It surprised me when I realised that Tom Walley was actually younger than Graham Taylor (by about five months) because ever since I first saw his photograph in a Watford programme I’d had the impression he was one of the senior figures in Taylor’s management team. Perhaps it was the impression I had of him as a terrifying disciplinarian that led me to assume he was older than he was.

When I called him, he invited me round to his house in Nascot Wood and as we sat and talked about football I couldn’t help wondering what I’d have thought of him if I’d been one of his players. (Notwithstanding the fact that I was nowhere near talented enough). I could see that he could be terrifying and inspiring in equal measure. I also think that his methods would have broken me and I wondered if they would be tolerated today. Possibly not, and yet the players who made a career after graduating from Tom Walley’s school of hard work cannot speak highly enough of him.

Like many old football coaches he made ‘football coaching gestures’ as he spoke and fidgeted in his seat as if talking without a football at his feet, or at least within easy reach, did not come naturally to him. It was a scattergun conversation, his north Wales accent has barely faded despite decades living in the south east of England, and instead of trying to keep Tom on one track I opted to let him just talk so I could see what gems he came out with.

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I was at the club and Graham came in and I was still a player. We had a chat. To be honest my knee had given up. I had a go, but my knee blew up and I knew I was coming to the end. I had been offered a job at Leyton Orient and I was going to take it.

Graham said, ‘Would you like to come on the staff and do the youth?’

I said, ‘Yes, but I have to go back up home and talk to the missus because if I’m going to do it and be successful it’s a 24-hour a day mission.’

So we had a chat and sorted it out.

Graham said, ‘Okay, off you go, it’s your job. Go on with it.’

I started off with two good players, proper players. Kenny Jackett, yeah, and Nigel Callaghan. That was about it.

Dave Butler [the physio, who had been coaching the young players] told Graham that he should take me on board and Dave already had Jackett and Callaghan doing a bit of training in the evenings.

There was a gentleman called Wally Fielding doing the under-16s. I started out on a Thursday night. I said I’ll sort out my team out, he’ll sort his team out, and we’ll go to West Ham. I turned up on the ground and there were no under-16s. No one turned up.

I said we’d be better off without the 16s. Then Wally ended up going to Luton, so I worked with Tommy Darling, who was different gears, Jimmy Howard, Dennis Gibbs. Good people, all of them.

So Graham let you get on with it?

Graham is a clever man, don’t you make no mistake. We got on well together but he was the gaffer and he kept an eye on. He came up to the YMCA a few nights to have a look at what we had. He did a few things with the boys, coached them a bit.

I assume you had very few facilities to start with.

We went up the YMCA [gym]. We had Cassiobury Park in the summer, then we had the car park where the ticket office is now. We improved the facilities a bit. Dennis Gibbs was a huge help for me. We went up to Woodside [in Garston].

So how did you gradually build up a youth team to speak of?

I went hunting. Hunting. 24 hours a day. Watching games, watching players. Talking to parents. I was up at Swansea one Saturday morning. John Toshack, who was at Swansea, was there. ‘What the fuck are you doing here?”

‘Like you,’ I said. ‘Like you, I want players.’

After half an hour I’d sneak away. I’d got the [phone] numbers I wanted.

How did you persuade parents to let their children come to Watford.

I would be honest. I’d say, ‘Your boy has a chance if he comes to us. We’ll work on him. We’ll put the hours in and make him a player. I can’t guarantee you nothing but he will work hard and he’ll learn and we’ll give him every chance we can.’

I went to Cheshunt and I picked Steve Terry up there. I was doing all the scouting. I was going here there and everywhere. We had Bradley Walsh [the comedian]. He wasn’t quite good enough for us. He was a fair player but not quite there and we let him go.

I had 24 kids to start with and I only kept three. The goalkeeper, Cally and Jackett, so we had to build up and go and get players.

Did the parents expect that their boys would go on to be professionals?

If they did they didn’t get it from me. I said they’d have a chance but we didn’t go filling their heads with dreams. We would see something and we’d try to work at it but you see a boy at 15 who looks the part, don’t mean anything if he ain’t got it at 18, 19. You have to keep watching ’em. Maybe you see a boy at 15 and think, ‘No, not for me,’ but you don’t forget him. You keep watching him because at 17 or 18 he might have come on. They develop at different rates.

Today you’ve got children of seven in clubs and their old man or their old lady thinks that’s it, they’re going to play for Man United. I don’t agree with it. It’s only an opinion but a boy of seven, he doesn’t know what day of the week it is. He just wants to play about, have fun. He’s not a footballer but they make ’em think they’re footballers. They’re not. It’s too soon.

There should be a network of small clubs, local clubs all playing kids football, a big network of clubs that you keep an eye on. You don’t need a boy of ten signing for a club. It’s daft.

What was youth football like in the late 1970s and 1980s?

There was clubs, right? And schools. The pro clubs never had teams at under-15. Myself and a guy from Spurs we started under-15 football. Never mind the FA, we started that. And we had a problem because a guy at the Herts FA said we couldn’t do it. They’re too young. Graham Taylor and I went to see him and said, ‘If the parents want the players to play then what’s the problem?’ So we got it going.

It’s too young for boys of seven and eight to go to a big club and then be told at 10 they’re not going to make it. It breaks their hearts and it’s too early to know. Way too early to know. But at 15 you can have a team and you can start working on ’em to see who’s going to make it.

How important was a player’s size as a child?

It’s important but it’s not everything. I went to Sheffield Wednesday at 14-and-a-half and the coach came onto the pitch and said to me ‘yeah, you’ve got ability but you’re too small, be a jockey.’ Three-and-a-half years later I am playing against their first team on Christmas Day [it was actually December 27, 1965], came on as a sub, then played the full game Boxing Day for Arsenal [December 28].

You don’t make a decision until you have to and you don’t say it’s over. The parents have a big downer, we’ve had a load of work for a year bringing him to training every week, and he’s not going to make it. Kids just want to be playing. If a kid has ability and desire to make it, they’ll come through even if you let ’em go. You just have to be honest and don’t promise nothing.

How important was it to you that the youth team was successful?

I wanted to win, course I did, but I wanted them [the players] to win. If you’re going to be in the first team you got to be better than the rest in the youth team.

I was looking for talent. I hunted, I hunted. Got [Jimmy] Gilligan in, Steve Terry, [Charlie] Palmer, Wally Sterling.

Paul Merson was training with us and one night he didn’t come. I said to Tommy Darling, ‘Listen, Tommy, he’s gone.’

Tommy said, ‘Don’t be daft, he won’t go.’

Anyway, Merson had gone, to Arsenal, and his old mum had got a brand new washing machine out of it.

We never paid for players but we didn’t have a chance to offer her a washing machine!

We never paid, we weren’t at it. That was the way we went, but I might have offered her a washing machine for him.

What were you looking for from a young player?

You look at the boy and look at what he’s got. The main thing is a bit of technique, is he quick, has he got a bit of know-how, pull away from people. I can give him a few things, but I looked for the little basics. If he had that at 13, 14, I’d say ‘Okay, boy, you come in and I’ll have a go with you.’

I looked for the basics, a bit of know-how, good balance, is he quick, does he use what he has clever like. If he’s not a big, strong lad, does he find a way around that, because then you’ve got a clever player. You don’t just want strength because if you’re strong at 13, that’s great, but they’re going to catch him up. Everyone is strong in the pro game. So it’s more than that. You see it in every kids team – the biggest lad up front scoring all the goals. See him again at 18 and where is he? Played five years on strength but didn’t learn nothing about the game because no one taught him. Coaches think, ‘Well, he’s the best player, we’ll leave him be,’ and then you’ve lost one.

What about their mental strength? I’ve heard you could be intimidating.

I’d find out about the attitude quickly. You’ve got to find out about their attitude. A young boy doesn’t know what he’s like when he’s 13 or 14. He’s a boy.

I didn’t have a good attitude when I was young. I didn’t like to run because I wasn’t good at it. An old Scots boy got to me when I was a kid and he said, ‘You’d better start running boy.’ So I started to run. I was doing four-and-a-half minute miles and I started to get fit. I told them that fitness levels are the easy things to get. That’s just work. You work and you work and you work. Easy. Anyone can do that. But they have to be fit to make the most of what they have.

Then you look at the technique and improving what they’ve got, and I’d tell them what I know. Have they got a bit of vision, can they pass the ball, can they think about the game. Have they got a bit of quickness about them. That was what coaching was about. We worked hard with them.

We’d have them in the school holidays. We had four or five apprentices. Now they have 15, but they’re not all going to make it. If I took three or four on, or even six and seven, and they fail, then I’m a big failure as well because I picked them and I took them on because I fancied they could go on and do something. So I wanted to get the lads in who had a good chance. It’s not about scooping every kid up in a big net, it’s about getting the ones you want to work with.

How important was discipline?

Football is a game but it’s not a joke, right? You can have a laugh at the right time but you got to stay in the game and that takes work. I’d test them. You’ve got to moan at them, no matter how good they are. You’ve got to get on to them, see if they come back at you. I used to really moan at them to see what their reactions would be.

I’d pull them in and say, ‘Now son, I’m going to tell you how you’ve gone on.’

I used to get the lads and say, ‘I know where you were last night.’

I used to ring them up at home on a Friday night. If they were out, as 17, 18 year old boys, if they were late home they’d hear all about it from me. I used to say to their parents and their landladies, ‘You work with me, not with them. If they’re out, I need to know. If I ring at 10pm and they’re there, I’m happy, but I want to speak to them. You work with me now.’

If they were out, I’d give them one warning, then second time, out. No messing. You can’t play about with it. Once you start playing about you start losing your chance. You’ve got to look after the body. You’ve got to be fit, you’ve got to give yourself a chance if you want to be a professional footballer. Eat right, don’t drink, keep fit all year.

Were you conscious of the fact that Watford needed your youth players to be good enough for the first team?

Oh yeah. No doubt. We had to. We didn’t have a load of money to buy half a new team every season, we had to bring these boys through. As we went on we had to change it. Remember one thing, we were in the Fourth Division when we started. They needed to be big, strong, good skill, play up to them. But I looked for a bit extra. Can they move the ball with pace. Can they move people about. After a few years we knew they had to be good enough for the Second Division now, then the First Division.

So you played the same way as the first team?

We would match up with the first team, yeah. Wingers, crosses in the box. We had a way of playing and it was the same all through the club. My lads had to fit in with the reserves, the reserves had to fit in with the top man’s [Taylor] team.

What about the suggestion that you terrified them?

No. [Laughs]. Not all the time! [Laughs]. If you mess me about you know about it, right? I’d been disciplined the right way. All my players, we used to have laughs, we’d have a crack, but I used to love my kids in any case, even when I was shouting at ’em. The lads used to come and sleep at my house on a Friday night because we would be off to Norwich early in the morning or whatever.

It was a seven-day-a-week job then?

Every day. Training, the young ones on a Monday night, Thursday night. Watching games every spare minute. I used to travel all over the shop on my own. My wife used to wash the kit and make the food.

Sometimes I’d go with Jimmy [Howard] because there’d be other scouts there so I’d have someone go over and get the number because if I went over it would give the other scouts some leads on who I was interested in.

I’d go home and ring up his mam. I’d always try to ring first. She said, ‘You’re the first one to ring, you can have him.’

Lads who lived away I’d go and pick up. I used to go and pick up Jimmy Gilligan from Stevenage. I used to go down to Bristol on a Friday to pick up someone else. We’d play on Saturday morning and then I’d drive him back. People talk about work! It was work and it was long, long days. Sometimes up before it was light and not home till after midnight but it was work I loved doing.

Was the most satisfying thing when one of your players got into the first team?

It was but the hardest thing was to let a player go. Every now and then they didn’t have that little bit extra and I’d have to let him go. You knew you were breaking his heart but you had to do it. I’d say, ‘Go on, son. There’s more clubs than Watford. You go and prove me wrong son.’ One or two did but I was a pretty good judge. If I let one go I didn’t think they had it.

But I wouldn’t change my life, I had a great time. Wouldn’t change a thing.

Which players stick in your mind?

[Nigel] Callaghan was a good boy. He was really interesting. He wanted to be with me all the time. He wanted to come down and do coaching with me when he was in the first team and Graham said, ‘He can’t come with you all the time.’ But he just liked to hang about with us.

Could have signed Mark Hughes for 50 grand before he went to Man United. Nearly let Iwan Roberts go to Man United but we got him.

As we went through the divisions, we had more finance and better facilities. We had Stanmore then so there was a good place to train.

Later on you worked as a first-team coach at Watford, after Graham had left.

It was alright being a first-team coach, I could handle it, but I like working with the youth. The senior players think they’re finished. It’s harder to break their bad habits, you know? But it weren’t a job I loved. Dave [Bassett] took it over, then Steve [Harrison] and it was on a downer because following Graham was a difficult job.

Dave Bassett is a super fella. He’s a lovely fella. He’s a good man. He didn’t have a lot of time to be fair. He don’t take any shit.

Steve didn’t like it. I said to Steve, after a game against West Brom, ‘Don’t jack it in,’ but he says to me, ‘No, Tom, this ain’t me.’ Fair play to him.

So I went to Millwall, and I earned them big money. Graham wanted me to go to Wolverhampton, but I went with Bruce Rioch at Arsenal. Ashley Cole said to me ‘I know who made me.’

I got offered a job at Tottenham when I was with Graham here. Bill Nicholson [who was working at Spurs as a consultant] said they wanted me to go there. I said to Graham I’ve got to go and see them, but I’m not going because I promised the parents here I’d be here for a few years. I can’t let people down. I put my lads above going to Tottenham. The parents had committed themselves and their lads to me, so I couldn’t go back on that. Tottenham was my team as a young boy, my brother played for them.

Can you remember how the club found John Barnes?

There was a fella recommended a player to Graham Taylor, yes a supporter. John Hardy and Bertie Mee went to watch him and he wasn’t good enough. Fair dos.

The same fella then recommended John Barnes to Graham Taylor. So Graham Taylor said, ‘You’d better go and watch this lad.’ John and Bertie didn’t really want to go and watch other people’s tips. To be fair, there’s not enough time, you’d be going to watch every player and the supporters, yeah, they think they’ve seen a good player, but they don’t really know, really, what they’re looking for, right?

So Bertie sees Barnes and he says, yeah, we’d better get him in, okay? So he comes in for training on a Thursday night and we play him in a game on a night at Chesham or Amersham. It was freezing cold. John Barnes’s head was white. I am telling you the truth. It was freezing cold. His head was cold with the frost. He showed a few little bits and pieces. After that, I couldn’t get him in because he was playing for Sudbury on a Saturday. So we couldn’t get him in.

We went to play a game at Leyton Orient youth team. Graham Taylor came to watch it. He scored a free kick that went straight in the top corner. Graham Taylor said to me afterwards, ‘That will do me.’ And he signed him. But to be fair, you wouldn’t have signed him on what I saw.

Johnny boy, he went to Liverpool, did all the things, but he should have gone a lot longer, should have gone a lot longer.

How much did you have to do with the first team during the years when they reached the First Division and got to the cup final?

I was looking after the youth but if there was a [first team] home game on a Tuesday or we didn’t have no game I’d sit on the bench.

Graham lived down the road from me and he came round here of a night one day and he says, ‘Now Tom, what do you reckon, I’ve had an offer of Luther for a million pounds, what do you reckon?’

I said, ‘Take it.’

What was it like when ‘your’ lads were playing in the European games?

I could only give the lads the experience I had. Go and enjoy yourself. Give your best. They’ll either be good enough or they won’t. And they done brilliant in them games. I saw Ian Richardson at the betting shop the other day. He was quick lad. He was brilliant he was. He was a quick lad. But he was small.

The public needs the team to be winning, sometimes you can’t wait for the youth, so you have to buy. The manager’s first priority is winning the matches for the first team. The next thing is making sure players are coming through so I knew it was important we had one every year who could do it. But some years we had two or three.

Graham liked a big centre forward, but they had to be able to play.

When Graham came in first, he spoke to me. First day I was youth coach he asked me ‘What do you think you have here?’

I said there’s some good players who ain’t been worked on. There’s Luther Blissett, who was supposed to go with my brother to Crystal Palace because they were going to release him. I said ‘don’t release, he’s different gears, eh? He just needs work.’ Same with Ross Jenkins. Lovely footballer. But they needed work. They needed to learn the runs, work on finishing off the crosses. But they were giving up on ’em.

Mike Keen [the manager before GT] was a lovely fella. I thank him for bringing me back to the club. Sheer luck really. I didn’t do it for him on the pitch, really, I did my best, but my knee blew up but when I think about it, what if I’d not come back as a player? Might never have happened for me.

When you saw an old player of yours could you see things you had taught them?

I liked to see players who were fit. Get them top fit. Work hard. I had them running. You’re learning all the time in this game. Even the best players are still learning when they’re 30. I like to see players who are fit, have got a bit of technical ability but they’re still interested in learning the game. Never think you’ve cracked it, boy, cos you ain’t.