Pete Remnant, of Do Not Scratch Your Eyes, remembers the reserve team games of the 1980s and how the conveyor belt of talent did some remarkable things
People of my age (52 as I type) do hark back to the early 80s and the golden era for the club. Graham Taylor, First Division runners-up, Europe etc… but there is something I miss which was much lower wattage than all of those yet, essentially, more important.
The Football Combination League was a reserve-team league which tended to offer games when the first team was playing away from home. As a season ticket holder, entry was free and the ‘programme’ was a simple photocopied team sheet costing five pence.
Have a look at some of the names on this team sheet!
Every other Saturday, whilst hundreds and thousands would travel to roar on the first team on the road, 500 or so would nestle into the Main Stand and watch the ‘stiffs’ take on their counterparts from across southern England – the Midlands and northern teams played in another league called the Central League.
Set up in 1915 during World War I, the Combination League had only been interrupted by World War II. That aside, it provided reserve-team football for League clubs in the area through to its conclusion in the 2009/10 season.
I imagine others may have had periods of attending such games, but my own attendance bordered on the religious from 1981 through to 1984. Every other Saturday I would turn up in an alternate Vicarage Road to the one I would attend for first-team games. I used to stand on or near the north-east curve in the Vicarage Road end for first-team games, but for the reserve games you had the luxury of enjoying the seating of the Main Stand or its extension. The numbers in attendance meant that you would have several rows to yourself – it was practically luxurious. Radio Hornet was still playing music and the read-out of the team was, or certainly felt, the same as a first-team game – in fact they would give updates and goal alerts from the first-team game – but there the similarities ended.
The match view, of course, was different, but the match audio was even more different. During the pandemic lockdown I had no real difficulty watching the game without the noisy atmosphere as I was transported back to the early 80s – I could hear every echoing word shouted by players on the pitch in a practically empty stadium, just as it had been for reserve games. In the 1980s this was an education, you could get to understand how much certain players added to a game by their voice and organisational strengths, you could hear the aggression, the determination, in the voices.
The younger, more regular players were often interspersed with older players who were recovering from injury or had fallen out of favour and ‘really needed 90 minutes in their legs’. I remember John Ward being on the bench as the reserve-team manager, but there were numerous ‘club officials’ that acted as reserve-team manager as I remember, but in all honesty my childhood memories are probably not to be trusted I was so in awe of the whole situation.
My parents divorced; I would occasionally see my father to take us to a home game. As I was now a season ticket holder this fell away, but I do remember him once joining me (I dragged him along I think) for a reserve-team game – I imagine he saw it as a cheap afternoon out. On this occasion it was against Brighton, why I know it finished 2-2 I still have no idea, and Gerry Armstrong, coming back from injury, was playing – a rare treat. With a couple of early injuries and only one substitute used in those days, Gerry was forced to play most of the game as an ad hoc centre-back as opposed to up front. Watching him, and hearing him, was amazing as he slotted in, turned the ego to neutral and simply imparted knowledge to the younger players around him. He read the game and started off the play from the back as if he was Franz Beckenbauer. Even my dad was impressed with the ability to watch a game in such microscopic detail uninterrupted by crowd noise.
The tea bar in the Main Stand still had a queue at half-time (that, to my knowledge, has never changed) and a hot chocolate and Mars bar would often not be enjoyed as I tried to stick to my five-pence-a-game budget while not having any other money!
Another benefit of being in the Main Stand was that when it fell down with rain, we all stayed dry, and I remember a game against Chelsea (we won 3-2 with a last-minute winner from Worrell Sterling) that was played in monsoon-like conditions. Any normal game would have been called off I am sure, but presumably they wanted to get the game out of the way. There were enormous puddles on the pitch and by modern standards it would never have been played out to a finish, but it was a pulsating game with a crescendo that would have befitted a full stadium.
Many of the team were members of the 1982 FA Youth Cup-winning side that triumphed against Manchester United over two legs, and would go on to represent the club in its only (to date) European campaign.
In attack Jimmy Gilligan, now head of Academy coaching, would lead the line, partnering nippy striker Ian Richardson.
Gilligan would go on to be the first Watford goalscorer in European competition, scoring what most presumed would be a consolation goal as the Hornets lost away to West German side Kaiserslautern 3-1 in the first leg of the first round of the UEFA Cup.
Richardson’s defining Watford moment came in the return leg as, starting, he grabbed two goals in a 3-0 win. Charlie Palmer, another alumnus of the youth–reserve–first-team conveyor belt, also played. Richardson’s goals were televised on BBC’s Sportsnight programme.
Whether Richard Johnson and Gilligan can go on to produce players capable of representing the club in Europe is yet to be seen – it is a long-term project with long-term aims – but I for one miss the days when singing ‘he’s one of our own’ could have been about half the team. Luther Blissett, Nigel Gibbs, Gary Porter, Lloyd Doyley, Kenny Jackett, Arthur Woodward and Johnny Williams are all in the top ten appearance makers for the club and are all home-grown – that’s the prize for getting this right. Quality, loyalty and identity.
Whatever the format of the league, we need to ensure that once again our player development becomes the envy of football.