Never meet your heroes

A Hornet Heaven story

— by Olly Wicken


In June 2022, the lower reaches of Occupation Road are swirling with such thick mist that Daisy Meriden — Hornet Heaven’s Chief Steward — can hardly see the face of the new arrival called Dave who’s just materialised. But she can hear the apprehension in his voice.

The man says: ’I’m really not looking forward to this.’

‘Ahhh,’ Daisy says, sympathising. ‘I ain’t gonna lie, babes — it’s always a bit of a shock suddenly finding yourself in Hornet Heaven. But let’s get you up Occupation Road to the atrium, Dave — for your induction, yeah? You’ll love meeting everyone.’

‘That’s what I’m worried about — meeting everyone,’ Dave says.

‘Why, though? The people up here are really—’

‘Oh God, who’s that coming towards us?’ Dave says, taking a step back.

‘What? Oh, that’s probably just—’ 

Daisy notices sudden movement through the mist. 

‘Dave? Where are you going? Why are you getting in them—’

She hears a loud rustling sound.

‘—them bushes?’

 *     *     *

Two minutes later, Dave climbs back out of the bushes. He and Daisy start to walk towards the sunlit uplands at the other end of Occupation Road. 

‘What was all that about, then?’ Daisy asks.

‘Sorry,’ Dave says, brushing himself down. ‘It’s… It’s just a thing with me.’

‘In that case, you’ll fit in fine up here,’ Daisy says cheerfully. ‘Henry Grover has got loads of “things” — or “fetishes”, as I’d call them.’ 

She adds awkwardly: ‘So… um… You’ve got, um… what is it — a bush fetish?’

Dave scrunches his face. ‘What? Ewww! That sounds… No!’ 

He explains himself: ‘I was hiding. I thought I saw Ken Furphy. My “thing” is avoiding my heroes, you see. I never want to meet them.’

‘OK,’ Daisy says doubtfully. ’At least that’s not quite so weird. It’s going to make things difficult, though.’

‘Exactly. There’s bound to be heroes everywhere in Hornet Heaven. Tons of them. How am I going to avoid them?’

Daisy stops walking. ‘Fair point,’ she says. ‘OK, let’s not go to the atrium just yet. Let’s go to a place where it’s just supporters — and we can try and work out what’s going to be the best way forward for you.’

‘Alright,’ Dave says. ‘But I’m telling you — if I so much as lay eyes on Duncan Welbourne, I’m doing a runner!’

 *     *     *

Dave follows Daisy to the 1881 Bunker — behind the Rookery Stand. She’s nothing like a normal steward at Watford, he thinks to himself, because she hasn’t pointlessly frisked him. She’s actually trying to take care of his needs.

Inside the bunker, Dave glances around. He likes it. It’s got the vibe of a good old fans’ den. And he can’t see red velvet ropes marking out a VIP area for players, or anything — so he feels safe. 

They sit down on high stools at one of tall circular tables, and Dave starts to explain to Daisy why he’s always avoided meeting footballers.

‘I’ve always believed in the saying: “Never Meet Your Heroes — They Always Disappoint”,’ he says.

Down on earth, Dave’s mates used to give him stick for this negative attitude when he refused to go to Tales From The Vicarage shows, or player-reunion events. He expects Daisy will try and talk him out of it too. 

‘Ahhh,’ she says, sympathising again. ‘I bet you’ve had loads of heroes over the years. Who’s your biggest?’

‘Oh,’ Dave says, relieved. ‘Oh, that’s easy — Cliff Holton. The first time I watched him, I was only nine. The Big Fella was like a God to me. That’s why I’d never want to meet him. I don’t want to find out he’s only human.’

Daisy laughs. ‘You won’t, Dave — he’s only plasma in Hornet Heaven!’

‘You get what I’m saying, though, don’t you?’ he says. ‘I don’t want to find out what my heroes are like as people — it’ll break the spell.’

Dave sees a series of framed shirts on the wall of the bunker. For every single shirt, he can remember a player he idolised wearing it. ‘It’s a disaster I’m in Hornet Heaven,’ he says. ‘I want to worship players from afar — not be stuck in a whole bloody community of them!’

‘But they’re really nice people, Dave.’

‘That’s exactly the problem! “Nice” is no good to me. I can’t use heroes who are “nice”. They’ve got to be heroic. All I know about them is the way they play football — and that’s all I want to know. I don’t want to hear them speak; I don’t want to find out what they’re like, off the pitch. It’ll ruin everything I’ve ever felt about them.’

Daisy pats him on the hand. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘I’m sure we can work something out for you. Look, I’m going to go and have a quick chat with someone else — to see if they’ve got any suggestions. Will you be OK if I leave you here for a bit?’

‘Not if Cliff Holton walks in, I won’t!’ Dave says, with a rising note in his voice that sounds almost like panic. ‘Or Freddie Bunce! Or Jimmy Linton! Not anyone from the 1959/60 team!’

Daisy says calmly: ‘This place is a hang-out for fans, Dave. I’m sure you’ll be fine. I’ll see you in a bit.’

 *     *     *

Dave watches Daisy go. Then he takes a wander around the place, looking at the Watford memorabilia. He loves the fans’ artwork on display. The bunker feels like it’ll be a great place to while away the hours between matches.

When he’s near the bar, he overhears someone telling a story to a handful of other people. He listens in…

‘Anyway,’ says the elderly man, ‘we were in the pub in the town centre, drinking before the match, and I suddenly realised there were only ten minutes until kick-off. But dear old Bertie was half-comatose from all the ale we’d taken: he had his head on the table! I said to him: “Bertie, it’s time to go,” but he just groaned.’

The man chuckles to himself and continues. ‘So I lifted him up and said: “You’re not crying off. We’re going to throw up in the churchyard and go and get changed into our kit!” And that’s what we did. Bertie scored three, I scored two and Watford won 13-0. That’s the way we rolled, back in 1903!’

Dave frowns. So this is a former player — not a fan.

He shakes his head. This is the problem in a nutshell, he tells himself. The guy is probably a Watford great — but now he’s got nothing left except dodgy anecdotes he’ll have told a million times before.

‘I say — you over there!’ the guy calls out. ‘Come and sit down! My name’s Harry Barton — from Johnny Allgood’s title-winning team of Invincibles.’

Dave hasn’t heard of Harry Barton before — which is just as well, he reckons. 

‘Come on! Come and hear my tales of life as a feckless and dissolute professional footballer in the Edwardian era! Come and hear how Watford players like myself and Bertie Banks were swashbuckling free-spirits who drank like lords, and played like gods!’

The more Harry Barton speaks, the less Dave wants to know.

‘Come and listen, and I’ll tell you the secret of how inveterate partygoers like Bertie and myself managed to enjoy several glasses of something cheerful before kick-off and still scored more than a hundred goals between us during the 1903/04 season… The secret was to remain conscious!’ 

‘No thanks, mate,’ Dave mutters. ‘I’m good, thanks.’

‘Oh, well. More fool you,’ Harry Barton says, turning to his small audience. ‘Now — the rest of you… Did you ever hear about the time Bertie and I were hauled into the Gaffer’s office the morning after we’d been found swimming naked in a pond at three in the morning? Johnny Allgood said to me: “For God’s sake, Barton, what were were you doing?” And I said: “Doggy paddle!”’

Dave makes his way back to the table to wait for Daisy there. An old man says to him: ‘I used to worship that Harry Barton when I was a lad, down on earth. He scored ten goals in his first three games for Watford — including a hat-trick and a double-hat-trick. I had no idea about the drinking when I was a kid. Meeting him up here has ruined my whole childhood.’

Dave pats the old man on the back — in sympathy. Then he sits down at the table again. He can still hear Harry Barton from over by the bar, though…

‘Then there was the absolutely roaring night out we had after I scored seven against South West Ham. The barman tried to close the pub and said ‘You’ll be having no more’, but Bertie and I said, ‘No, we’ll be having much more!’ and I wrote the landlord a cheque to buy the pub so we could carry on. Or, at least, that’s what I remember. We were very, very drunk.’

Dave decides to leave. He’ll wait for Daisy outside. 

‘Very, very, very drunk!’ Harry Barton brays.

Dave makes his way to the exit, keeping his eyes down to make sure he doesn’t see any Watford heroes from his own years of supporting. 

Hornet Heaven’s going to be a nightmare, he tells himself.

If there are players in the fans’ bunker, nowhere’s going to be safe.

The full story of ‘Never Meet Your Heroes’ will be released on audio later this summer — on, on Spotify, and on all good podcast platforms. Just search ‘Hornet Heaven’.

The first 50 Hornet Heaven stories are available in paperback and Kindle here.