After 10 years as Watford manager, at the end of the 1986-87 season Graham Taylor decided it was time to further his career. He moved to Aston Villa, whom he led to immediate promotion from Division 2 and in 1990 the runners-up position in Division 1, and was then appointed as England manager.
The golden era was at an end. Watford slipped into a period of decline that lasted almost as long as the decade of success.
Elton John quickly appointed Dave Bassett as the new manager. Bassett had enjoyed great success at Wimbledon – taking them from Division 4 to Division 1 – but with a rumbustious approach on the pitch that was not widely appreciated. His approach at Watford was one of revolution not evolution: he brought in his own backroom team to replace the Watford stalwarts, and soon sold several of the squad. Of his new signings, several were players with whom he had worked previously.
It didn’t go well. Performances and results were poor, and by January 1988 Bassett was sacked. Steve Harrison, one of Graham’s trusted lieutenants, returned in his place but was unable to stop relegation.
Steve Harrison couldn't stem the flow as Watford drifted further downwards
1988-89 brought a promotion near-miss, with defeat in the Division 2 play-offs. Watford finished 15th in 1989-90, with Harrison replaced by Colin Lee towards the end of the season. 1990-91 started very badly, with Lee soon replaced by Steve Perryman, but ended with a dramatic escape from relegation. Way adrift in late March, Watford produced a run of seven wins in 10 games to stay up.
Two unremarkable seasons were followed by another relegation battle in 1993-94, again successfully negotiated, under the management of Glenn Roeder. 1994-95 brought respite with a 7th-place finish, but the downward slide resumed in 1995-96 with Watford struggling again.
Elton John, his interest waning, had sold the club in 1990 to Jack Petchey, a wealthy businessman and former director of West Ham. Petchey failed to endear himself to the supporters who wanted him to bankroll the team, although it was on his watch that both the Vicarage Road and Rookery Stands were built. Meanwhile in 1992 the club’s Football in the Community programme was formalised.
Early in 1996, Elton bought the club back from Petchey. One of his first acts was to make a managerial change. The new man in charge was Graham Taylor.
Graham Taylor's return in 1996 drew a lot of attention as he reunited with Sir Elton John at Vicarage Road
Even Graham, with Kenny Jackett and Luther Blissett at his side, couldn’t keep the team up, so the summer of 1996 saw Watford return to the third tier of English football for the first time since 1979. But there was a new optimism about the place. Elton and Graham were back.