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It's a long way to...
By Nick Grundy

The last game I saw Watford play in the first division was against Tranmere Rovers on December 16th, three years ago; I left for Hastings, New Zealand (which, I have to venture to suggest is an even longer way away from Vicarage Road than Hastings, Great Britain) just after our loss against Huddersfield. I should really have gone to that game - I had no real reason not to, bar packing and what have you - especially given that I'd then have got to witness the appearance of Kerry Dixon in a Watford shirt, but for some reason I didn't.

Of course, I was only in New Zealand for about eight months, on a gap year, so I have seen games since, but for some bizarre reason I really wish I'd gone to see the Huddersfield game, even though we lost 1-0. It's not something I can explain, I just wish I'd gone to see it. It's not really Kerry Dixon, obviously - it was the last chance I had to see Colin Foster play, among other things, and that seems oddly important now.

I wouldn't have wanted to go for the quality of the football on display; that, at least, is certain. The game in question was midway through our relegation season, and the games I'd seen could best be described by the word "abysmal", with occasional uses of "dire" and "painfully". Some of the other teams we'd played were rather good, but we were utterly dreadful. Nonetheless, I left for New Zealand not too heavy of heart, as we'd won the game against Tranmere 3-0, putting in comfortably our best performance for ages, and it followed a 2-1 win against leaders Millwall, who proceeded to collapse into Division Two alongside us.

One of the few comforts I had while I followed the catalogue of narrow and not-so-narrow defeats in the papers was, in fact, seeing Millwall and ("The Gents" - Ed) accompany us down to the foot of the table. Let it not be forgotten, however, that just as our selling them Lavin was obviously responsible for their relegation, our drop in form coincided all too-neatly with their selling us Dixon...

Anyway, I left for New Zealand reasonably upbeat, especially having watched us draw one all with Wimbledon at home, after that rocket from Mooney. The number of people I bored witless in New Zealand by bemoaning the foul on Ramage which led to their goal you wouldn't believe... Anyway, after the Huddersfield game, the next result I got was some three weeks later in a copy of the weekly Telegraph in a Hastings K-mart. We'd lost 2-1 to Barnsley.

From then on, my only contact with Watford was either through the newspapers on Monday morning or, on those few occasions when I was stupid and sober enough to stay up and had access to a radio, the World Service at about 4am. You'd have thought I'd have got used to waiting till Monday morning for the results after a few weeks - I was, after all, there for seven months - but I invariably spent Sunday twitchy as a particularly neurotic turkey in the run-up to Christmas. It was doubly strange - and more, doubly irritating - because I hadn't cared that much before. If, while still at home, I'd missed the result of a mid-week game, I might not have got it until late the next day, if then, from the paper. I can't say for sure if I'd still have ended up getting a season ticket, or making the four hour round bus trip from Cambridge for most home games if I hadn't been to New Zealand, but I doubt I would. In a strange and occasionally hostile environment, it became a method of reminding yourself that you had proper attachments elsewhere, a method of reminding yourself that - and I'm afraid I have to use the cliche here - you belonged.

Anyway, I followed the succession of narrow and not-so-narrow defeats in the Monday morning papers in the staffroom (I should have mentioned earlier that I was helping out at a school there; I wouldn't want overly to worry anyone who knows Hastings well with the idea that I would have spent seven months there otherwise), and the class I looked after on Monday mornings became the only one I took all week to be dead silent. I was absolutely savage most days, albeit that the punishments I could dole out were (unusually for New Zealand) reasonably post-World War II (they stood on a lawn for an hour rather than got beaten). Even so, they probably thought I took some drug designed to induce psychosis every Monday morning. Towards the end of the season, as the tables revealed the increasing inevitability of relegation, I even put together a basic spreadsheet on one of the computers in the staffroom to calculate when it would be impossible for us to avoid it.

And then - a miracle. No, not the return of Graham Taylor, but the fact it made the Weekly Telegraph. They even had a little photo of Elton, GT and Loofah. I'm reasonably certain that the class I took immediately after reading the article suspected that my dealer had inadvertently sold me prozac instead of HannibalLecterofin. Unlike most of you, however, I didn't get to savour going 2-0 up against Ipswich: the papers only had full-time scores, so for me the fuse was only lit after that defeat and a couple of nil-nils, when we beat Oldham. At the time, I couldn't even remember our last victory; looking back, it had been just under three months earlier, against Tranmere.

Then, another succession of draws - but draws, to my utter astonishment, in which we actually scored goals. Four-all against West Brom, three-all against Sunderland - we may not have won any, and we lost a couple, but for me, starved of anything but tables, scores and scorers names, the goal glut was more than welcome. Nonetheless, my spreadsheet was getting more and more miserable as the results came in and safety drifted further and further away. Then - well, there was basically a bloody big bang.

It came in the form of a five-two drubbing of Port Vale. My delight at the result was tempered only by the knowledge that we still weren't looking like making it, and that I hadn't the first idea who "Connolly" was. Tempting though it was to believe we'd been the first club to sign a rugby league player, it still bothered me that I hadn't the faintest idea who our potential saviour was, and when his hat-trick against Vale was followed by another against Grimsby, and a crucial goal against Norwich, it bothered me even more.

But we could still stay up - we were still going to. I got up at 5-30am on the Sunday morning we played Leicester and phoned home to get me mum to check teletext. I even gave her the page number. I checked, rather hopelessly, that she hadn't got the scores the wrong way round - thankfully, she didn't just say "one-nil", but "Leicester one, Watford none" in almost-true football score announcer style, so I checked that Watford were in front of Leicester on teletext in the vain hope they'd mixed up home and away teams, and then I went back to bed.

There's not a great deal else to tell, I'm afraid. The rest of my time in New Zealand was pretty good - I even scored a league goal of sorts for the football team I played for with a rather-brilliant looking cross (and no, of course the standard of the New Zealand league isn't very good, especially not at the level I played). The highpoint, though, was when the school got internet access and I found BSaD - I was absurdly close to tears reading the report of Norwich away - and found out who David Connolly actually was. Then I left for Australia, where I have a vivid recollection of getting in to a hostel in time to listen to Ravanelli to bang three past Liverpool on the opening day of the season. We beat Bournemouth 2-1.

I got back home at 6am on the morning of the Stockport game but, true to form, didn't go. I'd been meaning to, but having spent about twenty hours on a plane I felt absolutely dreadful. Predictably enough, having spent about five hours in bed, I still felt dreadful rather than tired, and so I got up about ten minutes after kickoff and watched it on teletext. The rest, as I think they say, is history - and let's all be thankful for that!