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The Great Unloved

In 2005/06, a Watford side won promotion. Yet remain unloved. Colin Payne has a theory as to just why that is.


Some sides you just warm to, forever they will form part of the emotional psyche that ties you in, binds you so intrinsically to that time and place. Graham Taylor’s great 1978/79 team is a fine example. Forty-plus years on anyone who was part of that ride will still wax lyrical about those players. Roger Joslyn, as an example, would never have got near today’s multi-millionaires, nor stay on a pitch long enough to attempt to, but he will be remembered long beyond many of today’s star names. Likewise Furphy’s heroes and the Third Division team that GT took the to the Premier League in 1999. They will forever be immortalised in our minds, part of the fabric that will always ensure that our past is as relevant as our present. Often that lasting affection is born through success, flaws and imperfections forgiven when a promotion is involved. But not always. I know this because no one loves the 2005/06 side. By the same token they are not hated or anything, just unloved.

Yet it was a side that probably matched the previously mentioned teams for glorious over-achievement, if not surpassed them. That’s the stuff we like, being the emboldened underdog, coming from left-field to confound critics. This was a squad destined for relegation prior to that 2005/06 campaign kicking off, and probably on paper should have gone down. But Adrian Boothroyd pulled together a group of players willing to run themselves into the ground, battle, graft and fight for everything. It was a small, but very tightly-knit group of men most of us had never heard of prior to their coming to Watford. Just looking at the back of a matchday programme the holes in the squad are all to clear to see. Alongside the 36 squad numbers there are no fewer than ten glaring gaps, and of those listed such luminaries included are Ben Gill, Joel Grant, Francino Francis, Adam Griffiths, Junior Osbourne, the exotic sounding Sietes, and of course Les Ferdinand, who had more chance of breaking into that Blue Peter garden than playing a first-team game for Watford.

That team delivered, goals flowed, and well we know the rest don’t we?

So what is it that makes those men who played at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium just so unloved? At the time it didn’t seem that this side was any way lesser in our hearts to any of the other teams that had gone on to secure promotion. In fact anyone at the ground on the night of the second leg of the play-off semi-final, against Palace, will testify what a special night it was. The ground was literally in joyous mood, the bond between crowd and players a thing of unbelievable solidarity. It was almost religious in its fervour, and I would argue was right up there with Hull in 1979 and Wrexham in 1982, if not even more fervent. So what changed?

Of course there’s the obvious reason, so let’s deal with the elephant in the room straight away. ‘E-I-E-I-E-I-O, up the football league we go, and when we get promotion, this is what we’ll sing, we’ve got, we’ve got, we’ve got, we’ve got, we’ve got Marlon King.’

No one wants to be connected to a man found guilty of sexual assault – plus a string of other offences including fraud, GBH and causing a three-car pile up whilst speeding and eating an ice cream. It tarnishes, taints and generally leaves you wanting to erase this person from the part of the brain that stores your best memories. He was our Player of the Season. There was talk of him and Ashley Young being the New Blissett and Barnes – that’s not a tag bandied around freely. It just makes us feel dirty now. That defiant arrogance was appealing when he was scoring goals in a yellow shirt, yet now appears just bilious when replayed, knowing the full story. Like certain seventies singing icons never to be heard again on our radios, King has been erased from any list, where he surely would have rested somewhere between Ross Jenkins and Paul Furlong in a top ten of Watford strikers. However, some things ARE more important than football.

Yet it’s not just Marlon King who has fallen foul of the collective retelling of history. Ashley Young committed the cardinal crime of moving to a big club, thus saving us from financial ruin. Malky Mackay had the audacity to do quite well as a manager, well enough for someone else to want to give him a job. Matthew Spring used to be a ‘Scummer’, was alright for a while, but then became a ‘Scummer’ again. Hameur Bouazza committed the cardinal crime of moving to a not-so-big club, but still saving us from financial ruin. And Chris Eagles was just far too pretty for his own good. None of them should be judged harshly for any of those misdemeanours, well apart from Eagles perhaps, he was very, very pretty.

And then there’s Aidy Boothroyd. It was never going to be easy coming in at that point. Ray Lewington was rightly a very popular man. He fitted in with Watford. Lewington was left working with a budget that wasn’t so much tight as permanently stretched to breaking point. His two unexpected cup runs literally kept the club afloat. Any one following someone who had done so much with so little was going to need to be something special, and that was without factoring in that the incumbent would be held responsible for the even more unwelcome departure of Nigel Gibbs.

Boothroyd still divides fans, even those among The Watford Treasury team. To some he was arrogant, ‘a pyramid scheme salesman’, far too close to Mark Ashton (the Chief Executive). To others the man who turned a team, with just three decent players, into a play-off winning side.

What can not be doubted is that he achieved far beyond expectation when going up, achieved 100% expectation when going down, and basically was lost before the next season even started. Of course it’s easy for the label ‘Hoofroyd’ to be thrown around, but he was – still is – a football man, probably a likeable man, but if not, is that really important in football?

There were of course indisputable positives, there had to be. We went up. Darius Henderson was a machine, in my mind’s-eye every game saw him with a ripped shirt, usually around his neck, squaring up to giant centre-halves, or reeling away after a skull-fracturing header smashed the back of the net. He should be up there with the best surely? Lloyd, Gavin Mahon, and amazingly both Ben Foster and Adrian Marriappa were all part of it, yet mostly remembered for other events, other seasons. And of course Jay Demerit, what’s not to love there?

There were 13 games, including the Palace tie in the first leg of the play-off semi-final, where Watford scored three or more goals. Gates were healthy. And most importantly the mood appeared genuinely buoyant.

And still that season IS unloved, although come May 2006 it didn’t appear like that. In fact I don’t remember too many long faces in Cardiff after we beat Leeds. No one said ‘we’re up, but…’ In fact I don’t recall any dissatisfaction at that very moment.

So where are the faces of that team that so over-achieved on the 1881 Banner, where are they even in Home Tied’s ‘Not on the Banner’ series?

And there lies the truth behind any team. Like a bad apple in a fruit bowl, if one piece of that whole turns rotten, all become tainted. And Marlon King was a bad apple. That feeling of ‘unlove’ is something that has grown over time, events further on ensuring that hindsight kicks in, and our memories become selective. Of course it’s not intentional, it was probably not even something we were conscious of, but we’ve allowed it to happen all the same.