Silence is Not an Option (Volume 4)
It’s no exaggeration to say that the 1881 has changed the match-day atmosphere at Vicarage Road beyond recognition. Colin Payne meets the group’s founder Roy Moore to discuss what makes the group so special.
There was never a more aptly named building than The Bunker. Situated hidden at the foot of a stairwell behind the Rookery, from the outside it looks no more than a concrete box set behind an austere fence. Facing out onto the ugly vista of abandoned allotments penned in by equally unpleasant industrial steel fencing, there is little clue that it is anything other than the solid-grey foundations to the flats surrounding the Rookery. The only indication that it serves any other purpose is two images painted upon the stark exterior - a scowling hornet flexing a bulging bicep, and an already-fading hart. My immediate thought on seeing it on a damp grey evening was that I had been transported back to 1980s Berlin, to a bleak Soviet building that was part of a barrier dividing the city, in some awful no-mans land. Yes, it really does look like a bunker.
It’s inside what is the heart (or should that be hart?) of the 1881 that I meet Roy Moore, who’s in the middle of giving the group’s HQ a much needed post-season spring-clean. Roy looks around the place with obvious satisfaction, “We want people to come down here and know they’re in Watford, they’re part of the place. As soon as people walk in we want them to feel they belong; they are surrounded by nostalgia and our history.”
Once an old storage area, completely renovated by the group, the building’s walls are lined with framed shirts going back to the sixties and photographs of great moments. In one corner is possibly one of the best pieces of Watford memorabilia ever seen: a table football machine which plays recordings of the 1881 songbook, with the plastic players decked out in home and away kit. In the opposite corner, a piano topped with a Watford scarf and sheet music open at ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. The quality of memorabilia on display is extremely impressive.
“The club’s tradition is 100% important to us.” Roy says, in between instructing Pete, one of the key members of the group, which of the unwanted debris from a building project needs to go into a skip.
“A club of our size could not progress naturally if we forgot our past. The history of this club is almost more important than a good coach or backroom staff, because if you don’t hold onto your history, remember the dark days, then we have nothing. We must always remember we were half an hour away from administration under Bassini, remember Simpson and Ashton, where everyone thought we were alright, with that ring-fenced cash, then finding out that fence was made out of chocolate! You have to keep hold of that ethos, remember the older times.”
The Bunker is probably the nearest thing to a Supporters Club that Watford has had since the official one disappeared in the eighties. A pine bar with on-tap beers stands in an adjacent room, with food also available on match-days. As well as the aforementioned table football game, there’s a pool table and dart board, and a sound system decked out in 1881 regalia standing raised at the rear of the room. Yet this isn’t some male-only drinking den, a closed-shop only for those in the know, it’s very much for all.
“It’s great that families bring kids down here and they ask questions. Probably the only other place you’d get that is Watford Museum.”
The reference to the museum is extremely relevant, as it’s clear to see in the Bunker the depth of respect to the club’s past: it is as much a shrine to times gone by as it is an appreciation of today.
With its stencilled slogans, and smaller representations of familiar flags on canvas prints, one of the things that is particularly impressive is the lack of any ‘anti’ sentiment, something also reflected in the group’s match-day displays. Nowhere is there any reference to animosities towards other clubs, nor are there any nods to violence. Roy picks up on that point when it’s mentioned to him. “Absolutely. 100%. All the images we’ve done, the banners and displays, have always been pro-club, pro-team, pro-coach, pro-owner, pro-player, because that’s who we are. Take Harold, the angry hornet - he’s angry looking, sure, but we could have made him a lot fiercer, more aggressive, but he’s still quite child-friendly! We are not your typical ‘Stone Islander’, who wants to have a scrap outside of the ‘Moons’. We are everyone, black and white, old and young, male or female, we get lots of families, all coming here to support a football club. From the get-go it needed to be something for everyone, not just for a certain type of fan.”
This kind of thinking would certainly go a long in accounting for why the 1881 and Watford FC work so well together. It is clear that the 1881 has developed a close link with the club, one that is now mutually advantageous. I ask Roy about this relationship, one which has proven prickly at other clubs. “Me and Richard Walker get on really well. He calls me a complete lunatic! But then he called me a complete lunatic the first time I met him, eleven years ago, when I set up the Yellow Order (a short-lived predecessor of the 1881). We have a relationship now where they trust what we are doing. We understand each other. If I let Richard or Dave Messenger know we’re doing something for a match, they now only ask how many helpers we’ll need to get in the ground. Because they know we’re not going to set up a display that embarrasses them, we’re not going to do anything contentious.
“There’s not another club in the country that has something like this, they’ve supported everything, well, within reason. I really can’t praise Richard and Dave enough. It helps that they were fans before they got the jobs. And sometimes they are able to take those club hats off and are still just fans.”
Over the past few years the 1881 has become renowned for its displays at home games, and most notably at Wembley, for both this year’s semi-final, and the final itself. Future plans will be helped no end by the purchase of machinery to manufacture its own flags and banners, a sign that the 1881,a totally ‘not-for-profit’ organization with no one benefitting financially, is willing to invest to grow. Roy is clearly enthused by this, “By investing in this we’ll be in a better position than any other fan group to engage more and more fans in the ground. Everything is fan donated, and every single penny goes towards here (the Bunker), the displays, or the flags. I want us to be the best in the country. I don’t think we’re far off. We’ll always be limited, we’ll never have 60,000 turn up; over the past five years we’ve spent over quarter of a million pounds, but it’s been money well spent!”
Relating to the displays, at the risk of asking someone to choose a preferred child, I ask Roy what has been his favourite display. A smile comes over his face, as he thinks for a moment, although you suspect he already knows the answer only too well. “It has to be the Poppy display. I was so nervous. We’d never done anything like that. I was hearing from the club beforehand that there was a bugle player, and members of the armed forces were coming, there was also the Tom Sawyer Way being named; it was a big thing. I knew that if we stuffed it up it would ruin it. It was really genuinely poignant, and it was working with the club. There’s probably still 20% of fans that really hate us, but that day I feel was the time we were truly accepted.
“There’s also the scarf displays. They cost nothing, but worked so well - everyone came together. We should do that every game, as the players come out, that should be part and parcel of a match-day. The LGBT one was a very big one too; slightly controversial to some, but that’s life. But I like that we were the first club to do it. The Proud Hornets came down, learnt about how we ran our groups; it was a nice thing. From that I think it gave us more confidence towards working with other Watford groups. So if anyone wants to, I’m always open to chat.”
On the flip side are there any displays which he regrets? There’s no hesitation here! “Oh, the managers! The Mazzarri one is festering away in our store-room, we’re not sure whether to use it as a fire starter or something! We also have the Flores one in there. There was that dilemma, ‘Do we do a Gracia one or not?’ They appear to always be the kiss of death. We did one for the semi-final, but we only wanted it up for a few seconds; we didn’t want it seen by the whole planet, only for Javi to get sacked in the morning! We did do one in the very beginning with Gino’s father, ‘In Pozzos We Trust’, only to find out it was the wrong Pozzo!
“Design-wise, Tom Bennett over the years has been absolutely brilliant. I tell him what we want, he comes back with what he thinks, then I go back with some tweaks, he comes back with the revised one, then I say ‘actually can you do this, this and that’. And then that’s it!”
The link up with Proud Hornets is typical of how the 1881 has worked with other parties. Much of this work has gone unheralded. It has been heavily involved in collecting for food banks within the area, organising the collection and distribution of presents for children in local hospitals at Christmas time, has worked with Watford Borough Council in decorating the town prior to the 2019 Cup final, and the day after the Cup Final Roy distributed freshly-cooked cheeseburgers to the homeless of the town. It’s fair to say that the 1881 has very much become part of not just a football club, but a community as a whole.
Despite putting in around 30 hours of unpaid work a week into the group, Roy clearly has lost none of his enthusiasm for the 1881, nor lost sight of the reason for doing it. “I knew we could be as good as anyone. We just didn’t have that thought process. I believe it got lost when stadiums went all-seater. Instead of you and me meeting down the pub, going to the game together and standing next to each other, it changed. We chose our seat because we liked the view, but that’s it. That’s why the atmosphere here plummeted over the years. Over the course of those five years we’ve gone from just under 500 people to, at the last count, 1,800. And that’s not just us, that’s people looking over and thinking, ‘I’ll have a bit of that!’”
“The next natural step was always to move to the centre of the Rookery, or at least have an opportunity to do so. We could never have done that three years ago. We needed to earn that level of trust from other fans, so they say ‘OK, let’s give it go!’ Not have them think ‘who are these spotty Herberts moving in, who do they think they are?’ When we gave it go, at the Palace game (quarter-final of FA Cup 2019), I thought it was brilliant. There were a few raised eyebrows, but it showed the nay-sayers what could be done. I’ve always had a faith in people, and just look at the possibility of what it could be. The point is we are still only humans, we are just supporters. I see us as a catalyst, and there’s some games where the atmosphere really takes off.”
And so the story goes full circle: the 1881 was formed after a massive ‘no-show’ from Watford supporters at Wembley at the 2013 Play-Off final, where Roy firmly believes that the Palace support won the game for the Eagles. Six years later, a very different atmosphere greeted a Watford team. Although the result was to be ultimately disappointing, the noise and passion generated by over 30,000 Watford supporters in defeat will always be the abiding memory for most there. How does Roy remember that moment? “Some people were leaving, we were five- nil down, but we may not be there for another 35 years! We, as a mass, picked up the flags and said, ‘You know what, let’s do this!’ Everyone just saw everyone else’s energy. The Manchester City game had switched, we were all gutted to lose by that amount, but I walked out of there at the end proud of us. Recently over the past season I’ve been in email contact with Scott Duxbury after some games, there’s a little bit of banter, which culminated in an email I got after the Final. He said, ‘You have taken the fans to another level, it’s been absolutely spectacular, but I feel like I failed.’
“I immediately replied back, ‘Don’t be silly, if it wasn’t for you and Gino as a partnership the club would never have had that day. The club wouldn’t be where it is now.’
On leaving the Bunker, I looked back at the entrance, at Harold the angry (but child-friendly) hornet scowling at me, and could only admire what Roy and his like-minded group have achieved. With the mantra painted on the block-paved floor in mind, as long as the 1881 is with us … Silence is not an option.
This article is from Volume 4 of The Watford Treasury, to purchase this publication in all its visual glory, please follow the link below: