There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the potential of Watford FC finding a site for a new purpose-built stadium. Had the past two seasons been different on the pitch, we’d be seeing far more discussion. No doubt the summer break will see the topic homing back into view too.
It may not seem top of anyone’s wishlist at the moment, but don’t think it’s a discussion likely to disappear. The past 50 years prove it won’t. In the dying embers of the 1970s, Watford FC came closer than ever to leaving Vicarage Road. I know because my father was a County Councillor at the time, so had a front-row seat.
I’m not advocating the move should have happened. It didn’t, so we’ll never know if it would have been a success. Conversely, we’ll never know if a purpose-built stadium on the edge of town would have been yet another way the Watford back then were setting trends others eventually followed. Would the investment required have detracted from money being put into the team on the pitch, for example?
We were climbing the divisions at the time. The concern of the distraction of building a new stadium stalling progress must have crossed people’s minds. Then again, the opportunities it would have offered could have built foundations for decades to come. Our rugby cousins at Saracens have shown how additional revenue streams can be built with a new stadium.
The decision wouldn’t have been black and white, though.
Why did it not happen? Nobody really seems to know. There was a large majority of support, but it never quite crossed the line to make it happen. I’m sure red-tape played its part, but so could many other things. As my Dad puts it, “it just eventually stopped being a plan.”
The proposal itself would have been perfect for me as I lived at the north end of St. Albans Road. I’d have been able to walk to games. Those that know the area well will already have guessed the proposed site was in Garston. Garston Station would have reopened to ferry fans from Watford Junction and coaches would have slipped off the M1 (the M25 wasn’t built at this point) into the stadium car park. It would have been an easily accessible stadium and taken the pressure off the town centre on a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday night. Every game was a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday night back then. If you weren’t at the game, you rarely got to see any highlights. Oh, how the world has changed. Oliver Phillips really was our eyes and ears back then.
It sounds like an ideal location. At the time, it was playing fields before being developed many years later. I remember watching a charity football match there between a men’s and women’s team. My overriding memory being two women rugby tackling a man, taking his shorts off and running a lap of the pitch waving their trophy. They truly were different days! Others will remember the site as the venue for the ill-conceived “It’s A Royal Knockout”. Least said about that, the better.
Garston seemed, with hindsight, a great idea, but what of our beloved Vicarage Road? Yes, I say beloved because, in all its guises over the years, it’s still a place I love. I still miss the terracing at the Vicarage Road end underneath the electronic scoreboard.
Well, The Vic would have been put to good use for the whole of the community. It would have been given over to Shrodells (sorry I can’t bring myself to call it anything else, as I spent far too many nights in my early years receiving their excellent care) to expand the hospital and provide housing for staff. The Vic wouldn’t have become a faceless field of new housing like places such as Elm Park in Reading. Instead, it would have been a true community asset.
Not everyone would have benefitted, and I can understand their objections. If it had happened, I hope there were plans in place to help those affected. Whether they were, I don’t know. There’s probably a box somewhere filled with papers in a faceless storage facility that holds the answer.
There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer as to why it didn’t go ahead. There probably isn’t one. Red tape, finances, and other issues probably clubbed together to make it go away. What it does show is how forward thinking the club was back then. A shiny new stadium with great transport links on the edge of town helping regenerate an area that needed it was a vision very few would even have contemplated in those days. It took 20-odd years for others to go down that route, but they never had the natural advantage of Garston. Derby, Reading, and Coventry aren’t exactly the easiest stadia to get to.
It’s interesting to think what would have happened had the move gone ahead. The financial boom the sport has seen hadn’t even started. A new stadium and a successful team would certainly have put the club on the front foot. Then again, if we hadn’t won promotion to Division 1, due to funds being diverted away from the team, we could have been left with a painful financial black hole.
We’ll never know. Gino has given us a stadium to be proud of, but moving is, rightly, still an option. The sites I’ve seen discussed don’t feel right and, maybe, there’ll never be one as perfect as Garston would have been again.
The question I’m posing is when is the best time to move? Is it when the opportunity arises despite and downward turn in fortunes on the pitch, or when the club is successful and can afford the financial investment? Any business owner will tell you it’s not a straightforward decision. There have been many times when I’ve worried about the timing of hiring a new employee or investing in new equipment. It’s always easy to delay, hoping the grass is greener later. It rarely is.
Who knows what would have happened if a new shiny stadium had gone ahead? We’ll probably have to visit the multiverse to find out.
Maximilian Sam grew up above his mother’s clothes shop on St. Albans Road. He’s old enough to remember Luther Blissett playing for England Under 21s at Vicarage Road. He’s lived all over the World and always found another Watford fan to share the roller-coaster of a ride being a Hornet brings wherever he’s been. He is also an award-winning author of children’s books about the stray dogs he now looks after. You can find out more at www.maximiliansam.com.