As Bad As Things Got: Watford, 7th May 1959

by | Jul 31, 2021

When we talk about football traditions and identity, there is a tendency to assume that they are preserved in aspic, to believe that things are the way they are because they always have been. This, however, certainly isn’t always the case, and some clubs have in the past pushed through complete rebrands; a change of colours, a change of nickname, a fresh start.

When we think of Watford Football Club, we might think of many things, but close to the top of that list will be their distinctive yellow, black and red colours, and their rivalry with Luton Town. But Watford weren’t always the Hornets, their colours weren’t as distinctive, and there was even a time when Luton were something of a distant memory for the club’s supporters.

As the 1950s drew to a close, Watford were in need of a refresh. The club’s original nickname of ‘The Brewers’ – Vicarage Road was owned by the Benskins Brewery – hadn’t really stuck and when, following election into the Football League as part of the great post-war exodus from the Southern League, the club eventually settled on a blue and white kit in the 1920s, with their nickname evolving, as though by default, to “The Blues”.

The 1930s had been a relatively successful time for the club, but this hadn’t been topped off by promotion from Division Three South of the Football League. Under the managership of Neil McBain (who remains one of only two players – alongside Peter Beardsley – to have played for Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United), by the late 1930s Watford were regulars near the top of the table without managing to snatch one of the two promotion places.

Watford’s rivalry with Luton Town goes back as far as the formation of the two clubs, in 1881 and 1885 respectively. The two clubs were elected into the Football League at the same time, and remained regular rivals until Luton were promoted in 1937. It would be almost thirty years before the two teams would meet in the league again, and in the meantime Northampton Town stepped into the void as Watford’s local rivals.

Neil McBain left Vicarage Road in 1937. It was a surprise departure, since Watford had finished in the top six in the division over each of the previous three seasons, and with the announcement being made in the match programme for the first match of the 1937/38 season against Bristol Rovers:

Neil McBain, owing to sudden illness in his family, asked the Directors of the Watford Football Club to release him from his engagement as Manager forthwith. The Directors have consented to release him now rather than have a change during the season. For the time being W. Findlay, recently appointed under-manager, is fulfilling the Manager’s duties. The Directors wish McBain every success in the family business he is undertaking in Glasgow.

Few were convinced by this explanation. McBain was known to have a drinking problem, and it was also believed that he had been involved in misdemeanours involving the club’s accounts. The following spring, he was appointed as the manager of Luton, but lasted barely twelve months before leaving that club as well. Watford ended the 1930s by finishing in 4th place in Division Three South for three consecutive seasons.

Curiously, McBain did manage to break a record just after the end of the war. Appointed by the perpetually cash-strapped New Brighton in 1946, in March 1947 a goalkeeping injury crisis forced McBain to take to the pitch in goal for a League match away to Hartlepools United at 51 years and 120 days old. They lost 3-0 and McBain never had to repeat it, but it’s a record that still stands to this day.

Back at Watford, meanwhile, the post-war years were not particularly happy. A succession of managers – Jack Bray, Eddie Hapgood, Ron Gray, Haydn Green, Len Goulden and Johnny Paton – sought to get the club out of Division Three South for the first time, but none of them were able to and by 1956 Watford were treading water in the lower reaches of the division, only narrowly avoiding the indignity of having to apply for re-election. In the programme notes for their first home match of the following season against Brighton & Hove Albion, the club welcomed a familiar face back to Vicarage Road:

May we extend a very warm welcome to our new Manager Neil McBain who returns to Watford after 19 years. Mr McBain joins the club on a three-year contract and will have full control but quite obviously wants time to take stock – Rome was not built in a day.

McBain had spent his time following his departure from New Brighton… inventively. A year at Leyton Orient had been followed by two in Argentina, coaching Estudiantes De La Plata to little significant effect. After this, he’d returned to Scotland, his country of birth, coaching Ayr United to second place in the Scottish Second Division, scoring 103 goals in 36 games in the process.

If the 1930s had been considered the most successful in Watford’s history to that point, though, McBain couldn’t repeat what he’d achieved two decades earlier. The club finished in 11th place in the table in his first season, but in the second they could only manage 16th place, which led to them being placed into the new Division Four when that was put in place for the start of the 1958/59 season.

For the first few months of the season, it looked as though Watford had turned a corner. They won their opening game of the season 5-1 against Southport, and by the end of November they were in 5th place in the table, having lost just five of their first twenty matches. When the crash came, though, it was severe. There were rumours that McBain’s drinking was worse than ever, and that his office was strewn with litter. Watford won just two of their next 14 matches and were dumped out of the FA Cup by Torquay United.

On the 8th February, following a 3-1 defeat at Workington the previous day, Jim Broad, a club director, announced that manager Neil McBain tendered his resignation to the club and that this had been accepted by the board of directors. His contract was up at the end of the  season anyway, and the slump in form had dropped his team to 14th place in Division Four. McBain was reported to have found out that his position was in question from reports in the press.

His replacement was a fairly high-profile name. Ron Burgess had made almost 300 appearances for Spurs and had been the captain of their 1951 First Division Championship winning team, and he’d spent the previous three years managing Swansea Town. Burgess’s job was to stabilise the team until the end of the season, but the decision on the part of the club that would come to determine its future on the pitch had been taken several months before his arrival.

Cliff Holton’s transfer to Watford from Arsenal for £9,000 in October 1959 was, to say the least, unexpected. Holton had played 217 games and scored 88 goals for Arsenal. He’d played in the FA Cup final with them in 1952, and scored 19 league goals the following season, as they won the First Division Championship. Fortuitously for Watford, though, Holton had fallen out with the Arsenal management and was not being picked for the first team, and on top this had business interests which prevented him from moving too far from London.

Holton signed for Watford but started slowly, managing just ten goals in 35 games by the end of the season. It was enough, however, to see Watford at least finish clear of the re-election places at the bottom of the table. Three wins in four games in the last ten days of March were enough nudge the team up the league table, and even though form tailed off again towards the end of the season, they still managed to finish in 15th place in the Fourth Division.

There was also some relief at the culmination of events twenty miles up the road in Luton. Luton Town were still in the Second Division, but wins against Leeds United, Leicester City, Ipswich Town, Blackpool and Norwich City had sent them to an FA Cup final against Nottingham Forest. Forest won the 1959 FA Cup final 2-1, but it is striking that one of Watford’s lowest moments should have come at what might well have ended up as one of Luton’s greatest.

In the summer of 1959, though, changes were afoot at Vicarage Road. Watford had worn royal blue and white since 1927, a rebrand from the black and white stripes that they’d worn for most of the previous twenty years, but there was no great affection for these colours – the longstanding rumour that the club chose shirts were turquoise so that they wouldn’t have to pay for an away kit seems to be an urban legend – so the change to first gold and black wasn’t considered particularly controversial.

By the end of the summer, Holton was effectively running the dressing room, and the effect on the team was immediate. They started slowly, but by the end of 1959 they were in fifth place in the table, and on the second Saturday in January they became the first ever club from the Fourth Division to knock a First Division club out of the FA Cup, when they beat Birmingham City in the Third Round of the FA Cup.

In the Fourth Round they beat top of the Third Division Southampton after a replay, becoming the first Fourth Division team to reach the last 16 of the competition. They finished that season in fourth place in the table, and were promoted to the Third Division, and all of this was powered by Cliff Holton, who scored a club record 48 goals that season. His strike partner, Dennis Uphill, scored 36.

The following season, Watford finished in fourth place in the Third Division, but with only two promotion places available they fell short of a promotion place. This time around, Holton scored 34 goals. In the summer of 1961, though came a surprising end to this period in Watford’s history, when Cliff Holton was sold to Northampton Town on the very eve of the new season. He scored a hat-trick on his debut for them at Crystal Palace, and ended his first season there with 36 goals, their record goalscorer in one season.

There was uproar among Watford supporters, some of whom travelled to the County Ground in protest to watch Holton’s home debut for Northampton, against Lincoln City. To add insult to the injury of losing perhaps their best ever player to their local rivals, the club hadn’t even received that much money for him, just £7,000. It was reported that Ron Burgess made a “him or me” ultimatum to the club, and that the directors acceded to him. The team’s form suffered accordingly, and Watford ended the season in 17th place in the Third Division. Ron Burgess, whose popularity with supporters had plummeted, paid with his job.

At the same time, Luton Town were being relegated from the Second Division, meaning that the Beds-Herts derby could resume for the first time since 1937. By the end of the decade, this was firmly cemented as both clubs’ local derby again. On the 30th April 1969, the two sides played each other at Kenilworth Road in a postponed match from Boxing Day. Watford had already been promoted as champions, and Luton had finished in third place, missing out on promotion by three points. Three players were sent off – two from Luton, one from Watford – and Luton won 2–1, and there was considerable crowd trouble.

A fuse might have been lit, but Watford’s promotion and the two clubs’ varying fortunes over the years meant that they wouldn’t meet again in the league for another decade. Watford were back in the Fourth Division by 1975, and it took the intervention of Graham Taylor to get the club back on its feet, not only to the Second Division but into the First, in 1982. They start this season back in the Premier League, having become something of a yo-yo club between the top two divisions in the 21st century.

The 1960s started a few months early, for Watford. The summer of 1959 brought a rebranding of the club that would probably be considered beyond the pale these days, and the subsequent success that the team had was likely more due to the arrival of Cliff Holton and the departure of Neil McBain. That McBain’s successor Ron Burgess opted to sell Holton after two seasons despite the fact that he’d scored more than 80 goals for his club may tell us something about football management and the stresses and strains that go on behind the scenes at a football club.

Like most other clubs, Watford have their sliding doors moments. What might have happened had the club not rebranded, as it did in 1959? What would Watford look like today? What might have happened had the board sided with Cliff Holton over Ron Burgess and a different manager had come in who understood what a valuable asset they had? If you believe in such theories, then there is a parallel universe in which none of these changes took place and Watford remained a Third or Fourth Division club. It just happens to be a different one to the one that we inhabit.