The House That Jack Built
Challenging popular wisdom, Colin Payne looks at why Watford history should consider Sir Jack Petchey with a bit more fondness
Watford-wise the 1990s were a bit of a lost decade for me, well at least the years from 1992 to 1997 were. We all have a lost period in our supporting lives, that time where perhaps relationships, family, finance or just priorities in life dictate that the obsession you’ve seen thus far as admirable loyalty is in fact blatant selfish indulgence. I didn’t totally stop going, yet somehow really wasn’t that bothered.
As lost periods go it was quite a good time to have one. The highs were infrequent, the lows none too traumatic, and the ability to just ‘rock up’ at Vicarage Road an easy option – nothing sold out during that period. It was also a time of transition, not just for me, but for football and Watford FC in general. Gates were low almost everywhere, and the game was in the no man’s land of not yet being the gentrified all-singing, all-dancing TV product it is now, but still different. The hooligans had buggered off to get pilled up at raves, terraces were vanishing before our eyes, and it was almost safe to wear your replica shirt walking to an away ground.
It was a chronic lack of finance which really defined the era. Clubs, at least those in what was then known as Division One, had to make do with what they had, and what they had generally were mediocre gates, modest sponsorship deals, and hopefully one or two players that would increase in value enough to ensure that the club would see out another season.
Watford were not immune from these realities. They no longer had the golden goose dressed as an over-elaborate Marie Antoinette in charge, tossing tenners and Easter eggs with gay abandon; they had a second-hand-car dealer in a pink tie and white suit with matching loafers, with a wallet that truly knew when to stay shut. Jack Petchey – and there are those who will recoil at these very words – was exactly what Watford needed at that time.
Petchey (and let’s have it straight here – he’s still going strong at 97 and is one of the greatest philanthropists still living) was a man who truly knew the value of a pound. He was overseeing a football club that had not needed to stand on its own two feet for well over a decade, at a time when the average gate was under five figures, bang in the middle of a football crisis. The game was having to cope with a massive, long-overdue regeneration of its stadiums. That throughout his tenure we avoided administration, dodged relegation until his last year, and demonstrated managerial stability that today seems such an alien concept, is testament to both his prudent stewardship and faith in others to do the jobs he paid them to do. Petchey was unpopular – even Bassini avoided a boardroom crowd invasion – but I will always contend that if not for Jack’s sheer, dogged loathing of spending money he didn’t have, the Pozzo revolution may well have occurred at the Valley rather than in WD18. He did probably more than any other Watford owner in history in developing the ground – he created a future for Watford Football Club through bricks and mortar, one which would have a continued impact long after that eventual relegation in 1996.
History (as well as some of my closest Hornet-supporting friends) still does not regard Petchey fondly. His policy of selling the family jewels whenever the price was right saw potential exchanged for struggle, and he did little to endear himself to what was by then Watford’s diehard core support.
Yet he was fondly remembered by both Glenn Roeder and Steve Perryman, young managers who had both worked under his frugal budgets but knew they would be backed by the chairman, allowed to get on with their job, and that when sales had to come, most prominently in the form of Furlong and Dyer, at least some of the resulting cash would be made available for replacements.
When he did depart it was with a repaid seven-figure debt in his linen-jacket pocket, one which Elton paid willingly in order to wrest control back, yet had ultimately written off himself when Petchey had taken over half a dozen or so years earlier. Yet what Jack left behind was a Vicarage Road for the future. Three shiny stands where decay had resided previously. Yes, the Vicarage Road end was ‘functional’ in the extreme, but Watford had the foundations in place to one day return to the top table and have a ground able to host Premier League football.
One day, perhaps popular wisdom will come to look at Sir Jack Petchey as one of the club’s great influential owners, up there with Thorpe, Rigby-Taylor, Bonser, John and Pozzo. I doubt it, but one day it may happen. Because it should. Look around the ground we now love, and never forget that more of that stadium was built under his stewardship than the rest of it put together.
He was a tight old bastard though.