Making History: The 1968/69 Promotion Season
Richard White looks back at when Watford won a league.
There have only ever been two occasions when Watford FC has ascended to a higher tier in the Football League than ever previously experienced, and this was the first. The painful wait for this achievement, and the delight of the club’s supporters at the time, cannot be overstated. For nearly fifty years after admission to the Football League in 1920, Watford had laboured away in the third tier of English football – with a short period in the fourth – whilst the ambitions of the club’s shareholders, directors and supporters to take the club to the promised land of the Second Division had failed time and again. Many were resigned to playing alongside the Northamptons, Colchesters and Aldershots of the Football League for evermore.
Finally, after a bright, young manager was allowed four years to develop a squad that was up to the challenge, and with a little bit of luck in plucking Barry Endean, a 20-goal-a-season striker, out of parks football in County Durham, the promotion dream was achieved. Ken Furphy was one of the new breed of managers who combined tactical awareness with perceptive knowledge of opposition players, allowing him to fully prepare his own team prior to games in those pre-video days.
The previous season had seen Watford as one of the highest home scorers in the Football League, including a 7-1 mauling of a Grimsby Town side featuring a certain Graham Taylor at full-back. But it was clear that their away form had not been good enough, and for the 1968/69 season Furphy changed the mindset of the team to play more conservatively, using a ‘contain and destroy’ approach, as he later called it.
It took time to adapt, with just two wins and three draws in the first eight games of the season leaving Watford in the lower half of the table. The new approach required a physical striker who would ‘run around all day’ to close down opposition defenders, and rush them into making mistakes. The perfect solution emerged a few weeks into the season, as Endean gained full match fitness to displace a coasting Barry Dyson at centre-forward, becoming the perfect goalscoring figurehead for the team.
Endean’s work ethic was complemented by support striker Terry Garbett and midfielder Tom Walley, who could always be relied upon to put in a full shift each game, and by the masterful Keith Eddy commanding proceedings from the back – not forgetting Duncan ‘Chopper’ Welbourne at right-back, who encapsulated the determination and fight of the team; very much the Paul Robinson of his day.
All of this allowed the side to include one special flair player who could turn games with sheer skill, as well as being seemingly wasteful on occasions – Stewart Scullion. It was reckoned that Scully attracted extra fans to the ground whenever he played, just to see the tricks he could deliver on the wing. And it was he who had tormented Graham Taylor in the Grimsby thrashing the previous season.
After their moderate start, Watford embarked on a run which saw them lose only three of the next 35 League matches, setting new defensive records in the process, and securing promotion with six games to spare after a 1-0 win at Vicarage Road against Plymouth in front of 22,725 fans on 15 April 1969.
Highlight of the season was Watford’s 29 March fixture at Swindon’s County Ground. With both teams standing clear at the top of the table with ten games to go, this felt like a title decider, and so it proved. The Robins had a team strong enough to have beaten Arsenal 3-1 in the League Cup Final just two weeks earlier, and it was a fine side that included highscoring winger Don Rogers, who was coveted by numerous First Division sides at the time.
In front of a capacity 28,898 crowd, Watford secured a 1-0 win with an 87th minute winner by the non-stop Endean, a result ranking among the best in the club’s Third Division history. Watford would go on to pip Swindon to the divisional title on goal difference. The match had been moved to a Saturday evening kick-off, possibly to avoid clashing with the Grand National horse race (won by Highland Wedding) in the afternoon, and on the way home those with car radios were treated to the groovy sound of Lulu jointly winning the Eurovision Song Contest with the unforgettable Boom Bang a Bang, a song very much of its time.
For this football-smitten 13-year-old enjoying his first full season supporting the Hornets, it was the trip of a lifetime, even managing to pat Scullion on the back as the Watford fans invaded the pitch to congratulate the players at the end of the game.
There was of course no social media, and little or no attention was normally paid to lower-division clubs on TV, radio or the national press in those days, but this didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the loyal fans one iota, nor stop them attending in large numbers for important games. Watford did manage to make the national news that season after gaining a deserved 1-1 draw against European champions Manchester United in a fourth round FA Cup tie at Old Trafford, before bowing out 0-2 at the Vic in the replay in front of an all-time record 34,099 fans. Some team, some season.