The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009
In early March 2009, I made plans for a trip north to meet John McClelland, Steve Sherwood and Steve Sims. I headed to Wakefield to meet McClelland at the Holiday Inn hotel after he’d finished his shift working as a postman. Having joined Leeds United after Watford he spent some time in Scotland as manager of St Johnstone but returned to make Yorkshire his home.
McClelland had been one of my favourite players, arguably the finest defenders to ever play for Watford and when it comes to picking an all-time Hornets XI, few who saw him at his peak between 1984 and 1987 would leave him out.
I found McClelland to be unlike a lot of former footballers and it was interesting to learn that he didn’t pay too much attention to the game when he was not playing. He wasn’t one to look at the league tables or watch on television. He didn’t follow the gossip, but when he got onto the pitch he read the game better than most.
I started by asking him about his background…
I was born 12 miles from Belfast in a village called Whiteabbey, on the coast road to Carrickfergus. My mother was Catholic and my father was Protestant, which was a big thing then. Catholics didn’t marry Protestants. I think they had to move house very early on in their marriage because people wouldn’t accept it.
My father died when I was nine. I was the youngest of three. My mother ran a little sweet shop and I used to kick a ball about in the street, as we all did. There was no football team to play for. We just played in the street.
A guy called Davie Jarvis put together a football team. I was nine playing in the under-12 team, then I was 12 playing under-15, then at school I was always playing a year above myself.
I was skillful enough but very skinny and people said, ‘Look out for him, he’ll get hurt.’ By the time I was 16 they thought I was too good for them and someone got me a trial at Portadown. I was sold for a set of shirts. The shirts were very cheap and only lasted about three washes.
This was during The Troubles but people looked out for us because my father had died and my mother was well known in the village for running the sweet shop. Just about every pub in the village had been shot at, but people in the village felt maybe they should look out for these three children. People were keeping an eye out for us. I didn’t get into any trouble although my brother, a year older than me, he did. The village was mixed, Catholic and Protestant and being the boy of a Catholic and Protestant meant I wasn’t one or the other. There probably was a bit of tension in the village but you didn’t realise it.
I remember playing for a team and the manager said: ‘I’ve got this really cheap set of kit, I don’t know why it was so cheap.’ He opened it and it was bright orange. You had to be brave to play in Northern Ireland in bright orange. I remember we used to play matches, shake hands with the opposition and we’d be given ten minutes to get out of the village. ‘Right, you’ve got ten minutes, then we’re coming after you.’
Wasn’t the one thing that brought everyone together their support of Liverpool and Manchester United? They were the two most popular teams weren’t they?
They were. But I liked West Ham. Just to be different, I suppose. I think that was considered a bit strange.
Were you a defender at Portadown?
No, I was a creative midfielder, believe it or not. It was good playing in the Irish League. It was all part-time. Trained on Tuesday and Thursday and then play on the Saturday. The manager would play me against the passing teams. I didn’t realise it then, but when we played the rough teams he’d leave me out. I was still very skinny.
I got invited to a trial at Middlesbrough. Jack Charlton wanted to sign me but he wasn’t keen to pay any money up front. They wanted to pay only after a certain number of games but my manager wasn’t keen to sell me on that basis. Irish teams had been caught out with that. English players would sign their players, agree to pay a fee after a certain number of games and then sell them on before they’d played enough games to trigger a payment.
Anyway, the reserve manager at Portadown didn’t like me. He kept giving me bad reports. I think it was because I had walked in off the streets and was better than the players he had scouted himself.
I got myself a job in a clothing factory and my work colleagues came down to support me. The reserve manager gave a really bad report about me, and my colleagues were preparing to go and beat him up. I had to stop that. I went to the first team manager and said ‘What’s the point of this? I’m leaving.’ The manager said, ‘I know what’s going on, leave it with me’.
Four weeks later I went to Cardiff City for a trial. I went there to play for the youth team. The way it worked was that if you played badly for the youth team you’d go home on the plane. If you played well, you’ll play for the reserves on the following Tuesday. So there was a bit of pressure there. Play well or go home. On the Tuesday we played Arsenal reserves. I played well and they signed me.
Cardiff let me go after two years. I’d played eight times in the first team, mostly as a centre forward. I was supposed to make my debut at Millwall and people said I should go sick. ‘Don’t be making your debut at Millwall.’
I went to Bangor City. The Bangor in north Wales, not the one in Northern Ireland. Now, when they want to hide the state of the facilities from you they take you to a hotel to sign you rather than to the ground. I didn’t know that at the time. They said they’d get me a job, which turned out to be in a fish factory, getting up at five in the morning, shelling mussels. It was only seasonal work for four months. Then they started signing players from South Liverpool. Halfway through the season we ended up going across to train in Liverpool on a Tuesday and Thursday because that’s where half the players were from.
I got a job as a groundkeeper at a local recreation ground, then I worked as a delivery guy for the hospital, going round in a van like Rodney Trotter. Then I was a theatre porter in the hospital. Then I bought my house for nine thousand pounds.
There was no pressure on me because I had a job, I earned a bit from football, so whether that made me relax or not I don’t know. I was playing centre forward but I went 15 games without a goal and I thought I was going to be out, but the manager got sacked before he could get rid of me. I was quite happy, playing a good level of football, making a bit of money, but never had any thoughts about getting into the league really.
Then Bangor City were due to play in the cup, and the centre half hadn’t signed his forms so he couldn’t play. I stuck my head through the door and the manager said ‘Can anyone play centre half?’ I stuck my hand up. ‘When did you last play there?’ he asked. ‘When I was 12.’ [Laughs] He couldn’t find anyone else, so that was it. I played centre half.
Years later, Tom Walley, who was from north Wales, said I had been recommended to him while I was at Bangor. Watford had just been promoted to the Second Division and they felt it may have been a bit of a jump for me. They could have got me for 10 grand then.
Anyway, Bangor got through the Welsh Cup final, and we played Wrexham. The chairman told me after the game someone had come in for me, but we can’t tell you who it is. They said, ‘If it gets in the paper and falls through, the centre half they’ve got at the moment will be upset to find out they were trying to replace him.’
So, I had to go to a hotel and wait for someone to come up to me and introduce themselves. It turned out it was the manager of Mansfield Town but I didn’t have a clue who he was. It turned out to be Billy Bingham, who later managed Northern Ireland when we went to the World Cup. I didn’t really follow the game. I liked playing football but I don’t like watching it. I didn’t know who Mansfield were or what division they were in. I looked at it all in a practical way. I was getting £80 a week from two jobs with no pressure. They were offering me £100 a week to be a full-time footballer so I signed for three years. I married my first wife, Janet. Then Mansfield got relegated to the Fourth Division and they sacked Billy Bingham.
I signed for Mansfield for three years. I married my first wife, Janet. We got relegated to the fourth division. They sacked Billy Bingham, who had signed me.
In 1980 I was called up to play for Northern Ireland and not long after Billy Bingham was made the manager and I had experienced guys like Martin O’Neill and Billy Hamilton asking me what he was like because I was the only one who’d worked with him before.
About a year later, I had a good game against Scotland and I heard Glasgow Rangers wanted to buy me. They told me at Mansfield that I was to go up to Ibrox and have a look at it. Well, when you are playing at Field Mill and then you go to Ibrox it’s amazing. I had lunch with John Greig, the Rangers manager, and they had done their homework. At that time Rangers would not sign a Catholic player but they said I didn’t count because I’d been brought up as a Methodist. If you’re Protestant and you marry a Catholic you’re excommunicated.
So, I’m 25 years old, talking to Glasgow Rangers and even though I’d not had a transfer before I had heard enough from players to think that I’d get ten per cent of the transfer fee as a signing-on fee. The way I thought it worked, sometimes the selling club paid it, if they were selling you when you had a contract, sometimes the buying club paid it. Mansfield had said, ‘Talk to Rangers,’ so I was asking John Greig and he said, ‘I am very disappointed in you asking about money when we have just invited you up here to have a look round. You should be concentrating on your football, not the money.’
Anyway, Rangers offered me £200 a week, I was getting £120 at Mansfield. Greig said that was a good offer. ‘Well, who doubles their salary in a day,’ he said, even though it wasn’t quite double. He said, I might only be a squad player, but if I signed and got in the team they’d review it, which seemed fair enough. I signed a three-year contract. I played the first few games. I was playing in European competition and I was struggling. I say to people when you play in the lower leagues it’s like draughts. Simple moves, simple stuff. When you play in the higher leagues it’s like chess. In the lower leagues two people want the ball, in the top flight, everyone wants the ball, but the question is, who do you give it to? There’s less space, you have to be more precise.
Greig said I froze. I didn’t freeze, I just had a bad game. They back off you until you’re 35 yards from goal then it all gets much more difficult.
Anyway, that season [1981-82] I played six games at the start of the season, then I got injured and was out for seven months with a dislocated ankle. I came back and played on 17th of March, St Patrick’s Day and played ten games and then I went to the World Cup in Spain with Northern Ireland and when I came back they made me captain.
What was the World Cup like?
I played against players I’d only seen on TV. You’re expecting them to be great players but they’re only human. You realise, ‘I am as quick as they are. I can kick it as far.’
When I got back to Rangers, Greig had seen a transformation in me. I’d been training hard to get fit but I was also rested because I’d been injured. It was like having a pre-season just before the World Cup, so I was fresh. Then I had a good summer and I felt so fit.
In my time at Rangers, we had five cup finals. We lost the first three and won the last two. Aberdeen were winning everything at that time with Mr Ferguson. They had the money from the oil up there. Rangers were a massive club but they were still living in the dark ages. The directors felt it should be an honour to play for the club so they got away with paying nothing and as a result no one wanted to come. The club was not modernised. The businesses the directors all ran were modernised so they could be successful but the club they ran was stuck in a time warp.
In two years I had had a small cost-of-living rise but I hadn’t had a pay rise. I’d been captain and I was still on £220 a week. Greig had got the sack, Jock Wallace came in. I went in to Jock and said, ‘I was made certain promises and they’ve not been fulfilled.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve only just got here, let me settle into my job and I’ll deal with it.’ That dragged it out a bit more. Then I went in and sat with the chairman and the manager. We bartered a bit and they offered an extra £50 a week for a five-year contract. That didn’t sound a lot even then.
Was the money important to you?
I had to earn a living and we weren’t talking about fortunes in those days. I felt the club should have looked after us better. You could ask, ‘Well, why didn’t you go in and ask for a pay rise?’ but they’d told me to earn it. If I played badly I wouldn’t offer to pay them anything back but I had signed for £200 a week and been made captain, played in cup finals and the World Cup and I felt I had earned a decent pay rise.
I thought if they were going to offer me a big signing-on fee for the new five-year contract, fine, but they said, ‘We don’t offer signing-on fees for players who are renewing their contract. We only offer signing-on fees to players who are joining the club.’ I said I’d not had a signing-on fee when I joined and they said, ‘Well, you’ve missed the boat then haven’t you.’
It wasn’t just the money it was the fact that they said different things as they went along, whatever suited them.
I was told to keep all the negotiations private, which I did, but all the propaganda that came out from Rangers made it look like I was holding the club to ransom. They were leaking stories saying I wouldn’t sign my contract. They said that if I didn’t sign I’d be out of football for ever. Then the manager dropped me.
You couldn’t just leave?
No. The clubs had everything in their favour. Even if my contract ran out they would still hold my registration and they could make it very difficult for me by hanging onto it until any interested club got bored waiting. It wasn’t until Bosman [the freedom of movement case that changed football transfer rules in the 1990s] that players could just run their contract down and move on.
Anyway, about two weeks after I was dropped someone got injured and he had to play me. They offered me a ten-week contract to cover their injuries and keep me while we were still in Europe and the League Cup [which had its final in November at that time]. I felt like a puppet.
I played against Inter Milan in the UEFA Cup, as centre-forward. I thought it might be my last game in football because things still weren’t resolved with Rangers. We beat Inter Milan 3-1 on the night at Ibrox but went out because they’d lost 3-0 in the first leg.
Someone said to me, Watford are waiting for you at Glasgow airport so I met Graham Taylor and Eddie Plumley there. I didn’t realise straight away but Aberdeen were there too, also waiting to speak to me in a hotel at the airport.
Watford were offering me a lot more than Rangers were paying – about £550 a week – with bonuses and rises each year of the contract. Of course I didn’t realise that house prices were a lot higher down there – they don’t tell you that until you’ve signed! I thought, well, that’s a really good contract until I had a look in the estate agent windows.
I knew nothing about Watford. Absolutely nothing apart from what Gerry Armstrong had told me about Graham Taylor when we’d played together for Northern Ireland. Gerry absolutely raved about the man. I liked Graham the first time I met him and because I was desperate to get out of Scotland and away from Rangers, I said to him, ‘I am going to sign but I want to go and tell Aberdeen face-to-face.’ GT said, ‘If that’s that case, sign the contract now, then tell Aberdeen.’
I said, ‘No, no, I’ll go and talk to Aberdeen first and then sign. It’s okay.’
And GT said, ‘Just sign it now before you go.’
Finally, I said, ‘Look, you don’t know me but you can trust me. I am going to tell Aberdeen that I am signing for Watford. You have my word. It’ll show you that you can trust me. Just let me go and speak to them.’ He was reluctant but he let me go. I’m sure he thought I would sign for Aberdeen.
Alex Ferguson was in another room down the corridor and he said, ‘Whatever Watford have offered we can offer a lot more than that. We’ll blow it away.’
I said, ‘I am sure you can Mr Ferguson but I have made my mind up.’
He wrote his figures down on a piece of paper, folded it up and pushed it across to me. I didn’t even look at it I just pushed it back to the middle of the table.
I said, ‘If I look at that bit of paper you will think I am making a decision based on money. This whole thing has never been about the money. I was made a promise by Rangers and it was broken. Now I just want to get out of Scotland so I am going to sign for Watford. Thank you Mr Ferguson but that’s my decision.’
Joining Watford completed the set – it meant you’d played in all four English divisions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
That’s right, although I didn’t realise that at the time.
Were you concerned about the difference between the Scottish Premier League and the English First Division?
I don’t think the gap was anything like as big then as it is now. Scottish teams did well in Europe in the 1980s.
But I was aware it was something new and I was aware that the players might not know that much about me. I know that when they saw me walking across the car park they were whispering that there was no way I would pass the medical because of the way I walked.
GT offered me the captaincy but they had perfectly good captain already in Wilf Rostron. Wilf was a terrific little player and a good captain so I said, ‘I am happy to play under your captain. If I earn the right to be captain, fine, but I don’t need that for my ego.’
I think I had one training session before my debut, on the Friday morning, which tended to be quite a light session with a little three-sided series of games. We were told to gather together in three lines and they would be the teams. I was trying to join the line Wilf was in but he moved into another line. So I followed him and he moved again. This happened a few times and I could work out why he was trying to get away from me. I wondered if he knew I’d been offered the captaincy and if he was fed up with me already.
I said to him, ‘What’s the matter? Why don’t you want to be on my team?’ He said, ‘I don’t know you! You might be crap. I don’t want to lose!’
You had to chip the ball, then run, like a relay race. Then you had to chest it and kick it. It got more complicated as you went on and the players knew it off by heart but I was finding it difficult to remember what we had to do. The thing was, it was so competitive because the team that lost would get mud thrown at them by the other two teams. That was why Wilf was worried the new boy wouldn’t be able to do it.
What do you think the other players made of you?
I heard Tony Coton say, ‘There is no way that guy has played for Rangers.’
Tony had joined just before me and we lived in the same hotel together for about ten weeks. Steve Sherwood said to me, ‘I wish they’d signed you before they bought Tony.’
I think they thought I was better than I looked.
They had been conceding a lot of goals and it changed overnight. I just didn’t realise I was the change. The way I looked at it was, ‘What’s the hardest thing in football? Scoring goals.’ I looked at the league table and saw they scored a lot of goals, but they also let in a lot. As far as I was concerned, stopping the ball going in was the easy bit of the game. Scoring goals took the skill and creativity.
Luther and Barnesy could score goals. It would have been hard to come into a team that wasn’t scoring goals. But the defence was fine. Steve Terry was strong, Wilf was very good, David Bardsley and Nigel Gibbs, these were good defenders.
Your debut was at home to Sunderland in November 1984. Watford were in the relegation zone and needed to turn results around sooner rather than later.
Sunderland were doing reasonably well in the league and we beat them 3-1. Oli Phillips [of the Watford Observer] said it was the best debut he’d seen. I didn’t think we were going to have a problem because we won five in a row when I joined. People considered me a bit of a journeyman but I could talk well and I knew where the danger was going to come from before it came. Someone who’d watched Northern Ireland for years said to me once: ‘John, I hope you don’t take any offence at this but I’ve never seen someone influence the game so much doing so little. You just stand around.’ I took that as a compliment. If you are organised you have got a chance. If you can read the game and you have pace you can get out of trouble.
I think coaching is over-rated unless you are working with the strengths and limitations of the players you have. You could tell everyone to dribble like Ryan Giggs, shoot like Peter Lorimar or head it like Paul Mariner but you could tell them that. What Graham Taylor was very good at was talking to people like individuals. He didn’t try to tell me about my positioning – that wouldn’t help me in a game because I had to work that out for myself. But he talked to me about helping the younger ones, making sure I was doing my organising. That’s good coaching. Tell me something that can help me. My attitude helped me in some instances and hindered me in others. I had a chance to go to Man United at one point – Mr Ferguson again. The thing was, I wouldn’t have become a better player at Man United, I’d just have been at Man United.
Why didn’t you go?
I was happy and settled where I was. The difference in wages wasn’t as huge as it would be now.
A lot of people have remarked about the way you walk – I don’t want to be unkind but you didn’t look like a typical athlete.
There is a reason for it. I had sever’s disease, which I didn’t know I had for a long while until I got checked out. It was partly from playing a lot of sport when I was young. I used to feel very stiff and sore on Sundays but everyone would say, ‘Oh I felt stiff on Sunday,’ so I just assumed it was the same. But it was a problem with the bones and I would have a pain in my heels.
When we got relegated after Graham left I knew I had not played in the Second Division for a long while and I didn’t want it to surprise me. There were more games, there’d be players I didn’t know. I wondered if it might be quicker. I didn’t want it to catch me out so I trained all summer and it wrecked me. Usually I rested all summer to give my tendons a chance to recover but I wanted to be as fit as possible. I trained all summer, then did pre-season, and I couldn’t run. People thought I’d gone, but I’d trained too hard and my ankles were wrecked. That was when Man United wanted me, and I think they watched me and thought I wasn’t playing so well.
Shortly after I’d joined, Graham said to me, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this. We could have given you a bit more rest.’ But I had been self-sufficient for years. I had bought my first house when I was 18. When I came to Watford I didn’t drive. I walked or took the bus. I said, ‘Get me some OS maps and I’ll walk around and have a look at where I want to live.’
You adapted quickly to the First Division.
I was Player of the Season in that first season. I felt sorry for Barnesy because he had to do the hard job and he was terrific. I just marked the quickest of the opposition strikers. I didn’t mind marking the big guy but I’d prefer to take the quick one. Andy Gray and Mark Hughes were tough opponents, always hard but fair. I found David Speedie difficult because he’d kick you.
You’ve got to be quicker, or stronger or cleverer and the game was to work out which you needed to be on the day. Gary Lineker never got booked so there was no point trying to wind him up because he never reacted, but someone else you might be able to wind up a bit if you got under their skin. But you had to be careful because some players get better when they’re wound up so you didn’t want to provoke someone so maybe you’d try to irritate them in a different way. Maybe saying, ‘Oh, that was a bad pass they just gave you. You’re just not getting the service today.’ It might really annoy and make them frustrated, which was to your advantage.
You obviously liked the club too?
It was a nice club. They cared but they didn’t go overboard about it if you lost. If you played well, they said well done. If you lost they said, ‘Unlucky.’ At Rangers it was tense. The season revolved around how they did against Celtic and it mattered too much. Watford was like a family. Elton was around. Cally would have his music on in the dressing room. GT had everything organised. He’d say, ‘I’ve worked with you Monday to Friday. You know what you’re doing, just go out there and do your best.’ It was a lovely club to be a part of.
You were close to reaching an FA Cup final but disaster struck both goalkeepers before the semi-final against Tottenham.
My mother-in-law had died and I’d been given a few days off. When I came back, Tony was out and Steve was out and Gary Plumley had joined up. GT spoke to me and Steve Sims in the corridor and asked what we thought. We said, ‘Well, if there’s no one else, there’s no one else, we’ll have to get on with it.’ There was gossip going round saying that Steve [Sherwood] was fit.
What did you make of it all?
I really don’t know. A part of me wondered if Graham was trying to be a God, as such. Maybe he thought, ‘If I can pull this off…’ I don’t know. Maybe that’s totally unfair. People think as players we must know everything that went on but we didn’t. Perhaps Graham thought that Tottenham are not the sort of side that are going to absolutely batter you. They were a passing team and even if they dominated us they’re not going to have 30 shots.
But on the day, the guy froze. He completely froze.
In the dressing room, I thought, ‘This fella loves himself.’ He seems confident. Maybe he’ll be okay. And then he goes out and shits himself for 90 minutes. It was his day and he’ll get all the headlines win or lose. I remember we were all distraught, sitting round and nobody moved. He was in the shower, singing. ‘What’s up lads? It’s only a game,’ he said. He was in his suit, drying his hair with a hairdryer.
Maybe I am being unfair but that’s how I remember it.
Having a goalkeeper we didn’t know did affect us. We kept saying, ‘We have to follow the shots in,’ in case the goalkeeper parried it or didn’t hold it. But the first one never got followed in and we went 1-0 down early. Before the first half was over I was taking the goal kicks because he said he was feeling tense and had cramp. I said to him, ‘Okay, take a deep breath. Calm down.’ I took the goal kicks which was fine, but really he bottled it. He totally bottled it. You can’t just roll up and play an FA Cup semi-final like that.
I had heard a rumour Graham was trying to get Pat Jennings out of retirement to play but I don’t know what the other options were. Maybe he should have just played Steve Sherwood. I just had the feeling Graham dropped a bollock but if there’s anyone who’s entitled to drop one bollock it’s Graham when you look at everything he did for the club.
How did you react to Graham leaving?
At some point Rangers had tried to get me to go back. I said to GT I’d like to talk to them but he said, ‘We gave you a contract when they didn’t want you,’ which was a fair point. The next time it came up, he said the same thing about me being loyal to Watford and I said, ‘Graham, you went for the Arsenal job so you can’t say that to me anymore.’ He said, ‘I needed to get it out of my system but it was a mistake.’
The point I am making is that Graham was an ambitious manager and he was talented enough to test himself at bigger clubs than Watford and I am sure he was tempted more than once, so I wasn’t surprised he left. I do remember saying to him, ‘If you are ever leaving, I want to know about it before the press.’ I don’t know if he told any of the other players but he called me the night before it came out he was going to Aston Villa.
Bassett wouldn’t come on the end of season trip to China because he had a holiday booked. Billy Hails had been told he was being sacked but he said, ‘The players can’t go on tour and play matches without a physio,’ so he came with us. I don’t think I’d have been big enough to do that. Billy came and Elton bought him a gold watch as a thank-you. Obviously, the new manager wanted the old staff out of the way but didn’t want to deal with sacking people.
I’ve got the impression from others that you were one of the players who liked Bassett’s style least. Is that fair?
I liked Bassett as a person but his football was crazy. At one point he said, ‘If we need to go down to eventually move things on, so be it.’ I said, ‘That is crazy. No one goes down as part of a plan. We have some top players here.’
The Wimbledon players would have run through a brick wall for him but they knew him and had grown up with him. We didn’t need to be told to do it his way or fuck off.
Graham had changed the team. We passed it more, we went to a 4-4-2 and got forward together rather than hitting it long. Bassett said, ‘Right, we’re going 4-2-4,’ and I told him we just didn’t have the players for that. He brought in his players and it didn’t really work. Then he said, ‘Okay, you’re right, we’ll go to 4-4-2,’ but it was too late for that. He’d sold everyone.
The way he treated Tony Coton was a disgrace. Mel Rees was not a patch on Tony as a goalkeeper but it was Bassett trying to show who was boss. I think Nigel Gibbs was going to ask for a transfer – Nigel Gibbs! The lad had red, yellow and black blood! – and I said to him, ‘Gibbsy, you’re going to sit tight and do as you’re told because he will be gone in six months. Why ruin your career and leave your club? We’re going to do our best in the circumstances and if it works we’ll all be happy. If it doesn’t, they’ll change it.’
Bassett had me taking corner kicks! We practiced in training to see if anyone could bend the ball into the net from a corner and I could do that. So I took a few corners. Crazy. We had some old guy come along who had watched basketball and he wanted me to defend and mark in a certain way, like they did in basketball. I said, ‘Look, in basketball they are trying to put the ball in a basket from close range. In football we’re trying to defend a goal and I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but the opposition can shoot from 25 yards away.’ I am not against taking ideas from other sports but this was nonsense. Bassett kept talking about a flat back four. Terrible phrase. You’re never flat. You’re always moving. Okay, you hold a line but you don’t stand in a row like soldiers.
Did you think Bassett could turn it round?
I don’t think so because the atmosphere went bad very quickly. It was just the wrong person at the wrong time. The signings were not good enough. Mark Morris was a Wimbledon reserve. Nice lad but he was all ‘raaagh, raaagh, raagh,’ like Bassett. Gary Chivers, Brighton reserve. Tony Agana, non-league. Glyn Hodges was a talent but he wasn’t a runner. Trevor Senior, not good enough. If we could have taken maybe one or two of them we’d have had the time and the luxury to bring them on. They weren’t bad players or bad people they just weren’t at our level and they needed time. But to put five or six new players in was madness. The team was decimated.
We’d been a goalscoring team and all of a sudden we couldn’t score so if we let one in we knew we’d lost. So we were trying to hang on. Take a look at the results that season [1987-88], we lost a lot of games 1-0.
We played at Nottingham Forest early on and we were in the hotel having our pre-match meal. I never watched On the Ball or Football Focus or whatever but most of the players would rush back to their rooms to watch it. I wasn’t interested, so I just sat at the dinner table with Bassett and a few others. Then someone came in and sat down – it was our chief scout. Pointing to me, he said to Bassett, ‘Who’s this?’ And this is your chief scout. I didn’t get upset by things like that but I’d played in two World Cups, captained Glasgow Rangers and been at Watford for three years. He apologised and I said, ‘No harm done. If you and I don’t speak for the next three years we’ll get along absolutely fine.’ [Laughs].
I did get a bit uppity. We were at Liverpool doing some stretching in the dressing room before the game and one of the coaches came in and I was thinking, ‘Don’t talk to me, don’t talk to me.’ He came up to me and said, ‘Listen John…’
Once Christmas came we thought ‘well, you can’t let that many people go’. Morale disappeared. There was no sign it was going to work. You were hoping something would spark a run of goals but it never happened.
Did you feel things recovered when Bassett went?
I liked Steve Harrison a lot but when he came in I think he felt he had to act like the manager. He tried to be a clone of Graham Taylor instead of being himself, which is a funny guy. I think players know when you are being false. He wasn’t being false deliberately but that was how he thought he had to be.
Were you confident of getting promoted again?
Absolutely. We expected to go up and for a lot of the season we were up there. But that was a tough division that year with some big, big clubs. Chelsea won it, Manchester City were second, Crystal Palace third and we were fourth. We played Blackburn in the play-offs. This was before they got all that money but there was pressure in the play-offs. We drew 0-0 up there and then in the second leg it was 1-1. Little Rod Thomas created a lot of chances but he didn’t take them. I felt if I had been fit I’d have been better. I got kicked on the thigh in the second game and got a dead leg and couldn’t run it off so I had to come off. We went out on away goals. Two draws and out, not even penalty kicks.
You were into your thirties by then and moved on to Leeds at the end of the season.
My contract had a clause in it saying they would let me go for a minimal fee but there was no agreement what that fee actually was. Nigel Worthington [one of McClelland’s Northern Ireland team-mates] said that Howard Wilkinson was interested, so I phoned Howard up. I said, ‘If you phone Watford they will tell you I have got a three-year contract but what they won’t tell you is that I have a clause to leave.’ So Leeds rang Watford and the deal was on. At the last minute, GT tried to get me to go to Aston Villa. He was offering me a two-year deal with a free transfer at the end. Leeds offered me three years. I said to GT that I’d get a free at that age anyway. Leeds were paying more and Graham said, ‘Well, we can’t pay that.’
I overdid the training initially and ended up in plaster and I played only four games in two years. They got promoted and I played 16 games in the year Leeds won the Football League championship. It took Leeds a while to let me do my own training. At Watford I was joining in with the full training only a couple of times a week. At Leeds they thought I was lazy but when they let me do my own training I got fit and I played a part and partly because of that I played until I was 40.
I went up to Scotland and ended up managing St Johnstone, which I really enjoyed for a while but the thing about management is that you’re going to get the sack eventually and you have to keep going for jobs and convincing people you’re the man for them.
What are your fondest memories of Watford?
I was there longer than any other club, during my peak years. I think I was at my best during the first three years at Watford. I remember Lee Sinnott saying to me, ‘I really didn’t like you when you arrived because you took my place but I did realise you were better than me and I tried to learn from you.’ He was a young lad at the time and all he lacked was experience. That’s the one thing you can’t bluff in football.
I was Player of the Season twice, although the second time was when we were relegated, so I’m not sure what that says really. Best of a bad bunch maybe! I was inducted into the hall of fame, which was really, really nice of them. I suppose my one regret is we didn’t win anything and perhaps with a bit more luck we could have done. There were chances in both cups to go all the way but it wasn’t to be. In the end football hinges on those moments doesn’t it and a couple of times those moments went against us.