The Things We Do For Love: No Sleep 'til Huddersfield
Nick Catley adds another example of the things we do for love
I don’t quite know what, but it probably says something about supporting Watford, or about me, or most likely both, that I’ve twice slept outside in the cause of Watford FC, and that neither was really necessary.
Of course, neither night was necessary at all in the strict sense – like most of us, I’m in the lucky position that I have a roof over my head that I can use whenever I want. It’s just that it isn’t always in the right place to accommodate watching football. However, they also weren’t necessary in that I could have seen both matches while still sleeping in a nice warm bed.
I’ve already written – in YBR! 5 – about the night I camped out in Occupation Road in May 1999 to buy a ticket for the away leg of Watford’s play-off semi-final at St Andrew’s, on a work night, when it turned out I could have wandered up the next morning and bought as many as I wanted. But this story takes us back a further four years.
When Watford histories come to be written, they won’t dwell for long on a 2-0 defeat at Middlesbrough on Tuesday 7 March 1995. Indeed, they have been, and they don’t. But it sticks in my mind fairly forcibly. You might remember that night too, as it turned out to be the longest one we ever had.
This should probably be a tale of late trains, broken-down cars or missed lifts, but in fact it’s much worse than that. I knew perfectly well there was no way I could get back to Coventry, where I was at university, from Middlesbrough on a Tuesday night. The first year of an economics degree allowed plenty of time, if limited finances, to develop an obsession that has never really gone away, and just deciding to miss the game didn’t really seem an option. With no car, however, following Watford around the country took organisation in the 1990s (as opposed to being nigh-on impossible now), and with my copy of the British Rail Passenger Timetable, the size and shape of the old Rothmans Football Yearbook, I became the corridor guru for anyone needing to travel home to get their washing done and have a few square meals. However, this never reached the levels of my brother who, when meeting me from a train once at Reading station after work in a jumper and tie, was mistaken for a railway employee by someone who asked when the next Oxford train was due. Being a rail enthusiast, he knew, and told them, along with which platform they needed. A queue formed, and at one point making that night’s game against Sunderland looked touch and go.
But I digress. The point is I’d worked out that I could only get back as far as York that evening. I took a sleeping bag with me, which would presumably have meant an interesting conversation with an Ayresome Park steward had bags been checked in those days. I had the vague idea that I could find somewhere in York to sleep, but the sleeping bag shows I wasn’t confident or particularly bothered. Displaying the ill-judged confidence of youth, my thinking was that I’d camped before (in July, I only realised in the long hours of reflection that the night enabled) – how difficult could it be?
As it turned out, fairly. The game itself was pretty mundane – a 2-0 defeat to the eventual champions in a match that, it was already obvious, would make no difference to our end-of-season prospects. On making it back to York, it was immediately clear that nothing was open, anywhere. Well after 11pm, even the pubs were closed. I decided to head to the station toilets, and grabbed a cubicle, but it turns out that lying with your legs hooked up over a toilet seat doesn’t make a comfortable sleeping position. I headed back onto the main concourse looking for a bench, only to realise that the little armrests that divide them aren’t put there as a nicety to allow you somewhere to put your hands. I was out of ideas. I was also starting to notice that it was cold. The winter clearly wasn’t finished with us, and while it hadn’t been warm at Ayresome Park, I soon realised the difference between jumping up and down and singing on a densely packed terrace (OK, it wasn’t quite like that on a Tuesday night watching us lose in Middlesbrough) and sitting still on a bench in a sleeping bag. My blasé attitude was finally beginning to be dented a little, and I wondered how I could make it through the rest of the night (and with just a little more self-awareness, I might have reflected on the plight of people who had to live like this, rather than playing at it to satisfy a ridiculous fixation).
However, I came up with a plan. Thankfully, one of very few all-night train services in the country ran through York, to Manchester Airport. I had no need of a flight to somewhere a long bus ride from a city or notable place of interest but, I reasoned, trains have heating and comfortable(ish) chairs. Even better, it took a couple of hours to get there. And so it was that I ended up travelling through locations familiar from games over the years, such as Huddersfield and Leeds, for no other reason than it being warmer than York station.
I soon realised the flaw in the plan, however. Visited by the conductor, it became clear that, although the train was empty as it was the middle of the night, because it was before 9:30 it was considered peak time, and consequently my journey would cost over 17 quid – a fair bit of money in 1995, almost as much as the fare from Coventry to Middlesbrough, comfortably more than I’d paid to get in at Ayresome Park and, crucially, plenty more than I’d have paid for a bed in a hostel.
I eventually got the train back from York at 6am, a time when civilians in business clothing were on board and looking at the teenager in a Watford shirt who looked like death (and not especially warmed up, either) in confusion and distaste. I arrived home a little after midday, and decided that the afternoon’s lectures could wait in favour of sleep, a decision I’ve never had cause to regret.
It’s easy to say that, given the chance to advise my younger self, I’d suggest staying at home and missing the match just that once. But Watford never played at Ayresome Park again, a classic ground nestled in terraced houses, and I’m glad I got to go. I’m also, in lieu of more tangible and conventional life achievements, pathetically proud of not having missed any Watford matches between November 1994 and September 1995, a streak I don’t see myself ever coming close to again. So I think my advice would be to go – but maybe to call Directory Enquiries for the number of Middlesbrough Visitor Information to see if I could find a cheap bed first…