Mark Harrowell on the 1978/79 season
January 1979, Elvis Costello releases his third album, Armed Forces. Opening lyric: “Oh I just don’t know where to begin”. Elvis, I know exactly how you feel.
If you were a 15-year-old male in Croxley Green in 1978, there were pretty much only three places you could go; no pub would serve you, so it was the chip shop, gigs in London or Hemel, or the football. Luckily for me, it was a Holy Trinity that all delivered. The Corner Plaice (!) on Baldwin’s Lane served large portions of absurdly hot, greasy potato slabs, gigs involved pogoing to the most exciting music you’d ever heard necessitating a fully clothed shower to wash off the spit, blood and sweat, and then there was the football. I defy anybody, anywhere, to have had more fun following their local team than we did.
My mate Dave and I had been on the pitch after the Herts Senior Cup final victory over Tring Town which had put a successful full stop on the Fourth Division-winning season. A year later, we were in the town pond after another visit to the sacred lawns of (then) WD1.
Much of my summer of ’78 was spent watching the World Cup from Argentina with Dave while necking the Cinzano from his parents’ drinks cabinet. ‘Cubillas, ONENIL’ barked David Coleman and we tittered as the Scots deep-fried more humble pie. When the domestic campaign started, it was clear that we weren’t the only ones who’d tuned in. Crowds in Buenos Aires had welcomed their national team with a monsoon of ticker tape and Watford took the field to play also-promoted Brentford in their first home game during what was more of a squally shower of decimated Yellow Pages.
The team were untroubled by a higher tier. Sixteen goals came in the first four games, and despite a reverse against Peterborough, we knocked Newcastle out of the League Cup before unkindly demonstrating to Lincoln why we’d poached their manager with another five at Sincil Bank. This was unbelievable stuff – my embarrassing local club, the one where you went to play tag with your sister on the empty terraces during a routine home defeat to Walsall, were top of the league again. My most vivid memory of that glorious autumn was a dismantling of Oxford United in the sunshine during which Ross Jenkins scored all four. Discarded ticker tape was gathered into a pile and set alight in front of the snazzy new electronic scoreboard by way of half-time entertainment.
Much like the local business directories, Jenkins had started the season on fire. He’d already put three past Blackpool’s keeper under the lights and reached double figures before the clocks went back. My father believed his form was all due to Taylor (‘Hopeless until Graham got hold of him’). Enter Luther. Previously given just a handful of starts, Blissett came in at the expense of the honest but limited Keith Mercer and also hit the ground running with a goal a game in his first five appearances. He’d bagged a couple to dispose of the Mags and, as the weather got seriously cold and we relied on the chippie and leaping around in front of Buzzcocks for warmth, he repeated the trick at Old Trafford (although my personal favourite was a diving header at home to Swindon).
‘Luther’s black, Ross is white – they are fucking dynamite’ sang the big boys on the Football Special to Stoke for our next League Cup adventure. It’s impossible to convey just how bloody exciting it all was, and the underlying threat of violence at matches (and gigs) furthered our adrenaline rush. Bricks and slates arrived through most of the windows of our carriage as we pulled out of the Potteries that night. After the replay, Dave and I took refuge in the kitchen of a Chinese takeaway in Market Street having been chased by Stoke fans out for blood. My sister’s boyfriend, Trevor, gained some sort of notoriety by mistakenly going in the home end at London Road, talking politely to a policeman and coyly smiling as he was escorted round the pitch to chants of ‘Bogside, Bogside, do your job’ from the travelling Hornets. We were taught how to make a ‘Millwall Brick’ on the coach to promotion rivals Shrewsbury, although who had time for origami in a dust up remains unclear. ‘Carlisle are bringing three trainloads down’, ‘Chelsea are turning up to fight for Brentford’, ‘Oxford play darts’. And so it went, not big, clever or worth making a Danny Dyer film about but it took the mind off mock O-levels.
Meanwhile, the expensive Steve Sims arrived looking a little like a WWII airman. He was to bolster a defence that now included John Stirk, who’d been signed pre-season. The rest was pretty much as you were. Dennis Booth (c) and Roger Joslyn turned ‘a combative midfield’ up to eleven, and Alan Garner was not to be out-debonaired by Sims and kept his hair immaculate. Ian Bolton (who I once met in Luxton’s on Scots Hill) kicked the ball very hard indeed, either into the River Severn or the top corner, depending on his mood. From wide, Brian Pollard, Keith Pritchett and Bobby Downes continued to supply the ammo for Ross and Luther, who only missed five games between them once they'd paired up at the start of September. Mercer seemed permanently injured and, to be honest, I don’t know if we even had another striker at the club. Sorry, that position is now closed. Indefinitely.
The endurance of that squad is extraordinary by modern standards. Stirk and Jenkins played in all 58 (yes, 58) matches, Joslyn only missed one (somebody please explain the disciplinary processes), Bolton and Garner both appeared over 50 times and Blissett and Booth weren’t far behind. Team selection must have been a doddle.
Soon-to-be European champions Nottingham Forest finally ended our League Cup exploits in the semi-final (although not before Luther had briefly facilitated a scenario too fantastical to be true at the City Ground – anyone there will remember the bell (and the mud)).
Then, inexplicably we stuttered and won just once in the following seven games. Notice had been served in the painful surrender of a three-goal lead to Bury in January, then February brought only draws. We had looked promotion certainties along with Shrewsbury all season, but after an Easter defeat at Southend and a mauling at home by Colchester, we were suddenly menaced by Swansea, Gillingham and Swindon.
With three matches remaining, it looked like we’d bollocksed it. Swansea were top while the others all had games in hand. The result that pundits would probably label ‘defining’ came at Sheffield Wednesday, although anyone who attended generally described the day as ‘terrifying’. Goals by Blissett & Jenkins (obs) and a penalty (presumably bludgeoned) by Bolton ensured a ‘win and go up’ finale against mid-table Hull on May 14. The events of that evening are well documented. I remember all gates being opened so we were free to stand behind whichever goal Watford were attacking – just like the bad old days, only with 20,000 more people and some decent players present. I don’t need to tell you which pair were both among the goal scorers.
Yes, rose-tinted goggles and all that, but having seen the pretty pathetic display of pondage this time around, I can confirm that jumping into filthy water was far better in our day. Hundreds joined us in taking a bus home with grey slurry on their drainpipes. It had cost Dave and me £16 each for a season ticket, two of the best purchases we ever made. Promotion from Division 4 may have been the first real success that we had witnessed (the Endean moment was just too early), but it was the following season that cemented the status of the club’s greatest manager and its finest strike partnership. Watford FC, as I know it, was founded in 1978/79. Farewell blackberry bushes, greyhounds, Northwich fucking Victoria and games of tag. Hello away wins at Hillsborough and Old Trafford.