The History of the Supporters' Club, Part 2: the WFCSC (1965-c.1997)

1972c. Supporters Club Badge v2
Tom Brodrick

A new Supporters Club

The new Watford Football Club Supporters Club (WFCSC) emerged, like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes, in 1965; the result of the football club’s board having lost patience entirely with the, now evicted, independent WFSC.

Bill Gough (unrelated to the predecessor organisation’s founder member, William Ernest Gough) was drafted in to help form the new Supporters Club by Chairman, Jim Bonser. The new Supporters Club, by the Board’s design, lacked the independent voice of its autonomous predecessor. The WFCSC did, however, continue where its forerunner left off in raising funds for the parent club, including by means of events coordinated within the Social Club which doubled as its headquarters.

Bill’s nephew, Geoff Gough recalls:

“The supporters club clubhouse became my local, so I am aware of the many activities that took place: successful Saturday night socials, football quizzes against other clubs… it was quite a popular place and a busy club”.

Bill’s focus was sales management, and he, with his brother Cyril, organised the sale of memorabilia including badges, pennants and keyrings from the various mobile kiosks at the Vicarage Road ground which would be wheeled out on matchdays. Cyril’s son, Geoff, had cut his teeth helping his Uncle Bill at programme fairs held under the old main stand and was later instrumental in founding the ‘Travel Club’:

“Back in the early 70s, there was a small band of regular away supporters who barely filled a coach to some games. Travelling up north on a cold midweek match, losing, and getting back home very late at times… not much fun. We asked the then Supporters Club travel organiser, Sid Walsham, whether it was possible we could travel by train so we could get back home earlier. This was met with a total dismissal.

“A while after that, over a pint in the club house, a group of about six people talked it over and we agreed to check things out. Steve Kitchen went to British Rail at Watford Junction and got favourable thoughts on group bookings. With that, we got a small article in the Watford Observer. What happened after it became known what we were doing was incredible: we suddenly found that we had to be a lot more organised as it grew. Other supporters came in and helped.

“The supporters club had to recognise what had been achieved, and took us on board with one of our organisers, Roger Fleming, running away travel under the umbrella of the social club. I am proud to say that our efforts in the early 70’s did change the face of away travel at the club. The ‘Travelling Hornets’ had arrived!”

The Supporters Clubs activities also extended to running a ‘fairly successful’ local football team, a darts team and a ladies football team named ‘Willi Walker Wonders’. So named as it was run by players John Williams and Mike Walker, it later evolved into Watford Ladies FC.

“As an offshoot of that we also started playing football against the opposing supporters club. This, like the Travel Club, grew. It was nice to receive notifications from other supporters clubs that what we were doing created friendship, not hooliganism, between fans.”

The Supporters Club improved communications with its membership through the sale of a new magazine from December 1967, The Hornet Express. This acted as the primary mode of communication between the Supporters Club and its members. Geoff fondly remembers compiling the crosswords for the later issues that were produced by Steve Kitchen and Don Able.

The organisation made a brief star turn in its appearance, shown repeatedly to the present day, as Elton John held up his ‘Watford A.F.C. Supporters Club’ membership card during a bridge in the music video of his 1973 seasonal hit, ‘Step Into Christmas’. Geoff recalls one unforgettable Saturday evening at the Social Club involving the global pop superstar,

“I went down the club a bit late and there were only two seats available, right next to the band and their speakers. My wife and I reluctantly took the two seats. Later, Elton turned up (he occasionally turned up for a quiet drink). Obviously he was persuaded to play a song. I then found myself sitting next to Elton while he banged out ‘Benny and the Jets’, then standing on the table in front of me getting everyone to join in the chorus! Those two seats became the best in house”.

As Chairman of Watford, Elton injected unprecedented sums of money into the football club in the mid to late 1970s. With Graham Taylor’s vision, and in parallel with the consequential success on the field of play, the entire infrastructure of the club was transformed, including a more strategic approach to commercial management. This eventually saw the parent club taking control of merchandise sales from the Supporters Club, creating The Hornet Shop in the process.

“The Supporters Club shop became more profitable as the Graham Taylor revolution progressed. The club saw the possibilities for the future and took over, employing someone [Tony Marks] to do so. To us helpers it seemed a kick in the teeth for all that we had done. However, when you see the shop at the ground now it was obviously the right decision.”

Another prominent change related to supporter engagement. As well as improving Watford FC on the field, manager Graham Taylor recognised the importance of ensuring the football club would have an integral connection with its supporters and with the local community. The content of the match programme improved to such an extent as to effectively supersede the Hornet Express. The Supporters Club was no longer the vital conduit between the club and its supporters to the level it had once been.

Owing to these combined factors, the influence of the WFCSC began to wane. The 1990s marked a terminal decline in Supporters Club activities: the game had moved on to such an extent that the financial support from organised supporters groups was entirely eclipsed by huge inflows of television money. Geoff is wistful but realistic about the decline of the Supporters Club,

“I am sad it is no more. However, football clubs are more professionally run nowadays”.

From the perspective of the financial lifeline it had once provided, the Supporters Club’s job was now done. It had seen Watford Football Club through the days where a lower-division professional football club expected to eke out a precarious season-by-season existence, where member subscriptions and sales of enamel badges and pools coupons made the difference between the club’s survival and its potential demise. Beyond the ephemera it has left for posterity, surely the most important legacy of the two Watford Supporters Club organisations was the continued existence of a football club up to the mid-1970s, which provided the foundations from which the club we know today was built.

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