Known for little else but its football club and famous pop star follower, Watford is once more a Premier League destination. It hasn’t happened that often – the last time Watford FC were any kind of top-flight proposition, it was under Elton John as chairman and Graham Taylor as manager in the 1980s.
Taken over in 2012 by the Pozzo family, responsible for the transformation and consistently impressive Serie A form of Udinese, Watford quickly became a side of multinationals under mainly Latin management. But it was Serb Slaviša Jokanović who led them to Premier League promotion in 2015, two years after the Hornets narrowly missed out in a play-off.
Former Valencia defender Quique Flores was the coach the Pozzos entrusted to lead the Premier League campaign in 2015-16 – while they worked to create a successful top-flight operation based on the Udinese model.
The club’s progress from multi-coloured hooped-shirt Southern Leaguers in the late Victorian era to FA Cup finalists in the Elton era is presented at the Watford Museum (Thur-Sat 10am-5pm, free admission), set behind Watford High Street station.
Etched into the museum’s windows are the words ‘Benskins Brewery’ – the original building belonged to them. Hertfordshire’s main brewers were not only one of the town’s major employers in the early 1900s, they were significantly involved with its football club.
As Watford evolved from Watford Rovers and Watford St Mary’s in 1898 and from playing friendly matches at Cassiobury Park to competing in the Southern League, and winning it in 1915, so club sponsors Benskins bought them a new ground at Vicarage Road.
Moving from Cassio Road shortly after joining the inaugural Third Division in 1920-21 – which saw a record crowd of 13,000 for the derby with eternal rivals Luton – Watford also became known as The Brewers.
Set between Watford’s main cemetery and hospital, Vicarage Road was bought and opened by the brewery in 1922 and leased to the club for next to nothing. This happy arrangement stayed in place as Watford trod water for decade after decade, while Benskins disappeared amid buy-ups and mergers.
The legacy of Benskins, however, remained influential in the life of Watford FC. As recently as 2002, 80 years after the original deal, Watford attempted to buy the Vicarage Road freehold. It required another two years and a fund-raising concert by Elton John at the stadium itself before Vicarage Road was theirs.
A fan since boyhood, local boy Reg Dwight, aka Elton John, had taken over the club in 1976 and brought in Graham Taylor as manager. Rising three divisions in as many seasons, Watford gained runners-up spot in the top flight in 1983 and made the FA Cup Final a year later.
The sale of John Barnes and Luther Blissett, and departure of Graham Taylor, saw Watford sink back down again. The attempt to buy Vicarage Road coincided with the collapse of lower-league broadcaster ITV Digital.
Elton had sold Watford in 1987, stepped down as chairman in 2002 but played later charity concerts to keep the club afloat. Taken over by the Pozzo family in 2012, the club began to borrow players from sister club Udinese. While Elton John’s mission at Watford stemmed from boyhood, the Pozzos saw parallels between the club and the Udinese Giampaolo took over in 1986.
The first goal has been reached with promotion to the Premier League in 2015. Ground improvements and expansion before August’s big kick-off was another step. Stability in the world’s most lucrative league and a return to European football would be huge achievements for this still modest suburban club close enough to London for the Pozzos to attract ambitious foreign players and their wives.
The nearest airport to Watford is Luton 30.5km (19 miles) away. There is currently no direct public transport between the two: Arriva bus No.321 runs from the Luton Station interchange (90min), a short hop by several buses from the airport terminal.
Watford firm Cassio Cars (+44 1923 803 603) charge £30 and the same from Heathrow 22 miles (35.5km) away.
Overland from London, the quickest link is a train from Euston to Watford Junction (20min journey time, £9.70 single, £10.60 off-peak return). For Watford High Street, a 10min walk from Vicarage Road, the direct train from Euston is 40min – it may be quicker to change at Watford Junction.
Both Watford Junction and High Street are walkable to the town centre. To plan any local bus information, see www.intalink.org.uk.
There’s a modest tourist information desk at Watford Library.
The nearest lodging to the ground is the Best Western White House Hotel, an old-school, mid-range spot with a bar and lounge. Around Watford Junction station, within a reasonably easy walk, is the sport-friendly Wellington Arms Hotel, with 13 simple, affordable rooms above a TV-festooned pub.
Watford High Street is lined with pubs and bars. These include The Moon Under Water, a large Wetherspoons popular with away fans, sports-centric Molloy’s and two old-school football-friendly pubs, The One Bell (No.90) and The One Crown, which claims to be the oldest hostelry in town. With a vintage photo of Vicarage Road behind the bar, it’s close to Watford High Street station and an easy walk to the stadium.
Closer to the ground, Mangans focuses on horse racing and football, with a couple of sun-catching tables outside.
Finally, right by Watford Junction station, The Flag goes big on TV sports, pub grub and live music.