Sir Elton John and Watford, ‘the club with a rock ‘n’ roll chairman’

Think of superstars buying unfashionable football clubs and Wrexham, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney probably come to mind.

But in the years the Hollywood actor and the American TV star were born, 1976 and 1977, the original stardust story — courtesy of Sir Elton John — started at another UK team whose name begins with W.

What Deadpool and his pal are aiming to do in north Wales, the pop star and manager Graham Taylor did achieve in Watford, a commuter town just north west of London.

Watford’s incredible rise from the fourth tier of English football to the top flight took just five seasons. They then finished as runners-up to Liverpool in the club’s first elite-division season of 1982-83. A first taste of European football and an FA Cup final appearance followed the next year.

“I never got a penny back from my investment but that didn’t matter at all,” says Sir Elton in Watford Forever, a book being released on November 16. “It had enabled me to have the greatest adventure of my life.”

Sir Elton’s 2019 biopic Rocketman and autobiography Me, from the same year, focused on his musical journey but this book, in collaboration with John Preston, devotes time to his other passion.

Watford’s remarkable ascent through the divisions is charted but there are also reflections on Sir Elton’s personal life: his troubled relationship with his father, his homosexuality and his drink and drug addictions. Sir Elton’s football club provided solace and excitement, and he says his relationship with Taylor ultimately saved his life.

Graham Taylor and Elton John in 1984 (Std/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One incident in the boardroom at Watford’s Vicarage Road ground, outlined in the book, explains how Taylor — who went on to manage England from 1990-93 and returned to the club for a second spell in charge towards the end of his career before dying in 2017 — intervened when concerned by Elton’s dishevelled appearance in the grip of an apparent binge.

“That’s what you have for breakfast, isn’t it?” said Taylor, slamming a bottle of brandy on the table. “What the f**k do you think you’re doing? You’re letting yourself down, and you’re letting the club down. If you ever turn up looking like this again, that’s f**king it as far as I’m concerned.”

Sir Elton, who was knighted in 1998, says he sat there, feeling shamed. “It shook me to the core,” he recalls. “It was one of those moments when all the delusions that I’d surrounded myself with, all the lies I’d told myself, fell away. I was just left there, stunned and mortified.”

The Watford owner says he would have told anyone else “to f**k off” but couldn’t ignore Taylor because he “cared about me as a person” and felt “if I carried on the way I was going, then I was going to kill myself”. “That was what really shone through,” Sir Elton, now 76, adds. “Behind his anger, I could see that he really loved me.”

The effect of the episode was profound, putting the singer on the road to recovery. “It gave me the kickstart I needed,” says Sir Elton. “In effect, Graham saved my life; I’ve never had the slightest doubt about that.”

Brought up in nearby Pinner, Reginald Dwight — or Reggie, as Sir Elton was known then — was taken to Watford matches from age six by his father, Stanley. The singer recalls it was the only time his dad held his hand. When they got home from the games, any connection was lost.

“However successful I had become, I never lost that sense that he disapproved of me, that I’d done something wrong,” says Sir Elton. “In the end, it was just easier to stay away.”

By the mid-1970s, Elton was a huge global star, selling millions of records in the U.S. and UK and filling venues including Madison Square Garden in New York and London’s Wembley Stadium. He put on a concert at Vicarage Road dressed as a bee (as close to a hornet — the club’s nickname is the Hornets — as he could get) alongside Scottish singer and close friend Rod Stewart.

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Playing at Wembley, the home of English football, in 1976 (Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

Aged just 29, Elton became Watford’s owner in 1976, paying £200,000 to settle the club’s debts. Their previous owner Jim Bonser was so unpopular that Watford striker Keith Mercer named his dog ‘Bonser Out’ — a familiar refrain on the terraces — and often shouted it as he walked the animal around the greyhound race track that used to encircle the Vicarage Road pitch.

Watford were in the Fourth Division then and three seasons up in the second tier from 1969-72 had been as good as it got. Family and fandom were at the core of Elton’s decision to buy the club. “Perhaps my father was at the back of it somewhere,” he says. “Perhaps I wanted to do something to mark all the great times I’d had there as a kid.”

He brought razzmatazz thanks to his eccentric sartorial approach on and off stage, but he was also a trailblazer in talking about his sexuality. It was also in 1976 that he came out as bisexual in an interview with U.S. music magazine Rolling Stone.

“It’s going to be terrible with my football club,” he said then. “It’s so hetero (sexual), it’s unbelievable. But I mean who cares! I just think people should be very free with sex… although they should draw the line at goats.”

The article was met with warmth at Watford.

Taylor’s predecessor, Mike Keen, went to see Elton to explain that he and the team loved him for who he was. That unconditional love extended to the fans, although they had to contend with opposition supporters using their chairman’s sexuality as a stick to beat them with via mocking songs at matches. Elton’s resilience impressed Taylor.

Watford, Elton John

(Alan Cozzi Archive/Watford FC)

“His (Elton’s) ability to brush off the chants of a crowd amazed me but it also saddened me,” Taylor once said. “There’s something about the anonymity of a crowd that gives people the impression they have the security to say things they would never dream of saying if they were on their own.”

The priority for Elton was getting Watford to the top division, but also to see them playing in European competitions — and showing everyone who assumed he was a five-minute wonder that he was capable of hard work.

“When I set my heart on something, I commit to it 100 per cent,” says Sir Elton. “All I cared about was getting the fans and the community on-side. As far as I was concerned, everyone else could go screw themselves.”

Persistence via repeated phone calls and sticking to those grand targets helped to convince Taylor to move south. He had made waves at Midlands club Lincoln City, winning the Fourth Division title in 1975-76, and was recommended by then-England manager Don Revie. Sir Elton, though, admits to being nervous when he met Taylor at the singer’s home in Windsor, west of London.

He says: “I can remember thinking,’ How am I going to convince this guy to come to a rundown s**t-hole like Watford? A club with a rock ‘n’ roll chairman who was 6ft 4in (193cm) in his platform soles and had green hair?’.”

Elton John

Taylor and Elton John soon after the manager’s appointment in 1977 (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Taylor would later view Elton as the younger brother he never had, while the pop star compares his relationship with Taylor to that forged with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. “I was Mr Fancy Pants and he was Mr Down To Earth,” says Sir Elton. “It was somehow meant to be.”

The partnership saw back-to-back promotions in the first two seasons. After two years in the second division, 1981-82 saw Watford go up to the top tier for the first time in their history.

During this period, Elton was warmly welcomed into the Taylor family, and there was a family feel at the core of the Watford dressing room, too. Four players — Ross Jenkins, Luther Blissett, Ian Bolton and Steve Sherwood — made the climb all the way up the divisions with the club and each of them contributed to the new book.

“Just occasionally, I’ll catch myself drifting back, except that now it doesn’t even feel real, not any more. Instead, it’s as if the whole thing happened to someone else, someone completely different, long ago and far away,” says Jenkins.

In 1984, Elton’s tears at the FA Cup final against Everton at Wembley Stadium became one of the most famous images of the club’s journey. He says he tried in vain to keep a lid on his emotions that day: “I always cry at Abide With Me (traditionally sung by the crowd before the FA Cup final) because it’s such a beautiful hymn, but it all at once just struck me how much we had achieved in simply getting there.”

Elton John

(Derek Cattani/The People/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Watford lost the match 2-0.

“Because I’d played there myself (in concerts), I wished that I’d talked to them beforehand and told them not to be intimidated,” Sir Elton says. “But I thought we were giant killers and that we’d fly. Instead, they flopped.”

He would often visit the dressing room, but wouldn’t overstay his welcome.

John Barnes, arguably the club’s most gifted player during what was their most successful period, recalls Taylor telling his superstar backer to leave on one of the occasions when he did show his face.

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Elton with the 1982-83 squad (Alan Cozzi Archive-Watford FC)

“And Elton would just go, ‘Sorry, Boss!’, and get out,” adds Barnes. “It was obvious that the two of them had this instinctive understanding and they brought out the very best in one another. But I think it went further than that; each one learned from the other in a way that had a hugely beneficial effect on both their lives.”

After Taylor left the club in 1987 to manage Aston Villa, Elton soon sold up to Jack Petchey. He had invested approximately £8million-£9m over a decade as owner. “I still loved the club, but there had been a serendipity, a magic, about the two of us together, and I couldn’t conjure up that same magic without him,” says Sir Elton.

They would be reunited in the late 1990s, when Watford rose from the third tier to the Premier League with back-to-back promotions, but this was the original and most unexpected journey.

Watford Forever: How Graham Taylor and Elton John Saved a Football Club, a Town and Each Other, by John Preston in collaboration with Elton John, will be published by Viking Books on November 16, £18.99.

(Top photo: Rhianna Chadwick/PA Images via Getty Images)