With promotion to the Premier League in 2015, Watford FC are looking to recapture their glory years of the 1980s. Back then, the chairman/coach team of Elton John and Graham Taylor took Watford from the fourth flight to second place in the entire Football League, right below English champions Liverpool.
Today each is an honorary president; each has a stand named after him at Watford’s venerable ground, Vicarage Road. Expanded in the summer of 2015 to cater for the demands of the Premier League, the ground still has a capacity barely over 21,500.
Part of the attraction for Giampaolo Pozzo and his entrepreneurial family, who took over Watford in 2012 after making such a long-term success of Udinese, was the potential to improve and expand Vicarage Road. Another factor was proximity to London – Watford is only 20 minutes by train from the centre of the capital.
In fact, the town’s position as a railway hub convenient for London helped attract players of enough quality for Watford to win the Southern League in 1915. Goalkeeper Skilly Williams, still the club’s record-holder between the sticks, was home-grown, however.
Joining the inaugural Football League in 1921, and moving to Vicarage Road shortly afterwards, Watford were a steady presence in the Third Division until a side under Ken Furphy made promotion to the Second in 1968 and an FA Cup semi-final a year later.
Two relegations later and Watford were in the Fourth – which is exactly when Elton John stepped in. Bringing in a successful young manager from Lincoln, Graham Taylor, Elton showed a footballing nous not expected from pop stars – or by Taylor himself. Prolific centre-forward Luther Blissett came through the ranks to become the top scorer in the top flight in 1982-83, when Watford finished second to Liverpool. John Barnes was another youngster who broke through. Both would be sold on to Milan and Liverpool respectively – Blissett had gone by the time Watford made the FA Cup Final against Everton in 1984, remembered for Elton John’s pre-match tears during ‘Abide With Me’ and an early chance missed by Barnes.
Once Taylor had left for Aston Villa, Watford slowly sank back to the second flight, where they pretty much stayed until 2015-16. There were two one-season spells in the Premier League, one in 1999-2000 under a returning Graham Taylor, who failed to repeat his trick of the early 1980s.
Two years later, Watford nearly went out of business, trying to buy the freehold for Vicarage Road from the brewery who bought for them 80 years earlier. In 2005-06, it was later three-time jailbird Marlon King scoring the goals and Aidy Boothroyd as the ambitious young manager but the subsequent Premier League stint lasted only 38 games.
The Pozzos taking over in 2012 had an almost immediate effect. With striker Troy Deeney the hero, scoring a very late winner after a Leicester penalty miss in the Championship play-off semi-final, Watford losing out to an extra-time goal in the final against Crystal Palace.
Outshooting even Luther Blissett, as captain Deeney led Watford to achieve promotion in 2014-15. Under Slavisa Jokanovic, players such as Hungarian midfielder Dániel Tözsér and Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo came to the fore – though it was Czech returnee Matej Vydra who scored the vital late goal at Brighton that sealed Premier League status.
Incoming coach Quique Flores had a complete international mix – including prolific Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo – to mould a team capable of surviving the Premier League campaign in 2015-16. Despite this impressive achievement, and a memorable cup run to the semi-final, Flores bowed out, ex-Napoli coach Walter Mazzari taking over and Deeney signing a new contract for the 2016-17 season.
With a recently expanded Sir Elton John Stand, Vicarage Road now houses a still modest 21,577. Home to Watford FC since 1922, set beside the town’s main hospital and opposite the cemetery, Vicarage Road was still pretty basic with Elton John took over the club in the mid-1970s. The Vicarage Road terrace was built atop what was an earth bank, and became an all-seater with a roof in 1993. The stand is currently divided between away fans and the family area.
Shortly afterwards, the Rookery Stand opposite was built and became the home end. The Sir Stanley Rous Stand, renamed after Graham Taylor in 2014, houses the executive boxes.
The club shop is behind the Vicarage Road Stand, the ticket office behind the Rookery Stand.
Change at Watford Junction for Watford High Street: the ground is a signposted 10-15min walk away. Exit the station left, along a footpath that becomes Lady’s Close. Keeping the grounds of a girls’ school to your left, you reach Vicarage Road. Turn left – the stadium is a five- to ten-minute walk ahead of you, past a parade of shops and cafés.
The infrequent buses that run from Watford Junction – the Nos.10, 320 and 324 – aren’t worth bothering about. A new train station at Vicarage Road is part of the Croxley Rail Link from both Watford Junction and Watford High Street – but won’t be in place until 2020 at least.
The ticket office and collection point are on Stadium Way, behind the Rookery Stand. For 2015-16, there is limited availability in the Graham Taylor Stand and each end of the Sir Elton John Stand.
Sales are generally limited to online. You’ll pay £40 in the Sir Elton John Stand, £26 for over-65s, £22 for 16s-19s and students, £18 for under-16s. Prices are a couple of pounds dearer in the Graham Taylor Stand (Upper), and £4 cheaper in the Rookery Stand and Graham Taylor Lower.
Priority is given to regulars since 2012. Those wishing to attend a match on spec have to create a Fan ID.
For Premier League games, no on-the-day sales are expected. This may not apply to cup games.
Also expanded, the Hornets Shop (Mon-Sat 9.30am-6pm, match days) on Vicarage Road is brimming with 2015-16 merchandise.
Since the closure of the Yellow and Red Lion opposite the ground, the nearest pub is the Odd Fellows (14 Fearnley Street), close to the parade of shops on the way to the stadium from town. Also popular with away fans, it’s a solid Irish hostelry big on GAA – note the shirts covering the ceiling and rare photos of Croke Park. There’s also a dartboard and a pool table.
Opened just in time for the 2015-16 season, friendly Seu Café on the parade is a Portuguese/Brazilian-style spot with classic Lusitanian snacks, plus Sagres and Super Bock beers. Broadcasting Brazilian TV, ‘Your Café’ will unveil a downstairs bar area later in the season.
Two other pre-match cafés, non-licensed, stand either side: the standard Football Café closest to the ground, opposite the cemetery; and, at the corner of the parade and Wiggenhall Road, lovely, long-established Domenic’s, a second-generation Italian dotted with Watford iconography and always busy before kick-off.