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The End of 40 Years of Doing Nothing

David Harrison looks at 1959/60 promotion season


Most supporters will be aware that Watford joined the Football League prior to the 1920/21 season.

When asked to summarise the club’s subsequent performance in a single sentence, something along the lines of ’40 years doing nothing much, followed by 60 years of frenzied activity’ would be a reasonable assessment.

That frenzied activity continues to this day, of course, with the club’s tenth promotion now safely and wonderfully secured.

But the first time is always special, and so it proved during the glorious 1959/60 season. It was certainly very special when seen through the eyes of this starstruck six-year-old fan.

Apart from some one-off Cup heroics, the years from 1921 to 1958 had delivered remarkably little.

The club could be said to have taken their lead from the Grand Old Duke of York. Along with the subject of the nursery rhyme, we had about 10,000 men, in a decent year at least, while just like the old Duke we spent most of our time neither up nor down.

Enter, in October 1958, one Clifford Charles Holton. The Big Fella.

Cliff’s initial impact after signing from Arsenal in that 1958/59 season was OK, but nothing special. He scored 10 goals in 35 appearances, mostly at centre-half, as Watford limped to the end of yet another disappointing season.

Hopes were marginally higher for the 1959/60 season, but the side made a dismal start. After five games they had collected one win and a couple of draws, in the process scoring the grand total of two goals.

The first home match saw an attendance of less than 10,000, with a drop of over 1,000 before the next game at Vicarage Road. This was not what Holton had signed up for and the record signing would happily have returned to Highbury given the chance.

However everything changed before the sixth game, away at Crewe. By now Holton had returned to the forward line, where he was joined by summer signing Dennis Uphill. The two immediately struck up a highly effective partnership and scored three times at Gresty Road.

Downbeat programme notes (the opening game against Stockport suggested ‘it would be foolish to promise you anything – we are just hoping’) gave way to excited enthusiasm.

The team returned from Crewe and promptly put six past Oldham Athletic. Crowds shot up and things soon looked considerably brighter. There were still bumps in the road of course (including an eye-watering 8-1 defeat at Crystal Palace, of all places) but generally the team was making progress.

Palace were soon beaten 4-2 in front of almost 15,000 under the Vicarage Road lights, thereby extracting a measure of revenge for the Selhurst nightmare. Home form was generally excellent but on the road things remained difficult, with just two wins from the first ten games.

As the season developed, Holton scored twelve times in six games, with Uphill also contributing well. Nobody much else scored at all but it simply didn’t matter. Four were promoted from Division Four at that time and Watford, after their slow start, had considerable ground to make up but slowly closed the gap.

The most significant event of the season, from a personal perspective, happened around this time. My father had been a Vicarage Road regular for many years and would invariably bring me back the programme which I studied with the forensic eye for detail only very small children can bring.

I obsessively analysed every aspect of the club’s performance and was clearly ready. On Saturday 21 November, at the age of six-and-a-half, my mother finally relented. My dad took me to that day’s game against Darlington, thereby condemning me to a 62-year (and counting) sentence from which there is no known escape.

Darlo were beaten 2-1 that day, the only surprise being that Holton failed to hit the target. Not to worry though, Uphill got them both.

The FA Cup was a very big deal in those days and Watford enjoyed a tremendous run. Southern League Cheltenham Town were beaten after a replay, which brought local Isthmian League side Wycombe Wanderers to Vicarage Road. They lost 5-1 (Holton 2, Uphill 2) in front of almost 24,000.

First Division Birmingham City were next up, attracting a stunning crowd of 31,314 who saw Watford win 2-1 to become the first Division Four club to eliminate a topflight side from the competition.

Southampton were next out of the hat. A 2-2 draw at The Dell meant the sides returned to Vicarage Road for a midweek replay, won by a single Barry Hartle goal.

The fifth round saw Watford travel to Bramall Lane, backed by 8,000 boisterous fans in a Sheffield crowd in excess of 40,000. The Blades proved just too strong, winning 3-2 after Watford were reduced to nine fully fit men.

The immediate legacy of the Cup run was a downturn in League form, with just two wins from the next nine games, but the town was now solidly behind the team. The final run-in began with three games played in four days over the Easter weekend, with the club still three points adrift of the promotion positions.

No problem. The Big Fella scored a Vicarage Road hat-trick on Good Friday afternoon against Chester before repeating the feat 24 hours later against Gateshead. A 1-0 win at Chester on Easter Monday left the club well placed, but with work still to do.

Nearly 18,000 endured an edgy win over Rochdale before the club’s first Football League promotion was clinched, inevitably with a Holton goal, at Workington.

That left one game, a triumphant Vicarage Road night with 20,000 enjoying a 2-2 draw against newly crowned champions Walsall. Many of the crowd spilled onto the pitch afterwards, demanding, ‘We Want Cliff’.

Holton ended the season with 42 League goals and another six in the Cup. Uphill chipped in with 30 in the League and six Cup goals. The town had never seen anything like it.

There’s been far more elegant football played in the intervening sixty years, but for sheer, raw excitement you’d struggle to beat the wonderful 1959/60 season.