Tribute: Trefor Jones
Watford Football Club was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of life-long supporter Trefor Jones over last weekend.
Presented with the Hornets’ Supporter of the Season Award in 2014, his contribution to what is read, spoken about and listened to regarding Watford’s rich history is unsurpassed and staggering in its breadth and depth.
By way of simple example, it was Trefor’s hours of dedicated and laborious research that finally established the club’s year of inception as 1881 – a decade earlier than most had attributed it. Watford FC celebrated its centenary in 1991, effectively some 10 years after it was entitled to have done.
Here, Oliver Phillips – the Watford Observer’s former assistant editor and Watford FC chief correspondent – pays tribute to a man whose historical and statistical records will never be rivalled. His answers come in response to questions posed by the Hornets’ Head of Communications & Media Relations Richard Walker, whose own words of tribute are below.
“It was his unrelenting diligence and amazing attention to detail that always impressed,” says Richard, who got to know Trefor over nearly 20 years of fact-checking and information being passed in both directions.
“He was a joy to listen to. Along with a quick wit and a sharp tongue, he was just as delighted to be able to scotch the latest spurious claim to fame received by someone contacting the club as provide essential details of former players so their families getting in touch with us could learn more about their footballing ancestors.
“I’ll miss him immensely. He was such an important yet understated part of the respect we all hold here for the history of this club.
“So it’s of great comfort that he was fully involved in passing across his online legacy – watfordfcarchive.com – to two long-serving Watford supporters who I know will enjoy keeping every last fact checked and updated in his honour.”
Oliver Phillips pays fuller tribute here, in a Q&A format.
When did you first meet Trefor and what was it that struck you most about him initially?
Well, to be honest, I wondered who the hell this person was. I would publish an interview on an ex-player and then a week or so later return photos etc. and the old players would tell me a Mr Jones had called.
Eventually, I found who Mr Jones was and appreciated that his research was mainly statistical. I was having trouble with past Watford statistics because seldom did seasons add up. The league table would say they won so many games but on counting the matches, you discovered they had won more or less. So I was somewhat relieved there was someone who was a member of the Association of Football Statisticians.
As a person, he was very abrupt and very to the point. I had no idea he admired my writing and application on the weekly events at Vicarage Road. That emerged later. We did exchange compliments in our final conversation and he also wrote me a very nice email when the Watford Observer ceased publishing my weekly column. If I doubted it up to then, there was mutual respect.
He was, throughout, a very private man. He told me he was getting married a second time, just before I retired, but I had no idea about the circumstances. But I was not alone – for his daughter was caught by surprise as well, and she agreed with me he was extremely private.
I heard he was seriously ill but in our last conversation, while I think we both believed it was the last we would have, the only thing that gave that away was that exchange of compliments and thanks.
How soon did you realise that his formidable diligence and your extensive club coverage and writing ability could be harnessed together?
Make no mistake, the Centenary History of Watford FC and the subsequent The Golden Boys books owed a lot to Trefor Jones’ contribution. I had heard that he spent every Saturday morning before home games in the reference library at Watford, scanning files and talking into a tape recorder.
Later, he read the entire proofs of the Centenary book and Golden Boys into a tape recorder. Then when the final proofs came through, he played the tapes and checked the books. Of course there were a few mistakes. In 115,000 words that was unavoidable and Trefor took those errors very personally, as indeed did I. I published a list of them in the Watford Observer within two weeks of publication. There were 10: some involving initials but the one that annoyed us was getting Barry Dyson’s appearance and goals in reverse.
When I was commissioned to write the history, I was set a task of 50,000 words – 500 words a season. By a few subtle adjustments, I eventually persuaded the club to increase it to 115,000 words.
Right from the start, I wanted Trefor onside and offered him an honorarium and credit. I knew he had the statistical back-up – the backbone if you like. He provided the skeleton and I knew that skeleton would have every bone in place, enabling me to flesh it out. He was invaluable. We talked several times a week. I would send off tracts and when the proofs returned, I would send them on to Trefor, keeping a copy for myself.
He would make suggestions and corrections of a statistical nature. It worked very well. The total cost of editorial corrections for that book was £27, which the printers described as amazingly low in their experience. We could both take a bow for that but the book would not have been so accurate without Trefor.
What were your reflections of the moment you both agreed to the 1891 / 1881 confirmation being part of published matter in the ‘Centenary Book’?
The club wanted to publish a centenary book and asked me around 1986. I pointed out that for decades the formation of Watford FC had been pinpointed as 1898-99, when Watford St Mary’s were absorbed by West Herts and they adopted the name Watford. They used to have dinners every year, celebrating the amalgamation as it was regarded at the time. In fact in some potted histories you still see the claim Watford was formed in 1898.
But the fact was the events then were just an absorbing of the rival local club. West Herts were playing in the Southern League since 1896 and had been playing friendlies at the West Herts Sports Club and Ground since 1891. So we looked at West Herts establishing themselves at Cassio Road as a more legitimate date as 1891.
Then they were West Herts (formerly Watford Rovers) but how far back Watford Rovers stretched was unknown. Local coverage of football was very much a haphazard affair. So we opted for 1891, not as the centenary but “the official centenary”.
But when I tried to recruit Trefor to the cause he would have none of it. He said we had missed the centenary – which would not have been very palatable for the club and marketing concepts. He came up with 1881, which was the date when Henry Grover wrote asking for the Earl of Essex’s permission to play football (not matches) in what is now Cassiobury Park. The Earl gave the thumbs up but insisted that they could not play matches in the park.
Trefor discovered this at the bottom of a leader column in the Watford Observer dates 1906 – the 25th anniversary of the first kick-around. How he happened upon that I do not know because even when he gave me the date, it took me ages to find the two pertinent paragraphs.
It is a moot point whether playing the 19th century equivalent of three-and-in with a couple of posts or coats down can be deemed the formation of a club but as the newspaper leader writer at the time, who was far closer to the events than were we, said the club had existed 25 years, so we accepted that. I wrote a summary of Trefor’s discovery and we agreed it would go into the book. He was happy with that and thankfully came on board. His contribution was vital.
The irony is, while I signposted the development of Henry Grover’s foundation of the club in the unfolding story of the history, somehow the piece about Trefor’s unearthing 1881 was left out. I did not realise it until after publication. I apologised to him but he was not troubled because the facts were in the book, stating the club launched itself in 1881. I published the piece that had been omitted, the following week in the paper, which reached a far wider audience than the book.
There’s a wonderful photo in the Centenary Book of you and he trudging across a graveyard in dawn light. Explain your thoughts behind setting that up, please?
By the time we had finished that exercise, I know I was spent and exhausted but steeped in yesteryear. Not only the writing and research but the club had not brought anyone in to lay out the book. So that was an added load.
The publication of the history of Watford FC brought various people into play, who contacted me with anecdotes and photos. I was particularly struck on Harry Kent’s record with Watford: a manager who did wonders despite having most of his squad sold every year. I went down to the pub he ran in Woodford Road and had lunch there, absorbing the atmosphere. I was that hooked. That was 1992 and Harry had been dead 45 years or so.
I told Trefor of my odyssey and he suggested we looked at the graves in Vicarage Road cemetery. It was a marvellous, mist-shrouded Saturday morning and we went there and Trefor, who had researched the whole graveyard, of course, showed me round and we made a few discoveries. A photographer came but he took a picture of us as we could not find truly significant carved gravestones to photo.
Was there any historical fact, detail or other pot pourri that you simply had to agree to disagree on with Trefor?
Well I have already outlined his objection to 1891 as a start date, stating it was not at all significant but I argued that it was in that it was the date West Herts/Watford Rovers adopted an official ground, which also saw league football.
There is this thing with statisticians. When there is a legend and they find nothing statistically to support it, they write off the legend. But legends have foundations and oral history may not be factually perfect, but it is as it was remembered.
You can say Cliff Holton scored 48 goals for Watford in 53 appearances one season but there was so much more to Cliff than statistics: the long raking ball inside the full back for Benning or Bunce to run onto; the power in either foot, his acceleration which was extraordinary for a big man; his chesting ability and the aura of the man on the field. You cannot quantify those things with statistics. You had to be there and if you weren’t, you had to garner as many observations from fans who were there at the time.
Charlie Livesey, for instance, did not patrol the halfway line and when a ball was played up to him, trap it and then stub his fag out before turning and fending off tackles and defenders en route to the goal. But that was the aura of the man. He could have done that, such was the impression of his total dominance in shielding the ball. To be fair to Trefor he did, in his Who’s Who book, write of Livesey’s cavalier displays and virtuosity as being comparable with anyone seen at the ground.
Yet overall, Trefor had difficulty with facts or impressions you cannot quantify. He was a season ticket holder all his life but I used to say to him it is the colour or the style, which you remember long after the exact statistics are forgotten. For instance I talked to and interviewed many old fans from my earliest days in journalism. That was in 1960-61 onwards and in some cases their memories went back beyond the turn of the last century.
I talked to so many old fans as a late teenager and wrote pen pictures of various old players. Some stood round the ropes at Cassio Road. Some remembered the sight of Johnny Goodall. They were diehard fans and I took their memories as colour to the story of Watford.
When some of them used to moan about the move to Vicarage Road because it was not so homely and intimate as the days at Cassio Road, Trefor would be uncomfortable because I said many fans felt that way – based on what people told me was the prevailing view from those days. Really, he would have liked me to interview every Cassio Road fan and get them to vote on that statement before signing off on it.
Another example is Ted Bassett, a winger who used to run down outside the pitch, keeping the ball just inside the line – maximising the width. When the second half arrived, Watford fans would step back a yard to enable Bassett to run just outside the pitch. So many old fans told me that and I remember mentioning it to an old man, along with other items I had garnered and did so well, he asked me where I used to stand at Cassio Road. I was born almost 20 years after they left the ground.
But Trefor would rule such anecdotes as hearsay, without evidence apart from the memories of fans, which he deemed a suspect source. I think it was said in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
As a journalist I was always a stickler for the facts but when it came to writing about days long gone, you have to nod your head to the legend, among the known facts. Legends have foundations.
His extreme attention to detail probably threw up a few debates or discussions over time. Which was the best of those?
We disagreed on the subject of Benjamin Apps, who was West Herts FC secretary and who undertook secret meetings with local rivals Watford St Mary’s. He worked very hard on bringing about what some viewed as an amalgamation but really West Herts absorbed Watford St Mary’s.
He did not think Apps was a significant player but for once I had the better sources – the minute books of West Herts and they demonstrated that Apps thought quite rightly the town could not support two professional clubs and set about making overtures to what were intense local rivals.
The only serious debate we had was on the choice of making 1991 the date of the Official Centenary. But once it was agreed to acknowledge the possibility of 1881 as the club’s start, all was well. The 1881 date is a concession to Trefor because all they did was kick the ball around: the first recorded match was in January 1882. While, as he pointed out, there was nothing to suggest it was the first match, there was nothing to suggest there had been previous games. If we want to be pedantic, the first recorded match for Watford Rovers was in January 1882.
There were other moments we disagreed: he was not inclined to credit Gary Porter with a hat-trick, arguing that the last was an own goal, but he eventually agreed the majority, sitting at a different angle, thought the shot was on target anyway.
He was a stickler for accuracy, but when I obtained my complimentary copy of his Season by Season book, to which I did make a contribution, the first thing I did was to see if he had credited Gary with that trio.
Few people not directly a player, manager or member of staff have made such a significant contribution to the history of the club as Trefor. How would you sum up what he’s left us?
Trefor has left a truly significant legacy, with regards to the history of the club. It is a legacy unequalled by anybody and I would go as far as to say no-one is likely to come near to his archives. They may continue in like vein but the spadework he undertook and the depth of his research was truly amazing. That is what he gave us: the basis.
I think a whole army of researchers could scour the local sports pages published over the years and come up with the occasional nugget but Trefor had the time and the inclination to make it his hobby. I had done much research and I can say that I have an ‘A’ level on the Watford Observer files – not only with regard to the club but also the history of the locality generally. But Trefor had a university degree in the study of those files of sports pages.
Every statistic that is quoted nowadays and in the future will be quoted as a basis on Trefor’s scrupulous and meticulous research. His was a true work of scholarship.
One anecdote demonstrates his attention to detail. I wrote in a column one Friday that I had accompanied Ken Furphy and his wife Doris to Borehamwood Studios to see the televising of a show. It was one of several anecdotes about Ken the man, as opposed to the manager. I really enjoyed Ken and his self-deprecating humour and illustrated the fact, having heard that Ken was succumbing to Alzheimer’s.
I went with Ken and Doris and my then girlfriend Penny Sharpe. At the end of the article, I quoted Doris, their son Keith and mused on the fact I had not heard of Penny Sharpe in years. Whatever happened to her?
Ten days later I received an email from Trefor. She married in 1975, he informed me, having been piqued to research the subject. He was quite brilliant.
He was a rock you could reach for when in doubt. I never had a dull conversation with Trefor.
The club is intending to mark Trefor’s passing in an appropriate manner, and such plans are likely to include watfordfcarchive.com in due course.
For now, our thoughts are with Trefor’s family and friends at this sad time.