Football - At Forty Miles Per Hour (Volume 5)
Tom Brodrick looks back to a quirky, motorised version of football played at Vicarage Road, and unearths the forgotten story of Watford’s first – victorious – outing at Wembley.
Watford FC had barely had five years’ tenancy at their new ground, when the motorbike craze swept through the country. The early summer of 1927 had seen the very first meetings in the UK of a new, high-adrenaline import from Australia known as speedway; Watford’s directors saw an opportunity in promoting another embryonic stadium sport that summer: motorcycle football.
The Vicarage Road pitch has seen a range of team sports exercising the strength and quality of the turf over its life (most prominently, both codes of rugby and even horse shows) but none surely with quite the erosive effects of having motorbikes speeding around chaotically as their riders compete over a football. The potential for injuries was unprecedented, and ‘machine trouble’ could account for no-shows on the field.
The inaugural match, organised by the Watford Football Supporters Club, took place on Whit Monday (7 June), and would see players from the Watford & District Auto Club take on a team representing West Bromwich. The Watford Observer made some fanfare about the upcoming event, reporting on the exploits of the match under the headline ‘Forty miles per hour football’, and listed the half-dozen riders who would represent Watford as Harrington, Wilks, Hester, Whittle, Landon and Foster.
Watford & District won the toss and attacked the Vicarage Road End in the first half, roared on by the 4,000-strong crowd. Rainfall made the going precarious, as skidding and sliding were reported, but no significant injuries ensued. Mechanical problems saw one of the home team’s bikes ‘in dock’ for a significant period in the second half, resulting in numerical disadvantage. (No details were provided as to where the mechanics’ pits were located, although the corner between the Main and Rookery Stands, at grade with Occupation Road, seems most likely.) Watford & District, however, remained the superior side to such an extent that their ‘goalkeeper’, W. Harrington, spent most of the game outfield.
At full time, Watford & District rode out victorious by three goals to nil, their prize silver cigarette boxes presented by H. Montague of the Supporters Club. West Bromwich’s players each received a gold tie-pin: hardly a lesser reward. The motorcycle football match was followed by a ‘gymkhana’ of events, including a mounted game of tag called ‘cow punching’, stunt-riding over lines of cars, and trying to eat a bun suspended from the crossbar of the goal whilst moving at speed!
A second fixture at Vicarage Road, against Bucks County Auto Club, was organised for Saturday 16 July (again by the Supporters Club); the Watford Observer revealing that the event was to raise money for the football club. The attendance of 2,000 was, however, half that of the outing against West Brom. Watford & District were again clear victors, this time 4-1.
Meagre attendances, the damage to the playing surface (unreported but, doubtless, perceptible), and the onset of the football season put the brakes on the brief summer love affair with the two-wheeled version of the beautiful game at Vicarage Road. Motorcycle football in the locality, however, didn’t quite die out immediately, as many of Watford and District’s player-riders moved into a new club: the Watford Motorcycle Football Club, continuing to arrange fixtures into the 1930s and playing matches at diverse locations such as Lower Mead (the former home of Wealdstone F.C.) and London Colney.
Interest in the new sport peaked as the Watford club became regarded as the leading outfit in the southern half of England, even ahead of well-supported rivals Coventry (who could use Highfield Road for their matches) and Wolverhampton. That recognition was such that, when a German motorcycle football team toured England, Watford M.C.F.C. were approached to provide a team to meet them at the recently-built Empire Stadium, otherwise known as Wembley, on 7 June 1930.
The Bavarian men, policemen from Nuremberg, all rode German-made Triumphs, whose heaviness was matched by a reported poor sense of direction and heavy kicking towards goal, contrasted with better agility and accuracy from the Englishmen mounted on lighter AJS and BSA machines. Watford, supported by guest Wembley speedway star Colin Watson, were five goals up by the interval and duly rode out 5-2 winners, and were awarded a ‘handsome’ silver trophy. And so Watford’s first outing at Wembley Stadium, all the way back in 1930, resulted in victory, as well as being able to claim England’s first-ever triumph over the Germans at the famous national stadium, a full 36 years and a world war before the 1966 World Cup Final.
Despite the excitement and prestige of the outing beneath Wembley’s iconic twin towers, reporting on the nascent sport remained sporadic and the exploits of the Watford M.C.F.C. over the course of the 1930s is hard to unearth. Evidence of fixtures and league tables is scarce. The sport had evidently petered out by the end of the thirties, and such frivolous use of fuel put the brakes on the sport entirely by the onset of the Second World War. Occasional references to ‘motorball’ in more recent times belies the fact that the pursuit is now basically non-existent. It’s now very hard to imagine motorbikes being allowed on the Vicarage Road turf in any capacity, let alone in such a rough-and-tumble application.
One final attempt to bring motorbikes back to Vicarage Road came in 1969. Speedway promoter Cyril Crane had enticed Jim Bonser to see the potential income from a takeover of the greyhound track for the then still highly-popular spectator sport. Watford, who would have been the only side in the Second Division to share their ground with speedway, ran full-throttle with plans, seeking planning permission to hold speedway, with the Watford Observer excitedly reporting throughout the autumn on what was seen to be a highly-likely outcome. Those hopes were dashed when the Council, under pressure from the local MP, rejected planning permission citing the noise impact upon the adjacent Shrodells Hospital. One can now only try to imagine the memories and memorabilia, the engine-noise doppler effect, the pelting of shale and the aroma of 2-stroke engine oil that speedway in the early Seventies could have engendered.
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