45.99 games of football have all led to this point. After 134 years of existence, Watford are about to win the biggest trophy in their unglamorous history, a history pockmarked with relegation, failure, obscurity, bankruptcy, and all of it conducted while wearing the brightest possible shade of yellow. All they have to do is clear this 92nd minute free kick that’s swinging over into the six-yard box.
I couldn’t tell you what happened next. I mean, I have a general idea, obviously, but at the moment a scuffed shot smacked the turf and bounced in slow-motion over the grasping hand of a grounded Brazilian named Heurelho, sprawled across a patch of turf 6,000 miles from home, I turned away to face my stepson. He was standing on my left, the side of me we had decided was the lucky side the previous game. So much for that. I watched realisation spread across his face almost as slowly as that shot had looped into the back of the net.
A roar came from the opposite end of the stadium. “Welcome to Watford,” I said to him.
The lot of the lower-league football fan in England is difficult to understand. From the outside, it’s completely inexplicable. Pouring untold thousands of pounds into the pursuit of something that can never be for decades is not something I can easily tell my wife that she’ll be putting up with until we’re dead. The Premier League seemed a closed shop. Only 5 teams have ever won that gaudy gold-topped trophy, and most of them were Manchester United.
Meanwhile, below the Premier League, 72 other full-time professional teams toil and struggle for the singular prize of qualification for the top league, aware that the financial implications of such an achievement will mean risking the very future of the club for a few more season of finishing mid-table, maybe scraping the odd win over a Liverpool or an Arsenal.
When I was about 9, I had decided to support Manchester United, because that’s what all the other kids at school did, and I wasn’t exactly the alpha male of the bunch. My father, perhaps seeking to head this behaviour off at the pass, decided the time was right to take me to see Watford, the team that played in a stadium about a hundred yards from where I was born. The first symptoms of a future messy divorce were becoming obvious at home, and it was a difficult time.
Arriving into the stadium, which is a very grand word for the wooden shack Watford played in front of, I was somewhat confused. Years of watching identikit super stadiums on TV had led me to believe that all professional football was played by millionaires in front of gigantic, heaving crowds. There were only four people in our row. To my right, a man was smoking a pipe and had a blanket over his legs. An antiquated PA started blaring the theme to a 1960s cop show, and Watford took to the field, clad in neon yellow and wading through the mud that passed for a pitch.
What followed wasn’t so much a football match as a mud-wrestling festival which only sometimes featured a spherical object. Tackles and people went flying, a ball was kicked higher than I’d ever seen before, an incredibly tall man booted the ball out of the stadium rather than between the goalposts as I assume he was attempting to do, and a scattered crowd of people in what should have been their twilight years bayed for the blood of the opposition. I think it’s the first time I ever heard my father swear.
That was it, obviously. For better or worse (mainly worse), for richer or poorer (never, ever richer) I was to embark on a lifetime of trooping to the town of my birth and paying real money to watch garishly dressed men struggle to overturn 1-0 deficits in the biting wind.
For many years mine and my father’s relationship, strained by the divorce, was only held together by the constant failures of eleven men on a field. While his commitment to hating every single right-sided defender to ever play for Watford was an enduring quality in him I admired, we had all of our best moments on the way to games, him driving down the same motorway, playing the same collection of CDs that sat at the very narrow intersection of both of our tastes in music. To this day I can’t hear Crowded House’s “Weather With You” without imagining we’ve just lost 2-0 at home to Burnley on a freezing December afternoon.
Sixteen years on from that initial game, I met a girl, fell rapidly in love, and we married and moved abroad. The whys and whens of that aren’t particularly important – what is important for the sake of this story is that she had a ten-year old son. Unprepared for the rigours of parenting an adolescent that I think just don’t come naturally to a 25-year old who’s just spent eight years in university I retreated, almost unthinkingly, to the two ways in which my father and I had really connected – football and video games (my father was a dab hand at Wolfenstein 3D, and together we conquered the Nazi hordes in my youth, me operating the guns and him repeatedly getting lost in extraordinarily basic mazes).
While the video games were mildly successful, the football was a dead end. An Arsenal fan, as was dictated by the whims of the man his mother was previously in a relationship with, his connection with the game was as remote as mine when I was a Manchester United fan at a tiny school in rural Oxfordshire. To his credit, and he is the most wonderful child, he got onboard with Watford at an early hour (I think it’s clear that, when your mother gets married, that this man isn’t going anywhere any time soon), and we got him a Watford shirt, and sometimes we would watch a game on a barely visible illegal stream together, although his attention would tend to waver after an hour or so.
It’s understandable. There’s ostensibly no point to the whole thing, especially not one that a kid who’s only ever been to a couple of friendly Arsenal games could understand. Arsenal, though you might never be able to afford to go and see them play, at least had a chance of being the best, of winning everything, playing in front of a packed house every week. Now and again he’d mention how well Arsenal were doing, and I’d smile wryly, remembering the time one of our players mis-hit a free kick so badly it struck me in the face and shattered my glasses, even though I was sitting about two-thirds of the way up the stand.
Four years after our big move to America, our time was up and we resolved to resettle in London. Neither me or my wife had ever lived in London, but as well as being one of the most exciting and baffling cities on Earth, it would allow me easy access to Watford, and the season ticket I had dreamed of during many long nights in Dallas spent trying to understand how American football was played.
In fact, if anything, distance had dulled my memories of the team. Arriving to the stadium for the first time in years, I felt it all swell up inside again, the utterly inexplicable emotions my brain had chosen to attach to this team in this sport.
It wasn’t the Watford I’d left behind. Battered, broken, and bankrupt, the Watford of 2010 were everyone’s favourites to get relegated to the third tier, existing on borrowed players and borrowed time. In 2015, new owners had re-invigorated the team and the stadium, building a new stand where the previous wooden one I’d watched my first Watford game from had stood condemned for the previous few years, an empty monolith sucking the life and money out of the club.
On a whim, for his 15th birthday, I bought my stepson a season ticket. Really, I thought it’d be nice to have someone to go with, but I also hoped football could help us connect in a way we’d never really managed, in a way that had kept me and my father talking to one another. An awkward, aloof and easily irritated step-parent, I’d bumbled my way through a few years of marriage, making no real allowances for the problems and challenges of bringing up a teenager despite being so recently removed from the situation myself.
I’ll never forget our first proper game together. I had bought us both season tickets in the “singing section”, a new area in the ground dedicated to fans who didn’t want to sit down or stop shouting, ever. As we took our places under a floodlit London sky I realised something. This place was completely sold out. Packed to the rafters and almost visibly swaying with the motion of 20,000 people, soon Lewis and I were beneath a banner the size of the stand. It was like camping, only yellower and noisier. When the banner was removed, 11 men dressed in yellow were surging, not just running, not just attacking, but surging forward on the attack.
Lewis doesn’t usually have a very good attention span. An astonishingly bright kid, not much has been made outside of a television that can really hold him for more than half an hour or so. He was rapt. From the very first to the very last, every time I looked across to check he was still watching I saw my own face, 21 years previous.
Watford scored. We embraced, properly and without reservation, for perhaps the first time.
From then on, every day was a build up to Saturday. Every week was a tense wait for the release that only Watford could bring. Trying to keep him grounded, I fulfilled the same role my father had for me, tempering his aggression, bellowing support alongside him.
Win followed win followed win, and this group, this team I’d spent 21 years waiting to do something, shot up the table, dominating all-comers. One crucial game, at home to fellow table-toppers Middlesborough in the afternoon of a glorious national holiday, will stay with me forever, as the importance of the occasion and the magnificence of the support made us all realise that something incredibly special was happening right here. Something incredibly special was happening with me and Lewis as well – finally, there was tolerance, there was understanding, there was a desire to speak rather than a desire to get through the speaking.
Of course, I’ve told you how it ends. In fact, for Lewis’ sake, I’d rather it ended that way. We can’t have him tasting the kind of success we’d waited over a century for after a few months of support.
Utterly broken, Lewis trooped back through Watford with me after the game, after we’d thrown it all away in the final kick of a marathon season, with my comforting arm around his shoulders.
“We really made it,” I told him. “We’re Premier League now. We’re going to spend next season watching a Premier League team every week.”
“Yeah, but we’re never going to win anything, are we?” he said. “Not in all the years I’m going to spend watching this football team.”
I’ve never heard anything so wonderful.
You can follow Gavin Cleaver on Twitter (@GavinCleaver)