Former Hornets director's suite steward Stephen Dunham reflects on 75 years supporting Watford and meeting Liverpool legend Bill Shankly
Forty-Three years ago last week on February 21, 1970, 34,047 fans crammed into Vicarage Road to watch Watford pull off one of the great results in their history when Ken Furphy’s side beat Bill Shankly’s Liverpool 1-0 in the sixth round of the FA Cup thanks to a famous Barry Endean goal.
It was also the day when Stephen Dunham began work as the director’s suite steward at the club, a role he was to fulfil for 37 years before he was made redundant on the eve of the 2007/08 season.
Six years on and now aged 83, Steve remains a Hornets fan – “Watford was my life” – and last month marked the 75th anniversary of him visiting Vicarage Road for the first time when his elder brother, Peter, took him along to watch a 1-1 draw with Gillingham as a birthday present.
From that January 1938 day onwards, Watford-born Steve was hooked and he went on to have a number of different jobs at the club before his director’s suite role brought him into contact with some of the most famous names in football and beyond, coinciding with the club’s golden era.
Reflecting on his lifelong passion for the club when we met at his Tring home a fortnight ago, the retired sales development manager for John Dickinson at Nash Mills recalled being a ballboy and programme seller at Vicarage Road in the 1940s before starting his national service.
After spending six months in the Royal Navy and 18 months in the army during which “my family used to send me the West Herts Post and Watford Observer every week to keep me in touch with the Blues for football and Kings Langley for cricket”, Steve was back following Watford “north, south, east and west” and became a turnstile operator in the Shrodells Stand.
He soon became involved with Watford Supporters Club, was co-opted on to their committee in 1958 and became area manager for the weekly club tote collecting £150 a week from eight agents in Hemel Hempstead.
“Early in the 1958/59 season I remember Watford FC chairman Mr (Jim) Bonser and director Mr (Doug) Broad turning up for the Supporters Club monthly meeting,” said Steve, whose daughter Lynne is married to John Smith, the son of late director and vice-chairman Geoff Smith.
“They wanted £3,000 to sign a new player and would not go until they convinced the committee to come up with a cheque. They said they could not divulge the name of the player at the time, it was highly confidential.
“The committee finally agreed and gave them a cheque. It turned out to be to sign Cliff Holton from Arsenal, which was probably the best ever signing in the history of Watford FC.”
Steve remained on the Supporters Club until 1965 when he resigned to become membership secretary of the newly-formed Watford FC Supporters Club. Five years later he was appointed director’s suite steward by club secretary Ron Rollitt.
Recalling the events of his first day, Shankly asked for a results sheet to be brought to the dressing room after the game. Steve was invited in and remembered: “When I went in the Liverpool players were just sitting with their heads in their hands. You could have heard a pin drop.
“Mr Shankly put his hand on my shoulder and went through the results, passing comments. He thanked me, kept the results sheet and I went back to my post.
“Before leaving to go back to Liverpool, Mr Shankly came to thank us for our help and hospitality and said Watford were a credit to the game for our friendship and hospitality, which was a lot better than a lot of clubs whom they visited regularly.
“He was such a wonderful friendly and sociable man. No wonder he was so well liked all over the football world. He was a person I will never forget.”
Steve also has good memories of meeting plenty of other football people including Brian Clough – “a really nice friendly man” – and Bill Nicholson, as well as celebrities such as Rod Stewart and Billie Jean King, who were guests of Elton John at games, and politician Michael Foot.
Perhaps unsurprisingly though, it is the Graham Taylor years which is remembered with particular fondness by Steve, whose favourite Watford game was the 7-1 League Cup victory over Southampton after the Hornets had lost the first leg 4-0.
“Not only did he do a great job at Watford, but he did a lot of good for English football,” he said. “I remember when he introduced the Family Enclosure beside the Main Stand, the first to do so in the country and now practically every club has one.
“The Graham Taylor era was by far the best in my 75 years as a Watford supporter.”
The manner in which those 37 years were abruptly ended when the Graham Simpson-Mark Ashton regime was at the Vicarage Road helm still hurts though.
“Being made redundant after all those years being part of the match-day team came as a complete shock,” Steve admitted. “I’ve lost a lot of interest not being involved but can’t keep away and still go as often as possible.”
- Steve's all-time Watford XI: Tony Coton; Duncan Welbourne, Tommy Eggleston, John McClelland, Johnny Meadows, Wilf Rostron, Nigel Callaghan, John Barnes, Dennis Uphill, Cliff Holton, Luther Blissett. Substitutes: David James, George Catleugh, Kenny Jackett, Tim Sherwood, Nigel Gibbs, Tom Walley.