Glenn Roeder: Teenage Hero
Nick Catley pays tribute to a man who was to shape his life
When we think of formative experiences at football, we tend to look back to our first game. What the team was, what the ground looked like, who the manager was, who we went with, and so on.
But for many of us, I suspect those aren’t the experiences that mould us, not really – or at least not in terms of a passionate attachment to the team. My main memory from my first game is the sheer bulk of Chelsea’s bearded man-mountain Micky Droy. Very much a centre-half rather than a central defender, he was once described as ‘a fur-covered Land Rover’, which was underselling things if anything. I also remember missing a third of Ross Jenkins’ hat-trick as we flung European champions Nottingham Forest aside 4-1 in the League Cup, because I was looking at the pretty scoreboard.
Football enters a new phase, in terms of team support rather than the overall experience, when it becomes something you decide to do, rather than something you get taken to. For me, this happened towards the end of the interregnum between Graham Taylor eras, and the man in charge was Glenn Roeder, who died at the tragically young age of 65 in February. He wasn’t unfamiliar, of course, having spent a couple of seasons with us at the end of his career – and he was definitely a central defender, playing with style and elegance. But it’s as the manager when I was trying Watford on as a key part of my identity, before deciding to put it in a bag and take it home, that I remember him best.
Given this role, I’d almost certainly think of him fondly anyway. But there are two more reasons for my enthusiasm. Firstly, he was a pretty decent manager. And secondly, he was a fundamentally decent human being. Some would dispute that first point, of course, citing relegation to the third tier in 1995/96, his final season at the club. I would note the achievements of 1994/95, or ‘the good Roeder season’ as it’s often recalled, to show what he could do. Following a near miss in 1993/94, and the loss of the two stars of that campaign, Paul Furlong and Bruce Dyer, that summer we had relegation written all over us like a toddler left alone with a full pack of felt tips. And yet he built arguably the most successful side of that intra-Taylor period, and almost certainly the most warmly remembered. The foundations were laid late that previous season, with some key deadline-day acquisitions – Colin Foster and Keith Millen to shore up a leaky defence, and Tommy Mooney to, well, become Tommy Mooney. He managed to get best-ever years from Kevin Miller, Andy Hessenthaler and, most of all, Craig Ramage (and dealing with him must have been like resetting a video game to the beginner level after acting as mentor to Paul Gascoigne) who, if only for those ten months, was every inch the strutting, cocky, goalscoring creative midfielder that every fan dreams of. Add in the solidity of veterans Gary Porter and Nigel Gibbs, and the emergence of Richard Johnson and Kevin Phillips, and you are close to a full team of players who, if not all full-on Hornet legends, are remembered extremely favourably indeed – and in an awful lot of cases, Glenn recruited them or got the best out of them.
It didn’t last, of course. The search for a big striker, who was going to be The Answer, went on for the entirety of Glenn’s last two seasons, and chants of ‘Glenn Roeder’s Barmy Army’ turned into ‘Roeder: Get Your Chequebook Out’. It wasn’t his chequebook, of course, but to be fair to Jack Petchey (if we must), the redevelopment of the ground at that time was a huge financial strain. Foster’s injuries started to outweigh his appearances, Hessenthaler and Gibbs also had longterm knocks, and Ramage and Miller’s form seemed to desert them – by the previous season’s high standards at least. Glenn was sacked months before the season ended in relegation.
You always suspected he was a kind, classy, decent person – it was actually fairly difficult to tell in the days before mass media exposure, with not much more than Watford Observer quotes and the occasional slightly nervous interview with Mike Vince on the end-of-season video to go on. His programme notes eschewed score-settling, focusing on the positive, and if this occasionally made them slightly bland, it reflected a laudable desire not to hang dirty washing from the Vicarage Road goalposts. This suspicion of decency was amply confirmed by the personal testimony of those that knew or met him, and while this included countless figures from his Watford days, the most striking was from Don Hutchison, who played for him at West Ham. Any semi-functioning human would have sent Hutchison away from training to see his dying father (although some managers at the time would have knocked off even that low bar). To stay on the phone to him for the full five-hour journey, however – that was really going above and beyond.
So, goodbye Glenn, and goodbye to a part of my youth. And thank you for everything. Your memory will live on fervently with Watford supporters everywhere.