The Birth of a Legend
Simon Cheetham tells the tale of the inception of The Watford Book of Soccer
It was late summer 1990, the earth was parched, the sky an azure blue, the nation was taking stock after Italia ’90. I sat alone at my desk, nursing a now-cold cup of espresso coffee, flicking through the first issue of Mud, Sweat & Beers. All the normal bases were covered, one article putting forward the old chestnut that beneath the Vicarage Road pitch flows a secret river that runs to the Lost City of Atlantis, another piece by ‘Steve Terry’s Headband’ reliving the Holocaust, a 3D poster of groundsman Les Simmons , and a rather touching article entitled ‘The Tears Behind My Smile Part One’ written by Eddie Plumley. Just then my mobile phone buzzed into life. In August 1990 I was one of just a handful of people in the UK with an operating mobile, my number back then was 3. These were simpler, more innocent days dear reader.
“Cheetham, is that Cheetham?” a voice inquired.
“Speaking, what can I do you for?” I have always been looked upon as a very humorous man, a comedian if you wish, and I’ve found more often than not this little play on words to be a great icebreaker.
“It’s Bernie, Bernie Taupin, have you got a moment to meet, I need to speak to you?”
“Easy Tiger” I replied. “A. How did you get this number and B. If you are Bernie Taupin, what’s the second line of ‘Solar Prestige a Gammon’?”
“The fellah who runs the programme shop from the Portakabin at the top of Occupation Road put me in touch.”
“Yeah Bill, he helps out arranging the coaches for away games too. Wears a kind of greengrocer’s coat when he’s on duty.”
The caller was about to go on. “OK, OK, you’re Bernie, what’s the problem?”
A couple of hours later I found myself sitting in the Football Café, just a stone’s throw from the ground, staring down at another empty coffee, wondering just how the hell I found myself tied up with one of the premier 1970s soft rock lyricists. I looked up at the café clock, the dial was the face of short-term bad buy Mark Gavin, and it read twenty past the hour. Taupin was late. Just then the door opened...
No, it wasn’t him.
It opened again and a small-framed roguish man-child shuffled over to my table and sat down. I looked at him. He wore denim, and plenty of it, and an old unironed T-shirt with the motto ‘Bonser Out’ on the chest.
“Hi, I’m Bernie, Elton sent me.”
l bought a couple of coffees and we talked. He brought out a copy of Mud, Sweat & Beers.
“Have you read this shit?” he hissed. “I wouldn’t shove it up my own arse even if it was covered in my own piss.”
“Nice metaphor” I murmured. He clearly still had it. “Elton wants a new fanzine, a better fanzine, he wants you…”
“Woah, just wait a minute” I replied.
“Just hold on a moment.”
“You’re aware I presume June Whitfield tried the same move at Wimbledon? Little and Large moved into the ‘zine scene at Maine Road and Jimmy Nail threw his hat into the ring on the Tyne?”
“They all got their fingers burned Bernie, they all failed, they couldn’t make it work.”
“Whitfield? Don’t make me laugh, Elton spends more in a week on bright copper kettles than Whitfield makes in a year.” Bernie looked me in the eyes. “How much? How much Simon to make it happen here?”
“It’s not just about the money Bernie, it’s about people too, getting the right people, the right chemistry.”
“Then get them, and get them soon. By the way,” he continued, “I have a few ideas for the cover.”
I stopped him there. “Bernie, you designed the cover for ‘Caribou’ didn’t you?” He looked down at the table and nodded feebly. “We’ll say no more” I said quietly.
Bernie stood up, dropped a manila envelope on the table and walked out. Discreetly I opened it, then gave a low kind of primal whistle type noise. I walked back to my office, the sky was now a stony grey, clouds skimming to and fro, rain in the air, hmmm, looks like we’re in for a bit of a storm. I pulled open the drawer of my rusty filing cabinet, and pulled out a half-bottle of Scotch and a glass that should have been washed a dozen drinks ago. I half-filled it and downed it in one. The musty odour of old memories filled the air, some good some not so. Ah, there it was, my old contacts book. Battered and creased, everyone I knew, and a few I wish I didn’t were all in there. Let’s get dialling.
Times had changed, and I’d better get used to it. Ace cartoonist Ron Vigilante was doing a four-stretch for ‘obscene and worrying’ graffiti on the side of the Queen Mother’s horse-box, the Williams sisters (the original ones), two of the sharpest minds regarding ground-sharing matters, had left the fanzine scene and gone, just gone. And as for my old right-hand man Paul Ahoythere, the drink had him, and it wasn’t giving him back anytime soon. He was living in a basement flat in the Nascot area of town. Despite my better instincts I paid him a visit. He said he recognised me, but I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t even mention the new fanzine, these days the poor guy couldn’t whip up a sarcastic comment about Oliver Phillips if his life depended on it. I pressed a £20 note into his hand for old time’s sake and left.
So, I was left with just one last number. To be honest, I always knew this was how it was going to be. The voice was unmistakable.
“Protheroe, state your business.”
“Gladys, it’s me, it’s…”
“I know who this is.”
“Been a long time Gladys, a long time.”
She’d changed, but only a little. But not those eyes, no. They were clear and deep, as usual. She wore a 1966 England World Cup tracksuit and a pair of Adidas Santiago trainers. Classic stuff. She poured me a chamomile tea and listened... she would occasionally arch an eyebrow or give a gentle nod. She would rest her head back into the armchair and close her eyes. Finally, I had finished my pitch. I wanted her on board, I wanted her on the team.
“The money’s good, Elton says…”
“I don’t want Elton’s money dear boy, I have quite enough of my own.”
There was silence in the room, probably only for a minute, but it felt like an hour.
“We’ll need Ray Bloom …”
Most of you will know the Bloom family. Ray, his wife Kim, Ray Junior, Ray Junior Junior and little Chloe. They are good genuine people who love Watford FC. At this time they lived in a big rambling house just outside Sarratt. There were dogs and cats all around, some chickens and ponies too.
Gladys and I pulled into the drive and there was Ray washing down his van. This was the vehicle the Blooms would use to travel the nation’s motorway network on their way to follow the Hornets. Ray was dyslexic but, as Kim would say ‘very sexy’. He ushered we two visitors into the kitchen, cleared the big oak table, popped open a bottle of red wine, and we talked. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the kitchen bin, in it was a copy of Mud,Sweat & Beers or as Ray called it Mad, Suet, Bra – that was close enough for me.
We talked and talked until 4am. A real brainstorming session. Kim knocked up a delicious Moroccan tagine, Ray Junior poured the wine. Fonts, what fonts should we use? Edible paper, or was that a no-no? Perhaps not paper at all, what about some kind of cloth, or even metal? Metal pages? Could it be done? Stockport County had been working on producing an issue of sycamore leaves, but it had never left the drawing board. Gladys worked out that at 1990 bullion prices, to print a 32-page fanzine made of 9-carat gold leaf we’d be looking at charging around £400 a copy. Or how about printing on ice, so after reading it would melt in your hands? Gas, can you print on gas?
Just as the sun was rising for a new day I stretched my legs and said good morning to Ray’s livestock. I then rang Bernie.
“It’s done. Tell Elton the first edition will be ready for Oldham at home. Oh, and Bernie, it’s to be called The Watford Book of Soccer.”