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Watford's First National Treasure (Volume 1)

John Goodall, Watford’s first-ever manager, was memorialised in Vicarage Road cemetery in May 2018, thanks to a donation from the club. Geoff Wicken tells the story of how one of the greats of the Victorian game came to Watford.

From time to time in the past, Watford FC’s owners have felt the need to bring in a big name as manager, perhaps judging that the club would benefit from his experience or stardust. It hasn’t always worked out well. Eddie Hapgood joined the club in 1948, having captained Arsenal to the league championship and won 30 England caps; his stay lasted just two years. In more recent times it was hoped that Gianluca Vialli’s international superstar status would bring glory. It didn’t. In 1977 Watford came very close to appointing as manager Bobby Moore, the man who had lifted the World Cup as England captain 11 years earlier. In the end Graham Taylor was hired instead.

Back in 1903, the club’s very first managerial appointment could not have been higher profile. At the time he joined Watford, John Goodall was one of the biggest names – perhaps the biggest of all – from the early years of English football, and a true great of the game. To this day, he can be considered the most illustrious individual ever to join the club. Yet while Graham Taylor is celebrated as the person who has made the greatest impact in Watford FC’s history, John Goodall spent over 75 years lying in an unmarked grave in Vicarage Road cemetery. How can this have happened?

It seems surprising at first that such a major figure would join what at the time was a humble club. John Goodall’s playing career had been remarkable. Born in London in 1863 but growing up in Scotland, he moved to England in 1884 to play for Great Lever in Lancashire. Paying players was legalised in 1885, and he joined Preston North End as one of football’s first professionals. The Football League was formed in 1888 and Goodall was the leading scorer with 20 goals in its first season as Preston (‘the Invincibles’) carried off the 1888/89 double of league and FA Cup with an unbeaten record. He then signed for Derby County – part of the inducement being the tenancy of the Crown Inn – where he spent ten years as a crowd favourite.

He earned 14 England caps between 1888 and 1898, scoring 12 goals, and on two occasions captaining his country. He was known for mentoring younger players, not least his team-mate at Derby County, Steve Bloomer, another England international and Derby’s all-time top goalscorer. In 1898 he even wrote a book, ‘Association Football’, as an instructional manual and a guide to football. He was renowned as an advocate of the ‘combination game’ or ‘scientific approach’, in other words passing the ball between members of the team rather than dribbling or charging, and was keen to teach this art to others.

Just as significantly, he was widely recognised for his sportsmanlike attitude, and for being a true gentleman of the game. Contemporaries described him as a gentle, mild-mannered man. From these characteristics came his nicknames ‘Honest John’ and ‘Johnny Allgood’.

And he was an all-round sportsman. Away from football, he played cricket for Derbyshire, played bowls, billiards and golf to a good standard, and once finished as runner-up in the Great British curling championship.

He left Derby in 1899 for New Brighton Tower and subsequently Glossop North End and was still nationally known in 1903 when he came to Watford as player-manager, aged 40.

The disparity between his standing and Watford’s at that point was enormous. Watford were stumbling. The club had turned professional only six years earlier, in 1897 as West Herts, and were still trying to find their feet. They had been promoted from the Southern League Division 2 in 1900, but found it hard going in Division 1 against the major southern clubs such as Southampton and Tottenham. This is hardly surprising, given that Tottenham had won the FA Cup in 1901 and Southampton reached the final in both 1900 and 1902. Such clubs were more than strong enough to play in the Football League, but were being kept out by its bias towards northern and midlands clubs. Watford though had only recently left their amateur status behind. In 1903 Watford were relegated back to Southern League Division 2 where the opponents would include Southall, Grays, Chesham Town and the reserve sides of other clubs.

But perhaps Watford and John Goodall needed each other. Watford FC needed to find success. In 1903 Ralph Thorpe, the chairman of Watford Urban District Council, and known as the ‘Prince of Good Fellows’, was elected also as the club’s chairman. One can imagine him wanting to ensure the town had a serious presence in the growing sport of football. He put up an initial advance of £1,000. Presumably the thinking was to recruit a manager for the first time – the team had previously been picked by committee – and operate more professionally. Hiring a big name would have been a statement of ambition. John Goodall certainly had a lot to offer by way of his experience, knowledge and coaching skills. He joined on a wage of three pounds and ten shillings (£3.50) per week.

Goodall would have needed work. He had a family to feed. Top footballers earned a little more than the average working man, and he had also done well from a benefit – earning £277, or two years’ worth of money – but playing careers don’t last forever. There can’t have been many positions available within the game for players at the end of their careers – the days of extensive coaching staffs and academies were far in the future. There weren’t many managerial positions either, with only 36 clubs in the two-division Football League and a further 16 in the Southern League Division One. Managers tended to stay longer in positions too, so not many jobs would come up.

And so the ‘Prince of Good Fellows’ and ‘Johnny Allgood’ came together. Did good come of it? Looking back more than 100 years on, we can say that it did. John Goodall’s tenure was the period in which Watford FC properly established itself in English professional football.

In his first season, 1903/04, Watford were promoted unbeaten. Goodall was once again associated with a team of ‘Invincibles’, although the likes of Swindon Reserves and Southall would have represented rather less fearsome opposition than Aston Villa and Wolves did for Preston in 1888/89!

He went on to spend seven years at Watford, initially as player-manager (he played his last game in 1907 at the age of at 44) and then manager. After the 1904 promotion, over the next five years, Watford established themselves in Southern League Division One, with finishes of 9th, 14th, 9th, 14th and 14th again. Even by 1904, only two clubs south of Birmingham had been admitted to the Football League (Woolwich Arsenal and Bristol City) and the case can be made that the Southern League was equivalent in standard at least to the second division of the Football League. Given the Football League’s heavy northern bias, operating consistently at this level was as high as Watford could possibly have managed at the time. John Goodall got them there and then kept them there.

Yet home crowds at Cassio Road, generally of between 3,000 and 5,000, were smaller then those of most other clubs in the league, and Watford were often obliged to sell their better players in order to stay afloat. This was to become a familiar story for the club, but it suggests that Goodall’s period as manager was very creditable. Much as many subsequent managers have done – one thinks of Ray Lewington and Sean Dyche in recent times, for example – he succeeded in keeping Watford competitive when surrounded by better-resourced rivals.

1909 brought a change, as Watford FC became a public company. Thorpe was joined on the board by other directors and there was a public share issue. Expectations would have been heightened, but 1909/10 proved a disappointing season, with Watford only just avoiding relegation. At the end of it, John Goodall was relieved of his duties.

Harry Kent took over, but Watford experienced four more years of similar outcomes – 14th, 9th, 14th and 18th, with players still being sold to keep the club afloat. These included Arthur Grimsdell, a Watford Fields boy, sold to Tottenham in 1912 and later captain of England. The 1914/15 season saw Watford become Southern League champions, although with the Great War under way times were far from normal.

After John Goodall departed, Watford experienced 50 more years of being lower-league also-rans. The Southern League was adopted into the Football

League in 1920 as Division 3 South, but Watford were usually to be found in its lower reaches right through to the late 1950s. Twice the club finished in the bottom two and were obliged to apply for re-election, as was the system at the time.

None of the subsequent managerial custodians of the club over the next 50 years succeeded in improving the club’s status. One can view John Goodall as the first victim in a series of cases of unrealistic expectations.

Out of work at Watford, Goodall became one of the first English coaches to go abroad, hired by clubs in Europe and around the world as they too set up professional leagues and brought over British coaches to show the way. He spent two years at Roubaix in northern France from 1910 to 1912. After that he acted as manager for Mardy, a Welsh club, even donning his boots for one final match.

After that John Goodall, once England’s most famous footballer, chose to return to Watford and make the town his permanent home. He was a recognisable figure, to whom one can imagine people doffing their hats as he passed them on his bicycle. He became groundsman at Cassio Road, where Watford continued to play until 1922. On matchdays he could be found acting as a gateman. He helped his family in their caged-bird shop in Market Street, grew vegetables in his allotment, and would walk his pet fox on a lead in the town.

In the 1939 Register he gave his profession as ‘retired cricket groundsman’. Presumably this was his last paid job, and it’s another indication of how footballers needed to find other employment once they had left the game. His great pupil Steve Bloomer was to be found on Derby’s groundstaff in the 1930s too.

John Goodall passed away at his home in Longspring in 1942, aged 78. The world was at war and money was scarce, which may explain why he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Vicarage Road cemetery. He remained there for over 75 years, just across the road from what has become today’s Premier League stadium, lying close to the graves of fellow England captain Arthur Grimsdell and club founder Henry Grover.

From this distance we can say that John Goodall’s part in the early development of Watford FC was very important.

With him in the manager’s role, the club established a footing in English football which it has never relinquished, even if over a century later it now inhabits a very different world. And yet until this year Watford FC’s first manager, one of the greats of the English game, lay largely forgotten and uncelebrated, just yards from where the finest of today’s players ply their trade.

It’s entirely appropriate that he is now properly memorialised.


This article is from Volume 1 of The Watford Treasury, to purchase this publication in all its visual glory, please follow the link below:

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