My Second Team: Watford
Tthe latest post in our My Second Team series sees us welcome back Jonathan Rodgers – and anyone who follows Jonathan on Twitter will be keen to get the clarity this piece provides on his varying allegiances. Jonathan blogs at Facing Two Ways.
There has only ever one team for me. Derby County. Well, that’s not strictly true. I’ve supported a total of three teams in my life, often two at the same time. It seems perfectly natural to me. I love football and think it’s important to support your local team. It’s just that for me, “local” has meant quite a few places over the years.
Born and bred in Derby, I first watched a game at The Baseball Ground in 1976 at the age of 7. Yes, I am that old.. I didn’t go again until 1979 but what a game it was. A 4-1 victory over local rivals Nottingham Forest & a humiliation for a certain Brian Clough.
I was hooked from that game onwards but didn’t start attending games regularly until the 1982-83 season. My older brother asked me one night if I wanted to go with him to a game. Off we went and I never looked back. By then Derby were in headlong decline and struggling against relegation to the Second Division. I was was enthralled though, partly due to the return to football management of Peter Taylor – I was always a sucker for that romantic hope that we would return to our former glories and Taylor represented that for me. I was a regular on the Popside terrace as Taylor provided enough of a boost to the team to save us from relegation.
It was a bit of a blur after that. Near bankruptcy, averted at the last by Robert Maxwell. Taylor’s heartbreaking resignation. Relegation to the Third Division in 1984 and going to games when there were barely 6,000 in the ground. Travelling to away games every fortnight on a decrepit British Rail football special, where the buffet car was an empty carriage with a bloke sitting on a crate dispensing cheese rolls. Arthur Cox, back to back promotions and return to the big time followed. Dean Saunders, Mark Wright and fifth spot in the First Division in 1989 was the zenith.
By the time we were relegated again and local millionaire Lionel Pickering took over and started splashing the cash around to no great effect (sounds sort of familiar?), I had other things in my life to distract me from the Rams. In 1994, I emigrated to a flat in a down at heel part of South East London and embarked on a nascent civil service career working on the counter in a DSS office. It was a tough job and one of my new colleagues had a proposition for me. We worked around the corner from Selhurst Park and a season ticket watching the unloved Wimbledon FC offered the prospect of easy, cheap access to Premier League football. As my colleague and soon to be close friend described it – “Beer. Football. Beer. Football. What’s not to like?” The answer was yes (obviously).
Despite being a bit of a pariah team, I enjoyed my spell as a Wimbledon fan, which started in the 1995-96 season and petered out sometime in 1999. It was a time when Joe Kinnear was a decent manager and the team actually played some good football. I remember fantastic victories against Man Utd, Newcastle and others and witnessing some stupendous goals – a cracking strike from Tony Yeboah stands out. That’s still the best goal I’ve ever seen in a football stadium.
Alcohol was always a significant part of going to the game for us in those days. Our season tickets gave us access to the fabled Glaziers Lounge and there was always the temptation to have just one more quick pint before taking our place in the stands. This approach had its risks of course. Never more so than when we dallied too long in the bar and missed a famous goal from behind the halfway line from a certain David Beckham. Oh well.
Wimbledon continued to punch above their weight, achieving several top ten Premier League finishes and three Cup semi-finals. All good things come to an end, though. They began to struggle, Kinnear had a heart attack and resigned and, more importantly, my friends stopped going to games. Without the beer and the comradeship, it was no fun any more and I stopped going to Selhurst Park.
I still regarded myself as a Derby County fan during this period though. My dad religiously sent me the clippings from the back pages of the Derby Evening Telegraph and of course there was always Match of the Day. I managed to catch the odd game, now at Pride Park, whenever I visited my parents. However, once my Wimbledon dalliance was over, I became focused on relationships and other matters again.
Talking of relationships.. By 2004 I was in Watford, living with a Hornet (a Watford fan, not the insect). She had always supported them, commendably resisting the common failing of ignoring your local team and supporting a bigger, more fashionable club in the Premier League. I’d become quite a detached Rams fan by this stage, keeping an eye on progress but only managing to attend games on an occasional basis.
I sort of gradually fell into watching Watford (and, yes, before long, becoming a fan). My wife was keen to see them, we had a good friend who was a fan and, to be blunt, the ground was only 25 minutes walk from our house. Watford were sort of on the up too. Aidy Boothroyd had just become head coach and his traditional management and motivational skills were having an impact. In 2005-6, Watford were to finish 3rd in the league and gain promotion via the play offs. One game stood out in my mind, the visit of a rather desperate Derby County in March 2006, with Terry Westley having recently taken over from Phil Brown as manager as we faced a fight against relegation – we had fallen so low we had Kevin Lisbie on loan. To be fair, he did score, as did home grown academy starlet, Giles Barnes. We ended up drawing the game 2-2 and it was pretty entertaining, actually. Not that I could really celebrate Derby’s goals, seeing I was sitting next to my wife in the Watford end. I can still distinctly recall sitting on my hands for the entire match, in order to prevent myself from disclosing my true allegiance if Derby scored. Perhaps I was being a bit over cautious.
We carried on attending Vicarage Road, watching Boothroyd lose his magic touch and depart, the brief reign of Brendan Rodgers and then the start of Malky MacKay’s and Sean Dyche’s managerial careers. There was a common theme to Watford at these times – promising, capable managers and players (Danny Graham, in particular was a favourite of ours) doing well in difficult circumstances. However, the club was always in financial trouble and had to sell their best players to survive. There was something quite charming about it all though. A club with a three sided ground, struggling to survive but doing things the right way.
There were now also more opportunities to watch Watford v Derby games at either Vicarage Road or Pride Park. By the time of the 2009-10 season, the return of a manager called Clough to Derby had reignited my interest in the Rams. The drive up to Derby with my wife and best mate, a brief cheese cob & bakewell tart at the aged parents’ house before the game and a visit to Gurkha Paradise afterwards became a bit of a tradition. My loyalties were always clear, despite having built up a vast amount of affection for the Hornets over the years, the “who are you supporting, then?” question always slightly riled me. Did people not understand what supporting your home town football club meant?
Thinks got a little complicated from the 2012-13 season onwards. The takeover of Watford by the Pozzo family and the consequent influx of a menagerie of peripheral Udinese squad players made a visit to Vicarage Road an exhilarating prospect, given Gianfranco Zola’s ability to meld his team into an effective force. We actually watched nearly 20 Watford games that season including a traumatic play off defeat at Wembley against Crystal Palace. Along the way that included perhaps the most amazing experience of my football watching life in the semi-final second leg at home when the game was won after a Leicester penalty miss and Watford scored at the other end within seconds. The Rookery End exploded, we were all in tears and before long we were on the pitch. Bonkers.
You would think that would have been the perfect time to forget about Derby and focus on the club on my doorstep but the steady progress under Nigel Clough had made me think that Premier League football was round the corner for us (Derby, that is). So in 2013-14 I became a Derby season ticket holder again, for the first time in over twenty years. What a season that was, with Steve McClaren quickly introducing the type of exciting football that would be later characterised as “The Derby Way”, only to be crash and burn at the last, after another traumatic play off defeat at Wembley.
The second McClaren season was not half as good and with Derby struggled to control games, attending matches was a bit of a gamble. You never knew what was going to happen. The perfect example was the 3-3 draw away at Millwall in 2015. That game was crazy. That day will always stick in my mind too not least for the fact that before the kick off, my wife and I watched Watford beat Brighton on the concourse TV and then, as we were exiting the stadium, Watford’s promotion to the Premier League was confirmed. What a contrast. Derby’s season was to end in ignominy, as we were dumped out of the play off positions via a 0-3 home defeat by Reading.
Last season, Premier League football was on my doorstep again. And Watford took some serious steps forward with some big signings and the acquisition of a thoughtful, experienced manager in Quique Sanchez Flores – the nicest man in football. Surprisingly, due to Watford’s enlightened ticket policy, home tickets were actually easy to get hold of. It was like Wimbledon all over again. It was great to watch my local team playing in the Premier League and punching above their weight. This was different though, due to the Pozzos, Watford were progressing steadily. They even have a proper shop at last.
Back to Derby. Four managers have come and gone since Clough was sacked and we’ve flitted around the play offs for three seasons without any real progress. We have a rich owner who has lost the support of the fans, won’t communicate with the local media and can’t stop interfering – and the toll of travelling 5,000 miles a season to watch Derby has finally made me think about ditching my first team, probably for the first time since those games in the 70s and 80s. I’ve never felt so disengaged and frustrated with Derby as I do now. Unless a miracle happens, I’ll be swapping my Derby season ticket for a Watford one in the summer. Maybe it will be time to focus on just the one club from now on.