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First Love

Pete Bradshaw recalls his first sighting of Vicarage Road


October 1971, Watford at home to Portsmouth on the Saturday and to Preston North End in the League Cup on the Tuesday. I had never been to Vicarage Road although I had become very interested in football in the way that teenagers are. In addition to Watford, my brother and I picked two teams from each division to follow. My Second Division ones were Portsmouth (home to close family friends) and Preston (I was the ultimate glory hunter, revelling in their 1888/89 double triumph some 82 years later). And they were both coming to town.

I am convinced the evening game was my first game but somehow I have a programme that I have written the score in from the earlier one (Watford 1 Portsmouth 0, Williams). I genuinely don’t recall going to it though – maybe it was bought later. I remember I had previously walked along Vicarage Road previously on the way to the hospital. The long, low brick wall with its shards of cut glass was a mysterious thing. You couldn’t see anything of the ground from the road except the wooden doors on the turnstiles and the floodlight towers in each corner. What was beyond was a mystery. So I was only too pleased when a school friend said that his dad would take us both to the Preston game. We entered the ground from the north-east corner on Vicarage Road and the stadium stretched out before us. It was not my first ground. Unusually that was Wembley for Amateur Cup Finals but despite this Vicarage Road still seemed huge. Rows and rows of terraces, steep steps plummeting down from road level, cool autumnal air, men in coats, cigarette smoke. The defunct dog track separating crowd from pitch.

We made our way halfway down the gangway on the corner and stood at the end of a terrace leaning on a yellow barrier. The ground was less than half-full and you could see these streaks of yellow picked out by the floodlights. On the far side was the long, low silhouette of the Shrodells Stand. In not many years, I would be standing in front of that wooden structure watching in amazement as my team beat Nottingham Forest, the champions of Europe. Far away to the left was the Rookery. Not somewhere I ever went regularly but many games were watched from the blackberry bush-festooned cinder bank in the south-west corner. I do recall standing under the Rookery to shelter from the rain as 5,000 hardy souls watched Watford take on Halifax Town in the Fourth Division.

My 14-year-old self could not imagine that just under 50 years later the ground would have four modern stands with state-of-the-art hospitality facilities. Couldn’t imagine giant screens – there were only the manual halftime scores with even the little white 1970s scoreboard not yet in place. That was a thing of wonder to me. But look at it now.

Sadly of course we cannot go to the ground at the moment. I knew that one day I wouldn’t be able to go but had assumed it would be because I had become too frail or lived too far away. But I still have those memories. Memories of a ground that has grown up with me. No longer a scruffy lower-league ground but now a modern stadium with a club that can compete with the best. Oh, and the game against Preston? One-all (Lindsay). The rest of that season was a disaster but somehow I enjoyed it. Being at Vicarage Road was much more than just the games as we tumbled to a record-low number of points. It was the crowd, the friends, the ramshackle buildings.