Think superstars buying unfashionable football clubs and Wrexham, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney probably come to mind.
But in the years that the Hollywood actor and the American TV star were born, 1976 and 1977, the original stardust story — courtesy of Sir Elton John — began with another UK team whose name begins with W.
What Deadpool and his friend aim to do in north Wales, pop star and manager Graham Taylor made achieved in Watford, a commuter town in northwest London.
Watford’s incredible rise from the fourth tier of English football to the top flight lasted just five seasons. They then finished runners-up to Liverpool in the club’s first elite-division season in 1982-83. A first taste of European football and an FA Cup final appearance followed the following year.
“I didn’t get a cent from my investment but that doesn’t matter,” Sir Elton told Watford Forever, a book released on November 16. “It helped me have the greatest adventure of my life.”
Sir Elton’s 2019 biopic Rocketman and autobiography, from the same year, focus on his musical journey but this book, in collaboration with John Preston, devotes time to his other passions.
Watford’s remarkable climb up the divisions is charted but there are also reflections on Sir Elton’s personal life: his troubled relationship with his father, his homosexuality and his addiction to drink and drugs . Sir Elton’s football club provided solace and excitement, and he says his relationship with Taylor saved his life.
A boardroom incident at Watford’s Vicarage Road ground, outlined in the book, explains how Taylor — who went on to manage England from 1990-93 and returned to the club for a second spell in charge at the end of his career before dying in 2017 — intervened when concerned about Elton’s disheveled appearance in the grip of an apparent binge.
“That’s your breakfast, isn’t it?” Taylor said, slamming a bottle of brandy on the table. “What do you think you’re doing? You let yourself down, and you let the club down. If you ever look like this again, it’s f**king it as far as I’m concerned.”
Sir Elton, who was knighted in 1998, said he sat there, embarrassed. “I was shaken to the core,” he recalled. “It was one of those moments when all the delusions I had surrounded myself with, all the lies I had told myself, disappeared. I was just left there, stunned and ashamed.”
The Watford owner said he would tell other people to “f**k off” but he couldn’t ignore Taylor because he “respects me as a person” and felt “if I keep going where I’m going, if then I will kill myself.” “That’s what really shined through,” added Sir Elton, now 76. “Behind his anger, I saw that he really loved me.”
The impact of the episode was profound, putting the singer on the road to recovery. “It gave me the kickstart I needed,” says Sir Elton. “In fact, Graham saved my life; I don’t have the slightest doubt about that.”
Brought up in nearby Pinner, Reginald Dwight — or Reggie, as Sir Elton was then known — was taken to Watford matches from the age of six by his father, Stanley. The singer remembers that was the only time his father held his hand. When they got home from the games, any connection was lost.
“No matter how successful I became, I never lost the feeling that he disapproved of me, that I had done something wrong,” Sir Elton said. “In the end, it’s easier to walk away.”
By the mid-1970s, Elton was a huge international star, selling millions of records in the US and UK and filling venues including New York’s Madison Square Garden and London’s Wembley Stadium. He performed a concert at Vicarage Road dressed as a bee (as close to a bugle — the club’s nickname was the Hornets — as he could get) with Scottish singer and close friend Rod Stewart.
At the age of 29, Elton became the owner of Watford in 1976, paying £200,000 to pay off the club’s debts. Their former owner Jim Bonser was so unpopular that Watford striker Keith Mercer named his dog ‘Bonser Out’ — a familiar refrain on the terraces — and often shouted at it as he walked the animal on around the greyhound race track that once surrounded the Vicarage Road pitch. .
Watford were then in the Fourth Division and three seasons in the second tier from 1969-72 were as good as it got. Family and fandom were at the core of Elton’s decision to buy the club. “My father is probably behind it somewhere,” he said. “Maybe I want to do something to mark all the good times I had there as a kid.”
She brought razzmatazz thanks to her unique sartorial approach on and off stage, but she was also a trailblazer in talking about her sexuality. Also in 1976 he came out as bisexual in an interview with the US music magazine Rolling Stone.
“It’s scary for my football club,” he said at the time. “Very hetero (sexual), unbelievable. But I mean who cares! I just think people should be very free about sex… although they should draw the line at goats.”
The article was met with heat in Watford.
Taylor’s predecessor, Mike Keen, went to Elton to explain that he and the team loved who he was. That unconditional love extended to the fans, although they had to contend with opposition supporters using their chairman’s sexuality as a stick to beat them with sarcastic chants during matches. Elton’s resilience impressed Taylor.
“His (Elton’s) ability to extinguish the chants of a crowd impressed me but it also saddened me,” Taylor once said. “There’s something about the anonymity of a crowd that gives people the impression that they have the security to say things they wouldn’t dream of saying if they were alone.”
The priority for Elton is getting Watford into the top division, but also seeing them play in European competitions — and showing everyone who thinks he’s a five-minute wonder that he’s capable of hard work.
“When I put my heart into something, I commit 100 per cent to it,” said Sir Elton. “All I care about is bringing the fans and the community together. As far as I’m concerned, everyone else can destroy themselves.
Persistence through repeated phone calls and staying with those big targets helped convince Taylor to move south. He made waves at Midlands club Lincoln City, winning the Fourth Division title in 1975-76, and was recommended by then-England manager Don Revie. However, Sir Elton admitted he was nervous when he met Taylor at the singer’s home in Windsor, west London.
He said: “I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to convince this guy to go to a failing s**t-hole like Watford? A club with a rock ‘n’ roll chairman who is 6ft 4in (193cm) in his platform soles and has green hair?’.”
Taylor eventually views Elton as the little brother she never had, while the pop star compares her relationship with Taylor to that forged with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. “I’m Mr Fancy Pants and he’s Mr Down To Earth,” said Sir Elton. “It was somehow meant to be.”
The partnership saw back-to-back promotions in the first two seasons. After two years in the second division, 1981–82 saw Watford move up to the top tier for the first time in their history.
During this time, Elton was warmly welcomed into the Taylor family, and there was also a sense of family deep within the Watford dressing room. Four players — Ross Jenkins, Luther Blissett, Ian Bolton and Steve Sherwood — came up through the ranks with the club and each of them contributed to the new book.
“Just sometimes, I’ll catch myself drifting back, except that now it doesn’t even feel real, not any more. Instead, it’s as if the whole thing happened to someone else, someone completely different, long ago and far away,” Jenkins said.
In 1984, Elton’s tears in the FA Cup final against Everton at Wembley Stadium became one of the most famous images of the club’s journey. He said he tried to hide his emotions that day: “I always cry at Abide With Me (traditionally sung by the crowd before the FA Cup final) because it’s such a beautiful hymn, but it all hit me. how much we achieved by simply going there.”
Watford lost the match 2-0.
“Having played there (at the concerts) myself, I wish I had spoken to them beforehand and told them not to be afraid,” Sir Elton said. “But I thought we were giant killers and we would fly. Instead, they fell.”
He visited the dressing room often, but never overstayed his welcome.
John Barnes, arguably the club’s greatest player during their most successful era, recalled Taylor telling his superstar backer to leave on one of the occasions he showed his face.
“And Elton would just go, ‘Sorry, Boss!’, and walk out,” Barnes added. “It was clear that the two of them had a natural understanding and they brought out the best in each other. But I think it went beyond that; each learned from the other in a way have a great beneficial effect on their lives both.”
After Taylor left the club in 1987 to manage Aston Villa, Elton soon sold out to Jack Petchey. He invested around £8million-£9m over a decade as owner. “I still love the club, but there was a serendipity, a magic, about the two of us together, and I couldn’t have done the same magic without him,” Sir Elton said.
They would reunite in the late 1990s, when Watford rose from the third tier to the Premier League with back-to-back promotions, but this was the original and most unexpected journey.
Watford Forever: How Graham Taylor and Elton John Saved a Football Club, a Town and Each Other, by John Preston in collaboration with Elton John, will be published by Viking Books on November 16, £18.99.
(Top photo: Rhianna Chadwick/PA Images via Getty Images)