And what a time it was.
Graham Taylor breezed into Watford Football Club, then dozing in the backwaters of Division 4, in the summer of 1977. His 10 years in charge brought unimaginable success, and laid the foundations for the club we know today.
Elton John was the ideal chairman. Supportive, a great figurehead, but not interfering. He provided the financial backing necessary, and let Graham get on with running the club. It proved the perfect partnership.
The footballing achievements were extraordinary: promoted from Division 4 to Division 1 in five years; finishing as runners-up to Liverpool in the club’s first season in the top tier; reaching the third round of the UEFA Cup; getting to the FA Cup Final; becoming established in the middle reaches of Division 1. All achieved with bold, attacking football.
Off the field the club was unique too, in its pioneering community engagement activities – players attending charity events, the formation of the Junior Hornets, the building of the Family Terrace (for which Graham ran the London marathon to raise sponsorship funds), and more. Today’s Watford FC Community Sports and Education Trust can be traced back to these initiatives that Graham set in motion.
This was arguably the most remarkable 10-year span for any club in the history of English football. Each of the first seven seasons surpassed the previous one:
1977-78: with a few astute additions to the squad, Watford were runaway champions of Division 4.
1978-79: promoted again, to Division 2. Watford also reached the semi-finals of the League Cup, beating Manchester United at Old Trafford on the way.
1979-80: although the first season in Division 2 proved tough, Watford survived, and also reached the quarter-final of the FA Cup.
1980-81: Division 2 consolidation, and a sensational League Cup run, with the famous 7-1 victory over Southampton and a 4-1 win over the European Cup holders Nottingham Forest.
Watford fans invade the pitch as the Hornets are promoted at Vicarage Road in 1982
1981-82: Watford are promoted to Division 1 – a remarkable achievement given the history of the club to this point.
1982-83: perhaps most extraordinarily of all, Watford finish second in Division 1 – in effect with the same team that had got promoted. Luther Blissett was Division 1’s top goalscorer and became the club’s first England international.
1983-84: astonishing wins over Kaiserslautern and away to Levski Spartak Sofia saw the team reach the third round of the UEFA Cup. Watford then progressed all the way to the FA Cup Final and the club’s first appearance at Wembley. On the day, Everton won 2-0.
It was of course impossible for Watford to continue out-doing themselves. But the next three seasons brought finishes of 11th, 12th and 9th, and the achievement of becoming an established presence in Division 1 was perhaps the greatest of all, given Watford’s long history as a lower league club.
Watford's John Barnes celebrates during the Golden Boys' win over Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter-final, 1987
The best chance of winning a trophy was in one of the cups, and 1987 saw another near-miss. A 3-1 victory away to Arsenal put Watford into the FA Cup semi-final, but bad luck with goalkeeping injuries led to defeat against Tottenham. As it turned out, that glorious afternoon at Highbury proved the last great hurrah of the era.
For most of English football, the 1980s was a dark age. Watford was quite the opposite – in many ways showing the way to the rest of the English game. With Elton’s backing, much of this was inspired by the greatest individual in the history of the club: Graham Taylor.