The Watford Observer has again teamed up with its friends at The Watford Treasury to share stories from previous issues.

Peter Morgan takes a look at the short lived Watford Stadium halt, and asks was it a white elephant, or innovative solution?

It is 1982, and Watford Football Club has reached the top division of English football for the first time, just as football hooliganism has become an epidemic. Watford were to find that instead of a few dozen away supporters turning up at Vicarage Road to support Southport or Hartlepool, thousands of followers from the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool would be descending on our corner of Hertfordshire.

This was an era when many fans travelled to games by ‘football specials’; chartered trains that travelled from all over the country to the nearest station of the home club, as well as making their own way via the rail network. The challenge then was to get those fans, without incident, across the town or city to the football ground - no easy task when a relatively small percentage, but still significant number of away fans of the time, were more likely to be aggressive to shoppers and cause damage, than have a quiet pint in the One Bell or the Oddfellows Arms before kick-off.

If anything, the return journey was even more problematic for the police. Damage to shops and houses, not to mention fights, occurred with dismal regularity, especially when the away team lost. In order for away fans arriving by coach to be kept separate from Hornets supporters, they were offloaded in the Cardiff Road Industrial Estate, from where they were escorted to the Rookery, which, at that time, was the ‘Away End’.

It is not clear who first came up with the idea, but the solution arrived at, for those travelling by train, was to utilise the existing Croxley Green Branch from Watford Junction and build a platform that would enable away supporters to be taken to the ground by a similar route. Although close to the railway bridge in Vicarage Road, access to the platform was only towards Cardiff Road and from there they were escorted up Occupation Road.

On 4 December 1982, a special train arrived from Watford Junction, with the principal passenger in the leading coach being Watford chairman Elton John. The train went through some symbolic yellow, red and black tape, to signify the opening of the halt, which was a simple pre-fabricated concrete structure, with signs proudly announcing ‘Watford Stadium’. The train had been delayed at Watford Junction by photographers, keen to snap Elton. These then got on the train with him, bolstering the number already on the platform to see this officially opened.

The rock star chairman beneath the Watford Stadium sign

The rock star chairman beneath the Watford Stadium sign

The platform and surrounding infrastructure cost £380,000, which was financed by contributions of £80,000 from Watford Borough Council, £50,000 from Watford FC, £200,000 from British Rail and £50,000 from the Football Trust. This latter organisation was a Government funded body, set up to improve the safety of sports stadiums in the wake of the 1971 Ibrox disaster, and chaired from 1979 to 1998 by Lord Aberdare.

The formal opening of the Station, which would become known colloquially as ‘Hooligan Halt’, was undertaken jointly by Lord Aberdare and Elton John on the platform, making local television news and being heralded as an innovative joint-venture, one which the Watford Observer suggested meant ‘match-day crowd control problems could be over’. Within three hours Manchester United fans arrived at the station and were then escorted to the ground. The then council leader commented later “The success of the halt was confirmed when police announced there were only six arrests during the afternoon and they came after an incident inside the ground.” At the time, Manchester United fans had a reputation as being one of the worst perpetrators of ‘football hooliganism’.

There does not appear to be a record of how many times the Halt was used, but it was principally intended for those clubs who used 'football specials', or had large numbers expected to arrive at Watford Junction by scheduled services. A shuttle service ran for supporters making their own way to Watford Junction, including those from London clubs.

The reduction in 'football specials' and an increased use of coaches, along with Watford being relegated in 1988, effectively led to the demise of the Halt. Although a shuttle train ran for a game against Leicester City in 1991 and another for the visit of Crystal Palace in 1993, it saw no further regular use. The Croxley Green branch closed in 1996, after which the Halt fell into dilapidation. Plans for the Croxley Rail Link brought a possibility for a new Vicarage Road Station on London Underground, serving the hospital and the football ground, but that now has been shelved, at least temporarily.

So, was this £380,000 well spent? With hindsight, based on how much it was used, the answer is probably ‘No’. However, it showed how innovative Watford Football Club was under Graham Taylor and Elton John, and how it strove to make matchday safe for fans, alongside the Family Terrace and community involvement. It is certain that, when used, the Stadium Halt reduced football-related violence in the town centre and around the ground. Many shoppers, who had avoided Watford on the Saturday afternoons of a game, returned, lending a boost to the town’s economy.

Had the club been successful after 1988, the Halt might have proved its worth, but with home crowds falling, the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 and subsequent Taylor Report, and incidents of football-related violence reducing, a long-term solution was not needed.

Regrettably the Halt did become a white elephant - a decaying symbol of better times on the pitch, but worse ones off it, but also of how Watford FC in the early 80’s‘thought outside the box’, to use the management-speak of the time, when others did not.

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