If you listened to the gossip in the pubs and clubs around Watford you’d have heard a familiar story, told with all the certainty of the saloon bar. Watford don’t want promotion. They keep throwing it away on purpose. Bonser doesn’t want the hassle. The board don’t want to pay Division Two bonuses or improve the ground.
It was nonsense, of course, but after a series of near-misses the conspiracy theory was beginning to take hold.
And as Watford’s bid to reach the Second Division for the first time began to stutter again in the spring of 1969 some felt they had seen it all before.
In 1964, with Bill McGarry at the helm, Watford forced their way into the second promotion spot late in the season. There were eight games to go. They won only one of them, lost at Luton Town, of all places, on the last day of the season and missed out by just two points.
In 1967, now with Ken Furphy in charge, they were in the hunt all season. They drew their final two games but once they had played that last fixture, away at Oldham Athletic, they were still in second place.
Middlesbrough still had one game to play and, three days later, they beat Oxford United 4-1 to leapfrog the Hornets at the death. If Watford had won one of those final two matches and scored an extra two goals, they would have finished above Boro on goal average. It was that close.
The Second Division had remained tantalisingly out of reach for Watford.
Nine years after hauling themselves out of the Fourth Division, they still hadn’t cracked it. Some thought this was as far as a club like Watford could go.
Furphy arrived from Workington in November 1964 and had spent five years making the place his own. His team was built from the back. He wanted his side to be sound defensively.
The arrival of Micky Walker, a goalkeeper from York City, was the final piece of the jigsaw. Walker went on to manage Norwich and Everton and his son, Ian, played for Tottenham and England. He slotted in behind a defence that was already pretty tight. Walker was the ideal safe pair of hands.
Watford only conceded seven goals at home in the league all season as they made Vicarage Road a very awkward place to visit.
At times it was not particularly inspiring stuff, particularly in the first six weeks of the season. Then someone recommended a young striker to Furphy.
Barry Endean was playing parks football in the north east. Furphy took a punt and Endean coped brilliantly with the step up, scoring 18 goals in 28 matches.
Watford hit the top spot after winning 4-1 at Barrow just before Christmas and were never out of the top two. Surely this time they’d do it?
Despite going on a run of only two defeats in more than 20 games, there were still some worries. In mid-February, they travelled to Kenilworth Road for a game against Luton, who were also chasing promotion. ‘It was snowing, so we went up there in the afternoon to have a look at the pitch,’ says Tom Walley. ‘Somehow they got the game on but it carried on snowing and by half-time it was coming down really heavy.’
After 63 minutes and with the score 1-1, the referee abandoned the match. It would have to be rescheduled and played again from the start. A bad omen.
The fixtures were backing up. Both Watford and Luton were playing twice a week and although neither club wanted the game to be played so late in the season, they had no choice. The match was rearranged for April 30 and would be Watford’s penultimate game.
‘It was like everything was set up for that to be the decider,’ says Walley.
‘Luton were going hell for leather for promotion as well so we wanted to avoid that at all costs.
‘We were desperate to get it done before then because if we had to go up there needing a win, it would be tasty.’
Watford were due to play nine games in April, one every three days. There were three teams chasing two places, the other was Swindon Town, and nerves were getting frayed.
‘It was very tight,’ says Walley. ‘It doesn’t matter what you think, when every game is so important the stress builds up. You go into every game knowing you have to win. We did keep winning but there weren’t too many great games. Everyone is at the end of their tether when it gets that late in the season. You’re under pressure and you just don’t want to make silly mistakes and give points away.’
Watford got a vital 1-0 win at Swindon but with only two points for a win, it was hard to gain much of a lead.
Walley was desperate to get back up the league. He’d been at Arsenal as a youngster and felt Division Two was his natural level, at the very least.
Furphy signed Walley for £9,000 in 1967, having heard that Walley was available after a training ground flare-up with Peter Storey.
‘Storey went over the top, so I grabbed him, showed the gash on my shin and said if he did it again I’d smash him,’ Walley says. ‘The next week I was on the transfer list. Storey was the rising star, you see. I said to my brother Ernie I was going to go back to Wales but he told me not be stupid.
‘First day at Watford, we were at Cassiobury Park playing a training match and Bert Slater, the goalkeeper, was playing out on the pitch.
He thought he’d sort out the new lad from Arsenal. We were marking up at a corner and he threw a punch at me. I ducked and clocked him.
Furphy said: “Are you mad?” I told him that I wasn’t going to take any shit. If Bert had caught me, I’d have been knocked out. I think Furphy liked me after that.’
The Plymouth match wasn’t do-or-die, there were still four games to go afterwards, but recent history had taught Watford harsh lessons about how hard it was to get over the line.
It was far from a classic and the goal was barely a goal but it didn’t matter. Watford had done it, they had reached the Second Division.
Or, as the Watford Observer put it: They’re up at last.
The goal, which came early in the second half, was controversial. Roy Sinclair hit a shot from distance that wrong-footed the Plymouth keeper Pat Dunne. The former Manchester United man could only punch it up onto the bar. The ball bounced down. Was it on the line or over? It was Watford’s Geoff Hurst moment. Dunne said later: ‘It bounced well in front of the line. I was stunned when a goal was given.’ Even Sinclair had his doubts. ‘To be honest I didn’t think it was a goal.’
The final whistle sparked scenes of jubilation. The team and the fans celebrated together. The long wait and near-misses were forgotten and the invidious accusation that Watford did not really want promotion was at last laid to rest.
They only won one of their final four matches but Swindon failed to do enough to overhaul them. The two sides were level on points but Watford won the championships because they had a slightly better goal average.
And what about that Luton match? It was a good job it hadn’t been the promotion decider because the Hatters won it 2-1, and Walley was sent off for retaliation. Even though Luton won, they missed out on promotion, making Watford’s triumph even sweeter. At last. At long, long last, Watford could call themselves a Second Division club.