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Hornet Heaven: Field of Dreams

A Hornet Heaven story by Olly Wicken


It’s the same shape as a goal, but half-size. The two posts are black, and the bar across the top is yellow. Some people call it a ‘crush barrier’, others call it a ‘leaner’. Either way, it came from Vicarage Road and has been propped up against his garage wall since he and Fiona retired to Devon ten years ago. They’re both staring at it.

Fiona says: “We can’t keep it forever. We need the space. What do you want to do with it?”

David is tempted to speculate that the same conversation is probably happening at Watford Football Club about Tom Cleverley. But Fiona isn’t interested in football – she wouldn’t get the joke. Instead, he says: “I’ve got an idea, but you won’t like it.”

He acquired the leaner when the Vicarage Road terrace was demolished. Its last game was in May 1993. (The home game against Oxford was also Steve Perryman’s last game as manager but, as far as David knows, no Watford fan has kept Steve Perryman stored away in a garage as a memento.) The leaner holds all kind of memories for him – all the way back to when he first started watching Watford as a 6-year-old boy in 1959 and fell in love with Cliff Holton. 

“Go on, then,” Fiona says, “what’s the idea?”

“Well, we’ve never known what to do with the field behind the summerhouse. Do you remember that movie we watched again the other night?” 

“‘If you build it, he will come’? That one?”

“I could cut the grass; mark out a pitch; put up goal posts and nets. Maybe build up some banking, and throw up a couple of old wooden stands. A kind of mini-Vic — the way it was. I’d stand against the leaner behind the goal.”

David glances at Fiona to see her reaction. For nearly fifty years of marriage, his Watford memorabilia (the forest of programmes, the dreadful bric-a-brac, the ugly mugs) has spread from room to room of their home like an infestation. She has suffered it with an affectionate world-weariness and a loving disdain, and he’s grateful. 

She kisses him on the cheek and says: “If you build it, I will leave.”

  *     *     *

In March 2023, in Hornet Heaven, Cliff Holton has been trying to keep himself to himself, but Bill Mainwood has spotted him in the upper tier of the away end at QPR.

Bill says brightly: “Oh, hello, Big Fella. I thought it was you under there. I haven’t seen you in a hoodie before.”

“No, Bill,” Cliff mumbles, “I… er…”

“You’re normally such an imposing presence around the place — proudly sporting your club blazer. Having a day off, are you? Going incognito?”

“Well, I just, er…” 

“Don’t worry. The greatest forward in Hornet Heaven can’t be busy being an inspiration to Watford fans all day every day. You deserve some time off to yourself. I’ll leave you to it, Cliff. Cheerio.”

Bill walks away, and Cliff pulls his hood further over his head. He’s definitely not projecting his usual aura. Normally, his force of personality means he never needs to speak. But Bill’s mistaken. Cliff isn’t just taking a break. Cliff Holton is broken.

It’s the conflict among Watford fans that has got to him. Some are Pozzo in, some are Pozzo out. He feels sapped by the antagonism. 

Further along the stand, a fight breaks out among Watford supporters. Cliff ignores it and carries on watching the game. 

As far as he can see, a change in the club’s ownership isn’t a realistic prospect, so it’s a pointless debate. There’s an emotional gap between Watford fans’ expectations and what they’ve been seeing on the pitch – and heated arguments about Gino Pozzo have poured into the opening. 

It has unsettled him as a fan. Does it mean he lacks passion, or something, if he doesn’t wade into arguments on one side or the other? Is there something wrong with him because he doesn’t have an opinion? The anxiety and doubt are eating away at him.

When the half-time whistle goes, and the Watford fans around him boo the players off the pitch, Cliff sits with his head bowed. He only looks up when he feels Bill Mainwood’s hand on his arm.

“Actually, are you OK, Cliff?” Bill asks.

*     *     *

To try and lift the Big Fella’s spirits, Bill takes Cliff to a match from the 1959/60 promotion season. They stand on the Bend at Vicarage Road – on the cinder banking.

“What a season!” Bill says. “You were in your absolute prime, Big Fella.”

Bill’s a kind man, Cliff thinks, but nostalgia isn’t going to help. Nor’s flattery. Bill carries on: “Listen to the crowd shouting for you!”

Cliff tightens his hoodie around his head, as if to try and shut himself away. And it’s then that he hears a voice. It says: “If he builds it, you will go”.

Cliff hears it clearly. He doesn’t know what it means. He loosens his hood and the voice comes again: “If he builds it, you will go”.

“Did you hear that?” Cliff asks Bill.

“Sorry? Hear what?” Bill says.

*     *     *

Later, Cliff goes to the swish Gallery restaurant inside the stadium. Henry Grover, the Father of the Club sees him and tuts: “I say, Big Fella, old thing. Dress code and all that”.

Cliff finds his old team-mate George Catleugh. He sits down and asks discreetly: “George, I wanted to ask: have you heard anything unusual at any games recently?”

“Aye,” George says. “The other day, I heard someone not moaning.”

Cliff looks around to make sure no one can overhear him. He says: “Have you heard a voice – whispering?”

“I’ve heard loads of voices. They’re all going ‘Pozzo out!’ But they’re not whispering.”

Cliff sinks back into his hoodie. This time it’s George’s hand that he feels on his arm.

“You don’t seem yourself, Big Fella,” George says. “Is everything alright?”

*     *     *

Over the next few weeks, Cliff keeps hearing the voice. He hears it at the disappointing draw at home to Wigan: “If he builds it, you will go”. And he hears it at the devastating away defeat up the road on April Fools’ Day: “If he builds it, you will go”.

Cliff thinks: “If he could hurry up, it would help”.

*     *     *

Two weeks later, in mid-April, an annual Hornet Heaven event takes place in the atrium. It celebrates the weekend in 1960 when Cliff scored two hat-tricks in two days.

George Catleugh is there with rest of the 1959/60 regular line-up – including Vince McNeice and Sammy Chung, who arrived in Hornet Heaven earlier in the season. The group are close-knit, and the team spirit of 1959/60 has sustained them through Watford’s recent troubles. 

Striker Dennis Uphill says to George Catleugh: “I can’t see the Big Fella. Where is he?”

 “He said he wasn’t up to coming,” George replies. “He went off to an old game by himself.”

“He hasn’t come to a party held in his honour? Right, lads, we need to rally round,” Dennis says – and the 1959/60 team agree.

*     *     *

Cliff has gone to watch his 1959/60 team clinch promotion. He’s at Borough Park, Workington, in his hoodie. He’s on the terrace opposite the small main stand. He hears a voice say: “The players aren’t trying”.

This time, the voice isn’t in his head – it belongs to a Workington fan in the land of the living in 1960. “And the owner’s only interested in money,” it continues.

Cliff stares blankly at the pitch and reflects that some things never change. Football fans have always scapegoated players and owners – and always the same way. 

Then, suddenly, he hears a whisper: “He has built it – off you go”.

The Big Fella feels an invisible force drawing him forwards. He climbs over the wooden slatted fence at the front of the terrace and walks across the pitch, past himself and George Catleugh and Dennis Uphill and all the others.

On the far side of the pitch, between two brick dugouts, is the players’ tunnel. He enters it. At first it’s dark. Pitch black. Then, strangely, he feels things brushing against him – leaves and branches. Ahead of him is sunlight and, gradually, things become clearer. He’s making his way though a small wood.

A moment later, he’s wearing his 1959/60 football kit, he’s thirty years old again, and he’s in a field in Devon.

*     *     *

Cliff looks around the field, amazed. There’s banking behind one goal, with a yellow and black leaner halfway up. Along the sides are small wooden stands, with seats and roofs. One of them is painted yellow like the Shrodells Stand. Behind the goal is an open wooden barn – far too tall for the arena, just like the old Rookery Shed.

He looks down at what he’s wearing: a short-sleeved yellow shirt with black trim on the v-neck; black shorts with a yellow stripe down the side; yellow socks with black hoops; heavy leather boots with white laces. Cliff feels a burst of adrenalin. He starts to run. He has an urge to sprint, and shout, and feel the youthfulness that’s surging through his body. It’s wonderful.

Then he hears a friendly voice: “Hi!”

Cliff stops. He turns and sees a man of about seventy – with a tanned bald head and glasses. The man asks: “How’s the surface?”

Cliff smiles and says: “It’s got grass, so it’s better than most pitches I played on”. 

The man introduces himself as David – a retired Watford fan. He throws Cliff an antique leather football and says, “I’m not much of a goalkeeper, but… want to take some shots?”

Cliff catches the ball and lets it fall onto his foot. He flips it up a few times and catches it again. He smiles at David and says: “I’ve dreamed of doing this – of feeling like this again – for years”.

He puts the ball down on one of the penalty spots. David goes in goal. 

Cliff turns and takes a few steps back. He doesn’t hear David whisper to himself: “I’m facing a Cliff Holton penalty”.

The Big Fella takes a deep breath. He runs up. He puts his laces through the ball. The power he feels through his thigh is intoxicating. The contact he makes is sweet. David dives for cover. The goal net billows. A peg flies up out of the ground. 

Cliff sighs and says: “My! Maybe I haven’t lost it!”

David brings the ball back to the Big Fella. Cliff feels like hugging him, but he restrains himself and administers a firm handshake instead. He thanks David and looks around the field – the mini-Vic. He says in admiration: “You built this”.

“And you came,” David replies.

Cliff weighs the football in his hands for a few moments. “I loved playing the game,” he reflects. “The feeling it gives you! Endorphins, I suppose. But you have to put so much into playing – effort, courage, intelligence, skill – that merely watching can feel hollow by comparison… Can I come back?”

David shrugs and smiles. “Any time.”

“And there are others,” Cliff says. “Can they come too? The rest of the 1959/60 promotion side?”

“I’ve really got no idea at all how this whole thing works,” David says, “but, of course, they’re all welcome”.

*     *     *

Back in Hornet Heaven, Cliff bursts through the door of the atrium. The crowd of Watford fans at the event assume it’s a stage-managed dramatic entrance for the man at the centre of the celebrations, and start applauding, but the Big Fella heads straight for the group of 1959/60 players. 

As Cliff approaches, George Catleugh says to Dennis Uphill: “Look, he’s got his club blazer back on”.

Cliff greets the group without saying anything. He shakes their hands and puts arms around their shoulders. Then he steps back. George and Dennis and all the others can feel his aura again. They know what he wants. “Come on, lads,” George says. “We’re to follow the Big Fella.”

Jimmy Linton, the goalkeeper, says: “But we’ll miss this afternoon’s game. We’re at home to Bristol City.”

“He wants all of us to go with him,” George says. “Vince, Sammy, Cannonball — make sure there’s no one from the 1959/60 squad missing.”

Then Cliff Holton, a man restored, leads his team out of the atrium.

*     *     *

The yellow and black half-size goal, halfway up the banking, is a great place to be watching from, David thinks to himself. Down below are players he idolised as a boy. Sammy Chung, Vince McNeice, and Micky Benning are on one team; on the other are Ken Nicholas, Dennis Uphill, and Bobby Bell. They’re all playing with smiles on their faces.

Fiona arrives with a mug of tea for him. David says: “What do you reckon?”

She says, with her usual affectionate disdain: “I think I preferred the leaner against the side of the garage”. She adds: “By the way, Watford beat Bristol City two-nil. Weren’t you interested?”

“It was that or facing a penalty from Cliff Holton. Not exactly a toss-up.”

Fiona kisses David on the cheek and says: “Your very own field of dreams”.

“Theirs, as much as mine, I reckon,” David replies.

A moment later, David watches Cliff Holton thump a drive into the top corner of the net below the banking. The Big Fella turns and grins at David — and raises an arm in salute.