The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009
Next on my list was another young player who came through Tom Walley’s system. Neil Price was a local lad, from Hemel Hempstead, who played barely a dozen games for Watford but packed a lot in. He featured in the FA Cup semi-final and final, the UEFA Cup and managed to get sent off at Arsenal.
We met at the Holiday Inn near the Hemel Hempstead junction of the M1 and I found him to be a man with opinions as strong as his tackles.
You were another of Tom Walley’s boys who made it into the first team.
You can’t beat Tom Walley but some of what he did wouldn’t be allowed now. He made men of us. He made you run through brick walls for him and I don’t think he gets the credit he should get.
I was always very combative, I was committed. He said I’d kick my grandma if I had to, which was probably true. I was from a council house background and he saw a bit of himself in me, I think. He said he never had to gee me up.
You say you couldn’t get away with some of Tom’s methods now but the same is true of what happened on the pitch, I guess?
Absolutely. Some games I played in would have finished seven-a-side if they were played now. When I was in the youth team, we played against QPR up at Honeypot Lane [Stanmore] on a Saturday morning. Wayne Fereday went past me twice and I didn’t get near him. Third time I forearm smashed him. We went down and both got sent off. We lost the game and in the dressing room afterwards Tom was having a go at everyone and he said, ‘And as for you Pricey, you should have hit him harder.’
Did the junior and reserve teams play the same style of football? Did they play the Graham Taylor way?
We did but it wasn’t just long balls, it was about the quality of passes. As full backs we had to put the balls into the right areas. It wasn’t the way Sheffield Wednesday or Wimbledon did it and it wasn’t like [Aidy] Boothroyd.
Did seeing players graduate from the reserves to the first team encourage you?
When I got established in the reserves, Keith Pritchett was in the first team and I thought I might be able to get in front of him. I saw him as a direct target, as you do.
Then Keith got injured but I was injured too and so Wilf [Rostron] had to play left-back. At the time, I don’t think Wilf was getting another contract, I think people thought that at the time, that he would be moving on. But going to left-back made him and he became club captain.
I suppose if you’ve got the captain of the club playing in your position it makes it difficult?
It was but we felt part of a club that was progressing. There wasn’t a split – you’re the first team over there, reserves over there. We trained together a fair bit. When I was still eligible for the youth team some Saturdays a few of us would play for the youth team at Garston in the morning and then play a home game in the Combination [the Football Combination was the league for reserve sides in the south east] side in the afternoon.
We were fit. In fact, we used to call ourselves Watford Harriers we did that much running. When we were in for the third afternoon in a row doing running we used to have a moan. What is this, an athletics club?
We used to dread games getting postponed. If the weather was bad and you knew in advance a game was going to be off we knew we’d be going running. Sometimes we turned up and Tom or the gaffer [Graham Taylor] gave us a map to go on a 12-mile run. And if we took short-cuts, they knew about it.
Did you feel fitter than most teams you played?
I think I was peak fitness then, yeah, and my name was Billy Bunter! We had some skinny lads. I was by no means big but compared to some of them I was.
When did you first get close to the first team?
There was a game at Reading [in 1982-83] in a cup. Not the League Cup or FA Cup but another competition. [The Football League Trophy]. I was due to make my debut. We were 3-1 up with 20 minutes to go and I went on. I didn’t touch the ball.
Kerry Dixon ran all over Simsy [Steve Sims] and they won 5-3 in extra time and I probably touched the ball twice.
The following season, like a lot of the youngsters from the reserves, you were involved in the squad for the UEFA Cup games because there were so many injuries and also five subs were allowed. Then, all of a sudden, you get your first start away in Bulgaria, against Levski Spartak.
I’d watched the home game and Levski toyed with us. They were superb but it was only 1-1. Then I’m in the squad to go to Bulgaria. I remember we ate something and it was tough and chewy and we were told it was horse meat. One meal we had a grey, watery soup which had a boiled egg in the bottom. The hotel was pretty drab and we weren’t allowed out.
We flew out the day before the game so there wasn’t much time to look round. We went to the ground the night before and that was an experience. It was a typical round bowl, concrete, big. I remember the toilets in the dressing rooms didn’t have any seats. Funny what sticks in your mind. I remember thinking, how do they go for a shit without a seat?
In the stadium the plastic seats were all different colours and when we went for the training session almost all the people in the stand were military people.
Were you daunted by making your debut in what was a pretty hostile atmosphere?
It was hostile but when you’re on the pitch you’re concentrating on that and we had our hands full. I was up against a lad called Iskrenov. I can remember it very clearly. I was told he got a bronze medal in an Olympics for sprinting. I don’t know if that was true but that’s what I was told, and he was quick.
After 20 minutes they’d hit the post, hit the bar, scored a penalty, missed a penalty, had one disallowed and I thought ‘we’re going to get murdered here.’ It was an amazing game. I remember Ian Bolton telling me to go in hard on their player and just up the aggression a bit. A few of us started winning our battles and then we started to get on top in the game.
We won it in extra time and there were bottles being thrown, fires on the terraces. At the end of the game we went to the centre circle and applauded, which is what we did then, and the place went absolutely mental.
You coped with it all though?
I did but I didn’t have any choice. He [Graham Taylor] used to do that to me. I played about eleven games and every game was a massive game. Levski, Highbury [Arsenal], Luton home and away, the semi-final [against Plymouth], Man United at home, the cup final. I never got a chance to settle down and just play a few more run-of-the-mill games.
I remember getting hit with a coin in the Luton away game and got a cut above my eye and just carried on.
Why do you think that was?
Obviously because of the injuries but also because I think he knew I would give everything. We worked so hard and I didn’t mind that. When the keeper got the ball, he’d tell us to hit the touchlines and if he could throw it out to us he would. It was old fashioned play. As full-backs, we played up against their winger and their winger would know he’d get kicked in the first five minutes.
Graham was very fair but I think Graham already knew about you by the time you were in the first team. He knew who you were and what you were good at.
I suppose I was very unlucky to be behind the club captain. I don’t think I got the credit for what I did in the games. I get remembered for the cup final [against Everton] and the fact we didn’t play well in the second half. We did really well in the first 20 minutes but no one remembers the first 20 minutes.
You also played in the game against Sparta Prague on the ice.
We had trained on it and it wasn’t too bad. The snow was on the top and it was soft enough. You could play on the snow. Graham had us doing forward rolls on it the night before. A bit of team bonding, messing about. But overnight they obviously rollered it so it was absolutely rock hard. We couldn’t stand up, let alone play football on it. I remember there was a 22-man brawl after we’d gone 3-0 down. We were all pushing and shoving right up against the wall and the stadium was very close.
You got sent off at Highbury against Arsenal.
They’d just signed Charlie Nicholas and I think it was Clive Thomas’s last game in football. Remember him? The referee they used to call The Book. The night before the game Terry Neill [Arsenal’s manager] had got the sack. I think Thomas decided he wanted to be the man. You know, ‘This is my last match.’ I got done for two bookable offences. One of them I kicked Charlie Nicholas into the stand and he was over the wall and down in the seats.
I remember sitting in the Highbury dressing room on my own afterwards. They were palatial and they had heated tiles on the floor.
After that run in the side, you were loaned to Plymouth Argyle in February 1984. Little did you know then you’d be facing them in an FA Cup semi-final.
There was no point going back to the reserves to vegetate. I needed to play. Graham said, ‘Do you want to go out on loan?’ I didn’t feel like I had much choice. Plymouth felt a long way away at the time. I had a little flat in Hemel. I had a girlfriend here. All of a sudden I’m down in Plymouth and I had to go and live in digs with an old lady.
I went down there with another lad from the reserves, Francis Cassidy, played a couple in the league and then they had a cup game against Derby. Plymouth requested permission for us to play but Watford said no. Then I was recalled and Cassidy wasn’t.
What was Plymouth like compared to Watford?
It was a bit amateurish. They had some good players but they trained on a pitch out the back of the stadium. They weren’t a bad side but from what I had been used to, which was very structured and disciplined, it all felt like they were making it up on the spot. The senior players had more to say and it seemed to be a club run by a senior players committee rather than by the manager.
A month or so after you got back, with the semi-final looming, Kenny Jackett got injured and the way the manager chose to replace him was to move Wilf into midfield and put you in at left-back. He could have just swapped like for like in the middle, couldn’t he? Do you think the fact you’d been at Plymouth came into it?
Maybe. Maybe he thought I’d be comfortable against them but I think he could trust me mentally and physically to play the game. What I didn’t understand was that he would trust me in the big games but I wouldn’t get a run in the run-of-the-mill games. To me anyway the semi-final didn’t seem that much of a big deal.
I knew the whole week I was playing the semi-final. We were holed up in the Watford Hilton for a couple of nights. We trained and knew our jobs. I didn’t find he [Taylor] was a great cajoler. He didn’t get into you. At least he didn’t get into me. I think he just trusted that if we all did the work on the training ground, if we went through our drills, we’d be okay.
Something I have wondered is whether he kept his distance before the semi-final because it was all knew to him too and he didn’t know what to expect himself? He was like that before the cup final too. He just wanted us to treat it like a normal game.
What do you remember about the semi-final against Plymouth?
I am pretty sure we travelled up on the day of the game? Either way, we were late because of the traffic and had to have a police escort. It’s all changed now, Watford had an overnight stay at Charlton and QPR under Boothroyd.
We got 1-0 up and we should have been comfortable but a second one got disallowed and at 1-0 it’s never done. Plymouth weren’t going to give up easily. In the last minute, there’s a shot that goes across and it had beaten Shirley [Steve Sherwood] and it was on the far post and it could have spun one way and in and one way and out. Whenever I go to Plymouth they say, ‘If only it had gone in…’ And I say, ‘Well, it didn’t did it.’
Did you enjoy playing for Graham?
Enjoy? Yes. I mean, I didn’t know much else other than Graham and Tom at that time but the one thing I realised later was that Graham knew how to win. He was a very studious guy. He used to put the stats out and he’d go through. It was drilled into us that it took 11 shots to score a goal and so you needed 22 shots in a game because you might need to score two to win a game.
It was all very thorough stuff and it had a place but how long have you got before young men switch off. He’d go absolutely mad if you weren’t paying attention but you’d find your mind wandering. I remember the first time he bawled me out, I was an apprentice. The club had to pay for the apprentices so they only had five, the rest were just schoolboys. Anyway, we’d pissed the kit man off or something and Graham came flying in and he said to me, ‘You are the worst apprenctice I’ve ever seen because if something’s gone on you either had something to do with it or you know who did.’ I suppose I was a bit wide, I was from Hemel, but I think they kind of liked that sort of thing from time to time. Maybe it was just a bit much sometimes.
I’d have run through a brick wall for Tom Walley, for the manager and for the football club, though, and I think they knew that.
Having played in the semi-final more or less out of the blue it must have been weird knowing the team would be playing at Wembley but you probably would not.
All being equal, yeah, but that wasn’t how you looked at it. I’d just won an FA Cup semi-final at the age of 20. I thought, ‘This is just the beginning,’ so I wasn’t worried that Kenny would be fit and Wilf would be at left-back again. I remember we travelled back on the coach and the atmosphere was great. A few beers and a lot of laughs. Just as we get to the Hilton hotel, he [Taylor] got on the mike on the bus, as he did, because he loved to do this, and he said, ‘I know we’ve had a good win, I know we’re in a cup final, but we got Man United on Tuesday. So if I catch any of you out tonight you won’t play against Man United and you won’t play in the Cup final.’
Did you go out?
I’m not sure. We might have done but we’d have been careful we didn’t get found out.
Of course you did get to play the FA Cup final. Tell me what happened.
Again I was in the team for Luton away cos Wilf was up in midfield. It was a really spicy atmosphere that day. We’d got to the cup final, which they probably didn’t like that too much. It was a small ground but when it was full like that it was quite intimidating there. Then Wilf got sent off and I was starting to think, ‘Well, I am going to get in this team.’ [For the FA Cup final].
He did try a lot of options in the last three league games though.
Yeah, I remember I was sub at Forest and we lost 5-1. He said, ‘I wanted to play you at some point in the game but they’ve been so bad I want to let them get on with it.’ That was when I realised everyone had the cup final on their minds. I certainly did.
When did you know you were going to be in the team for Wembley?
He announced it early and then we went to Wembley for a training session one day in the week leading up to the game. I remember he said to me, ‘If we go two goals behind, this is what we’ll do,’ and his plan was to bring on [Paul] Atkinson, move Kenny [Jackett] back and put Barnsey [John Barnes] up front.
For a young kid, did he need to do that? Did he need to tell me? But that was how methodical he was and I think he needed to know all his options and have it right in his own head. But he could have kept that to himself. [For the record, Graham Taylor maintained that he did not tell the players of his intention to make a certain substitution in the cup final].
From my point of view, we went into the hotel too early. I don’t know when it was, it could have been the Wednesday or even the Tuesday. I may be wrong but it seemed like such a long time. There was nothing to do. We were training but we weren’t going to get any fitter. We were doing our set plays and stuff but we knew them already. We were just waiting for this game, the biggest game of our lives and it felt like we were going mad.
I don’t know what the alternative was. What could we have done? If we’d been at home would we have had journalists turning up at our houses asking to do interviews, because that’s what they used to do then, they really did. Everyone who was playing in the cup final had a story they wanted to tell in the papers.
I don’t know. I just don’t think I was prepared by the more senior people. I thought they would tell me what it was going to be like but I guess they didn’t know either.
What was it like?
On the day we had Barrymore [Michael Barrymore, the comedian] at the hotel doing his thing while we were filmed for TV. There was a helicopter following the coach filming it as we made our way to Wembley. Cup final day then was massive. The whole country watched it. And all that stuff made it feel like a big event and I think that gets into you.
I remember thinking how small the pitch at Wembley was compared to the size of the ground. The tunnel is slightly uphill and as you come up the tunnel the noise is amazing. I had never heard anything like it. It’s 100,000 people. It’s a lot of people screaming and cheering.
The dressing rooms weren’t great, but the place had so much history. I wish I’d been told about what it meant. I wish someone had been able to tell me that everything around the game is just hype and that when you get on the pitch it’s just a game of football.
I remember not being prepared for the fact that you couldn’t get instructions to your colleagues or hear anyone because you couldn’t hear them. It was like playing in a capsule because you couldn’t hear anything from any other players or the manager. Graham was a very hands-on manager during a game, you could hear him shouting instructions, but at Wembley it was like he wasn’t there.
Barnesy would have scored that header if he hadn’t had that perm. Les [Taylor] had a couple of shots that went close. Everton scored with their first real chance and after that we didn’t really play did we?
They were a good side – they won the league title the next year.
They were and yeah they were the top side for a couple of years but we were pretty even with them that season. I think the difference was that we went with the hope of winning, they went to win. I don’t think we did that on purpose but they’d been to the Milk Cup final a couple of months earlier. [Everton drew with Liverpool at Wembley and lost the replay at Maine Road].
How do you reflect on it? Happy to have played in a cup final but disappointed it turned out to be your last game for Watford, I imagine?
I wish I’d played my natural game more. Very early in the game, the ball drops between me and Trevor [Steven, the Everton winger]. I was not averse to going through but I didn’t because it was the cup final. I always remember that split-second and the fact I held back. When I look back if I’d smashed him and gone through him and got the ball, or even not got the ball and got booked, maybe that would have changed my game a bit. I never got into it. I was always on the periphery of the game, mentally. I don’t think I did the natural thing. Look at Cally and Barnesy they didn’t get in the game either. Les was our best player. If you go through the teams man to man they were better footballers so we needed to get right into them.
What did it feel like at the final whistle?
I didn’t really want to go and get the medal. We were a winning team and so even for me, who had only played a few games, to go there and be a loser was terrible. You want to go off and go home. I remember going to John Reid’s house and getting absolutely smashed. There’s a photo of me standing on the edge of the springboard on the edge of the pool and I looked absolutely bollocksed. I’ve never seen Champagne bottles like it. They were huge.
When did you find out the club was going to let you go?
I think he’d probably made a decision on me then. I think he thought I wasn’t good enough for him. I felt he thought it was time for me to go on. I went to Blackpool on loan, got them promoted from the old Fourth Division. I was there for three months.
Inevitably there comes a time when you have to leave. I could have stayed at Blackpool. They offered me a two-year contract but John Bond at Swansea offered me three years so I went there. Later I played for Wycombe. It was an odd career. I played in some big games but it seemed like I was being punished for not playing well in the cup final. I felt a bit let down by the club.
But that happened to a few of us. I remember Steve Terry had an offer from Sheffield Wednesday. It was a £250,000 transfer fee but GT turned it down and then when they offered him a new contract it was for an extra 50 pound a week. I think the clubs had all the power then. They paid you what they wanted to pay you, offered you the contract they wanted to offer you, then sold you on when they were ready. It’s how it was.
I suppose when you’re young you think you’re important. If I’m honest, when I was a player I thought the supporters were a bit odd because they were fanatical about their club and that strikes you as a bit odd. When you’re 19, 20 and going into the ground you say hello to the stewards but you don’t really do more than give them the time of day. You think you are important and you think the manager is important. But when you go back years later you realise the supporters are the same people, and the stewards are still there, and you realise that the people you thought made the football club were not at all. The players, the manager, even the legendary ones, come and go. The club is the supporter who’s been there all his life, it’s the old boy on the door who’s been doing it for 35 years for a fiver. So I suppose the way I think of it is that I was glad to be a part of it and have the opportunity to play in some big, big games but would I have preferred to have a ten-year career in the First Division? Of course I would have.