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Footballing food for thought…

Friday 19 February 2010 by
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It’s one of the oldest ice breaking exercises known to man. The catalyst for countless pub conversations and fuel for endless idle chit chat in the office. A question that even the most inspirationally challenged dullard should be able to engage with.

“If you could have any four dinner guests – who would they be?”

This question was most recently posed via Twitter, by Football Focus presenter Dan Walker (his choices were Jesus Christ, Delia Smith, Oliver Cromwell and Guy Fawkes). Top of my guest list was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Graham Taylor and this got me thinking about a slightly amended version of the question.

“If you could have four Watford players, past or present for dinner – who would they be?”

If you hadn’t guessed already, you are about to hear my choices.

So, imagine if you will. The table is set. The Great Wall of China Cup (won in 1987 – as if you need reminding) provides the magnificent table centrepiece. The elegant coasters are, upon closer inspection, replica FA Cup runners up medals. A string quartet are performing an orchestral version of Z Cars whilst a dinner suited Harry the Hornet busies himself polishing cutlery and straightening the oil painted portraits of Wilf Rostron and Dave Bamber.

I’m sat proudly at the head of the table supping my 1984 Benskins “Cup Final” Commerative Ale, loking resplendent in my full Solvite sponsored replica kit from ’87 when the tranquillity is shattered by Master of Ceremonies, Richard Short.

“The two minute bell has gone, and your guests are in the foyer. Please, let’s raise the roof and give a warm dining room welcome to your first guest…Mr Kenny Jackett”.

It would take a cold hearted character to deny Kenny’s status as a Watford legend. Injury brought his career to a premature end at 28, but before his untimely retirement he managed to squeeze in 337 appearances for Watford and 31 for Wales – his entire playing career was spent at Vicarage Road.

Following the end of his playing days, Kenny continued to have a big part to play at Watford, he was both assistant manager and manager before he was unceremoniously given the boot by our old friend Luca, a sad and unwelcome end to Kenny’s association with the club.

However, simply being a Watford legend isn’t enough to get you into this party. You see, there is a very specific reason that Kenny gets an invite to this exclusive bash. On the evening of Tuesday 24 February 1987 in a home FA Cup tie with Walsall, Kenny Jackett notched the first goal I ever saw Watford score. I’d love to say I remember the goal, a moment etched in my memory, fondly replayed ad nauseum in my mind. Well I don’t and it isn’t. It could have gone in off his elbow for all I know. What I do remember though is the match. I remember the square programme. I remember the dancing, animated pacman-esque characters on the Vicarage Road scoreboard, jumping up and down after each of Watford’s four goals that night (Luther and two from John Barnes completed the scoring). I remember the noise. The floodlights. I remember the fun.

Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t seen eight goals that night. Would I still have been so drawn to football, to Watford? Would I have wanted to come back again, and again had I not been so richly entertained that night? To be perfectly honest, I think I would have been hooked had the game been 0-0 with not a single memorable moment among the 90. (We’ve had enough of those since…). What is for certain is that Kenny Jackett kick started my 23 year (and counting) love affair with the Hornets that night, and for that reason he is my first guest. Come on in Kenny. Make yourself at home.

Last season I was lucky enough to be at a dinner with Charlie George, scorer of Arsenal’s 1971 FA Cup winning goal. My brother and I chatted to him at length and his stories and insights into the game both then and now were fascinating. With this in mind, I wanted my second guest to be someone who had been there and done it. Someone who has not only played for Watford, but has experienced the full footballing spectrum away from the undeniable glitz and glamour of WD18.

This guy ticks all the boxes. He played over 700 times in the top flight, won the UEFA Cup, appeared over 100 times for his Country and represented them at two World Cups. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Pat Jennings.

Whilst his name instantly conjures up visions of his appearances for Spurs and Arsenal, Pat Jennings started his pro career at Watford in 1963 and was capped for Northern Ireland that same year, making his debut in the same game as a certain George Best. Following a year at Watford in which he played 48 times (every game in the ‘63/’64 season), Jennings was sold to  Tottenham Hotspur for £27,000, where he went on to play 472 times. In 1977 he shocked the footballing world by joining Spurs’ fierce North London rivals, Arsenal. Jennings was as loved at Highbury as he was at White Hart Lane and played 237 times for the Gunners.

Away from the domestic game he received 119 caps for his Country, appeared at the World Cup in ’82 and ’86, and has been honoured by the Queen with an OBE. Jennings even managed to score in the Charity Shield at Wembley.

If he doesn’t have a wealth of good yarns to spin to as a result of all that, then I’m Mick Harford. Come in and take a seat Pat.

Vicarage Road has been home to all sorts of colourful characters down the years, but none can have been as suave, cultured, composed and downright unexpected as my next guest…

I’m sure that even those of us with the roughest of rough edges would agree that a dinner party needs a bit of class. A bit of sophistication. Someone who knows the difference between a Chateau Margaux and a tin of Vimto. Someone that doesn’t use the same cutlery for all three courses.

Very few of us will need reminding of the car crash that was Luca Vialli’s time in charge of Watford. His reign of ineptitude can be summed up neatly with just two words that still haunt fans of Spurs, Celtic and Watford, whilst bringing joy to pretty much everyone else.

Ramon. Vega.

Vialli did do one decent bit of business though. I don’t know how he did it, and I definitely don’t know how much we paid him, but somehow, for one season, Watford boasted a real life AC Milan legend at the heart of their defence.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in saying “Benevenuti” to Filippo Galli. True, his time in a yellow shirt was brief (29 appearances) and he was undoubtedly in the twilight of his career, but watching Galli operate was a real privilege.

For those of you who didn’t get to see him, Imagine a tanned Iggy Pop with a face not quite so ravaged by countless years of rock n’ roll based excess. Imagine him in a Watford shirt, casually marshalling the defence, exuding calm and authority, seemingly without breaking into a sweat, and you’ll have a fairly accurate picture of him.

Galli was considered and deliberate, graceful and steely. The archetypal Italian defender, he was utter class. For Watford fans used to defensive talent such as Keith Dublin and Gerard Lavin, being able to feast our eyes on someone that a) could tackle and b) didn’t look prone to slicing the ball into his own net with every attempted clearance was a rare and welcome pleasure indeed.

As well as playing for Watford, Filippo Galli won five Italian Championships, three European Champions Cups, three European Super Cups, and three Italian Super Cups for AC Milan, and in doing so played with some of the greatest names in football. I’m certain he’ll be good value as a dinner guest. Welcome Filippo.

Three down, one to go. The final piece of the jigsaw. It’s a big piece. A player I never saw play, but a name you can’t fail to have heard again and again as you delve into the glorious details surrounding Watford’s rise under Sir Elton and GT.

A player who seems to epitomise all that I hold dear about Watford. Unfashionable, often derided, hard working but ultimately successful. My final invitee is (the original) Ross Jenkins.

Jenkins joined Watford in 1972 and at £30,000 was the then record signing. As has seemed to be the case ever since, the big money signing failed to make an immediate impact. Fast forward to 1975, Jenkins was in the reserves and Watford were relegated to Division 4. Two seasons later, Graham Taylor arrived as Manager, and this is where the fortunes of both club and player improved. Alongside the equally legendary Luther Blissett, Jenkins’ goals helped Watford to two successive promotions.

After two seasons in Division 2, Jenkins left Watford for a brief stint in America before returning to the Watford side that finally won promotion to Division 1.

From what I gather, Jenkins was never the greatest player to watch. He split opinion amongst fans and was almost sold on a number of occasions. Four seasons as top scorer apart, he was never prolific. Watford have had more exciting, skilful performers, players with international caps and worldwide acclaim. Jenkins though, was there during the golden era. That period in Watford history that, despite me not being anywhere near old enough to remember, is the very essence of the Watford football club I know and love. He helped us win promotions. He played in that game against Southampton. He paved the way for those heady days in the top flight – Wembley, Europe. He helped Watford become what they are today.

He’s a Watford legend and he’s my fourth and final guest.

Kenny Jackett, Pat Jennings, Filippo Galli and Ross Jenkins. Between them, they have provided joy and entertainment to not just Watford fans, but the footballing world in general. They have won pretty much every honour there is in the game, and have played with some of the best players the world has ever produced. Just this small list of players, this tiny cross section of Hornets history should serve as a reminder as to how lucky we are to be Watford fans. How lucky we are to have seen the things we’ve seen, and to have been the places we’ve been.

So please, join me in raising a glass to Kenny, Pat, Filippo and Ross and toasting the past, present and future of Watford FC.

Come on You Horns!

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