1. Sep, 2022


This week Watford Football Club are celebrating an important milestone. On August 30th 1922 The Hornets played their first game at Vicarage Road. A crowd of 8,000 witnessed a 0-0 draw with Millwall
A Century of football at The Vic can be neatly divided up into two sections. For the first 50 years Watford were a modest lower division club. There were highlights, promotion to The Second Division in 1969 and reaching an FA Cup Semi Final a year later. On the way The Hornets beat First Division Stoke City. In the Quarter Final Watford caused an even bigger upset by beating the mighty Liverpool at Vicarage Road. Barry Endean scored a famous winner to stun Bill Shankly's boys.

The fairytale was ended in the Semi Final when Chelsea beat the Second Division side 6-1 at White Hart Lane. Spare a thought for Hornets goalkeeper Mike Walker, later Walker would enjoy a successful spell managing Norwich City. Whilst we are on the subject of Watford goalkeepers, Legendary Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Northern Ireland keeper Pat Jennings began his career at Vicarage Road.

The cup run was a rare highlight. By 1975 Watford found themselves back in the Fourth Division. The outlook appeared bleak until an unlikely savior appeared. Pop superstar Elton John brought the club and expressed his dream of taking The Hornets to The First Division. Elton was born in nearby Pinner and was a lifelong Watford fan. The new chairman quickly sacked manager Mike Keen and appointed Graham Taylor. He arrived from Lincoln City in April 1977. Taylor had enjoyed great success at Sincil Bank, leading The Imps to the Fourth Division title in 1976.

He made an instant impact in Hertfordshire. Watford were Fourth Division Champions in 1977. A year later Taylor's men were promoted from the Third Division. Striker Ross Jenkins was the star turn as he netted 142 goals for the Hornets. A couple of seasons of Second Division consolidation followed. But the club continued to make a positive contribution to the national sport.

Elton John was horrified to see the rise in football hooliganism. He wanted to see family's return to the grounds and Watford decided to devote an area of Vicarage Road to younger fans. Ardent fan Ann Swanson was asked to run the project. She began watching the Hornets in the late 70s. Her husband, Alan normally took their children to the games. however, on one occasion Alan was away on business and Ann took over the parental duties. A short while later she began working in the clubs commercial department..

Doncaster born Ann made an impression with her plain speaking approach and Graham Taylor felt she was the ideal person to run the scheme. Ann knew what families needed and a clean safe environment was developed.

Young fans were also given the opportunity to meet their heroes. Striker Lurther Blissett was the idol of many. Blissett made his debut in 1975. Two years later he scored 21 goals in the 1977 Fourth Division promotion campaign. A year later Lurther Blissett rose to fame. He scored both goals as Watford knocked Manchester United out of the League Cup. The Hornets won 2-1 at Old Trafford. Both Blissett goals were trademark headers. Watford went on to reach the Semi Final. Nottingham Forest ended the latest Wembley dream, winning the two legged tie 3-1 on aggregate.

Watford were now trotting out in a new kit. A red stripe was added to the shirt, a few years later the traditional black shorts were axed in favour or a natty red number. Winger John Barnes shone in the new red shorts. Barnes had been discovered playing none league football in London. His partnership with Blissett proved the catalyst as Watford mounted a promotion challenge in 1982. Lurther scored 21 goals as Watford Football Club were promoted to The First Division for the first time in their history,

Although Barnes and Blissett were the stars, there were many unsung heroes wearing bright yellow shirts. Goalkeeper Steve Sherwood wore a distinctive all red kit, while a solid defence containing Kenny Jackett, Nigel Gibbs, David Bardsley, Steve Sims and Steve Terry were supplemented by hard working midfielders Les Taylor and Wilf Rostron. Right Winger Nigel Callaghan was another favourite on the Vicarage Road terraces.

The only disappointment was that deadly local rivals Luton Town pipped Taylor's Men to the title. But the roles were spectacularly reversed in the big league. While Luton narrowly avoided relegation Watford finished runners up to Liverpool. They even topped the table in the Autumn of 1982 and were given a new nickname, the Golden Boys seemed the perfect description of the clubs kit and success on the field of play. The runners up also booked a place in Europe, the Vic playing host to UEFA Cup Football.

However, the Golden Boys were often lambasted in the media. Their direct approach saw them labeled a long ball team. Such suggestions obviously irked the manager. In a 1982 Football Focus interview Graham Taylor was defiant "I see, in some quarters we've been labeled a kick and rush team. I find that quite amazing. We are sitting second in the division, having scored 70 goals and conceded just 30. If that is a kick and rush team, I suggest everyone tries it." He added that "Football was a simple game and Watford did try and get the ball in the box as quickly as possible, fans want to see goals."

England fans certainly saw some goals in December 1982. Bobby Robson's team beat minnows Luxembourg 9-0 at Wembley. Lurther Blissett was the star of the European Championship qualifier, scoring an hat trick on his International debut. This combined with impressive club form earned Blissett a lucrative Summer move to Italian giants AC Milan.

Taylor knew a replacement was needed to maintain momentum. He signed George Reilly from Cambridge United. A tall strong targetman in the mold of Jenkins and Blissett. But after a poor start to the season Watford found themselves involved in a relegation battle.

In November 1983 Graham Taylor swooped to sign striker Mo Johnston from Partick Thistle. The £220.000 fee proved a bargain as the blonde Scot became an overnight sensation. Standing just 5ft 9 Johnstone was the perfect foil for the more muscular Rielly. Johnstone scored 23 goals in just 38 appearances as The Golden Boys recovered to finish in mid table. Improved league form triggered a memorable FA Cup run.

The road to Wembley began with the sweetest of victories. Watford were paired with old rivals Luton Town in the Third Round. After half an hour David Pleat's Hatters led 2-0 but goals from Barnes and Johnstone rescued a replay.

The Vicarage Road encounter was even more thrilling. After 90 minutes the score was 3-3, but The Vic was in ectasy when Mo Johnstone's extra time winner settled a memorable M1 derby, surely one of The Vic's greatest nights. Having comfortably seen off Charlton Athletic in Round 4, The Hornets faced Brighton and Hove Albion in the last 16. Although a Second Division side, the Seagulls had been beaten finalists Twelve months earlier. On their way to Wembley Brighton had beaten the all conquering Liverpool, a feat they repeated in Round 3. But an early George Rielly goal settled the nerves. The big Geordie headed in a Nigel Callaghan free kick. The Hornets faithful were cheering again on 28 minutes when Rielly turned provider, his cross was tucked away by Mo Johnstone. Gerry Ryan pulled one back for the visitors before a Kenny Jackett volley booked Watford's Quarter Final spot.

In a earlier blog I described Watford's 3-1 win over Birmingham City in the last Eight. A John Barnes double and a Les Taylor piledriver silencing a raucous St Andrews crowd. The Golden Boys returned to the Second City for the Semi Final. Third Division Plymouth Argyle provided the opposition at a colourful Villa Park. Argyle had beaten West Bromwich Albion and Derby County on their way to the last 4. Wearing those vibrant Green and Black colours Plymouth were backed by a huge travelling army from the West Country. The boys from Devon were bidding to become the first Third Division club to reach an FA Cup Final.

But the favourites took the lead on 13 minutes. John Barnes picked up the ball just inside the Plymouth half, After veering inside one Argyle defender, the winger showed a stunning turn of pace as he made for the byline. Barnes then delivered an inch perfect cross ,George Reilly managed to fend off the attentions of ex Cambridge team mate Lindsay Smith and headed Barnes cross into the roof of the net (Pictured in Cover Photo). The goal proved to be the winner. The defeat was tough on Plymouth who were unlucky not to equalise on several occasions. After the final whistle a joyful Taylor saluted the Watford fans in the Holte End. Fourth Division to a FA Cup Final in Seven years. A wonderful day for GT and The Hornets.

Everton were Watford's opponents at Wembley. With Wilf Rostron suspended, Les Taylor captained the side. The stand in skipper later admitted that Watford fancied their chances. Everton had struggled during the first part of the season and manager Howard Kendall was rumored to be on the brink of been sacked. But a remarkable Goodison resurgence had seen The Toffees reach the League Cup Final and finish 7th in the First Division.

A newly married Elton John watched his beloved Hornets at Wembley. TV cameras showed the Watford chairman weeping during the singing of Abide With Me, the traditional FA Cup Final Hymn As the match began Watford backed up Les Taylor's quiet confidence. He and Barnes spurned presentable opportunities. Unable to capitalise on their early dominance the Golden Boys let Everton off the hook. Peter Reid's well struck shot sailed just over the bar as the Merseysiders crept into the game. Eight minutes before the break Everton broke the deadlock. Gary Stevens miss hit shot found its way to Greame Sharp. Sharp did not need a second invitation and fired an unstoppable shot beyond Steve Sherwood.

However, the 1984 FA Cup Final is largely remembered for Everton's second goal. In the 51st minute Trevor Steven's right wing cross appeared easy pickings for Sherwood. Just as the Hornets keeper seemed to have the situation in hand, Everton striker Andy Gray got his head to the ball and nodded it into the net. Referee John Hunting saw nothing wrong with Gray's challenge and Everton were 2-0 up. Watford were incensed, claiming that Gray had fouled Sherwood and the goal should have been disallowed. A crestfallen Sherwood sat on the Wembley turf as Evertonians celebrated.

Watford were shell shocked and the Final petered out as Everton strolled to a 2-0 win. In the Summer of 1984 John Barnes scored a sensational goal as England beat Brazil in the Maracana Stadium. Perversely the goal proved a curse for the winger. Understandably he was never able to repeat such heroics and was often subjected to abuse from England fans. A fate which also awaited Graham Taylor during his ill fated tenure as England manager.

Watford reached another FA Cup Semi Final in 1987. The returning Lurther Blissett was powerless as Tottenham Hotspur managed by old adversary David Pleat romped to a 4-0 win. In fairness Watford were dealt a huge blow when goalkeeper Tony Coton was ruled out through injury. Unable to find a replacement, Gary Plumley, Son of Watford Chief Executive Eddie Plumley was drafted in. Gary had been playing none league football in Wales and Spurs exploited his lack of experience.

The Summer of 1987 signaled the ending of a golden era. Graham Taylor left to become the new manager of Aston Villa while John Barnes signed for Liverpool. The inevitable relegation swiftly followed. Perhaps the only regret was that Watford unlike Oxford, Wimbledon and Luton were unable to win a major trophy. They were unfortunate to be thwarted by Liverpool and Everton, two of the best sides in Europe. On the flip side unlike the aforementioned trio the Hornets didn't disappear into obscurity.

At the turn of the Century the returning Graham Taylor and Aidy Boothroyd both oversaw successful promotion campaigns to the Premier League. They even reached another FA Cup Final in 2019 but were thrashed 6-0 by Manchester City. Five Years earlier the Elton John and Graham Taylor Stands were open at Vicarage Road. This was later followed by the unavailing of the Ann Swanson Stand.

The ownership of the club had now passed from Elton John to the Italian based Potso family. In 2017 Graham Taylor died at the relatively young age of 72. No doubt, he would delight in knowing Watford Football Club are very much Still Standing.