Back to the 70s
Richard White goes back 50 years...
Being a young teenage football supporter in the early 1970s was challenging, particularly if you were going to games on your own or with mates of a similar age. Terrace culture at the start of the decade saw the rise of skinheads with National Front allegiances. Football and police authorities had no idea how to control the violent clashes between troublemakers in and around football matches, and the concept of fan segregation in League grounds was still years away. There were places and situations you definitely didn’t want to be in on a Saturday afternoon.
In order to maintain some kind of street cred with your contemporaries whilst this was going on, you had to sport at least some of the mod/skinhead uniform, comprising a Ben Sherman or Brutus shirt, two-tone (‘tonic’) Sta-Prest trousers, Harrington jacket or Crombie coat, and Doc Marten ‘bovver boots’. In the latter case, an alternative of leather-soled brogue shoes was also acceptable, especially if the soles were reinforced with Blakey’s metal segs. A well-aimed kick from one of those could do more damage than a Doc Marten boot. On the downside, you could also regularly end up on your arse as worn segs were extremely slippery on the ground.
For Watford fans, there was little to cheer about after the FA Cup run to the semi-finals in 1970, as the lack of player investment would see the euphoria of promotion to the Second Division in 1969 slowly ebb away like a leaky balloon, culminating with relegation to the Fourth Division in 1975. Match attendances at the Vic started to drop below 5,000, and the future looked bleak.
By 1973/74, teenage terrace fashion had undergone a major change after the influence of glam rock. Hippy-style flared trousers were back in with a vengeance, together with patterned shirts with huge collars, short-sleeved tank top pullovers in garish colours, platform shoes and unfeasibly long hair. The great thing about platform shoes was that they instantly made you a couple of inches taller; very good for the fragile teenage ego. The downside was that I spent two years with my ankles permanently bandaged after I kept falling off the damn things and straining my ankle ligaments – the fact that this coincided with my early experimentation with beer consumption is probably more than coincidental.
It wasn’t just Watford FC that was on a downward slide in the early 1970s; the UK was entering a period of political turmoil not seen in peacetime since the 1920s, as powerful trade unions fought the government over wage restrictions. One result was the Three-Day Week imposed from 1 January until 7 March 1974. This was a strange (and strained) time for all who lived through it. The coal mining and transport unions were restricting supplies to the coal-fired power stations, resulting in electricity supplies to industry being rationed to three days per week. The general public was also subjected to lengthy domestic power cuts.
Candles were used for lighting homes during the long blackouts, and it was a miracle how our house never burned down, with three boys tearing around and messing about with the naked flames and candle wax. Ceilings were blackened by smoke from the candles that were sold at the time, and even when electricity was made available, there was a 10:30pm curfew on TV broadcasting.
Professional football was initially affected from mid-November 1973, when the government introduced a floodlight ban at all football matches, relaxing this for only a brief period over the Christmas and New Year holidays. This wasn’t a huge issue for Saturday games, where kick-off times could be brought forward to ensure that matches finished before dark – Watford’s FA Cup second round home tie against Bournemouth on 15 December kicked off at 1:15pm for example – but midweek matches presented a bigger problem, having to be played during daylight hours.
When amateur club Hendon gained a notable 1-1 draw at First Division Newcastle United in the FA Cup third round on 5 January, they obtained agreement to stage the replay at Vicarage Road on the following Wednesday, making use of the larger ground capacity available compared with their Claremont Road ground in Cricklewood. Despite an early-afternoon kick-off time on a ‘working day’, 15,385 spectators flocked to Watford, many hoping to see a famous giant-killing. The match resulted in a comfortable 4-0 win for the Magpies, fronted by England centre-forward ‘Supermac’ – Malcolm Macdonald.
A painful memory is of playing 5-a-side football in a scout hut during the blackout, illuminated by less than a dozen candles placed on the windowsills, as we trained for our Sunday football team. Bruises were caused by players running into each other – and the furniture – in the deep gloom.
An early exit from the FA Cup after defeat in the Bournemouth game ensured that Watford would not be troubled by Cup replays during the floodlight ban. The Hornets had no other midweek games scheduled during the crisis, but an issue did arise on the weekend of Saturday 2 March. Watford’s home match with Shrewsbury Town had originally been scheduled for the Friday evening to avoid clashing with the League Cup Final played at Wembley the following day. A Friday evening kick-off was now impossible with the floodlight ban, so the match was moved to an 11:00am Saturday morning kick-off.
This placed me in a dilemma: I had been a dedicated Watford fan for years, but was chosen to play for the Queens’ School Under-18 football team on Saturday morning and would miss the Watford game, or at least a good part of it. Asking my dad whether I should invent some excuse to duck out of the school match, he said “Son, you’ll be able to watch Watford until you are old, but you won’t be able to play football forever”. I took his advice and played for the school team, but hatched a cunning plan. Fortunately I had passed my driving test a few weeks earlier, so managed to persuade my dad to bravely lend me his car for one of my first solo driving trips. At the end of the school game I dragged my clothes over my muddy limbs and drove off down Aldenham Road towards Vicarage Road. I managed to park close to the ground and blagged my way in to see the second half of the match, a 1-0 Watford win following a Stewart Scullion penalty. Result!
My first solo car outing had been early the previous month, collecting my girlfriend en route to see Watford win 4-2 against Tranmere Rovers in her first-ever visit to a football match. Despite the promising scoreline and the excitement of seeing a Billy Jennings hat-trick, our relationship surprisingly did not last. On the plus side, a joint trip to watch football did become my way of testing whether future relationships had any legs.
Watford actually had a relatively decent 1973/74 season. Fuelled by goals from Billy Jennings, Pat Morrissey and the returning Stewart Scullion, the Hornets played some attractive football at times under player-manager Mike Keen, but without the necessary backbone to achieve consistency, ultimately finishing in seventh place in Division Three, well short of promotion. Any optimism was short-lived, with Watford relegated to Division Four a year later, after selling Jennings and Morrissey.
As Watford wallowed in Fourth Division obscurity, 1976/77 saw the arrival of yet another fashion explosion – punk rock, with its torn clothing, Mohican hairstyles and raucous music. It seemed to largely bypass the football-supporting community – or maybe it didn’t. Either way I was too old to care by then.
Looking back, the early 70s was a naff time to follow Watford as a teenager. The game was plagued by crowd trouble and falling attendances, the football was played on appalling pitch surfaces in rotting stadiums, and the era was epitomised by England’s failure to qualify for the 1974 and 1978 World Cups. What we Watford fans needed was a saviour, and of course thanks to Elton John, in 1977 the Great Man arrived… from Lincoln of all places. It was time to hold on to your seats: the Graham Taylor rocket ride was about to take off!