Night of Shame
Some people were saddened that this month’s long-awaited fixture against Luton Town is behind closed doors. Not Colin Payne.
There was something about 10 September 2002 that still remains so vivid in my memory.
Approaching the ground from Watford Junction, through the High Street, small groups of men moved in that way that only those intent on football violence can. Dressed like malevolent ticket touts, with nods and whistles as their primary form of communication, they manoeuvred around the road like circling hyenas. As an exercise in monitoring human behaviours it was probably a fascinating insight into anthropology, as an experience it was just frightening. I walked towards them, I had to, they were everywhere, it was the only way through. Clearly not deemed a threat, or worthy of their attention, they looked right through me as I passed, concentrating on a small knot of lads walking further down the street, doing that odd change of pace only football hooligans do, as they jogged in the direction of a potential fight, or to be more accurate, assault.
At that point I should have followed my gut instinct, the one that tells me flames will burn, wasps will sting, and nothing good ever comes of coming face-to-face with hooligans at a Watford-Luton game.
The approach to the ground was chaos, the crowd packed solid along Vicarage Road, the dark night sky illuminated by the blue lights, the air punctuated by chants aimed at unseen foes. Conversations were overheard… “It kicked off big time in ‘emel.” “Both mobs went toe-to-toe in St Albans.” “A couple of hundred Luton were having it large at Bushey Station...”
No one mentioned the violence outside ‘The Moon Under Water’ that would later see grown professional men with families sent to prison. Nor were they aware that the reason we weren’t moving was that down Occupation Road a pitched battle had broken out. But then it was one of those nights.
Finally in the ground, I had the unfamiliar vantage point of being in the Upper Rous, overlooking the Vicarage Road end, full of visiting fans, raucous and rowdy, just as the Rookery was, a hundred or so yards in the opposite direction. Toxic is often used to describe an atmosphere, sometimes in an exaggerated sense, where the mood is perhaps merely unpleasant or mildly confrontational. But that night the mood was the very definition of toxic. It was poison.
As the players warmed up, half-heartedly exchanging wisecracks and smiles, both sets of fans were taunting each other, chanting their hatred, safe in the knowledge that, like road rage, they were safe from actual physical threat, the rules of normal human interaction forgotten, for they were segregated and managed. I noticed the large group congregating at the bottom of the Vicarage Road stand, exchanging ‘verbals’ with their like-minded adversaries in the Lower Rous. Then it happened.
The penny dropped. There were no police in the ground, we were to later find out they were too busy dealing with mayhem elsewhere, but there were NO police at all.
And with just five or so minutes to kick-off, over the wall they came. They were joined by willing adversaries clambering over similarly low walls in front of the Rookery and Lower Rous, as kicks and punches were exchanged, a fire hose swung through the air, and corner flag brandished. The stewards – like disinterested teenage babysitters holding the fort, hoping for nothing to happen – were powerless. The players were hastily ushered from the pitch. From my vantage point it was almost akin to some bizarre sport, I found myself rooting for the ‘good guys’, as more eager men ran from the Rookery it was like something from Lord of the Rings, the men of Rohan saving the day against the evil orcs. Only in reality there were no good guys – they had left us unattended – trusted us to behave.
“SCUM, SCUM, SCUM!” we chanted in unison – but only at one side – even from the refined heights of the Upper Rous. I was so engrossed with my vitriolic chanting, that had I been wearing dentures they would have been spat into the centre circle, such was the force of my hatred. I had become part of the mob. I actually had forgotten those instincts that would normally keep me safe, and instead became a screaming, shouting, thug… well verbally at least.
Then as quickly as it had started ‘order’ was restored, initially by just four police officers, then more and more running through the tunnel batons drawn. We cheered.
The game was a non-event, or appeared so, we lost 1-2, Matthew Spring scoring. I would have left early, but we couldn’t. It would be 28 minutes precisely after the final whistle before it was deemed safe enough to let the home crowd out.
The following day Watford had made the back pages, for all the wrong reasons. It was our ‘Night of Shame’.
However, the most shameful thing about it all was how it had made me, a supposedly rational man, feel at the time.