IT IS hard not to like Watford, a sentiment that dates back to the days of Elton John, Luther Blissett and John Barnes. Admittedly, their style of football under Graham Taylor wasn’t the most aesthetic – function over form, to be sure – but Watford also provided the football world with some genuinely warm moments. The club seemed to have a great attitude, connected well with the community and tried all sorts of things to raise its profile. And Elton was there, of course, weeping at Wembley, supporting his manager, as well as his team, and driving the club almost to the very top.
Watford finished runners-up in the first division in 1983, a truly remarkable achievement, and a year later, reached the FA Cup final. It was one of those great football stories – fourth division to the UEFA Cup in six and a bit years. Try telling League Two teams of today that the unthinkable can happen!
Watford also used to look after their old boys – they may still do that, for all I know – and gave season tickets to their former players who lived in the town. A nice touch.
Anyone who thinks that Watford’s caring and sharing side was just part of Reg Dwight’s imagination and that big business and Premier League insensitivity has washed away the “nice” part of Watford, would be mistaken. The club is still very welcoming – the “Vicarage Roadies” are particularly keen to help when you’re wandering around trying to find the right entrance, and there’s still an air of positive bonhomie about the place.
It’s an old fashioned experience going to a game at Vicarage Road – you walk through the streets, past cordoned-off roads and you get teasing glimpses of the floodlights through the houses. Many grounds today have lost that experience and instead sit on retail parks or sites that require a car, for obvious reasons, but there’s something exciting about walking to the ground, Lowry style, and seeing the pylons get closer and closer. It’s the sort of place where fans ignore the many grease wagons that line the street and opt to congregate in their favourite café for a pre-match full English.
Having said that, there’s nothing out-of-date about Watford when it comes to the customer experience. As I arrived, a roadie was on to me. “Turnstile 22?,” I asked, having failed to find the right gate for the Sir Elton John Stand. “It’s like the Harry Potter entrance,” said one roadie. “It doesn’t exist anymore – go through 23 or 24.” Earlier, I had seen both team coaches arrive to polite applause and good natured jousting. “Still a friendly place?,” I ask one steward. “This is Watford, sir. What do you expect?”.
That was me sold on Vicarage Road. Perched in the corner, the last seat in the row and looking down on the Burnley hordes, I was reminded of my last visit in March 1988 to see Everton win 2-1 against second division-bound Watford. That day I also sat high in the Rous stand, in the very last seat in the top row. It’s now the Graham Taylor stand in tribute to the club’s late manager.
Behind me was the Sensory Room, a special facility for children with autism, the largest of its kind in Britain. The room has state-of-the art equipment to enable children who struggle to cope with big crowds to enjoy their football. It’s another example of the type of club Watford seems to be.
As for the football, Watford are in their third Premier League campaign since promotion. How long they last at that level is anyone’s guess, but making a go of it. Their opponents, Burnley, are another unlikely lad, but they’ve won plaudits for their honest toil and the determined leadership of manager Sean Dyche, a man who sounds like he’s smoked 40 Capstan full strength before speaking on TV.
Burnley’s fans were in fine form, singing, “we’re all going on a European tour”, a reflection of their team’s performance this season that has taken them to the brink of qualification for a Europa League place.
Watford dictated play in the first half but the game was still goalless and waiting to catch fire by half-time. The home side took the lead after 61 minutes through the impressive Roberto Pereya, an Argentina international who was previously with Juventus.
But the game changed dramatically in the 70th minute when Sam Vokes came on as substitute for Nkoudou. Within seconds, a free kick was badly headed on by Watford defender Adrian Mariappa and Vokes tapped the ball into the net. A very soft goal, badly defended. Vokes, who hadn’t scored for months, turned to the Burnley fans in triumph and punched the air.
Another free kick saw Burnley take the lead two minutes later, the ball headed back across goal and Jack Cork saw his header palmed away by goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis but the ball had gone over the line. No VAR needed.
Burnley hung on to win 2-1, keeping alive that European dream. Their team is hard-working and well organised, but they’ve also got some young talent – Nick Pope is an imposing keeper and tipped for international honours and full back James Tarkowski has just won his first England cap. And manager Dyche features on everyone’s list when a top job becomes available.
Anyone who grew up in an age when Burnley produced a stream of top talent – Ralph Coates, Martin Dobson, Dave Thomas et al – welcomes the sight of the Clarets back among the top strata of English football. They’re showing everyone there is life outside the small group of elite clubs.
As for Watford, they’re still on target for their best finish for more than 30 years. They just need to look at how they handle set pieces.
On my exit from Vicarage Road, I bumped into a “roadie” and congratulated him on the way Watford handle things around the ground. “We’re a proper club with real people, we treat everyone the same. Glad you enjoyed it.” Enough said, really.
Photo: Jack Cork’s winning goal for Burnley (Press Association)