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Graham, Fabian and My Shirt

Colin Payne on a debut, a farewell and his own big claim to fame


6 May 2001 is a date that is embedded in Watford’s history for one very obvious reason. It was a day that many remember with both fondness and immense sadness, for it would see Graham Taylor say goodbye to Watford Football Club. Of course it wasn’t really goodbye, how could it be? We should all have known that, for he would always have a part to play in steering the club through difficult times. However, this was our ‘farewell to a king’.

It had been a strange campaign, one where a 15-game unbeaten run in the League at the start of the season had seen the Hornets look likely to go toe-to-toe all the way with Fulham for the right to top the league. This was the dream coming true again, an instant return to the Premier League that had so cruelly chewed us up and spat us back whence we had come, only a few months previously. Then it all fell away, as the reality hit home. We were an awfully long way from being Fulham, we were even further from being a Premier League club. 16 defeats in the following 30 games ensured that, come the last game of the season, the best accolade we could achieve was ‘The top side in the League not to make the play-offs’.

Amid that backdrop of frustration, noises were being made in the stands, muted noises perhaps, hushed whispers, but some were asking… is it time for a change? To put things in context, this was still just five years after Graham’s return. In those five years he had brokered the departure of Jack Petchey, gained promotion from the third tier as champions, taken Watford (as he had promised he would 15 years previously) back to Wembley and won, and generally created what he had always envisaged for Watford, a berth within the best 30 clubs in the country, capable of taking their place at the top table.

Yet with nine games still to play, Graham announced his intention to retire come the season’s end. To some it was expected, almost a foregone conclusion; to others it was akin to the end of the club as they knew it. Initially, I wasn’t sure what I thought. However, it was three weeks after his announcement that I met Graham at Watford’s London Colney training ground. Privileged to be granted an interview, for a one-off fanzine dedicated to him, I spent around 90 minutes in his company, and in that hour and a half something became clear. Graham Taylor was tired. Having met him several times before, there was something lacking on this occasion – that bouncy enthusiasm, that burning desire, his almost contagious positivity – not completely gone, but dampened down certainly. He was of course charming, insightful, and a pleasure to spend time with, but somehow he now appeared just a normal 56-year-old man; one who spoke with a hint of weariness.

During that meeting I realised why he wanted to go. He made a comment that resonated at the time, “I owe Watford a great deal, yet I don’t owe them anything.” He’d done his work; it was the time to stop, not for Watford. t, a farewell and his big claim to Watford fame 255 work; it was the time to stop, not for Watford. , but for him.

Travelling to Turf Moor on a sunny May day, there were very mixed feelings. Although a ‘meaningless’ fixture, we already knew that this away tie would rank right up there as something special. A true Watford day. We genuinely didn’t want ‘it’ to end, but that was being selfish.

For the first half of that final game there was a strange atmosphere in the away section at Turf Moor. We, as supporters, had finally accepted that this wasn’t just the conclusion of a chapter, this was the end of the actual story. He would be walking off the field for the last time. By this point his successor had already been announced; to all intents and purposes Graham Taylor had become the club’s caretaker manager. He was there simply to take his final bow. The large travelling support was almost restrained: actually following the match, watching the football, as if the result really did matter. Then, as the teams came out for the second half, the magnitude of the occasion took hold. The whole end rose to their feet, and the sheer affection felt for THAT man poured forth. Nothing mattered other than the man on the touchline, in his smart dark suit and silver tie.

In contrast to Mr Taylor’s departure, a new career was taking off, yet no one noticed it. In one of his last decisions as a Watford manager, the great man introduced Fabian Forde onto the field of play. A league debut is a momentous occasion in any player’s career, and for the then 19-year-old Forde, it must have been his dream come true! For here was a product of the Watford youth scheme fulfilling his potential, being recognised for his three years of work at the club; actually playing a league match within two months of signing a professional contract. The world was at his feet.

Fabian had received his place on the bench unexpectedly, David Perpetuini having been ‘dropped at very short notice’, relating to an incident that no doubt contributed to him being packed off to Gillingham without kicking another ball for Watford before the next season could begin. Fabian certainly hadn’t expected to play, any more than anyone else had expected him to play. I know this because the club hadn’t even brought a shirt along for him.

At this point anyone who knows me is now rolling their eyes skywards, and no doubt sighing. For this is a tale I have dined out on mercilessly whenever I can engineer it into a conversation.

Fabian Forde wore my Watford shirt during every single second of his first-team career at the club. I can be sure of this because it literally came off my back before the game, eagerly taken by Watford’s then kit man in exchange for Clint Easton’s jersey. At the time I was happily selling the away support copies of the GT tribute fanzine I had interviewed him for, ‘There’s only one Graham Taylor’, when the clearly stressed kit man approached me with a look of desperation and Easton’s unrequired shirt in his hand. I didn’t immediately see the fact that he was running off to Burnley’s club shop to get a number and name emblazoned on my slightly sweaty shirt, 45 minutes before kick-off, as too unusual. But it was, for this was my contribution to Graham Taylor’s last game, a part in the history unfolding in that Lancastrian mill town no one would ever visit but for a football match.

However, I digress; let’s skip back to the second half of that historic occasion. As the game progressed, the chorus of ‘Taylor-Made Army’ echoed from the mouths of men and women, boys and girls, all on their feet singing as one, not faltering for a moment as both of Burnley’s goals hit the back of the net. It’s a memory that still elicits goose bumps when recalled. Looking around as the clock ticked down to the last ten minutes of play, tears were forming in supporters’ eyes: it was all coming to an end. It was in this highly charged atmosphere that the object of our adoration made that last decision in the 82nd minute. Clad in my yellow polyester top, Fabian Forde ran out for his debut, almost unnoticed by those in the stands who by now only had eyes for one man.

As the youth of Burnley formed around the touchline ready to gain entry onto the field, and photographers jostled to snap the images of the only person who really mattered at that moment, Fabian Forde ran around in an effort to become noticed, to make that place on the field permanent; his eight minutes in the spotlight. I don’t believe I actually saw him touch the ball (although Alan Cozzi’s camera thankfully did). But really no one was watching. In reality no one cared. Not even the man whose shirt he had ‘borrowed’. All too quickly it was all over. The final whistle blew, the claret orcs invaded the pitch and, when safe to do so, Graham Taylor took his final bow. We, of course, all stayed and cheered, as the man with the inimitable toothy grin stood before us, flanked by his loyal lieutenants, and friends, Luther and Kenny Jackett; bidding us all one last farewell.

After Graham had finally exited the field, with one final glance back and a wave, we left the stadium, me in Clint Easton’s shirt. Our job as supporters was done: we had given him the send-off he warranted. Voices were hoarse, emotions now subdued. We were sad it was over; glad it had all happened. To be honest a little bit excited too, after all we were welcoming Gianluca Vialli to Vicarage Road. We had by now convinced ourselves that it was a new dawn, not a sunset.

Fabian Forde was to remain at Watford for a further 24 months, making a total of five years at Vicarage Road. In that time he would be honoured with two full caps for Barbados, yet not a second more of playing time in Watford’s first team. For a couple of years following his departure he plied his trade at non-League level, but those eight minutes at Turf Moor remain his domestic football pinnacle.

Clint Easton was gone within a month, exiled to the ‘far east’, with a £100,000 move to Norwich City. My match-worn shirt bearing his name was duly sent to a friend in the States as a gift, as in truth I’d rather have kept the plain replica jersey I had travelled to Turf Moor wearing.

As for Graham Taylor, I still see him sitting on his bench along Vicarage Road, just outside the stadium. Always smiling, always happy to hear what fans have to say. Despite officially retiring in 2001, he’s still there when needed, and always will be.