Northwich Victoria: never again (please!)
David Harrison has almost completely recovered from witnessing Watford’s most embarrassing afternoon of the 1970s
We’ll start with a simple question for Treasury readers.
‘Which two words are most likely to trigger significant distress amongst Watford fans in their mid-fifties and beyond?’ Actually the two words are invariably separated by a third, not to be repeated in a family visual history publication.
I refer not to Roger Milford, Anthony Knockaert, Neil Warnock or even, on this occasion, our friends from South Bedfordshire, but the football team from a pleasant if insignificant town in Cheshire, regarded by the Sunday Times as one of the best places to live in the UK and famous mostly for salt mining.
For me, and many others from these parts, a fearsome blow was struck, the significance of which has lessened not a jot with the passage of time. The two words in question have scarcely been uttered in civilised SW Herts society for almost half a century now, but the time is right for the story to be told, if only to help ensure that nothing comparable ever happens again.
I refer of course to the lingering 1977 FA Cup nightmare of Northwich Victoria. Or Northwich ******* Victoria, as they were subsequently christened by our esteemed Chairman.
It was a terrible, humiliating event, but did anything positive come out of that miserable afternoon in the nondescript Cheshire town? Well, yes, in fact in some ways 8 January 1977 could be regarded as one of the more significant dates in the club’s history but we’ll come to that.
For younger readers, some context will be required.
The 1976/77 Hornets were a deeply frustrating bunch. They were a poor team, comprising some very good players. Andy Rankin was a superb goalkeeper, the late Alan Garner a majestic central defender, Roger Joslyn an inspirational figure who, two years later, would drag the faltering Hornets over the finishing line and into Division Two, Dennis Bond a gifted midfielder who returned having been sold for a club record fee, all topped off by the legendary Ross Jenkins who went on to score Division One goals and become a bona fide club legend.
Add the likes of Keith Mercer, Keith Pritchett, Alan Mayes, Peter Coffill, Bobby Downes, Trevor How and well…….you get the picture. A teenage Luther Blissett was granted a couple of early-season substitute slots but the sum of those individual parts merely added up to the underachieving team that represented the club that season.
They shouldn’t have been anywhere near the Fourth Division, let alone starting to look like a permanent basement fixture.
The responsibility for moulding those disparate individuals into an effective unit, capable of pushing for promotion, lay squarely with manager Mike Keen.
Formerly an outstanding player and, by all accounts, as nice a man as you could wish to meet, he was simply the wrong person for the job.
League form that season had been patchy, so the FA Cup offered a precious
opportunity to achieve something of note. Narrow away wins at Gillingham (1-0) and Hillingdon Borough (3-2) may not sound much but had delivered an all-too-
rare excursion to the 3rd Round. In fact the win at Gillingham, courtesy of a very late Alan Mayes goal, was our first in the competition for three years and provoked a joyous bundle, with success-starved fans happily rolling around at the foot of the Priestfield terrace!
The town was desperate for a glimmer of positivity from the football club and an FA Cup run, with a real chance of further progress, caught the imagination. A trip to a venue of which few had even heard, let alone visited, merely added to the excitement.
These were the days before the football pyramid had been implemented and local knowledge of northern-based leagues, carrying no automatic promotion, was sketchy to say the least.
Northwich Victoria were formed in 1874 and named in honour of the reigning monarch. The following year the club took up residence at the town’s Drill Field, so named as it had been the Drilling Ground of a local battalion of the Cheshire Rifle Volunteers. When the club eventually vacated the famous old ground, in 2004, it was believed to have been in continuous use for longer than any other venue in world football.
The Vics were founder members of the Football League Division Two, way back in 1892, but were over-matched and only lasted a couple of seasons at that exalted level. They spent most of their life in the Cheshire County League but in 1968/69 became founder members of the Northern Premier League and were playing at that level when the paths of the two clubs crossed, for the first time.
Northwich had entered the 1976/77 competition in the 1st Qualifying Round, and by the time Watford visited had already played nine games, including a remarkable 4-0 win over Peterborough in the previous round. These were clearly no bunch of non-league mugs, although whether Keen and his squad took them sufficiently seriously remains open to debate.
Meanwhile, excitement in the Cheshire town had reached fever pitch. Their club, more used to facing the likes of Buxton, Great Harwood and South Liverpool in league action, had not reached this stage of the competition since the previous century and hadn’t even qualified for the 1st Round since 1961.
Watford added fuel to what was always going to be a lively atmosphere by refusing to play under the Drill Field floodlights, forcing the game to kick-off at 2pm. As a result, many Vics fans attended the match clutching candles. It could not be termed a PR triumph for Watford, with the matchday programme gleefully confirming that any replay would kick-off at 7.30pm, as Northwich had graciously consented to play under the Vicarage Road lights. If only!
The game was an all-ticket affair (70p for Adults, 40p for Children), attracting a sell-out crowd of 8,989. Watford enjoyed a huge following, estimated at 1,500, most of whom had travelled on an epic 1970s ‘Football Special’ which left the Junction at 10.20am, at a return cost of £3-90. You should be aware that the ‘Special’ element related purely to the non-standard nature of the excursion and emphatically not the quality of rolling stock utilised.
The train progressed to Crewe without incident, at which point it switched to a much smaller local line for the final few miles. This clearly represented something of a novelty as the locals all seemed to be out in their gardens, waving cheerfully at this motley bunch of southern marauders. It felt like a very big day for Northwich………..and so it proved.
On entering the ground, there was an immediate divergence of opinion amongst the travelling hordes. Those familiar with non-league football were taken with an atmospheric and historic former Football League venue. Others, unable to see beyond muddy banks masquerading as terracing, deemed it a ramshackle dump. To be fair, you could understand both viewpoints.
When the game got underway, however, all appeared to be going to plan. We pinged the ball around nicely on a heavy surface and cruised into a 2-1 lead with goals from Keith Mercer and Dennis Bond, against one from the elegantly named Jeff Swede (insert turnip gags as required). Ross missed a clear chance to add a third on the stroke of half-time but my recollection is that we looked comfortable. Whatever was said in the respective dressing rooms at half-time, however, proved critical.
Vics manager Paul Ogden changed things around at the break and, fully aware their season was on the line, his side came roaring out and got stuck into an inexplicably hesitant Watford. The non-leaguers were awarded a slightly contentious penalty early in the second half, comfortably converted by Les Wain, at which point a suddenly fragile Watford completely fell apart. The Northwich winner, when it eventually came, from striker Frank Corrigan, was deserved and we ending up losing a game we should have won comfortably.
Local fans poured onto the pitch, scarcely believing what they’d seen. Remarkably, things got even worse, with their arrival being greeted by huge cheers as the (seemingly perfectly adequate) floodlights were switched on.
Heads down, we shuffled away from the Drill Field and back onto our train, which duly crept back to Crewe, at little more than walking pace. The locals were once again out in their gardens, only now waving with dramatically increased vigour and slightly modified hand gestures. You could hardly blame them. This was a huge day for the Vics and it would have been churlish to begrudge them their big day.
Northwich drew Oldham Athletic in the 4th Round, switched the game to Manchester City’s Maine Road ground, attracted an astonishing crowd of 28,635 and lost 1-3.
A couple of additional facts related to the game. The leading Vics goalscorer that season, although he failed to hit the target against Watford, was prolific striker Phil Smith. A qualified teacher, Smith made a dramatic career shift to become arguably the most influential figure in British racing. He became Head of Handicapping at the British Horseracing Authority and was consequently responsible for allocating the weights to be carried in all major races. Having handicapped the Grand National for the 20th time, Phil Smith retired in 2018.
And in charge that day in 1977 was long-standing match official Harold Hackney, coming towards enforced refereeing retirement at the age of 47. His last game, later that year, was a promotion decider that saw Mansfield rise to Division Two. He became a referee’s assessor and, away from the game, a highly respected magistrate. Harold Hackney died earlier this year at the age of 91
But of course all that stuff about how the darkest hour comes just before dawn became glorious reality for Watford, well beyond our wildest dreams. In fact you could make a coherent case that the recruitment of GT, and the unprecedented wonders that followed, were born in Cheshire on that rotten January afternoon.
He probably thought little of the gesture at the time, but Elton’s reaction on our return to Crewe Station spoke volumes about the direction the club would take. Only recently appointed Chairman, he didn’t hide away in response to our worst Cup humbling for many years (2-3 at Bedford in 1955, to save you looking) but faced up to the supporters and, in so doing, brought hope to a horrible day.
For those who weren’t there, Elton walked the length of that station platform, stopping at each carriage, effectively to apologise to supporters. Now this was different. Football club chairmen didn’t behave like that. Sure as hell Jim Bonser didn’t behave like that. And so, out of that afternoon’s despair, came hope
By the time we got home, I was already looking ahead. Mike Keen was clearly a top bloke but just wasn’t the man for this particular job. He stuck around for a few months but the process was underway and we all know how that developed.
Later that year, after Graham had taken control, I was pottering about in Bushey one afternoon and spotted GT’s skipper and on-field representative, Sam Ellis. Big Sam, along with Ian Bolton probably Graham’s most significant early signing, lived locally and was invariably happy to stop for a chat.
The club were preparing for a home FA Cup-tie against Isthmian League Hendon, their first since the Northwich calamity. I wished Sam well for the weekend’s game and asked him to ensure there was no repetition of the previous season’s non-league humiliation.
He shook his head and looked at me as if I was mad. “You’ve absolutely nothing to worry about. This manager simply wouldn’t let that happen.
Sam was right, wasn’t he? ‘This manager’ never did.
But Northwich Victoria represented a significant low-point in the club’s history. It was an embarrassing afternoon, one that contributed significantly towards what was to follow.
I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.