Forty years ago this week, a provincial club who had spent their entire existence scuffling below stairs burst through the skylight.
On a magic carpet ride, which took just five years to sail through the divisions, Graham Taylor and Elton John plotted a memorable flight path, culminating in Watford’s promotion to the penthouse – for the first time in 101 years of toil – with a 2- 0 win at home to Wrexham. The following season, tugging no forelocks and curtseying to nobody, the Hornets finished runners-up behind Liverpool and 30-goal striker Luther Blissett won the Golden Boot as top scorer in Europe’s major leagues.
More of Blissett, and his invincible place in a club’s affections, later – and it’s a sad state of affairs. But first, the bigger picture.
Sometimes, in football’s twisting kaleidoscope, supporters lose track of history and entitlement takes over. It is human nature to forget the hideous 1-0 defeat at Darlington which left the Hornets bottom of the entire Football League, in 92nd place, fewer than seven years before Taylor delivered them to the promised land.
And it is easy to forget the humiliation of FA Cup third round round defeat at non-League Northwich Victoria, where Sir Elton was among the away following and tried to lift morale among hundreds of long faces aboard the football special at Crewe station on the retreat from ignominy. But for the best part of 100 years, the likes of Darlington and Northwich Victoria were the asteroids in Watford’s orbit far more than Liverpool, Manchester United or Arsenal.
Since that giddy night against Wrexham, and the traditional promotion paddle in the pond at the top end of the High Street, the Hornets have spent 13 of the last 40 seasons in the penthouse – and only two in the lower divisions. In a decade under current owner Gino Pozzo’s rule, the slate reads two promotions, six seasons in the Premier League, an FA Cup final and one other semi-final.
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For good times, as a former chairman only the Rocket Man himself can rival that record (between 1977 and 1987, Watford spent six seasons in the old First Division, reached an FA Cup final and another semi-final). Historically, clubs like Watford have never lived in the Premier League for more than finite visits, and for a town of 90,000 people within range of Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham and Chelsea’s catchment area, they have punched thousands above their weight over the last 40 years.
Now that relegation has come calling again at Vicarage Road, and a return to the Championship beckons, on social media the toddlers are throwing their toys out of the cot when, in truth, they have never had it so good. That does not mean Pozzo, executive chairman Scott Duxbury, another platoon of discarded head coaches and a nonsense cast of players – thrown together with negligible chemistry or grouting to hold the tiles together – get a free pass.
Apart from home-and-away wins against Aston Villa, the 4-1 drubbing of Manchester United which spelled the end for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Old Trafford and the 5-2 demolition of Everton, this has been a season of unrelenting misery at Watford . Duxbury is in the firing line because he promised to learn lessons after Watford dipped through the drayman’s hatch two years ago under four managers in one season – Javi Gracia, Quique Sanchez Flores, Nigel Pearson and caretaker Hayden Mullins – and he appears to have forgotten them already.
If Pozzo and Duxbury had doubts about genial Xisco Munoz – who led last season’s promotion charge – lasting the course in the Premier League, they should have handed him a golden wheelbarrow in the summer instead of brutally sacking him just seven games into the campaign.
The appointment of Claudio Ranieri was an appalling miscalculation. Anyone who saw the Tinkerman’s failure to open the parachute, let alone land safely, at Fulham in 2018-19 knew he was a busted flush at the highest level. Ranieri is a charming man, and his place in legend as the pilot of Leicester’s 5,000-1 title miracle in 2016 is safe forever, but in his last 38 games as a Premier League manager at three clubs he has presided over six wins, four draws and 28 defeats. Watford should have heard the alarm bells, but there was nobody at home in the belfry.
Former England manager Roy Hodgson tightened up the defense for a while, and delivered three clean sheets where the first 20 games had produced none, but he has yet to win a single point at home and may not even last the season once relegation is mathematically confirmed .
Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)
On the pitch, since long-serving captain Troy Deeney left last August, the dressing room has been rudderless, a motley collection of talents, and the sum of the parts has far exceeded total output. Ten out of 11 Burnley players sprinted 100 yards towards the jubilant away fans after Josh Brownhill’s winner condemned Watford to a mind-boggling record 11th consecutive home defeat. It is hard to imagine the Hornets’ bunch of accustomed losers running harder, except to bank their bloated wages.
Fans inclined to force out Pozzo and Duxbury either have short memories or acute amnesia. When they arrived in 2012, Vicarage Road was an embarrassment – three stands, a decrepit, corrugated graveyard on one side and a half-built multi-storey car park in one corner. Previous owner Laurence Bassini, an unlamented fantasist and discharged bankrupt, once called the police when a heroic female member of staff refused to hand him the keys to the club safe.
Now the Vic is a smart stadium honoring the club’s glorious past under Taylor and Sir Elton. But with post-Brexit work permit complications likely to curtail Pozzo’s breathless hire-and-fire of wild-card foreign head coaches, the model of ever-changing managers needs urgent revision.
In his latest program notes, Duxbury admitted: “On the pitch, this season has been unacceptably poor – especially in front of our own supporters, who deserve much, much better. To have great resources and for them not to bear fruit is bitterly disappointing. Improvements must and will be made.
“But too often, if the football isn’t successful, then the whole club is written off as being on the wrong path. That would do a huge disservice to a great body of staff who are the heartbeat of Watford Football Club, the path it was set on by the pioneering family initiatives driven by Elton John and Graham Taylor.”
Nice words, shame about the results. Pozzo and Duxbury would do themselves a favor by appointing a dynamic, ambitious young manager, giving him more than six months to implement his philosophy of him, promoting home-grown talent from the academy… and addressing the elephant in the room.
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It is outrageous that Blissett, the club’s record appearance-maker and record goalscorer, not to mention the first Watford player to play for England, is not even among the Hornets’ cast of official ambassadors. There should be a stand, or a set of wrought iron, Shankly-style gates named after him – but instead he remains on the periphery of official prominence despite 64-year-old Blissett’s unrivaled place in the supporters’ affections.
If there are differences of opinion, they must be set aside in the name of unity. Watford was the original family club because Vicarage Road was a safe haven in an era of hooligan excess. But how can a great family club leave its favorite son on the outside, taking selfies with Ant and Dec when Newcastle come to town, instead of being the face of Watford’s past and present?
If any good can come from this godforsaken season for the Hornets, it must be a red carpet rolled out for Luther Blissett as recognition for what he is – the club’s greatest ambassador. Even if a home win is beyond this hopeless team, surely a basic tribute to an all-time great is not too much to ask?