Elton – Still Standing on the Yellow Brick Road
Nick Catley on the man who changed Watford forever
Asking why Watford fans love Elton John might, at first glance, seem a question not so far removed from that famously posed to Debbie McGee by Mrs Merton: “What first, Debbie, attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” It’s undeniable that he sunk a lot of money into Watford over the years, and that without it, we wouldn’t have reached the heights that we did. Even so, I don’t think it was an absolute given that he would retain as prominent a place in our affections as he has since resigning as chairman.
Relationships with previous successful owners, here and elsewhere, have ultimately turned sour plenty of times in the past. His now-sporadic attendance at matches and occasional questionable behaviour might have led some to say “Well, Elton did a lot of good for us of course, but…” And yet, I can honestly say I’ve never heard a single Watford fan express that opinion. He’s just about universally loved, his decision to pull back is completely respected, and he’s received enthusiastically on the rare occasions he does come here. Indeed, I’ve no idea why it’s taken us this long to write about perhaps the second-most important person in the history of the club, so his (apparently) final performances at Vicarage Road feel like a good opportunity to put that right.
There are various benefits of having such a global celebrity as a former owner. For one thing, our football club is known across the world – it’s almost guaranteed to be the first thing mentioned when you say who you support in a foreign country. But that’s a side issue.
No, I suspect we love him because of his reasons for getting involved. Few owners are in it for the money, of course – the old saying that the only way to make a small fortune out of a football club is to start with a large one is as true as ever, outside the Premier League at least – but many crave the kudos and prestige it bestows on them. They dream of being lauded by a ground full of fans. As football has become more international, the scale on which this desire operates has changed – local car dealers have become oligarchs, or even countries, with reputations that need a thorough bleaching – but the principle remains the same. Fans aren’t stupid – they can smell exploitation, and the relationship with this type of owner is generally at best one of uncomfortable convenience.
None of this applies to Elton. He had stadiums in the palm of his hand every night and twice on Sundays long before joining the Watford board. If anything, football represented a welcome return to reality for him.
Instead, Elton was indulging the fantasy we’ve all had (or at least did before running a football club at the top level careered out of the reach of even the biggest EuroMillions winner) – what would we do for Watford FC if we won the lottery? Elton got his money through talent rather than luck, of course – and his role in the rise of the club other than financing it shouldn’t be underestimated (his vision for the inclusion of families, for example) – but essentially, that was his motivation. He’s a fan. He’s one of us.
Obviously we know this in all kinds of ways – the film of him going crazy on the bench in the League Cup game against Grimsby in 1977, the tales of commentaries listened to in the middle of the night, and of course the knowledge that he was a regular on the Bend, to name just a few. It’s also clear from his role in the relationship that drove the club to previously unimaginable heights. Graham Taylor was the pragmatist, Elton was the dreamer. GT was the professional, Elton was the fan. GT was the one we all trusted to get it done – but Elton was our representative. We loved and revered GT, but Elton – A-list, multi-millionaire rock star Elton, with his reputation for prima donna behaviour – was the one we related to. Indeed, after that Grimsby match, GT apparently banned Elton from the bench – and could there be any finer demonstration of the fact that, although Elton signed the cheques, there was only one man in charge? Elton made it happen – and to his eternal credit, realised the best way of doing this was to let GT get on with his job without interference – but he was along for the ride like the rest of us. You suspect he was as in awe of GT as we were.
His role reduced in later years, of course, but there’s a snippet in Me, his autobiography, that demonstrates that his passion survived his chairmanship. It’s a while ago now – but however far you drift from the club geographically, it isn’t something you lose. It’s not even in the section on Watford. Many people wished there had been more about football in the book than the few pages devoted to us, but to be fair to Elton, I imagine the workings of a provincial football club wouldn’t have been of huge interest to the planned international audience. We might see him as someone who is our former chairman and most famous fan, who just happens to have a sideline in singing and playing the piano – but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world does.
Often, the level of our fanaticism is revealed not by our behaviour when we’re at games, but the strength of the club’s presence in our lives when we’re not. Elton is talking about the day that he met his now-husband, David Furnish. He could have chosen to do pretty much anything on that Saturday afternoon, 30 October 1993. A day-trip to the Cote d’Azur. An afternoon emptying Harrods. Snorting cocaine off the naked body of an enthusiastic friend, even. However, he actually decided to follow the Hornets’ fortunes, where “Watford were doggedly trying to make my mood worse by getting hammered 4-1 away at West Brom”. I don’t remember – my life didn’t change inexorably for the better that evening – but I know I’d have been doing exactly the same thing, glued to Ceefax, repeatedly waiting anxiously for the page to change from ‘2/3’ to ‘3/3’ to tell the tale of the previous few minutes.
The passage isn’t designed to talk up Elton’s credibility as a Watford fan – the lack of football-related content demonstrates this wasn’t what the book was about. I suspect it was instead designed to emphasise the mundanity and slightly downbeat nature of the afternoon (and a heavy early-90s loss at The Hawthorns is surely the very epitome of downbeat mundanity). For this purpose, it would have served just as well to say that Watford had lost without giving the opponents, score and location. It, would, of course, have been easy enough to check – but there would have been no point. No, Elton remembers the specifics, because they mattered to him. On what turned out to be a crucial day in his life, that was what had previously seemed important, and the details are etched in his mind, even if they later paled into insignificance. The story shows Elton’s adherence to Arrigo Sacchi’s belief that “football is the most important of the least important things” – and which of us would disagree with that?
So there we have, in a nutshell, the real reason we love him. It wasn’t a passing fancy. Watford were never Elton’s plaything. He feels it like the rest of us. Always did. Still does. Happy retirement when you get there, Elton.