Crunchie bars and a dip in the pond: How Watford celebrated their ‘phantom’ promotion
It was an afternoon fit for a party. Blue sky, a perfect pitch and a home win which sealed an immediate return to the Premier League: what more could Watford have asked for?
There was an obvious answer: fans. For Watford’s supporters, this has been a phantom promotion. The last time Vicarage Road was full was in February 2020, when Ismalia Sarr – whose early penalty proved decisive against Millwall – put champions-elect Liverpool to the sword. Few bouncing away from the ground could have imagined that the club would have been relegated, sacked two managers and earned a fifth top-tier promotion before they returned.
Instead, there have simply been ghostly occasions like Saturday where, pre-match at least, the only signs that Watford were even playing came from the sight of a few yellow-shirted fans strolling through quiet streets, or sitting at pre-booked tables in beer gardens.
Things livened up once promotion was confirmed – with a crowd of jubilant fans gathering in the town centre and a few partaking in a dip in the town centre pond, something of a tradition in these parts – but it still felt decidedly strange.
Football is nothing without supporters and an emotional, champagne-soaked Xisco Munoz extended heartfelt thanks to the likes of Baz and Kevin – a father-son duo who had gathered at the ground – post match. The Spaniard acknowledged his staff and family – who he has not seen since December – too, but pertinently it was the 21,000 souls he has never met who were name checked first.
For Munoz understands that football fandom is about so much more than matches. It is a way of life, and for many the last year has left a gaping hole.
Mark’s first Watford game was in August 1968, a 2-0 victory over Shrewsbury. The club were elevated to the second-tier in April 1969 and he has since been present at seven promotions.
For Mark, match-day is valuable father-son time and he and Alistair have held season tickets for more than two decades. Like so many fans they are creatures of habit, meeting religiously in the TV section of a well-known department store (“if one of us is late, the other can watch the football!”) and from there it is fast-food, followed by chocolate (“I just like Crunchies which I’m not allowed at home”). None of that this season.
“I remember the goal and pitch invasion when we beat Plymouth 1-0 on a Tuesday in 1969,” Mark said. “Those things live in your memory, whereas it’s not quite the same on the telly. It will be great to be back, although I’m not sure what we’ll do without John Lewis!”
Then there is the Lewers family – Julie, Mick and their adult children Kate and Andy. They have travelled home and away since the late 1990s, holding season-tickets in the lower tier of the Graham Taylor Stand. Although Watford’s in-house streaming service, ‘Hive Live’, is amongst the Championship’s best, Andy admits feeling disconnected.
“You feel you can control it a little from the ground but we lost that,” he explained, citing last year’s demotion as an example. “If you’re there, you have that catharsis but sat at home alone in my boxers with a pizza watching us slide towards inevitable relegation, I felt numb.”
There are some positives though, and for Kate, whose job requires international travel, the experience has been different. “Conversely I feel a little bit more involved,” she explained. “There’s no signal at the ground on matchday so before it was just me tweeting away. Suddenly we were all in the same boat and now we have a virtual solidarity nod to replace the one you get on the Tube before games.”
Coincidentally, the family had planned a barbeque for Saturday to mark the easing of the lockdown restrictions. “Happiness, joy and a heck of a lock of relief. But also a tinge of sadness at not being able to share it with the wider Watford community,” said Andy afterwards.
“It was a really odd buzz,” admits Kate. “My boyfriend and I were watching it from the French doors sending virtual hugs – a strange sign of the times! Last time we were together in the stadium we were in the Premier League and we will be again next time. It’s almost like this season hasn’t happened.”