The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009
Only Luther Blissett, Duncan Welbourne and Nigel Gibbs have made more appearances for the Hornets than Gary Porter, who was a child when he first came down from the north east to be part of Watford’s youth system during the school holidays. He was one of the ones who made it and by 1983 he was ready to make his first team debut.
When we met at the Noke Hotel at Chiswell Green, he was working as a football agent and with Graham Taylor’s dislike of agents being well known, I started by asking him about his job…
Graham Taylor didn’t have much time for agents and when they first came on the scene he wouldn’t even let them in his office.
That’s probably fair enough. [Laughs] No, I think like anything there are good and bad. A good agent is on the side of their player, looking out for their best interests, but getting the most money isn’t necessarily always in their best interests. You need to weigh up what is going to be best in the long term. Plenty of players have moved club and it’s not worked out because it was the wrong move. The money might have been the best but everything else was wrong. I look back at my career and realise that back then the clubs held all the cards. The players didn’t really have anyone looking out for them, so there’s a place for agents.
Watford had scouts all over the place but how did a lad from the north east end up at Watford as a child?
They had a guy who scouted all around the country. I was about 11 and there was a guy called Norman Allder, who had worked at Lincoln with Graham. He had been his scout for Lincoln. He had brought Mick Harford and Micky Smith from Sunderland to Lincoln years before. When Graham went to Watford he took his scouts with him. Norman saw me playing and I got invited down at age 11. About five of us came down on the Inter City 125 to King’s Cross and then on the coach to Watford, with Tom Walley.
So Sunderland, your local club, never had a chance?
Even though Sunderland was on my doorstep, Watford was the first club that had spotted us. Tom took to me and Bertie [Mee] had a big involvement on the youth side as well, reassuring the parents and everything that it was fine for me to come down.
When was this?
I think they were in the Third Division at the time. I watched one game and there was a lot of straw on the pitch, I remember that.
You didn’t want to wait to see if Sunderland were interested?
I never thought about Sunderland because they never came in. Your ambition as a youngster is to play football. I was playing for my school, my boys club and playing with my mates in the street, so to be at a professional club during the school holidays was amazing. It didn’t matter that it was Watford.
What did you think of Watford at that time? And Tom Walley in particular?
Tom drummed lots of things into you. As a young player you obviously have a certain amount of natural talent. They can see something in you but you were taught everything about how to become a player. But it happened gradually – you’re not taught everything on day one. They watch you, they encourage you to express yourself. When you are 11 or 12 it’s the natural ability that counts. Just play the game, enjoy football for what it is, have fun. Maybe they’d drop something in that would help you improve a certain aspect of your game but it wasn’t coaching in the sense that there’s coaching in the professional game. It wasn’t complicated, but you were learning all the time.
Tom was a tough man, of course, but so what? I come from a very working-class council estate in Sunderland. It was tough growing up, so it was normal for me. I grew up playing with the bigger lads in the street so I got used to being kicked about. I got used to that. Because of my size I had to be a little bit quicker than, or cleverer than the others. I wasn’t afraid and I was prepared to get stuck in. Tom would have seen that in me. You had to have a bit of steel about you and a bit of devil in you. He loved that. He was a tough-tackling midfield player and centre back when he played. The sooner you realise that football is not easy, it is hard, the better.
So your size didn’t count against you?
No. Les [Taylor], Wilf [Rostron], Kevin Richardson, Cally, Mo [Johnston], Pat Rice, they weren’t giants.
So your debut for the first team was a 5-0 win at Wolves in December 1983.
That’s right. We were 4-0 up at the time and I came on. He put me on the left-wing. John Humphrey was the right-back. It was fantastic to come on with the team 4-0 up at Molineux.
That was the game where Maurice Johnston scored a hat-trick…
That’s right. Maurice was such a good finisher. It was natural to him. He was a bubbly character. Obviously as you got to know him you knew he liked the lifestyle off the pitch. He was only 21 at the time, but he was a great finisher.
You weren’t led astray by Maurice at any point were you?
Probably. Most of us were.
Tom used to always drum into you, don’t drink alcohol, don’t go out. I should have listened to him, really, but we had a fantastic team spirit. The lads used to go out together on a Saturday night. We’d get dropped off at the Hilton [hotel], have a couple of beers in the Hilton, then go on. Steve Harrison would stay with us for a couple of beers after getting back from away games. We sometimes overdid it like young lads do but Graham was tough and strict, so was Tom. Then you’d have Harry [Steve Harrison] putting his arm round you and relaxing you a bit. We took it seriously and I definitely remember nights out when we would go home a bit earlier than we might have done because we didn’t want to let ourselves down.
You arrived at the club just as they were getting into the First Division, so I suppose you don’t really know what it had been like before.
Yes, my first season full-time as an apprentice was their first season in the top flight. But I was an apprentice so I knew what it was like to graft. After the games, we’d be down the changing rooms doing all the jobs, cleaning the changing rooms, toilets everything. All the things the apprentices don’t do now. We did everything except clean the players’ boots. He was a big believer in players looking after their own boots, their tools of the trade. The only ones we cleaned were his, Tom’s, Harry’s and Wardy’s and the physio Billy Hails and the kit man Roy Clare.
If you were lucky enough to be on Graham’s boots you had to make sure they were nice and shiny.
So it was drilled into you early on how to work.
Discipline was key. He’d go ballistic if people turned up with muddy boots. It’d mean extra running for everyone. If one person had muddy boots we’d all be running extra so you didn’t want to let your mates down.
It sounds almost like the army at times.
There’s nothing wrong with discipline. There’s nothing wrong with standards. But we weren’t robots. You were allowed to express yourself within the team, but everyone knew their own jobs and they did them. If I was asked to carry the skip [containing the kit] to the bus I carried the skip. Sometimes he’d ask Luther and Barnesy to carry the skip so that we all appreciated that carrying the team’s kit wasn’t a punishment. We all needed the kit and someone had to carry it, so it wasn’t always the sub or the youngest member of the squad who had to carry it. That was just how it was. Everyone helped everyone and if you are in the habit of doing it off the pitch you’ll do it on the pitch.
Do you remember the 8-0 win over Sunderland? Did you see it?
We played Millwall away in the South-East Counties [junior] league that morning. Tom used to drive the minibus to games. On the way back he dropped me at King’s Cross because I had a train booked to go back up home to see me mam and dad. So I missed the game. I got back to Newcastle station. They had played at home that day and I saw some of their fans at the station. I asked someone what was the score? Someone immediately said, ‘Ah, fantastic, the Mackems got beat 8-0.’
I couldn’t believe it. Got back in the house and it was unbelievable. Me dad went to the working men’s club on the Sunday and got ribbed about it but he would have been delighted, because the club his lad had joined had won 8-0.
Was it hard living so far from home?
There were moments, I’m sure, but I felt part of something. There were five apprentices, me, Gibbsy [Nigel Gibbs], the goalkeeper Derrick Williams, who came down with me from Sunderland, we’d known each other since four years old, Alex Dyer and Pat Noonan. Five of us doing all the jobs. Train, clean everything, train, getting into your digs at six pm absolutely knackered.
But I was playing football, training, working at the football club. The youth team played in a similar way to the first team. People go on about the long ball, but it weren’t that bad – there was a pattern of play and a method. You knew that if it was a bit tight you could knock it forward into an area and there’d be someone running. The running made a bad ball look a good pass.
The fundamentals of midfield play suited me. You had to stop your man. You had your opponent and it was you against him for 90 minutes. You don’t let him score, you don’t let him run into areas, you stop him getting the crosses in.
Graham never said, ‘Don’t pass it square.’ But he did say, if you pass it square and it gets cut out, you’re in trouble. So we weren’t stopped from playing. I liked to get the ball and turn on it and see what was on – maybe spread the play from one side to the other to open things up and stretch the opposition. It wasn’t all long ball, but as I said, if you played a short square pass and it got intercepted then you’d get a rocket.
When I first broke into the reserves, sometimes I’d play 11, sometimes 10. I wasn’t a dribbly kind of player on the wing, I was more of a passer. In the reserves, Atko [Paul Atkinson] was a number 11. I remember playing inside Atko and he’d be on the outside. The reserves played at Vicarage Road on a Saturday afternoon and we’d get 1,000, 2,000 people. It wasn’t first team football but it meant something because we were expected to perform and we were expected to get results.
It’s the same as with carrying the skip. Playing in the reserves was not a punishment. Sometimes we’d have first team players come in because they were getting fit after an injury or they were just left out of the first team but they had to play properly. The reserve team wasn’t a place for sulking or not taking it seriously.
It took a while to get an established place in the side.
I was still so young, so any chance in the first team was fantastic. My next game was at Leicester [March 1984]. That was my first start. My mum and dad came down from Sunderland to watch the game. I was only 17 and I played outside left. Andy Peake must’ve banged two in from 25 yards.
The following season [1984-85] I got in a bit towards the end of the season. Then right at the end, I came on against Manchester United because Gary Bailey fractured Luther’s skull in a collision. We won 5-1. I then played at Anfield on the left because he moved Barnesy inside to replace Luther. The game was played on a Friday night because they were playing in the European Cup final at Heysel the following week.
Arriving at Anfield was unbelievable. It was fantastic. This is the home of football isn’t it. We were 2-0 up and playing so well. I remember I had a very good game, playing against Phil Neal, who’d been an England international. I should have scored. I remember one came in and I attacked the back post and put one in the side netting. He was a big believer in trapping the back post.
Did he say anything?
No, my job was to be there to miss it. He said he didn’t mind, well he said he didn’t, because at least I was there to miss it. If I’d not been there he’d have been cross.
That first half we were fantastic. We played really well. In the second half [Kenny] Dalglish just dropped back a bit between the midfield and strikers. The centre halves didn’t want to go forward to pick him up and then leave the big hole for Rushy [Ian Rush]. For 20, 25 minutes they upped the tempo, the atmosphere was incredible and they really played well and they came back and they ended up winning 4-3.
At the end we got applauded off the pitch by the Kop. Phil Neal walked off the pitch next to me and said, ‘Son, you’ll remember this game till the day you die. You just witnessed one of the great games by one of the greatest players to play in this country.’ He meant Kenny Dalglish and he was right. I can still remember it so clearly now.
Did you sense that the style of play was criticised by some?
I don’t remember taking any notice of it. There was a method of playing, I don’t think anyone would try to say there wasn’t. We were asked to pressure teams and see how good they were; win back the ball closer to the opposition’s goal because there’s more chance to score from there. He didn’t brain wash you but he did get inside your head. It was psychology and it was genius.
Every six weeks we’d have this big chart with all the statistics on it. When you saw in black and white what was going on, you believed in what you were doing. Sometimes there were moans and groans because the lads used to hate those meetings because they were a bit on the boring side. Footballers aren’t the best in the class room are they?
But everyone on the staff was so positive and I didn’t know any different because I grew up with it from the age of 11. They were positive people and that rubbed off on you.
You preferred to be out on the training pitch?
As players you want to work with a ball. We did a lot of that but we also did a lot of running. We were fitter than anyone. We could play a Tuesday night and then be running the cross-country on Wednesday. They kept times of all your runs, your sprints, everything. There were people at the club with desire and so you trained as you played.
He wouldn’t let you ease off. The thing was, he did it as well, and Graham was a good runner and he liked to do the longer runs and no one wanted to be beaten by him because he was a few years older. But a few were at times and he’d remind them that he’d beaten them.
By 1987, you were in the side and playing regularly alongside Kevin Richardson. That was the year of the cup tie at Highbury against Arsenal.
Richardson was just a very good footballer. He was intelligent, calm and composed. Les [Taylor] was a grafter, a worker, very, very fit bloke. Brian [Talbot] came in. Kev was a good runner but he was more of a passer than Brian or Les had been maybe.
I think it was becoming a bit more refined. When I came down on trial, and had seen Ross and Luther, direct, down the channels, it was quite a simple game but by 1987 it had evolved and there was a different style to it. I think we evolved because nothing can stand still. If you stand still, you get relegated eventually, but the gaffer was able to buy better players and we had to find a different way to beat teams sometimes.
Mark Falco was a target man. He had a great touch and you could drop it in to him and he was strong, he’d hold people off and you could play one-twos with him. We didn’t knock it over the top for him to chase, that’s for sure.
What about the Arsenal game?
I remember Steve Williams – he was a good young player, but he was not happy that day. David Bardsley gave Kenny Sansom a really hard time.
At the end they claimed it was a penalty but the ball fell to me and I hooked it on and Luther took it all the length of the pitch and had two chances at it. Which was about par for the course for Luther! Only joking. [Laughs] John Lukic saved the first one, but Luther put in the rebound and it went from 2-1 to 3-1 while they [Arsenal] were all round the ref shouting for a penalty.
The thing was, we played to the ref’s whistle. That was drummed into you at Watford. Steve Williams wasn’t too happy because they all stopped. A few things were said. We carried on because there was no whistle.
Then came the semi-final against Tottenham.
We lost Tony [Coton], who had broke his thumb. Then Steve [Sherwood] was injured. Only other lad we had was David James and he was about 16. I was 20, you’ve just beat Arsenal, you’ve got Spurs coming up, there’s a problem with the keeper, but I didn’t think about it, I honestly didn’t, because I was thinking about what I was doing.
At Lilleshall we worked on a game plan. I was pushed up against Ossie Ardiles. He used to like to take the ball off the back four. I was told to push up and stop him getting forward. If you win it there you are in for a chance. Everyone else had their own individual responsibilities and their own men. He left Gibbsy out, I remember that, because it surprised me. We were 2-0 down in no time at all. Spurs were a good side. There were 40,000 people there. We didn’t know Gary Plumley, the goalkeeper, as a player or a person. That’s nothing against Gary. He’d played league football but we didn’t know him. Steve said he was fine to play on the morning of the game so I’m not sure what went on.
Do you not know? Have you ever asked?
I’ve not, no. Who am I to question the gaffer? He made the call. We’ll never know how we’d have done with Tony in goal, but Spurs did get lucky with the first one, and the second was a deflection. Ideal world you want your best 11 against them but we didn’t have our first or second choice goalkeeper. Would it have been different? Who knows.
Malcolm Allen came on and scored in the second half. By then, though, the game plan was out of the window.
A Watford team never gave up – you went for the 90 minutes but maybe that day there was the belief that, I don’t know, at 3-0 at half-time it was going to be very, very difficult. We’d have had to score very early in the second half to have any chance and we didn’t.
We were so flat at the end in the dressing room. I had watched the 1984 final from the stands, but you wonder if you’ll ever get the chance again. It was incredibly disappointing but there’s no blame, it was just unfortunate.
Then, at the end of the season we go and beat Spurs in the league at Vicarage Road. That’s football isn’t it.
What did you think when you heard Graham was leaving and was it a shock?
A total shock. First I heard of Graham going was when it was announced. Honestly, we never had a sniff. It was a shock. We were told after the season he was going and that was it.
I’d been coming down since 11, and here I was nine years later and the manager is leaving. I hadn’t experienced that before and I didn’t know what to expect. I thought maybe Harry [Steve Harrison] or Wardy [John Ward] would get it. In hindsight that might have been the better thing.
What do you remember about what happened?
Dave [Bassett] came in very quickly. Elton and Eddie Plumley came in to say who the new manager was going to be just before we were going off to China. We had no manager for China so Billy Hails [the physio] was going to take the team. Bassett had family commitments so he couldn’t do it. We had Billy Hails as manager with Tony, who was still injured, as assistant.
It was a fabulous trip. Elton went, John Reid went. We went to Nanjing first. It was for something called the Great Wall tournament. It was a fantastic experience and we got to see the Great Wall. Every night Elton would bash out a few tunes on the piano and we’d all join in the sing-song. It was fantastic. He’s a superstar and there he is just playing the piano for us.
Were you concerned about what might happen for the coming season?
It was all a bit uncertain to come in to the same training ground with all the staff changed. I was a bit concerned but I knew some people in Watford who knew Bassett and they’d told me that I was okay because he liked me as a player. So as a player, if you know the new manager thinks you’re alright then you don’t worry too much.
My attitude was, let’s get on with it.
Had much changed?
The training wasn’t as hard. Pre-season predominantly there was a lot of fitness work – running, shuttles, circuits to get your basic fitness. I can remember it wasn’t as difficult, it wasn’t as physically demanding, I know that.
What about the comings and goings?
I think we all knew Barnes was going anyway. Then we heard Falco was going so it was a question of who’s going to play up front?
There were rumours of Alan McInally or John Fashanu coming in.
There were so many rumours. The first time I remember reading stuff in the papers about Watford. I think Graham kept everything close to his chest but suddenly every day there was something in the papers.
A striker called Dave Mitchell came on trial when you were on pre-season tour in Sweden. Do you remember that?
We thought he [Bassett] was going to sign him. I think he paid his own flight to come to Sweden with us. He mixed with us well, he looked good in training and in the games. Then Dave [Bassett] disappeared and re-appeared with Trevor Senior. Trevor was our centre forward and Dave Mitchell never got signed. Trevor was a lovely fella and had scored a lot of goals in the lower leagues. Harry decided he was the one and on the face of it looked a good signing.
Then Hilly [Richard Hill] went, Bardsley went. It was sad to see good players leave but in fairness Dave Bassett had done a great job with Wimbledon. He had a great record so it wasn’t like I thought ‘What’s going on here?’ I thought he must have had a plan.
Was the football different?
It was more direct. Because we had started to evolve, we became a bit more of a passing side. We lost that straight away and we were encouraged to play a bit more direct.
Bassett suggested to me that perhaps the players had been kidded they’d been playing more football than they actually were…
Rubbish, we weren’t kidded that we were playing more football than we were. We knew what we were doing. I was in the England under-21 team. Kevin Richardson was a footballer, Barnes. It wasn’t crude long ball football at all. I don’t know if Bassett had seen much of us.
Sometimes the longer ball gets you out of trouble, but we didn’t use it all the time. Maybe against Wimbledon, when we played Bassett’s side, it looked like two long ball teams against each other, but that was probably as much to do with them as us.
The results weren’t too great from the start.
No, they went against us fairly early on. Glyn Hodges was a good player, you know, but whoever is going to follow John Barnes is going to find it difficult. It was hard because we were trying to play Dave’s way and it wasn’t working, but we didn’t have all the players we needed to play the way we had been because three or four of them had been sold. So we were caught, neither one thing or the other.
The atmosphere did deteriorate a bit quite quickly, obviously winning games would have avoided that, but the results weren’t great. Some of the players weren’t as good as the ones we’d had.
I remember the Everton game he left me out and gave Tim Sherwood his debut. I found myself in a position I’d never been in, as were some of the others, we were struggling and not in the side and wondering how it was going to turn out.
The club was in turmoil on and off the pitch wasn’t it?
The other staff had been with Harry [Bassett] for all that success at Wimbledon but they were different people to Wardy and Harry [Harrison]. Frenchy [Derek French] the physio was a nice guy, funny guy. But they weren’t really there long enough to really get to know them. We were losing and we were under pressure and it wasn’t a happy club at the time. The fans knew, the Watford Observer knew, there was the thing that Elton was trying to sell. Okay you block that out but it’s still there in the background. You think what’s going to happen?
Once you get on the pitch you give it your all but the bottom line is we weren’t as good a side.
Did things improve when Steve Harrison came in as manager?
It did but it took a while. We weren’t able to stay up and then Steve did quite a bit of rebuilding because it needed to be done.
Was Harrison the same as a manager as he’d been as a coach?
We’d known Steve as an excellent coach, a great people person, a funny guy, but he did change. Suddenly he was the manager and he wasn’t cracking the jokes. Graham was a strict disciplinarian and you wouldn’t step out of line. It takes a certain type of person to be the boss. I don’t think Harry liked to be the one to lay down the law like that.
He knew what players said about the manager behind his back and he knew what we’d be saying it about him, I think. Not that anyone said anything that bad but if a player gets left out, the player blames the manager. Harry wanted to be on everyone’s side and he couldn’t be if he could only pick 11 of us. He felt he couldn’t do the jokes, he felt he needed to be the Graham Taylor type of serious manager. Not saying Graham wasn’t funny, because he was, but he had that slight bit of distance.
That season, I think there were 60 games in the league and cup, and the play-off semi-final. Do you think you ran out of steam?
We were a fit side but I think mentally the number of matches took its toll. Towards the end, we lost or drew home games we should have won. We lost to Sunderland and drew with Shrewsbury in the space of a week. If we’d won those two home games we’d have been up automatic.
Then came the play-offs and a two-legged tie with Blackburn. What do you remember about that?
I remember a Blackburn game where we were late but that must’ve been a league game. We stayed at Keele university overnight. Harry was a big believer in this camaraderie team spirit thing where we’d have a communal room and we’d all be together. But on the day of the game we got stuck behind a big smash on the M6. Martin the bus driver went all down the back roads and we got there at 3.45 for a 3pm kick-off.
The play-offs themselves, there was a sense of injustice in the play-offs because we didn’t lose. We drew 0-0 up there and 1-1 at home and at that time the away goals rule meant we went out. Now it would go to penalties. It didn’t feel fair. We’d not won but neither had they. I get that an away goal can be harder to score but in a play-off like that it didn’t feel fair.
We nearly got up at the first attempt and when you look at it, it would have made such a difference to the club if we had got back straight away. But after that it was hard to keep the team together and we never really had another chance.
Do you remember much about the players who came in during that time?
I remember Rick Holden. He was different. We signed him from Halifax when we were still in the First Division. He had a slightly unusual running action but he was an out-and-out winger. His crossing was terrific. I think a lot of clubs looked at him but passed on him because he didn’t look conventional but he was a great player.
I remember he came in the dressing room for his first game and he was wearing a Watford V-neck jumper, a Watford tie, a white Watford shirt and a pair of black tracksuit bottoms. It looked like he’d rolled through the Hornet Shop. He was a real character. He was himself and he didn’t feel like he had to be a certain way to fit in.
What about Rod Thomas, who broke through at the end of that First Division season and got in the team the following year as the club was trying to get promoted. There had been so much talk about how good he was.
He had a lot of skill. He was quick too. But they were hailing Rod when he was 15 and playing for England schoolboys. He was going to be the new Pele. Yes, he had the tricks and the pace but at 15 he was very strong and powerful but he didn’t grow any more, did he? He was a little player and at pro level I don’t think he managed to compensate enough for that with the rest of his game. He wasn’t a natural finisher, he scuffed at things. But it’s always hard when a lad comes through who has been the best at every level and there’s a buzz about him. The supporters have heard the hype before they’ve even seen him, some of them, and the lad has to deal with that. I’ve seen it a few times over the years and you wonder what could have happened if the lad had been able to develop a little bit off the radar.
You stayed at the club a long time and saw it all. The 1990s weren’t a great decade for the club but there were some moments. You scored a hat-trick to help the team come back from 3-0 down against Bolton to win 4-3.
Twenty minutes to go and people were walking out. It was one of those days when nothing was going right but we kept going and got a bit of a break and then got a second and when you’ve been 3-0 down and you score two quick goals suddenly you have momentum. We got level near the end and thought that was probably as good as we could hope for but then in injury time we got a penalty.
Which you took…
There was no way anyone else was taking it! It was the chance to score my first senior hat-trick and I was very confident. Imagine missing it, though!
There were some other highlights – the League Cup win over Leeds, for example – and a few brushes with relegation but there was that season under Glenn Roeder when it seemed like things were clicking.
Yeah, there were some good times but the club could never really go out and buy people to build a squad. The managers had very little to work with. But there were some gems, weren’t there. Tom [Mooney] didn’t cost much. Kevin Phillips was about ten grand. The story was Cally [Nigel Callaghan] played with him at Baldock and rang Tom Walley who said to Glenn Roeder, you’d better go and have a look at this lad. He wasn’t bad, was he?
You were there when Graham Taylor came back. What was that like?
We were in a lot of trouble when he came back. I’d missed a bit of the season but the injuries we had were unbelievable. Glenn could hardly put the same team on the pitch two weeks running.
Was Graham any different when he came back?
No. He was the same man. He had the same focus. But maybe a bit less fierce at times. Maybe he delegated to Kenny [Jackett] and Luther [Blissett] a bit more than he would have done the first time round.
What happened the following year because you got injured and then left at the end of the season.
I broke my leg against Peterborough when Kenny was in charge. GT told me I wasn’t going to be offered a contract, which upset me a bit. I broke me leg playing for them and after all those years I felt they should have offered me a year to get back [to fitness]. The thing was, I never said it, I perhaps should have.
So you were getting fit but without a club?
Yes, I’d been released. I worked all summer with Tom Walley. I worked my socks off, training twice a day, down Cassiobury Park, down the back of his garden. A guy called Paul Taylor, who was general manager of Walsall, rang me on a Saturday night and asked if I would come up to train with them? I said, ‘Just out of interest, who recommended me?’ It was Steve Harrison.
Was there any opportunity for you to leave when you were at your peak?
People say to me, did you ever get the chance to move? I did in 1987. When Graham went to Villa he came in for me. These days you’d know about it beforehand but I didn’t know until Bassett called me in and said, ‘Villa have been in for you, but I’m not going to sell you.’ I said, ‘Oh, alright.’
Bassett was trying to get some players in. He said he liked Mark Walters at Villa but Villa were encouraging him to go to Everton or Glasgow Rangers, which is where he eventually went. I don’t know what happened. Were they talking about a swap? I don’t know.
I didn’t know any different, I was under contract, didn’t have an agent so the opportunity went by. I think Harry [Bassett] must’ve told Graham I didn’t want to go because Graham thought I’d turned it down.
When Graham let me go in 1997, I mentioned it to him and he thought I’d turned him down. It could have been so different but there’s no point having regrets.
Did you feel sorry for Bassett?
I did because nothing really came off for him. He probably didn’t get any luck at all. If he’d got Walters or [John] Fashanu it may have been different. But whoever followed GT was going to find it very, very hard.
Did you think it was a mistake to hire Bassett in the first place?
Well, Elton was the chairman and he was entitled to do what he wanted to do. Bassett had been unbelievably successful so on paper it looked great. When he was announced did anyone say, ‘No, that looks wrong.’ I don’t think they did.
What else sticks in your mind about the Eighties?
I remember we beat Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter-final at Highbury and we were due to fly to Trinidad to play Sao Paulo, the champions of Brazil, in an exhibition game.
Sunday morning we get to Heathrow and there’s something wrong with the plane so we had to wait in the hotel at Heathrow airport half the day. We had a few beers, then a few more on the flight. We had a day of R&R on the beach in Trinidad and did a bit of fishing. Then we played Sao Paulo in the stadium in Trinidad. It was packed, they were all there to see Barnes and the Brazilian boys. We drew, and lost on penalties, I think Gibbsy missed a penalty. Anyway, the game was on Wednesday, we went straight back to the airport with a police army escort, get on the plane after midnight to fly home. Get home on Thursday and have the day off.
On the Saturday we’ve got Arsenal again, in the league at Vicarage Road. On the Friday we played a full 11-a-side practice game against the reserves. The boys were knackered. We were still jetlagged. We didn’t realise how tired we were but we were exhausted.
Malcolm Allen was playing centre forward for the reserve team and he was running rings round John McClelland. John wasn’t stupid, he was a wily old fox, he was saving his legs for the game the next day.
But Graham wasn’t happy and he blew his whistle and said, ‘Right, you’ll be here till six o’clock tonight to get this right. I want to see you putting it in.’
We’d been half way round the world, played an exhibition game, practice game on the Friday and then we beat Arsenal on the Saturday.
Graham Taylor pushed you hard at times?
He did but there’s nothing wrong with hard work. He wanted us to give our best. He didn’t want us out on the beers. If we stayed over in a hotel on a Friday night before an away game, Les [Taylor] and Wilf [Rostron] might have a pint of bitter. Graham would say, ‘If you have a can of beer the night before a game to help you relax and get a good night’s sleep, then do that, but no more than a couple.’ But he would have minded if it was me, when I was 18, 19, 20.
Did you go to the pub with Mo and George?
Yeah I did. And did I get told off when Graham found out? Yes.
It was hard work and you were expected to take it as seriously as the gaffer but, in the main, that was what we wanted anyway. We weren’t looking for an easy life, or to take short cuts. I mean, if he’d gone a bit easier on us we’d have gone with it but even at the time I understood why we were working. We were working so we were fit for a Saturday and could squeeze the best out of whatever talent we had.
We grumbled if he made us do another lap or another cross-country but it wasn’t really unenjoyable. I remember once he said we were going for a walk and we went round Cassiobury Park and ended up at his house where his missus had pots of tea and cakes ready. We all sat round chatting, laughing and joking. ‘More tea lads?’ ‘Lovely, Mrs Taylor.’ ‘Call me Rita.’
Maybe other managers did that but I’ve not heard of any.
Once we went to the Grimsdyke [hotel] for the Beaujolais Nouveau day. We went up there for the new bottles of Beaujolais that had just arrived and we had a wine tasting. That was another treat. They knew how to reward you as well and because we worked hard we really enjoyed those times.
But you knew what the club was all about from a young age. You worked hard, you did your job, you put in everything you had and if you let yourself down you heard about it. When I was an apprentice we’d all wait outside the dressing room for them [the first team] to finish after a game so we could go in and clean up. You could hear the team talk and if they’d had a bad performance you heard every word. You’d hear the bollockings. Or Pat Rice would say, ‘Oi, you lot, go and make the tea,’ if he wanted us out the way. In a way it’s sad the apprentices don’t get those experiences anymore because I think it prepares you for the pro game. A lot of young lads now don’t realise how hard it can be as a pro, when people’s jobs depend on the performances and results. It can be a harsh world sometimes and I think they’re exposed to it a bit too late.
Do you speak to Graham much these days?
Every now and then. I’ve seen him at the club when I’ve gone down and we always have a chat.
It was a special club. I’m not saying others aren’t, because they are, but Watford were special and that was down to Graham Taylor and his people. I remember when I was in the England youth squad when he was the manager of that. Once a month on a Monday, me, Gibbsy, Derrick Williams and whoever would go in his club Jaguar and we’d train at Lilleshall for a few weeks and come back. I can still see that burgundy Jag in my mind’s eye. I remember sitting in the gaffer’s car, listening to his tapes, not daring to complain about his music, mind! [Laughs]