“I never want to be without Watford.” (1982)
– Elton John
Born in Pinner, just outside London, Elton’s nearest professional club was Watford. In his early teens he naturally gravitated to the club, watching from the terraces as the club’s cult hero of the late ’50s /early ’60s — Cliff Holton — banged in goal after goal.
At this stage, Watford were in the lower reaches of English football’s four-tier professional game, but a decade later they came to prominence when they reached The FA Cup semi-final of 1970. At that stage, Elton expressed an interest in getting involved, but it wasn’t until August 1973 that he became a Vice-President of the club —a figurative role in English football, rather than an executive position.
Elton in goal at Watford Football Club, 1973
Elton in goal at Watford Football Club, 1973
His first role as a Vice-President was to hold a fund-raising gig at the club’s Vicarage Road Stadium in May 1974 that saw Nazareth in support and Rod Stewart guesting. Some 31,000 packed into the ground in the same month his Caribou album was released.
No one was left in any doubt about his love of Watford and soon, his astute knowledge of the game and obvious enthusiasm saw him asked to join the club’s Board of Directors. Then, in the summer of 1976, 29-year-old Elton bought the club’s majority shareholding and he assumed the role of Chairman.
Understandably at the time, the notion of a pop star running a football club was treated with some incredulity, but Elton took to the task with the professionalism that has hallmarked his career. Watford were now in the bottom division of English football and things had to change. He was not a figurehead Chairman, and in Easter 1977, he set about find the club a new manager to match his ambition of taking Watford to the top.
“I asked Don Revie (then national team manager) who to go after and he didn’t hesitate,” said Elton at the time. “He gave me the name of Graham Taylor.”
After an initial courtship while he convinced Graham of the seriousness of his ambitions for the club, it was a marriage made in heaven. One of the great double-acts of the modern football era was born and over the next five years Watford rose from the basement of the game to its penthouse.
Having moved through Divisions Four and Three, promotion to the top flight came in May 1982. But it didn’t end there. The Hornets, Watford’s nickname, finished runners-up in their first Division One (now the Premier League) season, qualifying them to play in European club competitions in the 1983/84 campaign.
It was at the end at that campaign that a “family circle” was completed. Watford reached the 1984 FA Cup Final, and tearfully, Chairman Elton stepped out on to the turf of Wembley Stadium — the same turf trodden by his cousin Roy 25 years earlier.
The Cup Final appearance was the culmination of a period characterised by good management, unflagging commitment and raw enthusiasm. Big money player purchases were not the key to the Hornets’ success. “Elton John’s Taylor-made Army” had an unquantifiable aura which turned it into an unstoppable force.
Elton now turned his attention to improving the stadium itself and in 1986 he funded a new 3,500-seater grandstand as the club established itself at the top level of the game.
But Graham Taylor left for pastures new the following year —en route to becoming England manager and for Elton, the magic had gone. He remained as Chairman, but in 1990 sold his majority shareholding and was asked to be the club’s Honorary Life-President, a position he still holds.
Without the Elton-Taylor axis at the helm, the club drifted back down the divisions in the 1990s. But sport is an unpredictable beast and amazingly, Graham Taylor returned to the club in February 1996, with a point to prove after a difficult stint as England boss. A year on, he took to the club’s pitch before a game to announce to a packed crowd: “Elton’s coming home.”
The stadium positively erupted. So did Watford’s fortunes.
With Elton back as Chairman and Taylor at the helm too, successive promotions saw the Hornets buzz back to the now Premier League in 1999, proof positive that history can repeat itself. Two years on and Graham Taylor moved on again and in May 2002 Elton stepped down as Chairman as his touring commitments increased. His circle with Watford has also been completed, and he is now a fan again, just as he was before his music career took flight.
Nevertheless, if you wrote a history of the modern era of English football, you’d have to include a chapter on “Elton John’s Rocket Men” as the club became known. They were heady days.
Heady days almost returned to Vicarage Road in the 2012/13 season. With Italian legend Gianfranco Zola at the helm, the Hornets finished third in the Championship, meaning they competed in the play-off final to decide the third side to be promoted to the Premier League. Unfortunately, despite their league-best 85 goals in the regular season, no goals were forthcoming in the play-off final, and they lost 1-0 to Crystal Palace. By cruel irony, the winning goal was an extra-time penalty netted by former Hornet Kevin Phillips.
Understandably hopes were high of continued good fortune in the 2013/14 season, but it was not to be. A lack of form led to the departure of Gianfranco Zola and the mid-season appointment of another Italian manager, Beppe Sannino. The team finished the campaign in 13th position in the 24-team league.
Sannino himself resigned at the end of August 2014, sparking a bizarre sequence of events which saw three head coaches at Vicarage Road in just over a month.
First to be appointed was Spaniard Oscar Garcia, but he stood down after just three weeks for medical reasons, to be replaced by his second-in-command, Billy McKinlay. But just a week later, McKinlay was replaced by Serbian Slaviša Jokanović, ostensibly due to the latter’s greater management experience.
Amazingly through all this turmoil off the field, on the field Watford had a superb season and finished the campaign in second place – earning them automatic promotion to the Premier League, the highest echelon of the English game. It was a season which saw star striker and captain Troy Deeney elevated to cult hero status. His goalscoring exploits – alongside fellow striker Odion Ighalo – netted 41 goals during the season to underpin the Hornets’ promotion push.
Unable to agree contract terms in the summer, team manager Jokanović parted company with the club, to be replaced by in June 2015 by Spaniard Quique Sánchez Flores. From the start, the ambitions of the new manager and his players were perfectly matched and the Hornets are on the verge of securing their Premier League position for next season.
In parallel, wins over Newcastle United (home), Nottingham Forest (away) and Leeds United (home) propelled Watford to the last eight of the prestigious FA Cup and an away tie at Cup holders Arsenal. A famous 2-1 victory over the Gunners means Elton’s beloved Watford are in the semi-finals. These days the semi-finals are played at Wembley, which means the Hornets are back in FA Cup action at the game’s spiritual home for the first time since then chairman Elton shed a tear before the club’s appearance in the Final back in 1984.
Can Watford go one step further and win the competition this season? First they must face Crystal Palace on April 24 in the semis, and if successful, the Final will be played at Wembley on May 21. Watch this space.
The game generally
“People should understand the power of football and what it means to people in the community around them.” (2010)
– Elton John
Watford is not the only football club in which Elton has held a financial stake. He also once part-owned the Los Angeles Aztecs, a soccer team that competed in the North American Soccer League from 1974-81.
However, it’s his Watford experience that has given him a deep understanding of the game. He also has many friends within it.
Many of these friends have worked with Elton to support his charitable work. For example, David Beckham is a Patron of the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) UK , one of the world’s foremost independent AIDS charities.
Another friend, former Arsenal and French international striker Thierry Henry, was among the sports stars photographed by Anderson & Low as part of their Champions portfolio, a series of iconic nude studies of leading international athletes. The portfolio was shown at London’s National Portrait Gallery in London from November 2008 to March 2009 and the fund-raising went to the EJAF.
He’s also helped friends celebrate, and in July 2008 played at the wedding of former Chelsea and Germany captain Michael Ballack.
But he’s equally not afraid to speak his mind when he feels the game he loves is being badly served. In a wide-ranging interview in The Independent in 2010, he stridently challenged the game’s authorities to preserve the integrity of the game amidst the moneyed era which has engulfed it. From his own experience, football is the people’s game — and it must remain so.
His comments came from the heart. A heart still mesmerised by the results on a Saturday afternoon, wherever in the world he finds himself, through whatever media.top