The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009
Following in the footsteps of Ross Jenkins and George Reilly in the number nine shirt must have been a daunting prospect but Colin West made an immediate impact after joining from Sunderland on transfer deadline day in March 1985. The fact he had been left out of Sunderland’s Milk Cup final side a few days before made me wonder whether the transfer had been arranged before the game. I met Colin at some services on the A1. He was coaching at Hartlepool but had not long left Southend United and I think he was still splitting his time between the south and north. Anyway, we had a coffee and he talked about the circumstances that led to his transfer to Watford.
You played for Sunderland in the League Cup quarter-final in January 1985. You won, you reached the final but then you didn’t play at Wembley and then about three days later you signed for Watford. What happened?
We were hanging on in that match. We got a goal – a lucky goal really because it hit Nick [Pickering] on the arse and looped over Tony [Coton]. It was a bad pitch and the goal was a bit lucky. They [Watford] had loads of chances and the good thing about it was our keeper Chris Turner was on decent form that night. We didn’t have a lot of chances but we held on.
Then we played Chelsea in the semi-final. I scored three goals over the two legs in that semi-final. We won 2-0 at home. We won away and I scored one of the goals but that game was amazing. Frightening really. It was a warzone on the terraces. Fans were fighting all over the ground and they got on the pitch several times. The game got stopped and they were proper rioting, throwing seats at the police. When I scored my goal there were police horses and policemen on the pitch. I scored in between a policeman and a fan who’d run on the pitch at Stamford Bridge. At the final whistle we just ran down the tunnel because you didn’t know what was going to happen. We were the players and you thought, ‘Well, they’ll not attack us, surely?’ but we didn’t know that for certain.
So why did you miss the final against Norwich? Were you injured.
I definitely wasn’t injured for the final. I don’t know what went on but I have since found out through one or two people that the deal [to go to Watford] was more or less done between the clubs before the final. They’d been speaking about it. And then I got left out of the final. I got told on the Sunday morning – the day of the game –at the hotel that I wasn’t playing. If I had played and we’d won then there’s no way I would have wanted to leave Sunderland I’m sure. But I think the deal had been done between the two clubs. We lost the game. We had a penalty and Clive [Walker] missed it. I took the penalties so I was sitting there thinking, ‘I might have scored that.’ If I had scored and we won I’d have been on a high and I’m sure that if they’d said, ‘Right, we want you to go to Watford,’ I’d have said no. As it was, I was left out of the final, I heard a day or so later that Watford had made an approach and I was in the mood to go. I don’t know what it was all about. Did Sunderland want to sell me? Did they need the money and they needed me to go?
Sunderland ended up getting relegated that season.
Yeah, we reached that cup final but were in the lower reaches of the league and ended up going down.
So when did you actually know you were going to Watford?
The transfer was done on the deadline day, which was probably the Thursday [after Sunday’s cup final]. GT came up to meet me in Sunderland and talk to me. He said he’d speak to my missus. We’d only moved into the house eight months before and we’d just finished doing it up from scratch. It was our place and we’d put everything into it. I spoke to my missus that night. GT made contact at a reserve game and I told my missus that night at about 11 o’clock. She said, ‘We are not going, we’ve just finished the house!’
I said it would be a great move for me with Barnesy and Callaghan on the wings. Besides, I don’t want to stay at the club that just left me out of the biggest game of my career. Football wise it was a great move.
She said, ‘Well, I’m not going to go.’ She was in tears. I rang Graham that night and said, ‘I’m really sorry but I’m not coming.’
He thought it was money, so he offered me more money. I said it wasn’t about the money, it was my wife who didn’t want to go. He said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t meet your wife and talk to her, so meet me at the hotel in the morning,’ and this was the Thursday, deadline day.
We had to get my wife time off work the morning, she was a computer operator and she called them up and said she had to go to this meeting. She took the time off work and we went to meet him. Graham started talking and within about 10 minutes, she said, ‘Okay, we’ll go.’ Frightening isn’t it! He sold the club to my wife in 10 minutes when the previous night there was absolutely no way she was leaving the north east.
He put the club over, he sold the whole situation, moving and everything. He was a nice fella to start with and he was a family type of person so you got a nice feeling talking to him. He just said it would be good to move, good for my career.
She went back home and then I had to go back to Watford with Graham before 5pm on the train. I had no clothes. I came in my jeans. We did all the papers and signed the forms and everything. I’d been playing in the reserves for Sunderland the night before and I’d been speaking to Stan Cummins [coach]. He said, make sure you write everything down on a piece of paper what you want, so you won’t you forget. What happens is these managers talk a lot and then you sign, and then you remember something and you’ll be kicking yourself.
So we’re talking about the money and I’ve got my piece of paper with all the figures on it, basic wage, relocation money, bonuses whatever. And I’m keeping it under the table so he can’t see what I’ve written on it. Anyway, he starts talking about the money and he offers me more than I had written down. So we moved down.
On the train journey we had talked about football, what I needed to improve on. He’s quite easy to talk to Graham. I would say he’s one of the best managers I’ve had. As a club manager he got the best out of players by his total honesty. We used to do some running. I was fairly fit at Sunderland but when I got to Watford I got so much fitter.
You didn’t mind being told you had to improve?
Not at all. I think when you are at a club for a while they stop working on you a bit. I was from the north east, I’d been at Sunderland since I was a kid, five years as a pro so moving to Watford was something new and the chance to work with Graham was something I definitely didn’t want to turn down. Listening to Graham on the train talk about my game made me think, ‘Well, he’s watched me then.’ He knew my game. It wasn’t that he was telling me what I was bad at, it was him telling me what I could get better at and there’s a big difference between those two things.
You didn’t have much time to settle, I guess, coming in in late March with only six weeks of the season left. Yet you scored in seven of the 12 games you played. That’s quite an impact.
I did alright, eh? [Laughs]
I scored in my first home game [a 5-0 win over West Ham] and I thought, this is some side. Me and Luther, Barnesy, Cally. I thought, ‘I will get some goals here.’
At the end of the season we beat Spurs 5-1 at their place and I scored, and then 5-1 against Man United at Vicarage Road and I scored in that too. The last game [of the season] was at Anfield and it says I scored one but I definitely scored two that night. We were leading 2-0 I think. Gary Porter, who was having a great game, had a great chance to score but he hit the post. Then they [Liverpool] came back at us and we ended up losing 4-3. But what a game that was.
What were the differences at Watford compared to Sunderland?
We worked really hard. The discipline was strict. It felt like a proper organisation and it maybe made me think that things at Sunderland had been a bit loose.
The first Monday of the month we’d do a 12-mile run. But he [Graham Taylor] used to do it as well. He used to beat some of the lads. He wasn’t just telling us to run he used to do it, and mentally that has a real effect on you. You can’t complain if the gaffer is doing the run as well, can you?
At that time it was ideal for me. Wardy [John Ward] was the coach and he was a striker. Most of the coaching was about shape and patterns and runs and that taught me quite a lot. Graham and John bounced off each other, then there was Harry [Steve Harrison] and they were a good blend all together.
Do you remember any of your goals in particular?
[Looking at a list of results from 1985-86] We scored some goals didn’t we. We absolutely battered West Brom there [5-1 at Vicarage Road].
I scored a header from outside the box, right on the edge of the box, against Chelsea on the last day of the season. That’s where I virtually got my move to Rangers because [Graeme] Souness was watching.
I remember the cup game at Coventry. It was snowy and icy and they were talking about it being called off. [Brian] Kilcline had broken my foot before so it was great to score two against him that day.
I had an injury to my ankle at QPR in the spring and I missed a few games and that knocked me because I was hoping for 20 goals that season.
In the cup game [against Liverpool] Tony [Coton] gave away the penalty. I don’t know if he touched him but we were leading Liverpool in that cup match and we lost.
But generally it was a good year. I had crosses coming in, I had Luther who was scoring from my flick-ons and they were all good lads.
At the end of your first full season you moved on to Glasgow Rangers. Was that a surprise?
I didn’t know they were interested until I heard Souness had watched me. When Souness comes in and there’s a chance of playing in Europe [English clubs were banned at the time], you have got to go haven’t you. Graham wished me all the best. He didn’t stand in my way, and he didn’t wave me off, he shook my hand, thanked me and wished me all the best.
It was a brief stay, then, but an enjoyable one?
It was, yeah. We socialised together. We’d go out during the week, not just drinking, we’d go for a coffee or something to eat. We used to go out as groups. After away games we got dropped off at the hotel on the main road and Graham said ‘if you want to have a drink after the game, make sure you get dropped off and get picked up after.’ He didn’t want us drink-driving or whatever. That sounds weird now doesn’t it because drink-driving is a definite no-no but it wasn’t seen that way in the Eighties but Graham didn’t want us doing it.
We used to get a meal on the bus on the way back, then he’d have one drink with us and say, ‘Okay lads, enjoy your evening, don’t go mad.’
I lived in Hemel. TC [Tony Coton] was my next-door neighbour. He had a girlfriend back up in the Midlands but he used to drop all his washing round to ours and my missus would do it!
We would race to work in the cars then race home. You look back now and think what idiots we were. We were on the motorway overtaking each other, I had a Golf GTI, he had a Toyota Supra. It was mad really but we were young and stupid. I’d go absolutely mad if any of my players now did that.
Didn’t Graham crack down on stuff like that?
If he heard about it, yeah. I came after Mo Johnston and you’d hear stories about what he did. I think compared to him we were no bother. But GT knew what went on. He knew if Cally was out DJing. He’d say, ‘Good night last night, Nigel?’ and he’d know. He cut some slack as long as you performed but if you didn’t he would come down hard on you and tell you to cut out whatever it was he didn’t really want you doing.
It was disciplined but I think it was good for me. The organisation was spot on. It was rubber-stamping most of the time – you knew wherever the ball was you knew where you had to be on the pitch. It was really enforced at Watford. I mean it was a little bit regimental, and it was pattern of play a lot of the time, and sometimes we’d have a treat and have a bit of five-a-side. Sometimes it was boring going over the same moves over and over but when you’re being successful and scoring goals and you know it works you stick with it.
Watford was a smaller club than Sunderland, so did you enjoy being at the club?
Definitely, I enjoyed being in the First Division still! [Laughs] The crowd were great towards me and it was a homely atmosphere. To be fair, Graham had them in the palm of his hand didn’t he? He could give the crowd a stare from that bench and the vibe went round the ground, you know. He had such an aura. So if he felt a player was getting a bit of stick that wasn’t deserved, he’d let it be known either in the programme or in the paper or whatever. That was excellent management. Sometimes players get a bit of stick from the crowd because they’re doing what the manager wants, not necessarily what the crowd thinks they should be doing, but Graham was excellent like that. He would explain. ‘No, I actually want him to be doing that, so don’t you be complaining he’s not playing well.’ Supporters don’t really know what goes on, do they? Why should they? They’re not at the training sessions. Graham would never criticise you if you did what he wanted you to do as well as you could. That really helped as a forward because he knew there was more to forward play than just scoring goals. Supporters might look at a striker going through a lean spell and think, ‘Get him out the team, he’s not scored for a while.’ But Graham recognised all aspects of your play and he’d say, ‘Nice flick-on for Luther’s goal, Westy,’ or ‘That was good running off the ball. You helped open them up.’ You can affect the game without touching the ball and Graham knew that. For me, he was excellent.
Watford also felt like a modern club and there were things they were doing that I’d not got to do at Sunderland. When I first got there we went to Thailand for a trip. We played Sheffield Wednesday out in Bangkok. I don’t think we were supposed to be playing Wednesday. There was us and two teams from over there, but for some reason we ended up playing Wednesday. It was absolutely belting down with rain. It was monsoon season. It was belting hot but it was blasting down. It was 0-0 and we lost on penalties. I have no idea why we went there – probably invited by sponsors or something, I don’t know.
It was a memorable trip because I’d only been on four or five trips before that going to Magaluf at the end of the season, suddenly I was flying to the other side of the world. I wouldn’t say it was a fantastic trip because it was really seedy and I didn’t like that. But it was memorable. I got to see something different. We went to the Pattaya beach afterwards for a few days and that was fabulous. It was a long way to go to lose to Sheffield Wednesday on penalties. But the beaches were fantastic, the hotel was massive. My room there was huge, bigger than the downstairs of our house at home.
We went on jetskis, me Tony and Cally and a few other lads. We were bombing around. We stopped them out on the water and you could just float for a while in the sun. When we wanted to go back in I couldn’t get mine starting again. I didn’t have a T-shirt on and the sun was blasting down. I had to get back in. Tony said: ‘Just turn the handle like this,’ and I said: ‘It’s not working TC.’ So he jumped on my jetski and said: ‘Let me have a go.’ I jumped on his and went straight back to the beach. I ended up with sunstroke. I was in the hotel for the whole day, baking hot then freezing cold.
Cally had been bombing all over. He got lost and ended up further down the beach in some rocks and he smashed up the bottom of it and the propeller. Anyway, they were chasing him for the rest of the holiday for him to pay for it!
You mentioned the back-to-back 5-1 wins over Tottenham and Manchester United. That must have been an incredible few days.
The Spurs one was fantastic. United maybe had their eyes on the FA Cup final, which was a few days later, but beating a full-strength Spurs team 5-1 on their own ground was special. It was a baking hot sunny day. I got played in, [Ray] Clemence [the Spurs goalkeeper] came out, I took it round him and I dribbled it in.
Me and Graham Roberts [Spurs defender] had a real battle. I walloped him and he went off to have his eye stitched up. Tony booted it and I put my arms up to defend myself. I walloped him and he had been off for four or five minutes and he had steam coming out of his ears when he came back on. He was desperate to boot me, but when we were together at Rangers together he told me he had been told to calm down.
The opening day of the following season they were desperate to hammer us and they did beat us 4-0 and we didn’t really play that day.
Did Graham encourage the physical side of your game? You were good in the air and could handle yourself.
Graham was very fair but he liked a physical threat. He hated cheating, he hated you talking back to the ref. He fined you for dissent. He felt the game should be played fairly. I’m not saying that if you went down and won a free-kick or penalty he’d be telling you off but it was obvious he didn’t like that and he definitely didn’t encourage it. If there was a chance to have a shot and you went down looking for a penalty and didn’t get it he’d be livid. ‘Take your shot, take your shot, and play to the whistle.’ His view was that if you tried it on at one end you’d give the referee encouragement to give decisions at the other end.
I think I was his type of centre forward. I liked to try to get the first one in, a good strong challenge, and get the upper hand in the battle with the defender. I could win it in the air, flick it on for Luther to run in behind, or hold it up, lay it off or spread it wide and then spin and get in the box.
Graham could be aggressive too. I can remember him getting his point across fairly aggressively at times. He used to chuck the tea cups about a bit when we weren’t at it.
We used to take the mickey a bit but not while he was talking or even when he could hear us. When he was getting his point across you were shit-scared of him really because he could turn on you and you knew he wouldn’t hold back. The thing was, if he did tear into you it was probably because you deserved it. Sometimes it might have felt a bit much but if you were honest you’d think, ‘Yeah, he’s right.’
He talked so fast sometimes, he had so much he wanted to get across, and that little bit of slather would be coming out of his mouth or the vein in his neck would be going. Afterwards we’d have a joke about it and do the odd impression but at the time we took it deadly serious because although he was tough he was fair.
Players want discipline. They want to be told what time they have to be there or what they have to wear. It sounds basic. Everything is done for you really. It’s not until you retire that you realise how much work is done for you so that all you have to concentrate on is training and playing. So the least players can do is turn up on time and put in the effort.
You obviously thrived on the style of play but were you aware it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea?
The style of play had its critics but it was ideal for me because they played through me. Everything went through me, up the middle to me or into the middle for me. It was a little bit direct maybe. But people had a go because they couldn’t handle being beaten by Watford. Everyone used to moan about the style, but Arsenal did it too. They used to kick it up to Alan Smith right from the back. Their game was a great long pass and ours was just boot it up the field? That didn’t seem fair to me. We were just good at it.
When Brian Talbot came in we did look to play through the middle a bit. When he took Les’s place [Les Taylor] everyone thought, ‘Blimey, who is going to do all that work?’ Les used to run his socks off. Brian worked hard too but in a different way. He did a lot of positional work off the ball, cut out the danger early, picked his moments to press and challenge. Brian would talk a bit more than Les maybe. It was maybe another notch on, no disrespect to Les at all because he was a terrific little player.
I used to talk to Brian about football. I would talk about the game a lot – where I went right where I went wrong. Some nights I couldn’t sleep after a bad game, I’d be up till three in the morning thinking about it.
Brian was ideal for a target man like me. Balls were coming in and he’d try to hook them round the corner and into the channel. He said if I ever get a manager’s job I’ll come and get you. I thought ‘oh, right-o.’ But he took me to West Brom and then Rushden and Diamonds.
Who else left an impression on you?
Brian taught me a lot about the game. He’d been at Arsenal and he was great. Barnes was an influence in how he was as a player. He was so talented but he wasn’t a big-headed lad. Any time you had a five-a-side you’d want him on your team cos he kept the ball so well. We would give the ball to him and people couldn’t get it off him. He was like that in matches too. TC [Tony Coton] was a great keeper. He had a lot to do playing for a club like Watford – far more than Chris Woods, who I played with at Rangers. Tony probably let in more goals than Chris – in fact I am sure he did – but I thought he was very unlucky not to play for England because he was a fantastic keeper. Some of the saves he made you thought, ‘How’s he kept that out?’