LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Watford FC

Pozzo football empire aims to revive the Elton era

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

With promotion to the Premier League in 2021, 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 22,000.

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.

Watford Museum/Peterjon Cresswell

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.

Vicarage Road/Peterjon Cresswell

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 Slaviša Jokanović, players such as Hungarian midfielder Dániel Tözsér and Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo came to the fore – though it was Czech returnee Matěj Vydra who scored the vital late goal at Brighton that sealed Premier League status.

Hornets Store/Peterjon Cresswell

Incoming coach Quique Flores had a complete international mix 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 as managers struggled to keep Watford in the top flight.

It was much-travelled Spanish coach Javi Gracia who led the Hornets to 11th place in the Premier League in 2018-19, their best finish since the Elton-and-Taylor era, forwards Troy Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu joint top scorers. 

The pair combined in one of the best semi-finals in FA Cup history to overturn Wolves’ 2-0 lead,  an inspired maverick chip and a mazy dribble from the ex-Spanish international, brought on as sub, changing the game, although it was Deeney’s power penalty on 94 minutes that took the tie to extra-time. Manchester City then claimed a domestic treble by steamrollering Watford 6-0 in the final.

With Deeney still banging in goals, Watford bounced back from relegation in 2020 to make a swift return to the Premier League, Spanish coach Xisco overseeing a formidable spring run to assure the Hornets of automatic promotion. Apart from a couple of freak high-scoring wins over Everton and Manchester United, the subsequent top-tier campaign was one of gloom, seeing off two managers including Claudio Ranieri and dragging Roy Hodgson out of retirement.

Ground Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

One of the smallest grounds in the Premier League, Vicarage Road may soon be undergoing major changes once an expansion scheme is approved – dependent on adjoining hospital grounds becoming vacant due to a new one being constructed.  

Home to Watford FC since 1922, set beside the town’s main hospital and opposite the cemetery, Vicarage Road was still pretty basic when Elton John took over the club in the mid-1970s. 

As the club rose through the divisions, so a new West Stand was built, originally named after Sir Stanley Rous, the long-term FIFA president who once worked as a sports teacher at Watford Boys Grammar School. 

In 2014, while Watford’s legendary manager was still alive, it was renamed after Graham Taylor. Backing onto the hospital grounds, this stand will be completely rebuilt, and overall capacity will be raised from the current 22,000-plus to nearer 30,000. 

Plans to construct an entirely new stadium complex, with a hotel and indoor arena, on green-belt land currently occupied by the failing Bushey Hall golf course a mile away have been dropped.

The Vicarage Road Stand is divided between the family area and away fans in sectors VRS1 and VRS2, nearest the Sir Elton John Stand, rebuilt and reopened in his presence in 2014.

The Rookery Stand is the home end. The Hornets shop is at one corner of the Vicarage Road Stand, by a statue of Graham Taylor.

getting there

Going to the ground – tips and timings

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 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 2025 at least.

The sat nav code for Vicarage Road is WD18 0ER. There is no parking at the ground but a couple of options within relatively easy reach. The nearest is the Church Car Park (WD18 0PL) on Exchange Road, a 10-15min walk away. The only down side is the fact that it’s pay upon exit, and large queues form post-match. Gade Car Park (WD18 0JX) is slightly further away on Rosslyn Road and less busy. Each is £1/hr, so £3/3hrs, £4/4hrs etc. The atria Watford mall (WD17 2UB) in the town centre has four car parks with nearly 3,000 places, £3.30/3hrs, £4.10/4hrs, again about 15mins walk away.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

With capacity just over 22,000, availability is extremely limited. Sales are generally limited to online, with priority given to regulars. A few tickets may be sold over the phone (01923 223 023). There are also hospitality packages starting from £210.

For nearly all Premier League games, no on-the-day sales are expected. This may not apply to cup games and friendlies. The match-day ticket office and collection point on Stadium Way, behind the Rookery Stand, open from 9am for a Saturday afternoon game, evening matches vary. 

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. For away fans, it’s an across-the-board £30, £22 for over-65s, £18 for under-20s/students, £10 for under-16s, with a £3 discount in each category for seats with limited leg room.

what to buy

Shirts, kits merchandise and gifts

The club has two outlets, the Hornets Store (Mon-Sat 9am-6pm, Sun 11am-5pm, match days/nights differ) by the Graham Taylor statue at the Occupation Road end of the Vicarage Road Stand, and one (Mon-Sat 9am-6pm, Sun 11am-5pm) alongside by Marks & Spencer at the atria Watford mall in town.

Along with the first-choice tops of storied yellow and black, plus second-kit white, a range of new T-shirts (‘We Are Back’) celebrates the promotion of 2021 and Brazilian striker João Pedro (‘The Boy From Brazil’). The home shirt is also available as a cycling jersey.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

The nearest pub that welcomes away fans is Oddfellows (14 Fearnley Street), close to the parade of shops on the way to the stadium from town. 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. 

The only other option for neutrals is Gabriel’s on Vicarage Road, a neat Portuguese eatery with classic Lusitanian dishes, plus Sagres and Super Bock beers, and TV football. Alongside, lovely, long-established Domenic’s is a second-generation Italian caff dotted with Watford iconography and always busy before kick-off.

Moving into what was an age-old Watford haunt diagonally opposite the ground, No.8 at the Red Lion has reclaimed pride of place for pre- and post-match imbibing among Hornets fans – Luther Blissett was a regular guest during Euro 2020. 

Unsurprisingly packed as kick-off approaches, it has a beer garden to deal with the overflow. TV sport inside and out, with decent pub grub and a pool table if you’re there on a quieter afternoon.

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