When Elton John bought Watford

What happened when one music’s most flamboyant characters bought a football team?

At the time of writing, Elton John was in Melbourne for his Farewell Yellow Brick Road swansong World Tour. In tribute to the man with a larger than life persona, Swan Street was a heaving mass of garish glasses and outlandish costumes. Less prevalent, but worn just as proudly was a Melbourne record number of Watford football shirts in honour of ‘The Hornets’ most famous lifelong fan.

To call Elton just a fan though, is a little like suggesting that Tiny Dancer is just a little catchy. Not content to merely cheer on the team he and his father loved, John purchased a major stake in the team in 1976 and declared his intention to take the struggling Fourth Division team to the top flight of English football.

A seventh placed finish in the 1976-77 season saw a ruthless Rocket Man, in his new role as Chairman, bring an end to the tenure of manager Mike Keen. His choice of replacement was an inspired one but he was far from the only Chairman keen on the services of a 32-year-old Graham Taylor.

Despite having hit songs Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word dominating the charts and radio airwaves, obtaining Taylor’s signature was perhaps John’s greatest success at this time. A man in demand, after having taken Lincoln City to the Division Four Title, the promising manager turned downed offers from First Division sides to take the helm at Watford. The beginning of a lifelong friendship It would prove a fortuitous decision for both men. The Hornets Chairman explaining many years later, “I had been a lifelong Watford fan, and Graham truly made whatever dreams I had for my team come true,” he said in 2009.

The sweet taste of success – Taylor and John toast their fruitful partnership at Watford.

Despite their lowly position in the pecking order of English Football, Manager Taylor and Chairman John, started the 1977-78 season with the lofty ambition of taking the club into Europe. They first step towards this ambitious aim with the Hornets claiming promotion after winning the Division Four title by 11 points.

With Ross Jenkins on-fire up front, Watford’s stay in the Third Division would be a short one. Despite falling a single point short of a second consecutive title, their second place finish meant they earned promotion to the second division at their first attempt. It would take a little longer to find their feet in the second flight but a second place finish in 1981-82, completed their remarkable rise from fourth tier to first tier in just five years.

Despite never having qualified for the First Division before in the history of the club, Watford had no intention of just making up the numbers in their first season in the top flight. With Luther Blissett scoring goals for fun, they won four of their first five games to find themselves on top of the standings early in the season. The Hornets were a force of nature as Sunderland learned on the 25th of September in an 8-0 romping at Vicarage Road.

While they would ultimately fall 11 points behind run away champions Liverpool, they did enjoy a famous victory over the Reds at home on the way to a second place finish in the League. In doing so, what had once seemed like a pipe dream was now a reality, Watford had qualified for the UEFA Cup.

Sparta Prague would bring an end to Watford’s 1983/84 European Campaign in the Third Round of the UEFA Cup but another Cup run that season still lives long in their fans memory. With victories over Luton Town, Charlton Athletic, Brighton and Hove Albion, Birmingham City and Plymouth Argyle, Watford reached the Final of the 1984 FA Cup.

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Overcome by emotion, the Watford Chairman famously shed a tear, as the 100,000 fans sang the traditional ‘Abide With Me’ prior to the Final commencing. “I’ll never forget it, standing there with my wife Renata and hearing ‘Abide with Me,’ he told Sky TV prior to the 2003 Final. “Seeing the players come out. I’ve never been so proud in my life as I was that day of our supporters, and our team, and our manager. To be a part of that occasion is something that will stay with me for the whole of my life.”

Unfortunately it would not be Watford’s day, with an Everton team that would claim the next two First Division titles proving too strong. The Hornets would make another Cup run in 1987 but would fall one step short of another final appearance when defeated by Tottenham in the Semi Final.

This would prove the end of the John/Taylor era at Watford with the Chairman selling his stake in the club to Jack Petchey and the manager taking the over the reigns at Aston Villa. It would not be the end of the personal relationship between the two men, with both speaking in later years of their friendship being more like a brotherly bond.

John would describe Taylor like a brother and would write that the pair were an unlikely twosome, Batman and Robin, an unstoppable force who would go to the stars and back with Watford. Taylor was similarly effusive in 2006, “we were close, almost like brothers.” He told The Guardian. “I helped Elton because, whereas there were people around him who never spoke the truth, I told him what I thought. We had an agreement that if he didn’t tell me which team to pick, I wouldn’t tell him which songs to sing. It worked well.”

Nor was it the end of either’s involvement with Watford. He would return to Vicarage Road in the 1990’s and once again returned the team to the Top Division. Know by many as “Mr Watford” he received the Freedom of the Borough in 2001 and his “unparalleled achievements as Watford’s greatest ever manager”, saw him honoured with a statue at Vicarage Road.

Honorary Life President of the Club since 2001, John’s association with the club continues to this day as does his influence. Unhappy with the club parting ways with it’s manager in 2008, he resigned his position before happily accepting it again two months later upon the resignation of the club’s Chairman.

He was further honoured by the club when the Sir Elton John stand was opened in 2014. Appropriately, the words from My Song, “I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words / How wonderful life is while you’re in the world are emblazoned on the stand. Similarly so, when in 2019 it was announced that the clubs entrance song from that time on would be ‘I’m Still Standing’. A fitting tribute for a man whose dream and force of will saw the club rise to the very top echelon of club football. It is equally appropriate for a team, that despite the challenges of the intervening years, still dares to dream that they’ll return there.

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