The magazine When Saturday Comes used to run an ‘Intro of the Month’ feature that was recently discontinued. The suspicion was that it was because nobody but Watford fan Mike Walters of The Mirror ever won it.
Mike’s pun-tastic preludes are minor, if occasionally wince-provoking, works of art. He believes that the pun is mightier than the sword, and he is seldom afraid to use one.
“I have acquired a reputation, deservedly, for lacing my copy with crimes against the English language,” he readily admits. “This punnery seems to have evolved since I joined the Mirror in 1995 and as a red top it’s supposed to be a bit sparky. You haven’t got the scope to unfurl 2,000-word essays so you have to make the copy talk.
“It came to prominence when I was cricket correspondent from 2000 to 2006. Even now cricket writers remind me of slightly lavatorial intro from a Test Match in Ahmedabad in 2001 when Mark Butcher scored a moderately heroic 92, punctuated by a couple of Olympic-standard dashes to the powder room.
“My intro was ‘Mark Butcher was all cisterns go’ and there was reference to England ‘turning this arid dust-bowl into their own Flushing Meadow.’ That was pretty bog-standard.
“I thought I was taking the mickey a bit but people seemed to like it and it fed my ego so I gave them some more. I’m afraid it has infested far too many sports too often. Sometimes I think: ‘You’ll never get away with that,’ but to my surprise I do.
“At the darts recently Holland’s Michael van Gerwen beat Scotland’s Gary Anderson on the day before New Year’s Eve and my intro was ‘Before Hogmanay Came Clogmanay.’ In cycling people still wag their fingers about Chris Froome crashing on the lower slopes of Mount Ventoux in the Tour de France in 2016 and me writing about ‘Brokebike Mountain.’
“You can torture any unsuspecting activity in that way and I’ve covered around 30 sports for the Mirror and probably inflicted puns on half of them. For better or worse, it’s a reputation I’ve gained but I’m thankful that I’m on a brash tabloid whose readership can stomach it.
“If I’d tried that when I worked for dear old Reg Hayter when I was with his agency back in the 1980s, he would have said: ‘My old English master, Mr Frisbee, would never have stood for that’.”
One of Mike’s other main claims to tabloid fame is his unmissable weekly “Wally Meets” feature, which has included a fair few Albion folk.
“That’s my nickname in the office, Wally by name, wally by nature,” he says. “It’s a nice change of pace for a red-top football hack because my mission is not to scandalise or ambush anyone with a hidden agenda but just to extol the good things about people in football.
“I did one with Chris Hughton a few weeks after the Shoreham air disaster, and he was one of the few people, via the club’s august and helpful media department, to convey a message of thanks for the way I’d written it, which speaks volumes for his class.
“Normally when people get in touch it’s to complain about misquotes or taking them out of context. Chris is one of the good guys. He’s eminently sensible but what a fantastic job he has done since being at Brighton.
“I had a chat with Glenn Murray not long after his return to Brighton colours about his time in America at Cape Fear, as in the Robert de Niro movie. He was certainly smarter than the average interview subject.
“I’ve done Bruno too, but the one I feel sorry for was Dale Stephens. The premise was that he’d played almost every minute of every game and the day the piece appeared he went off injured and his run came to a shuddering halt.
“But I’ve always found Brighton players and managers helpful and Brighton an interesting club - from Steve Foster’s headband to Dick Knight and the ‘Hello Boys’ Eva Herzigova Wonderbra ad.”
However, Mike will probably put aside any positive feelings for Albion when Watford visit the Amex this week. His love for the Hertfordshire club is well known and he has committed his thoughts to a more permanent form than the usual tabloid fish’n’chip paper.
“Those who know me have few doubts about my allegiances,” he admits. “There is a series of seven books called Tales from the Vicarage and for the last two I have been co-author and editor.
“Volume six, ‘Rocket Men,’ is about the four players who played in all four divisions under Graham Taylor: Steve Sherwood, Ian Bolton, Ross Jenkins and Luther Blissett.
“It was an indirect tribute to Graham because I was aware that his autobiography was going to be published posthumously and I didn’t want to come out with something in direct competition.
“This year, volume seven, ‘The Captains,’ was 11 chapters with 11 different captains, starting with Keith Eddy. Brighton tried to sign him in 1966. They offered Barrow something like £13,000 for him, which was a lot of money, but Barrow didn’t want to let him go.
“Then their cash flow dried up in the summer and when Watford offered them £1,500, they snapped our hands off. So 1966 was a famous year for English football, when Keith Eddy signed for Watford!
“The book comes up to date with Troy Deeney who, as you know, is a shy retiring type who never has much to say for himself.” Deeney, remember, was fined £20,000 for remarks about the referee following the 3-3 draw away to Bournemouth.
“Heaven forbid that we lose the likes of him from modern football, a Premier League player who is prepared to speak his mind and be honest rather than send people to sleep with bland platitudes. They are a rare species, so enjoy Troy’s thoughts while you can.”
No doubt Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk might prefer to be spared an afternoon with the Watford skipper, who especially enjoyed a day out in Sussex a few seasons ago.
“He scored on what was by far Watford fans’ favourite visit to the Amex, in 2015,” Mike says. “Watford won 2-0 and a few hours later were promoted to the Premier League when Middlesbrough and Norwich dropped points.
“We owe your groundsman a pint of Harvey’s because at 1-0 a header from Chris O’Grady looked as though it was going to hit the post and creep in but it hit an immaculately-placed patch of sand in the goalmouth and spun wide. It was christened ‘The Sand of God’ by Watford fans.”
Mike had missed that match, though. “I was at West Brom 0 Liverpool 0, which wasn’t as exciting as it sounds – the nillest of nil-nil draws – and drove back home at a slightly indiscreet speed and went down to Watford High Street. The players were there, many still in tracksuits, celebrating with their public.
“The first thing I did was go to a cash machine to get some drinking vouchers, as I call them, and when I turned round the first person I bumped into was Troy Deeney, who had nipped out of whatever hostelry they were in to find somewhere quieter to do a live talkSPORT interview.
“So Brighton remains a favourite awayday for sentimental reasons but I always enjoy going there because it has by far the best atmosphere of all the new-build stadiums. I’ve never heard so much noise in a football ground as during the first half-hour of the play-off semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday, with the possible exception of Celtic Park.
“There’s so much to commend it and that’s without the candy floss and the deckchair on the promenade beforehand – insert your chosen seaside cliché here. It’s a proper football club and now with a proper team to match.”
So, too, are Watford after what rival fans have regarded as a revolving door policy at Vicarage Road since the Pozzo family took over in 2012, with managers and players coming and going at a bewildering rate.
Mike believes that has settled down now and was overstated in any case. “Javi Gracia has a four-and-a-half-year contract with a two-sided option for an extra three, by far the longest given to a manager in the Pozzo family era.
“Yes, they have been through nine head coaches, but one of those was Oscar Garcia, who Brighton fans know well. He had to step down for health reasons after two or three games, and Billy McKinlay, his assistant, was given only two games in charge.
“They were a win against Brentford and a 1-1 draw with Brighton, when some bloke called Lewis Dunk headed an equaliser. I noted the name and he’s done fairly well for himself!
“But there’s a club just up the M23 from Brighton who have turned over at least as many managers in the same period and nobody talks about a ‘revolving door’ at Selhurst Park. It’s an expedient stick to beat Watford with but they’re by no means the only club to have done it.”
And Mike is impressed with Gracia’s work since he arrived last January. “Make no mistake, Watford were in trouble when he came in, haemorrhaging defeats and they couldn’t keep a clean sheet.
“Marco Silva left on the back of five points from a possible 36. Gracia came in and won three home games on the bounce, against Chelsea, Everton and West Brom. Those effectively kept the wolf from the door.
“The big question for me was when Watford were going to end a remarkable run of 229 days without an away goal. Then this season we went up to Burnley just after a 2-0 win over Brighton on the opening day, won 3-1 and my doubts evaporated.
“As you know, Watford won their first four games of the season and no club has ever been relegated off the back of that. I can’t believe you’re looking over your shoulders at relegation either. I think you’ll be miles clear.
“I think Watford and Brighton are clubs of similar outlook and ambition, with comparable fanbases although Watford punched above their weight in the Taylor era. It has rarely been dull at Vicarage Road since Elton John walked through the door and for Brighton it has been the same.
“I was at the last game at the Goldstone and remember wondering how a football club was being turfed out of its ground like that. And it was a bizarre sight, seeing fans walking away a couple of hours after the final whistle with bits of the ground, like a souvenir-hunters’ convention. I kid you not, someone even had a toilet seat under his arm.
“Then I went to the first game at Gillingham and thought: ‘What on earth are a club of Brighton’s stature and pedigree doing camping 75 miles away?’ Withdean was at least within the city boundaries.
“I was there the night Brighton beat Man City in the League Cup, when the influx of money had just been turned on and Michel Kuipers was the hero. That was a bit more like it. And now you have this magnificent place on the edge of the city where you can get a nice pint before the game."
Tales from the Vicarage Volume 6 – Rocket Men by Mike Walters and Oliver Phillips
Tales from the Vicarage Volume 7 – Captains by Mike Walters.