One Shiny Afternoon
Geoff Wicken’s footballing days were, shall we say, undistinguished. Except one.
I was never all that great at football. Good enough to dominate one-a-side games in the back garden against carefully selected opponents (smaller schoolfriends, or Dad ‘taking it easy’). Good enough too for the primary school team, for which the main criterion was enthusiasm. The main sport at secondary school was rugby, in which I had no interest and so involved myself with as little as possible (the other option of hockey was far better; it had proper goalposts, and with nets) so it wasn’t until university that the football pitch beckoned again.
I had no idea what the standard would be and – having not played throughout my teenage years – whether I would be any good. Having been a regular at Vicarage Road through that time though (broadly the 1970s) I’d had the privilege of observing and learning from the maestros: men such as Brian Greenhalgh, Albert McClenaghan and Arthur Horsfield. I felt Arthur might be an inspiring role model for me. Having lost whatever pace he might have had as a striker who banged them in for Middlesbrough, Swindon and Charlton, by 1976/77 he was trundling around at the back for the Golden Boys. Surely I could manage a bit of trundling?
It turned out that I could. I was utterly adequate at it, and found myself in the college first team. The record shows (well, it’s my record, but highly reliable, I promise) that I played 57 matches over three years, all in central defence, and even managed to score six goals on forays upfield. That’s a ratio of slightly better than one every ten games – right up there with Arthur’s four in 37 in 1976/77. For my third year I was the captain – elected unopposed, which I suspect had a lot to do with my willingness to organise the team’s matches, and then ensure we had 11 players (usually) who knew the kick-off times. It meant that I got to pick the side, and funnily enough mine was always the first name on the team sheet.
But one afternoon was different. The second team was short for a cup match, and I agreed to play. I was uncertain whether it was in the spirit of the second XI competition to have first-team players involved and so, in a fit of gallant Corinthianism, I insisted on playing away from my usual position. I would be the centre-forward.
It was quite uncomfortable to begin with – although that was mostly thanks to the kit. The second team had a set of rough green nylon shirts with those triangular collars that had been considered stylish in about 1971 when they were new. Now, nearly ten years later, they were just liable to give you nipple rash. (Tip: that lotion in small plastic bottles liberated from hotels can be a surprisingly effective remedy.)
But I coped. In fact I more than coped. I bagged all four of our team’s goals in a 4-4 draw. I’d like to describe it as a masterclass in the striker’s art, except that… well, I don’t remember the first one at all, and for the second I chased a long punt upfield and got to it just before defender and goalkeeper.
The third was quite good (ahem!), curled sumptuously round a couple of defenders. That’s what I reckon anyway, and there’s no one to argue about it. This made the score 3-4. Then in the last moments of the game we were awarded a penalty. The tension was palpable, and the captain decided I should take it. My Corinthianism kicked in once more – it was unfair on the gentlemen of the opposition, surely – and I declined. But the clamour from my team-mates could not be quieted, so I stepped down from the moral high ground and slotted it to the keeper’s right. Or possibly his left.
I wasn’t chaired off, one arm raised aloft, but I daresay I was the recipient of several hearty handshakes. And that, in terms of rampant four-goal match-drawing performances, was the one and only highlight of my playing ‘career’.
Happily there is a Watford FC connection to justify recounting this story in the pages of YBR! Two in fact. I would certainly have been wearing my yellow, black and red scarf as I cycled to the sports field that day – I wore it at all times, in all circumstances and in all weathers in order to identify myself as a Horn in the late 70s/early 80s GT era.
Also, paired with the unspeakable green shirts, I was sporting my favourite item in my entire wardrobe: my replica Watford shorts. Shiny red, satin look, the ones with the wide yellow and black stripes down the sides. They were identical to the ones being worn by GT in the picture alongside his manager notes in the match programme all season.
Unlike GT however, I wasn’t wearing mine back-to-front.