There was a period in the early 1980s when the great clubs of England’s industrial cities gave way to smaller clubs from quieter places. Southampton, Ipswich, Norwich, Watford and Luton all had their great days between Clough’s first European Cup and the end of the Falklands Conflict. To this south-eastern boy, they were home teams, teams you could conceivably go to watch. They hadn’t the big names or the history. But perhaps they were the future. They were the Friendly Clubs.
If you were a fly on the wall, the first thing you’d notice is the dim lighting, then the pool table and the small fellow bent over it. His hair’s thinning, but it’s his Jagger mouth and eyes that catch you. Nearby, a larger, fatter figure in a hat drums his fingers on the keyboard of an untuned piano. Two black guys lean against it, and young men loll about the room on a variety of uncomfortable chairs. Through the ignored window, Communist Peking stretches away on all sides. The cheap orange streetlighting shows empty roads.
If you were that fly, then I envy you: this is one of my favourite football moments of the early 1980s. That’s Martin Amis playing pool, and it’s Elton John on the piano. Around them array the players of First Division high-flyers Watford F.C.; this is their first tour of China. In a moment, Graham Taylor will come in, chatty and ratcheted-down into off-duty mode.
He’d been at Vicarage Road, that most cosily-named of grounds, for almost a decade. He and Elton turned up at more or less the same moment, and the famous five-year ascent to the First Division from the Fourth began immediately. Stunning progress was the fashion then – Swansea were about it too – and, remembering Northampton Town and Carlisle United – it was a Seventies revival at a time when the Seventies were deservedly in the doghouse.
In Division Two, Watford docked with Luton Town, and the two great rivals set about a kind of tag-team duffing-up of the Division. There was a youthful glamour to the pair of them, at least to schoolkids who couldn’t remember the Luton of the 1950s and 1960s. On the news every evening, we watched the North being sold for scrap, and northern clubs took on some of that clapped-out, wet brazier air. Small, nimble, southern and new things were to be preferred, and football duly came up with a couple of prime examples.
Living in Bedford, it was hard for my crowd not to prefer Luton. When the brickworks at Stewartby allowed, you could smell the success coming up the A6. Paul Walsh, Brian Stein and Ricky Hill looked like boys bunking off from our school.
But Watford were warm to the touch in that glowing yellow and red strip, and they had Luther Blissett.
For years, Watford Gap had put Watford on wrong part of the map. Promotion to Division One provided a correction. One evening at about this time, I had a bike to move from Camberley to Bedford. I changed at Richmond, Willesden Junction, and then Watford Junction, and, getting closer to the latter, started to crane my neck around: there were famous men here. (My next change was at Bletchley, where I’d forgotten there was no Sunday service..)
Watford’s success meant that the Bakerloo Line kept a service going to Watford Junction for years longer than made normal operating sense. This means that Graham Taylor trumps Herbert Chapman as the London Underground Football King.
It mattered, too, that Watford was known as a family club. Football’s reputation as a fun, safe afternoon or evening out was ruined by this stage, and attendances were in what looked like terminal decline. Watford made themselves safe for children with their famous family enclosure, at a time when, courtesy of Millwall, another kind of thing was happening to Luton (apologies for the revolting top and tail of this clip):
Luton Town was the end of a good road for its manager and players: all had their best days there. But Watford under Graham Taylor was more of a finishing school. When Watford’s old men get together over a drink, John Barnes will talk about his goal against Brazil, his Liverpool and England careers; Luther Blissett will talk about Italy and his books and continental cafe politics; Graham Taylor will talk about Aston Villa, England, and the day he saved Elton John from himself.
In reality, he’d probably demur on that last one. But Taylor has always been a man to admire. He was treated appallingly over England – this should be more of a source of national shame than it is – but has behaved with extraordinary grace and dignity over it. His enthusiasm and love for the game survive untouched.
Worse, because of his treatment, it’s forgotten how well he began. Capello’s first ten matches featured one defeat, one draw and eight wins. Taylor’s first twelve matches saw no defeats at all, and saw good wins over Cameroon, Poland, Hungary and the USSR and a draw with Argentina which really should have been another win.
Taylor’s record at the beginning of the 1992 European Championships read:
P23 W13 D9 L1
No doubt, something broke then, and the final figures of P38 W 18 D13 L7 tell the story of the final year eloquently enough.
So we remind ourselves that Watford under Taylor finished their first season in the First Division in second place. That doesn’t happen now – but, remember, it didn’t happen then either. Taylor was forced on occasion to defend his team’s style:
One year before Taylor joined Watford, a Northamptonshire recluse named J.L.Carr published another of his eccentric, curmudgeonly novels. Carr’s books are of two kinds. There are the ones about failure and grief in a sort of Hardy-cum-Brideshead England (A Month in the Country). And there are the semi-autobiographical ones that rail against the Welfare State and national decline (Harpole and Foxberrow, General Publishers).
How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup is as different as it sounds. A village team take on a foreign manager (Hungarian, if I remember correctly: I had to sell my copy for food in 1992). He teaches them two things: how to run with the ball at their feet without looking at it, and the long ball game.
The book’s title tells you what they did with these skills (Carr actually chickens out of describing the final victory at Wembley, which is surprising given how far out the book already was by that stage) but what I’ve long wondered is, did Carr give Taylor ideas? Because a year after Sinderby was remaindered, Watford began their climb to the top with a long ball game, and with players who – very famously in one case – could run with the ball without looking.
And then, of course, there was this. Not quite a day in the sun, as it turns out, but one to remember for Sherwood, Rostron, Jackett and co.