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

Watford and Burnley – real people, real clubs

IT IS hard not to like Watford, a sentiment that dates back to the days of Elton John, Luther Blissett and John Barnes. Admittedly, their style of football under Graham Taylor wasn’t the most aesthetic – function over form, to be sure – but Watford also provided the football world with some genuinely warm moments. The club seemed to have a great attitude, connected well with the community and tried all sorts of things to raise its profile. And Elton was there, of course, weeping at Wembley, supporting his manager, as well as his team, and driving the club almost to the very top.

Watford finished runners-up in the first division in 1983, a truly remarkable achievement, and a year later, reached the FA Cup final. It was one of those great football stories – fourth division to the UEFA Cup in six and a bit years. Try telling League Two teams of today that the unthinkable can happen!

Watford also used to look after their old boys – they may still do that, for all I know – and gave season tickets to their former players who lived in the town. A nice touch.

Anyone who thinks that Watford’s caring and sharing side was just part of Reg Dwight’s imagination and that big business and Premier League insensitivity has washed away the “nice” part of Watford, would be mistaken. The club is still very welcoming – the “Vicarage Roadies” are particularly keen to help when you’re wandering around trying to find the right entrance, and there’s still an air of positive bonhomie about the place.

It’s an old fashioned experience going to a game at Vicarage Road – you walk through the streets, past cordoned-off roads and you get teasing glimpses of the floodlights through the houses. Many grounds today have lost that experience and instead sit on retail parks or sites that require a car, for obvious reasons, but there’s something exciting about walking to the ground, Lowry style, and seeing the pylons get closer and closer. It’s the sort of place where fans ignore the many grease wagons that line the street and opt to congregate in their favourite café for a pre-match full English.

Having said that, there’s nothing out-of-date about Watford when it comes to the customer experience. As I arrived, a roadie was on to me. “Turnstile 22?,” I asked, having failed to find the right gate for the Sir Elton John Stand. “It’s like the Harry Potter entrance,” said one roadie. “It doesn’t exist anymore – go through 23 or 24.” Earlier, I had seen both team coaches arrive to polite applause and good natured jousting. “Still a friendly place?,” I ask one steward. “This is Watford, sir. What do you expect?”.

That was me sold on Vicarage Road. Perched in the corner, the last seat in the row and looking down on the Burnley hordes, I was reminded of my last visit in March 1988 to see Everton win 2-1 against second division-bound Watford. That day I also sat high in the Rous stand, in the very last seat in the top row. It’s now the Graham Taylor stand in tribute to the club’s late manager.

Behind me was the Sensory Room, a special facility for children with autism, the largest of its kind in Britain. The room has state-of-the art equipment to enable children who struggle to cope with big crowds to enjoy their football. It’s another example of the type of club Watford seems to be.

As for the football, Watford are in their third Premier League campaign since promotion. How long they last at that level is anyone’s guess, but making a go of it. Their opponents, Burnley, are another unlikely lad, but they’ve won plaudits for their honest toil and the determined leadership of manager Sean Dyche, a man who sounds like he’s smoked 40 Capstan full strength before speaking on TV.

Burnley’s fans were in fine form, singing, “we’re all going on a European tour”, a reflection of their team’s performance this season that has taken them to the brink of qualification for a Europa League place.

Watford dictated play in the first half but the game was still goalless and waiting to catch fire by half-time. The home side took the lead after 61 minutes through the impressive Roberto Pereya, an Argentina international who was previously with Juventus.

But the game changed dramatically in the 70th minute when Sam Vokes came on as substitute for Nkoudou. Within seconds, a free kick was badly headed on by Watford defender     Adrian Mariappa and Vokes tapped the ball into the net. A very soft goal, badly defended. Vokes, who hadn’t scored for months, turned to the Burnley fans in triumph and punched the air.

Another free kick saw Burnley take the lead two minutes later, the ball headed back across goal and Jack Cork saw his header palmed away by goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis but the ball had gone over the line. No VAR needed.

Burnley hung on to win 2-1, keeping alive that European dream. Their team is hard-working and well organised, but they’ve also got some young talent – Nick Pope is an imposing keeper and tipped for international honours and full back James Tarkowski has just won his first England cap. And manager Dyche features on everyone’s list when a top job becomes available.

Anyone who grew up in an age when Burnley produced a stream of top talent – Ralph Coates, Martin Dobson, Dave Thomas et al – welcomes the sight of the Clarets back among the top strata of English football. They’re showing everyone there is life outside the small group of elite clubs.

As for Watford, they’re still on target for their best finish for more than 30 years. They just need to look at how they handle set pieces.

On my exit from Vicarage Road, I bumped into a “roadie” and congratulated him on the way Watford handle things around the ground. “We’re a proper club with real people, we treat everyone the same. Glad you enjoyed it.” Enough said, really.

Photo: Jack Cork’s winning goal  for Burnley (Press Association)