Watford 3 Tranmere Rovers 3
Saturday 4 January 2020
John had never been to Vicarage Road – but with Watford enjoying one of their occasional spells in the top flight, tickets for regular games are hard to come by. So a Cup-tie with a plentiful away allocation was just what we’d been waiting for. Alexa – make the opponents my good friends from Birkenhead, have the kick-off at a normal time and throw in a unseasonably warm day.
If you plotted Watford’s record on a heatmap the years between 1978 and 1988 would glow bright red. Coincidentally these were my own formative years watching the game, and as a result my own perception of what has often been an average Home Counties club is hopelessly coloured by their memory. Principally this is of a side in a strip far too bright for a drab era, beating teams I liked by irritatingly simple methods. The genius of Graham Taylor was behind both. Red shorts with yellow shirts gave, he thought, an air of invincibility. As for his tactics, “People expected us to play the ball down the middle. When we didn’t they struggled to explain how they lost.”
Fourth Division in 1978 to League runners-up just five years later is a remarkable story. So too is an unconventional UEFA Cup campaign featuring a spectacular comeback over a Kaiserslautern side including Brehme, Briegel and Allofs. There was also a charismatic run to Wembley in 1984. But I most remember a series of attritional FA Cup matches with Manchester City in 1986, mainly because of how bloody cold it was. After a 1-1 draw at Maine Road – Kenny Jackett’s penalty equalising a short-lived lead from Gordon Davies – the replay was delayed a week due to snow, finally finishing 0-0. The third game took place in Moss Side just three days later and on a bitter Thursday evening Watford proved strongest. They usually did.
Taylor understood context. “The six years we had in the top flight in the 1980s does not mean we are a big club. We spent six years there and 111 outside”, reminds us there’s far more to Watford than that brief period of time (and indeed the present one). Greyhounds, for example. The ground was used for dog racing between 1928 and 1978. Back in the day few things cemented a provincial club at the heart of its community like half a dozen canines chasing a mechanical hare around a dirt track. It wasn’t much fun for the hounds, mind, as the near-right-angled bends on the Vicarage Road track were known as ‘the wall of death’. But it still recalls what one fan recalls as “sneaking in, setting about the ale and trying to nick a few quid off the woof-woofs.” Those things were precious once and vanished now.
Community was at the heart of the club built by Taylor and Elton John. Watford players, for instance, were required to live within ten miles of the ground as “I wanted local people to see them shopping etc and for the players to feel the local pulse.” When the team reached Wembley, Taylor focussed less on the footballing achievement than the realisation that “I had totally bonded with the locality.” If you believed the media Vicarage Road was less subject to hooliganism than most, despite its proximity to London (this wasn’t the case but it’s a credit to the club’s efforts that so many believed it). The apotheosis of this PR exercise was ITV’s choice of the ground as filming location for the childrens’ series Murphy’s Mob. The rogueish yet honourable junior supporters of Dunmore United could have been totems for the whole Watford experiment. Even Milton Johns seemed less evil than usual.
Nothing telegraphs a club at the peak of its success like a dedicated railway station. This was the case with West Brom in the 30s, Hull in the 50s and Derby in the 90s. The Hornets too were in on the act when Watford Stadium Halt opened at the foot of Occupation Road in 1982. Quickly nicknamed “Hooligan Halt”, the station allowed passengers to be shuttled from Watford Junction to the away turnstiles without setting foot on residential streets. Until the line’s closure a decade or so later many a visiting supporter trudged though the Farm Terrace allotments to reach the ground. This unusual route is a defining memory for an entire generation of fans.
There’s more about Watford Stadium Halt here:
Notes : On 4 December 1982, a new stop funded by the Football Trust, Watford Football Club and Watford Borough Council, was built on the east side of Vicarage Road to provide support for the increased crowds attending matches at the stadium: Watford had risen from the fourth to the first division under manager Graham Taylor for the first time in the club’s history.
Third Round day is always an interesting time on the road. Stafford services were busy with Carlisle fans going to Cardiff, and we hadn’t long passed Birmingham before we started to see Merseyside coaches heading the same way as us. In a rare bit of joined-up thinking we checked traffic reports and discovered the M1 was shut, and in yet another we deployed the built-in satnav that came with John’s new car. We did however retain some arlarse credibility by turning the sound off and treating it like a virtual roadmap.
As a result of these sensible measures we arrived at Watford Girls’ Grammar School just after one, paid the kind of steep parking charge you’d expect in such refined surroundings and wandered the few hundred yards to the ground. Despite not having been for two decades/at all, we still seemed to have more idea where to find it than some of the Watford fans we came across. The explanation lay in cut-price tickets with a vague promise of unspecified priority for upcoming Premiership games – it seemed to be creating an unusual dynamic in the home support, but then I guess that’s the magic of the Cup.
The exterior of Vicarage Road is unimposing. It’s set in a natural bowl with a low street-level frontage. The land drops away on two sides, one of which is inaccessible because it backs onto the local hospital. Buildings at the lower end shield the stands from view. This was the location of the famous allotments, but now the whole area has been flattened to make space for new housing and the expanding hospital. The path leading down to the former station survives but there’s no news on a long-awaited Metropolitan Line extension which would see the line restored to service.
There are two tidy seated ends. These – the Vicarage Road and Rookery stands – look identical, but in fact the Rookery is considerably bigger. Because of the sloping terrain fans enter the Rookery at the bottom and the Vicarage Road at the top. Both stands went up in the space of a few seasons as a consequence of the Taylor Report. This had the effect of squaring off an elliptical profile dating back to the ground’s early days, and more recently the new Elton John Stand has fully enclosed the Occupation Road side for the first time. The Graham Taylor stand opposite was built on the back of the Eighties boom but not fully seated until some years later.
This stand originally commemorated FA secretary and FIFA president Stanley Rous but was renamed after Taylor in 2014, which on the face of it seems a bit harsh on poor old Sir Stan. It’s an elegant two-tiered piece of work with a vaulted plastic roof that’s more attractive than it sounds. The Rous Stand replaced the much-loved Shrodells, a charming but hopelessly inadequate structure dating from the ground’s construction in the 30s. During its later days this was all-seated but had originally been terracing in the front section, at a time when it was possible to walk all the way around Vicarage Road and come back to where you had started. (Shrodells was the Public Assistance Institution, a charitable foundation whose buildings were eventually incorporated into the hospital.)
Elegant is a word that will never describe the Taylor Stand’s chunky, prefabricated counterpart on the opposite side of the pitch. But this is at least smarter than what was there before. This touchline used to have no fewer than five different sections – the 1920s Main Stand in the centre, an incongruous addition on the Rookery side, two paddock extensions and an area of open seating and terrace towards Vicarage Road. These evolved organically but chaotically as the team’s progress outstripped the ground’s seating capacity. They were later sequentially closed down as various safety rulings came into play. The coaching staff used to be isolated here on open benches placed over the disused dog track, Graham Taylor having famously said that until the Vicarage Road terrace was roofed he too would get wet when it rained.
Opinion is divided on the origins of the Rookery name. Some believe that when Watford moved here from Cassio Road the woods leading down to the River Colne (cleared to create the allotments) were a notable haunt of rooks. Others think it refers to slum houses that once stood around an old mill. Whatever, unlike the Vicarage Road terrace – which remained uncovered to the end – this section of the ellipse had a cavernous roof, paid for by the Supporters’ Club in the 1950s. Its notoriously shallow terracing was eventually segregated to hold both home and away fans. As one of the former recalls, “The best thing about the old Rookery was that we stood on concrete terraces under a roof and visiting fans stood outside the roof and on a slag heap. That’s the way to treat visitors.”
Flesh and wine
We’d arrived at the same time as the official coaches so about 500 Wirralians were milling about. Some were taking pictures of their kids sitting on a statue of Graham Taylor – it was like Santa’s grotto, if Santa played percentage football. Maintaining our unusually responsible behaviour, we decided on a food/beer/food strategy and sloped into the nearest chippy to line our stomachs with pie. Vicarage Road is one of those excellent grounds surrounded by cheap and cheerful eating places. In some ways this forces difficult choices, in others it encourages you to go back after the match and raid a burger van you spotted earlier.
It was 20-odd years since the last meeting between these sides and many visiting fans were wondering where to drink. The advice of most locals was to head for the Oddfellows, so we didn’t do that. As the Red Lion on the corner – where I ended up on my previous visit – was all bouncered up and clearly not going to let us in, we settled into the rather less fussy Mangan’s in the relaxed company of sundry local boozers and followers of both clubs. This is one of those Irish pubs you find around London that generally have very few Irish people in them. Despite the press round the bar it was easy to get served – we even found seats in the pool room underneath a TV showing the Rochdale v Newcastle tie. Happy days.
We were in the Vicarage Road End. Interest on Merseyside had tipped demand over the usual away allocation meaning that Watford made a belated decision to open up the whole stand. This meant a bit more room to circulate than would normally be the case – something of a blessing, as the exits and concourses at this end must surely be among the tiniest anywhere. We ambled out of the pub and into an old-school awayday complete with cardboard cut-out FA Cups and a general disregard for seat numbering and gangways. The stand is built into the hillside but its concrete steps were flexing like a dancefloor as three thousand or so fans bounced around to Tequila.
Watford had entered into the spirit of things by making nine changes and giving debuts to half their youth side. Several looked as though they’d been let out of school for the occasion and one of these, Tom Dele-Bashiru, struck an early opener as nervous Tranmere defenders invited him to pick his spot. Nathaniel Chalobah profited from more hesitancy two minutes later and then Roberto Pereyra notched a fine third as the youngsters ran rings round a pedestrian visiting team. The possibilities for Rovers shrank in front of our eyes from causing an upset to avoiding a thrashing, and the fearful conversation at half time was all about how many Watford might get if legs and hearts tired later on.
But Micky Mellon proved to we of little faith that he is without doubt master of the half-time substitution. His introduction of Woods and Blackett-Taylor stiffened the Tranmere spine and some ill-judged sitting back by Watford did the rest. For once in a way VAR wasn’t a complete pain in the arse, overruling the linesman for Connor Jenning’s perfectly good headed goal and then confirming that Mason Barrett had brought down Blackett-Taylor in the box rather than the other way around. In between was a thumping Rovers second from Manny Monthe and on either side we had assorted Watford juveniles going down with cramp and a harsh dismissal for Pereyra.
Did we like that.
Teams and goals
Watford: Bachmann, Mariappa, Dawson, Spencer-Adams (Barrett 77), Masina, Quina (Whelan 61), Chalobah (Junqueira de Jesus 45), Dele-Bashiru, Success, Gray, Pereyra. Unused subs: Sarr, Dalby, Hungbo, Parkes.
Tranmere: Chapman, Caprice, Clarke, Monthe, Nelson (Woods 45), Morris, Danns, Jennings, Perkins, Ferrier (Mullin 81), Payne (Blackett-Taylor 45). Unused subs: Woods, Ray, Gilmour, Pilling, Walker-Rice.
Goals: Watford: Dele-Bashiru 12, Chalobah 14, Peyeyra 34. Tranmere: Jennings 65, Monthe 78, Mullin 87 (pen).