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WFC: Watford Finish Champs

Geoff Wicken recounts the 1977/78 season


“When is the earliest in a season you have known we were going up?”, asked the co-editor. Simple: it was the first week of October.

Graham Taylor had taken over in the summer of 1977, and things at Vicarage Road were changing. His remarks delivered via the Watford Observer had a sharply different tone from what we were used to reading. And he was making himself, and by extension the club, visible in the town. A couple of weeks earlier, he’d turned up to give the Friday afternoon sixth-form talk at school. Mike Keen never did that.

This felt like his first big game. It was against Brentford at Griffin Park, unusually scheduled for a Monday night. We’d started the season well. But so had Brentford. With ten games played, both sides were in the top four. On our previous visit, six months earlier, Gordon Sweetzer had scored a hat-trick in the first 15 minutes and we’d lost 0-3. This time though, with due symmetry, we smashed them 3-0.

I never doubted it from that moment. We were going up. We’d briefly hit the top of the table a week earlier, by virtue of a narrow win over Bournemouth 24 hours before most of the other teams played (Jimmy Walsh saved the day by clearing a late effort over the bar, with his elbow I reckoned), but this was the statement win.

We were never out of first place after that. It was an absolute steamrollering of the rest of the division. And they all knew what was coming. We beat Crewe, Scunthorpe and Northampton by three-goal margins, and by the time 1977 became 1978 they were all turning up at Vicarage Road in damagelimitation mode, defences packed. We beat them all 1-0, with the exception of ultra-dull Barnsley, who held on for a 0-0, and poor old Donny Rovers, who tried to make a game of it and as their reward went home with a 6-0 thrashing.

Promotion seasons are meant to be gripping emotional rollercoasters. This one wasn’t. We only lost once after November. There was no jeopardy, no tension. There were no fingernails chewed to the quick. (That would be the following season.) We went up with seven games to spare. It was ruthless, relentless.

There were no stars; it was a collective squad achievement. Goals came from all parts of the team: Jenkins, Mayes, Mercer, Downes, Garner, Bolton and Blissett all scored six or more. There were several club records. We won 18 of our 23 home games, plus 12 away for 30 wins in total. We accumulated 71 points, which would equate to 101 had three points for a win applied.

Watford clinched promotion at Bournemouth the day after my birthday. We made a family day of it, spending a pleasant afternoon at Beaulieu motor museum on the way down, which seemed in keeping with the mundane nature of ticking the box that read ‘job done, promoted to Division 3’.

The championship was sealed at Scunthorpe the following Saturday. At that point we’d played 40, won 29, drawn six and lost five. Results then eased off slightly, with a sequence of five draws and a knockabout last-day home win over Southport, notable for Albert McClenaghan’s legendary throw-in and the fact that Southport were also departing Division 4. They left in the opposite direction, and have yet to be seen in the Football League again.

We were quite simply far too good for the division. Yet, highly satisfying though it was, you couldn’t really claim it was a season that dripped with excitement. As it turned out, of course, there would be plenty of that to follow. 1977/78 was simply GT’s warm-up act for the delights that were to come