Book Review: ‘Tales from the Vicarage’

‘Tales from the Vicarage’ edited by Lionel Burnie

Buy it here…


When journalist Jonathan Wilson launched the new quarterly football magazine ‘The Blizzard’ in early 2011, he wished to provide writers with a platform to tell stories that didn’t quite fit elsewhere. Few newspaper editors were willing to include extended pieces on Yugoslavia’s 6-4 defeat of Romania in 1997 (Blizzard Issue 5) in their pullouts, and publishers were reticent to green-light a book centred entirely on the brief rise of Swedish side Motala’s fortunes in the 1950s (Blizzard Issue 1), but the stories were there to be told. The Lionel Birnie-published Tales from the Vicarage takes this new form of journalistic anthology and aims it square at Watford, presenting fans with a chance to read writers’ accounts that could otherwise have passed into the mists of time.

The result is a book that holds something for everyone. Those with a taste for history can quench their thirst with Oliver Phillips’ sweeping memoir of six decades of change at the club, or Simon Burnton’s account of the greatest example of change in the club’s history – the change of identity from the blue-and-white-clad team imaginatively nicknamed ‘The Blues’ into the resplendent-in-yellow lot we know as ‘The Hornets’ – and the success that followed it.

If more modern history is your thing, there’s ex-Watford Observer journalist Kevin Affleck’s unmissable diary on life with the triumvirate of Adrian Boothroyd, Graham Simpson and Mark Ashton; Sky Sports News presenter Adam Leventhal’s take on loyalty among managers, with a little help from Brendan Rodgers and Malky Mackay; Birnie’s interview with Fillippo Galli, the glinting diamond in the murky landfill of Gianluca Vialli’s stint at the helm; Andrew French’s experiences as Press Officer during the club’s first foray into the Premiership at the turn of the millennium; and ex-England keeper David James’ memories of being a new pro joining the Watford Family.

Football clubs are of course built on foundations created by the supporters, and Stuart Hutchison, John Anderson and Tim Turner all give intriguing accounts of their different Watford obsessions. While Olly Wicken’s fantastical imagining of Graham Taylor’s divine leadership in the 1980s and Birnie’s recovering of an old Match comic strip featuring Taylor’s side taking on Harry Cannon’s Stanton Town will satisfy any reader’s need for footballing whimsy.

Individually, the chapters provide interesting reads, but when collected, they combine to remind us why we all hold Watford FC as such a special institution.

To start with the fandom side of things, Turner concludes that while we all have different routines regarding our attendance of games – some may be in the pub with mates from eleven in the morning, others may rock up alone at five to three, and some may be fifty miles away cutting the grass, but we are all part of the Watford FC community. The oddest part of our biweekly pilgrimage to be part of the congregation at Vicarage Road is that our shared experience with those around us cuts through the barrier of strangerhood. We can spend the greatest moments of our lives in the presence of the same five or six people around us and never know their names. Similarly, we go online to argue with people until we’re blue in the face, and yet we wouldn’t know our greatest adversaries or allies if we passed them in the street. Now that Twitter has taken off, this interactive anonymity has never been greater.

Hutchison’s obsession extends further than staying up late arguing with a fifteen year old on Twitter. As a producer at BBC Sport, he has at his fingertips decades-worth of archives which he has sifted through searching for nuggets of gold – more recently a slightly garish yellow – in the form of Watford footage. His chapter, the final one in the book, is an amusing, often hilarious, telling of his attempts to build up a complete library of Watford footage in which he blames the Communist idealism summed up by a pre-season trip to the Lake District for the club’s pre-GT failure, hero worships an unnamed cataloguer of old Granada clips (for once, the TV company, NOT our Spanish brothers), and cocks a sceptical eye at fans of olives. If he had not found salvation in the corridors of Television Centre, there would most certainly have been a job behind a typewriter waiting for Hutchison, whose thirteen pages whizz by in a whirl of humour, digression and, of course, a completely relatable hunger to fill his life with Watford FC.

Anderson is another contributor who has found his calling in sport broadcasting. As he describes, this is a paradoxical profession – if your love of sport has been ignited by one club to the extent that you seek to pursue it as a career, you are doomed to be held absent from your first love by inconsiderate bosses sending you to footballing wastelands like Old Trafford or St James’ Park. It is interesting to see how one separates (and, on occasion, fails to separate) professional and fanatical love of sport, and how one moment of childhood inspiration, often misremembered and vague, can inspire a man’s future.

Where the accounts of fandom wash by with a wave of emotion and nostalgia for our own experiences, the chapters written by inside men, telling the tales that supporters won’t have hard before, are full of intrigue and revelation. None more so than Affleck’s journal from the abortive Premier League season of 2006/07.

It was a confusing time to be a Watford fan, with good fortune on the football pitch accompanied by a host of propaganda from the boardroom and a never-ending source of chirpy bluster in the form of Adrian Boothroyd. There were always rumours of the other side of Aidy and his superiors, but they had never before been told in such gaping-mouthed detail as they have here. The strained relationship between the Observer and the club was well publicised, though many considered Affleck the instigator, worshipping the ground that Boothroyd walked on, and, it seemed, with good reason.

Here, though, we are given the journalist’s side of things: in his first year as Watford correspondent he was given a seemingly impossible job, trying to keep on the right side of an increasingly neurotic Boothroyd whilst judging the correct journalistic stance to take whilst the club started to crumble backstage. The chapter is full of eye-opening revelation. Though I won’t spoil it for you here, one phrase can best sum up the haphazard running of the club as described in the chapter: Collins John.

This insight into Boothroyd’s fall from grace is countered by Leventhal’s interviews with Rodgers and Mackay, two measured men who have also taken a lot of flak from Watford fans in their post-Watford lives. Leventhal, perhaps the most successful Watford fan on the planet (he’s PAID to sit a foot away from Millie Clode for god’s sake), loves a metaphor and succeeds in an almost impossible task: making Brendan Rodgers look good (well, better). His role in the oddly-coloned documentary series ‘Being: Liverpool’ has painted him as a David Brent character, spewing management speak and naff motivational techniques, but here he discusses his regret at how his short term at the club ended, and even renounces his relationship with Jose Mourinho!

Leventhal’s chapter provides an insight into the manager’s role: Mackay and Rodgers were working in tricky conditions, but a strong work ethic and calm head saw them each attain some form of success. Affleck’s Boothroyd, however, succumbs to neurosis, losing sight of the Watford Way – a theme that pops up in the book time and again. Phillips describes in his chapter the opposition that Graham Taylor met in the media when he first took the club to the top flight, journalists patronising towards the small club holidaying at the top before taking back their rightful place in the lower echelons and pally with the old guard, established names who give good copy and are more than happy to maintain the status quo. The same is true to French’s experience of dealing with the media. But Taylor coped where Boothroyd collapsed, struggling to deal with no longer being the media’s darling and the questions over his direct style and transfer dealings.

Indeed, in French’s chapter we see how small clubs entering the big time should work. There was no shortage of hard work and hard times, but it was met with an approach fitting to the “Watford Way” – Taylor clearly knew that maintaining a tight unit was the most important thing if survival was going to be assured. The chapter is full of great anecdotes – Michel Ngonge’s attempt to be media-savvy and Xavier Gravelaine’s efforts to fulfil the criteria of stereotypical Frenchman stick out, but the natural air of positivity and badinage that encapsulates the section harks back to a simpler time.

It was only a decade or so ago, but football has moved on so much. There were no primadonnas in the team, everyone was pulling together to achieve the same goal. We seemed to be getting back to that last year with the Sean Dyche group, and Troy Deeney is trying to carry the torch single handed into the new era with his naming and shaming of fashion disasters on Twitter, but is was refreshing to see such a close-knit and humble group.

The “Watford Way”, and the dangers it faces in modern football, was the moral of Wickens’ imagined  autobiography of Graham ‘God’ Taylor. To be honest, for the first few pages I struggled to see where it was going, but as it picked up into a barely concealed parable about the corruption of success and ambition it hit me. With the new takeover giving the story added relevance, the cautionary tale of not forsaking passion and values in a bid for on-pitch achievement is presented with humour and warmth, even if it is a bit blasphemous. To give a spoiler-free summary, Taylor IS God, and with his divinity discovered by a nerdy Oxford student – who has forsaken a social life in favour of following the Hornets home and away, struggles to keep his secret under wraps whilst moulding 1980s Watford into a team whose humility could be an example to all humanity.

The point, of course, is that this was a team who had risen organically through the divisions, putting a focus on hard work and making the most of abilities. Phillips says that Taylor considered letting Luther Blissett go when the team was still in the third division, which shows how much the striker improved. This is the ‘Watford Way’, and it’s why fans like Hutchison, Turner and Anderson retain such strong connections with the club.

In a way, the book as a whole sums up how Watford’s mundanity make it unique. We’re not a big club, we don’t have airs and graces, you won’t find our players in any Armani adverts any time soon – they aren’t even at the GoCompare level of endorsement yet – but we have no issue with this, and indeed embrace it. Everything changes in life, but Watford stands as a constant – always there, warm and comforting.

At several points in the book, the writer states how a young Reginald Dwight was probably standing there watching a particular event. His transformation into a musical megastar followed, but Watford – for all its change – never changed for him. Anderson became a top level broadcaster, working with Sky and the Beeb, but Watford were always the club he fell in love with despite a Surrey-based upbringing. Perhaps the most poignant passage in the whole book comes in Turner’s chapter. As he gears up for the 1999 Playoff Final, he gets the dreaded phone call from his mother telling him that his father had died. Unable to arrange a funeral until after the bank holiday, he decides to go to Wembley and the victory provides a catharsis, a release of emotion. When life is unkind, we always have our club to lean on.

This collection is not anti-change propaganda. Burnton’s account shows that change can galvanise a stagnant team. What it is is a love story to Watford, and in interviewing Galli, captain of the last Italian ‘invasion’, Burnie warns against throwing away identity. As the editor says, in summation, asking questions is our duty as fans, and should not be misconstrued as a lack of support. What is made public, as we have seen, is not always the whole story. Change is good, but it should not come at the cost of “The Watford Way”.

Burnie has stated that the publishing of a collection like this will be an annual thing. And thank God. Such books are essential for reminding ourselves what we really are, and preventing that we don’t let pursuit of success and money skew that. Brian Friel said it in his lamentation on the corrosion of Gaelic identity, Translations: ‘we must never cease renewing those images; because once we do, we fossilise’.


One comment

  1. Fans of Watford FC can only benefit from the fact that Lionel is a passionate wordsmith and a first class journalist with a keen instinct for a good story, though he has not written the majority of this book his vision and drive have created another body of work that will solve many a Watford FC fans nearest and dearest Christmas present dilema.

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