Tales from the Vicarage: Volume Four


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

You Don’t Know Me, But…

You Don’t Know Me, But: A Footballer’s Life

By Clarke Carlisle

Simon & Schuster, 2014

Along with most of the football-loving population, I have a natural scepticism when it comes to player autobiographies. Like the ‘True Scotsman’, they tend to be all bluster and skirt, with nothing underneath. Messrs Keane and Bellamy aside, few footballers are daring enough to name and shame their fellow professionals, and understandably so. With so many players extending their careers in football through coaching and media work, burning bridges at retirement is to be avoided like the plague. There is, however, another kind of honesty, one that doesn’t play on scandal but instead offers genuine insight into the realities of footballing life. Clarke Carlisle’s You Don’t Know Me, But is a winning example of this. Touching on everything from finances to dressing room politics via addiction, depression and racism, it’s a real breath of fresh air in a fusty genre.

In many ways, Carlisle is an atypical member of the footballing fraternity. He’s won two rounds of Countdown, presented documentaries on racism and depression, and he’s the former Chairman of the PFA. While it’s not the main focus of the book, Clarke’s cerebral side is still given plenty of platform, particularly in ‘Part of the Union’, one of the book’s stand-out chapters. Discussing FIFA’s response to racism, Carlisle argues, ‘There is a disgusting disparity between the sanctions imposed for offences that will cost the governing body money and those that are unethical or immoral.’ He goes on to add, ‘It is not the exclusive remit of black players to fight racism, it is for everyone to fight.’ Carlisle is equally eloquent and forthright on the subject of his own alcohol dependency and depression, brought on by a bad injury at the tender age of 21. ‘I didn’t have the wherewithal to face my responsibilities. From my warped and clouded viewpoint, all I could see was myself.’ Carlisle reflects on his troubled past with the frank assessment of a man who is very aware of his fortunate position.

But in other ways, Carlisle is incredibly typical. As with Tony Cascarino’s Full Time, You Don’t Know Me, But… is written by a footballer who has been through the English leagues, experiencing both great highs and great lows. Blackpool, QPR, Burnley, Preston, Northampton, York City – Carlisle is no superstar and he knows it. In his own words, he’s ‘a kid from Preston, from the humblest of beginnings and with moderate ability’. The modest, unaffected narrative voice is a really appealing feature; for all his more high-brow aspirations, Carlisle is full of the joys of the ‘playground’ banter that brings a team together: ‘It’s incredibly immature, but the whole working environment of football is.’ Whole chapters are dedicated to pranks, fights, preseason tours and Christmas parties. The tone of the book reflects the combination in Carlisle’s character brilliantly, blending his intelligent observations with cruder touches of humour.

The structure of You Don’t Know Me, But… is also a real masterstroke and key to the book’s success. What better way to address the harsh realities of football than by showing a former Premier League player scrapping for a living in the belly of League Two? Carlisle’s present day trials and tribulations, interwoven with flashbacks to a career of success and failure, paint a very powerful portrait of an average football career. Transport, housing, bills; these are still everyday concerns for all but the very top players, and even then, there is always the danger of the good life being whipped out from under your feet when you least expect it.

It seems an odd phrase to use for a footballer’s autobiography, but You Don’t Me, But… is a multi-faceted memoir. In its candid handling of mental health issues, so long a taboo in the macho sporting arena, it’s a significant addition to books by the likes of Sol Campbell, Keith Gillespie and of course Ronald Reng. But Carlisle’s book also addresses some of the key issues of modern football politics and, perhaps most significantly of all, offers everyday details from the largely everyday career of an endearingly everyday footballer.

Buy it here