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Hundred Years' Lore

Nick Catley takes a look at 100 Years at Vicarage Road, and talks to its author Geoff Wicken


As you may, just conceivably, have heard by now, Watford FC moved to Vicarage Road 100 years ago, in August 1922. Celebratory events such as the recent VR100 anniversary matchday (against Middlesbrough), and the 100 Years at the Vic exhibition at Watford Museum (on until 24 September), while marking the occasion superbly, come and go, but something that will remain is Geoff Wicken’s 100 Years at Vicarage Road, an official centenary history of the ground.

Full disclosure – Geoff is editor of YBR!’s sister publication, The Watford Treasury. You can consider us biased if you like, but it really is an excellent book. Historically authoritative but largely image-driven, and beautifully printed, it acts as both reliable record of the period and fascinating coffee table read. More than that, though, it has an accessible style and format, while the photo captions splendidly point out hidden treasures, as if Geoff is sitting next to you, guiding you through the book’s 260 pages.

Given the size limitations, and literally thousands of different available viewpoints, how did Geoff decide on the best way to describe Vicarage Road’s (first) 100 years? His initial words, “Speaking as a historian” (Geoff’s educational, but not professional background), might instil fear in some, but he goes on to make clear the importance of chronicling the past in ways to which the audience will be most receptive – in this case, largely through images. “From involvement with visual history through The Watford Treasury, I was originally thinking ‘We need to tell a story here’, but very rapidly I realised that actually it’s more appropriate to blend the words and the pictures. That thinking evolved to the point I felt it probably needed to be 70 per cent pictures and 30 per cent words – people want it to be visually attractive – and the words function as a spine. People can read those if they want to, but really it’s the pictures that set off the memories and act as the history. There are something like 370 images across 260 pages, although I’ve probably reviewed about 1,200.” Was there a particular photo that made him realise this approach was going to work? “I should give a tip of the hat to Alan Cozzi (Watford FC official photographer)… Alan rapidly grasped what I was looking for and really got on board. He unearthed a picture taken in Watford’s first-ever win in Division Two, against Aston Villa in September 1969. There’s so much detail, so many things to enjoy. It’s got the East Stand extension partially built, before the seats went in. It’s got wheelchairs inside the fencing, some people sitting on garden chairs, people with crutches, two girls selling tickets for future away games wearing capes, which very much places it in a short window in the late 60s… they’re carrying a board which says ‘Come to the Rookery End Sales Hut’. It makes the place sound like Narnia!” As well as summing up the appeal of the book, Geoff’s answer hints at how the history of Vicarage Road isn’t independent of what was going on in the wider world, another fascinating element of flicking through 100 years’ worth of images.

Available material differed markedly across those 100 years, however, as becomes clear on asking whether there was anything Geoff found out that particularly surprised him. “The value of the rare image. These things are obvious when you think about them, but there are so many images there of matches… Alan sent me half a dozen pictures of just after Troy Deeney had scored in the 3-0 win over Liverpool just before lockdown. I was able to take my pick from images fractions of seconds apart. There’s too much choice! You can choose a wonderful picture, but in some senses that makes it very easy and very hard. Whereas in the 1920s, there’s hardly an action picture. The main news organisations of the time didn’t come to Vicarage Road.”

The importance of visual history recurs when Geoff describes examples of his favourite part of the process – matching descriptions to pictures to enhance the story. One picture shows an FA Cup 3rd round tie against Newcastle in 1924: “It is known there were 750 temporary seats put in for that game – there they are! They must have been at ground level inside the fence along the touchline – behind the banking you can see a few people hanging onto the wooden fence.” Pictures can also sometimes show the ground’s state of development at different points more effectively than words: “Very few pictures were taken with a view to illustrating the ground [but] the motorcycle football picture… tells you quite a lot – the Vicarage Road banking is grass [with concrete banking only directly behind the goal]”.

Another pair of photos included an interesting discovery: “Open Day in 1993, with every chair they could possibly find anywhere in the stadium on the pitch, including dining chairs from the boardroom. You notice this graffiti in the back of the Rookery – it says ‘Rookery Watford FC’. But it’s the same graffiti as in one of the pictures of a pitch invasion after the cup win against Stoke in 1970. So 23 years, and it’s still there on the back wall of the Rookery. Marvellous! It wouldn’t have been there for much longer.” It’s also noticeable from the Stoke photo that the Watford Observer clock is showing 4:40 exactly – football matches didn’t always last as long as they do now.

When asked what Geoff considers ‘his’ era, the answer could be considered surprising – but shows yet again that sometimes our enjoyment of football isn’t just about position in the league table: “For me, probably the mid-to-late 70s… the first two seasons after we were relegated into the Fourth Division… I enjoyed them so much. I suppose by that point I was a sixth-former, I could appreciate the ludicrousness of all of it, I knew Watford were on their uppers… you always had the sense that things would get better again, we never knew how much better, but they were slumming it a bit… the home matches were fantastic, we were really good at home, we barely lost. We barely won away, but if you only went to the home matches, which I tended to, that meant they won every week!” 

With less consideration, a book like this could have been a comprehensive but turgid account. Instead, part of the brilliance of its approach is the number of methods and sources it uses – something which makes it both more readable and more authoritative. Aside from the chronological history, the greatest matches and goals seen at the old place are covered in detail, as are the four occasions we’ve secured promotion there. The memories of players and fans are also mined extensively. Asked for his favourite supporter story, Geoff recounts David Moore’s tale from 1965: “My dad took my brother and me to our first match. Watford beat Exeter 3-0, but as we were walking back to Dad’s trusty Morris Minor Traveller, we were approached by a much older man who handed us this wooden object, and said ‘Here you are boys, you can take this now, I no longer need it’. It was a rattle – the notion of the passing of the torch. It’s just such a lovely story about generational connections.” Perhaps more surprising than anything was that this happened after a win – my grandad apparently vowed not to return after just about every defeat, but always found himself back again a couple of weeks later…

Another enlightening feature running through the book highlights how things have changed over the years. “What [a chronological approach] doesn’t do is allow you to draw comparisons – hence we came up with the Then and Now sections, which are almost entirely visual, which do allow you to take a particular theme, be that seating, floodlights or the pitch, and show how things have changed.” It also magnificently evokes different parts of the matchday experience using some of the book’s best writing, often through descriptions of feelings, sights, sounds and even smells.

There’s loads more, such as the Watford player who’d been a photographer at the ground five years previously, and the market trader who was also a comedy matchday figure, but you’ll need to buy the book to read about them. Indeed, you could buy the book for lots of reasons – because you want to support the club’s historical ventures and encourage them to continue into the future, because you think the huge amount of effort involved in its production deserves an audience, because someone you know features in its pages, or even because you already have all the other Watford FC books on your shelf. But don’t buy it for any of those reasons. Buy it because you’ll enjoy it – because it’s an absolutely fascinating, enlightening, excellently compiled and written history of a place where we are physically present for a couple of hours every fortnight, but spend much, much longer in our heads.