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What’s on the End of the Stick, Rick?

Nick Catley on why The Watford Book of Soccer still has a place on his bookshelf


Edmund Blackadder (OK, Rowan Atkinson), on surveying his staff after his appointment as Lord High Executioner, said to his gaoler: “You are to be congratulated, my friend. We live in an age where illness and deformity are commonplace, and yet…you are, without a doubt, the most repulsive individual I have ever met.”

The Watford Book of Soccer was a bit like that. In an era when fanzines were produced with scissors, Pritt Sticks and love, and any kind of desktop publishing was very much an optional extra, it managed to stand out as looking spectacularly home-made. Edited by Simon Cheetham and apparently written largely by his alter egos (including, of course, Gladys Protheroe), it was seemingly written on a typewriter. Line spacing varied with no discernible pattern (sometimes in the middle of articles), pieces were separated by crosses, asterisks or whatever other symbol was available, page numbers were handwritten, and pictures ranged from slightly wonky to outright skew-whiff.

There were more serious issues. Although the whole publication was clearly designed, at least partly, to be provocative (right down, you suspect, to the use of the much-derided word ‘soccer’ in the title), some of it comes across now (and did then, to be honest) as sexist, albeit in an early-90s-mainstream-we’re-past-all-this-now-so-it’s-OK-tojoke-about kind of way. It also took aim at targets who didn’t really deserve it.

So why are its five editions the only early Watford fanzines to survive countless moves and clearouts and remain on my shelves?

Partly, it’s because it was so different. More of it than I remembered is actually about football – Rick Holden’s a bit of a favourite, for one thing – but mostly it’s about being a football fan, and a Watford one specifically. It operated in a Hornet universe, and you needed to follow Watford to understand the references to Mike Vince, Adam Cummings, Bill Mainwood and ‘Phil Oliver’ (shown with a hand-drawn cloud above his head) and his miserable views. A lot of it, essentially, was fan fiction (such as George Kirby, Mike Keen and Colin Lee getting together to rough up Steve Perryman, or Bertie Mee playing knock down ginger on the Rickmansworth Road) in a pre-internet era where there really wasn’t a lot of it about. There’s plenty now, but still very little relating to sport. I used to buy a lot of fanzines at away games, but I’d never seen anything like it. Indeed, thirty years on, in the sense of fiction set in the canon of a genuine sporting world, the superb work of Olly Wicken is all I can think of that’s even remotely similar.

Also, it was brilliantly written, and extremely funny. Not everyone will agree with that, of course, but items such as the Hornet Turnstile Counter (crowd at the Feeding of the Five Thousand: Before, 5,000; After, 1,268), at a time of widespread rumours that clubs understated their attendances, appealed to the 16 year-old me, and indeed still do. Plenty of the humour was well-written, puerile and bordering on surrealism – David Holdsworth being stretchered off after ‘tripping over a huge, bulbous, throbbing, reeking cock’ springs to mind, and in retrospect it’s no surprise that Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer appeared on the covers of issues one and two respectively. That first issue even dabbled with post-modernism, including a letter questioning how there could possibly be a letters page in issue one. If you think I need to grow up – well, many would agree with you. But TWBOS still raises a chuckle. And the article detailing the sheer, blind panic of being visited by relatives who think that matchday lasts two hours, rather than being a day-dominating experience involving beer beforehand, proved horribly prescient for my (now-ex) father-in-law’s visits a decade or so later. Indeed, the line about the difficulty of watching Watford ‘without a good belt of strong liquor coursing through my bloodstream’ has haunted me repeatedly at games over the years. And ‘Bloody Rugby’s Bloody Crap’, about attending a state grammar that played no football, could have been written specifically for me. I felt seen, or would have done had the term existed at the time.

Cruel and probably undeserved as it was, TWBOS satirised the fanzine movement superbly, not least through the mocked-up Jack Petchey’s Earwax Tastes Uncannily Like Smegma. Match reports including ‘Pies rating: Revolting. Ref rating: Bastard’ carried at least an echo of some of the one-sided summaries that appeared at the time, while the plea to smaller countries not to secede (‘this means you, Manchuria’) referenced the request from one fanzine for others not to start their own. And I still enjoy the idea of Lynn Faulds Wood and John Thaw as fanzine editors, comparing sales, page counts and prices.

It’s impossible to talk about TWBOS without mentioning Gladys Protheroe’s repeated birthdays, even though they were unrelated to the magazine. Many grew tired of hearing at away grounds – or reading in programmes – that it was Gladys’s 87th birthday that day. I never did. In unfamiliar opposition territory, I loved having one tiny part of the afternoon that we were in charge of, familiar to us but not to them. It was, if you like, the intellectual equivalent of taking the home end.

TWBOS reached peak notoriety, of course, when it placed a condom on the cover with the legend: ‘Have a shag on us!’ The national press managed to turn this into a moral panic. They backed the club into a bit of a corner, and got some critical quotes from marketing executive Ed Coan. The next edition responded with ‘Ed Coan’s Barrel of Moans’ replacing Phil Oliver. From there, Cheetham presumably decided the whole thing was too much hassle, and that was that.