The History of the Supporters' Club, Part 1: the WFSC (1910-1965)
“They say the game is all about players. Nonsense. Without supporters there would be no professional game… The players will go in due course. But the supporters will remain until their dying days.” (Graham Taylor, 2003)
Football today is a multi-billion pound industry, largely owing to enormous television revenues.
Watford Football Club itself was recently valued at around £300 million. It was listed amongst the Premier League clubs which, in 2016-17, would continue to turn over a pre-tax profit even if no supporters ever attended the games! Nearly 90% of Watford’s turnover was sourced from broadcasting rights and just 6% from ticket sales.
This has not always been the case, however.
The birth of the Watford Football Supporters Club
The 1910-11 season fell almost thirty years after the club’s founding, thirteen years after it turned professional and just over a year after its incorporation as Watford Association Football Club Ltd. This most recent step had come in spite of several seasons running considerable financial losses.
In response to concerns at its precarious existence, 146 supporters and people closely involved with the club assembled in the Essex Arms Hotel in the High Street and became the founder members of the Watford Football Supporters Club (WFSC). It elected its first Chairman, Mr Thomas Brown, who put on record his belief in the first of many entries in the annual Watford Observer Football Handbook that “the continued playing of football in Watford will only be possible by steady and regular weekly support of the team”. The first Secretary, who would manage the day-to-day running of the Supporters Club, was one William Ernest Gough, a Bristolian working as a Linotype Operator at one of the local printworks.
The Supporters Club committee held its first meeting on 19 December, 1910, where it set out the Club’s rules and considered its first fundraising ‘smoking concert’. They would, for more than half a century from that point, play a critical role in ensuring Watford’s survival, coming to the parent club’s rescue on several occasions over the course of its existence. Beyond these bailouts, the Supporters Club also saw funding as a means to improve matters on the field of play. Even in these early days, the Chairman would put on record his aim to counter “the painful necessity of parting with our best players at the end of every season”.
The earliest rescue package, in 1912, was a donation of £250 to prevent the club from going out of business. This followed a plea at a meeting of the townspeople of Watford where members were asked to commit to the resolution “that it is in the interest of the town to maintain a Southern League Football Club”.
After having paid an ‘entrance fee’ of sixpence, members’ subscriptions were threepence per week, doubling during the close season to help towards the players’ wages. Subscriptions were received at Mr. Johnson’s confectionary shop at 112 High Street, within which the WFSC rented their ‘Club Room’, as described in the Committee’s minutes, and held regular meetings.
Watford’s supporters movement was revolutionary within English football. This is illustrated by the fact that the Federation of Football Supporters Clubs, to which supporters groups of any English professional club could affiliate themselves, was formed largely on the initiative of the WFSC itself. The Supporters Club went to great lengths to promote its activities on its dedicated page within the Watford Observer Football Handbook.
Watford FC survived a challenging period plying their trade in the Southern League at the West Herts Ground at Cassio Road, in the context of several southern rivals having already moved into the Football League before global war interrupted football business from 1915-19.
Prospects brightened heading into the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the club found itself in a much better financial position. It was admitted to the new Football League Division 3 for the 1920-21 season. The town’s Benskins Brewery provided significant investment, particularly in the form of a favourable lease deal on its land at Vicarage Road, allowing the club to move to this ground in 1922. The financial boon was such that the Supporters Club considered disbanding itself. At its nadir, membership of the Supporters Club was so low that subscriptions raised during meetings would struggle to exceed booked room hire costs, according to the Centenary History.
Raising funds to bail out the football club
Skies would soon darken again, however. In 1925-26, against the background of a wider financial crisis, Manager Harry Kent had spent heavily in the transfer market in an attempt to achieve Second Division status. The failure to do so had, by the end of that season, cost him his job and the club a loss of over £1,800. According to the 1926 Watford Observer Football Handbook, “the position was so serious that at one time it appeared as if the Club would go under”.
William Ernest Gough held a meeting in the 1926 close season to re-form the Supporters Club, seeking to raise funds to again prevent the Football Club from going out of existence. From that point, the WFSC became increasingly influential upon the affairs of the Football Club; appropriately, it began holding its meetings in a room within the Main Stand at Vicarage Road. In a piece entitled ‘Watford’s New Lease of Life’, the Supporters Club detailed how its membership had quickly surpassed 600 members, bringing in funds which, in tandem with a handout from Benskins, allowed the Club to weather the storm.
Success was by no means achieved overnight, with Watford finishing second-bottom of the Football League Division 3 (South) in the 1926-27 season and obliged to apply for re-election (which was, fortunately, granted). The Supporters Club encouraged its members to “keep the Watford flag flying”, in a piece in the Watford Observer Football Handbook of 1927, which also briefly noted the Football Club’s change of shirt colours from vertical black and white stripes to royal blue.
In 1929, in its earliest disagreement with the parent club, the Supporters Club attempted to unseat its own representative from the Football Club’s Board of Directors. He had refused to divulge details of the Board’s discussions, which were subject to a confidentiality agreement, as detailed within the Centenary History. The two parties’ symbiotic relationship meant that friction was inevitable on occasions, but much later in time tensions would heat up more substantially.
By this stage, the WFSC was going from strength to strength. According to the Watford Observer Football Handbook, the Federation of Football Supporters Clubs had promised to award a shield to the first such organisation to reach the 2,000 member mark. Watford’s Supporters Club achieved this feat in 1931-32. The Federation, however, reneged on its promise and, in an apparent fit of pique, the WFSC withdrew its membership entirely!
The Supporters Club’s activities continued in earnest throughout the thirties, extending even to the publication of a short-lived general interest magazine, ‘The Support’. It organised regular social events such as dances and whist drives, with Secretary W.E. Gough responsible for ticket sales. The good relationship at that time between the Supporters Club and the parent club is evidenced by a report of a ‘smoking concert’ held at the Oddfellows Hall, which was attended by the Football Club’s (and Benskins) chairman, John Kilby, three of its directors and even manager, Neil McBain. Indeed, McBain also made himself available to judge the foxtrot and waltz heats at one of the dance competitions.
The Supporters Club ‘just’ managed to continue operations during the Second World War, according to later recollection. The Centenary History describes how, during the first season (1945-46) that followed the War, the Football Club granted permission for the WFSC to erect a hut to house its headquarters adjacent to the Main Stand on the Red Lion side. This structure, supposedly a former RAF officers’ sleeping quarters purchased for £14, dominated photos of Vicarage Road End goal-mouth action until the end of the century, and became the Social Club in its latter days.
In 1948-49, the Supporters Club made a record contribution to the Watford Football Club; just shy of £1,400, according to the following year’s Watford Observer Football Handbook. Despite this, the Club made a loss of £7,000 overall. The donations made by the Supporters Club over the following couple of seasons are considered to have prevented the Club from going into liquidation. In return for these lifelines, it sought greater influence over footballing affairs. By way of example, following a poor 1950-51 season, the Supporters Club Committee put pressure on the board to take appropriate action; manager Ron Gray was to leave his post not long after.
Later issues of the Watford Observer Football Handbook tell of something of a boom for the Supporters Club in the early 1950s. Under the leadership of new General Secretary, Ron Tomlin, membership increased rapidly, plateauing just below the 10,000 mark at the start of 1953-54. Interest grew following a series of new signings; its donations (including a new record handout of £4,000 in the 1955 close season) increased commensurately. Throughout the 1950s, the Supporters Club kept a flag hoisted above their HQ bearing their oval-shaped ‘W.F.S.C.’ emblem (which was also represented in members’ enamel badges).
Funding the new Rookery end cover
In 1957-58, the autonomous WFSC announced via its section in the match programme its intention to build “a 200ft by 60ft structure”, costing £17,000, at the Rookery End of the football ground. It stated its aim of paying off the cost of this stand as soon as possible, in order to mitigate the effect of reduced donations to the Club. The end of that season saw Jim Bonser become Chairman of the Football Club, replacing T. Rigby Taylor.
The Centenary History details how tensions continued to simmer between the Supporters Club and the Watford Football Club Board. Bonser wanted absolute power over the Football Club and was keen to prise influence away from the Supporters Club, a policy which would set the two organisations on a collision course within a decade. Personality clashes were apparent early on. A poor finish to the 1957-58 season in Division 3 (South) saw Watford allocated to the newly-formed Division 4 and left the Supporters Club calling, but then withdrawing, a vote of no confidence in the majority of the Board’s members.
This did not lessen the Supporters Club’s desire to improve the footballing side of things: the following season it put forward £3,000 towards the £9,000 required to sign Cliff Holton, whose acquisition had a massive bearing on the side’s return to the third tier of English football in 1960.
For 1959-60, Watford changed its colours to gold and black, with the Supporters Club stepping in to fund six of the new strips. It also ran the competition, broadcast more widely in the Watford Observer, to choose a new nickname: with ‘The Blues’ rendered obsolete by the kit changes, ‘The Hornets’ was chosen to replace it. Similarly seismic changes loomed also for the Supporters Club who, in January 1961, marked their Golden Jubilee with a celebration dinner at the Town Hall.
Throughout the early sixties, the Watford Football Supporters Club maintained its role as a key benefactor to the Football Club whilst purporting to not having intentions to influence its decisions. It ran a page in each issue of the official match programme that detailed, beneath its oval emblem, the financial backing it provided to the parent club. Over the course of its existence till this point, with the support of Benskins which had promised to match the Supporters Club’s annual donations over a significant period, it had been responsible for more than £250,000 being donated to the parent club.
Clash with Bonser, then demise
Despite this support, the relationship between the two parties continued to strain. The Football Club increasingly resented having to approach the Supporters Club with an acceptable business case each and every time funding was required. He was particularly indignant, as the Centenary History relates, at the fact that the money it was raising on the Football Club’s behalf was raised on its grounds. Matters were not helped after the Supporters Club were amongst the harshest critics of the controversial sale of Cliff Holton in 1961-62, with Bonser himself bearing much of their vilification. The Board would hit back with accusations of interference in football matters, including in transfer policy, perceiving that promised payments were being used by the Supporters Club as leverage. Bonser became increasingly intolerant of the WFSC, as he saw it, not keeping to its “to help, not hinder” mantra.
The conflict came to a head in 1965. Jim Bonser lost patience, excommunicating and banishing the Watford Football Supporters Club entirely. He used a seemingly trivial issue, detailed at length in the Watford Observer, to do with the sale of St. Leger tickets on behalf of Newport County FC to claim conflict of interest, thus providing a useful excuse to wrest control from the autonomous WFSC and consolidate his power as Chairman of the Football Club. So sudden was the Supporters Club’s eviction from the Vicarage Road ground that, anecdotally, some of its Committee members had to force entry to its former headquarters just to retrieve their own belongings.
To the further dismay of all at the original Supporters Club who had worked tirelessly to sustain the parent club’s existence for so many years, the local press broke the news that the Watford FC board had supplanted it with a newly-formed Watford Football Club Supporters Club (WFCSC), officially affiliated with (and effectively run by) the Football Club. The succeeding WFCSC organisation took over the Supporters Club HQ (which changed into a bar and gaming club) and all sales of memorabilia.
The original WFSC continued to exist in exile under the auspices of Secretary Ron Tomlin and his wife, and Assistant Secretary, Violet. It continued to hold meetings in the Oddfellows Hall, before being forced by the road-widening scheme to move to the Dickinson’s Guildhouse. Despite the loss of its central location, it managed to retain a steady membership of 400-500 and continued to make donations to the Football Club. Its last handout (for £200) was accepted by the Football Club for, poignantly, the improvement of toilet facilities at the ground. Diminished in numbers, in influence, and as a voice of independence, its obituary in the Watford Observer at the end of the 1970 close season confirmed that it had finally folded.
Bonser, for now, had succeeded in thwarting the supporters movement that had tried holding his actions to account. Who knows whether he feared, or was oblivious to, the retribution which would be dealt later, ironically, by Watford supporters stirred into voice once again.