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A Sailor's Tale

Not all Watford legends played on the pitch. Justin Beattie tells more.


Many seasons ago I used to be one of those lads that threw balls back to players. It wasn’t a particularly arduous task, unless you were placed in the Lower Rous, in which case you would have to jump down into the void that existed between the two tiers in those days, and take a lucky guess as to where you were throwing the ball back. 

This was a role without any pay, but you did get a polystyrene cup of mystery soup at half-time and a programme which you could get signed by both sets of players (and Sir Elton) if you were lucky. If you were unlucky you could get shoved out of the way by an irate Bruce Grobbelaar or have Brian Clough insist you move the away bench a few inches to the left for no apparent reason. Further anecdotes from this period of my life will be revealed in a forthcoming autobiography, What Flavour Is This Soup… Anyone?, and any appearances on The Graham Norton Show that follow on from its Sunday Times bestseller success. 

It wasn’t just on first-team matchdays that our services were required. Oh no. We were there for reserve and junior (now known as under-23s) matches. You really haven’t lived until you’ve sat in a puddle for 90 minutes on a Tuesday night, watching Jason Drysdale and Barry Ashby stretch in front of your face whilst looking forward to being bollocked the following day for not having done your maths homework. “But Miss, I was throwing goal kick balls to Mel Rees last night” isn’t a reasonable excuse for not being able to calculate the area of a circle as it turns out.

The ball boys were organised by a chap called Arthur and his father-in-law, Percy, who was affectionately known as Grandad due to his grandson, Richard, also being a ball boy. Rarely seen without his grey trilby hat on, Grandad used to always have a large white bag of Extra Strong Mints with him that he would offer us as we lined up to clap the teams out. “Keep ya warm that” he’d say as you took one.  

One of the other characters that used to be around at every match was an old boy known to all as Sailor, who was slightly bent over, always wore a tired old suit and, as I recall, had what I would describe as a country burr when he spoke. 

Sailor’s sole job at the Vic was to fly and take down a huge flag from a mast that was positioned in the north-east corner of the Vicarage Road end. 

On 85 minutes he would make a slow walk along the Main Stand, up the stairs of the Vicarage Road end, lower the flag, fold it neatly and make his way back. This ritual was more obvious at reserve and junior matches as there wasn’t a crowd on the terrace to obscure his work. Being kids we teased him about this errand taking longer to undertake each match, but he didn’t seem to mind, a big gummy smile used to spread across his face, and he’d put the flag away for another day. 

Fast forward a few decades. I wasn’t prepared for how strangely moved I felt upon seeing it in all its glory at the 100 Years at the Vic exhibition at Watford Museum last week. Whilst others were oohing and ahhing over bricks and the Observer clock, it was this large piece of yellow cloth that brought back the strongest memories for me. When I took a picture of it and sent it to my brother who was also a ball boy with the text ‘Sailor’s Flag’, he replied ‘Awesome. Fond memories of that’. It probably seems peculiar that something as seemingly innocuous as a flag can bring back ‘fond memories’ unless you also remember the person and the ritual behind it. 

On a recent podcast with the curators of the exhibition, I was asked if I knew why Sailor was known by his nickname. I assumed that as a man of a certain age he had served in the Navy. This however is not the case. It turns out he was left at an orphanage in a sailor suit as a baby. You have to love the fans of our club for knowing (and passing on) things like that. 

So, when it comes to writing my book, chapter three (which will be titled Can’t I Stand Down the Rookery Tonight, Arthur – It’s Raining) I’ll talk about Sailor and his flag, and how it’s one of my strongest memories of being a ball boy. That and when one of the Janaway brothers patted and then whistled loudly into one of the long shaggy microphones they put out on the side of the pitch for televised matches. It was cruelly amusing to see a technician tear off a pair of headphones whilst swearing loudly.