A Brief History of Watford F.C.

The Hornets of Hertfordshire

Watford F.C. are one of Southern England’s best supported clubs outside of London and have a long, rich history both outside and within the Football League. The club are widely known to football fans as the Hornets - a nickname coined after their adoption of gold and black strips in the late fifties - and the official club crest was even altered to include the image of a hornet. However, when Watford’s strip was changed to the current yellow and red colour scheme, the crest was redesigned again with the hornet replaced by a hart, although the Hornet nickname managed to persist nonetheless. Although Watford F.C. may not participate in an abundance of fierce local derbies, they maintain one particular rivalry with Luton Town. The Watford/Luton rivalry dates back to the early 20th Century when both clubs would duke it out in the Southern League. This rivalry would continue into the Football League and despite the teams often finding themselves in different divisions, the fixture would go on to become a very heated affair. Undoubtedly the most renowned player in Watford’s history is striker Luther Blissett. Blissett holds the club records for most appearances at 503 and most goals at 186, both in all competitions.

Southern League Origins

Beginning life as Watford Rovers, the Hertfordshire club were founded by future defender Henry Groverand in 1881 as an amateur side. Five years after their formation however, the infant club would compete in the F.A. Cup for the first time. Watford Rovers’ first experience of league football was as part of England’s Southern League and the end of the century saw the club shift from amateur to professional status. The Rovers’ move into league football prompted a name change to 'West Hertfordshire' but in 1898, the club would merge with another side, Watford St. Mary’s and the partnership would give rise to the new and current title: Watford F.C. In 1915, the club would finish Champions of the Southern Division, and after League football resumed in the wake of the First World War, Watford opted to join the Football League, starting in the third tier. Increased exposure in the Football League demanded a larger and more permanent football ground and 1922 saw the club move from Cassio Road to their new ground of Vicarage Road, which has remained the home of Watford F.C. to this day. The Hornets’ early career in the Football League was initially uninspiring and a poor showing in the 1926/27 season saw the club almost expelled from the Third Division altogther. Happily, Watford were able to revive their fortunes and the 1930s saw them post much improved finishing positions in the League and in 1937, the club went on to win the Third Division South Cup.

Watford’s Post-War Struggles

After being forced to once again re-apply for League status in 1951, the return of former manager Neil McBain – who had been responsible for some of the club’s moderate success in the 1930s – would bring some much needed stability to the Hertfordshire club in the post-war era. However, 1958 saw a re-organisation of the Football League and the addition of a fourth division into which Watford were placed. Luckily for Hornets fans, Watford’s demotion would not last long, with the club swiftly achieving entry back to the Third Division, the first promotion in their history. This era also saw the emergence of several star players such as striker Cliff Holton and teenage goalkeeper Pat Jennings. Led by single-term manager Bill McGarry, the 1963/64 season would see Watford achieve the highest league finish in their history: third in Division Three. Initially, The Hornets were able to capitalise on this success and continued to post impressive final positions in the Third Division until they eventually captured the League title in 1969, obtaining promotion to the second tier of English football in the process. Sadly, financial difficulties at the club meant that Watford’s rise would be a brief one and the Hornets were forced to sell a large chunk of their best players and as a result, they once again returned to Division Three in 1972. The troubles in Hertfordshire were far from over though, and three years later, relegation would beckon once again, consigning Watford to the Fourth Division.

The Arrival of Elton

An unlikely saviour would arrive at Vicarage Road in the form of pop singer and celebrity Elton John. Elton, a loyal supporter of Watford since childhood, was given the position of Club Chairman in 1976 and immediately set about making changes to the club’s staff, most notably the appointment of Graham Taylor as manager. Taylor’s arrival at Watford F.C. would herald in an era of success and prosperity for the club, as the new manager took the Hornets from Division Four to Division One, winning the Division Four trophy at a canter and quickly following up with promotion to the Second Division. Life at the upper end of English football was a struggle for Watford initially who flirted with relegation at first but managed to rally and win promotion to the First Division in 1982, fulfilling the goal Elton John had set when he took over the club. The Hertfordshire side would consolidate their new top tier status by attaining a second place finish during the 1982/83 season and subsequently earning a spot in the UEFA Cup. The club would also finish runners up in the FA Cup the following year and this period of prosperity would eventually result in both Taylor and Elton John receiving stands at Vicarage Road named in their honour. Unfortunately, 1987 saw Graham Taylor depart to Birmingham to manage Aston Villa and his loss would reverse Watford’s recent fortunes, with the club suffering relegation. Taylor would return to Hertfordshire in 1996 however, and pick up where he left off, returning the Hornets to the upper echelons of English football. Sadly, the Watford legend couldn’t retain the club’s Premier League status for long and he would eventually retire in 2001 with Watford in the second tier of English Football. Once again, the departure of Graham Taylor would spell the start of a decline for Watford and this time, financial difficulties would prove to be the primary issue. With Taylor’s replacement, Gianluca Vialli, racking up a considerable wage bill and problems with promised television revenue, the Hornets were left in a precarious position and were almost run into administration. Due to the sale of several playing staff, as well as a wage deferral agreement, Watford managed to keep afloat but considerable damage had been done and the club were dragged into a relegation battle they narrowly managed to win, retaining their position in the Championship. Manager Aidy Boothroyd would conspire to once again return Watford to the Premier League but as had become common, the club would only last one season in England’s top flight and would soon return to battle in the Championship.

New Ownership and a Premier League Return

In 2012, Watford were purchased by the Pozzo family, also owners of Italian club Udinese. The sale afforded the club a little more room to manoeuvre in the transfer market and allowed the Hornets to take promising youngsters such as Matej Vydra on loan from Serie A. The Pozzo era also saw Watford undergo a series of managerial changes with Gianfranco Zola, Beppe Sannino, Oscar Garcia, Billy McKinlay and Slaviša Jokanović all taking the helm at various stages. Despite the regular upheaval, results were gradually improving and after several further years at Championship level, 2015 saw Watford make their long-awaited return to the Premier League. Watford would make considerable alterations to their team in the off-season and hired a new manager in the form of Quique Sanchez Flores. However, despite the considerable changes at Vicarage Road, Watford were able to achieve a respectable mid-table finish and ensure their Premier League survival. This would prove not enough to keep Flores in his job however, and he would soon be replaced by Walter Mazzarri for the 2016/17 season.