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There used to be… A League we Couldn’t Get Out Of

Colin Payne goes back to a time when Watford played in Division Three South


As today’s Watford supporters alternate their weeks expressing overwrought raptures or apocalyptic fury depending upon a single result, spare a thought for fans from an altogether different era. Whereas today each post-match period is utilised agonising over a league table, calculating the effect the disappointing results have on both us and those around us, imagine a world where relegation was near impossible. And as we ponder the next visit of one of the Big Six (oh praise be), try to picture a time where we were doomed to play Northampton, Colchester, QPR and Millwall seemingly for eternity. For such a time existed.

Welcome to Division Three South.

Between 1920 and 1958 Watford resided in a perpetual Groundhog Day, plying their trade in a league designed to stifle progress, whilst (unless you were from Wales or bankrupt) pretty much protecting you from falling out the bottom. 

Initially a rubber bone thrown to members of the Southern League who, by virtue of being good, warranted inclusion in the then-protective Football League, it was a compromise, broadening the size and reach of the existing status quo whilst not seriously jeopardising the standing of the existing membership, who now formed the top two tiers. For its entirety Division Three South operated a one-up formula, along with re-election rather than relegation, that saw 16 of its original 22 members still battling to get out at the end of its 38-year existence. This was an awfully long period in Watford’s history, and must have seemed even longer for those who attended those overfamiliar encounters, although split by the minor intrusion of an inconvenient World War. 

During this time Watford were neither promoted nor relegated, failing to finish, in a league where only the top team went up, any higher than fourth, but also avoiding bottom spot. 38 years of basically doing nothing. We were the very definition of average, in that throughout our tenure in this cabal of predictable mundaneness we averaged a final placing of 12th! 

It’s tempting to feel sympathy for the Watford fans from this generation, and to put things into perspective, a 12-year-old supporter back in 1920, buoyed by their team’s inclusion in this new wonder league and a forthcoming move to a new stadium, would have had no idea that come their 50th birthday they’d still be watching the Blues playing Brighton and Hove bloody Albion year-in year-out not once coming near to progressing out of the league in an upward direction, and only twice facing the ignominy of going cap-in-hand to their peers for the almost-guaranteed privilege of being re-elected to remain in the stagnant pool of averageness. Yet in truth they would have known no different. Despite optimistic renderings on the covers of early 1950s programmes, no one expected Watford to start the following season anywhere other than where they had ended the previous one. It was our place, because it was designed thus. Fans treasured the games, the occasions, the events. Players were still heroes, the likes of Taffy, Maurice and Tommy ‘Boy’ would excite and dazzle. And a three-game winning streak was treated just as rationally as a three-game losing run, and almost certainly no one would be ruining their week worrying about it. 

Of course, there was also a Division Three North, seemingly operating in a parallel universe which, until the leagues merged in the summer of 1958, saw their members battling in an equally closed shop, where only in cup games would teams venture across what was a rather wonky geographical divide to play each other. It should however be noted that the northern version was rubbish, with only half of its members in that final season prior to merging currently plying their trade in today’s Football League, and only one club, Hull City, doing so in one of the top two divisions. In contrast, six clubs from that final southern version are now in the Premier League Brighton, Palace, Brentford, Southampton, Norwich and, of course, Watford.

This obvious imbalance in the two Division Threes was one of the major factors that saw the leagues reorganised into the new Divisions Three and Four, with Watford, by virtue of ending the preceding season in 16th place, finding themselves in the Fourth Division something they remedied with that very long-awaited promotion two seasons later, although ironically still failing to reach the top three in a league. However, it would be well over another decade before they were to taste a first ‘proper’ relegation whilst competing in the Football League, a full 52 years after joining, with our young eager 12-year-old from Cassio Road now on the verge of drawing their old-age pension.

And this is why relegation, even in the Premier League, is a necessity. As bad and daunting as going down may appear, it’s still preferable to playing exactly the same teams year after year, decade after decade, as Watford did during that time. Of course, no one wants to go down, but then again surely it’s better than stagnating in a league you can never realistically win? After all, who would you rather be us or Everton?