Luxury For the Fans
Colin Payne tells the story of the White City Stadium, where Watford played on three occasions
When West Ham moved into the then-named Olympic Stadium a few years back, and basically sold their soul for a cheap lease and the right to declare they had the worst big ground in London, they no doubt thought that they were being ground-breaking and innovative. Not a bit of it. Queens Park Rangers had been there long before them!
Initially built as part of the extravagant Franco-British Exhibition of 1908, the vast White City Stadium would host many of the events in the London Olympic Games of the same year, after Rome pulled out at short notice due to financial problems. Set amongst a massive 140-acre site which housed whitewashed palaces and exhibition halls, it was a sporting arena the likes of which Britain had not seen. With seating for 11,000 of its 93,000 capacity, it offered comfort and facilities that were state of the art for the time, and like the exhibition it nestled within it was a show of Colonial Britain’s standing, within a world where standing most definitely mattered.
However, sporting legacy was a concept that was yet to be invented, and once the games were completed the surrounding temporary show of Franco-British dominance was gradually dismantled, whilst the showpiece stadium remained unused, waiting almost twenty years to be reopened in 1927, predominantly as a greyhound racing venue. Four years later it was to host League football for the first time, as neighbouring Queens Park Rangers with their then-nomadic tendencies moved the few hundred yards from Loftus Road to what was to become their fourteenth different home ground. The move was based on the notion of increasing their attendances, but for a club – like Watford – in the Third Division South, a 93,000 capacity stadium was to prove a folly which would last no more than two seasons. It was during that 1931/32 campaign that Watford made their first, of just three, visits to the former Olympic venue. A crowd of 16,497 witnessed a 4-4 draw, with the following season’s gate dropping to 10,653 as Rangers beat Watford 2-1. By the summer of 1933 the hosts had returned to Loftus Road, the move being deemed a failure.
The stadium continued to host top international sporting events, being the home of British athletics until 1971, with boxing, rugby league, American football, speedway, stock car racing and greyhound racing all enjoying large crowds.
Despite the failure of the first tenancy, a second tenure for the Hoops was to prove even shorter, after they moved back to the stadium for the 1962/63 season, with the intention of taking advantage of the stadium’s refurbished hospitality areas, and the high ratio of seating. This they billed as a new way of watching football, bringing the game into modern times. Again, Watford were to visit, and in May 1963 Pat Jennings made his debut as just over 5,000 people witnessed a 2-2 draw in Rangers’ final-ever game at the venue. A solitary 1966 World Cup tie would be played, between France and Uruguay – following Wembley’s refusal to move the dates of a greyhound meet! And that was it for football at the venue.
In later years the stadium would lose much of its prestige, partly due to Wembley hosting the sporting showcases, and in its final years it was primarily home to a local speedway team, White City Rebels, and the ‘dogs’. As Hastings Girl chased a final hare to victory in September 1984 the demolition crews were already readying themselves, and within months White City Stadium was gone forever.