Lionel Birnie explains how he researched Enjoy the Game, the story of Watford’s dramatic rise through the divisions in the 1980s. The task of interviewing everyone who played a part in the story took him from Wilf Rostron’s furniture warehouse in South Shields to sharing a bacon sarnie with Graham Taylor at The Belfry.
How do you tell a story people think they already know?
I’m round at Nigel Callaghan’s mum’s house in Stafford, deep in conversation when Mrs Callaghan asks me if I’d like another coffee. Nigel calls through to the kitchen to ask her if she’d mix him up a quick Cup-A-Soup.
A week later I’m in a plush Buckinghamshire hotel, sharing tea and biscuits with Dave Bassett. He talks rapidly and even if you edit out the cliches, honed by years on the pundit’s sofa, it’s great stuff. My only concern is that I am starting to like the guy. Surely, that can’t be right?
Then it’s off to Steve Sherwood’s office, where he runs his financial advice company. A neat little space in a block overlooking the marina in Grimsby. It’s an unassuming office for an unassuming man. Despite his stature and the great bear-like paw that reaches out to shake my hand, it is clear that Sherwood is a sensitive soul. Talk soon turns from the injustice he felt at being blamed for Everton’s second goal at Wembley, to the hurt of being left out of the 1987 FA Cup semi-final when he knows he should have played. There are tears in his eyes as he speaks. There are tears in mine.
After that there was the man himself, Graham Taylor. The architect or conductor, whichever way you choose to look at it. Either way, he was calling the shots for the club’s greatest ever decade. Our first interview was at The Belfry, where he and the staff are on first-name terms and greet each other like old friends. They know how he likes his bacon roll (with brown sauce, as it turns out). He told me he could spare a couple of hours. Five hours later we were still there. At one point I thought my bladder was going to burst but I didn’t dare go in case I interrupted his flow, so to speak.
Steve Harrison had me in stitches as we talked over coffee in Alderley Edge, footballers’ wives territory. Some of the stories were a bit too lively to make the final cut of the book. During our conversation, which I recorded on an iPhone, he asked the café owner to turn down the music in case it was too loud. Then he reminded me to go and put another quid in the meter to avoid getting a parking ticket. What a gent.
I’d been warned that Wilf Rostron might be reluctant to talk. He had left football behind and now runs his business importing furniture in the north east. But once he got going, he was witty and engaging – even though his memory of some of the great days was hazy. ‘Everyone talks about the 8-0 against Sunderland, but I remember losing a cup match to them on an icy pitch more clearly.’
John Barnes seemed weary and distracted – hardly surprising considering he was in his final days as a manager at Tranmere when we spoke. But his demeanour brightened when recalling his Watford days, the punishing cross-country runs through Cassiobury Park and over West Herts Golf Club and the charity pancake races in Watford town centre.
In early 2009, I set myself the task of telling the story of the Eighties. Why bother? Surely all Watford supporters know what happened and how it ended. Graham Taylor and Elton John hauled the club up through the divisions. They finished runners-up to Liverpool, played in the UEFA Cup (for younger fans that was the Europa League when it actually meant something), and played in the FA Cup final (for younger fans, the greatest day of the English season, when it actually meant something).
I thought I knew the story too. I was wrong. Sure, I knew all about the matches they won, the players they signed, but I wanted to get deeper. The only way to do that was to track them down and speak to them face-to-face. From the first interview (Les Taylor in his office at Oxford’s Kassam Stadium) to the last (Gary Porter at The Noke hotel in Chiswell Green) I learned things. The inside the story. What happened behind the scenes. As I spoke to each player, I gained a new understanding of what it was like to be part of the incredible story. I learned what happened before the cup final and the 1987 semi-final and realised it was a lot more complex than I’d previously thought.
After the best part of a year, after more than 50 interviews, I had the mammoth task of 150 hours of interviews to transcribe. Then I could start work trying to write a coherent story. It’s up to the reader to decide if I’ve failed or succeeded, of course.
If there is one regret, it is that I failed to puncture the steel wall of protection around Sir Elton John. I tried. I called in favours. I wrote letters, made phone calls, hung around outside the stage door at the Royal Albert Hall. Graham Taylor got me so far but the answer was always the same: ‘Sir Elton is very busy.’ I doubt the request even got as far as him but then again, Sir Elton chooses his own media engagements.
Maurice Johnston was reluctant too. Having got his number, I gave him a call. As soon as I said I was a journalist, the line went dead. He was in Canada, I was in England, so that wasn’t particularly surprising. I tried again. Same thing. I left it a couple of days and tried again. ‘I’m a Watford supporter. You were my childhood hero…’
He didn’t hang up.
I had my foot in the door. I spoke quickly. I talked about the goals he’d scored and said George Reilly passed on his best. (Which was true, but George also said: ‘Tell Maurice he owes me a grand and 25 years’ interest.’)
‘What kind of book is it? Is it a controversial book?’ Johnston asked. His reticence was understandable. He’d been turned over several times by the tabloids north and south of the border. But he wouldn’t budge. He would only answer questions by email. I said it would be better to talk and that I could send him a transcript of what he’d said. ‘No. Email only.’
Back at the beginning, when I sat down with Les Taylor in Oxford for the first interview, I was unsure whether the project would go any further. I already had a busy job to do but a little moment convinced me it might be worth it.
After our interview, I got out my laptop and showed Les the highlights of the FA Cup quarter-final at Birmingham in 1984. The crowd was huge and hostile-looking, almost tumbling down from the ancient terraces of St Andrews and threatening to spill onto the pitch. The action was fast-paced and energetic. One of Les’s colleagues, a man in his early twenties, came over to have a look just as John Barnes scores with that fantastic dipping shot. ‘What a goal,’ he said.
‘An even better one is coming up,’ deadpanned Les.
A moment later and we watch as Taylor takes the ball down on the edge of the box and hammers it into the roof of the net.
‘That’s never you,’ said the young man.
Taylor turns to me. ‘See, these kids today. They never believe you when you tell them what you’ve done. Aye, I wasn’t a bad player, me.’
Whether you were there every step of the way or not, the intention of Enjoy the Game was to tell you what they did.
And wasn’t it bloody marvellous.
This article first appeared in the fanzine Clap Your Hands, Stamp Your Feet.