Hook, line and sinker
By Paul Hoggins
Sheerness; ah yes, I can clearly see the images it conjures in your mind. A long, narrow loch bordered by steep, pine-covered hills dotted with hardy sheep and shrouded in heavy clouds blown in from the Atlantic. Bonnie Prince Charlie, Rob Roy, Mel Gibson in a kilt, the Krankies, Charlie Nicholas. Except it's in Kent; on a featureless piece of London clay called the Isle of Sheppey. You got the sheep right, anyway.
It's a round trip of just over 150 miles to Vicarage Road as the M25 flows, which, thank God, it has done on every matchday I've known. Yes, there are people who give thanks for the M25 because in 1969 Watford might as well have been in Scotland as far as I was concerned. That's when it started, this irrational thing we know as football love. Saturday, January 11th to be precise.
I'm approaching my eleventh birthday and have just taken to accompanying my big brother on the train to watch Gillingham, our nearest league club. It's my fourth game and the Gills, who I have yet to see lose, are playing promotion-chasing Watford. I'm the one in a crowd of 6,641 (thanks, Trefor) that sees the Hornets canter to a 5-0 win, which includes a hat-trick from Barry Endean.
My memories are of a cold day, a heavy ground and running on to the pitch (ahh, such innocence) to ask for Stewart Scullion's autograph. He turned me down. I also recall marching back to the railway station - a Watford rosette pinned proudly to my coat - alongside a large group of Watford fans and turning the corner to be met by an equally large group of Gillingham fans. Now, I wasn't so innocent as to think I could flaunt foreign colours and the rosette was tucked away as big brother hurried me to the platform. But I was hooked.
Two weeks later the aforementioned Stewart "I'll sign it later" Scullion scores an early goal at Old Trafford as "plucky" Third Division Watford give European champions Manchester United an FA Cup scare. The game finishes 1-1. That's it. Hook, line and sinker.
I'd like to say I was among the thirty-four thousand who packed Vicarage Road for the replay but, like I said, I was a long way from Watford. However, I do remember the crushing disappointment on hearing of Denis Law's two goals that won the game. There it was, the joy and pain of following the Hornets, much as it has been in the subsequent thirty-odd years. Distance doesn't come into it.
It was February 1972 before I got to Vicarage Road - a 1-0 defeat by Millwall in The Season That Time Forgot - and there wasn't much in the following seasons to make me badger dear old Dad into repeating the interminable journey by BR. But I do have complete sets of programmes from 1972-73 and 1973-74 - in pristine condition - sent to me weekly by a dear old chap at the club called Bill Gough.
Graham Taylor's arrival coincided with my time at college in Plymouth (which is even further from Watford than Sheerness, don't you know) and then, rather prematurely you might think, I had a family and so I did not experience enough of the glory years at first hand. Mind you, the first game to which I took Son No. 1 was the 5-1 win against Man Utd and so another Kent Hornet was born.
By the time Son No. 2 began a belated love affair with Watford (courtesy of Lee Nogan's late winner against Southend in 1994), we're beginning to clock up more motorway miles than those blokes who lay cones. The anti-clockwise trip is always full of hope and, as I suggested previously, I have yet to even miss a kick-off, but it can be a mind-numbing drive back if we've lost. Still, at least my boys are now old enough to drive me. And I still have the 1969 rosette to keep me warm.