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SPORT Oliver Phillips discusses why Elton John’s attitude to Watford changed between 1986 and 1987

I believe the first time Graham Taylor sensed there was a slight lack of momentum at Vicarage Road was when Elton John announced the club would not be building a replacement for the old Shrodells Stand.

It would have cost £3.5m. “After all the talk we appeared to chicken out. I think a lot of people were a little disappointed by that decision,” Elton said in mid-1986.

Among those people disappointed was Graham himself, who said he was pleased I did a personal interview with the star after the announcement, probing into future plans.

“It is the first time since we started out in Division Four that this club has said we are not going forward,” he said.

But later Elton insisted it was the right decision and they would have risked undoing much of their progress and saddled the club with debt if they had taken the £3.5m route. But clearly he had caught the vibes.

The publicity over the club deciding not to build a stand resulted in an offer from a company to build a cheaper stand – what would be known as the Rous Stand, and later the Graham Taylor Stand. This one would cost £2.2m.

“I think Graham was pleased we went ahead,” Elton said. “I think he may have lost interest had we not come up with a new scheme. In my opinion, the new stand looks better than the scheme we reluctantly turned down. Now our investment in a new stand has given the club a lift, a fresh bite and attitude after things had gone a little flat . . . no that’s the wrong word: they had levelled out.”

Work began on the new stand in the summer of 1986, with the club floating a Rights Issue to help fund the development. The public at large did not buy many of the shares and it was left to a slightly surprised Elton to fund much of the building of the Rous Stand.

We do not know what voices were dropping thoughts and observations in his ear. Certainly, as evidenced by his subsequent lack of appearances at Vicarage Road, John Reid was not a devoted fan and it later transpired he settled a payment of £3.4m out of court when the star discovered there were many millions that had “gone missing”. Elton lost his case against the “men in suits” some years later but Reid ceased to handle his affairs.

There was a school of thought at Vicarage Road that Reid was enthusiastic about the star’s association with Watford FCbecause it was good for his image and was good publicity. The £1.2m it had cost Elton over the first ten years of his chairmanship was, however, much increased when he as good as funded the new stand. Did this mean the price of publicity was getting too high in Reid’s estimation, while clearly Elton thought he had more money salted away than proved to be the case?

Perhaps one of the pivotal clues was the fact, after Graham tested Elton by asking him if he could apply for the Aston Villa job, he gave him the go-ahead and after Graham had left the boardroom, John Reid chased out after him and stated: “The club would not be asking compensation.”

The slipway was being greased for Graham’s departure. With him out of the picture, one of the key components and influences in Elton’s association with the club would be removed.

Of course, Elton had already been in secret negotiations with Robert Maxwell for the sale of the club – a fact that was released just before the FA Cup semi-final with Spurs in 1987. Clearly the momentum had all but ground to a halt.

Yet the previous September, as I attempted to mark Elton’s completion as chairman for ten years, I had been told he would be out of the country but had arranged for me to be flown out to Miami. There I met a man who was completely engrossed in Watford FC and was saying he was committed as ever.

I cannot pretend we had much more than a chairman local-journalist relationship but I had spent many hours in his company and been told many things, most of them off the record. I was an early devotee of rock ‘n’ roll, as was Elton, so he would fill me in regularly on the gossip, pull my leg about the latest Bob Dylan album and I would say we got on quite well. Talk is cheap but I always thought him genuine: exceptionally so for one with a showbusiness background. Watford grounded him.

All of which leads me to state, in my opinion, something happened between September 1986 and March 1987 which turned Elton’s attitude to Watford FC on its head. I do not believe Elton was anything less than sincere about his commitments and plans for Watford when I talked to him over several hours.

“I have been touring and it has led some people to feel ‘oh he is just dishing the money out but he’s not really interested. That is so not the case. I miss not working with Graham and I know he misses me not being there,’ Elton informed me and then launched into an enthusiastic update on their relationship and how he admired Graham’s honesty and observations which even covered the singer’s albums, records and “things I do”.

That statement in itself did indicate that his career had caused a divide in perceptions, albeit one he was keen to bridge and correct.