The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009
Paul Atkinson is one of only 12 men to have played in an FA Cup final for Watford. He came on as a second half substitute, but never played for the first team again. A Vicarage Road career that started with a transfer tribunal asking Watford to pay a higher-than-anticipated fee, a broken ankle in his first friendly game for the club, and a difficult debut season ended with an appearance at Wembley. But that did not lead to Atkinson establishing himself in the team. I spoke to Atkinson on the phone and was interested to hear the point of view of a player who had not fitted into Graham Taylor’s side.
Graham Taylor had been interested in me since I was 18, apparently, but he’d never come in for me although I was aware there was interest because there was the odd bit in the press. I’d been at Oldham since I was an apprentice and I’d been playing in the first team since I was 18 and my four-year contract was running out.
I knew I could get a move at that time. I was playing in the Second Division and I wanted to play in the First Division. My contract was running down and there wasn’t the Bosman [ruling] then, so if you were out of contract the clubs had to come to an agreement over the fee or go to tribunal.
I had the choice of waiting for clubs to show an interest or alerting them that I was available. I didn’t have an agent. Very few players had an agent then. The odd one did, but not many. I remember Simon Stainrod at Oldham had an agent and he helped him get a move to QPR.
Anyway, I was doing well at Oldham and I knew there was interest. The Oldham manager, Joe Royle, was going to let me go if they could get a good fee for me.
I met Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest. He’d not seen me play, but he said he’d had good reports from a scout, but he said if he couldn’t agree a fee for me without any fuss, he wouldn’t go to tribunal. He said he’d speak to the Oldham manager, Joe Royle and see what sort of money Oldham wanted.
Then I heard Watford were interested. It was after the season [summer 1983], when I went to see Clough at lunchtime, then travelled down to Watford, stayed overnight and Graham Taylor took me to the training ground in Stanmore.
When I met Clough he said, ‘What are your strengths?’ He didn’t really know me as a player. He said, ‘We’re going on a pre-season trip round the Reeperbahn [the nightlife district in Hamburg] and he said, ‘You’re not a poof lad are you?’ He was a bit of a one-off, to say the least.
He phoned for me at my parents’s house in the summer. I wasn’t there, but he was talking to my mother for ages about cricket and Geoffrey Boycott. She couldn’t get him off the phone.
Graham knew me, knew my game. He’d watched me and he’d had me watched so that left an impression. He went through what Watford would be offering. Graham was at the other end of the spectrum to Clough. He took me down to Vicarage Road and we discussed terms. He said, ‘Oldham want 150,000 for you, I’m going to offer 65.’ He thought the tribunal would go somewhere in between, maybe 100 or 110.
Graham said that he was going to play John Barnes down the centre to replace Luther Blissett, and play me down the left side. My role was probably different to what John Barnes had been. I was a left-sided player but a midfield player, whereas Watford played 4-2-4 with orthodox wingers. It was a different role but I was keen to do it and see if I could play in the First Division. I was confident I could.
Anyway, I signed for Watford and then went away on holiday and my registration didn’t go through until I was back, so Newcastle United contacted me at my parents’ house but I’d already agreed to go to Watford.
So what happened with the tribunal? It was reported at the time, and you’ve pretty much backed it up there, that the tribunal made Watford pay more than Oldham had even been asking for.
They used to have an independent panel who would set the fee. They’d look at a range of things, what the two clubs wanted the fee to be, what the player was like, what the contract was and they’d arbitrate and put a value on it. I don’t know what went on. As a player you didn’t have a say. I was out of contract but Oldham could hold onto the registration until they got an offer they were happy with. The players were traded when the clubs wanted, really.
It sounds like you had very little power.
We didn’t really. Watford could have pulled out when the fee was what it was but they didn’t. It went through but they paid more than they wanted to.
Did Graham say anything about it?
Not really. He maybe made a little comment but as a joke. ‘You’ve cost me more than I wanted,’ but he didn’t make a big deal of it. He went through with the deal.
What were your first impressions?
It was a young squad. I’d played against Steve Sims and Ian Bolton, who were more experienced, when I was at Oldham. They made me welcome.
John Barnes was moving out of digs in Garston so I moved in with Steve Terry. I can remember Nigel Callaghan taking me to the nightclub in the centre of town, Baileys. I felt quite happy, coming down from the north, and I felt I was settling in.
But things went wrong pretty shortly after arriving.
Yes, I broke my ankle. We were playing in a pre-season friendly against Reading at Elm Park. It was my first game in a Watford shirt. I was trying to block a clearance and it hurt but I didn’t think it was too serious. Billy Hails [the physio] didn’t think it was too serious. I certainly didn’t think I’d broken my ankle. It got a bit sore as the night went on. I went for x-rays. It turned out to be broken. It was my right ankle and I was right-footed.
I was out for eight weeks, but it was quite strange when it healed. It still hurt even though it was repaired. I was running with a bit of a limp for a while. There’s a lot of recuperation work, gym work, flexibility work. It’s a gradual thing. I can remember being surprised how long it took to get back to normal. There’s also a bit of a psychological thing too, especially going into challenges when I first started playing again.
By the time I was fit, the team was doing well after a shaky start. George Reilly was playing with Maurice [Johnston] and Barnes was back on the wing, so I was never part of his first-choice eleven. I was coming in here and there, but it was harder to step up to the higher level when you’re only playing a bit.
When did you come back?
My first game was a night game in the local cup – the Herts Senior Cup. I can’t remember who we played but I came through it okay.
At Christmas we played on Boxing Day [against Aston Villa] and then the day after [against Southampton]. I came on for about 10 or 15 minutes at the end. When you’re a new signing, the manager wants to push you in. I felt I was feeling my way fitness wise. I was on the bench, coming on at half-time against West Brom, came on at Anfield. I’d never played there before and that was a good experience.
I was gradually getting into my stride and Watford had been doing well so it felt quite easy to come in. We went up there to Anfield on a good run and we were never in the game. They were a class above. They were at their peak then, Liverpool. They kept the ball so well. Watford’s style tended to be the same home and away. The tendency was based on getting the ball forward and then regain possession from clearances. But Liverpool were playing at such a high level, especially when they had the ball. We were chasing shadows. But other than that we could hold our own against anyone.
My first start was against West Ham at Upton Park and we won 4-2. I scored with a diving header, but the ball had gone out of play and the referee disallowed it. John Barnes was fantastic that night. He really tore them apart. What a player. He could play anywhere and the West Ham defence just couldn’t cope with him. You could see them almost hoping Barnes wouldn’t go near them.
The Johnston-Reilly partnership was working well so I did realise it was going to be difficult for me to get into the side so Barnes was playing on the wing and at that time Barnes was probably the best left winger in the country.
When I did play I liked it because at most clubs they would expect the left winger to come back and cover, but at Watford you had no real responsibility to come back. That’s why there were a lot of goals at both ends. Away from home if you were under the cosh, we still played the same way.
The team were going well in the FA Cup. What was that like to be around?
We played Norwich City away the week before the semi-final [against Plymouth] and we got a right hiding. It was 6-1. I didn’t pull up no trees that day. Possibly people had their eyes on the semi-final.
I’d not been on the bench for the semi-final, but I’d played against Luton when Wilf [Rostron] got sent off. Neil [Price] came in for the final and he hadn’t played much first team football. Before the final, I felt there was a chance of getting in because Kenny Jackett could go to full back and I could go on the left or in the middle of midfield, so I felt there was a chance of being involved. Then I played in the game at Forest and we lost 5-1 and I think that didn’t do my chances of starting many favours.
When did you find out you’d be on the bench?
Looking back, we knew the side. I am not sure how many days we were at the hotel, certainly two or three. We knew the eleven from the start of the week, it was just the place on the bench that was probably between two or three of us.
I think I got the nod because I could come in on the left-side, or in midfield, and I think that if things went not so well, he could move Kenny to left-back and I could go in there, and that’s what happened.
Neil Price suggested that you all knew that if Everton were ahead at a certain point in the game that change would be made. Graham Taylor says he would never have told the team what his planned substitution was before the match. What do you remember?
I don’t remember knowing I’d go on at a certain point, so if he said it he certainly didn’t tell me.
What was the build-up to the game like?
The training was quite different and quite light-hearted that week. We didn’t do a cup final song, which sort of broke with the tradition then. I think it was because Elton wouldn’t have wanted to do anything gimmicky like that, so we didn’t do one. Probably for the best! [Laughs]
When did you know you were 12th man?
I think on the morning of the game when we had our meeting was when he told me.
Michael Barrymore [the comedian] was there on the morning of the game at the hotel. It was quite unusual. It was so staged, it felt very forced. I have to be honest, I felt a bit uncomfortable with it. He was in there cracking jokes but that was how it was. The TV companies wanted to do these things and if you were in the cup final you were expected to be good sports about it.
You grow up watching the FA Cup final build-up and you know what it’s all about but when it’s happening to you it feels a bit surreal.
Were you nervous?
Unless you are starting the game you don’t have the same nerves. I felt a bit more relaxed being on the bench. I suppose as the game went on I started to get nervous because I knew if he was going to make a change it was more likely to be in the second half.
What was it like watching on the bench?
I was sat in the second row, so I could hear what was being said. Early on we had a reasonable start, one or two half chances. It came clear that Everton were getting on top a bit. I remember hearing that they were a bit concerned with Trevor Steven giving Neil Price quite a hard time. I could sense he was going to put me on. I went in and told Kenny to drop back and John Barnes went just behind the strikers. I played down the left side.
Did you think you could get back in the game?
We were 2-0 down when I went on and I think I had about half an hour. I think I felt that if we could get one we might get going. We had good attacking players and we could really hurt Everton if we could get the ball to those players but Everton did a very good job on us. I went on thinking that if we could nick one in the next ten or 15 minutes we might have a chance to force extra-time but it didn’t work out.
What was it like getting the medal and doing the lap of honour?
I think now, I can say that at least I played in an FA Cup final but at the time it was very disappointing. You savour the day but at the same time it’s over pretty quickly. We were disappointed afterwards. I think the thing was that to get there was a big thing for the club and for everyone. Perhaps we didn’t do ourselves justice in the final itself.
Did you feel like you had perhaps pressed for a place in the team by then?
It hadn’t been a great year. Getting injured straight away and being out of the side, then getting a few chances. Being involved definitely felt like a good end to a disappointing season. That’s the way I saw it.
What happened after that because the cup final turned out to be your last appearance for Watford and yet you didn’t leave until the following summer? What happened in that year?
I played 40-odd games for the reserves. I think I made the bench [for the first team] once, or maybe twice. During the next pre-season I played up in Scotland. I wasn’t in the team early in the season. Then I had one or two fall-outs with Graham Taylor on a few things. My biggest problem was I fell between the two things he wanted – an up-and-down central midfielder or an orthodox winger. I fell between the two roles. I was aware of that the season before. I played a fair bit in central midfield for the reserves. Then there were players coming through. It was a pretty specific wide role, it was an orthodox left winger position. Luther came back so Barnes went back to the left hand side and there was no space for me.
You say you fell out. What happened?
Having played first team football at a young age it was hard to be in the reserves. There’s always two perspectives on things so I am sure he would have a different point of view but I wasn’t happy not being in the side. You understand it a bit more as you get older. I had one or two fall-outs with Graham Taylor. He was slightly a dictator – you either did what he wanted, or that was it really. Watford played that system and he got success with it and I was a square peg in a round hole. I don’t think I fitted in with what he wanted. There’s always a problem with players who end up in reserve team football, especially if you spend a whole season in the reserves and you know that you’re just not going to get a chance in the first team. Even when there were injuries, he’d go to someone else before me.
Did you like him as a man?
[Long pause]. I wouldn’t say I lost respect with Graham even though I had problems with him. The way he went about things I didn’t agree with sometimes.
There was a situation once with Eric Steele and we were on the training ground. He accused Eric of talking to the press. He just mentioned it in front of all the players and I found it quite belittling. I felt that should have been dealt with completely differently – in the office, not on the training pitch. I felt Graham’s manner sometimes was a bit much. He got a little bit full of his own importance. He ruled the roost, he had the backing of the chairman and the board and he could do no wrong. Eric wasn’t the first team keeper and it felt quite uncomfortable. It was almost like an accusation. I don’t know, it just wouldn’t be my way of doing things.
I was on the bench at Aston Villa in the April. I thought I wouldn’t be in his plans but he did put me on the bench then. So although we had a difficult time it wasn’t like we fell out. No one is going to be happy if they’re out of the team for a year, are they?
Was there any chance you could have moved? Did you ask?
He knew I would go but they were trying to get a fee for me, which I understand. The thing is, if you’re not in the team, it’s hard to convince anyone to pay any money. Around Christmas time during the 84-85 season, I spoke to Howard Wilkinson at Sheffield Wednesday. I spoke to Bradford. Nothing came of anything until the end of the season and I went back to Oldham for a lot less than they’d sold me for.
Have you still got your cup final shirt?
I have. I’ve got the shirt, I’ve got the scarf someone threw us as we went round. I kept the suit for a while, the tracksuit but I haven’t got them now.
I remember the party we had at John Reid’s house. I had a picture of myself dancing with Kiki Dee in the background. I remember Maurice Johnston disappearing and going back to the hotel and everyone asking where he was.
Perhaps best not to ask…
[Laughs] I’ve got a pretty good idea.
What did you think of Maurice?
He was a great little player and a great lad. He used to drink Malibu and pineapple, never beer. Maurice would encourage all the lads to go out and the next day he could train but the rest of us would be worse for wear. Graham Taylor didn’t like that much.
There were only three or four married players. Most the lads were young and single. So we all got on well and I suppose Graham wanted to know what we were all up to. McDonald’s was Nigel’s [Callaghan] cup of tea. I remember rooming with him. We would go down for an evening meal and he wouldn’t eat much but he’d be chomping away on packets of crisps later in the evening.
What did you think of the style of play? You say it didn’t suit you?
There wasn’t really a place in the team for me, no. It was very statistical. They’d averaged out how many shots it took to score a goal. A team at the top maybe one in eight attempts, one at the bottom one in 18. We’d be maybe one in 12. We might have a game where we had seven shots and score three. He’d say ‘right you need to get a lot of shots in because of those averages’. It sounded strange really. It felt odd, I must admit, although I can understand the theory behind it, but it is a strange thing. Statistically they’d have every game monitored but the statistics don’t necessarily roll over to the next game.
As a wide player you had to attack the back post, that was what you were expected to do. I found it a bit formulaic but it was difficult to argue when you finish second in the league.
Did you know what to expect when you joined?
I had heard that Graham was a great coach – and he was – as long as you did what he wanted. He could be a bad loser. I heard stories about him throwing the tea cups around every now and then and I saw him lose his rag once or twice. I do remember him a couple of times being quite annoyed. I remember talking to Callaghan about it and him saying he’d been replaced after twenty minutes because he wasn’t getting in at the back post. I don’t know if that’s true or not but I can believe it.
He was the manager, though, so I guess it was his job on the line.
Oh, yes, I get it. I get it. He had to manage the club his way and you can’t argue with the results can you. And it wasn’t just one year was it, it was ten years he was there and he was successful. But it wasn’t what I was used to and I didn’t really fit in.
The second year, in particular, wasn’t great. To be injured and in and out of the side is hard, but at least you know why you’re not in. To be fit and play in the reserves all the time is really difficult. I had played first team football from 18 so I’d never had a run where I’d been out of the picture. That initial period in the second season I thought I should be involved but once I realised I wasn’t going to get in I couldn’t do anything except try my best for the reserves but it’s hard knowing that no matter what you do you’re probably going to be in the reserves again next week.