But You Can't Change...
How a Watford supporter ended up being converted into a Millwall fan
This is a letter that must be written, but cannot be received, because I've not overcome the space-time continuum. It is addressed to myself, as a boy on the edge of adolescence. It covers love and loss, passion and betrayal. It features two football clubs, and a cardinal sin, the transfer of allegiance from one club to another. It sees a boy's world, through a man's eyes. It seeks to share the lessons of a lifetime. It craves forgiveness, because I will shatter the illusion of innocence, but there is nothing to worry about. I've been blessed.
Happy twelfth birthday. It's Sunday, 3 August 1969. The first face you see, as you wake in the top bunk of the bedroom you share with your brothers, is that of Colin Bell. It's a full page portrait, torn from Goal magazine and sellotaped to the wall, alongside images of Tony Book, Glyn Pardoe and a mythical creature named Mike Doyle. They won the Football League for Manchester City in 1968 but you follow them by default. Mum bought you a City shirt, round necked and a size too big, last Christmas, because she liked its shade of light blue. It also had growing room.
Mums are practical like that. She has only the vaguest notion you support Watford, your home-town club, who are beginning their first season in the Second Division. Their players do not get many photo-spreads in Goal magazine, or in Charles Buchan's Football Monthly, the other drain on your paper-round money. Only one, Keith Eddy, gets the full-colour treatment. His picture is posted above the bed. He's straight-backed, steely-eyed, a prince in the guise of a lower League journeyman. Watford's captain wears the number four and seems impossibly glamorous.
You've got Gola boots, because Adidas World Cups are too expensive, and you're not good enough to wear George Best's side-laced Stylo Matchmakers. Mum and Dad have three jobs between them, trying to make ends meet, but they buy your first sports book for your birthday. It's The Football Man, by Arthur Hopcraft. Neither they, nor you, realise this will shape your life. You will cherish it, memorise it, refer to it as the years roll away. You will never forget the last lines of the introduction: "This is not a gallery of heroes. I am a reporter trying to reach to the heart of what football is."
Dad is a Rugby League man. You watch his home town team, Whitehaven, on family holidays but much prefer to play endless games of football with your cousins, on a pitch at the end of your grandparents' garden. It is, quite literally, in the shadow of the pithead. Haig Colliery is Cumbria's last deep-coal mine, and will not close until 1986. It leads down to a beach, where you pick black diamonds, washed-up deposits for the fire. Grandad, an imposing figure in belted trousers which extend to his armpits, sits in a high-backed chair, and tells of being out of work from the 1929 Stock Market crash to the Second World War. He fought, bare-knuckled, in pubs for pennies, and trapped rabbits for the stew-pot. As you grow older, you will discover the relevance of his reflections on the importance of honesty, humility and hard work.
The other important document, your Magna Carta, is at home, beneath your pillow. It is a letter, on headed notepaper, signed "R.E.Rollitt, General Secretary, Watford Association Football Club Ltd". It confirms the success of your application to be a Watford ball-boy for the 1969-70 season and requests that you report for duty, a minimum 50 minutes before home games. Your green rectangular pass, enclosed in a plastic wallet, is your boarding card for a journey which will take you to more than 80 countries.
You will watch football in Africa, in places like Bamako, the capital of Mali, where polio victims shuffle on all fours, chasing a ball made of rags. You will travel to the slums of Naples, to World Cups in Mexico, the United States and South Africa, to see its beauty, depravity and eccentricity encapsulated in one man, Diego Armando Maradona. You might not be fit to lace George Best's boots, but to cannibalise a line from an infinitely better writer than you, you will be in a succession of pubs to ensure no-one laces his drinks.
But, forgive me, we get ahead of ourselves. Let's dwell on what it means to wear those ancient, faded bottle green tracksuits, which chafe like Sir Thomas More's hair shirt. You luxuriate in the knowledge you are in The Show, on the inside. You change next to the home dressing-room and the smell of liniment is as evocative as the incense, released by your alter egos, the altar boys at High Mass. You check on the crowd through a frosted fanlight and carry out boxes of metal numbers, to place on half-time scoreboards which extend from A to Z down the side of the pitch. Vicarage Road is pretty scruffy, to be honest. You've previously bunked in, via the allotments, to stand on the shale of the bend beside the Rookery End. Now you are within touching distance of heroes who still get the bus to work. You will never lose the thrill of the setting, the intimacy of the insight football provides into the best, and worst, of human nature.
You will make your first away trip, in a neighbour's motorcycle sidecar, to see Watford lose 2-1 at Oxford on 6 September 1969. You will pay a shilling for the programme and throw up on the way home, because you eat a cheese sandwich. They didn't recognise food allergies in those days, did they? You stick to Bovril on match days after that. You listen to Sports Report on the kitchen radio when Watford embark on your first FA Cup run, winning 2-1 at Bolton Wanderers in the third round. First Division Stoke are beaten by a 30-yard drive by Colin Franks, who lives just down the road. The game is on TV, the equivalent of a state visit. When Gillingham lose 2-1, to two goals by new £7,000 signing Ray Lugg, a local photographer captures you hugging another ballboy, Keith Furphy, the manager's son. He is small, flaxen-haired and will go on to play professionally in the United States. He will get the plum job, operating behind the goal at the Rookery End, when Liverpool arrive at Vicarage Road on 21 February 1970, for the quarter final.
In the next century, when matches are beamed into satellite dishes erected on the sides of houses, and are regarded as minor wars, you'll wonder why you were so excited by the build-up to the game. The Watford Observer — of which more later — publishes a 16-page supplement, previewing the game. Watford are duly patronised as plucky outsiders, or blithely dismissed as relegation fodder by national newspaper men who can barely conceal their distaste at the ambitions of a team of such low breeding. Funny, that. You will love covering such ties, when it is your turn to make the long journey from Fleet Street to the real world.
On this day, you'll be stationed on the Shrodells' side, in front of a low-roofed eyesore which shields the hospital in which Gareth Southgate will be born, later that year. You'll see a grown man cry, for the first time. He's a Scouser, a crumpled figure in a donkey jacket who weeps as he sags into a wire mesh fence beside the wooden hut that houses the Supporters Club. Bill Shankly's team lose 1-0 on a pitch that consists of rolled mud and you are centrally involved in the goal.
You collect the ball, in front of a sign advertising Double Diamond ("Works Wonders") and quickly toss it to Lugg, who takes a short throw to winger Stewart Scullion and moves into space to receive the return pass. He nutmegs Peter Wall, the covering full-back, and delivers an outswinging cross, directly in your eyeline. It is met by a diving header from Barry Endean, who runs behind the goal to celebrate and is ambushed by, you've guessed it, Keith Furphy. God, how you envy him, caught up in a scrum of men whose gold shirts, with a hornet on the left breast, are caked with dirt and suffused with sweat.
Life seems suddenly simple. You want a piece of this. You look into the crowd and see men, lost in the moment. A football club, small and apparently insignificant, is woven into the tapestry of people's lives. You find it easy to express the emotions of the occasion, through the written word. You imagine the unity of strangers and sense the spirit of that broken man, on the wire. You will meet Shankly, just before his death in 1981 and ask him about the defeat which prompted him to break up his first great Liverpool team. He will tell you, in that Ayrshire rasp, that it was "a bitter day, son. Bitter."
So, too, is Saturday, 14 March 1970. For some reason, lost in the mists of time, the semi-final against Chelsea, at White Hart Lane, kicks off at 2.45pm. A fleet of coaches, carrying fans living in a twilight world of hope and disbelief, begins to leave Watford at breakfast time. Yours, caught in the inevitable jam, is eased to the side of the road, to let the team bus past, somewhere near Enfield. More than 40 years later, you will still be able to summon the freeze frame image of Eddy, sitting by the window and smiling at the forest of scarves being waved at him. He had suffered a cartilage injury and will miss the biggest game of his life.
Some of your friends have stolen bedsheets, daubed them with gloss paint from the garden shed, and transformed them into banners. You wear a rosette, with a small silver-papered Cup at its heart. Your rattle, wooden, but with black metal gears, is so heavy it could stun a rhinoceros. Take a deep breath and recite after me the team which played that day in full schoolboy shorthand: Walker, Welbourne, Williams, Lugg, Lees, Walley, Scullion, Garbett, Endean, Packer, Owen. Sub: Garvey.
Names, faces, memories. Mickey Walker, who will go on to manage Colchester, Everton and Norwich (twice), has the piercing eyes and thin moustache of a spaghetti Western villain. Duncan Welbourne, who will play 280 games on the spin, is a full-back who looks like a Teddy Boy. He should, by rights, play in brothel creepers. Tom Walley, who will develop into a brilliant youth coach and produce such England internationals as David James and Ashley Cole, will also become a family friend. Many years later you will discover Endean, the hero signed for £50, working as a builder in his native North East.
You are a water molecule in the sea of humanity which ebbs and flows around the lower tier of the main stand at White Hart Lane. It will, in time, become one of your favourite grounds, intimate and atmospheric. You have been to Rugby League and Amateur Cup finals at Wembley, but this is something more elemental. The stands seem higher, the noise louder. The pitch is fringed with dull, under-nourished, grass, but is mainly mud, mixed with sand. Your silent prayer, that this will help Watford bridge the chasm in class, remains unanswered. Watford lose 5-1, but you are comforted by the fleeting euphoria of Terry Garbett's first-half equaliser, struck from just outside the box. It will be 14 years, two months, and five days before Watford finally reach their first FA Cup final.
You will be there, in a different guise. That's because of another two-line letter, which you will also secrete beneath your pillow. This, too, is on headed notepaper. It is signed, "ER Foster, Editor". He offers you a junior reporter's job on the Watford Observer. Mum cries. When you tell Keith "Trog" Turner, your headmaster at the local Grammar School, of your intention to abandon your A-levels, he responds as if you have urinated through his letterbox. "Calvin," he intones, "this will lead to nothing." He's right, in a way. When, many years later, you are invited back, to contribute to his valediction, you find your diary is full.
Your great good fortune is to have, as your first sports editor, Oli Phillips. He introduces you to Bob Dylan and fried tomatoes on toast. The latter is infinitely preferable to the former, who gives you aural indigestion. Oli is a talented writer, a warm and wise teacher. He gives you your first byline — Mick Calvin — for a report on the West Herts Bowls Club Dinner & Dance. You have your own page, to cover the Watford Sunday League, and are eased into the Vicarage Road rotation. Football is suddenly seen through a different prism.
Watford hit their lowest ebb almost as soon as you arrive. A 1-0 loss at Darlington, on 30 August 1975, leaves them 92nd in the Football League. You spend most of the season with the Under-18s, developing a working relationship with a quietly spoken lad of your age. His name is Luther Blissett. You will see him score a hat trick on his England debut, a 9-0 win against Luxembourg on the evening of 15 December 1982. AC Milan will sign him for £1m, and sell him back, for £550,000, within a year. He will end up as Watford's record goal-scorer, 186 in 503 appearances. His is the first of many lives you chart.
You are sent to play darts against Watford's new owner, in the Supporters' Club bar. His name is, or was, Reginald Dwight. He dresses as Elton Hercules John and arrives at the oche in platform boots, a pink satin suit and scarf fashioned from peacock feathers. His glasses resemble diamante-studded dustbin lids. You can't hit the board, let alone find the treble 20, but something weird happens. You converse as fellow fans, share memories and emotions. Elton knows what he has to do at the end of the season. He sacks Mike Keen, rejects the chance to employ Bobby Moore and recognises the potential of a young manager named Graham Taylor.
Your football education accelerates. Taylor is a force of nature. He transforms your club, sweeps away generations of grime. He's empathetic, inclusive, sensitive, and utterly ruthless. He's a dream-seller, a scene-stealer. He insists his players live in the town and replies personally to all signed letters from fans. The season develops into a crusade. It is no surprise that Watford win the Fourth Division by eleven points, having clinched the title with six games to spare.
Elton had given Taylor five years to get into the Second Division. He needs two. You hitch a ride on a football special train to see Blissett score with two headers in a 2-1 win at Manchester United. This is getting silly. Watford are promoted for the second successive season, and reach the League Cup semi-finals, where they are beaten by Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest. The following season is transitional, but highlighted by an extraordinary comeback. Trailing 4-0 from the first leg of a League Cup tie against Southampton, the First Division's form team, Watford win 7-1.
Your career matches the upward trajectory of your club. You cover your first Olympic Games, as chief sports writer for a chain of regional newspapers, in Brezhnev's Moscow in 1980 and begin to follow England around the world. Business can be matched with pleasure, because Watford remain a breaking story. Taylor builds a vibrant team around Tom Walley's products, like Blissett, John Barnes, Nigel Callaghan and Kenny Jackett, a kid from your council estate. As a fan, you bridle at Terry Venables's lazy description of Watford as long-ball Neanderthals. They reach the First Division in 1982, and win the FA Youth Cup for good measure. The mood of Venables, and his media acolytes, is not improved when Taylor is asked to oversee the England youth team, on a part-time basis.
Taylor has the common touch. When he criticises fans for lack of vocal support, they argue that it would help if the main terrace had a roof. He promptly walks out on to the pitch with a placard which reads, "I'm sorry." There's not a lot to apologise for. Watford's initial season in the top flight is incredible. Blissett scores four in an 8-0 thrashing of Sunderland. Watford do the double over Arsenal, win at Spurs, and have home wins over Everton and Liverpool. They finish as runners-up, and qualify for the Uefa Cup. Not for the first time, or the last, Elton is in floods of tears.
Your year as a TV reporter allows you to follow your club into Europe. Kaiserslauten succumb at Vicarage Road. Watford win, in extra time, against Levski Spartak, a team run by Bulgaria's Interior Ministry. On a freezing evening 60,000 fans light bonfires to keep warm and stage proletarian protests. The sleigh ride ends in the snow in Prague, where Sparta win 4-0, but the spiritual journey has yet to be completed. That happens in 1984, when Watford reach the FA Cup final.
You are working in Fleet Street and permit yourself one last indulgence. You return home, drink in the estate pub before the game with your childhood friends. You envy your brothers, their face paint and replica shirts, because you have to be suited and booted. You take your Mum to her first football match, on a Metropolitan line train which glows gold and reverberates to Elton's greatest hits. Mum sits next to Freddie Starr at Wembley, near the royal box, and barely registers the result. You envy her sense of detachment.
You will neither forgive, nor forget, a posturing ninny of a referee named Roger Milford. This bubble-permed publicity junkie unjustly sends off Wilf Rostron in the build-up to the final and costs a great pro the chance to captain Watford at Wembley. Andy Gray joins Milford on the hit list, although you will work with him, and like him, in later years. He knocks the ball out of goalkeeper Steve Sherwood's hands to score the decisive second goal in Everton's 2-0 win. Like Graham Taylor, you will never be able to watch a recording of the final. It is too painful.
Looking back, it is the end of innocence. Taylor's attempt to redress the balance ends at the semi-final stage in 1987, when he is forced to select a wine waiter, Gary Plumley, in goal. The son of chief executive Eddie, Plumley is recruited because of injuries to Tony Coton and Steve Sherwood and is predictably powerless to prevent Spurs winning 4-1. Watford couldn't even sell their full allocation of tickets. Taylor leaves at the end of the season, to be replaced, with disastrous consequences, by Dave Bassett.
We have entered the age of Heysel and Hillsborough. You are among the football hacks summoned to Downing Street by Margaret Thatcher. She has the eyes of a tawny owl and clearly terrifies her ministers, who dance attendance. She goes around the table, asking each visitor what they would do to solve football hooliganism. You might as well quote Afghani poetry, because her mind is made up before anyone opens their mouth. In her world, football fans are second-class citizens who have forfeited the right to trust and respect. They deserve to be caged, treated with contempt. You descend the staircase, framed by portraits of past prime ministers, with a sense of dread.
The more you understand the principles of power, and the closer you get to the sort of people who administer it, the more depressed you become. You are no longer prepared to take things at face value. Football is re-shaped by Super Sundays and institutionalised greed. The Premier League is marketed brilliantly and spawns a culture of grasping agents, preening players and celebrity nonentities. By 1996 Watford are back in the old Third Division. They have reverted to irrelevance and you have turned on Taylor.
His failure as England manager is a self-fulfilling prophesy, even though he loses only one of his first 23 matches. He is too below-stairs for his most vindictive critics, and never recovers from his visit to the tabloid vegetable rack. Being lampooned as a turnip, following a European Championship defeat by Sweden, sets the tone. He cracks in Rotterdam, before the game which costs England a place in the 1994 World Cup. He loses his temper in the pre-match press conference, becomes embroiled in a row with a reporter and comes across as paranoid, out of his depth. The Channel 4 TV crew, developing a fateful fly on the wall documentary, are doing handstands. You write a scathing piece, knowing the impact it will have on Taylor, his wife Rita and his two daughters. You feel a little ashamed.
There are brief moments of rapture, which never quite rebuild bridges, but rekindle an old flame. Watford win successive promotions during Taylor's second spell as manager. You are in bed in Brisbane, howling at the moon and following the game on a ruinously expensive phone line, when they make the Premier League for the first time, on 31 May 1999. It is 3.36am, the following day, in Queensland when Nick Wright's overhead kick sets up a 2-0 win over Bolton in the Championship play-off final at Wembley. The Sun hails Taylor as a national treasure. Go figure.
You still feel for the club and ignore professional protocol that September by standing in the old wooden press box at Watford and punching the air to celebrate Allan Smart's winning goal against Chelsea. It is a rare highlight in a season which ends in relegation. Gianluca Vialli, Chelsea's manager that day, succeeds Taylor at Vicarage Road at the end of the 2000-01 season and is useful as an elephant on an ice floe. He lasts a year and Watford flirt with administration.
You are able take your sons to watch another Championship play-off victory, 3-0 over Leeds United at the Millennium Stadium in 2006, but something still does not feel right. Aidy Boothroyd, in his first season as manager, is a media myth, quickly exposed in the Premier League. Watford finish bottom, winning only five matches. The cycle of recrimination and boardroom intrigue intensifies. The battery of devotion is dying and you are unprepared for the identity of the recharger. He's Kenny Jackett, the kid with whom you played pick-up games on the estate.
He's Millwall manager, a Lion tamer. You contact him, in the summer of 2009, with an outrageous request. Give me complete access to your club, so I can search for football's soul. He agrees and you report for the first day of pre-season training. You are on the substitutes' bench at Wembley, 333 days later, when Millwall are promoted through the League One play off final. You are unprepared for the intensity of the experience. It prompts you to question basic beliefs, realign your principles and allegiances.
Players reveal the reality of their trade, the insecurity which cannot be diluted by surges of adrenaline, or testosterone. They allow you to become part of the dressing-room's fixtures and fittings. You get a sense of their professionalism, and the bitter cruelties of their trade. They are mostly family men, whose life is influenced by the vagaries of form and fate. Cut them and their nearest and dearest bleed. Jackett and his coaches give you the privilege of their trust, take you into their confidence. There are moments of tension and tenderness, anger and amusement.
Millwall remains a byword for strife and a lack of social cohesion, but you look beyond the stereotypes. The club plays an integral role in a multi-cultural, multi-faith community. There are no fairytales out there, but you unearth reasons to believe in football's restorative powers. Good people are doing a good job, without fuss or fanfare. You begin to understand the precious nature of the link between players and their fans. These are not the corporate grazers of the Premier League or the ogres of tabloid myth. They are true believers, your type of people. They agree with Grandad about the value of humility, honesty and hard work.
The deeper you delve, the more committed you become. You love the tall tales from the Old Den, where men were men and opposing teams wished they were anywhere else. You meet club legend Barry Kitchener, the embodiment of a working class hero. Like most hard men, he has an affecting gentility, and dignity. By the time he succumbs to cancer, with tragic speed, in the spring of 2012, you have admitted to living a lie. Millwall is the football club best suited to your nature and experience.
Honesty is a double edged sword, which wounds when you return to Vicarage Road on the night of 27 September 2010. Your host, in the chairman's suite, is Graham Taylor. He is polite, attentive, but seems ill at ease with his duties. You guess why when Watford's new owner makes a late entrance. He is an interesting character, who changed his name from Laurence Bazini to Bassini when he was made bankrupt in 2007. Your antennae twitch. He's a little too glib and doesn't endear himself to his guests with a guileless quip about Millwall fans ripping out the seats in the event of defeat. To be honest, you loathe him.
Watford come from behind to beat Millwall 2-1, without a hint of trouble. It is an abject game between ponderous, fretful teams. You are desolate, and realise that the club that enticed you into falling in love with the game's infinite possibilities no longer exists. It has betrayed the love of that boy with half-formed dreams, in the bunk bed. Taylor will eventually leave the club, on May 30 2012. Two months later Baz/ss/ini will sell Watford to the Pozzo family, who transform it into a feeder club for Udinese in Serie A. Your instincts have been proved correct.
You wanted "your" team to lose when Millwall came calling. That's heresy and you know it. Dare you share it? There's no option really, because it is what is expected of you. Be true to yourself. You know it makes sense. Repeat after me:
This is an extract from Life's A Pitch: Passions of the Press Box, published by Integr8 Books and available for order through www.lifesapitch.co.uk
This article appeared on Episode Sixty Nine of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.