"Au revoir, Lord OP"
By Nicholas Ralph
My dear-departed grandfather, and his boss, also long-since gone, are the only people I know who started work at the Watford Observer before Oliver Phillips. Until the early sixties, or perhaps it was the late fifties, the WO was housed at 101 High Street in premises which would now be considered very quaint and, I suppose, industrially inadequate. But back then "the office" was one of the centres of my little world, and visits there were always welcome and far too infrequent.
The High Street office was also home to C.H. Peacock, general printers, who regularly produced the fixture cards, and were occasionally engaged to print match programmes. The presses were in the back, accessible just up Loates Lane, or through the back of the High Street office, past Grandad's huge roll-top desk. At home, the excitement at the arrival of a used press from the News of the World was matched only by the angst of the Union "difficulties" which arose from time to time and always, it seemed, on Thursday nights, when the WO was put to bed for Friday publication.
I'm pretty sure Oliver Phillips would not have worked in the High Street office - he joined the WO from the West Herts Post in 1968, if I recall correctly. But the business and the atmosphere, at either the WHP or the WO, would have been the same or thereabouts. The newspaper was printed by rollers which were created from manually set type (I still have my name set this way and then cast in aluminium as if ready for locking into place to make the mould) on machines which seemed to run at a million miles an hour. It was nothing like the computer-based operations of today.
Not far from the High Street is the other great centre of the Universe, Watford Football Club. Back in "those days", the club was famous for having a sloping and seemingly self-destructive pitch, unmanageable plumbing, no money, aspirations of football in Division Two, and a long-standing and amicable-enough relationship with the WO. You might say that nothing has changed. Of course, you'd be wrong.
Back then, the club had a ground capacity exceeding thirty-four thousand, was run by not more than ten people, and that included the manager and coaching staff, had never played in the top flight, had never even heard of a rock concert, and had annual sales which would not cover Beckham's salary for more than three, or at a stretch, four days. The programmes were printed on rough amber paper, and cost sixpence - the WO, a rather larger and more informative publication, cost fourpence at the time.
Change or no change, much has happened over the last forty years or so, some of it good, some of it not. From the depths of Division Four almost to the pinnacle of Division One (and I am speaking in un-re-branded terms here), WFC has navigated its way across the treacherous high seas of professional football: while there have been numerous masters and crews, the ship's log has been faithfully, and objectively, maintained by Oliver Phillips.
All those years ago, I found myself wanting to "do" a history of Watford. I wanted to do the statistics, too. And, of course, I fervently wanted Watford to succeed. How many times did we win 84-0 in the back garden only to lose to Port Vale on the day, how much not-so-gentle ribbing did I take at boarding school for supporting the Golden Boys in Bristol City country, how many times did we seem to get so close and then fail at the last? I couldn't write a history, of course. I couldn't, or wouldn't, make the time to do the stats (especially as I began to realise how mammoth was the task). But even if I could somehow have done either or both those things, it would have been impossible to separate the emotional from the practical. And this, for me anyway, is why Oliver Phillips' contribution to the world-wide community which is these days WFC is so incredibly special.
See, he really is passionate about the club. You'd have to be to stick at it for all those years, to write all those books: not including the numerous newspaper special supplements and whatnot, there's the Portrait of Promotion written by Ken Furphy and edited by OP (my pristine copy is available for sale at one million pounds), The Official Illustrated History, and Golden Boys. There's also been a massive collaborative effort with Trefor Jones to research long lost players and their records - a "says it all" photograph has OP and Trefor out searching a local graveyard.
But this passion has not been allowed to get in the way of straight-up reporting and commentary. OP has unswervingly tilted at windmills when the need has arisen, while somehow managing to remain a very close friend of the club (for me, it was an appalling shame that the club took exception to an article and banned the WO for a little while a few months ago - why?). When I left England - first for Luxembourg, and then for Canada - my grandfather used to collect OP's writings and send them on to me. They would arrive with Grandad's annotations, agreeing with this, disagreeing with that, supporting one idea, getting a bit miffed about another. But it is, for me, a true mark of the esteem in which OP should be held that Grandad, who was many things wonderful but always a stickler for consistency and what we would today call "transparency", scribbled something like "good one" on so many of the clippings he sent me.
Although there were doubtless many little bumps along the way, OP's relationship with WFC really has been refreshingly honest and enduring. The exception, of course, was the Vialli era. I read and re-read OP's articles about all that, published after Vialli had left. OP seemed angry, irritated, offended, and aggrieved. But what came through to me most, perhaps because I was unconsciously putting myself in his place, perhaps not, was that OP was hurt, as he had every right to be. My own disgust and anger were immense.
That aside, it seems to me, there has been a close to perfect relationship between OP and the club: that, no matter your perspective, is one almighty achievement over so many years.
Of course, on top of all that, OP writes so well, and has kept up a matchless (no pun intended!) standard over two thousand or more games, and that's just the first team. I haven't read all his reports - I couldn't afford to have the WO sent to Canada, though of course I relish the Internet access these days - but I've read more than enough to know that I'm reading good stuff.
On the first of the two times I have met OP, I was a cheeky little shit (plus ca change!) of an accountant and challenged him on the way he had reported about the club's finances during Jim Bonser's time. The club had built what was then the "new stand", the one which today is the usable part of the "main stand", at a cost of more than twenty-five thousand pounds of, mainly, Bonser's money. I was, technically, right - you don't add capital expenditures to losses to make the losses seem even bigger. But, of course, I was missing the point and OP was spot on: the club, in addition to losing money, had spent a small fortune on a new stand, which could only worsen its overall financial position (after all, who on earth would buy a second hand permanent concrete football stand?). OP was gentleman enough to listen, and astounded me by actually recalling the event last year.
Since then, as subscribers to the Watford Mailing List will maybe recall, I have enjoyed some outrageous and fantastical adventures in OP's company. "Lord OP" is my coining of someone else's idea - Simon the Red, who used to be a regular poster on WML, had first used the sobriquet "Lord Phillips". The concept was irresistible, for reasons I still can't fully understand. Whatever, "Lord OP" has moderated a presidential debate in Florida, has flown over on the Leavesden to Ottawa Concorde service more times than I can remember to play music, read poems, compose symphonies, and drink astounding quantities of preposterous vintages, and has recovered in the room next to me in Los Angeles after a vehicular accident involving super-models. He has ministered to my dog following the latter's spontaneous and pungent reaction to a picture of Sir Elton in a tangerine suit (in the Bradford City programme the day we won 7-2 - where's that suit, Sir EJ, I think we need it again), and joined the same animal at our piano for late-into-the-night duet renditions of Eltonian songs. My favourite jaunt was with Lord OP to Balmoral, as second-string guests of HM the Q, where we watched the roasting of the peasants we had personally bagged on the estate that day. In 2003, I promoted (?) him to Viscount Perambulator of Whippendell in a particularly eccentric and silly piece which, thanks to the idiosyncrasies of my IT adviser, is now lost forever.
I guess the retirement of "Lord OP" is also now due. I still, as I say, don't know what prompted all this nonsense other than a bizarre sense of fun. But I suspect that a psychiatrist would find that there was a bit more to it - a connection back to the days of innocent wonder at the newspaper and the club, a link of sorts to my grandfather, possibly a profound envy that OP has mightily succeeded in things I rather aspired to before I knew I didn't have a tenth of the right stuff to even try them...who knows.
Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean - thanks, OP, for doing what you have done for so long, and for doing it so very well. I'll finish this by stealing from another WMLer - Don Fraser. Please, get up and pour yourself a glass of whatever is your favourite special tipple and join me in a heartfelt toast:
To Oliver Phillips - Keeper of the Faith