Tales from the Vicarage: Volume Four
By Lionel Birnie
Tales From, 2015
Review by Jonathan Brick (@jonnybrick)
Lionel Birnie is the author of Enjoy the Game, the history of Watford’s ‘glory years’, or should they be ‘The Elton John Years’. Here, in ten great essays, Lionel reminds old fans of, and introduces new ones to, the glorious yesterdays. Watford Football Club, the case study in my own forthcoming book Saturday, 3pm about modern football, is more visible than ever before. Thanks to Sky Sports, the money of the Premier League and the winning mentality of its cosmopolitan squad, put together by Gino Pozzo’s money and Luke Dowling’s Football Direction, Watford FC is no longer a small-to-middling football league club, but months away from a massive payday should they/we stay in the top division.
It’s easy to love Barcelona, with the slick passing and world’s best attacker, but it’s harder to love a club like Watford, who have few truly great days and even fewer truly great players. Four interviews with Hornets of yore throw up some good quotes. John McClelland turned down Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen and gave his word to Graham Taylor; he played for Watford for six glorious seasons in the 1980s, and stayed with the club after relegation in 1988. His interview is worth reading for his tips on defending.
Allan Smart and Tommy Mooney, stalwarts of the second great Graham Taylor team who helped get Watford promoted in 1999, recall the club where fans still cherish their great goals. Mooney is a mentor to Troy Deeney, as well as being ‘Elton John’s mum’s favourite player!’ Smart signed for Watford on his wedding day, and scored the second goal at Wembley, yet feels as if that was ‘another life’. Smart is a regular at the Vic on matchdays, smiling alongside Luther Blissett, still Watford’s greatest-ever player.
Gifton Noel-Williams was the brightest prospect since John Barnes (the second greatest) and now, retired, coaches up the road from the ground. A father of seven, Gifton has also just pulled his son out of Watford’s academy, aware that his famous surname may hold him back. He speaks wisely about growing up with lots of mates at Watford FC, in Sunday football and at school, and points out that kids are mini-professionals in today’s academy-only development system.
Gifton’s story is inspirational: his resolve after being told he would be a cripple if he carried on playing, after a bad injury at 19, came from losing his father aged 13. Elton John paid for his treatment, and Graham Taylor had given him £1000 towards the cost of new fatherhood, and he speaks warmly of the two men who give their name to Vicarage Road’s biggest stands. Gifton played for Stoke and Burnley and knows Willy Caballero of Man City from his time in Spain, but he wants to become ‘part of the furniture’ at his first club, where he wants to be a manager.
Birnie has followed Watford for three decades, and with Watford’s squad at its best ever, he would love to go on a European tour. He was too young to see Watford’s UEFA Cup run of 1983/4, which ended in the last-16, but has seen scuzzy footage of the matches. He dedicates a chapter to Watford’s pre-season friendlies, and another to the host of foreign players to put on a yellow shirt. Did you know a Dutchman named Lohman actually captained the club in their first top-flight game before being afflicted by injury? Did you know Watford won the FA Youth Cup in both 1982 and 1989? I didn’t, and I call myself a Watford fan!
I was a loyal follower of Watford in 2012/3, which culminated in a loss at Wembley to Crystal Palace, but it’s so great to read an official account of Deeney’s Goal of the Century in that game against Leicester City. Jonny Hogg, the midfielder who got the assist ‘worth ten goals’ according to gaffer Gianfranco Zola, moved on from Watford after the Palace game. His contribution to the Watford story is recounted in his own words, alongside those of Deeney, Ikechi Anya and Marco Cassetti, that season’s right-wing-back, who reckoned the goal to be even more thrilling than scoring for Roma in the Champions League.
I was in a pub in North London watching Spurs on one screen and Watford on the other, two games Live on Sky Sports. The pre-Generation LoSS days were different, with only the FA Cup final showed live on TV and, writes Birnie, Watford games sold on VHS for £10 a pop (four times the ticket price to stand on the terraces!).
Today you can see goals seconds after they happen all the way around the world, and then grumble about them on social media while at the game itself! It’s almost too instant, prompting knees to jerk and fingers to pull triggers.
Reading this volume, and if you’re a Watford fan there is no reason not to read the previous three, I rejoiced above all in one man’s love of his club.
Buy it here