Watford FC: The traditional underdog well deserving of a day in the sun
Leave Watford tube station, turn right, and you find yourself on a street which cannot possibly lead to a football stadium.
It’s leafy and affluent, the kind found in Hampstead or Chigwell, and it looks like a suburban community which would recoil at the thought of supporters traipsing past on a match-day.
It’s just under a mile between the station and Vicarage Road, and the mock Tudor facades quickly give way to something more familiar. The floodlights don’t peer into sight until the very last minute, but the high street staples begin to appear and the replica shirts multiply; there’s football here, in a place in which it belongs.
This will become rarer. Stadium expansion is a continuing arms race, meaning fewer clubs will exist within their communities. Land prices and space will force them to trade away these cosy enclaves next to their public in exchange for wasteland, business parks, and places only accessible via specially commissioned bus routes.
The barbers have become warehouses, the independent greasy spoons are now Volvo dealerships and, inevitably, there’s not a residential property within miles.
Southampton, Manchester City and West Ham have done it, Everton are in the process of doing it, and today’s visitors to Vicarage Road, Tottenham, are busy showing just how difficult it is to modernise within a natural environment.
Graham Taylor greets the public when Watford are at home. He’s perched on one of those rickety benches, the uncovered, unrefined ‘dugouts’ which used to make opposing managers recoil when their teams visited here in winter.
The statue captures Taylor in the way that he’s supposed to be remembered, with that benevolent smile beaming for good and a radiant sense of decency chiselled into his features.
When he passed away in 2017, the public eulogies were fitting. The famous clip of him confronting one of John Barnes’ abusers at Wembley was on steady rotation, and a small army of peers, contemporaries and former colleagues stepped forward to offer glowing tributes.
In his autobiography, which was completed in the final two years of his life, Taylor recalled his early years with Elton John and the beginnings of what would become a deep, almost paternal friendship.
One of the more moving passages involves a defeat at a lower-league club. Elton was sulking in a bathroom cubicle, composing himself before facing the fellow directors, only to hear his opposite numbers chortling their way through homophobic slurs at the urinals.
Taylor remembered the moment vividly. He recalled the hurt and anger felt by his chairman and the conversation which followed in which he talked him down from confrontation. Don’t give them the satisfaction, he’d urged, have the final say through the league table.
Years later, Taylor was still unsure of whether that was the correct advice. Right or wrong, though, it shows just how much thought he gave to the way people should be treated.
Yes, his statue welcomes visitors here because of what he achieved at this club and where, in two separate spells, he took them, but people who come remember who he was rather than just what he did.
I’m early for the game. Transport for London promise chaos on the Metropolitan line, but I manage to float north in under an hour.
Perched on the ledge outside the club shop, a succession of fathers sit their children on the bench alongside Taylor and take their picture.
Their conversations are theirs, it’s not right to eavesdrop, but you imagine they’ll tell them about more than just the football. Good, because there isn’t enough of that.
Family is a theme at Watford, it seems. The press entrance is on a narrow street. On one side the modern gleam of the stadium, on the other corrugated iron garages mark the end of terraced gardens.
Between the two, a father kicks a ball with his daughter. On the one hand, of course that should happen here. On the other, how often do you actually see it outside a Premier League ground?
The match itself takes a while to come to the boil. Tottenham knock the ball around pointlessly for an hour, somehow taking the lead by accident.
Five days on from Old Trafford, they play with an entitlement which infuriates Mauricio Pochettino and ultimately invites their hosts back into the game.
Watford respond with fury. Javi Gracia has built a good team, far more complete than the one he inherited, but they seize the points almost through sheer force of will.
First, Troy Deeney butts in a free-kick, celebrating in the corner with the fans and also a man who literally juggles his two infant children to be involved.
Then Craig Cathcart thunders over Jan Vertonghen to head a winner. The ground explodes. Watford will finish the day with four wins out of four and joint-top of the Premier League, but that seems to matter only in the abstract.
Pundits will spend the rest of the evening speculating as to how far they can go, but in the here and now of that moment the celebration is guttural – it’s the joy of knocking over a team that has perhaps got a little big for its boots.
Even last season amid all that uncertainty, this club still found time to bruise the egos of Chelsea and Arsenal. They held Spurs and Liverpool too, and that’s one of their traditional functions.
Graham Taylor’s reputation might be guarded by the literal progress he oversaw, but it’s underscored by underdog spirit – by the same mentality which left him chuckling when Vicarage Road’s scruffy perimeter ruined Ron Atkinson’s swish leather shoes on the same night that his team upended Manchester United in 1986.
And Elton is here, too. Even beyond the apex of his career, he remains one of the most recognisable artists on the planet. But there he is with his children, celebrating with a true fan’s lack of inhibition.
It’s a strange kind of antidote because celebrities and football so often combine to create a loathsome spectacle – they turn up in half-time presentations or at the club itself, using their status to cream off some unearned privilege.
Elton John isn’t one of those. He was here in the fourth division and Watford were very much the apple of Reg Dwight’s eye. The television cameras will catch him lost in celebration and there’s a reassurance to that, a reminder that football can still cut through the nonsense.
Elton is a happy man! 🐝@WatfordFC's 💯 per cent record is still standin' after a wonderful turnaround.
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) September 2, 2018
It’s the most beautiful evening. I’m a Tottenham fan so, article written and press-conference tweeted, I spend the walk back to the station in a deep sulk, scowling and trudging in the September sun. Oh, isn’t Daniel Levy so very, very clever with his transfer thrift. Nice one.
It’s just not the point, though. This was a good day’s football, full of drama and action, but also replete with all these little nudges from the game’s past.
Increasingly, Premier League matches take place in venues rather than places and, all over the country, it’s possible to enter a stadium, watch a match, and then leave with no sense of where you’ve been.
Watford isn’t like that. The local cemetery is a stone’s throw from the turnstiles, and the ground itself stands above local businesses which depend on match-day income.
Watford’s present breeds cynicism. The Pozzo family’s model is so achingly modern as to demand reflexive distrust and, admittedly, the unfurling of a Gino Pozzo banner in the home end before kick-off raises an eyebrow.
But it’s not an outsider’s place to question things like that and, ultimately, where there are no human rights abusers or Oligarch thieves, there’s much less to object to.
Football at this level always depends on a compromise having been made somewhere and, so, quibbling over authenticity of an approach seems particularly churlish.
It just doesn’t matter today. This is what the game is supposed to look and feel like.