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I finished watford forever John Preston’s excellent new book about the friendship between Elton John and Graham Taylor and the impact he had on the town of Watford and the football club in his heart, with an unexpectedly profound feeling. The loss of a man I barely knew, the joyous, fragile biosphere he created and a game I barely recognize.
Two days after Taylor’s death in 2017, I took my son, who was seven at the time, to see Watford play Middlesbrough at Vicarage Road. I remember very little of the game itself, which was overshadowed by the moment of applause in Taylor’s honor. As the crowd stood I looked around and saw hundreds of people around my age, who would have been little kids during Taylor’s first stint at the club, many of them with kids of their own.
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I wonder who was among them, like me, whose life was shaped by this man. Who, if it wasn’t for the welcoming, flowery club that Taylor created from what Preston describes as “a decrepit ruin with two rickety stands and toilets so dark and dingy that mushrooms were known to grow on the walls” might never have gone to see on football at all, maybe they have not grown to love the game, maybe this ritual would never have developed.
On the day Taylor died, John wrote that he was “like a brother to me”, echoing Taylor’s observation of the pop star that “I came to see him as the younger brother I never had”. This relationship is at the heart of Preston’s book. Taylor is absolutely the hero of this story, the crucial scene he plays at all when John turns to drink and drug abuse in the late 1970s. It was at this moment that the fraternal bond was formed. “Behind his anger,” said Seán, “I could see that he really loved me.”
But at Vicarage Road on that first matchday after Taylor’s death it was clear to me that if he and John were brothers they were as well, and now grandparents, to whole generations of supporters. For years after the pair left the club fans chanted about an Elton John Taylor-made weapon, words that first impressed the team and remained, after time had passed and players going away, still true to the fans themselves. And here we all were, standing together, an army of strangers and brothers and two at the same time.
My own family had no interest in football or, after two weeks of tennis each summer, in professional sports of any kind. That I started going to Vicar Road, that football became an obsession, and that I have spent my professional life writing about it is due to three men who met in Hertfordshire in the late 1970s and had the I was lucky enough to fall into orbit: Taylor, John, and the first major broadcaster of his revolution, the Watford Observerand Oli Phillips.
In Preston’s book, Vicar Road from the late 1970s, at the start of Watford’s rise, is described as a “craggy graveyard” that was “falling to pieces”, the site of “uncovered stands and front dressing rooms”. Today, it has been transformed, John started the structural improvements and Gino Pozzo, owner of the club since 2012, continued recently.
“A club is people. It’s the washerwoman and the groundsman as well as the players or the directors,” Graham Taylor added. ObserverHugh McIlvanney in 1979. A club is people. Taylor was a regimented man, a man of strong opinions and a quick temper. At his club you weren’t allowed to be late, grow facial hair, even get a cramp, but it was a reign of terror and also tenderness. “Graham is a rare thing in life – an ability to exceed your own expectations,” says former Watford goalkeeper Steve Sherwood.
During his first spell at Watford, every season was preceded by a party for the entire staff of the club, from the staff to the tea ladies, all of them piling up coaches with their families and heading to John’s mansion near Windsor, a place where everyone would be welcome. of the most famous musicians in the world and also his mother, Sheila. They would have a buffet lunch and have egg and spoon races on the lawn. “I never forgot those parties,” John tells Preston. “There was always this magical atmosphere, this sense of camaraderie, as we all joked in together.”
Football is a world of hierarchy, league tables and player rankings, expected goals and ever-increasing salaries. But at the heart of the story of Watford’s rise through the divisions under Taylor is one of pure balance: a manager who could insult a pop star as if he were a schoolboy and treat schoolboys as royalty, and a world-renowned chairman on him who spent reserve with- team footballers like pop stars.
At Vicarage Road, John says, “I felt I could leave Elton behind for a while. No one cared about who I was, no one bowed and scratched. I enjoyed myself more there than anywhere else. The ridiculous thing was that I felt more at home at Watford Football Club than I did at home.”
When Taylor joined Watford the administrative team was small enough to accommodate their desks in one portable building and it’s obviously easier to make a workforce like a family when it’s not much bigger than one only. The sport has grown since then, it has become professional, and it’s hard to begrudge that process. But it’s also hard to read Watford Forever without getting too nostalgic.
How did the club go from having a famous owner who treated fans as equals, to an obscure owner who completely ignored them? How many clubs in the top two divisions could the manager give his own chairman the hairdryer treatment or the cleaners take their kids to the owner’s house for a party? In the world of oligarchs and sovereign wealth funds, it is unimaginable. The game has become so much richer and so much poorer.
Preston goes to the heart of what Watford has been right about for some time and I think I really felt that for the last time on that cold evening in January 2017 when we mourned Taylor and all he gave us: a club that yes people. All loved ones, all important, all respect. Lose that, and what’s left?
Watford Forever by John Preston is published by Viking.