Playing Under Elton: Watford Fans' Memories

When Captain Fantastic fired the Hornets into the headlines...

You might have noticed that Elton John is our guest editor for the current issue of Clash. It’s a pretty big deal. We’re exploring the making of 1973’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ in the magazine – but talking about Elton got us thinking about another yellow close to his heart: Watford Football Club.

Elton became chairman of the club he’d always supported in 1976, his intention to help the team rise through the domestic leagues, all the way from the old Fourth Division to the first. Under newly installed manager Graham Taylor, Watford achieved promotion to the third tier of English football in 1978, and went up another division the following year. The club came second in the old Second Division in 1982, and subsequently earned a place in the top flight.

Elton sold up in 1987, but returned as chairman in 1997, when he again helped to improve their fortunes, working together with the similarly reinstalled Taylor to take the team all the way to the Premiership. Watford’s performances on the field couldn’t keep them in the division – they were relegated after one season, though they’ve been back to the Premiership since – and despite a strong finish to the 12/13 season the club is currently sat mid-table in the Championship.

But that’s now – what about then? Clash spoke to a couple of Vicarage Road regulars about life under Elton...

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Elton John and Graham Taylor interviewed in 1981

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Miles Jacobson is studio director at Sports Interactive, and director of the incredibly popular Football Manager…

“I heard about Elton joining the club at school. The internet didn’t exist then, and the only way to get football news about Watford was from the local newspapers – there were two in those days. Although, being only five-years-old, I didn’t tend to read them.

“I wasn’t a massive football fan at five, but hearing about Elton taking over the club definitely registered, and could have been the trigger to make me take more interest – I went to my first Watford game aged seven.

“So 1987 was the first year I really started following the club, and I got to my first game the season after promotion. Back then, (striker) Luthur Blissett hadn’t really got going – he was mainly used as a sub and only got six goals in the league. Ross Jenkins, who he had an amazing partnership with for many years, scored a lot of goals though, and we saw some big changes at the club with a load of players coming in and going out under Graham Taylor, with Bertie Mee, who’d managed Arsenal to the double, as his assistant.

“Oliver Phillips, the Watford reporter of the time, would go on about the team’s original style of play. Other teams just couldn’t cope with the speed of Watford’s play, and the long balls to the wing. Everyone seemed shocked at how well we were doing.

“Elton put money into the club, buying a few decent players and investing in the club infrastructure. And he brought in Graham Taylor too, so he gets credit for that. But it simply wouldn’t have happened in the way it did without Taylor. Under him, Watford’s play was exciting – we just had to get one more goal than the opposition. With Blissett and Jenkins, and over the next few seasons John Barnes, Kenny Jackett and Nigel Callaghan, there were always goals in the team.

“Taylor was also brilliant with the fans, taking time to talk to them. The players did, too. That continued as much as was allowed, during both of Taylor’s reigns. I’m fortunate enough to have met him a few times, and he is a fascinating and incredibly knowledgeable man. The treatment he got as England manager made me angry – especially as his record was pretty good. But I’ve never heard a bad word said against him by anyone supporting a club he’s managed. The man is a legend.

“My favourite Graham Taylor story was when me and some friends had gone for a weekend to Ireland to watch pre-season games – any excuse for a weekend away in Dublin. Taylor came outside the ground about half an hour before kick-off, took a half-drunk pint of Guinness out of my friend’s hand, drank it, and went through the team line up with us.

“By 1982, promotion had become the norm. They carried on riding up the leagues. It was fun being the underdog, and while we had talent in the team, we didn’t have that many ‘fashionable’ players. Much like Wimbledon a few years later, the bigger clubs couldn’t handle our tactics, which were more 4-2-4 than 4-4-2.

“The 1982 team, on paper, wasn’t the best we’d fielded. That was probably Gianluca Vialli’s, in 2001, before it all went horribly wrong. But each player’s skills fitted their roles perfectly. We had a very tight defence with Pat Rice, Ian Bolton, Steve Sims and Wilf Rostron; Les Taylor and Jackett in midfield, Barnes on the left and Callaghan on the right; and Luthur and Jenkins or Gerry Armstrong up front. Five internationals in the squad – compared to 15 or more under Vialli.

‘When we came second in the league, in 1983, that was great – we were tipped to finish bottom. The FA Cup Final defeat of 1984 was bitter for two reasons, though. Rostron, our left-back, was sent off against our rivals Luton, for what I remember had been very little, and so was suspended for the final. Then Everton’s Andy Gray headed the ball while fouling Watford goalkeeper Steve Sherwood, to score their second. My Everton-supporting friends tell me, ‘We still would have won, one-nil,’ but that’s not the point. I confronted Gray about this a couple of years ago, and he told me it’s one of his favourite goals. It’s my most hated.

“When Elton sold the club in 1987, the story was that he was cleansing his life, getting rid of all of his possessions. I have no idea how true that was. But losing Taylor was worse. Taylor was Watford. The whole infrastructure was put together by him – the family areas which still bring in so many kids today, those were his. The style of play was his. The players’ belief in themselves was down to him. Losing him was terrible.

“We had some bad years, and then Elton came back to save the club. It was in real financial trouble and in danger of going under, something Elton, as a lifelong supporter, didn’t want to see happen. So he put his money where his mouth is, and brought Taylor back with him – the winning team.

“The revival in the late-‘90s was absolutely down to Elton and Taylor, both on and off the pitch. There was a massive buzz amongst supporters when the word got out – living up to our nickname of the Hornets. It became our Watford again, not just Watford FC.

“Elton’s not just an ordinary supporter – I don’t think anyone thinks of him as ‘one of them’. He has a large fanbase amongst supporters, and holds a place in a lot of their hearts. He was the club’s saviour, twice. Without him, we’d perhaps not be in the league we’re in now. And he happens to write a pretty good tune every now and then, too!

“Elton’s a superstar, but that doesn’t stop him being as much a part of Watford FC as the community, the staff, the players. In many ways he is Watford FC, a bigger part of it all, as is Taylor.

“Elton often used to wear a boater hat with yellow, red and black ribbons on it, and I was always proud to see him wear that. Certainly as a young Watford supporter with a football-hating dad, surrounded by Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool fans amongst friends and family, there was a lot of pressure on me from my peers and elders to support a more fashionable team. But I was able to say that our owner was Elton John, and they shut up. When I do interviews for the Football Manager, I’m often asked when abroad what club I support – saying ‘Watford’ immediately made them respond ‘Elton John’. At least until last season, where they said ‘Zola’.”

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Watford play Everton in the FA Cup Final, 1984

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Jude Clarke is a lapsed Junior Hornet, local newspaper hack and music lover (with review credits for the BBC and The Line Of Best Fit), who now lives and works in Cambridge. Her misspent youth was spent in the Tory Shires, though, where a season ticket to Watford FC was, along with a burgeoning Japan obsession, one of the highlights of her ‘difficult teenage years’…

“Like most footie fans, I ‘found’ ‘my’ club more by force of circumstance than by design.

“As a ‘70s kid in the non-wilds of Buckinghamshire, a short-haired eight-year-old tomboy by 1977, my family’s two closest options for league football were Luton (hiss, spit) or Watford. Okay, my brother and I had an (even more) youthful flirtation with Liverpool before then – at the time the team flying highest in both the First Division (the Premier League of its day, kids) and in Europe (whose cups and trophies were somehow in those days just the icing on the cake, gilding the lily of a season whose main triumphs were victories in the league or – best of all – the FA Cup).

“But now it was time to get serious. To become a ‘proper’ supporter. To freeze my toes in that brutal and unforgiving way that has only really ever happened to me while watching live football. To passively inhale the cigarette smoke of middle-aged men and hear unfettered swearing in the wild.

“The factor that sealed our fate, little brother Ali and me, as Junior Hornets, as opposed to Luton Strikers, or whatever the hell the gaudy orange losers’ equivalent might have been, was my dad’s connections. A local dentist in a Hertfordshire town, one of his patients was a big cheese at the club, which led to us blagging Vice Chairman’s Box tickets for our first season with the club. By the kind of happy synchronicity that often features significantly in stories of fandom, our first season was also, it turns out, the first under the stern but benign, and hugely successful, managership of one Graham Taylor.

“Just a year before, lifelong Watford fan Elton John had taken over as chairman of the club, and appointed Taylor to the post. All through that first, thrilling, inspiring ride of a season from ’77 to ’78, we would excitedly turn up for each home game, quickly accruing superstitions and rituals that – we were convinced – were as significant as anything happening on the pitch or in the boardroom in the wonderful explosion of success, talent and goals breaking out each Saturday afternoon at the club. And there, each week, in the Chairman’s Box immediately behind our seats, would be ‘Elt’.

“Perhaps it was because we were just kids at the time, or perhaps it was just that the concept of ‘celebrity’ was less venerated in those days than it has become since, but in our eyes, it was Elton John who was lent glamour by his association with the golden boys (yes, we actually called the team that) of Watford FC, rather than the other way round.

“My brother and I actually ‘supported’ his music because of the link with the team, as an extension of our support for the team itself. This connection was only brought closer when he released ‘A Single Man’ in 1978, an album on which two tracks featured the actual Watford team on backing vocals (‘Big Dipper’ and ‘Georgia’, from memory). And through all this, week in, week out, he would be there for the home matches, resolutely more Reg Dwight than Elton John, stripped of the outré stage gear and excesses that apparently featured so large in the rest of his life, unremarkable in the crowd, if you didn’t know who he was.

“Those Taylor/John years, immortalised in the crowd chant ‘Elton John’s Taylor-made army’, were Watford’s finest, and perhaps among my own finest, too. After our first season, the club became one of the first in the country to set up a Family Enclosure, which from then on became our natural home. Along the way it proudly picked up the nickname of ‘The Friendly Club’, and this was genuinely how it felt.

“Each home game you would enter the enclosure and receive a little present – a sherbet Dip-Dab, say, or a cracker-style plastic toy. At Christmas the club threw a party for kids: I got to dance with my idol Luther Blissett one year, and have been pretty much dining out on the story ever since. Players that excelled, or were selected for their national side (Luther, the young John Barnes, known as ‘Digger’ at Watford courtesy of popular ludicrous TV oil-and-intrigue fest Dallas), felt like our collective success stories and were celebrated as such.

“Perhaps the most glorious day in all my years of fandom was my 12th birthday. The team, then in the Second Division, had drawn First Division Southampton in the League Cup. Four-nil down from the first leg, no great feats were expected results-wise, but I didn’t greatly care, as before the game I was presented with a birthday card! Signed by the whole team! On the pitch! And by Graham Taylor himself! Oh, and then we went on not just to beat Southampton, not even just to sneak an aggregate win, but to completely wipe the floor with them in a 7-1 victory (yes, that’s no typo, seven-one) so complete, and so thrilling that the gift for junior fans at the next home game was a special biro with the score printed down the side.

“When I think back now to my Watford years (which ended in my later teens when a social life, friends, inappropriate boyfriends and my favourite wine bar – yes, this was the ‘80s – began to take precedence in a way that I would have found unimaginable and frankly very disappointing in those earlier days), a handful of images stay with me. That pitch-side presentation, and the card that remains a treasured possession. Walking out into Wembley Stadium in 1984 for the ‘Friendly Final’ when Watford played (and lost to, graciously) Everton. Elton’s genuine tears on that day as the crowd sung ‘Abide With Me’ before the match. And that sense of collective joy, of ownership of the club that somehow, bizarrely yet at the same time totally straightforwardly, linked a small Home Counties tomboy and an International Megastar Singer in bonds of fandom, excitement and belonging. Cheers, Reg.”

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Watford take the Fourth Division title in 1978

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Thanks to Jude and Miles for sharing their memories. Read about our Elton John guest edited issue here

Further information on Football Manager is available here.

Archive Photos: PA via Who Ate All The Pies

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