Back To Square One
The sixties had been a successful decade, as Watford progressed from lower-league also-rans into a third division force, and in 1969 reached Division 2.
But the upward momentum stalled. Further spending on the squad was minimal as the chairman, Jim Bonser, opted to build the Main Stand extension instead (a move which paid dividends later as it meant more matchday revenues) and kept tight control of the board rather than welcoming new investors.
Ken Furphy’s team kept their heads above water in Division 2, just, for two seasons. 1969-70 provided the added bonus of a famous FA Cup run, with home wins against first division opposition in Stoke and Liverpool, before defeat by Chelsea in the semi-final. 1970-71 brought Watford’s highest-ever league position yet of 18th in Division 2.
Chelsea's Peter Osgood heads the ball above Watford's Walter Lees during the FA Cup semi-final match at White Hart Lane, 1970
The summer of 1971 however saw the sale of star player Stewart Scullion to Sheffield United, and the departure of Furphy to Blackburn. George Kirby joined as manager, but the ship was sinking. 1971-72 was horrible, and included a run of 10 consecutive defeats. Relegation was inevitable. An immediate second relegation almost followed in 1972-73, with Watford (after another 10-match losing sequence) escaping only on goal average.
Mike Keen replaced Kirby, and attractive football returned to Vicarage Road, Billy Jennings top-scoring in 1973-74 with 29 goals. But it was short-lived. Jennings was sold to West Ham, and the slide continued. On a dismal Tuesday evening in April 1975, when a win would have kept them up, Watford lost 2-3 to Walsall and returned to Division 4.
Watford lost the first three games of 1975-76 to sit briefly in 92nd position in the Football League. This season and the next brought very watchable football in home games, and league placings of 8th and 7th, but Watford were a soft touch away from home, even losing in the FA Cup to Northwich Victoria. Relative to the progress made in the 1960s, this was underachievement. The club hadn’t finished so far down the Football League since 1959.
Sir Elton John at a Coventry hotel when he signed Tom Walley, left, his first signing after taking over as Chairman of Watford
Off the field though, things were finally changing. In 1974 Jim Bonser had invited new blood onto the board – Elton John, a boyhood fan from Pinner who had become one of the world’s biggest pop stars. In 1976 Elton bought Bonser’s majority shareholding and became the owner of the club. In April 1977, Mike Keen was sacked.
In his place, Elton appointed Lincoln City’s young manager. Graham Taylor arrived in town.