Getting worse with age
By Nicholas Ralph
For me, it seems pretty much always to have been a long way to Watford - I
lay claim to being amongst those peripatetic individuals whose support for
the club is almost entirely emotional and hardly ever physical, in the sense
of actually turning up at matches. But there are good reasons for this, which
I still spend time trying to justify to myself, even at my advancing age (not
yet 50, but approaching with some rapidity).
My first trip to the Vic was in the mid 50ís, probably 1956. I canít remember
who we played, or even the result. I can remember that everyone around our little
group - me, my Grandad, and my Uncle - spent most of the match moaning and
groaning about everything Watford did. Ten points for guessing where we were
But in 1959 my love affair with the club got under way in the opening match
of the season against Stockport County. The WO report of the match probably
talked about a disappointing start to the season, the lack of goals, the modest
crowd, the paucity of chances created, and so forth. But for me this was a singularly
thrilling experience of which I wanted more and more and more. It was not,
really, to be. My parents lived in Nigeria at the time, and I was consigned
to boarding school in Somerset for another nine years yet.
My next match, then, was weeks later - the 2-0 home win over Barrow. We were
brilliant. And then, after a few more weeks, the home win over Workington, by
3-2. Couldnít go to Exeter City at home (5-2) in the January because my Aunt
and Uncle were visiting (I lived with my grandparents in Croxley Green, and
later in Little Chalfont, when I wasnít at school or with my parents overseas).
And I missed the really big game against Birmingham City in the cup, because
we couldnít get any tickets. By this time, I was utterly hooked. Needless to
say, Cliff and the boys disposed of Birmingham with consummate ease: for me
the few days before and after this great game evinced themselves physically
in a bout of the runs serious enough to require medical attention.
I saw only two more games that year (what a year it was, too - the record
books tell the story) including what I consider to be the most exciting game
I ever watched in person at Vicarage Road, against Gateshead. The game was
basically crap, but the excitement was almost unbearable.
And this is pretty much how it went for the next several years. I was
constrained by school and visits abroad to two or three matches a year. But
this did nothing to diminish my ardour, or my anxiety. In fact, if there is
one truly recurring theme in my geographically distant relationship with the
club, it is an almost continuous sense of anxiety. This can bring about
strange and eccentric behaviour, of which a few examples will suffice to
My folks were transferred back to Nigeria in 1966 (just in time for the
Biafran War), and the old behaviour patterns got gradually more and more
devious. The radiogram had gone, and we were down to very expensive Sunday
newspapers for information. These were available at the Ikoyi Hotel, a short
fifty minute walk from home (given that transport for such a worthless
mission was parentally unavailable) where the sum of five shillings (about
forty thousand pounds today) was required for one single copy of the
rice-paper version of the West of England edition of the Sunday Express. This
ghastly apparition actually had the dreaded Bristol Shitty as its lead footie
story almost every week, but at least managed to carry the full, and usually
devastating, results. Just before Easter 1967 we were motoring along very
nicely only for me to discover in the paper that we could only have drawn at
home to Brighton, and had actually lost at home to Leyton Orient. This
particular newspaper cost me four packs of my fatherís State Express 555
cigarettes which he suspected me of removing right until his untimely death
in 1982. At least, I think he did. Youíd miss FOUR packs, wouldnít you? This
still haunts me, as you can probably tell. A week later Adekunle, the
gentleman with the newspapers at the hotel, was good enough to allow me to
read the results without actually buying a paper - lost to Gillingham, and
must have lost the return at Brighton. Another season screwed up completely
by my failing to be present at more than three matches.
- at the age of 13, hanging about every Sunday/Wednesday in the Speedbird
Hotel in Bahrain hoping to catch a BOAC crew member with an English newspaper.
This was considerably less expensive than actually buying the same newspaper
several days later, and of course a great deal quicker. It also caused a
separate anxiety when it became clear that crew members were not actually
total abstainers, and that many of the party-party rumours were very probably
- a year later, finding out at Easter that it was quite a bit easier to
go to the British Residence (a sort of junior embassy) and irritate the man
at the desk until he lent you his Sunday Mirror/Mail/whatever, even if you
did have to take a lot of serious invective about following "Watford for
crying out loud what a bunch of Ö";
- at around the same time, discovering the extremely sensitive short-wave
capabilities of the brand new and expensive radiogram donít you dare touch
it which my father had purchased, and realizing that the World Service was
at last available. Then contriving all manner of schemes to get both parents
out of the house so that I could listen for the results (from which you will
correctly divine that neither was remotely interested in football, and that
both tended to suspect the sanity of anyone who was);
- learning gradually at around this age that the higher the level of my
anxiety, and the greater the need for a Watford victory, the lower the
probability that my wishes would come true;
- development of an unhealthy list of irrational hatreds (as we call
them today - back then they were simple and unquestionably reasonable
- Luton (from Day One);
- Bristol City (the nearest club to my school - all the vocal local yokels
supported City, and were terribly taken with the fact that John Atyeo had
once farted for England. I hate Bristol City MORE than Luton, probably);
- Fulham (God knows why - something about the name, and their perennial
relegation-avoiding miracles at the time);
- Crystal Palace (Good man! - Ed) (started when they beat us 8-1 in
1959-60, even though we got promoted and they didnít - not helped by their
getting promoted in 1963-64 despite having next to no wins by more than one
- Reading & QPR (stupid kit);
- Peterborough United (we just couldnít seem to beat them, and there was
a lad at school who loved them - a formula ripe for a hatred bordering on
psycopathic, along Bristol City lines, in fact);
- Sheffield United (for clogging us off the park in 1960 when we thoroughly
deserved to go through to the sixth round - and more recently for hiring Dave
- Swansea City (for being smug, and just for existing);
- Colchester United (again, I have no idea why, except that they always
seemed to be taking crucial points from us);
- Bristol City (in case you skipped the earlier references - ugh!);
- Argentina (and, remember, this was long before either the 1966 World Cup
or the Falklands contretemps - it started because of their crap attitude in
the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile).
Being abroad really was tough. Well, no, it wasnít really - I had a pretty
good time, and got to see and do things which were pretty unusual at the time.
But as a Watford supporter, it was hell. So when the school thing was done,
youíd think Iíd have the opportunity to watch a lot more matches. Yes, and no.
The opportunity was there - I was an articled clerk (badly paid slave) in an accounting firm in London, living with my grandparents, so close enough to the Vic. Unfortunately, by the time Iíd paid rent and rail fares, and bought my books and courses, I was not only without funds, but somewhat in hock. My ration was still two or three games a year, for which I have to thank my now dear-departed Grandad as 'twas he who usually paid. It was he, also, who enabled me to expand my interest in the club through the WO. He was a director/ex-director at the paper before it was taken over by whoever, and he got me access to their archives.
At this point Iíve got to express my deep appreciation for the work which Trefor Jones has done. I can certainly attest to the miserably frustrating experience which is that of the newspaper archive researcher. It takes a debilitating number of hours to discover even the merest fraction of information. To my considerable disappointment, I simply didnít have the time to pursue this avenue seriously. In the event, I got quite a bit of historical information from the British Library (after a ritual ridiculing by the "research librarian" at my chosen subject matter) and got some of it published in the club handbook. This appeased my conscience somewhat, and continued an abiding interest in the fuller history of the club. [All other committed anoraks might be interested to know that Trefor is probably going to do a statistical book in the future, to go with his Whoís Who, and his considerable and multifarious contributions to the Watford literature of recent years].
I also came to believe during those five difficult, but footballingly quite pleasing years (no, thatís bollocks - only 1968/69 was any good, the rest were awful), that I was a jinx. I didnít see the club win a single match in that time. In 1968/69, the Year of the Furphy (otherwise known as the Year of the Most Painfully Boring but Thoroughly Effective Football known to HumanKind) I managed to be present at both home defeats, and a garbage draw against Brian Cloughís Hartlepool. Even taking my rugby-loving buddy Mike made no difference - in fact it seemed to make matters even worse. (The trend has, sadly, continued. Just before emigrating to Canada I watched us throw away a game to Swansea the year we climbed out of the old Division Three, and the jinx continued last year when I went to England largely for the footie and we lost, of course, to Portsmouth of all people).
Marriage in 1971 coincided with the run-up to the clubís worst-ever season - and I have to admit shamefully that being newly married in no way interfered with my obsessive support for the club, although it did cut my match attendance rate by at least a third, what with there now being much more family to visit, etc. My wife, Dinah (she hates this, her third name, but I like it), is still unable to comprehend my deep moral and emotional commitment to the club. Objectively, I see exactly what she means, but whatís objectivity got to do with anything?
Just as we began to move forward somewhat financially, to the point where I was seriously considering the purchase of a season ticket (primarily because I knew Dinah wouldnít then let me miss a match for fear that the ticket would be - God forbid - WASTED) I was offered, and for purely masochistic reasons accepted, a job in Luxembourg.
So here we were, in 1975, after a period of relatively normal Watford-following behaviour, back to the old maniacal ways of ensuring contact. I bought a programme subscription (ahem - one of the first, if not THE first) and Dinahís beaten up Morphy radio could pull the BBC Light Programme from the airwaves just about well enough to get the results at 1640h-ish each Saturday. Life revolved around being at home at that time, no matter what. Of course, it was also extremely debilitating, as it seemed to have been for the most part over the years, until Graham Taylor arrived in 1977. Then even Dinah wanted to catch the results. (This has nothing to do with any kind of interest on her part in the club - it was completely and only because we won 27-0 every week, and I would be in a hortative and happy mood for at least four days afterward, which made life a good deal easier for her, I have to concede).
The appeal of the dear old Grand Duchy started to wane, and visions of being a life-long, every-match-attender, loomed. We could afford good seats, even, and an good evening out afterwards. This would continue until we were both well into our nineties. Of course, we moved to Canada instead.
Amazingly enough, this proved to be the greatest challenge yet, in terms of getting results and information. Match programmes, which I still get, are interesting only to a point. They are generally improved each year, but are still very heavily sanitized. In Graham Taylorís times, though, they tend to be, at least, more honest than at others. But keeping in touch in real time meant endless calls to newspapers IN ENGLAND. Phone bills became embarrassing, but in my opinion utterly justified, as the club soared upward.
I have to say, things have got better and better as time has gone by. The Canadian and US papers still print results the wrong way round pretty often, canít print a league table correctly to save their lives, and focus on "English Lager Louts Kill 12,000" type stories rather than the footie. But they are more reliable than they used to be. I donít need my unspeakably expensive (Dinah still doesnít know what it really cost and I burned the invoice the day the warranty ran out) short-wave radio which only worked really well when the trailing antenna wire was dropped down the back of my trousers (Godís truth, and x-rays show no good reason for this) so that I could just about make out the scores. Even then, there were so many occasions when I heard something like:
Arsenal 0 West Ham United 1
Chelsea 2 Sunderland 2
Liverpool 1 Watford phhhhzzzzschschsch
Manchester United 9 Crystal Palace 0
And you couldnít even tell form the announcerís intonation whether we might have got a point or two.
(Oops - just realized I forgot to include Manchester United on my list of irrational hatreds, and theyíre near the top, too).
Latterly, we have Saturday morning soccer television with almost real-time reporting and a review of the previous week. Two and a half solid hours of soccer each time, hosted by Graham Leggatt - he does a great job of it, too, even if we do have to put up with Canada - El Salvador games four or five times a year (which Canada seems typically to win when it doesnít matter, and lose tragically by one goal when it does).
Most importantly, Iíve got BSaD (take a bow, ig - fantastic stuff) and the WML (and you too, Tim) these days. I can now be in hourly, or minutely, touch with affairs at the club, and get a very good feel for how things really are, all on the comfort of my own commode. Seriously, this is simply wonderful. It feeds the old addiction, and provides me a selfishly delicious outlet for the kind of drivel you are reading now.
These two "facilities" have also brought about something of exceptional value to me, and I dare say others who live so far from the centre of the world - a sort of ethereal kinship. I count myself very lucky to have met, electronically speaking, all manner of similar Watfordophiles from all over the globe. I have had the good fortune of meeting just a few in person at the (first, I think?) WML members meeting on the day of the fateful loss to Portsmouth in April 1996. We came from various points in the UK (Brighton, Basingstoke, Bushey, Birmingham (?)), Tromso, Oslo, Stockholm, and Ottawa - and others I canít remember and, it seemed to me at least, struck up an immediate and easy friendship. I also feel as if I know, even though I have never met them, a goodly number of other list members (not least, Chris Salter in Puerto Rico who I suspect might be even older than me!). Who could possibly have anticipated this, even five years ago?
Even though I am absent, I continue to be a completely dedicated supporter. Will this change? Never. In fact, largely because of the easy access to information and opinion through BSaD and the WML, itís likely, as Dinah would put it, to get "considerably worse".
One thing thatís hardly changed since the sixties is my list of irrational hatreds. However, the uniquely awful nature of the one addition to the list more than makes up for the lack of quantity. Dave Bassett (if you hadnít already guessed). I shall say no more.
For what itís worth, and notwithstanding the brilliances of Graham Taylor and the thrills and characters of his first (and I hope second) eras as manager, my own boyhood hero will never be displaced. Cliff Holton was a simply magnificent player and character and, even at a great distance, a positive influence in every possible sense. You couldnít but look up to the man.
And the future? Over the last forty years (roughly) there have been some wonderful times. There have also been some desperately awful ones (the last few years not really coming close in awfulness to those of, say, the early seventies, or the inexplicable collapse in 1962/63). Whatever the results and outcomes, the anxiety level stays pretty constant. In my new job, March and April cease - pretty much - to exist in any normal sense as we churn out tax returns for all and sundry to meet the very strict deadlines here. But even when swamped, I managed to find a few minutes to strike up the connection to SoccerNet on the officeís spare PC, to keep an eye on things. That this causes me to be considered "unusual" bothers me not a bit. But, to be honest, there have been times, here and there over the years, when Iíve wished in a perverse sort of way that it could all end. This is NOT borne of any wish to put the club down - far from it - but rather to relieve myself of the stress involved, a stress in no way lessened by the distance in time and place between me and the action. In a way I love this time of year (the football silly season, when nothing Watford is really happening, except that this year it is what with Saracens and God knows what-all changing) because I can "relax".
So Iíll be in the usual state of high anxiety come August, aching for news and opinion, and hoping that another "new era" has begun, and dreading the possibility of disillusionment, and knowing that no matter how bad it might get, Iíll still be passionately interested - and that if, as we all hope, it gets very good indeed, I should probably stay away for fear of screwing it all up jinxwise.