Confessions of a Young Supporter: The Sodding Sodden Sod Saga
Colin Payne goes all the way back to 1979 to say... Forgive GT For I Have Sinned
It’s been 44 years since it happened, but a recent event has reawakened the guilt, and I fear I can no longer carry the burden, the shame is too great. It is something that I know you wouldn’t approve of, something which at the time would no doubt have angered you. All I can say in my defence is that I was only 14 at the time…
But to start, we go to the more recent past. It was one of the stories from the end of last season, a time when Liverpool were facing the harsh realities of only reaching the Europa League, but needed a good news story. To reward James Milner for all his efforts over his career at the club, the ground staff presented him with a large square of turf which contained the penalty spot from the hallowed Anfield pitch. It came with a rather amusing note declaring, ‘After 8 years of destroying our pen spots! It’s about time you looked after one yourself! Best of luck for the future, all the ground staff.’ Of course, the suggestion is that he will indeed nurture and tend to his leaving present, and will always have a little bit of that pitch on which he achieved so much with him through his life. What a lovely gift, at least for someone who already has everything. Unfortunately, that fine ideal doesn’t always work like that. Hence the confession.
Now skip back 44 years. Despite valiant attempts to do a Devon Loch (younger readers, think Arsenal), Watford went into the final game of the 1978/79 season with promotion still in their own hands. A balmy/barmy May evening saw Watford extract revenge upon Hull City by beating them by an identical 4-0 scoreline to that which the Horns had been on the wrong end of at Boothferry Park earlier that campaign, but more importantly secure second place behind Shrewsbury Town in Football League Division Three. It was a fantastic occasion, with 26,000 crammed into Vicarage Road. I watched from a buoyant and raucous Rookery, bouncing along with the masses, with goals from Bolton, Jenkins, Joslyn and Luther each being celebrated with near-delirium. It was a fantastic evening and despite what we may choose to remember actually securing a promotion on the field at Vicarage Road is an extremely rare event – in fact, anyone under 40 will never have seen it happen in person!
At the final whistle I followed the stream of other young fans onto the Vicarage Road pitch. Now, as anyone who has ever ventured onto a field of play in celebration will know, there’s only so much dancing, cheering and waving you can do before you’re not sure what to do next and those primal instincts kick in. This was years before the smartphone and the need to selfie the hell out of everything with your vain fizzog in every image. Back then human nature was slightly different, we were more basic, the primeval desire to hunt and gather was overwhelming (or that’s my justification at least). Now, the players with their shirts, shorts and socks had long gone, corner flags either safely taken by club officials or ransacked already, match ball – hah, who was I kidding? So I looked down, to beneath my feet and, shame on me, I pulled a large clump of turf up from just inside the byline alongside the Shrodells Stand, and stuck it inside my Levi’s denim jacket.
I actually felt quite pleased with myself. This would be cared for, cut and transplanted into a garden (when I had one). It would grow into a full-sized lawn eventually (I was only 14 mind) and one day I would own my own Vicarage Road Field of Dreams. This wasn’t mindless plundering, moronic vandalism, it was creating a legacy, something my children and grandchildren could kick an orange Wembley size five on!
An hour later as I climbed out of the pond at the top of the High Street, jeans sodden (yes, add double denim to my crimes whilst I’m in a confessional mood) I had almost forgotten about my treasure. We walked back to Watford Junction, very wet, rather smelly, but still happy. As the train home trundled through Apsley I felt the cold damp pressure against my ribs. I reached into the jacket to pull out what resembled a clump of roots and rather sorry looking grass.
It was all so very retrievable at this point, some nice new soil and a bit of light and water over the next few days would have brought it all back to life so easily. The pond water may have washed away the best part of the soil binding my plunder together, but it was nothing to really worry about, I could have done it, I had big plans for this sodding sodden sod. Instead I threw it out the window.
And there ends my confession. I stole from the place I love, I damaged the field I should have revered, and discarded history without a care for the effects it would have on both the green tableau on which I had just witnessed amazing success and Les Simmons’ rage. I had done a bad thing.
Who knows, somewhere between Apsley and Hemel Hempstead there may be a small part of that historic night still thriving. It may have taken root, the last vestige of the green canvas that had seen so many legends achieve promotion on that May night. But somehow I doubt it.
Forgive me GT… I was only 14 at the time.