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10 Wonders of Matchday - Everybody Needs Good Neighbours

Nick Catley looks at what makes going to football special


It used to be simple. You stood with your group, whether that was your dad and his friends, a cluster of mates, including that one who no one really knew but had somehow become ensconced, or 23 of you from school. You went where there was space. If you all got to the ground at different times, you headed over and stood next to them.

More recently, though (by which I mean over a period of time in which a child could have been born, brought up and had an existential crisis), seating has meant we don’t get to choose our neighbours for matches, outside our immediate party. At its best, this leads to the pleasing existence of nodding acquaintances that develop over the years, people with whom you have detailed discussions on the state of the world, the pies, and the merits of playing two up front, without ever knowing their name – or, more likely, having forgotten it and thus not being able to ask again. These friendships take root in the settled areas where people don’t move seats much from year to year – Vicarage Road’s equivalent of suburbia.

However, while these people do exist in my part of Vicarage Road, there aren’t many of them. Because I still like to stand at games, Luddite that I am, my seat is on the very back row of the Rookery. This is not a popular location – partly due to being so far from the action, partly because you can’t see the big screen – and consequently inhabitants change regularly – the ground’s student area, if you like. Sometimes they come for a match, sometimes they come for a season. Presumably they then either move on up the seating ladder to more desirable parts of the ground, or drift away completely. This means that the pleasure I get from my matchday neighbours usually comes less from the renewal of decadesold acquaintance, and more from peoplewatching.

A few years back, there was a family next door. Without fail, they would arrive after the start, walking in front of us to get to their seats. A few minutes before half-time, back they would come, filing out to beat the half-time rush. This never seemed to work, because it wouldn’t be until well after the second-half kicked off that they would reemerge with pies in hand before, inevitably, heading off before the end. I kept meaning to time how long they actually spent watching the game, but eventually decided that would be a bit petty even for me.

Then there are the tourists, identifiable by the pictures, presumably destined for social media, that they take of each other from every conceivable angle which identifies the ground as the backdrop. Part of me wishes these seats were filled by genuine Watford fans rather than those attracted by the alleged glamour of the Premier League. But actually, given that we clearly haven’t got the fans to fill those seats, why shouldn’t they be there? My overriding emotion remains astonishment, though, that Vicarage Road is considered somewhere people want to travel from abroad to visit. It didn’t use to happen when we had a dog track.

The wannabe casuals next to me are a more recent addition – it remains to be seen if they will become a regular feature. They wear Lacoste and Fred Perry, and seem determined not to display any positive emotion at all, moaning throughout the game, dismissing just about every player, and generally standing cross-armed and stonyfaced for everything except goals, like Easter Island statues told their car has failed its MOT, and not on a technicality. The bad lot of the neighbourhood, driving their highperformance car around with the stereo turned up in the early hours, I won’t be unhappy if they move on soon.

One day, I’m hopeful the Rookery will have a safe standing section, and I can attempt to take up a more sought-after residence closer to the pitch. But if I do, I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to my rotating cast of neighbours – often I can liven up the dullest of matches, just by wondering what the hell they’re doing there.