Great Reputations: Watford – A tale of a Taylor and a pop star

WHEN ELTON JOHN became chairman of Watford in 1976, he announced that he wanted to take the club into the top flight. People laughed for Watford were then in the old fourth division and seemingly going nowhere. In 1975-76, the club was playing in front of fewer than 5,000 per game at Vicarage Road. At the same time, Lincoln City had just won the fourth division, scoring 111 goals in 46 games and notching up 74 points in the process (in a two for a win era). Lincoln’s manager was Graham Taylor, a relatively unknown figure from the lower divisions.

Elton John has just come out of his most successful period as an artist when he took over at Watford. But his outlandish stage appearance meant that the club had football’s most newsworthy chairman. He funded Watford’s astonishing rise up the football ladder, brought new faces to the club on and off the field and worked closely with Taylor, one of football’s bright young things. Sensibly, he also invested in the infrastructure of the club. The chemistry between the two was unique in football – little wonder that Elton has talked of an “unbreakable bond”.

Two goal hero John Barnes (centre) with jubilant team mates after they beat Birmingham 3-1 to go into the FA cup semi-finals for only the second time in 93 years.

In 1977-78, Watford won the fourth division, drawing crowds of almost 11,500 to their homely ground. They scored goals and won games – 30 in 46 –  and although the style was somewhat raw and largely unappreciated outside of Hertfordshire, it was successful.

It was also the start of a period where Watford became one of the first clubs to engage with the public in more imaginative, inclusive ways. “The family club” – no doubt Elton had a lot to do with that.

Now in the third division, Watford wasted no time in stepping-up again and won promotion for the second consecutive season. In the club’s next campaign in the second division, Watford struggled, but in 1981-82, crowds were touching 15,000 and Taylor’s team won promotion to the first division. Elton John had achieved his goal in six seasons. Nobody was laughing now.

Most people anticipated a season of struggle and relegation, but Watford’s style and hard work paid huge dividends. The played with speed, knocking balls out to the wings and relying on big forwards like, initially, Ross Jenkins and latterly Luther Blissett.

Watford won four of their first five games and among their early results was an 8-0 thrashing of Sunderland. They won at both Tottenham and Arsenal, important when they figure among your noisiest neighbours, and stuck around the top quarter of the table all season. Furthermore, players like John Barnes, Blissett and Nigel Callaghan were all building reputations and attracting the attention of bigger clubs.

Watford rarely drew, so it was win or bust and usually, there were plenty of goals. Watford scored 74 in the league in 1982-83, a total beaten only by Liverpool, the champions. They also conceded 57, making it 131 in aggregate in their 42 league fixtures. Blissett was the top scorer in the league with 27 goals. Nobody could claim that Watford’s games lacked excitement.

On May 14, the final day of the season, Watford beat Liverpool 2-1, with goals from Blissett and Martin Patching, to claim second place in the final table. The game was Bob Paisley’s last as manager of Liverpool.

It was always going to be tough to follow that, especially as Blissett had been sold to AC Milan for £ 1 million, but in 1983-84, Watford had another landmark season. There was European football, for a start, a place being earned in the UEFA Cup. After losing the first leg in the first round by 3-1 to Kaiserslautern, Watford’s debut in Europe looked over, but they won 3-0 in the second game to complete a remarkable comeback.

They pulled off another fine result in the next round when they won away at Levski Sofia after drawing at Vicarage Road. Sparta Prague proved too strong for them in the last 16 and Taylor’s side lost 7-2 over the tie. Watford had made their mark, though, and there was more to come on the domestic front.

Watford were, at best, a mid-table side in 1983-84, but the FA Cup provided further evidence of the club’s growing maturity. Halfway through the campaign, Taylor signed Mo Johnston from Partick Thistle for £ 200,000 and his impact was immediate, with 20 league goals in 29 games. Taylor also had a new big front man in George Reilly, signed from Cambridge United for £90,000.

Watford manager Graham Taylor (centre) celebrates with his two strikers George Reilly (left) and Maurice Johnson

In the third round of the FA Cup, two games with local rivals Luton ended with a 4-3 win, then came wins against Charlton, Brighton & Hove Albion and Birmingham City to take Watford to the semi-final. Reilly scored the only goal to beat Plymouth 1-0, sending Watford to Wembley and the final against a resurgent Everton team.

Watford lost 2-0, a controversial Andy Gray goal and a second from Graham Sharp. Elton John was so overjoyed at seeing his club run out in front of the twin towers that he wept uncontrollably as “Abide with me” played before the game.

Watford lost Taylor in 1987 to Aston Villa and the club found it hard to sustain their elevated status. He returned to manage them again in 1996. Elton also left and returned from the front-line but Watford always remained close to his heart.

That Watford are a Premier League club today has only been made possible because of the era that was shaped, influenced and presided over by Elton John and his trusted manager, Graham Taylor. They created a fairy story that refuses to end, even if that time in the early 1980s may never be repeated. He may have gone on to manage England, but it will always be Watford and Graham Taylor…indelibly linked.

And the players that helped make that story: Steve Sherwood, Eric Steele; Ian Bolton, Pat Rice, David Bardsley, Lee Sinnott, Steve Terry, Steve Sims, Neil Price, Richard Jobson; Nigel Callaghan, Les Taylor, Kenny Jackett, John Barnes, Martin Patching; George Reilly, Maurice Johnston, Luther Blissett, Ross Jenkins, Gerry Armstrong, Jimmy Gilligan.

Photos: PA

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