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Four Seasons
An interview with Lionel Birnie
How did the idea for the book come about?

Watford have just had four seasons of drama, which, when put together make an arresting story. As a Hornets fan and journalist I have long thought that I would have the opportunity to write a book about the club. However, the original idea to do a coffee table-style book came when Watford got promoted to the Premiership in 1999. I had worked with the photographer, Alan Cozzi, when I was at The Watford Observer newspaper and have long admired his ability to capture the most salient moments exquisitely. We talked then about the possibility of doing a book but, unfortunately, it became pretty obvious that Watford's season in the Premiership was not going to have a very happy ending, so the idea was shelved. In the meantime I worked on a book about the cyclist Chris Boardman and established a lot of contacts in the book publishing world. When Watford started last season in such fantastic style the idea resurfaced. Of course, we had no idea Graham Taylor was going to announce his retirement but when he did, the concept suddenly solidified and we realised we were not just documenting four remarkable years for Watford Football Club but also Graham Taylor's final spell in club management.

Non-Watford fans can't really understand why Graham Taylor is such a hero-figure for you. Can you enlighten us?

It's simple. Graham always led the club in a progressive and dynamic manner - not just in fashioning hard-working and successful football teams but also off the field. Twice he has established the football club at the heart of its community. Of course, he has taken us to the top flight twice, Wembley twice, into Europe... but it is his approach which has really endeared us to him. A lot of nonsense is talked about his preference for long-ball football but his priority has always been to develop winning teams. As a person he has always conducted himself with dignity and honesty. Put bluntly, he is a man who commands respect but he does not expect it.

You're a journalist but decided to write the book from a fan's perspective. Why?

An objective look at the club would have been a mistake. As a supporter I have not merely 'observed' the past four years, I have participated. We have experienced some incredible highs as well as some gloomy times but it really did feel as if we - the fans and the players - were all in it together, something I think is rare these days. So, I didn't want to write a dry appraisal of the football team's performances, I wanted to re-create some of the feelings too. Some of the most gratifying feedback I have had is people saying: 'Yes, that's how I felt.' The photographs are packed full of emotion and I wanted my words to reflect and enhance that. The last thing I wanted was a factual, chronological reportage of the four seasons. There have also been a lot of very average Nick Hornby-style books and I was careful not to fall into the trap of making the book introspective and self-important. It is not a first-person piece of work, it's not about me, it's about Watford FC's players and fans. Of course, I did a lot of research to unearth some quotes from the key people involved, particularly Graham Taylor, but that was the extent of the journalism.

The photography plays an important role in Four Seasons. How did you select which photos to include?

That was the most enjoyable part. Alan's library is extensive and, to be honest, there were enough pictures to do a book twice the size so it was important to be selective and ensure we chose the right pictures for each chapter. I tried not to include any one player too often and was looking chiefly for pictures which sparked my own memories. We steered clear of run-of-the-mill 'goal' or 'action' pictures because in a hardback book which, hopefully, fans will keep as a souvenir, we needed to go for the extra special shots. We went for pictures which provoked a response and the important thing was to present them in all their glory. The book is not highly-designed, it is classic, uncluttered and classy, I hope. The book's job is not just to remind people of a specific moment or a particular match but to spark their own memories into action.

Which was the most difficult season to describe?

I think the first season, 1997-98, when Watford won the Second Division championship. I was very aware that I had to tell a little of the back-story, illustrating how far Watford had fallen to underline how quick the turn-around under Taylor was. Also, I knew the entire tone of the book had to be set in that chapter. But the Premiership was tricky too because it was a tough season for the team and us fans. I disliked a lot of the things which make up the Premiership - the cult of celebrity, in particular - but I didn't want to come across as moaning or bitter. Above all, we left the division with our heads held high.

And which is the best memory?

I think any Watford supporter would say that the play-off final win over Bolton at Wembley in 1999 was the highest point, and I am no exception. It was an incredibly emotional day which was the culmination of an almost unbelievable run of results. It is not just in hindsight that I say we travelled to Wembley with impenetrable confidence that day. For me, personally, I thought the win over Liverpool at Anfield was one of those occasions we will never forget. Growing up in the early Eighties when Liverpool was the biggest and best club in world it was a dream to see my team win there. It is also one of those results which you cannot take for granted because it may never happen again.

Did you get any feedback from the club?

Not directly. Although Graham Taylor, Steve Palmer and Alec Chamberlain have all bought several copies each. The club's Football in the Community department have also bought some books and the mayor of Watford has presented copies to representatives of our twin towns, which was nice. We have also had good reviews in the local newspaper and the fanzines, Look at the Stars and Blind, Stupid and Desperate.

Four Seasons is an independent publication and does not have a publishing house behind it. Was this a forced decision or did you decide to go alone?

It was certainly not a forced decision but I was realistic enough to know that a specialist- interest book about Watford Football Club would not have companies falling over themselves to publish, particularly considering the cost of producing a glossy hardback book. Having made contact with the Italian printing company and having the skills to write and design the book myself, I felt I could go it alone. Besides, any publisher would perhaps not have had the editorial interests of a Watford-specific book at heart. If I am honest, I had a very clear idea of how I wanted the book to turn out and I didn't want a third party meddling in that, or outside pressure from, say, advertisers or sponsors. I've worked for newspapers and magazines and wanted to prove to myself that I could make this book. Whatever happens, however well it does, I've achieved my goals. The biggest problem was financing it. Hardback books are very expensive to publish, particularly in England. Thankfully the Italian market is very competitive and I fell on my feet working on the Chris Boardman book and forging relationships with the printers. Usually they would turn their noses up at a relatively small print run but made an exception for me. So far it is selling very well, despite a minimal marketing budget. However, we have made an agreement with the Watford branch of Waterstone's and being stocked there will be a huge boost. The process has given me huge satisfaction but I would certainly think twice about undertaking such a commitment in the future. However, I am talking to publishing companies about some future projects and should have some good news soon.

What are your impressions of Gianluca Vialli so far? Will he ever replace Taylor in the hearts of the fans?

Vialli has polarised the supporters' views. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much room for a reasonable voice - you're either unreservedly pro-Vialli or you're stuck in the past and harking for the Taylor days. I think the problem is that Vialli's name speaks louder than his managerial credentials. Yes, Chelsea won lots of trophies but with an open chequebook. The misconception is that Vialli has not spent money. Of his new signings, only Marcus Gayle has cost a fee but the wage bill has rocketed. These sums are largely hidden from fans. The tabloid headlines will say that the team has been assembled on the cheap but in this post-Bosman age there is no such thing when even average First Division players can command ten or fifteen thousand pounds a week, plus signing on fee, plus loyalty bonus, etc, etc. Vialli hasn't done himself any favours by spending all the money (5million) allocated to him in the first two months and then admitting the squad is still short of quality. In my opinion a manager should be judged on how he uses the resources at his disposal. At Chelsea, Vialli won trophies but with an unlimited budget. At Watford, on a finite budget, he will have to show that his coaching abilities match his spending prowess. It is very early days but Watford FC is at a pivotal point: actions now will determine what happens in the next decade. Mistakes made now could cost the club dearly. Will Vialli ever replace Taylor in our hearts? That's a difficult question because if I say no I'll be accused of living in the past. However, I don't think any one man will ever have the same effect on Watford Football Club as Graham Taylor has had, simply because people don't stay at one club for long enough. To equal Taylor, Vialli will have to spend at least a decade at Vicarage Road - and bring us at least some equivalent successes. Of course, promotion will prove wrong any doubters but the longer it takes the greater the risk to the club's future financial health.

His sacking of Luther Blissett and Kenny Jackett have been criticised. What do you think?

I can't blame a new manager for wanting his own staff. That is absolutely his right. However, I do think Watford were hasty in announcing Vialli's arrival before Taylor had even taken charge of his last match. Now, you can say that Watford were keen to announce the Vialli deal because West Ham were about to lose Harry Redknapp and the Southampton job was vacant, but they should have waited until the season had ended. It just didn't feel right to me, just a few days before Taylor's last game at Burnley to see Vialli giving a press conference at Vicarage Road. It is my belief that the directors are as star-struck as some of the fans and that could be a problem when it comes to making objective decisions. As for Blissett and Jackett, they are Watford men through and through but their removal was proof that sentiment counts for nothing in football. For me that was quite difficult to accept because Watford supporters have had some justification in the past to believe that we are 'different' as a club. There is the family aspect, which does not just relate to the backroom staff but to the general feeling of inclusion that supporters enjoy. I am sure it would have been difficult for Vialli to take over and keep the existing staff but, although it's an idealistic view, I think he should have waited until the season was over before saying that Blissett and Jackett were out and Ray Wilkins and co were coming in.

As with 1997-98 when Taylor took over once again, Watford are at the start of a new journey. Where do you hope they will be in four seasons' time?

I think the next four seasons will see further restructuring of the game, perhaps with a second division of the Premiership. Eventually a line is going to be drawn and Watford have to ensure they are above that line. We must remain solvent and that concern is at the root of my reservations. A lot of people are talking about the possibility of football's bubble bursting and unless viewing figures for televised non-Premiership matches increase significantly, the next television deal is not going to be as lucrative. It is essential clubs like Watford live within their means. Next season we will have no parachute money but the wage bill is considerably higher than it was 12 months ago. So the bottom line is that I will be happy as long as there is a team in yellow playing at Vicarage Road which I can be proud to support. We are never going to be Manchester United but we can be Charlton or Ipswich. But I personally would find it difficult to enjoy an association with a club which went down the Fulham road.

This interview originally appeared on the site
Click here for a review of "Four Seasons".