The Viking & I
Richard White travels to Denmark... For a pre-season friendly
The Hornets were on the crest of a wave in the summer of 2006, having powered past Leeds United in the Championship play-off game at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on 21 May, and all eyes were on rookie manager Aidy Boothroyd to see whether he would be able to evolve and manage the team to compete in the Premier League. The reality was however that the pockets of Chairman Graham Simpson and directors Jimmy and Vince Russo, were not deep enough to compete at the Harrods end of the transfer market, nor even in Waitrose. The summer signings of Chris Powell and Damien Francis were sensible but hardly exciting, and 19 year-old Hungarian international striker Tamas Priskin, on trial with the Hornets, had done well in scoring three goals during early pre-season friendlies against Northwood and Boreham Wood, but had yet to be tested at a higher level.
My 14 year-old son and I managed to persuade my wife, who is not a football fan, that a week or two in Denmark would provide an ideal summer holiday that year. We extolled the many tourist delights available, including Tollund Man (a deformed corpse preserved in a bog since 350 BC), vast acres of pig farming, and… Watford’s friendly match at AC Horsens on Monday 31 July, where the Hornets were having a pre-season training camp. Somehow she agreed.
We set off by car, and worked our way around the North Sea coast route to Hamburg, which provided our first whiff of football on the trip, with the decorations for the 2006 World Cup still on display around the city. Thank goodness they didn’t win it this time I thought, or we’d never hear the end of it. The wine festival in the main square was the first time I ever saw my wife unsteady on her feet. The holiday seemed to be going well. A visit to the Beatles’ original nightclub venues (I am a massive fan of the Fab Four) in the notorious Reeperbahn district was not so well appreciated, with my wife rushing our son past the many curious shop window displays.
Finally we headed north into Viking country, settling at a location in central Denmark, perfect for our planned sightseeing trips. It’s funny how football can provide unexpected surprises. On a visit to Aarhus, my wife spotted a man selling football ware in the distance – this deserves further investigation, my son and I thought. He turned out to be English, and was proffering half-and-half Aarhus v Barcelona scarves. “When’s the game mate?” I asked. “Tonight” he replied! Dinner was quickly scoffed and we headed to the stadium, where tickets were on sale at surprisingly expensive prices – Barcelona don’t turn up for peanuts. Although resting most of their first teamers, Barcelona won 3-0 at a less than exciting canter, the main focus of interest being a lively performance by Eidur Gudjohnsen who they’d just signed from Chelsea.
When the day of Watford’s match arrived, doubt had been raised about the location of the game, so we headed off to Horsens early to ensure we had the right ground. We did, although a conversation with the groundsman clarified that the kick-off time would be 7:00pm and not 7:45pm as previously thought. Whilst perusing the town and its surprising Industrial Museum during the afternoon, it became clear that there would be quite a few other Watford fans at the game, with my wife even bumping into a work colleague from home.
The ground at Horsens was an open, fairly basic stadium, on the edge of town. We watched the Watford team arrive and inspect the pitch, and we chatted to Aidy Boothroyd who came over to the touchline to meet fans before the game. He seemed quite surprised at the size of Watford following, given the distance from home. It was a pleasant summer’s evening and the threat from dark storm clouds in the distance never materialised.
Son Ross started collecting the players’ signatures on his Watford shirt, with Aidy and assistant manager Keith Burkinshaw also obliging before the match, and many more obtained as the subs warmed up by the touchline. Horsens had played a league match the day before so didn’t feature their full first team, but the game was a reasonably competitive affair with Watford winning 4- 0. It was the first defensive shutout of the pre- season for the Hornets, with Marlon King scoring twice, a single from Darius Henderson and a flashing late header from Tamas Priskin. The trialist had impressed well enough to be signed up on a four- year contract just one week later. At the end of the game, a couple of drunk Watford fans invaded the pitch and started hugging the players, which curtailed their warm- down activities and saw them disappear into the changing room, not to return. My son, who still required four signatures for the full set, hung around by the team coach afterwards and was invited on by Gavin Mahon to get them. Sadly a member of the training staff immediately told him to get off again and that was the end of it! Aidy was in conciliatory mood, offering some fans the chance to watch the players train the following day, but in the event we didn’t go because it was raining.
The pre- season matches were completed with home games against Inter Milan and Chievo Verona, with Watford remaining unbeaten, drawing 1- 1 and winning 2- 1 respectively, and the Hornets headed into the Premier League season with an enhanced but somewhat misguided sense of optimism. The late signing of Danny Shittu before the start of the season was not enough to prevent Watford struggling, and a long- term injury to striker Marlon King, plus the £8m sale of Ashley Young to Aston Villa in the January transfer window, sealed a quick return to the Championship at the end of the 2006/07 season.