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Enjoyable Visit to Amsterdam (Volume 4)

Richard White tells  the story of Watford’s first European venture  


As many Watford fans are doubtless aware, the Hornets’ first-ever competitive European fixture was played at Kaiserslautern in the UEFA Cup. This was on September 14 1983, and of course the club is now striving to repeat that exciting experience under the leadership of the canny Pozzo regime. 

However, Watford’s first venture to play abroad took place nearly 50 years earlier, when a friendly match was arranged with Ajax of Amsterdam on Sunday 8 September 1935. The Ajax trainer was Englishman Jack Reynolds, who had played 29 times as a forward for Watford in the 1907/08 season, before embarking on a coaching career that saw him lift Ajax from being just another Amsterdam team in the Dutch second division, to winning five Dutch national championships as trainer/coach with Ajax in the 1930s.  

During his lengthy career over three spells in Amsterdam between 1915 and his retirement in 1947, Reynolds is credited with laying the foundations that would lead to Ajax becoming one of the greatest clubs in world football. He introduced new training methods for technical and fitness improvement, and put in place a youth development system that remains the envy of all. His philosophy that players should be taught how to play in different positions led to the ‘total football’ famously practiced by Ajax and the Dutch national side in the 1970s under manager Rinus Michels, who was himself a product of the Ajax youth system. There is still a lounge named after Reynolds at the current Ajax Arena, where he is affectionately regarded as ‘the father of Ajax Amsterdam’. 

One of the first questions Reynolds asked when Watford arrived was “How’s Johnnie Goodall?” Goodall was a football legend, who had been Reynolds’ manager during his time at Watford, and was a respected and popular figure with everyone who knew him. 

The match at Ajax was squeezed into a busy 1935/36 early-season fixture schedule for Watford, which had started the previous weekend with a disappointing opening day 2-0 home defeat by Bristol City - a match Watford had been expected to win comfortably, given their encouraging sixth place finish in Division 3 (South) the previous season. But a 3-1 midweek win at Exeter City, followed by a hard-earned 0-0 draw away at Millwall Athletic on Saturday 7 September had raised Watford’s spirits, and immediately after the Millwall game the first team made its way to Liverpool Street station, where dinner was taken before catching the 8.30pm train to Harwich, followed by the 11.00pm overnight boat to the Hook of Holland. 

The team that took to the boat that night was the one that played at Millwall, with a single change – Tom Walters replacing Tommy Barnett. Watford officials travelling were manager Neil McBain, trainer Alex Gillespie, and Reg Kilby, representing his father, the Watford Chairman John Kilby who was battling a long term illness. Docking early enough to catch the 6.15am train to Amsterdam, the players then checked in to the Krasnapolsky hotel for breakfast, before taking to their beds to rest before lunch, with the match kicking off at 2pm that Sunday afternoon.  

The hospitality provided by the Ajax club during their short stay was reportedly excellent. This included representatives who joined the Watford players during meals having fun trying to teach them some Dutch language – with centre forward Billy Lane apparently proving to be the best exponent!  

The Ajax club still had amateur status at that time, although it was already recognised as the premier Dutch club with several current and future Dutch international players in its squad, with the Netherlands having competed in the World Cup in Italy in 1934. 

Watford eyebrows were raised when the team arrived at the De Meer Stadion in east Amsterdam. Newly opened by the Ajax club in 1934, it was described by the West Herts and Watford Observer as “a palatial stadium set on the outskirts of the city, in a large park with many beautiful beds of flowers which would make the English follower, unused to such fragrant ornamentation at a football ground, envious”. The 40,000-capacity arena included an 8,000-seater grandstand built of sandstone, incorporating a restaurant at the top “with a verandah from which the play can be watched while taking lunch or refreshments”. An early bonus for the prawn sandwich brigade! 

A further taste of how the game was developing at pace on the continent was the fact that the Ajax club was running 18 different teams, with their ground accommodating 12 different changing rooms, plus further rooms for a doctor, dentist, masseur, and more. The travelling Watford contingent could only gaze in awe at such facilities, compared with the impoverished state of English third division grounds at the time. 

An innovation catching Watford by surprise was that on the Continent teams were allowed to make up to three substitutions during a match to replace injured players. The English game was still decades away from permitting substitutes and Manager Neil McBain had no 12th man, so Reg Kilby got changed into kit but thankfully was not called on to play at any stage. 

Before kick-off the Watford team was presented with a commemorative match banner, and each player was presented with a small souvenir of the visit. The game attracted some 8,000 spectators, who watched Watford win 2-0 thanks to two first-half goals scored by Billy Lane. The quality of the Dutch football was complemented on by the touring party, with only their finishing needing improvement – something that Ajax had clearly mastered 36 years later when they embarked on a string of three successive European Cup final wins! 

An interested spectator at the match was Fred Pagnam, then coaching in the Netherlands after having had a substantial association with Watford between 1921 and 1929, firstly as a free-scoring centre forward, followed by three years as player-manager.  

After the match the players embarked on a city sightseeing tour, taking in the renowned Olympic Stadium built for the 1928 Games, before departing home by train and overnight boat, arriving in Watford by 10.00am on Monday morning. Watford were happily reported as having had a “thoroughly enjoyable visit” that “fully maintained the best traditions of English football abroad”.  

The first team was back in action again on Wednesday 11 September, playing Exeter in a home league match, with Watford winning 1-0. By the end of September, Watford had already played ten first-team matches including the Ajax friendly, in a tight schedule that teams of today might consider somewhat excessive! Watford went on to have a fine season, finishing in fifth position, during a period when they were enjoying their highest league placings seen up to date. 


This article is from Volume 4 of The Watford Treasury, to purchase this publication in all its visual glory, please follow the link below:

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