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SPACE - The Final Frontier

Colin Payne on why a half-empty stadium is a wonderful thing


If the current ‘situation’ has taught me something, and of course it has, it is that I am quite an unsociable person. Although that is probably a fact most people who know me would already have deduced. It’s not that I don’t like company, I just prefer my own! This simple fact would no doubt go a long way in explaining why I would rather watch my football in sparsely populated stadiums. Watching games played out in front of empty stands has reinforced that. How I would love to be in one of those seats, not just to exclusively see the proceedings first-hand, but bask in the wonderful sheer open space. No stranger next to me stinking of lager and devouring a sloppy pie with their fingers, no queuing for a wee, no shuffling as we inch along Occupation Road following the final whistle. Space and room for all. Ah bliss.

It goes back to my early days of supporting Watford; I was fortunate enough to have climbed aboard a fast-moving bandwagon back around Christmas 1977. I wasn’t alone in jumping on just as the boom-times were beginning, as five-figure crowds became the norm, and the gaping chasms, that once allowed everyone on the Vicarage Road terrace to lean against a crush barrier, were filled with smiling eager young faces. Back then I liked the fact it was crowded and was happy to be part of a seething mass swaying and surging on tightly-packed terraces. However, as time went on there was a nagging feeling that I somehow had not paid my dues. I looked at the weathered faces of the ‘veterans’, no red in their mustardy yellow and black scarves. They had seen the bad times, the fallow years, been tested, and came through it stronger. These old soldiers of the Rookery and Bogside had earnt the right to regale us with tales of Kirby; Keen; and Kiki Dee singing in the Supporters Club.

Then it happened, the wheel turned, and the early nineties allowed me my chance to repay the debt for the good times. And it was a test! Gates fell to five and six thousand, we witnessed the spectacle of a team containing the axis of drivel, Micky Quinn and Jamie Moralee, and we realised why those grizzled old veterans of 20 years previously were so disillusioned with Jim Bonser. Yet the matchday experience was better for it. Rocking up five minutes before kick-off, you could choose where you sat, which stand you wanted to frequent. The shiny new Vicarage Road end, all bright plastic seats, acoustics that echoed even better with a half-empty stand, and a view never seen before at Vicarage Road. The Main Stand entered by walking over castiron bridges, even then a time capsule to days long gone. Sitting on the flimsy orange seat, half-time spent in a ‘lounge’ not too dissimilar to your local amateur side’s clubhouse, injured players watching alongside fans (I once sat next to Kevin Phillips who had a leg in plaster and probably the greyest skin tone I’ve ever seen). Or the Upper Rous, a cruel glimpse into how the other half lived. Like a servant snooping though a mistress’s jewellery box, a look at how life could be if things were only that little bit better.

All had one thing in common. Space. You could if you wished sit literally half a dozen metres from the next person. Stretched out, your Adidas Sambas perched upon the back of the seat in front. This was social distancing way ahead of its time, when body odour and static from replica shirts were our only worry. These were my ‘seventies’, Barnsley at home with five-thousand-andsomething fans, my badge of honour. Those who would join the party later in the decade could look at me now, a centenary (which wasn’t a centenary) shell-suit jacket my equivalent to a red-less scarf. Of course, things improved. Crowds returned, and the luxury of ‘spreading out’ became but a fond memory, as we found ourselves shoulder to shoulder, or more often arse-cheek to arse-cheek, with our kindred spirits. No more the luxury of lounging carefree with a Watford Observer spread out before me during dull passages of play, only putting it down when the thin crowd became animated, these (well at least when we are allowed back) are the good times. Even if, God forbid, things go pear-shaped, we’ll likely never see the swathes of empty seats I enjoyed and luxuriated upon over 25 years ago… my only hope now is that we move to a larger stadium!