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A Holiday in Occupation Road

Nick Catley remembers an overnight adventure, in the quest for a match ticket


As a teacher, I’m often amused by the kids at school who will sneeringly dismiss my team of choice (actually, my team of no choice at all) as not fit to be on the same pitch as their Chelsea, Arsenal or whoever. They’ll sometimes mention that they’ve actually been to a game once, last year, or are definitely going next season, and I pity their inability to develop the fortnightly ritual that’s been part of my life for so long.

I’ve never yet been unable to get a ticket for a Watford game where spectators have been allowed. It’s been close sometimes, and will happen one day, even discounting potential Covid-reduced capacities – my away trips are becoming less frequent as middle age becomes more an exercise in optimistic labelling than a dawning reality, and I’m slipping down the priority list. However, in May 1999, it looked like my luck was ending. The previous summer had seen me leave university and start a job. What with London rents, deposits and so on, finances were a bit tight (yes, I can hear the microscopic violins) and I had to forego my season ticket. It wasn’t an issue though – seating in my preferred Vicarage Road end was unreserved, and we didn’t sell out.

Or at least it wasn’t until the end of the season. The play-off second leg at Birmingham was on sale to season ticket holders only, and I resigned myself to watching in a pub. However, on the Sunday of the home leg, it was announced that a few hundred tickets hadn’t been snapped up, and would go on general sale at 8am the next day.

Now there was a chance to be at the game, I had to take it. I felt sure demand would be huge, so even though it was a work night, I headed down to the ground at 9pm – clearly the only way to ensure I was one of the Chosen Few. Four or five were in front of me as I claimed my spot. I was pleased to see I’d beaten the rush, and excited to know I just – just – had to endure a night on the tarmac to get to the game. Traffic was slower than expected however, and by midnight it became clear that the queue of eight or so of us was pretty much it.

I’d brought a sleeping bag with me, an item which could more accurately have been termed ‘a bag’ as the hours wore on. Who knew May could be so cold? It was a long, long night, which gave me plenty of time to realise that most of the people prepared to sleep outside a ticket office to get to a game being televised live would probably also have season tickets, and I could have just risen slightly earlier than usual from my own warm bed and collected a ticket before work. Instead of which, I was not so much getting my hands on the hottest ticket in town by any means necessary as taking a short, impromptu camping holiday in Occupation Road.

Dawn brought the knowledge that the vigil wouldn’t last much longer, and Charlie took pity on us and opened up at 7:30. Adding further pointlessness to discomfort, it was announced that you could buy as many tickets as you wanted, heightening my feeling of a wasted night. I called my brother and my housemate and asked if they fancied the trip. Both did, although one expressed annoyance that I’d woken him up. I was unimpressed.

I got home with around 30 minutes to have a quick nap before work – at which point my housemate thought it would be a good time to have a chat about how it had all gone. It wasn’t. I have no idea how I made it through the day at work, but that’s the kind of thing you can get away with when you’re 23 (although tales that involve sleeping on the street usually involve a lot more fun first).

Of course, the game proved to be well worth an uncomfortable night, had it been necessary. But I made sure I got a season ticket that summer.