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The redevelopment of Vicarage Road

In May 1986, I was taken to my first Watford game (a 1-1 draw against Manchester United, in case you were wondering; Luther Blissett scored for us). Dad and I stood on a section of terracing called the Family Terrace, a part of the stadium which adults could only access if they were accompanied by a child. It was not for nothing that Watford, then in the old First Division, were the original family-friendly football club.

This was during a particularly grim time for English football in general (hooliganism was rife, and English clubs were banned from European competition as a result of the Heysel disaster the previous year), but from a Watford point of view it was towards the end of the most successful period in the club’s history, which lasted for the same length as Graham Taylor’s first stint as manager (1977-87); it was during this time that Watford went from the Fourth Division to the First Division in five years and, having made it to the top flight for the first time in the club’s history, went on to play in Europe and reach the FA Cup Final. Alongside Taylor, responsibility for that success lies with Elton John who, having supported the club as a boy, had become a director in 1973 and taken over as chairman in 1976 and proceeded to invest large amounts of money in the club, as well as working tirelessly behind the scenes (as well as board meetings, he also lobbied Watford Council on the club’s behalf) and playing fund-raising gigs at Vicarage Road; to describe him as a ‘celebrity fan’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. We may, a few years ago, have sung of Marlon King being the King of Vicarage Road, but I think we all knew that the real King of Vicarage Road was, and is, Elton.

By the mid-Eighties, having overseen promotion of Elton John’s Taylor-made Army to the top flight, he turned to investing in the ground itself (having been unable to persuade the Council to let him build a brand-new stadium outside the town, as several clubs have since done). The result was that during the summer of 1986 (just after my first game), the Shrodells Stand, a section of covered terracing dating back to the Thirties which ran for much of the length of the west side of the pitch (named, presumably, after the hospital located next door, which nowadays goes under the name of Watford General) was demolished and replaced by a brand-new, two-tiered all-seater stand – several years before the Taylor Report recommended that all clubs in the top two divisions should have all-seater stadia. Here was another example, alongside the club’s family-friendly outlook, of Watford being ahead of its time. The stand was named the Rous Stand in honour of ex-FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous (the archetypal old-fashioned, blazer-and-striped-tie administrator whose connection with Watford was, it has to be said, slight – he once taught at the boys’ grammar school off the Rickie Road). Vicarage Road had tentatively entered the modern era.

(Incidentally, the ground had its own train station back then, Watford Stadium Halt, which had of course been opened by Elton and which was located on the branch line connecting the Junction with Croxley Green and which got nicknamed ‘Hooligan Halt’ as its main intention was to keep away fans out of the town centre; this line was closed in the Nineties – although it is shown as operational on my 2001-vintage copy of the A-Z – but there are now plans to re-open it as an extension of the Metropolitan Line, with a new station, Watford Vicarage Road, to serve both the football ground and the hospital.)

The good times, of course, didn’t last – GT left, Elton stepped down as chairman and the club was relegated to the Second Division. However, thanks to the all-seater recommendations of the Taylor Report, development of Vicarage Road continued in the Nineties. During the summer of 1993, the open-to-the-elements terrace that was the Vicarage Road End was demolished and replaced by covered seating; this also meant that the benches for the coaching staff and subs, located in front of the East Stand, finally got covering of their own, as back in the Eighties GT had steadfastly refused to have these covered until the home fans got a roof (a promise that his successors kept). Two years later, the Rookery End got seats too – a slightly larger stand than its counterpart, it’s now home to the rowdiest elements of the home support.

That left one side of the ground stuck firmly in the past; the East Stand, complete with a disused patch of terracing (the old Family Terrace) to the side, dated back to 1922, when Watford had first moved to Vicarage Road. It had seats – it has been the first part of the ground to have those by some considerable distance – but it looked horrendously out-of-date compared to the rest of the ground, a factor which was exacerbated whenever home games got televised because, what with the main TV cameras being located on the gantry high up in the Rous Stand, it was the East Stand that got the most air-time – when Watford made it to the Premier League during the second Elton-GT era in the late Nineties, much of the mockery I got from fans of other clubs centred on our apparently out-of-date ground rather than our position at the bottom of the table.

(The last time I sat there, by the way, was on that slightly surreal and absolutely bloody freezing occasion when we played Torquay United in the Auto Windscreens Shield on a Tuesday night in January 1997; a couple of thousand, including an intrepid fifty-odd away fans, turned up for that one to find that the East Stand was the only part of the ground that was open. Four words – ‘Devon White on ice’ – should tell you all you need to know about that.)

There were always plans to knock it down and build something more modern, but financial troubles – most notably the fall-out from the collapse of ITV Digital in 2002 – meant that they were on hold for years (indeed, at one point the club almost lost the stadium, and was only able to buy it back after Elton played a gig there and donated all of the proceeds to the club). The stand itself was eventually declared unsafe in 2008, although the money to replace it wasn’t forthcoming until the takeover by the Pozzo family in 2012.

This season, the process that began back in 1986 has been completed – and in the process, two of the club’s finest servants have been honoured. Rous has been consigned to the history-books with the stand that bore his name being re-christened the Graham Taylor Stand, while the East Stand’s long-awaited replacement, provisionally called the Community Stand earlier on in the season, is now officially open for business as the Sir Elton John Stand.

At the home game against Wigan Athletic back in December, Elton himself was in attendance to dedicate the new stand. Clad in an old-fashioned bar-type scarf, he walked out onto the pitch before the game to a standing ovation with his husband and their kids (a continuation of the family-friendly ethos that he and GT had worked so hard to promote back in the old days). In a pre-game speech he spoke movingly of his lifelong support for the club and, in a nod to the future, he praised the Pozzo family, our current owners; as seals of approval go, that’s hard to beat from a Watford perspective!

In an article in the programme from the Wigan game, Elton speaks of the new stand being “the final piece in the jigsaw that we began over 40 years ago”. He’s right, of course. Vicarage Road is now a totally modern, Premier League-standard stadium for a club with Premier League ambitions.

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