Since I Was Young
Gladys Protheroe on the joys of visiting Vicarage Road as a teenage boy
At 13 years of age, my friend Clive and I were self-proclaimed minor outlaws. The Butch and Sundance of the Rookery. We wore Crombies and tonic trousers rather than Stetsons and gun belts, but the similarities were, we believed, uncanny.
Back then, a trip to Vicarage Road was a very full day. We would leave Aylesbury station at around 10am, armed with old used train tickets to be passed off as legal tender, we’d then change at Moor Park and walk through Cassiobury Park to Watford High Street. Then a wander around Clements department store where Clive would indulge in his regular bout of minor shoplifting. I recall a small vase, a key ring and what we believed was some kind of attachment for a kitchen tap were just some of his booty that I can remember. I haven’t seen Clive for some years, but I do wonder whether his fondness for petty pilfering continued and he now possesses what Shaw Taylor would have once described as an Aladdin’s Cave of stolen bric-a-brac.
Theft does make one hungry, so we would then retire to the Wimpy bar for refreshment. Our next stop was the joke shop on the corner of Market Street, I would think it is unlikely to be trading now in that guise, perhaps today a Polish delicatessen or a retail outlet for these electric cigarettes the young folk seem so fond of. We had got to know the owner of the joke shop. Perversely, despite his chosen trade, he was a sullen, miserable individual. Strange career path I thought, even back then. Humourless he may have been, but he wasn’t daft. All of his bits and pieces on sale were securely displayed under glass. Safe from Clive’s sticky fingers. We would purchase stink bombs, smoke bombs, we would have gladly bought any kind of bomb I think. We let a smoke bomb off in a chemistry lesson that led to three classrooms being evacuated and the fire brigade being called. The headmaster of Aylesbury Grammar School was perhaps a Luton fan, so bitter was his wrath, but that is another story for another time.
Past the cinema and through the little shopping precinct, we would then arrive at Vicarage Road. If you’re still with me dear reader, I presume you must be my age (like me, in my prime), or someone under 30 taking an Open University degree in social history. If you are the latter you may wish to speak to Hornet fans born prior to the release of Little Mix’s second album to verify the next bit.
We knew no better then of course. A football ground was just what it was. Yes, Wembley was great, and the big clubs played in vast stadiums like Old Trafford and Anfield, but that was another world. Vicarage Road was, in retrospect, and I’m probably being kind here, a ramshackle neglected bowl of tired wood, bleached seats and harsh concrete. But, I’ll tell you what, it was great. There were a couple of putrid, fetid toilets. One, on ‘the bend’, the area between the Rookery and the Shrodells (who really should have been produced by Phil Spector), was a battered corrugated iron affair that had perhaps been purchased by the famously frugal Watford board of directors from Colditz Castle. Clive and I selected this as the ideal site for letting off fireworks against Portsmouth, it’s all about the acoustics, darling. The other toilet was again an open-air affair, made of brick at the Vicarage Road end. This facility was only to be used as a very last resort. My lasting memory of this ‘building’ was, in later years, when then that extra pre-match pint in the social club came back to haunt me, against my better judgement, I ventured in. I was met by a sulphurous eye-watering rancid fog, it was as if David Attenborough and I were venturing deep into a vile, poisonous Amazonian forest seeking a previously undiscovered race of Brazilian pygmies. Once my burning eyes adjusted to this hideous atmosphere I spotted the one other occupant of the toilet. There was a man in his late thirties, who had clearly enjoyed a fine pre-match session of good local ale. He was urinating vigorously into the open drain, whilst holding a cheeseburger in his free hand. One thing for sure is I’m confident Covid-19 would not have bothered him one jot. It is an image I will take to my grave.
In the early 70s, it must be said, Watford were poor. A more uncharitable correspondent may well call them piss-poor. The first couple of seasons I watched Watford, I must admit, I can’t really remember them winning at all. Which, when you look back at the stats from 1971/72 and 1972/73, they didn’t. My first season was a record-breaking unmitigated disaster. From 27 November 1971 until the end of the season, 29 April 1972, the Hornets managed just five goals. I can only guess the Pompey defence were still feeling the effects of a Senior Service rum session as Watford ran amok and gained a 2-2 draw down at Fratton Park. I’m not 100% certain but I think relegation was sealed around March time. With things on the pitch so dire, and with no parental control, young fertile minds would seek alternative forms of entertainment.
The highlight of our day at Vicarage Road was actually after the game had finished. Clive and I would let the crowd (and looking back the home attendances back then were pretty good all considering) drift away, and we would wander down Occupation Road towards the dressing rooms and social club. What security the club had was easily breached. Our first point of call were the dressing rooms. The doors were open and the players would take absolutely no notice of a couple of schoolboys as they marched naked from the showers (the players, obviously, not Clive and I). Into the visitors dressing room we crept, and before I knew it I was just inches away from Jim Furnell’s fully formed penis, testicles and scrotum, all glistening dramatically and not a little aggressively whilst nestling deep in a huge, wild, untamed forest of thick pubic hair, as black as a raven’s wing. Jim was once the Arsenal goalkeeper, but his career was now in decline, and the day I came across him he was the custodian for the much less fashionable Plymouth Argyle. He was standing on the wooden bench busily drying himself whilst holding a sweary conversation with a team-mate. Jim is still with us, well into his 80s now, and I have toyed with the idea of writing to him to see if he would be interested in recreating that moment, just as Frank Skinner and David Baddiel used to do with their Phoenix From The Flames section in Fantasy Football. Perhaps not, eh.
Soon bored with the dressing rooms our next port of call was the social club. Now, entry to this exciting exotic place was sometimes a challenge. Timing was everything. We knew we had one crack at getting in otherwise it was game over. There would sometimes be a doorman, but we knew the draw of a cold beer would prove too much, and he would often leave his post. It was then we would scamper down the stairs. But we weren’t done yet. On opening the door we could easily walk right into a club official, so we had to be on our toes. It was then we fell back on our acting skills. Our main attribute at gaining entry to pretty much any area of the stadium was just how young we looked. We were both 13 and pretty sussed, but it didn’t take much for us to revert to being around ten and confused. If quizzed as to what we thought we were doing, we would reply “we were looking for our dad as we had forgotten where he had parked the car”. This routine would work like a charm as I was particularly adept at looking like I was about to burst into tears. “We think he is in here having a drink” we would add, giving the scene a bit of Victorian social realism. Alcoholic father abandoning his babes whilst he blew his wages on beer and fags. Those poor kids will go hungry tonight and that beast at the bar will go home and when his wife asks him where the housekeeping money is he’ll give her a good hiding just for the hell of it. “In you come young ‘uns”. Once ushered in we would skilfully lose our marker and disappear into the smoky, beery bar.
Minutes later the players, their long hair still wet from the showers, would emerge, some smoking cigarettes, and join the supporters in a lager. The away team would also come down. I remember a young Trevor Francis, only four years older than me, partnered, as on the pitch, by Bob Latchford. It was exciting and thrilling to be amongst these footballers. Great days.
So avoiding the club official we spun our story to, home we would head. Autograph books now full of Birmingham, Millwall or Middlesbrough players, we would let stink bombs off in the train carriage and perhaps lob a lit smoke bomb off the train at Rickmansworth as Johnny Cash once shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die. These days we would probably be placed in care, or the subject of an edition of Panorama. At school on Monday we would debrief. Clive’s mother was delighted with the small vase he found in Cassiobury Park, the newspaper shop near him had already got their fireworks in stock, so we could take some bangers to the Cardiff game, that’ll liven things up