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Book Review: “Enjoy the Game”, by Lionel Birnie 07/12/2010

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

"Enjoy the Game"There will, it should be acknowledged, be harder things to write about than the most exciting, dramatic period in our club’s history; indeed, a period that for pure screenworthiness compares favourably to what most clubs can boast. The script is almost written for you, complete with heroes and villains, triumphs over insurmountable odds, a rock star and an audience more than ready to hear the story again.

However a story can be easy to tell, and still be told badly. Another trot through the events, however breathtaking these events and however comprehensive the description, would have served no purpose; that’s been done before and done well, not least in the club’s Centenary Book. Where this book really triumphs is in identifying a new angle, a compelling angle, and pursuing it doggedly. Whilst Lionel provides a skeleton of detail that would permit those unfamiliar with the narrative to follow what’s going on, the joy is in the reflections, anecdotes and memories provided by the key players. So comprehensive is this coverage indeed that, other than Elton John, the most significant names not to have interviewed are the likes of Iwan Roberts, Worrell Sterling and Rick Holden. Everyone else is there, including occasional glances from the other side of the fence – Cup Final opponent Derek Mountfield, the notorious Jeff Powell and a reassuringly unlikeable Roger Milford also share their perspectives at appropriate moments.

The approach manages to reflect the “vibe” of various episodes magnificently. The giddy disbelief of the 1980 League Cup run, the desperate disappointment, bordering on anger, of the 1987 FA Cup Semi-Final, the sense of being cast adrift the following summer turning to horror as the subsequent season unfolded are all mirrored here in a way that no purely factual account could hope to. It’s gratifying that the accounts of those involved reflect the way I remember feeling at the time in each case; the consequence is that this is an awesome nostaligia trip for those of us who lived through it, recapturing emotions as adequately as black print on a page can hope to. For those that weren’t there, an impression not just of what happened but what it felt like to live through. I’m even considering buying a copy for an aggravating ex-boss who never quite got why Graham Taylor is held in such regard in Hertfordshire. It’s all here.

Stylistically, Lionel knows that he’s playing to the gallery and some sections are unashamedly and magnificently indulgent. John Barnes is introduced by a glorious flourish that would befit the writer of a soap opera planning a cliffhanger, and one is never in any doubt who the good guys are, and therefore who the target audience for the book is. If there’s a criticism, it’s that the start and end of the story aren’t terribly well defined… the “story of the eighties” obviously begins earlier than that, and the book effectively starts in the mid-seventies. It’s the story of Graham Taylor’s first spell in all but name, the last two seasons of the eighties covered, one feels, out of a sense of obligation to the stated timeframe. That’s not a complaint… it would be nonsensical to pretend that any chosen period wasn’t part of a story that had been going on before and would continue after. The memories of the Bassett chaos are amongst the most fascinating but… the book doesn’t quite end, it just drifts off much as Watford did.

But in case you were in any doubt, it’s a blinding read. The richness of the anecdotes, the candour of the interviewees, and the author’s skill at hanging the reflections around the dramatic storyline make this a compelling, vital read for all Watford supporters whatever their vintage. My ex-boss could do worse, too.

“Enjoy the Game” is available from www.lionelbirnie.com, and in the club shop.



1. Old Git - 09/12/2010

‘…the desperate disappointment, bordering on anger, of the 1987 FA Cup Semi-Final…’
I have to take issue with you on that one, Matt. There was no ‘bordering’ about it. Pathological rage, more like, that continues to this day.

2. Harefield Hornet - 09/12/2010

I had chat with the author in the Upper Rous before the Leicester game last Saturday and congratulated him on a job well done. Brings back some fantastic memories – I particularly enjoyed the Mo Johnston nightclub stories!

3. Matt Lovett - 11/12/2010

An excellent book indeed. I took delivery and found it difficult to put down. Lionel also emailed me to make sure I’d received it, and for some feedback – top notch customer service!

4. Kev Adams - 03/01/2011

Got the book for Christmas, having very pointedly asked for it. Am now rationing it out a few chapters at a time to relish it. It’s so refreshing to read something that goes deeper than the usual footy cliches.
I missed a lot of games from 1972 to 1982 because I was living in east Kent. There was no M25 in those days, and no internet of course, so apart from Mum saving back copies of the Observer there was no easy way to keep track of events. I followed as much of the promotion season 81-82 as I could, happened to be well placed for some away games and drove up for the Wrexham game that glorious Tuesday night despite having to work early next morning. Then we moved to MK that summer so I was back in business with a season ticket and the rest of it unfolded in front of me.
The book is almost worth it simply for the photo of Andy Gray’s ‘goal’. Never seen that one before. Gives me something to produce in evidence when I still have the occasional rant about it!
Thanks, Lionel, for a book to treasure.
And thanks, Matt et al for this blog. I’ve been laid up on chemotherapy over 2010, haven’t seen a game since Leicester last season, and you lot keep me sane and in touch. Cheers all and happy New Year

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