By Kevin Affleck
A proud Nigel Pearson believes the club's Hornets At Home Initiative sits right at the heart of its connection with the community, revealing one member of his squad has made more than 20 calls to vulnerable supporters.
After the outbreak of the coronavirus, the club wrote to all of its elderly supporters and those with a disability, drawing information from its records, offering help during this period of isolation, particularly those who became house-bound through illness.
More than a dozen current first-teamers, members of the coaching staff and a host of ex-players - some of whom legends in the eyes of elderly supporters, none more so than Luther Blissett - have volunteered their time by making nearly 500 unexpected phone calls, checking on the well-being of supporters, lifting spirts and chatting about various eras of the club's rich history. It has been a move that has added a further layer to the community work championed by Graham Taylor OBE – and Pearson has been only too pleased to carry on the work of the late, great former Watford manager.
“What you've got to remember is that we are very much part of the local community,” said the Head Coach on Episode II of The View from the Vic, the club's official podcast.
“This club has a unique identity and if you listen to people across the country, many people feel the importance of tapping into the local identity. What strikes me from my very short time here is how important the club is to the local community. When I was asked to make some calls and said yes, it was quite interesting that I had a few people say, 'You are trying to bluff me'. It's got to the stage where, through word of mouth, people weren't so surprised. It's about getting out to people who need some support.”
The support has been greatly received. “Just want to thank Craig Dawson very much for his telephone call today. It was very kind!” emailed supporter Paul Albion.
“I would just like to place on record my appreciation of the phone call that I received yesterday from Craig Shakespeare. Craig showed a lot of empathy and at no time did he give the impression that he was in a hurry to end the conversation,” wrote fan Clive Sutherland.
“Many thanks to all at Watford for organising the phoning of senior supporters of the club to check on them in these difficult times,” emailed fan Andrew McCollin. “I had the call yesterday and had a very enjoyable chat with Robert Page. I just wanted to let you know how much this is appreciated. Keep up the good work. GT would approve.”
Midfielder Will Hughes did not need to be asked twice to pick up the phone.
“When I got told about it I thought it was a really good idea,” said the 24-year-old. “It makes people's days and it's great to be able to give something back during these very difficult times. It can be very difficult for people stuck indoors and to have a phone call, to break their day up and surprise them, is really nice. A couple of people thought it was a prank call and had to be convinced it was me on the phone, which made me laugh. One of them had Alzheimer’s, which was really sad. Someone across the road from me has Alzheimer’s so I know sort of what that's like. It's not nice to see or hear these things, so I just hope calls like this help in some small way.”
Christian Kabasele lives in the town so he was only too pleased to help.
“It was really good to speak with these fans,” said the defender. “They were so happy to talk to a Watford player. It was positive for them to have something new in their life. They said how kind it was from the club and when you hear them say these things, it makes you feel so positive and feel good. This is a tough moment for everybody and these calls give them something else to think about for a brief moment.
“There were a couple of people I called who sadly had symptoms. I was really sad, sad because I called one guy and I could only speak to his wife because he was really, really unwell. That was sad and I felt bad after I came off the call because there was nothing else I could do. We don't have contact with the fans apart from social media. You can't speak to them at the stadium right now, you can't give them a picture, so this is the least we can do for them.”
Pearson has really tried to foster a culture at Vicarage Road, one built upon inclusivity and creating an emotional bond amongst each other and with the supporters.
“It's pleasing our players are involved,” said the Head Coach. “I spoke to one of the players and he said he had called 22 fans. I thought, 'Wow'. Some of the calls you make can be quite short, some quite long, depending if people want to engage with you or not. The feedback genuinely given is that it's appreciated. We have a responsibility to make sure our immediate family are safe at this time, but what strikes me, as a national identity, is that when we experience difficult times, we just come together and look after each other. In the modern world, where there is not always a lot of positivity, there is a lot of tolerance out there and goodwill. We have a responsibility to play our part in that.
“It's a very important initiative and when we engage in something like this, it's important it's done with an integrity and there is an authenticity about it. I think it's very, very important we do this type of thing. We can't do anything physically but giving some moral support is vitally important. We do what we can. There is a community spirit and our football club is at the centre of that.”
Hall of Famer Paul Robinson was given his debut by Graham Taylor and even though he is employed by Birmingham City, coaching their Under-18s, he remembers his roots.
“I was brought up under the GT era and it was the norm to be part of the community,” he said. “Although I don't work for the club anymore, I lived in the area and was brought up in and around the ground so I understand what the club means to the fans. It was nice having a general chat and to stay positive. It was lovely for the club to get me involved. We look after our own. It was so well received and a lot of people were just pleased to hear a different voice.”
Click HERE for more information on the Hornets At Home scheme. We’ve had an excellent response, with the number of club volunteers – approximately 300 – exceeding the number of requests for help.
However, supporters can still sign up to Watford Borough Council's Watford Helps (Volunteering & Support) initiative by clicking HERE.