Vicarage Road at 100: The Cockney Cleopatra
Colin Payne looks at a seldom-recalled episode from 100 years at Vicarage Road
The streets were lined with uncollected rubbish, corpses sat in morgues unburied, and British Leyland workers picked up tools for no other reason than they could down them again prior to walking out. This was Britain in January 1974. The time of the Three-Day Week. When candles were currency, the lights went out without warning, and industry was restricted to part-time working.
It was against this backdrop that Ron Rollitt was to find himself with his head buried in his hands, exasperated and frustrated. It was 12 January 1974, Watford were hosting Hereford United in a Third Division encounter in just over two hours, and all at Vicarage Road was not well.
Across the desk in Ron’s small office under the East Stand sat Mike Keen, clad in a sheepskin coat and wearing a hand-knitted bobble hat he’d picked up from the Supporters’ Club shop minutes earlier. Both men were cold – the heating had gone off unexpectantly due to a power cut.
“It’s bad Mike, very bad”, the club secretary said to the manager. “The milkmen are on strike, nothing’s arrived. We should have had 200 pints but instead there’s just empty crates out there. We’re expecting 8,000, and no milk for their tea. It’s going to be carnage. They’re not going to have it!”
“Oh come on Ron, it’s not that bad, they’ll understand”, the genial Keen replied, vapour emanating from his mouth as he spoke, due to the cold air.
“It’s freezing Mike! They’ll be clamouring for a brew, the rabble in the Rookery will be calling for our heads! We’ll do well to still be here tomorrow, if this isn’t sorted God knows what will happen!”
Rollitt had been chasing up the dairy all day, and despite promises to the contrary nothing had arrived. He was used to ‘firefighting’ in his 20 years in the role, organising the tickets for massive cup replays at short notice, last-minute transfers – mostly outgoing – even sudden holes appearing in the pitch, but nothing of this magnitude. Despite Keen’s attempts to reassure him otherwise, both men knew that this was a crisis the likes of which Watford Football Club had seldom seen. Coffee was for the ladies, Bovril for the northerners – tea was the drink of choice around these parts, and the Watford faithful were not going to take the absence of milk lightly. He’d seen the Shrodells tea hut almost turned over and set alight in 1970 after it had run out of sugar at the Liverpool cup tie. This was not good at all.
Pat Molloy, the long-standing physio, entered the office, with greyhound-loving groundsman Les Simmonds beside him.
“Ey up Mr Rollitt, me and Les ‘ave an idea. To sort this milk out. Go on Les, tell ‘em.”
Simmonds stepped forward. He looked pleased with himself. “Get a load of this. We water down a can of the white-line paint – I’ve gallons of it – stir it up well, maybe add a dash of boot dubbin. No one will notice, make the brews strong with plenty of sugar! It’s not poisonous or anything, at least I don’t think so.”
Rollitt looked horrified, he went to speak, but Simmonds spoke again. “Or we could buy a catering tin of powdered milk from Sainsbury’s?”
Simmonds’ idea, well the powdered milk one at least, was brilliant. Rollitt couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it himself, but the crowd would be coming in within minutes, so he had to get it quickly. Traffic was a nightmare that time of day on a Saturday, so there was only one solution. That day’s substitute, John Farley, was dispatched with £10 from petty cash and the management’s best wishes to run to the High Street. Of course, he wasn’t overjoyed, but once the severity of the situation was hastily explained to him, he accepted the task.
Drastic problems required drastic solutions, and whilst Farley darted to the shops, Keen ran the players’ bath in the empty dressing room, filling it with cold water. That much milk wouldn’t mix itself. As the level rose to the right point, the dark tidemark three quarters of the way up, an exhausted Farley burst through the doors. “Got it!”
Seven pounds of white power were tipped into the bath, as Les Simmonds stirred the concoction with a rake he had wiped down especially for the job. Once mixed, he went to fetch the tea ladies who were anxiously waiting by their urns at various positions around the dilapidated stadium to come and get their supply of freshly made milk.
“Oh shit!” Simmonds exclaimed as he returned to the dressing room with a stack of buckets, ready to distribute the liquid he had mixed up. The players had arrived, and in the bath was none other than Billy Jennings, the young striker who was tearing up the league with his goalscoring prowess, submerged in the white water like a cockney Cleopatra. His feather-cut hair was slicked back, as he rubbed the liquid into his body, eager for the effect it would have on his skin, whilst the rest of the team cheered him on (this incident would appear as a scene in the Robin Askwith vehicle Confessions of a Footballer just two years later).
“OUT!” screamed the groundsman. “And get your kit on!”
Following in had been Keen. He looked ashen. “What do we do Les?” “Nothing”, Simmonds replied. “We bucket it up as planned, and take it around the ground. The fans are coming in. It’s turning nasty out there!”
“But Billy’s knackers have been in it!”
Simmonds put his hand on the manager’s shoulder. “We say nothing gaffer. This is between us. Now let’s get this out there, Mr Bonser is waiting for his cuppa in the boardroom!”
And so disaster was averted. In one of the Vic’s best-kept secrets, the majority of the 7,479 fans present that day cheered two Billy Jennings goals that saw the game won, blissfully unaware that within each cup of tea they consumed was the very liquid that the goalscorer had moisturised his testicles with. It is such tales that make Vicarage Road the place we are proud to call home. The place we love.