The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009
I met Brian Talbot at a branch of Starbucks on a bright June day and because of John Ward’s story about him often wanting to talk to Graham Taylor about the training and the tactics was interested to hear what he thought about his season and a bit at Watford.
Having won the FA Cup with both Ipswich and Arsenal, and with England caps to his name he was clearly a midfielder with an impressive pedigree. But signed at the age of 32 on a generous contract and coming from an Arsenal team managed by Don Howe, who had been among one of Watford’s most vocal critics, it was a curious decision by Graham Taylor.
Talbot had bags of endurance but he also liked time on the ball and he felt the Watford way did not play to his strengths, but he also felt that Watford’s players would have benefited from the occasional ‘extra pass’ as he said repeatedly.
He was not quite a round peg in a square hole but he was perhaps not quite the perfect fit, although as he pointed out perhaps he paved the way for another ball-playing midfielder, Kevin Richardson, to slot into the team.
It was fascinating getting a different view of the club from someone who was something of an outsider. As my research and interview work went on I was beginning to worry that I had found barely a dissenting word from any of the key players. That wasn’t necessarily a problem, and I certainly wasn’t digging for stuff that would shed a different light on the era for the sake of it, but it was interesting to hear from someone who had experienced other things in football and come to Watford when the club was establishing itself in the top division.
It was a strange decision, I suppose. I was one of the top goalscorers at Arsenal that season [1984-85] and I’d had a good season personally. I had another year left on my contract. There was talk there’d be changes at the club but it never crossed my mind that I’d leave.
I was working in my garden one day and my wife came out and said Graham Taylor was on the phone. I didn’t believe her at first but I said, ‘I’ll come.’ I spoke to him and we set up a meeting but I told him I wasn’t sure I’d be prepared to leave Arsenal. He said he’d had permission to speak to me, so obviously Arsenal were happy to let me go.
At the time Watford were fortunate they had the help of some funding from Elton John so it was an attractive place to go.
I met Graham Taylor a week later and I have to be honest, he impressed me immensely. His attention to detail was something else. He knew I had four children, he knew I liked a drink, he knew I worked hard, he knew I was opinionated, but he was prepared to sit down with me. He’d done his homework on my family and me. I went to that meeting with an open mind but I left him thinking I wanted to sign for Watford.
He wanted me to come in as captain. Things were changing at Watford. I have to be honest, Watford made a good, attractive offer, which was a three-year contract and as I was 32 and was if I was honest would Arsenal offer me a two-year contract in a year’s time?
The one thing that concerned me was the style of football. Don’t get me wrong, Graham Taylor did a fantastic job and was a tremendous manager but I was worried about whether the play would suit me.
As it turned out, I signed for three years, but I lasted 15 months. I played regularly in the team. That first season I played 41 games, I was never injured, but he left me out of one game.
How did you adapt to the style?
I think he was trying to change the style, but still I did find it difficult. He liked to go from back to front, but I thought we should try to fit in an extra pass sometimes. But he felt that if you could get there with one pass, why take two? If you can do it with two passes, why take three? He had statistics and information to back all that up. His detailed work was second to none and although we may have disagreed on his style of football I don’t think there was any lack of respect for each other.
I just felt we should get the ball to Barnesy’s [John Barnes] feet more. We had a goalscorer, [Luther] Blissett, up front who could run for England. Westy [Colin West] could hold it up. Kenny Jackett was hugely under-rated, [Tony] Coton was a quality goalkeeper, [Nigel] Callaghan could cross the ball for fun, Gibbsy [Nigel Gibbs] was a good consistent player, small but very competitive. [John] McClelland was better than people gave him credit for. So we had good players. I felt that if we passed it a little bit more we could have challenged the bigger ones more often. But Graham had come second in the league a few years before. If you asked me 10 or 20 years later, maybe Graham was right but I felt it didn’t make the most of my game.
But, look, Graham had taken a team from the Fourth Division to the First. I don’t care what money you’ve got you’ve still got to get results. You can talk all you like about Elton John’s money, but when I was manager at Rushden I had Max Griggs’s money to try to do a similar thing and I can tell you, it’s difficult. It’s hard to keep winning football matches. But GT kept winning matches.
Did you enjoy it or was it frustrating?
Don’t get me wrong, I was involved in the games. I’d win the ball and I’d give it but it wasn’t a style I was used to.
I think the thing was I had to change. But that’s difficult at 32. I was used to the full-back getting it and rolling it in to me, then I’d pass it out to the wing and get it back, and then maybe we’d switch the play to the other side before the long pass goes in, or whatever. But at Watford, the full-back got it and he hit the centre forward, and that took time to get used to.
I’m not saying he was wrong, but at the time I felt we needed to pass it more. But Graham had had phenomenal success, so why should an old pro coming into a club try to change it when the manager knows better? I know that now but at that time maybe I gave him an extra problem he didn’t need. I wasn’t disrespectful, I wasn’t a rebel, I got on with my training and did my job and I worked hard but I did used to say my piece.
I said to my wife, the first season I had there was three seasons in one because we trained that hard. Monday morning, afternoon, Tuesday morning, afternoon, Wednesday morning. We’d have Wednesday afternoon off. Thursday morning, Thursday afternoon, Friday morning, Saturday morning sometimes we’d do a session, then play the game. I found that difficult to start with. We all know now that rest and recovery are as important as training but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Was he different to your previous managers?
I think when you are at Arsenal, or when I was at Ipswich with Bobby Robson, the fundamental thing was to pass the ball. So to hear something different at that time was very interesting to me. It showed me a different side to the game.
When I went into management, a lot of his principles, I used. Discipline, organisation, fitness. He used to join in the training, which I did when I started as a manager. When you’re a player and you want to complain about the running you can’t if the manager is doing it as well and he was ten, fifteen years old than some of the lads.
Graham had previously signed Pat Rice from Arsenal, and he was a similar age when he came, so do you think he was signing you for more than what you did on the pitch?
Possibly, but I was still a player. Sometimes he mentioned a bit much that I’d been an international and I’d played for a big club. The lads knew that, and I was a bit embarrassed because I was always a team player. I was never good enough to be an individual player, I wasn’t the star, I was someone who I like to think could do well within a team. I wouldn’t cause a problem. If he told me to mark someone I would.
I remember shortly before I left Watford, he gave me a job to do, to mark Bryan Robson [of Manchester United], and Robson didn’t get a kick. It wasn’t the most creative job I’ve ever been asked to do in a football match, but the manager identified something that needed to be done, he picked a player he thought could do it, he made his instructions crystal clear and he trusted me to get on with that job, and we won the game 1-0. That was good management. Now, as a player maybe I wouldn’t want to do that every game but when you are up against Bryan Robson, captain of England, you had to do something and on that particular evening I enjoyed that job.
When you arrived you replaced a very popular player, Les Taylor.
I was aware of that. Very aware. I knew Les was popular with the supporters and quite right because he had come out of the Second Division with them done so well. With respect to Les, who I later worked with at Oxford, he was a worker. He played box to box and he won second balls but he was not a good passer. He was a worker and a trier and he was a lower league player but he gave his best every single game. I liked him as a man and as a player. But the club had got bigger and I think the manager wanted someone who could do a bit more.
Les felt he could still do the job. The manager didn’t think he could. But Les stayed when probably he should have gone. He was competing for his place, fairly, not behind my back. He was never a problem to me. But I could run more than him. Even though I was 32, I could still win the races in training, be up there with Barnesy. So he’d brought legs and experience into the team. I think I was older than Les but if we were doing a 12-minute run he’d do seven-and-a-half laps, I’d do eight. I could keep the ball better, I could score more.
It’s one of the challenges of management, recognising when you need to replace a player. At Rushden the boys who won the Conference could not win the next division so you have to change, and it’s a shame because you lose some nice guys along the way, but that is how football goes.
I think you’re right, GT was trying to reproduce what he’d done with Pat Rice but it was different for Pat because he was not being bypassed. He would get the ball from the goalkeeper or the centre-half and knock up to Luther or Ross Jenkins. His role was similar to what he’d done at Arsenal whereas I was seeing the ball go over my head. Steve [Harrison] and John [Ward] were good coaches. They would try to find out what you were doing socially, or what was going on in the crowd. Taylor had total control of the club.
We used to work hard in training. Barnesy and Luther will tell you we worked our socks off. Graham couldn’t see anything wrong with running hard. He couldn’t see the need for rest, but today we’d totally disagree. If you were tired, it wasn’t that you were tired, you were weak-minded. I think we were very fit but I think there came a point in the season where he needed to ease off a bit and maybe he would have got a bit more from us. I used to go home shattered after training and say to Sandra, ‘I can’t be doing much today, I’ve got to get ready for tomorrow.’
Had you found playing against Watford an enjoyable experience when you were at Arsenal?
Not especially, no. [Laughs]. Playing Watford was non-stop. They turned you round. They were in your face but the ball kept going in behind you, behind you, all the time, so you were always playing the wrong way. But they played the ball to bodies or into areas where bodies were arriving. They didn’t kick it up the field and run after it. Then people would support. If it was cleared, they were following up to get it wide again. It was co-ordinated and he got it down to a tee. If the left-sided player had the ball the right-sided player had to get in the box, and vice versa. The midfield had to push up and get the knock-downs. Playing against them, we had to turn round all the time. Then when you turn, they’re moving off you.
When they first came up, they were new on the block, but after a few years you could beat it by passing the ball round them. Look at Ipswich, we all became internationals, Watford’s didn’t. I’m not being rude to Watford, they did come second, but they didn’t do it again. I think people sussed them out. You could let them play the long ball because you knew where it was going. I’m not saying it was easy, because you had to work very hard to get the second balls before them, but if you passed it round them and kept the ball well, you could beat them. People didn’t chase the game so much, they sat and waited a bit more.
The training could be monotonous. It was organised, very organised but sometimes we were doing things just for the sake of staying out there.
One Thursday up at Stanmore, Steve Harrison took me to one side at the end of training and said, ‘Right, I’m going to be Nigel Callaghan, and you’re going to be Brian Talbot.’ Callaghan played right wing, I played on the right side in the centre of midfield. Harry had a bag of balls. I’m going to pass it to you and you’re going to hook it into the channel.
I said, ‘Well, there’s no one in there.’
‘No, but on Saturday, Westy will be running in there, so we’re going to do 50 balls.’
Then we went to the other side of the pitch, and we did those drills four times. It must’ve taken 45 minutes.
He said to me, ‘That’s what we want you to do on Saturday.’
So, come Saturday, the ball comes to me and I look up, as you do as a midfield player, you want to look up, see what’s on. There was no one running, so I knocked it to the full-back. I wanted him to then knock it to the centre half and then go across to the other side of the pitch and switch the play.
I heard from the bench, ‘Fucking ’ell, we only told you this on Thursday. Knock it in the channel!’
We were playing Coventry so the first one that came to me I smashed it into the channel but it rolled out for a goal kick. No one there. Next one went off for a throw. I shouted across to the bench, ‘I’m becoming a Watford player now!’
Taylor shouted back, ‘Watford players try to keep it on the fucking pitch.’ [Laughs].
To be honest, I think we became like robots and I think players have got imagination.
For instance, tell me to play down the channel fine, but I want to play a one-two with Kenny, then give it to Barnesy. To the eye it is more pleasing. It may not be more effective for scoring goals. To be fair to Graham he was one of the first managers in England to count shots, to count corners, to count win-backs in the last third.
Did you find it inflexible?
To a degree. Don’t get me wrong, he was the manager and it was his job to get results and he got results over a long period of time, but I felt if they wanted to go from top ten to top six they needed to do a bit more.
We went to Sweden during pre-season and he kept charts of fitness, set pieces. I have kept them to this day because they work perfectly with lower league players. But I think we had slightly better players than maybe he thought. Maybe he was used to being the underdog and squeezing as much as he could out of players and perhaps he could have eased up a bit and trusted the players a bit more.
Kenny was under-rated. He could tackle, pass, he’d never hide. I think the players were a little bit frightened of the manager. They were young, they had come up through the ranks, or up through the divisions. When you bring in Talbot, McClelland, Coton, West, well you’re not so frightened. You think ‘hold on a minute, I don’t agree with this.’
After six games he called me in [to his office] and he said, ‘The opposition is not the problem I’ve got, you’re the problem I’ve got, and you’re my captain.’
The manager couldn’t fault my effort or my endeavour or even my performances even if I wasn’t getting enough touches but I think he struggled with the fact I didn’t want to follow it to the letter. My point was, if all you want me to do every time is hook it into the channel, the opposition know I’m going to do that. They know. They’ve watched us play. You’re no surprise any more. If you carry on, you’re going to be mid-table and we shouldn’t be. What we should do is, every now and then, take the extra pass, switch the play, surprise them, but no, we were rigid. If we used our imagination we’d do better.
In hindsight, maybe he needed to see me do it his way for a couple of months so he could trust me and then he’d have eased up but I didn’t think of that at the time.
The manager thought differently to me and I think he thought about letting me go quite early. He could have let me go to Man United, but it would’ve looked bad letting me go there after just three months. I met Ron Atkinson [Manchester United manager] because I was chairman of the PFA. I wouldn’t have been regular because I would have been Bryan Robson’s understudy but I’d have come in and covered for anyone in midfield. It would’ve been perfect because I had an office in Manchester with the PFA, but Graham wouldn’t let me go, so I buckled down and got on with the job.
You didn’t fall out with the manager?
No, not at all. He may tell you different but I don’t think he could honestly say I was not professional. I had a very good contract at Watford. I was never late. Whether I disagreed with eight sessions a week, I did it. I wasn’t quick or as sharp over ten yards, but if you told me to run round the track four times, I could do it. I was coming to the end of my career. I’d signed a contract at Watford to take me up to 35. I thought I’d be finished after that, although it didn’t happen like that.
I think the difficulty was that I was an experienced player, at 32, and you’re asking me to change my game plan. I can understand Graham not being happy but the club had made it very difficult for me to turn down their offer. It was a three-year contract, which was extremely good for my family and me. I lost a year and a half of it because he wanted me to leave and I wanted to go. Whether or not he thinks he paid me too much while I was there, but that was the deal.
Eventually it got to the point where he wanted me out. I nearly went to Pompey as assistant manager to Alan Ball. I eventually went to Stoke as a player, but my wages were a lot less.
Was it an experience you regretted?
Absolutely not. I saw something different. If I’d not gone to Watford I don’t think I’d have had 20-plus years in coaching and management.
But I think I was the wrong player for him. He was a disciplinarian but they were frightened of him – I wasn’t frightened of him. I’d ask him to explain why he was doing something.
I’ll never forget one day, we were going for a 12-mile cross country. They used to give you a map. He said, ‘We’re going to walk the first two miles to warm up, then run.’ We walked through Cassiobury Park, we kept on walking through and we ended up at his house for a cup of tea and cakes with him and his wife, Rita. It was the sort of thing he’d do. The run was cancelled and we sat round chatting. It was great.
On pre-season tour he gave me the money to take the lads out for a drink but asked me to keep it sensible.
What did you think of the club as a whole? The stadium, facilities? Not quite the marble halls of Arsenal.
That didn’t bother me. I didn’t play at Arsenal thinking about the marble halls. I never thought anything of the stadium. Graham made it so family-orientated and friendly, it was a welcoming place to come. I overlooked that, because the club was all together.
It was a very tight club and that was a good thing, on the whole, but they weren’t too sure about outsiders coming in. I think they thought the Watford way was something people on the outside couldn’t understand, but it was mostly just common sense. You didn’t need to understand it. Maybe Wilf was a little slighted by it [Talbot joining] because he had been captain before me, but he accepted it.
I wasn’t joining Watford because he offered me the captaincy. If he’d offered the captaincy with half the wages, I wouldn’t have come. As a pro with four children and a big mortgage I was making a decision to look after my family. I was thinking I had not long left. When GT offered me a three-year contract on a good package. I thought I had made it difficult for him asking for what I wanted, but the offer he made me made it impossible to turn down.
I told him what I was looking for, and he came back with an offer and there was only one answer I could give. Yes. I never told the players how much I was on. The only person I told was my wife. I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business.
The team finished 12th during your full season, and reached the FA Cup sixth round where you lost to Liverpool in the replay.
Our home form was very good but away we were poor. Graham might say certain players weren’t doing as they were told. I’d say teams had worked us out, but he’d say if players did exactly as they were told we’d have won more games. But I think we had already become a mid-table side.
The Liverpool game [1-2] was a shame. The goalie [Tony Coton] was at fault in my opinion. We should have beaten them 1-0 that night. I think the goalie made a mistake. I’m sure I made loads of mistake, but unfortunately when a goalie makes a mistake that loses you games. Coton was a fine goalkeeper but he wasn’t Pat Jennings.
Do you think other players shared your view about the style of play?
Possibly they did. I didn’t go round saying, ‘At Arsenal we did this.’ Never. But people did ask me what it was like. Luther had been at Milan so he knew there was more to football than the Watford way.
I think if you speak to Barnesy, he was getting disillusioned with the size of the club at that time. He was becoming a star. He was becoming bigger than Watford and he needed a bigger stage. That wasn’t Watford’s fault because Watford is Watford. With respect to Watford, how can they be a Liverpool? They can’t. They haven’t got the crowds or the pulling power.
We were trying to get bigger and better but it was becoming difficult and Graham knew that. The first season he surprised everyone with his way of playing, but the second season was more difficult and then we were settled as a mid-table side. Barnes had become an international, he then became a player who deserved to play on a bigger stage. He became too big for Watford.
What about Luther?
People used to make laugh about Luther, calling him Luther Missit. He was a smashing lad and a good player. He stepped up every level and he was good enough to play for England.
He ran through brick walls. He missed some but so what, how many did he score? He scored 20 goals a season and he made chances for others. You could rely on him totally. He didn’t have what you would call a bad game. Even when he wasn’t at his best he was still dangerous. He didn’t pull out with a calf injury or a niggle or say he had a knock. He trained and he played. Totally professional and the fact he went to Milan and had a hard year but, I think, came back a better all-round player says a lot for him.
The dressing room was great. Harrison was fun, Wardy was quieter but very efficient. Barnesy and Luther were great in the dressing room.
I was lucky I went there and I saw it, because if I hadn’t seen it I’d have managed and coached differently. I think it helped me. Whether or not I could have played better or should have played the system better is up for debate. All I can say is I did the best I could in the frame of mind I was in. I wasn’t a rebel, but I felt we could have refined it a bit more.
Did you move into the area?
I already lived close enough for Graham so I didn’t have to move. He liked everyone to live close. When I first joined I bought the Watford Observer for a couple of weeks and took it home and read it. I did that for a couple of weeks but then I didn’t buy the paper. The reporter [Oli Phillips] analysed every Saturday in the finest detail. Fine, that’s his opinion. But I analyse my game on Sunday at home. I thought ‘fine, I won’t tell him what I was thinking and I won’t read what he was thinking.’
I found that strange. Ipswich is a bigger club than Watford but has a local paper but even they didn’t look at the games in that much detail. I didn’t have a problem with it because it didn’t affect me but I knew the lads read it and I thought, ‘Well, how does he [the reporter] know what’s going on here? He tells us all about the game he’s watched but does he know what we worked on in the week? How many games has he played anyway?’ I leave it to the manager to tell me whether I’m doing well enough. I never read the newspapers. I still don’t today. I’d much rather hear what the manager and coaches said and I don’t think they were going to get their opinions from out of the local paper.
Graham was very friendly with the press, although some of them didn’t like his football.
Graham tried to be open but maybe he was too open sometimes and they didn’t thank him for it. Jeff Powell [Daily Mail] likes Terry Venables but he doesn’t like Graham and I think he was unfair on Graham. He turned it into an attack and it was a disgrace. Venables could murder his mother and Powell would have supported him! [Laughs] I’m being stupid now but you see what I mean. Powell had his favourites. Ron [Atkinson] was clever with the press. He’d buy them all Champagne and he’d drink water.
Graham didn’t do any of that. He said as he saw it. He talked a lot but he said it from the heart. People didn’t always like it. But he was as honest as the day is long and he would tell you what he thought.
Towards the end of your time at Watford did you know he was trying to sell you?
He told me he wasn’t sure I’d be as regular the second season. I said to him, I’ll compete for my place with everyone else, no problem. The issue was he didn’t want one of his top earners in the reserves. I remember saying that to my wife and I knew it was a problem for him. How do you explain that to the chairman and the board? I was being paid well but not playing and he had to move me on but it wasn’t easy. He’d been good enough to offer me that contract but I wasn’t going to say, ‘You made a mistake and I’ll just rip it up.’ I don’t think for one moment Elton picked me as a player. Graham picked his players. He was realistic about who he went for and generally speaking he got the players he went for. In my case I think he got a decent year out of me but realised I wasn’t going to be for him in the second year so he had a problem.
Just going back to your first full season, do you remember beating Arsenal twice in two days – on Easter Monday at Highbury and then at home on the Tuesday night?
That sort of thing used to happen in those days – two games in two days. I think that’s where Graham would say that being super fit helped us.
When I was at Ipswich we should have won the league. We were one point behind with three games in hand but we didn’t win it. We should have done but the games caught up with us. I still think the season I was at Watford we should have been in the top six and gone further in the cup.
With the players we had that year we could have tweaked it and done a bit better. But for me to question GT is crazy. He has done a lot, lot better than me as a manager so who am I to question? But I do. I wonder why we didn’t finish higher.
Maybe he would say we weren’t committed totally to what he was telling us. Maybe he should have been a bit softer on his demands on that organisation and knocking the balls into the channels. I don’t know.
If a ball was coming to me bouncing he’d want me to hook it over my head for the forwards to win the second ball, but I’d want to play it back to the full-back and then pass it up again, but maybe he thought if you pass it to the full back and they lose it. If you’re used to George Burley or Viv Anderson or Kenny Sansom, they were good on the ball, but with respect to Nigel Gibbs, he was average on the ball.
He wanted to change me as a player and I think that was a bit unfair on me. But looking back perhaps we both should have given in a little. I liked my year at Watford because I was interested to see how he worked. I liked the training, I liked the hard training. We had to wash our own kit because that was the own discipline. We had to bring own own packed lunch. We didn’t do that at Ipswich and Arsenal. You could buy lunch at the shop if you wanted but I took my own packed lunch.
I was chairman of the PFA [Professional Footballers’ Association] and I told people I washed my own kit and they said, ‘You what?’ But that was fine by me. If you’re a carpenter, you bring your tools every day and you keep them clean and in good condition. You don’t leave them on the job at the end of the day. Me being a footballer, I brought my kit and my boots. If we were doing two sessions, I brought two sets of kit, two towels. It was a culture shock to my wife because she’d never done that much washing before. I thought it was a good thing. When I was an apprentice at Ipswich I saw people chucking their kit on the floor in the dressing room. I thought we should put the kit on the peg after training or put it all in one place for the kit man. He’s not a slave. He’s good enough to wash the kit, he shouldn’t have to pick it up off the floor as well.
This was another thing I disagreed with Graham on. We had three sets of kit and I felt we should have four because if you are doing two sessions on a Monday then you have to wash the kit Monday night and get the dryer on. It was a lot of work for your wife.
Or a lot of work for you?
[Laughs] Yes! But to be fair, my wife did do the washing. I said to the boss, ‘We need four sets,’ and he said, ‘Oh you’re flash, you’re from Arsenal.’ I said no, I’ve got four kids and my wife has to do that, and my kit and it’s not on. I think he should have given us four sets of kit.
But Graham wanted the same principles in the First Division as he had in the Fourth Division. But he made it a lovely club and he stuck to those principles.
My point was that organisation gets you so far, but we needed a little bit extra ability to get us a bit further. A bit more craft maybe.
So how did you eventually leave?
I thought in the summer I would leave, I think we both thought that but there was a slight problem because my financial arrangement was geared to staying three years.
What do you mean?
They’d paid me a signing-on [fee] up front and that was based on the three years. I wondered how it would go. Were they going to get their money’s worth after one year? No way. I was prepared to stay, but they said it’d be better for me to go. As far as I was concerned they owed me nothing and I owed them nothing. As far as I was concerned I didn’t have to pay them anything back. They didn’t quite see it like that. I said, ‘Okay, well, I’ll stay for the two years of my contract and fight for my place.’
As it happened he had to take a substantial loss on me, he sold me for £25,000. He said, ‘We paid you more than we should for that first year.’ Well, that’s not my problem.
I didn’t have an agent, I did all my own work. I knew exactly what I wanted. I told him ‘this is what I want’ and they gave it to me. There was no argument. As I said, when he made me the offer there was nothing I could do but say yes. Whether it was the right deal for Watford Football Club I don’t know. Put it this way, I was very surprised and very grateful.
I think the overall package was geared to three years and I’d only done one, and they were committed to certain things they had to honour. I’m not talking about wages. I was due that because I didn’t ask for a transfer in writing. I was going to get every penny, by hook or by crook. When they phoned me up and we talked about leaving they said, ‘How much are you willing to forego.’ I said, ‘Not one penny.’
They weren’t going to win a contract fight with the chairman of the PFA were they!
[Laughs] People think footballers are greedy but a contract is a contract. If a club doesn’t want to pay it, don’t offer it. I know it’s a cliché but it’s a short career and you have to look after your family.
I wasn’t going to be awkward but I was prepared to stay and fight for my place. I said, ‘I’ll be in for training every day, I’ll work hard and be professional. Put me in the reserves, or the first team and I’ll do my best. If you don’t pick me I’ll watch from the stands, it’s fine. No problem, I’ll travel wherever you want, I’ll do whatever you want, no problem. I’ll do this season and next year and see out my time.’
But he wanted to change it and he needed to move me on. He wanted Kevin Richardson in. It would have been awkward putting your club captain in the reserves, perhaps so they had to move me on.
When you look back at Watford you want to say all nice things, and that everything was rosy. The club was lovely, everyone was so nice, and as a bloke the manager was first-class. But I thought the football needed to be tweaked a bit.
Have you spoken to him since?
Occasionally, yes. I like Graham a lot. I respect him even more. But I am not frightened of him. They [the other players] are frightened of him, still. The lads took to me I think. I was honest. I didn’t talk behind the manager’s back, I’d say it to his face. I went to his office to talk to him. I wouldn’t cheat a manager. I wouldn’t say one thing to the players and one to the manager.
If the lads were moaning about training and I agreed, I’d go to the manager and say, ‘Look, I think the training is too hard.’ And he’d say, ‘Get on with it.’ And I’d say ‘Fine’ and go back to the players and say, ‘The manager says we’re going to get on with it’ and that would be the end of it. Then the training would get harder because he’d be upset I’d gone in. And if he put another session on to show who was boss, I’d be up the front and get on with it.
But one thing you can say about Graham is that he was a leader. He led from the front.
But I couldn’t quite do what he wanted. That was the end of it. I didn’t call him Graham when we were there, but I would do now. Some of the lads would still call him Boss or Gaffer now.
There was a fear element at the club, but they had such a good thing going at the club, who was I to criticise? Who am I to criticise. Perhaps Barnesy might agree with me having been to Liverpool and see a different way.
Graham Taylor is a very clever man. If something wasn’t working, he would look at it. When I left maybe he thought ‘I’ve lost a decent bloke, he wasn’t all bad, so maybe I do need to alter things a little bit.’ Perhaps I paved the way a little bit for Kevin Richardson to go in there and have a bit more freedom than I had. If I was a stepping stone for him, I have no problem with that.
But as a man and a manager I have nothing but respect for him. He could remember everything off the top of his head. He would put the times on the board for the ten-yard sprint, the 100-yard sprint, the cross country. He knew everything. I thought ‘This man is unbelievable’.
I don’t know how many hours he worked but I bet he was first in and last out every day. He knew everyone, what they did, what they didn’t do. He was a stickler for free kicks and set pieces. They win and lose you games. You don’t realise it as a player how important they are. You defend your box and you attack their box. And your delivery has to be spot on. He worked hard on them. He was lucky he had Cally and Barnes but actually I don’t think there was any luck in it because he worked them hard on that aspect of their games from a very early age.
What I think is important is that I have respect for the man. It didn’t work out how I hoped but I went on to do well at Stoke, well at West Brom. I was player of the year twice there, one league below. Graham did brilliant at Aston Villa and went on to England.
What do you think about Watford now?
As a family we still talk about it fondly. It was a lovely club. The kids used to get on well with Barnesy and Luther.