Confessions of a Young Supporter: The Foreign Flag Felony Fable
Colin Payne goes all the way back to 1978 to say... Forgive GT For I Have Sinned
It was nostalgia, that was what unlocked it – freed the repressed memory from the side of the brain that is supposed to keep it squirrelled away safely. Recalling those halcyon days of old, as a young lad for whom experiencing going to the football with mates was still an exciting novelty, my mind flicked back to that old stadium with fondness, of course fondness, because that’s what nostalgia is about, ahhh… bliss!
Then my actual memories kicked in, what the ground was really like in the winter of 1978. A dirty yellow mishmash of dereliction and decay. The Shrodells Stand, a throwback to Cassio Road that was probably falling to bits in 1922, standing like the piecemeal sheds you would see on the neighbouring allotments, unloved, uncared for, and unvalued. It was corrugated iron held together with layer upon layer of mustard-coloured paint, jagged holes and rusty ruptures in its walls, a tinderbox of slowly rotting wood, the terrible disaster that never happened. The Vicarage Road Terrace – where once trees and well-maintained creosoted fences kept out those who were eager not to pay a gate fee, there now stood a harsh brick wall topped with thousands of broken beer bottles, rusting leaners dotted around its slightly crumbling steps. A sandy unwelcome dog track separated it from the pitch. The Main Stand, for there was nothing grand about it, a construction of two halves, one less than a decade old, but already rubbish, the other section standing as a reminder that Watford had its place in the football world, and we knew it. The Rookery, clearly built in an age where asbestos panels were cheaper to buy than concrete steps. And finally, the Bend, a part of the ground not so much claimed back by Mother Nature as thwarted by her, in that all she would grant this little corner of Hertfordshire was stubborn weeds and mythical brambles.
This is where my sin occurred.
It was my first season of attending games at Vicarage Road, and despite my retrospective critique of the ground, I loved the place. In truth I’m not even sure who we were playing, although I’ve convinced myself it was Doncaster Rovers, who we beat 6-0, but that’s not spoiling the narrative arc of this tale as it has little to do with the game in question. Lloydo – who I guess is as culpable as I am in this wrongdoing – and I liked to arrive early at the ground, we’d looked forward to going to the games long in advance and wanted to eke every minute out of our trips. Sauntering down Occupation Road, with a bounce and a swagger only 13-year-olds trying to look older can perfect, we were stopped just outside the entrance to the old Supporters Club HQ by what to our eyes was a middle-aged man (so it was probably someone in their thirties).
“Hey lads, can you do me a favour?”
We said nothing, after all who commits a yes to such a vague request?
He pulled a large, folded piece of cloth from a carrier bag.
“I want this hanging from one of the floodlights. I’ll give ya ten bob each if you do it.”
It was a large linen Belgium flag.
Now that was a pound between us. A pound was a lot of money back then. A pound was a pound.
“OK”, Lloydo replied before we’d even considered anything other than the value of a pound.
“See me back here after the game, and providing you’ve done it I’ll get my flag back and give you the quid,” the middle-aged thirty-something man said, then menacingly added, “Make sure you bring the flag back, or I’ll kick your heads in!”
Hmmmm, this deal had small print.
There’s many pictures of people up floodlights within a football ground. They’re just giant climbing frames after all, how hard would climbing one be?
Lloydo was scared of heights, although it was a fact he had never previously mentioned, and I was scared of everything back then. I stood at the foot of the towering pylon on the Bend by the Rookery, looking up at the huge steel tower from directly below. I knew there was no way I was going to scale that thing. Maybe half… or perhaps a third up would do. I was hoping a policeman would bowl over and tell me to get down as I set foot on the first steel girder, but nothing. I inched up, it must have been all of four feet. Nah… not happening.
I came down, slightly crestfallen, but mostly relieved to get down – four feet up looks bloody high sometimes! We draped the flag over the wall of the toilet block at the top of the weed-strewn bank and made our way to our chosen spot in the middle of the Rookery. As the game drew to a close, we retrieved the yellow, black and red ensign, and partly due to the fear of getting our ‘heads kicked in’ for not doing as instructed (see earlier small print in the transaction), and partly because we wanted to keep the flag, we stole it! Sneaking off past the allotments to avoid its previous owner and his promised violent threats, we took turns to drape it around ourselves as we walked, before realising that we were lost as we’d never gone back to Watford Junction that way before.
On getting home, albeit having missed our scheduled train, we personalised the flag by scrawling over it in black felt tip pen with such pearls of wisdom as ‘ROSS IS KING’, ‘GOING UP’, ‘WATFORD ARE MAGIC’ and ‘WATFORD AGGRO’.
Lloydo then took the flag home with a promise to share its ownership every other month. I never saw it again, which wasn’t a disaster as we’d agreed to never take it to a game in case the previous owner saw it.
So, there we are. Forgiveness asked, and absolution sought. But if it’s any consolation I don’t believe he would have given us that pound anyway. So please consider that there were no victims in this crime.