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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
It's a long way to...
Stockport
 
Hornet Silver Jubilee
By Charlie Reed

In the spring of 1977, the queen visited Stockport. As a special treat, all pupils in my school were allowed out of lessons to line the route. We cheered her black Bentley as it cruised into town, up the hill and towards the Edgeley area of town where she was driven onto the turf at Stockport County FC to be welcomed by local dignitaries and more school children as part of her Silver Jubilee celebrations.

In October 2000, Stockport County was to witness a similar but more personal jubilee when I returned, almost exactly twenty-five years on, to the scene of my first ever Watford match - a 2-2 away draw on a cold Friday evening in December 1975, Friday 12th to be exact.

In a recent edition of one of the glossy football monthly magazines, there was a feature highlighting the fan base and geographical distribution of football supporters from different league clubs. Few surprises that Liverpool`s support was acknowledged as "national" or that Man United`s was categorised as "Home Counties and South East Asia", nor indeed that Watford's support was termed "local". But whilst the majority of supporters are indeed local supporters this article is inspired by my own experiences of having grown up as an 'Orn in Stockport and is attributed to some of the long distance supporters I have met over the last few seasons; Julie from Chepstow, Jim and Tom who commute from Cornwall, Chris and the boys in Brighton, me mate Dave in York and, of course, all the South West Hornets.

What has always set me apart, however, is that I have never lived in Watford. I don't know how the football interest was sparked, but I know that it has always been there and was fuelled by visits to my grandparents in Cassiobury Park. There I would pore over the Observer match reports, memorise the team sheets in the programmes lying around my uncle's room and insist on shopping trips into town being routed via Vicarage Road for a glimpse of the shards of glass which surmounted the turnstile entrances.

For some reason I was never taken to a match on these visits and my support was confined to immersion in the results, fixtures, tables and permutations in the Sunday papers, or watching Sam Leach's Football Preview on Saturday lunchtimes, enthralled by the possibility that we would get a mention, if only in passing, such as "a glance at the foot of Division Three shows Watford have slipped into the relegation zone".

And so I was promised that when Watford came to play at Stockport I would be allowed to go. And the News of the World football annual confirmed the date in black and white for Friday 12th December. On went two pairs of socks and, with a mother's warning about being careful of the 'Bovver Boys', me and my Dad drove the three miles to the ground.

The December evening had provided a slight mist and we walked along the dark, damp terraced streets to the ground. I remember it being strangely quiet, but recall the sight of an elderly man in overcoat and blue and white scarf shuffling to the ground. Having never been to a match before, I was totally unprepared for the sight awaiting me as we made our way through the turnstiles and climbed to a vantage point on the railway sleepers and cinder banking which formed the Railway End. Quite simply I was mesmerised by the scene before me. The white glare of the floodlights silhouetted against the inky night sky and the illuminated green perfection of the pitch spread before us has remained with me and to this day an evening match still affords particular excitement and anticipation.

The match had an added attraction for locals and neutrals in that George Best was playing for Stockport. He played several matches for them on his departure from Man United but his appearance was of no consequence to me. I wanted to see in the flesh those names mentioned in the programmes I had devoured in Watford. I had waited long enough to put a face and body to Andy Rankin, Stewart Scullion and Ross Jenkins.

I loved every minute of the match. Of being too small for a decent terrace view and having to stand on tiptoes. Of seeing Stuart Scullion somehow juggle the ball and keep it in play in the tightest of touchline squeezes. Of seeing Watford score twice. And of being so hemmed in that I couldn't see everything - the presence of Best had swelled the crowd to a bumper 5,000 plus supporters. Finally the memory of locating a handful (perhaps four or five) fellow Watford supporters in the main stand whose cheers echoed in the silence when we took our goals.

My father announced after the match that he would take me to a "proper" match soon. Indeed the following April I found myself at Maine Road witnessing a "Match of the Day" top of the table classic between Manchester City and Derby County - seven goals, Colin Bell, Francis Lee in his pomp, a 43,000 sell out, tv cameras, vintage commentary, "interesting...very interesting..." - indeed all and more of the ingredients to hook an impressionable youngster; and yet there I was feeling emotionless and coldly detached from the celebrations around me.

The problem was that I had already been hooked. I realised as soon as I reached that vantage point on the terracing in Stockport that this would be a passion for life. And so began my Watford journey, handicapped by the geography of living in the north west and, sadly, that both my grandparents died by the time I was ten and hence there was no longer a need to visit Watford. But I became a regular at northern away grounds and clocked up a bizarre attendance record before I was to get to Vicarage Road for the first time.

I remember beating York City 4-0 in the snow thanks to an Alan Mayes hat-trick and the accompanying anthem "We're proud of you, we're proud of you..." ringing round Bootham Crescent. I remember coming from behind to draw 2-2 in the last ten minutes at bottom of the table ("a straightforward away win here") and soon to be demoted Southport. The ignominy and disbelief that my presence could not guarantee a victory when I saw my first defeat, 2-1, at Chester. A 1-1 draw at Halifax when a lone policeman stopped two gangs of youths slugging it out beyond the speedway dirt track. More serious trouble at Crewe when I saw a child, my age, unconscious on the street outside the ground. Then a classic Blissett / Jenkins double strike from behind to grab two points at Bury.

And, of course, Manchester United away in the League Cup. By this time Watford were riding high in the Third Division, I was regarded as some kind of freak at school, the original spread-eagled hornet motif was sewn onto my school scarf, a "WATFORD ARE MAGIC" metal badge adorned my lapel and the '78 championship winning squad names graffitied my books. In those days the League Cup was a big event and Old Trafford was packed. We sat high up in what is now the three tiered cantilever affair, viewing the small pocket of Watford supporters behind the goal. It was my second ever evening match! With the incandescent floodlit glare, the green and the black, I really did sense this was a night when something was going to happen. A Blissett brace in the second half ensured that it did. And at long last an advantage to being based in the north west. We were home to see the match highlights shown for national digest and acclaim as the main feature on Sportsnight.

Twenty-five years down the line and I have still not made it to actually living in Watford. But the independence brought by time and cash means I can go to more or less any match I choose. But Stockport away is always a special trip. Stockport always has an evocative damp, mulching smell of childhood, even in the afternoon warmth of this season`s Indian summer.

What struck me this time is how little everything has changed. The terraced houses are still there, the original stand where I saw and heard my first ever fellow supporters still exists in its original state. Outside the main entrance, the old fashioned blue lettering still spells out Stockport County against the same red brick fašade. And I still felt charged up with the pleasure and pride that I was there supporting my side. In a changing world of featureless stadia located in retail parks, County retains my affection as a friendly, unpretentious set-up and the idea that they could re-locate to Maine Road and re-brand themselves Stockchester is, to me, abhorrent.

Standing in the same position as twenty-five years earlier - on concrete terracing now, not cinders - I reflected on the tremendous pleasure these years have brought me as a Watford supporter. What great fortune to have grown up with the club during this period in its history. And true to form Watford turned what should have been a comfortable away win in the afternoon sun into an anxious wait for the final whistle. Shades of Southport away in 1978. Portents of West Brom at home in 2000. But whether hanging on, throwing away, or outplaying and thoroughly deserving a victory, the thrill of witnessing the Golden Boys in action is still a moment to be remembered, and though occasionally hard, a moment to be enjoyed.

First published in "The Yellow Experience"