A Great Future Should Be Certain… (Volume 4)
David Harrison on the opening of Vicarage Road in 1922
With the Southern League incorporated into the Football League, as Division Three, with effect from the 1920/21 season, the limitations of the old Cassio Road ground became increasingly apparent.
The fixture list looked much the same, but the intensity of action moved up a notch, and a home more in keeping with the club’s new-found status soon became a necessity.
Watford’s first Football League game saw a fine 2-1 win at QPR on 28 August 1920, in front of 21,000 at Loftus Road. The equivalent Southern League fixture the previous season had attracted only just over half that number, such was the increased appeal and visibility of League action.
The final Southern League season had seen Watford denied the title by Portsmouth, only on goal average. Consequently, hopes were high that an early elevation to Division Two would be on the cards, but although the club was competitive, the two Football League seasons at Cassio Road eventually proved something of a let-down.
1920/21 saw a sixth-place finish, eleven points behind Crystal Palace, while the following year Southampton and Plymouth dominated proceedings, ending level on points, well clear of Portsmouth in third place. Watford finished 17 points off the top, in a disappointing seventh place.
Extensive work had been undertaken at Cassio Road to prepare the ground for League football, but in reality it was merely papering over the cracks. The old Park End Stand had failed to make it through the War and been replaced by banking, while new wooden terracing meant that an official record crowd of 10,466 had somehow been squeezed in to witness the club’s first home Football League game. But the old ground was on borrowed time.
It was early in 1921 that Watford followers first read about the possibility of a move, backed by benefactors Benskins, to a vast new site, with enormous potential for further development, at Vicarage Road. The area under negotiation was a natural bowl, comprising six-and-a-half acres and situated just half a mile from the Cassio Road ground. The bank of the Vicarage Road End, enhanced by tipping hardcore onto the natural slope, offered a capacity not much less than that of the entire Cassio Road enclosure.
Negotiations, predominantly between Benskins and the local council, were protracted but eventually concluded to mutual satisfaction, with the club moving to Vicarage Road during 1922.
Anticipation and optimism were both building, sentiments the club did little to dampen when the final Cassio Road First-team programme, covering the game against Gillingham on 29 April, carried the following rousing passage:-
‘Next season the club will be safely in its new home and with players of the ability and enthusiasm of those at present with the club, and with the support, necessary and deserved, of the general public a great future should be certain. Who knows before many seasons are past First Division football will be played in Watford.’
Well, sixty actually, but who was to know it would take quite that long?
The new ground was finally deemed ready to host the opening home game of the season, with Millwall visiting Vicarage Road on Wednesday 30 August 1922.
Unfortunately the grand opening was marked by a filthy evening, contributing to a disappointing crowd of just 8,618 passing through the 13 gleaming new turnstiles. The game wasn’t up to much either, finishing goalless. However the club threw the works at the event, beginning with a ceremony that featured Colonel Charles Healey of Benskins kicking a ball onto the pitch from the front of the Main Stand to officially open the new ground.
The best summary of the occasion was that published in the programme for the game against QPR, just three days later,
‘The scene at Vicarage Road on Wednesday, on the occasion of the opening of the ground, was one that will long be remembered by those present.
In the presence of nearly 9,000 people, Colonel Charles Healey CMG in a brief speech formally declared the ground open. The ceremony was a simple one – the Players Entrance to the playing pitch had been fastened by a silver padlock and this was unlocked by Col. Healey to admit the team – at the same time the club colours were run to the top of the mast on the Grand Stand.’
The report of the Millwall game confirmed it had been a less than gripping encounter:-
‘It is only fair to say that the play fell short of the occasion but this may no doubt be attributed to the occasion and strangeness of the surroundings. In addition the rain made the ball particularly difficult to control and as a consequence the defences shone.’
To be honest, it sounds not unlike many games against Millwall over the intervening 97 years, but it was actually a foretaste of a difficult opening for the club at their splendid new ground. In fact it took Watford until the end of September before they even scored a goal at Vicarage Road, in a 4-0 thumping of Exeter City.
But the Vicarage Road era was underway and, as we approach the first century at the ground, let’s raise a glass of something suitable to Benskins, without whom we would not be here today.
This article is from Volume 4 of The Watford Treasury, to purchase this publication in all its visual glory, please follow the link below: