Elton John’s Taylor-made Watford showed that clubs are about people

<span>Photograph: Express/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Express/Getty Images

I finished Watford Forever, John Preston’s excellent new book about the friendship between Elton John and Graham Taylor and the effect it had on the town of Watford and the football club at its heart, feeling an unexpectedly profound sense of loss. The loss of a man I hardly knew, the joyful, fragile biosphere he created and a game I hardly recognise.

Two days after Taylor died in 2017, I took my son, who was seven at the time, to see Watford play Middlesbrough at Vicarage Road. I remember little of the game itself, which was overshadowed by the minute’s applause held in tribute to Taylor. As the crowd stood I looked around me and saw many hundreds of people of approximately my age, who would have been small children during Taylor’s first spell at the club, many of them with children of their own.

Related: David Squires on … the life of Graham Taylor

I wondered who among them had, like me, had their lives shaped by this man. Who, were it not for the welcoming, blossoming club Taylor created from what Preston describes as “a crumbling ruin with two rickety stands and toilets so dark and dingy that mushrooms were reputed to grow on the walls” might never have gone to watch football at all, might never have grown to love the game, might never have developed this matchday ritual.

On the day Taylor died, John wrote that “he was like a brother to me”, echoing Taylor’s observation of the pop star that “I came to regard him as the younger brother I never had”. It is this relationship that lies at the heart of Preston’s book. Taylor is absolutely the hero of this story, the crucial scene a furious bollocking he delivered as John spiralled into drink and drug abuse at the end of the 1970s. It was at this moment the fraternal bond was formed. “Behind his anger,” John said, “I could see that he really loved me.”

But at Vicarage Road on that first matchday after Taylor’s death it was clear to me that if he and John were brothers they were also parents, and now grandparents, of entire generations of supporters. For years after both had left the club fans sung about Elton John’s Taylor-made army, words that initially applied to the team and then, after time passed and players departed, remained true of the fans ourselves. And here we all were, standing together, an army of strangers and of siblings and both at the same time.

My actual family had no interest in football or, beyond two weeks of tennis each summer, professional sport of any kind. That I started going to Vicarage Road, that football became an obsession, and that I have spent my professional life writing about it is down to three men who came together in Hertfordshire in the late 1970s and into whose orbit I was fortunate enough to fall: Taylor, John, and first great chronicler of their revolution, the Watford Observer’s Oli Phillips.

In Preston’s book, the Vicarage Road of the late 1970s, at the start of Watford’s ascent, is described as “a corrugated graveyard” that was “falling to bits”, site of “uncovered stands and primeval dressing rooms”. Today, it stands transformed, its structural improvements started by John and continued more recently by Gino Pozzo, the club’s owner since 2012. But in many ways it is what we see now that is the ruin.

“A club is people. It’s the washerwoman and the groundsman as well as the players or the directors,” Graham Taylor told the Observer’s Hugh McIlvanney in 1979. A club is people. Taylor was a regimented man, a man of strong opinions and quick temper. At his club you were not allowed to be late, to grow facial hair, even to get cramp, but his was a reign of terror and also tenderness. “Graham had something you very seldom come across in life – an ability to make you exceed your own expectations of yourself,” says the former Watford goalkeeper Steve Sherwood.

During his first spell at Watford, each season was preceded by a party for the club’s entire staff, from team to tea ladies, all of whom piled on coaches with their families and headed to John’s mansion near Windsor, where they would be welcomed by one of the world’s most famous musicians and also his mum, Sheila. They would lay on a buffet lunch and stage egg-and-spoon races on the lawn. “I’ve never forgotten those parties,” John tells Preston. “There was always this magical atmosphere, this sense of camaraderie, of all of us mucking in together.”

Football is a world of hierarchies, of league tables and player rankings, of expected goals and escalating salaries. But the heart of the story of Watford’s rise through the divisions under Taylor is one of pure egalitarianism: a manager who could berate a pop star as if he were a schoolboy and make schoolboys feel like royalty, and a world famous chairman who treated reserve-team footballers like pop stars.

At Vicarage Road, John says, “I felt I could leave Elton behind for a while. No one cared about who I was, no one bowed and scraped. I enjoyed myself far more there than I did anywhere else. The ridiculous thing was that I felt more at home at Watford Football Club than I did in my own home.”

When Taylor joined Watford the administrative staff was small enough for their desks to fit in a single portable building and it is obviously easier to make a workforce feel like a family when it is not much larger than one. The sport has grown since then, it has professionalised, and it is hard to bemoan that process. But it is also hard to read Watford Forever without becoming overwhelmingly nostalgic.

How did the club go from having a famous owner who treated fans as equals, to having an obscure owner who ignored them completely? At how many clubs in the top two divisions could the manager give their own chairman the hairdryer treatment or the cleaners bring their kids to the owner’s house for a party? In a world of oligarchs and sovereign wealth funds, it is inconceivable. The game has become so much wealthier and so much poorer.

Preston burrows to the heart of what for a while Watford got so right and what I think I last really felt on that cold afternoon in January 2017 as we mourned Taylor and all that he had brought us: a club is people. All of its people, all important, all valued. Lose that, and what is left?

John Preston’s Watford Forever is published by Viking.