The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009
Shortly after I’d interviewed John Ward, I got a message from him to say that Graham Taylor would like to talk to me. So I rang the number and left a message and when Graham called back I explained to him what I was hoping to do. He asked who’d interviewed so far and I told him. ‘Have you spoken to Wilf yet?’ he said. ‘Funnily enough, I’m seeing him in a week or so,’ I replied.
‘That’s interesting,’ he said. ‘If you’d asked me, I’d have predicted that Wilf would have said no to an interview.’
Why’s that, I wondered?
‘Wilf moved away from football and I think he’s not the type to look back too much, but I’m glad he’s going to speak to you. I have such a lot of respect for him I think it’s a shame football lost him.’
Graham said that he’d be happy to meet but he wanted to wait until I’d ticked another dozen or so players off my list, so we agreed that I’d give him a call in a few months to arrange a meeting.
In the meantime, I wondered how things would go with Wilf Rostron. A few of the players I’d interviewed had asked me about Wilf. He wasn’t one to keep in touch with his former team-mates, it seemed. No one knew how to get hold of him, although plenty knew he was back in the north-east running a furniture business. I tracked him down, sent him a message and waited.
When he replied he was about to travel to China for his work, so we arranged to speak when he returned and he invited me up to the north east to his furniture warehouse, which from memory was somewhere between Washington and Sunderland. We went upstairs and sat among some of the stock.
For a man who played such a key part in Watford’s success, Wilf struck me as extremely modest and, as Graham had suggested, not one to live in the past. He’d participated in some of the club’s most remarkable days and yet his memory of them was understated, as if it had all been the most normal thing in the world. I got the distinct impression one memory still hurt, the sending off at Kenilworth Road that denied him an FA Cup final appearance. However, I started by asking Wilf about his career prior to joining Watford.
I made my debut for Watford against Newcastle, which was a coincidence because I had made my debut for Arsenal against Newcastle. I was a winger at Arsenal. I went there as a lad, I was there for about four years but I only made 12 or 13 appearances for them over that time. I was nearly 21 when I left. I went to Sunderland and I kind of went there as a midfield player really. I was there half a season, a season, then half a season and I played a lot of positions – including half a season as centre forward. I played left wing, midfield. I played full back a couple of times. We had two players sent off once and I ended up at left-back.
At Sunderland I was centre forward for a while because we had none left. Everyone was injured. I got about 10 goals in half a season. We just missed out on promotion that season, I think we finished fourth. But I would play anywhere really, wherever I was asked.
Was Sunderland your team?
As a lad I was a Leeds supporter, but I went to watch Sunderland because it was my home town. Playing for Sunderland was interesting. We were in the Second Division and in the two years I was there, we had about five managers. It was crazy, they were coming and going and coming and going.
How did the move back down south come about?
I remember after I’d played a game in the reserves the manager said that someone from Watford wanted to speak to me. I went to speak to them at Roker Park at the offices there. I agreed to travel down to Watford to have a look, within a few days. I went down with my wife to Watford. I drove down. I thought I was there when I got to Watford Gap services but still realised there was about half an hour to go. I thought ‘What’s going on here?’ I had thought it wouldn’t be too far to go home but we just drove on and on.
They put me in a nice hotel and they took us round the nice places, I think. Croxley Green and Chorleywood. Eddie Plumley and Graham were both very bright, very enthusiastic. With Bertie Mee there too, that meant a lot because I was a boy under him at Arsenal. I joined Arsenal because of the way he ran that club. I’d been to a few clubs but the way they ran Arsenal was a different league so I went there.
Eddie and Graham told me to have a think about it so I went to have a look at a few prices in the estate agents and thought they had the wrong prices. I thought they’d put an extra nought on. Compared to Sunderland it was very expensive.
We had our youngest daughter but my wife Jill was pregnant with the second one at the time. We spent six months in a hotel because we couldn’t get a mortgage. You couldn’t get a mortgage, even though I could afford to pay off the loan on the wages. They just wouldn’t lend to you. It was only because I met a bank manager from Sunderland, who was working down south, sorted it out so that we could borrow the money. But it took a long time to get sorted.
The first six months I was operating out of a hotel with a baby and a pregnant wife.
How did that go down?
I didn’t dare actually ask my wife what she really thought about it. But it wasn’t the best. I never used to come home and talk about the games anyway. I never did that in my whole career – apart from the day I got sent off [at Luton]. Once I got home, I switched off and football could wait until the next day. But coming back and living in the hotel was not easy, especially for Jill with the baby.
Watford signed a few of us at the same time and we were all in the hotel together so there was some cameraderie. It was called the Ladbroke Hotel then, but it’s the Hilton now, I think.
It’s almost a sitcom isn’t it? A load of 1980s footballers living in a hotel. But we could have a pint in the hotel with the other players. And the wives could at least get to know each other. To be fair, the lads already at the club were really good. Their wives invited Jill round saying, ‘Don’t sit in the hotel all day, come round to ours.’ The club really welcomed us.
You’d played in a lot of positions and of course you established yourself as a left-back but when you joined the club you were still a winger. How did the transition to left-back happen?
He bought me as a left winger and I was in the side, out of the side. I’d have a run, then be out again. By that season [1981-82] I hadn’t been in the team regularly at all. John Barnes had come in on the left wing. I played a bit in midfield, came on as sub a few times.
He [Graham Taylor] came up to me on a Friday at training. He pulled me aside and we went over to one of the other pitches and he put me in the left-back position and he started taking me on with the ball. He said he wanted me to tackle him. Well, he was easy to master and I thought ‘that’s a nice start.’ Then he brought one of the young lads from the youth team across. He increased the standard of players he brought over to take me on and then he said, ‘Right, you’re playing left back tomorrow.’ I obviously passed the test. Having said that, Keith Pritchett [the regular left-back] was injured, so maybe he had no choice.
Which game was that?
Chelsea at home. We won 1-0 and I wasn’t out of the side all season. We got promoted and that was it. I was a left-back.
What do you think Graham saw in you and why did it work out so well?
Funnily enough I found it easier to get forward and attack from a left-back position than I did as a winger. I don’t know why. Maybe you see the game better? You can move forward so you already have momentum coming onto the ball or overlapping the winger.
What was Graham like as a manager?
At that time, Graham was on the training pitch every day. He was different from other managers I’d known. He had a way he wanted to play each game. He was going down this statistical route, but he was making us do certain things and making us play a certain way. It made it quite easy in some ways because we knew what to do. We were working longer than I was used to. They worked you physically harder and longer. There was a lot team play to run through. I remember saying to Jill, ‘Flippin’ heck, I ought to take my miner’s hat.’ I was coming back from training in the dark. I was used to finishing at half past one. Generally it was a full day and it was much closer to a job than I’d had previously.
There was good discipline at the club. You accepted that was what it was like at the club and you got on with it. There was no point grumbling because he wasn’t going to change.
What had it been like before you moved to left-back?
It was a bit stop-start for me. And for the team as well, I think. Graham had had success coming up through the divisions but he was building a team to go on and it did take a bit of time for everyone to get used to it. Once he’d worked out who was staying and who was going we seemed to click into gear. But he spent a long while making that team, working on different things, bringing people in, realising they weren’t going to do it and bringing in some more. There was a lot of change in those couple of years but we were getting better all the time.
First time I played left back, it was Chelsea at home, and the right winger was Clive Walker, who had played higher, so it was a good test and I did well. I only scored one goal in that season but it was against Luton, so that counts double.
Are there any games that stand out?
The Southampton 7-1. We’d been hammered down there but we got up early and kept going. I remember them getting one back and thinking, ‘I don’t believe it, we’ve got to score again.’ And I can remember coming off thinking I couldn’t believe I didn’t score a goal!
What was it that sparked that result?
I don’t know what happened to them really. I think they were over-confident. It was a great night and the crowd absolutely loved it and so did we. I remember when they got that goal we thought, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do it again,’ but we were so confident by then we thought we could do it.
Best game I remember was against Forest, we got beat 7-3. That was a great game to be in and we could have won it. It could have been seven each. Or 8-7.
That game was in the League Cup and I marked the midfield lad they had. I can’t remember his name, but they had a player who could break from midfield and I think he went to Man U later on. [Wilf possibly means Gary Birtles here, although Birtles was more of a forward player]. We’d done a plan. I remember we’d done this plan and I went into midfield to man mark him. But after about 10 minutes they had changed their system so they had no forwards. So Graham said, ‘Forget it, play your game.’
Do any other things stick in the mind? Do you remember winning promotion with the win against Wrexham?
I remember that night, yes, but when you say Wrexham to me, I remember playing there for Sunderland. We had a hard game and won but all the other three teams around us won so we didn’t get up. I remember that.
I seem to remember the bad things better than I can remember the good things. Those things hurt you more than you realise perhaps.
What hurt you?
There’s a couple of things, we will probably come onto them.
Did it bother you not to win the Second Division title?
Not really. The trophy would have been nice but Luton were good that year. We were hoping they would fall down so we could win the title but it never happened. The job was to go up and we did that quite easily, I felt. Okay it went to that Wrexham game and that was the one that sealed it but we thought we were going up and it was just a matter of time. It wasn’t desperately last-minute or anything. I think there were a couple of games to go after that and we were about 10 points clear of the next side so in truth it wasn’t the Wrexham game that clinched it was it, although we didn’t know that at the time.
You were one of the few players who had played in the First Division before.
I suppose so, although it wasn’t a lot of games. Who else had?
Pat Rice, Steve Sherwood…
Gerry [Armstrong]. I think Ross [Jenkins] had. Simsy? A few of us but you’re right we weren’t a First Division side. It was all new for us.
What did you think of that season?
I did enjoy it. How could you not? We were lucky, mind. Everyone had seen the World Cup and they all wanted to play out from the back. They all thought they were the Brazilians, nearly everyone we came up against, especially early on. They just had such a shock when we were getting at them and hassling them, and hassling them.
That was the big plus for us. A lot of the players weren’t really trying to be Brazilians but a lot of the managers thought that was the way to play. They’d seen it on the telly and thought that was the way to play. But they played like that in Spain in summer because it was hot. There was no need for it in England.
Good defenders still kick it out when they need to kick it out. Watch the best defenders and they will get it away, or get it into row Z when they need to. But too many of them were being instructed to pass it out from the back. That had never been their game previously and they weren’t comfortable with it when faced with two lads who would chase their back-ends off up there, Luther and Ross would close them down and they knew they had the team to back them up.
So any fears of relegation were banished fairly quickly?
I think we would have been alright anyway, but the other teams did play into our hands a bit.
I think Graham was worried how it would go. Would we be good enough? I remember pre-season, he killed us. He took us off for pre-season to Norway. We were working before breakfast, then having breakfast, then a session in the morning, then on in the afternoon. The only time we didn’t have three sessions a day we’d have a match at night.
Oh, we grumbled. We grumbled to each other, but we didn’t let him hear us. It was pointless grumbling to him. Get on with it. We physically improved again. We definitely worked very, very hard in that pre-season and I felt fantastic. The games were almost easy.
About a month into the season you beat Sunderland, your home town team, 8-0.
[Chuckles] My friends talked about that one for quite a few years. See, I remember losing in the League Cup [in 1985] to them on an icy night where it should have been called off and we put the game on anyway. Luther had had a great game a few days before on an icy pitch [against Sheffield United in the FA Cup] and scored some goals and we thought ‘there’s no way Sunderland will handle it on this ice’ and they bloody beat us. It was a crap game. It shouldn’t really have been played. We were eager to get it on but I think we’d have beat them on an ordinary pitch. I remember that more clearly than the 8-0.
I also remember getting beat 5-0 up here when Steve Terry came into the team. Oooh, he had a nightmare, but he was only a young lad, poor lad, and he just went. I remember the next game, he made a mistake and they nearly scored, but I shouted at him, ‘Eh, you play. Don’t you flippin’ go into your shell again.’ And he did. From then on, I thought, he’ll be alright, him.
That was a tough game, the 5-0. When your centre half collapses, you’re dead. But he was going to be a player. He was a good player.
Did the criticism of Watford disappoint you?
Not at all. There’s millions of ways to play football. All the talk about style is rubbish. You have to beat the team in front of you. We were an energetic side but we knew we were always going to get hammered [by the press]. We couldn’t play Total Football so we didn’t try. Graham had brought in players who would and could play the way he wanted and he made a bloody good team. We did what we were good at and we won more than we lost. Everyone worked. If someone was trying to hide, the rest of the lads wouldn’t have allowed it. If you didn’t do the job for the team, they’d let you know.
In the system we were playing, it was easy to tell who was not doing their job, because everyone knew their jobs so well.
What was your job as a left-back?
Simple stuff, really. You’re not to dive in. To defend against my individual player. To tuck in and put cover on if the ball’s on the other side of the pitch. To hit the balls into the channels. Not to play the ball inside to the midfield because anything played inside to a midfield player is risky. It’s my responsibility if he [the midfield player] loses the ball. That’s a dangerous ball to play because it’s easy to cut off, and everyone is going forward against you. So my balls were either into the channel, in to Luther or wide to Barnesy.
You scored a fair few goals too.
My job was to dive in at the far post when we had corner kicks or set-pieces. A lot of goals are scored at the far post and if I wasn’t there to meet the ball if it came across and everyone missed it he [Taylor] went spare. ‘Where were you Wilf? Far post! Far post!’ So I attacked the far post and it was amazing how many chances you got.
It does sound very regimented and perhaps defensively and in midfield it was very regimented. But going forward, we had some very good, very creative players. Cally [Nigel Callaghan] was a great crosser of the ball, with no backlift. Luther was very powerful and pacy. Ross was fantastic with his chest and his knee. He could hold everything up and lay it off. Barnesy speaks for himself. What a forward line that was.
But they [the forwards] could make the rest of us look crap if they didn’t do what they were supposed to do. If I knocked the ball into the space I was supposed to hit and they hadn’t made the run, it made me look bad. They didn’t make us look bad too often, to be fair. They knew where my first ball was. If I overhit it or underhit it, that’s my problem, you make the run. They were skilful players, they took men on, they took shots. Luther never turned a shooting opportunity down, even if he was having a mare. If he missed one, he’d still be up for it. He’d shoot again. That’s what you want from a forward. He was brave enough to miss and keeping shooting again. A lot of forwards start worrying about the misses but Luther never shirked his responsibility.
It was very difficult for our midfield players to be really creative because they were covering so much ground, they were tackling, but they were the engine room. Kenny [Jackett] and Les [Taylor] were brilliant really. The wingers were going to attack and take people on and cross the ball and they couldn’t not do it. If they weren’t doing their jobs, they may as well be back with us defending, so we wanted them up the pitch, on the touchline ready to receive the ball and get forward.
What happened if you didn’t follow instructions?
If you didn’t do what he wanted, he just wouldn’t play you. But everyone knew what we needed to do. To be fair, he didn’t even have to do it after a while. We knew it was successful, we knew we could win games if you played his way. You knew when you were walking in who was going to get the bollocking because, liked I said, everyone’s job was obvious.
Do you remember when you got a telling off?
I am sure I did but I tried to do my job and avoid it. [Laughs]. He would tolerate mistakes. Obviously he’d be frustrated if we were having a bad game, or if we made a silly mistake and he would say, ‘Oh Wilf!’ but it was lack of effort that got him angry. I remember at Liverpool away – I gave two penalties away. I couldn’t get out of the penalties. One was on the line and it hit me hand. The other one, I lunged at Dalglish. He was going to score. He didn’t shoot, he pulled it the other way. I had to put a challenge in. Two penalties against me but he [Taylor] didn’t say anything.
The reason we struggled with Liverpool was because their centre halves handled our centre forwards so well. They were both quick, strong. We couldn’t give them the quality of service. They could handle our game. When they were in trouble they booted it out but when they had the ball, they could play. They were the best team in the country for years.
We were ahead at Anfield and for the first time ever  and I thought ‘We’ve got them. They’re not coming at us. We’ve got them under control.’ Then they brought Dalglish on for the last 20 minutes. I thought we had them. He ripped us apart. He absolutely ripped us to pieces. I can’t believe it. He got himself into a little position just in front of their midfield and he changed the whole game. That was pure class. For a fella his age to be able to come on and do that was impressive. I was gutted and we came off and said, ‘We had them. We flippin’ had them.’
I’m a positive person, very positive, but I seem to remember the bad results better than the good ones. [Laughs]
It must’ve felt amazing to finish runners-up to Liverpool.
We were lucky really weren’t we. We beat Liverpool 2-1 on the last day. Liverpool were on the jollies. They were leaving us to go abroad straight after the game. They’d had the title in the bag for weeks. I think we needed Man U or someone to lose and we’d be second. [United lost 3-2 at Notts County having led 2-1 with three minutes to go]. We heard the score and we knew we were second. That was special.
That got the club into Europe. Do you remember much about those games?
I remember playing on the icy pitch [Sparta Prague]. We couldn’t stand up. They could stop, turn, they had something on their boots. Screws for studs or something. It made a mockery of the game really. It was crazy. In a way, our planning wasn’t that good. What were they wearing on their feet that was allowing them to do what they did? They’re only humans.
You’ve remembered the one heavy defeat there Wilf.
[Laughs] I know! I should have read up on the good days before you came!
Kaiserslautern had a famous fella, Briegel, who had played in the World Cup. We were gutted to lose out there. They scored quite late on and we were gutted.
The second leg was almost a miracle. Considering the team we had out, they should have beaten us by 10. They didn’t realise we had such a weakened team. But the lads did brilliantly. They gave us too much respect. They let us a play and we took advantage.
Then came Levski Spartak in the second round.
I hit a cracker in the home leg but it was a draw. Then in the away leg, I split someone’s head by accident and the fella lost control. It was a total accident. We jumped for a ball, next thing I know he’s running after me and I thought ‘Oh no, we’re going to have a fight here.’ Then he showed me his head was cut. Whoops, bloody hell, I can see why he’s annoyed. I didn’t mean it.
It reminds me of [Richard] Jobson. He was physically hard. When you hit him, he was hard, solid. If you had a clash of shins with him in training, he was just rock hard. He was a good player. He played in those European games.
It was a hostile atmosphere in Bulgaria. The crowd were good. I don’t mind that at all, as long as they don’t come on the pitch. It brings out the best in me. If they want to make it hostile I think, ‘Right, we’ll have a battle.’ For our young lads, they did fantastic. We were half a youth team weren’t we. He’d bought new ones in but they couldn’t play because they were cup-tied or whatever it was.
I remember the night games at home were special. It was really packed and they made a lot of noise. They weren’t that noisy at Watford on a Saturday afternoon but something happened for the night games.
Was that because it was a family club?
I suppose it wasn’t like Sunderland, where life revolves around the club. They are noisy and passionate and when there was 30,000 at Roker Park it could be rocking. You’ve heard of the Roker Roar. Watford wasn’t like that. I don’t mean they weren’t passionate but they were more reserved people. But it was a lovely place. The people were lovely. The involvement of the town in the club and the club in the town was great. We were frequently involved with going to the hospitals and schools and so we had this bond with the community. It felt like we were all together but Vicarage Road wasn’t going to be intimidating in the same way.
Can I ask about the FA Cup run? I’m hesitating a bit because you missed the final. I assume that was one of the disappointments you spoke about.
I wasn’t the best. Obviously to get there was great. The Plymouth game [semi-final] was a crap game. We didn’t play well at all and they could easily have won it. We wouldn’t have been able to argue if they’d won but we got through just by being a bit more experienced, I think.
The final was crap as well.
Tell me about the sending off.
I got sent off at Luton. I don’t know what tablets Paul Elliott had got up on. The fouls he committed were mad. He’d already been booked. It was a strange one because he was a defender and he must have been well forward. I don’t know what I was doing on the right-hand side [of the pitch].
First of all, I don’t think it was a foul. We kind of entangled on the floor. We were entangled, and I thought ‘he’s going to kick me here’, so I put my foot up and showed my studs. But he didn’t kick me. We were just arguing. He didn’t hit me and I didn’t hit him. The game stopped and I thought ‘well, the most I can possibly get here is a booking.’ And if he books me, he’s got to book him, and if he books him, he’s off. It was only the first half so I didn’t think the referee was going to do anything daft.
Elliott had done some dodgy tackles up to that point but he’d been booked already. The ref [Roger Milford] came across and he just sent us off, no hesitation.
It was right in front of the Luton crowd. There were coins coming down on the pitch. I don’t think I’d even committed a foul prior to that in the game.
Did you know the sending off meant you’d miss the cup final?
I knew pretty quickly. By the time I got into the tunnel I knew. I don’t know if anyone had told me, but I think I’d worked it out.
I knew in the previous game there were about three of us whom if we’d got booked, we’d have missed the final. But we didn’t so we thought we were okay, but obviously the sending off meant an automatic ban and that was that.
Did you say anything to Elliott as you went off?
I had a go at him in the tunnel, when I realised. He was at the top of the tunnel. I remember having a go at him. ‘I’ll miss the cup final because of that,’ that sort of thing. Nothing too bad.
What did Graham say?
What could he say? I think he was disappointed. I could see in his eyes he didn’t know what to say. What could he say? We weren’t going to change it. I think it hurt him as well.
What were the weeks between the Luton game and the final like? Did the press want to speak to you? Did you think of appealing?
I don’t think we did because we didn’t think there was any chance of overturning the ban. I think Brighton had been in the same position the year before and they dragged it out and it went against them so we just accepted it.
I decided not to speak to anyone in the press but they did contact me. I didn’t answer the phones. I spoke to Geoff Sweet [a journalist who covered Watford] but that was it, because I knew him.
You had to play in the games and then see all the excitement building. Was that hard?
It was awkward to be around. It wasn’t hard, but it was a bit awkward being around when they were doing the planning for the match. By then I’d decided I would actually go to the match, so I was trying to do the best I could to try to encourage them.
Had it crossed your mind not to go to Wembley then?
It had at the beginning when it was all fresh but as the days went on and I got used to the fact I’d not be playing I decided I would go to support them.
What were the other players like with you?
They all said something, ‘Sorry Wilf,’ but it wasn’t their fault. I said, ‘Ah, just carry on as you were. Don’t be worrying about me.’ I meant it, I didn’t want to be hanging around like a shadow and if I thought I had been I’d have kept in the background. I wanted them to win and I thought I could support them.
I was in the dressing room on the day, and I was on the benches, and on the pitch at the end. I was disappointed for the lads that they didn’t really play.
Everything was planned well. Graham’s talks before the game, generally he didn’t say too much. He’d go round each player and give two or three key bits of information and let you know what he wanted you to do. That was it really. Just get out and play our way. When I was playing it made it really clear in my mind what I had to do. But on that day, the team didn’t really get into it. It wasn’t a great game. They didn’t play great. The second goal shouldn’t have been a goal. I felt sorry for the lads.
The do at John Reid’s afterwards was as nice as it could be in the circumstances. It might have been different if I’d played and lost but no one was going to not go. We could go and have a drink and I suppose you can say that at least we got there and the club and the supporters had the day to remember. It’d been better if we’d won.
Did you know that Les was thinking he’d have got you to lift the cup if you’d won?
Really? Would I have been allowed? I’m not sure they’d have let me if I was suspended. But that’s nice. I never gave that a thought, honestly. I wasn’t thinking I was missing out on lifting a cup, I was thinking about missing out on helping the team. I was just disappointed we’d lost.
The team evolved over the years in the First Division didn’t it?
We didn’t change radically but we did evolve, yes. We were still a direct side, very attacking. He still liked me to get forward and support John, he still wanted a game based around shots and crosses. We still worked on set pieces but we changed things. You can’t keep doing the same thing for five or six years, you have to move it on.
He signed some good players. Coton was a strange lad, but he was a good goalkeeper.
What do you mean strange?
Maybe not strange. I guess I mean a different type of person to me. Maybe I was the strange one. [Laughs] He would shout at us [the defence]. I was calmer, I suppose. Maybe we’d get away with one and he’d come striding off his line shouting at us and I’d think, ‘Alright, man, we got away with it. We didn’t make a mistake on purpose.’ It was just his way or organising the defence. I didn’t need that, although it didn’t bother me. I’d just think, ‘Ok, let’s get on with the game.’ He was a top keeper, though. Maybe he had to be like that to keep the edge in his game. It [shouting at defenders] was as much for him as us, probably. It’s a lonely position goalkeeper. If I make a mistake and it leads to a goal, yes people will remember the mistake but that’s the goalie’s clean sheet gone.
John McClelland was a great defender. I really enjoyed playing with him. So calm, so good at organising. I think I was pretty good at organising the back four but John came in and was very easy to play with. ‘Okay, Wilf, let’s go up another five yards.’ Very effective.
I bet you wish you’d had Tony in goal for the semi-final against Tottenham in 1987?
Too right. Oh, that Spurs game – it was a disaster wasn’t it.
We had a plan and he [Taylor] moved me into midfield. Kenny [Jackett] must’ve been injured because if he was fit Kenny would have done that job. So I moved from left-back to cover his job, marking [Glenn] Hoddle. We stuck to the plan for the first half despite being 3-0 down. I was sticking to me job and I thought ‘well, until he tells us to change, I’m following Hoddle.’ Hoddle said, ‘Wilf, man, leave us alone. Just go and play.’ I said, ‘I’m doing me job and I’m sticking with you.’ It was quite funny.
We stuck with it until half-time. We were 3-0 down and the game’s gone, really, hasn’t it. In the dressing room he said, well, what do you want to do? I said, ‘Let’s just play our own way and see what happens.’
What did you make of the goalkeeping situation?
[Gary] Plumley came in and trained with us for a couple of days. He looked good, to be honest. What can you say, you can’t turn round and blame him. We brought him in from where we brought him in from and he did his best but he had a bit of a nightmare.
We had four or five days at Lilleshall training and Shirley [Steve Sherwood] hurt his finger there. It was touch and go whether he’d be fit. Tony was definitely out, Shirley was a maybe.
Perhaps if Gary hadn’t done so well in training we’d have gone with Shirley. I don’t know, if I am honest, as a professional player you do your own job and you try not to worry about other people. If he’s going to be our keeper, he’s going to be our keeper and we get on with it.
But having a new keeper was unsettling. He wasn’t very big, so we thought we might lose out on crosses. The first goal should never have gone in really. We knew it would be hard but we still felt we had a chance if we could score. But to go 2-0 down straight away and I am just chasing Hoddle round the pitch for the first half I thought, ‘This is not our day, is it?’
At the end of the season, Taylor went to Aston Villa. Were you surprised? Had you heard any rumours?
I was very surprised. But it was not a surprise other teams were interested in him. He was a bloody good manager and he had done ten years. I was surprised he went to Villa because they’d just gone down, hadn’t they. I thought he was good enough to get a really big club job – United or Arsenal or someone. I think it was inevitable he’d leave Watford because it was very difficult to see Watford getting any bigger than we were at the time.
What did you make of Dave Bassett?
I like Harry [Dave Bassett]. I went to Sheffield United with him. In some ways he was different to Graham. He was the same in that he wanted to be even more organised than Graham was on certain things. We used to do a lot of team play, with opposition and without opposition. Pattern of play training, going through scenarios over and over until they are automatic. We’d done that with Graham but in the later years we had moved on a little bit. It was a bit less regimented.
There were a lot of drills with Harry. He did do pattern of play, every day, it seemed like. But Harry came at a bad time. Prior to him coming, Graham had started to change the way we were playing. We were altering from what we’d been before. Harry came thinking we were more like we had been in the earlier years – direct, simple football. There was conflict because some players wanted to carry on in the direction we had been going, and he wanted us to go more direct. That wasn’t good because doubt came in and perhaps the players didn’t do what he wanted.
What did you think of Bassett as a person?
I thought he was fine. I like him. I don’t suppose that’s a popular view in Watford, is it? It was difficult to start with because Bassett wanted to be one of the lads part of the time. He’d be joining in with the joking and then he’d turn round and blast you. Graham was never like that. He would have a laugh but he was never one of the lads. He would keep more of a distance.
I think Bassett needed to either make fewer changes or go the whole hog and absolutely go for it. The ones he let go were the ones who wanted to play the other way but I don’t think Harry was strong enough. If that [going more direct] was what he wanted to do, he should have come in and done it straight away. He shouldn’t have been so nice about it. He should have come in and done exactly what he wanted straight away. Harry wore his heart on his sleeve. He’s a nice fella, although he effs and blinds, but he does it with a big heart. I felt a bit sorry for him in the end because it wasn’t working and by about Christmas when he realised he had to say, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ it was too late.
It didn’t bother you that he dropped you from the team?
He dropped me a couple of times but I wasn’t bothered about being dropped if I wasn’t playing well. I probably wasn’t playing well. I have a lot of time for Harry. I wish it had worked for him.
What was it like when Steve Harrison came back?
I’d known him for years. He was the left back when I joined them. He decided I wasn’t going to be playing regularly [at the start of the 1988-89 season]. He wanted me to possibly start coaching. I said ‘I don’t really want to do that yet, Harry, I’d rather play, so if that’s what you’re thinking I’d rather go.’
It would have been easy to stay for to get a testimonial year, but to be fair Elton played a concert at Wembley and some money from that went to two or three of us who done a few years but hadn’t quite made a testimonial year [for 10 years’ service]. They could have got money for me but they gave me a free transfer, but Bertie [Mee] made sure I got a free transfer. The club was fair. It was time to go – I’m not the type to hang around and be a bit part. I went to Sheffield Wednesday and then on to Sheffield United with Harry [Bassett].
You were at Watford longer than anywhere else but didn’t lose the north-east accent.
My two [children] grew up with southern accents, which is nice – it softens the twang a bit.
I spoke to Graham Taylor recently and he said to pass on his best. He told me he thought it was a shame you didn’t stay in the game as a coach.
I did coach at Brentford and I enjoyed it but I knew that when your manager gets the sack you get the sack as well. Did I want to carry on moving around? I think that if you want to stay in the game you have to really want to do it and I was quite happy to move on and do something else.
Have you fallen out of love with the game to an extent?
I wouldn’t say that. I’ll watch a game on telly but I’m not in the game and I’ve no problem with that at all. I’ve been invited back for the reunion [FA Cup final reunion] and I thought, ‘Will I go?’ But I will go. It’ll be nice to see everyone, say hello. Find out what everyone’s been up to all these years.
Football was a part of my life, a happy part, but it doesn’t go on for ever. I loved it at Watford but you can’t stay for life.
What do you think now when you look back at your time at Watford?
I think the biggest thing I think is that you don’t take Graham on. You’re not going to win. You ask me why I didn’t stay in the game, well, you look at Graham and the determination and single-mindedness he had, the way he took decisions and stood by them right or wrong. The way he took the criticism when his teams were losing. That’s what it takes.
I was a player and I had some really good years. I liked coaching when I did it but you can’t plan the next five years when you’re coaching or managing.
I won the Player of the Season twice – once in sympathy because of missing the cup final.
It wasn’t because of that, surely?
I don’t know. It was nice to win but was I the best player that year? I think my best year was the one before [82-83]. I’m not complaining, mind, but when you think John Barnes didn’t win player of the season. I don’t think Luther did. Ian Bolton and Simsy were a bloody good pairing, they didn’t get the credit the deserved. So to win it twice was really nice.
You mention John Barnes there, what was he like to play with?
It was easy to play behind Barnesy, although he used to get in the way when I was trying to overlap. ‘Don’t worry John, I’ll make another run for you, you get yourself inside.’ We did have a laugh. But he was an outlet for me. If I was stuck I could kick it at Barnesy and it would stick. Even if he was marked, I could kick it at him, rather than to him, and he could keep it. He was my short outlet. I was very confident of passing to him. He worked hard defensively too, although I kept pushing him forward. ‘No, no, no, you get forward and I’ll sort it out back here.’ When you’ve got a player that good you have to get them as far forward as you can. He was exceptional.
When I was at my best, I used to go and man mark him in training matches, just because he was so good and I wanted to see where I was. If I could man-mark him I could man-mark anyone. I knew he’d make me work hard. I didn’t do it that often, though, because if he was in the mood he could really give you a hard time, so I’d only do it when I was feeling at my best.