mystery of Port Vale into perspective.
The key is being Scottish. Genetic thing, you understand. A knowledge that comes built-in at birth, just like the certainty that Irn Bru is a superior slurp to Coke, and Forfar Bridies are a much better munch than Cornish Pasties. However, there are traps for the over-confident. It's a chastening experience to find your way to Stenhousemuir at ten to three on a Saturday only to discover that their ground is actually in Larbert - the next town down the road. A bit like Watford playing in Rickmansworth. Some grounds are mysteriously hidden away in some obscure corners, too. Even the locals get confused. "I think they're doon there, son...or is it behind the gas works? Ye better ask the polis." The point to remember being that these clubs don't exactly pack their grounds on an average Saturday. The Municipal Bowling Green rivals them for crowd figures, if not stray dogs.
Some grounds were smart and even faintly modern. But the wee ones...well, the stands were unpretentious sheds. Corrugated iron affairs where the flat-capped old boys huddled for warmth. Any space was to be treated with extreme suspicion. Space in an enclosure translated as leaky roof, or that Bermuda Triangle spot where the merest breeze transformed into a howling gale. Best opt for the terracing. That is if they had terracing. Okay, stand behind the wall, keep an eye out for the tea hut and plan to move round at half-time. (Memory has it that dear old Brechin City's Glebe Park had a hedge instead of a wall in places.) Dumbarton's splendidly quaint Boghead Park - now, sadly a housing estate - had a second-hand railway platform shelter behind one goal. Excellent! Watford's original East Stand would have indicated a 'big club'. Heavens, the thing has windows!
On a recent trip back to Clydeside, I sought out Dumbarton's new ground. Splendidly positioned under the ancient castle rock where the River Leven joins the Clyde, the absurdly named Strathclyde Homes Stadium is a smart, neat-and-tidy, identikit structure with all the romance and charm of a plant hire premises. Ho hum, the game progresses.
I can just remember the primary school buzz, sometime in the 1950s when Dumbarton somehow arranged a pre-season friendly with an English League giant. Accrington Stanley were the 'posh mob' from down south. Disappointingly, their players looked remarkably like ours, although they shouted to each other in a weird, alien tongue. And their goalie took his own 'bye kicks', rather than depending on the right back. Radical stuff. We lost.
This sort of fan apprenticeship is a perfect grounding to being a long-term, dyed-in-the-wool Watford fan. Down spells are grittily endured in anticipation for the heady ups of top league football status and surging cup runs. It fosters appreciation for the emergence of home-grown players - guys you feel you can still grin at and say 'hello' to if you see them in the Harlequin. And haven't we got a few excellent ones right now.
We've been near the top, but know what it's like to be around the bottom. GT called us a 'yo-yo' club. As things stand we probably are. As far as I'm concerned, that's fine. Watford will never be a 'big club', thank goodness. But it makes it all the sweeter when we get up alongside the giants for a spell, cheekily pinching the prawn sarnies off their top table. And there's no rule that says a club like Watford can't stay the pace. Charlton are the golden example.
Our current, exciting progress is, amusingly, causing 'surprised' comments in the press. Most of us will remember two distinct periods when that happened before. Yet they still regard us as a little club. It still catches them unawares when we get 'above our station'. Isn't it great! The early signs are we could just be on the way to doing it again.
But when it comes to the FA Cup draw, let's not get too sniffy. Bring on the Rochdale! As long as we beat them, of course.