The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009
The original plan was to meet Steve Sims at The Belfry, the hotel and golf course near Sutton Coldfield, but as I headed away from Grimsby and my meeting with Steve Sherwood, my phone rang. It was Sims explaining that his plans had changed. He asked if we could meet somewhere near Leicester instead and so we ended up in a coffee shop at Leicester Forest East services.
Sims was the archetypal strong, strapping centre half who joined Watford amid some fanfare because he’d been an England under-21 and B international while at Leicester City. His adjustment to the Third Division took time but he established himself in the side and although he left Watford in 1984 he was brought back by Graham Taylor a couple of years later.
What was it that persuaded you to leave First Division Leicester and drop down to the Third Division?
Purely Graham Taylor. I’d known him since I was 15, a schoolboy. He’d just started managing Lincoln City and I was playing for the local youth side, Lincoln United. Lincoln City never took an interest in me until Graham came. That was my last year at school. I was going for trials and to train with Leicester and other clubs but Lincoln were never interested.
My dad had been a centre-half, an amateur, part-timer with Lincoln. I was a chip off the old block I suppose. I was tall and could head the ball, but I never wanted to be a centre half. I felt I could do more than that, I wanted to play.
My dad wanted me to get away from Lincoln, go to Leicester. It was just an hour-and-a-half from home but it was a city and there was more going on and the club was established in the First Division.
This was the Jimmy Bloomfield era. I was getting in and around the first team from towards the end of my first season as an apprentice. This was the Keith Weller, Frank Worthington era – names that’ll mean something to you if you followed Leicester back then.
Was it hard going from non-league football to trying to break into a First Division side?
I didn’t really know any different. I was 18 years old when I got in the side and I thought that was what was supposed to happen. I got left out for a bit then got back in but I was inconsistent in those days. Frank McLintock was manager for a year and we went down. He had been a great centre half for Arsenal. Maybe I expected him to develop me more as a player. I had caught the eye and played regularly for England under-21s and for the B team. I was young and learning but perhaps I thought I knew it all. Then Jock Wallace came in and he wanted to sell me to get some money in.
To be an under-21 international and find yourself dropping two divisions must have been a bit of a shock?
I suppose so but now I look back I realise I’d lost my way. Graham Taylor had watched me play and had obviously seen something but I don’t think he realised what he was getting. I came in the December , played 13 games and then I got left out because I was struggling.
I’d cost them a lot of money [£175,000, then a record fee paid by a Third Division club] and I think they wondered what they’d bought.
Graham wanted me to be more professional on and off the pitch, which is exactly what I needed but at the time I didn’t know it. I played a different way. I’d been brought up playing out from the back and Graham wanted it played forward quickly. I could play a bit and I used to take risks and sometimes they didn’t come off.
We were having a bit of a stutter and the promotion campaign that had looked so good was slowing down a bit so he left me out for my own good. If we’d failed to go up it would have been seen as my fault. The crowd didn’t accept me because of the money and the way I was playing. The record before I came was £30,000. I cost £175,000.
What turned things round for you?
I wasn’t as fit as Graham wanted so I worked on that. When I first came in, it was amazing to me. Such a shock. At Leicester we never did any running. It was all ball work. On my second day we did a cross-country run in Cassiobury Park, up through the golf course, through the woods. Anyone who played for Watford when Graham was there will know this run. I was way behind, way behind. I had to keep an eye on the next one in the distance or I’d have got lost.
I was lucky because Graham and Bertie Mee [the assistant manager] were a real help. I did extra training with Bertie to get fitter. He used to talk to me about defending too, when to tackle, when to wait.
It was the people who made Watford. Tom Walley. Sam Ellis. People who worked hard and made you want to work hard too. I remember Sam from when he was at Lincoln.
Promotion was achieved, even if you didn’t play as much as you’d have liked, but did you feel you settled in more in the Second Division?
The whole of the first year was a difficult year for me. We got up and then I had a really good pre-season and by the following Christmas I was feeling more at home. I think I had to earn the respect of the players, which I didn’t do when I first got there. Then they started to think, ‘Eh, maybe he’s not that bad after all.’
Once I got myself fit I felt I was good enough to play. Expectations were high and people assumed we were going to go up again straight away but that was never the case.
But you knew when you signed for Watford that Graham wanted to get to the top division?
Yes. I’d met him at the Holiday Inn in Leicester with Eddie Plumley [the chief executive]. He said then what he wanted to do – promotion to Division One – and that he needed me to do it. He said he didn’t actually want to bloody sign me but Ian Bolton had a back injury and they thought it would be a chronic one. That was Graham, he’d make you feel a million dollars in one sentence and put your feet back on the ground in the very next one!
He was looking long term and the way he sold it to me I was happy to go down the divisions to play. He explained what the ground was like, that it was falling down in places and they still had the dog track. I would have said yes anyway and I signed that evening.
Later on that day there was a phone call for me at Leicester City and it was Elton John! He was so excited I was signing for Watford and I was excited to be talking to Elton. I went home and said, ‘Guess who I’ve been talking to.’
Graham had prepared you for what to expect at Vicarage Road then?
Well, more or less. I remember running round the track and there were big rats coming out from under the fence. He didn’t tell me about the rats!
But it wasn’t about the bricks and mortar, it was the people. The players were good for me. They were down to earth, normal people. I’d been brought up with Frank Worthington, who was flamboyant to say the least, and the other ‘stars’ and the way they behaved and that was starting to rub off on me. You don’t realise it at the time but you start to change. They were the ones you look up to. They were great players, but there were interesting things they got up to off the pitch and I thought ‘oh, that’s normal is it?’
I went to Watford and it was completely different. You weren’t allowed to step out of line. After a while the dressing room evolved to look after itself in terms of discipline. First Sam Ellis, then Steve Harrison and then it was probably my turn to say to someone, ‘Hey, we don’t do that here.’
Much later you played for him at Aston Villa and you must have been one of the only players who knew what he was like?
They were initially scared of him at Villa. When I arrived they asked me what he was like. I told them, ‘If you’re a good pro, and do your work, he’ll be the best manager you ever work for. If you’re not, he’ll be the worst manager you’ll ever work for.’
The thing about Graham was that he was funny. At Villa he’d say something and Steve and Wardy would laugh and I’d laugh and the other players would wonder if they should be laughing at the gaffer. It took them a while to work him out and realise that there was no side to him. If you were straight with him, he was straight with you.
It could have gone the other way, though. He was hard on me at first when I got to Watford. I needed it and I am so grateful that I was ready to accept that and buckle down rather than go against him.
What about the style of football?
He was direct, no two ways about it. He wanted to get the ball up to where you could score goals. It took a little bit of getting used to and there was a lot more to it than people thought. We worked morning and afternoon on the pattern, on the passes and making the runs. There was a lot more thought that went into it than people realised. And above all, it was successful.
Over time it worked, as he got the right players in. It wasn’t all success, success, success. The first year in the Second Division we were always looking over our shoulders and we were only safe with three games to go.
You got a reputation for your long throw-in.
Alan Garner had a long throw and then Alan left and one day in pre-season we had a competition to see who could throw it the furthest. From the touchline about level with the 18-yard box I threw right into the middle of the goal, so he said, ‘Right, you can take the throws.’
It was a weapon for us. If we got a throw-in anywhere near their box we could put the ball right into the danger zone like a free-kick or a corner. The ball boys used to turn round so I could wipe my hands and the ball on their tracksuit top. Then Lee Sinnott arrived and he could throw it further than me. First time Lee took one, Pat Jennings was playing for the opposition. I was stood near the keeper on the near post. It went over our heads to the far post. I thought ‘oh, that’s me off the long throws then.’
Just going back a bit, during the three seasons in the Second Division the team underwent a lot of changes all over the pitch as he built a side capable of winning promotion.
Yes, he brought a few in for the short-term, to steady us in the Second Division and then replaced them as we went on. Wilf Rostron came in as a winger and he was struggling to start with too. They were almost going to sell him, it just wasn’t happening for him. I remember Graham took a few of us who’d been in the first team went up to Hereford for a reserve game. Steve Harrison, who had been left-back, was coming towards the end and the Wilf played some of the game at left back and I think that was the first time he saw something in Wilf as a defender. He was a hard little lad. He never bottled anything and when you see a bloke who’s shorter than you getting stuck in like that it makes you raise your game.
Malcolm Poskett came in up front, Martin Patching came from Wolves and he was brilliant, a really great midfield player but he struggled with injury and then got a bad knee injury. Pat Rice brought experience. You could see Graham bringing players in and weighing them up and working out who was going to help us go on. For 18 months it might have looked like the side was changing all the time but he was working it out in his mind as we went along.
Then there were the young players coming through and it seems like they reached the first team just in time.
Again, that was probably no accident. The likes of Kenny Jackett, Steve Terry and Nigel Callaghan all come through at the same time as the result of work with the youth players that Graham put in when he first joined the club. They were the fruit from the seeds he had planted two, three years earlier.
Kenny was magnificent. Really, really good. If he had been at a fashionable club he’d have been acknowledged as one of the best midfield players around. He was still just as good, but he didn’t get the recognition. I think it was harder for us at Watford to get the credit we deserved. Probably there were times I was playing well enough to be in the England picture again but I don’t think that was going to happen because of the club I was at.
Luther Blissett and later John Barnes did get into the England team.
Fair point! It was just me then! [Laughs]. Luther was another one – I absolutely hated playing against Luther in training. There just was not a moment’s peace. He was quick and he made you run all over the place. If you took the risk and let him just drop off or go wide he’d punish you because you didn’t know when or where he’d arrive, so you had to mark him or else you’d be in trouble. Oh it was horrible. He was unorthodox in a lot of ways but he was great. He missed a few but so what? Look at the number of chances he made that other forwards just didn’t get. After training against him there were very few opposition forwards on a match day who would give me as many problems. Training against Luther made Saturdays feel easy.
Injuries caught you at some key times though.
Yes, I never really recovered from a cartilage op I had when I was a youngster at Leicester. In those days they just took the cartilage out and left you with bone on bone. During the promotion season I got a kick on it and it swelled up and just didn’t go down.
I got fit and back in just towards the end and played the last month, including in the Wrexham game where we clinched promotion. That was on the Tuesday night and on the Saturday we had Leicester at home. They were finishing about eighth. We won comfortably and after the game I bumped into a journalist from Leicester who always said to me, ‘Why did you want to go to Watford? You could have gone to a bigger club.’ I said, ‘This is why I went to Watford.’
Having said that, if anyone had told me about house prices in the south and the way interest rates were going to go, I’d have stayed in Leicester! Watford matched my Leicester wages when I joined and I wouldn’t have been able to live down south if they hadn’t!
What was it like playing in the First Division again?
My right knee went the week before the Everton game [the first game of the 1982-83 season]. I tell people my knee cost me 50 caps, at least!
There was a feeling we’d do well. I think we felt we’d surprise people. What I didn’t appreciate was how much it mattered to and excited the Watford people. I’d played in Division One already and I was back where I wanted to be. But I don’t think I truly appreciated what it meant to people in Watford. They had never been in the First Division so we were making history for them. Little Watford getting there, it was awesome really because we were little Watford. You have to appreciate where you have come from.
Steve Terry did well while you were injured but you got back into the side in late October.
I got fit and tried to protect the knee by working on muscle strength before and after training. I used to come in early and do extra work. Billy Hails [physio] and Roy Clare [kit man] were there, making me do those extra sessions when I didn’t really want to. There was a lot of work going into it behind the scenes because it was something I had to look after. I had to work with it and make the best of it knowing it could go at any time.
Graham’s belief was that you had to train hard and although he changed it as time went on he didn’t like players to miss training or do light sessions. Later on he had Paul McGrath at Villa and he used to let him do what he wanted. Paul had really bad knees and Graham had learned that you needed to manage people.
Central defensive partnerships need some chemistry but they also can change because of injuries or transfers. Did you like having a regular partner? And Who did you like playing with most?
I like to think I could play with anyone. I knew what I was good at and I could dove-tail with most people I think. John McClelland was brilliant. Get him in a game he was superb. He was another one who couldn’t train all day but he didn’t need to run cross-country every time. When I came back [to Watford] the second time [having left in 1984, returning in 1986] when they went off to do cross country I used to do something different. I’d stay at the ground and do sprints there so I was running on level ground. I didn’t work any less hard, though, that’s for sure. I just did different work that wouldn’t risk the knee.
Is it fair to say the First Division weren’t really ready for Watford in 1982?
We didn’t fear anyone and I suppose people didn’t know how to deal with us. They’d play out from the back and we’d press them and put them under pressure in their own half.
If you’ve got that forward line like we had you don’t mess about at the back. We had Barnes, Callaghan, Blissett and Jenkins. I wouldn’t like to play against that forward line.
Who did you struggle against?
I always found it hard against Frank Stapleton, who was at Arsenal and Manchester United. He always scored against us. If he was playing, I said to the forwards, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get at least two here because Stapleton will definitely score!. He was strong in the air, he was quicker than he looked. He was a proper centre forward. If you didn’t concentrate you’d lost him. Garry Birtles at Forest was another. On the other hand, I used to love playing against Andy Gray [Everton] and Peter Withe [Aston Villa]. I don’t think they ever scored against me.
I could handle the physical battle but what I really loved was playing against Kenny Dalglish because it was a thinking game. I remember at Anfield the first time we went there. I think we were losing 3-0 at half-time, we lost it 3-1 in the end, and Dalglish was giving Ian Bolton a hard time and Ian Rush was giving me a hard time. There was one where Dalglish turned Ian and played it in and Rush had got free of me and scored. At half-time I said to Ian ‘Let’s swap over’ and he said ‘No, we’ll get it right.’ I said ‘We’re 3-0 down, we haven’t got a lot of time to get it right.’ We didn’t swap it over and we probably should have done. That was one of those games where Graham came into the dressing room and said ‘You got yourself into this mess, you get yourselves out of it’ and walked out again. If you got into a mess against Liverpool in those days you generally didn’t get out of it but we gave it a really good go.
We got one back and if we’d got another back we’d have had them on the ropes. They started knocking it long and Graeme Souness was saying, ‘What the hell’s going on here? We’re playing like Watford now.’
After the good start was it in the back of your mind that you might fade away?
I think the players were probably enjoying being in the top six and thinking that halfway up the table at the first attempt would be good. I think it was GT who thought we’d do better than that. He was very, very demanding. He expected us to win every game we went out to play. But his expectations did not increase the pressure on us because if we played well and got beat he said ‘fair enough’. At Vicarage Road he expected us to win. He hated losing at home.
Tactically was it as straightforward as some of the critics would have us believe?
No. As I said, there was more to it than people thought and Graham could adapt. He always says he never worried about the opposition but that’s not actually true. Sometimes he did things that were very clever. I think he used to say that so that the opposition would keep underestimating us. Let them think they know exactly what we’re going to do and then tweak it a bit. I remember when we hammered Notts Forest in the League Cup. They were the champions of Europe and we beat them 4-1. John Ward, who was a centre-forward, came in and played wide. Wardy had hardly played but Graham put him on their winger John Robertson to stop him getting the ball. Years later, when we played Forest in the league he had Kenny Jackett man-marking Nigel Clough. Now and then he’d do something different but in general he would want us to impose ourselves on the opposition rather than worry about them too much.
There were some teams that just couldn’t handle it. Spurs were one. I knew Glenn Hoddle from the England under-21 team and he said to me, ‘All you do is hit long balls.’ I said to him during one game, ‘You’re the best striker of a long ball in the country. You should come and play for us.’ We played well when we beat Tottenham 1-0. I loved playing against Garth Crooks and Steve Archibald. They were never going to do anything against us.
That Spurs game was the one that got the national press quite agitated wasn’t it?
The press used to amuse us. There were a few of them who were anti-Graham, anti-Watford. They couldn’t actually see what was going on. I know Graham tried to explain to them but it was a waste of time. They couldn’t see what we were doing.
We used to love beating Spurs, Arsenal, QPR, but that was a Terry Venables thing. Off the pitch we really got on well with the Luton lads, Ricky Hill and Brian Stein, but on it we wanted to beat them. Terry Venables had been one of my under-21 managers and I liked what he did there but his QPR team were so boring. They played the offside trap from the halfway line. People used to want to come and watch Watford because we offered goals and entertainment.
I remember when we went to play Charlton in the FA Cup and their manager said that apart from Man U, Liverpool and Spurs, Watford were one of the big attractions to get in the draw.
When I was at Villa the players said they used to hate playing us, because they knew it was going to be a hard game and that they’d have to work.
You were in and out of the side again at the start of the 1983-84 season. Was that injuries again?
I got a knock in training. I clashed with Richard Jobson who had joined us from Burton Albion in non-league. He was a great player and a great find. He was all sharp edges. He used to kick people in training by accident and apologise. I think I got another knock and I was struggling to get fit.
But you were fit for Watford’s first ever European game, away in West Germany.
Yes, I was captain that night, which was a great honour. Kaiserslautern were a big club and the stadium was very intimidating. They won 3-1 and I know they were very cocky and sure of themselves. They thought the tie was done. How wrong they were. I missed the second leg of that one but I was back in for the Levski Spartak game. That was even more intimidating. A huge stadium, absolutely full – 60,000, I think. I remember Cally [Nigel Callaghan] went to take a corner and they were throwing bricks and bottles at him. He ran into the middle and said ‘They’re chucking stuff at me.’ I said ‘Well, take the corner quick then.’ I thrived on that atmosphere. I was never frightened of that and that was one of the great results. We’d drawn at Vicarage Road and had no chance really but we went there and won in extra-time.
Sofia was grey. Very grey. The hotel wasn’t the best. I roomed with Steve Sherwood. We’d take half a corner flag with us to use as a cricket bat so we could play in the corridor at hotels. It started off with me and him and then others got involved and we’d have a wicket keeper and fielders and a batting order. I wonder if footballers play little games of cricket during overnight trips these days?
After that came another bad injury, this one at Filbert Street, your old ground.
Yes, that’s right. I got a broken ankle against Leicester the week before the FA Cup quarter-final. We were on Match of the Day that night, back in the days when they only had one or two matches on. They didn’t show the incident but I kicked through the ball and followed through into a Leicester player’s studs. I thought ‘Ow, that hurt.’ I carried on, then when there was a break in play I looked down and there was blood coming out of my sock. I rolled my sock down and there was a hole in my ankle where the stud had gone in. I carried on for five minutes or so thinking it was just a wound. But the pain was different, not just the sort of pain you get from a gash. In the end I had to come over to the side of the ground and I said ‘I’d better come off.’ We’d already used our sub so he [Graham Taylor] wasn’t having it! I pulled down my sock so he could see all the blood and said ‘Look!’ so he said ‘Yeah, okay, you’d better come off.’ I went and got stitched up and went back on, on the wing, because Nigel Callaghan had already been subbed at half-time. Instead of play with ten I just stood on the wing. I say played but I could hardly move. After the match I got on the coach. I was going to stay up because my wife is from Leicester and it was my son’s first birthday but I decided I had to go back to get sorted out. I was on the coach and they were laughing at me because I was complaining it hurt. Big Simsy complaining about a bit of pain! Billy Hails gave me a couple of paracetamol. In the middle of the night I woke up screaming. My wife phoned Billy up and we realised it was just not right. It was broken.
That meant you missed the rest of the season and the cup run?
Yes. They carried on winning and I was desperately trying to get back for the final. I came back in on crutches on the Monday. Bertie Mee said ‘right, if you want to be fit for the cup final, put the crutches down, clear your mind, and start walking on it.’
It’s amazing how confident everyone was of reaching the FA Cup final when you were still at the quarter-final stage.
That’s how we were. We thought we could win it. There was just that belief around the whole club.
Was there any chance you could have been fit for the final?
They took the plaster off as early as they could. It was funny, ’cos I could run on it but I couldn’t walk. I played in a reserve game before the final. If I came through that right I’d have played in the FA Cup final but before half-time I did a block tackle and it felt like I’d broken it again. I hadn’t but that proved I wasn’t going to be right.
I was able to train and play and I wasn’t far away but I couldn’t play in a cup final. I was able to do the full pre-season a few weeks later so I was close. I’d have love to have played. The players we were up against – Andy Gray in particular – would have suited my game down to the ground.
What did you make of Andy Gray’s challenge for the second goal?
It was a shame because for a couple of seasons, Steve Sherwood was as good a goalkeeper as you could get. He was very unlucky with the second goal. Poor old Shirley is remembered for that goal. For a while he was a great goalkeeper, he really was. Some of the saves he made were amazing, astonishing. Arsenal away he was incredible. At Villa at home, he made a remarkable save. He ran from one side of the goal to the other to get a touch on it and the commentator hardly said anything. He said it was a miss by Allan Evans. I just think people didn’t recognise how good he was.
Were you shocked to be sold to Notts County just as you’d got fit again?
Yes. I was as fit as I’d ever felt because I trained all summer. The ankle was fine, the knee was fine. He said to me one day, ‘Notts County have come in for you’ and I thought ‘Oh, well, the writing’s on the wall here.’
In hindsight I shouldn’t have gone there. Everything that was right about Watford was wrong about Notts County. They were bad pros. They used to moan ‘I can’t understand why we’re bottom of the Second Division.’ And I said ‘Well, I can.’ It was a mess. Training used to start when people turned up.
I tried to get a transfer at the end of that first season at Notts County. They moved one or two of the players on and a few youngsters came in. The football side of it was rubbish, but the people around the club were super. It was a lovely club Notts.
That season I was playing as well as I’d ever played. I had grown up. I was mature. I was club captain, I was PFA [Professional Footballers’ Association] rep. Dick Bate let me get involved with the coaching. We had a lot of young lads. I was really enjoying it and I was playing well, so it turned round.
Having gone to Notts County, got relegated and after two seasons in the Third Division how on earth did you get a move back to Watford in the First Division?
John Ward [Watford coach] had gone out to watch a centre forward. The centre forward, whoever it was, had a game against Notts coming up so Graham and Wardy thought, ‘Let’s see how he plays against Simsy.’ That was the initial thing. Then Watford were playing Notts Forest and I said I’d come and watch with Rachel my wife if they could sort us a couple of tickets. This was in August 1986, right at the start of the season. Graham saw me before the game and said, ‘Come into the dressing room and say hello to the lads.’ So I did and they went out to warm up. When the dressing room was empty, Graham said, ‘Do you want to come back?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ before he’d finished the question. I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t ask how much or anything. He said I might not be playing and that he wanted me to come back as cover. Give it a couple of weeks and we’ll get things sorted out, was how he left it. He just wanted me as cover for Steve Terry and John McClelland and he also said I could do a bit of coaching.
They say don’t go back, but I was going back to the people I knew. It was still the same coaching staff, the same people. It was like going back home. I was happy to go back even if it was only as cover.
It took about three or four weeks to get sorted. I had a call from GT and he said Jimmy Sirrell [the Notts County manager] would pull me after the game to tell me about the deal and I was to pretend it was a surprise so he wouldn’t know that Graham had spoken to me beforehand. So I was getting changed really slowly, waiting for Jimmy to say something but Jimmy didn’t say anything. I was starting to wonder if the deal was off. I was doing my hair in the mirror, taking ages until it was just me and the manager. Everyone had gone.
‘You alright Jim?’ I said. Nothing. ‘Everything okay Jim?’
He’d forgotten, but I wasn’t supposed to know so I couldn’t say anything. Finally he remembered and said: ‘Oh yes, a club has come in for you.’
‘Oh yeah, Jim, who’s that then?’
‘Watford. Do you fancy going back?’
I knew Notts were struggling for cash and would take anything. I played it a bit cool and said, ‘Oh, well, I’ll go and talk to them and see what comes of it.’
What was it like going back?
The day I arrived GT took me into the office. He’d invited some press in. Oliver Phillips was there from the Watford Observer and he was expecting a new signing and then I walked in and he was like, ‘Oh…’ I said, ‘I bet you were expecting someone exciting weren’t you?’
You signed as cover but found yourself in the first team pretty much straight away.
I never even played in the reserves. I was due to play a reserve game the day the first team had Everton away. The team had travelled up on the Friday. I was at home and I got a call to say that John Mac [John McClelland] had food poisoning. I collected my boots from the ground and drop up to Liverpool on the Friday afternoon. On the Saturday we still didn’t know [if McClelland would be well enough to play]. Then an hour before the game GT said to me, ‘Do you fancy it?’ ‘Too right I do!’
Was it hard adapting to the higher level again?
I’d had a couple of years at Notts and my body had recovered from the intensity of Graham’s training. I was fit but fresh. My knee was fine. I felt comfortable playing.
What was John McClelland like?
I didn’t know John too well and I wouldn’t say we got to know each well off the pitch but on the pitch people still say it was the dream partnership. I suppose it was the perfect match. John would let me do my bit. I knew what he’d do. We were both experienced. It was fantastic, although I should also say I did well with Ian Bolton, by the way.
John couldn’t walk. You would see him walk across the training pitch like an old man. He was quiet and he just got on with it without any fuss. Nothing bothered him. Nothing bothered me.
For about seven months that season you were a terrific partnership.
We had a great rapport and I think if your team has a good pairing at the back it’s the perfect base to build everything else from. We had some great games. We played Walsall in the cup and I was marking Trevor Christie. They had a lad called Nicky Cross who was giving John the run-around and I was struggling against Trevor who I knew from Leicester when he was a little whippersnapper. Now he was this big strong lad and he was causing all sorts of trouble. They were really up for it – it reminded me of when we were in the Third Division.
The quarter-final at Highbury was famous for Arsenal’s claims for a penalty right at the end when you jumped with Niall Quinn. 2-1 up and Arsenal wanted a penalty but Watford broke up the other end and scored a third.
I never thought it was a foul. I got up early for the header but they were messing the ref around a lot of the time in the second half. Niall Quinn was falling over all the time. I was telling the ref, ‘He’s trying to get a penalty here. Watch this.’
But they shouldn’t have stopped playing. The thing was, the ref was 10 yards away from me. The linesman flagged, presumably for me fouling Quinn, but Steve Williams was trying to stop the ref running, trying to force him to give the penalty. But even kids know it’s play on until the referee blows and he didn’t blow.
Bottom line was, I didn’t think it was a foul. I jumped early, he jumped underneath me and I headed it away and he went down under the pressure.
That was some game. They scored first. John [McClelland] and Tony [Coton] got in a mix-up and they scored. No one said anything, we just got on with it. We played so well that day and deserved to beat them but it got a bit hairy at 2-1. They had some chances but we were still creating chances too.
The other thing Watford fans remember about that game was the performance by David Bardsley, probably his best in a Hornets shirt.
Bardsley was a hell of a player. He was a quick player. It would be close between him and Tony Daley as to who was the quickest player I’ve played with. Barnesy gave Viv Anderson a problem on one side, Bardsley tore Kenny Sansom to bits on the other.
Bardsley was a bit of a worrier. We were 2-0 down at Luton the year we got to the cup final and one was an own goal. As we walked back up to kick-off, he said: ‘Simsy, we’re finished here.’ I said, ‘Oh shut up, Dave, it’s only halfway through the first half.’ We drew with them then beat them about 10-9 in the replay. Never been so tired in my life after extra time that day. It was amazing. I was never bothered by the score, if you see what I mean. If you go to pieces when you’re 2-0 down it’s a fast-track to going 3-0 down. Dave used to get all het up but he was only young so it was my job to try to get him to pull himself together every now and then.
The semi-final draw, against Tottenham, was unfortunate.
We were hoping for one of the other two [Leeds or Coventry] in the semi-final really. Spurs were a hell of a side. Clive Allen was scoring for fun. I think that was the year he got 49 in all competitions, wasn’t it? [It was].
And there were the injuries to both goalkeepers – Coton and Sherwood.
It was messy the build-up. In hindsight Steve [Sherwood] should have played. That was one of Graham’s. He’d do that every now and then, he’d throw one at you. If people said ‘no, you can’t do that,’ he’d do it.
What do you mean? He was testing you?
I think he genuinely thought Steve couldn’t play and I think he genuinely thought he could work a miracle. But I wish Steve had played in goal. Even with one hand he’d have been better. To be honest, it wasn’t all Gary’s [Plumley] fault. The first goal was a bit my fault because Allen turned me. Then I had to go off. I can’t even remember what happened. I went for a tackle, I put my arm down, someone landed on me. All I can remember is I went to push myself up and my arm was going the other way. I panicked, I was out of it with the pain. I can’t remember very much after that.
I went to hospital in Birmingham. I was moaning away and they said ‘Well, you were lucky, you could have lost your arm.’
That turned out to be your last game for Watford because both you and Graham went to Aston Villa in the summer. What happened?
I didn’t play again. I trained a bit. I was fit enough to start training before the end of the season. I had inklings something was afoot with Graham. Nothing concrete but just little things. All the time I’d been back at Watford I’d been living in a hotel. I’d done that briefly the first time I joined, living in the old Caledonian hotel with Ray Train, like we were in a sitcom. Two 1970s footballers living in a hotel! It was a bit better second time round because I was in the Hilton and I had a suite. We were trying to sell the house in Loughborough and buy one down south but we got gazumped a couple of times because house prices were going absolutely crazy. So it was not so good off the pitch.
Anyway, I was griping to Graham about getting gazumped and he made a little comment. Something like, ‘Maybe it’ll turn out to be for the best.’ It was something and nothing and I didn’t really take anything from it at the time but as the weeks went on I started to wonder if he meant something more by it.
Then, right near the end of the season, Harry [Steve Harrison, the coach] said, ‘I think he’s going.’ ‘Who?’ ‘The gaffer.’
So I was still in negotiations to buy a house for a small fortune in Bushey. I’d come back down for Graham, for the Watford people – Tom Walley, Wardy, Harry. I’d started to get a little bit involved with coaching.
Would you have stayed?
I would have done because there was a group of Watford people who could have carried it on. To this day I don’t know why they didn’t give it to Wardy. We could have taken it on. It wouldn’t have been the same without Graham but we could have done it. I guess Elton must have decided he wanted a change.
Dave Bassett came in but because of his contract he couldn’t come to the ground. There was something like that going on, so he was there but not there.
So, I had something in my contract saying I was to be involved in the coaching but all that was up in the air. Then, the day before I was due to exchange contracts on the Bushey house, GT was on the phone asking if I wanted to go to Villa with him.
I said, ‘Well, you’ll have to talk to Dave.’
Bassett had said that anyone not happy could go. I said, ‘I’ve got a clause in my contract saying I can do some coaching.’ I knew he wouldn’t want me to do that, so he said, ‘If you want to go, you can go.’ He wasn’t trying too hard to keep me.
The people I was buying the house from were annoyed at first and I really apologised to them but when they realised that in the time since they’d accepted my offer their house was worth another ten grand they were happy enough.
Did you leave without looking back?
I wouldn’t have left Watford if the key people were staying but Bassett didn’t look around to see what he had there. The staff were Watford staff and he wanted his own people. Maybe he thought I was one of Graham’s men and he wanted me out. That’s fair enough. It’s what happens.
Was Graham any different at Villa?
I think even Graham was shocked by Villa. It really was a dump. It was an awesome stadium to look at from a distance but the roof leaked. The baths were rubbish. The showers didn’t work, the paint was peeling off in the tunnel and the training ground was a mess. Graham did get it all sorted pretty quickly.
After about six weeks, Harry [Steve Harrison, who had gone to Villa as part of Taylor’s coaching staff] came to me and said, ‘You’ll never guess what. The gaffer’s going. He’s had enough. Doug Ellis [the chairman] has done it this time.’
I know Doug was interfering in a few things on the playing side while dragging his heels over the things Graham wanted doing to sort the club out. They really were a shambles. Villa had been relegated from the First Division and we’d played them at Watford not long before the end of the season. It was a draw at Villa Park and Graham did his nut. That’s how bad they were.
The press were giving the Villa stick and the fans were not on side at the beginning. It was hard because Villa fans can be fickle. I don’t mean that as a criticism but they’re a big city club and they have expectations. You can get 40,000 there when they’re winning, no trouble, but keep losing and it’ll fall away to 12,000, as it had done then. At the start we’d win away from home but struggle at Villa Park. But Graham turned it round quite quickly. He did one thing at at time, focused on the biggest problems first, then the next biggest, then the next biggest. He was a man on a mission then and although I’d seen how hard he worked at Watford this was another level.
Going back to Watford, which players left an impression on you?
When John Barnes came to Watford there was a real buzz. The word went round that this 17-year-old was special. Quite a few of us went down to watch him play for the reserves when he first came. He was a lovely lad too. A total athlete. He was the best swimmer, the best tennis player. He was the best sprinter. He was the best cross-country runner.
Wilf Rostron was another lovely lad, although they were going to let Wilf go because he didn’t really do it as a winger, so Graham turned him into a left-back.
You look back and wonder what it was that made us successful. It sounds simple but Graham put round pegs in round holes. He didn’t ask people to do things they couldn’t do. He focused on what people were best at and then he got the most out of them.
When I arrived, it’s fair to say it took me a while to win the fans over. At the end of my first season we had a quick tour to Gibraltar. Myself and Andy Rankin [the goalkeeper] were in a taxi either going to the airport or coming back. The driver recognised Andy and said, ‘That Graham Taylor’s doing a great job isn’t he. Two promotions in a row. He’s only made one mistake.’
Andy said, ‘What’s that?’
‘He bought that wanker Sims. Useless.’
Andy said quick as a flash, ‘May I introduce you to Steve Sims?’
To be fair, the taxi driver was probably right because I hadn’t lived up to expectations but the lovely thing was winning them over and being accepted.