Goalkeeper Alec joined the club in the summer of 1996 from Sunderland, initially playing the role of back-up to Kevin Miller. He went on to make more than 250 appearances with the first team before joining the coaching staff. His time at the club spanned more than 20 years.

Now working for the FAW and Burnley, Alec spoke to Watford Legends during the coronavirus lockdown in May 2020.

Hi Alec. Thanks for speaking to Watford Legends. How’s things going at the moment?

I’m scouting for Burnley at the moment and this week it has really slowed down. We’ve got a conference call this afternoon, but in actual real terms of what we’ve done, this week has been negligible.

I’m guessing it’s all scouting on video?

Yeah. I don’t think it’s going to be much before Christmas really before we’ll be allowed back in to watch football. It’s going to be a lot just on laptops really.

It’s makes life a bit more difficult, it’s not ideal. You want to see people in the flesh and you’re wanting to see the whole pitch. But you know, with modern technology at least you can get an idea of what you’re looking at.

That answers one of my questions actually as I saw you at the u23 game against Palace before the lockdown.

Yeah I live in Northampton so I take in games around London, probably as far as Birmingham and Derby, about an hour to an hour and a half away.

I’ve always been in Northampton even when I was playing for Watford. A lot of supporters didn’t realise that I lived up here; I’ve been doing the phone calls to supporters for Richard Walker, and some of them were surprised where I lived.

You signed under Graham Taylor who always preferred players to live locally.

I didn’t know where I was going to end up playing after I left Sunderland and this is somewhere where we knew, and my daughter was coming up to school age, so that’s why I settled back here. Graham was very kind and took the clause out of my contract, which is the first time he’d ever done that, allowing me to live outside the area. I think the clause was 25 miles or 45 minutes.

Graham got my wife Jane to come and sit in the talks. We were absolutely gobsmacked. We’d had a situation, three years earlier, when I was leaving Luton. Lou Macari at Stoke hardly said a word to her, to the point of being rude. We had a new baby at the time and he couldn’t be any less friendly. Terry Butcher at Sunderland and was more as you’d expect them to be, family orientated and made Jane feel welcome.

Graham was very good like that. He said he’s done his research and knew I was a genuine kind of guy and so made the concession. It worked out well, I never let him down in terms of travelling in and fortunately for me the kids stayed and did their schooling all the way through.

What made you leave Sunderland as you seemed to playing quite regularly up there?

I had, but there were spells where I didn’t play as well. Peter Reid had come in, it was a strange time up there when I look back.

I went up there to replace Tony Norman who was quite a cult hero. I didn’t have a great first season, pretty difficult. Second season I probably played more than I didn’t, but I still had spells out of the team. Mick Buxton lost his job and Peter Reid came in, and that was when I was on loan at Liverpool as cover for David James in the League Cup Final. I wanted to come back off loan and compete for my place, but Peter Reid said I couldn’t. The writing was on the wall really, he wanted to bring in his own goalkeeper, which I understood.

That summer Tony Norman left, so I was the only senior goalkeeper at the club. Peter Reid was trying to sign everybody, you get to hear most things as they have an evening paper up there. Brad Friedel was the big one he tried to get hold of, and he would have been a fantastic signing, but he had work permit issues at the time, he hadn’t played enough games for the USA.

So I started that season by default and ended up playing the first half of the season until I think just after Christmas. We played Manchester United in the cup, drew away, played a load of games in a short space of time which ended with losing to them 1-0 in the replay.

We probably had a couple of days off, then on the Thursday or the Friday, somebody trained with me, I thought it was just a trialist. I thought he was pretty good, you know, quite young and sharp. We were playing at Leicester on the Sunday.

Ironically, that afternoon, as it was January and my contract was up in June, I thought things had changed as I’d played every game, so I went to speak to Peter Reid and find out what the situation was. And this is one of the most stunning things in my career, he said “you’re not playing Sunday.” So I was like, “who is?” and he said, “the lad who you trained with this morning”. I thought he was just a kid, but it was Shay Given.

It’s not like it is now where you’d have a goalkeeper coach and there’d be a few introductions and it would be more open as to what was going on and you’d spend more time together before going to join in with the team. I just went into training and cracked on and we didn’t speak much to each other.

So I was completely in the dark. I didn’t know whether to travel or not as we didn’t have to have a ‘keeper on the bench then. I probably spent the best part of three months doing the local radio for away games.

Then on the Easter Saturday, Shay came from a cross and got absolutely banjo’d and broke two ribs so I was back in the side for the last six or seven games and they went really well, kept six clean sheets on the trot and then we lost the final game at Tranmere.

I got offered a one year contract but because of Peter Reid’s attitude I knew I was going to be second choice, and even though we were going up into the Premier League, I really wanted to be playing games. It’s different if it’s a manager you know likes you.

We wanted to come back down south. My daughter was school age and although we’d got her into a school up there, it was good timing and I couldn’t have asked for a better place to come to in terms of how long I was able to keep playing.

Graham was brilliant with me. It was the first time I’d ever used anyone, Vince O’Keefe came down with me, ironically he’s now Ben Foster’s agent. He was working for the PFA at the time as a financial adviser. Vince was brilliant and he said to Graham, you’re not just signing him for now, there’s a guy who could become your goalkeeper coach and Graham was receptive to this. He gave me a three year contract, which at 32 was quite a brave move from him.

Ironically, having wanted to come down and play I think I only ended up playing about four games that first year, but no complaints, Kevin was absolutely on fire. But it was certainly a quiet time in my career.

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When you signed, were they expecting Kevin Miller to move on?

I think so. I never got told that, but it was looking likely that Kev was going to leave if a decent offer came in, and as a player you never really know what’s going on in the background.
I got on great with Kevin, we used to travel down together as he was living in Rugby at the time. I’m not sure how that worked with the contract situation, there was a few travelling when I think about it. This was probably Graham putting things in place again as he’d only just come back to the club hadn’t he?

So we had a car full. Devon White travelling from Nottingham, Craig Ramage from Derby. Those two would meet, pick up Kev from Rugby and then me from Northampton. We had a great laugh in the car.

It was as good as it could be without playing, albeit frustrating to be out of the team and a frustrating period for the team. Kevin Phillips was injured most of that season, so we couldn’t score goals. Kev was brilliant in goal, Pagey was the captain as a young man, we had a great defensive record.

When I did play, I played well but at no point was I going to be first choice that year, Kevin was number one and that was the end of it.

At the end of the first season, Miller left the club, but as part of the deal, and Chris Day was brought in. Did you think he’d be first choice as well?

I think Chris came to the club thinking he was going to be number one, but there was one place and you have to scrap it out. I got a start and things went well.

Chris went on and played a lot longer himself. I think he would have preferred to play a bit earlier than he did at Watford but we got on great and he’s said he learned a bit from me in terms of my determination, professionalism and dedication to the job. He kept himself fit and went on to have a long career even after he broke his ankle, played till he was 40 I think so all credit to him.

I never took anything for granted and we scrapped it out and training as you’d expect.

That must have been a great season, not only winning the title but you winning player of the season as well?

Yeah it was really good to be playing again. We obviously had our ups and downs that season, but we felt strong and fit and we had goals in the side.

I was travelling down with Jason, he was a quite a laid back guy. When he drove it was incredible (laughs), I’ve never seen a guy with his car seat in the position he used to have it. It was almost horizontal, that was Jason to a tee! He was another one that was supposed to have moved, but he never moved down. Graham got a bit funny with him which was fair enough, he’d taken a relocation package and never moved!

It was good to win it in the end, we nearly threw it away. I think we got promoted in a fairly drab game at Bristol City on a pitch that still had American Football markings on it. Bristol City should have won it but lost on the beach at Preston, we went to Fulham which was not an easy game. The quality of the players they had in their team and Kevin Keegan as manager, plus they were pushing to get in the play-offs.

We won 2-1 and it was fantastic scenes at the end, and it was proud moment to win Player of the Year and also get into the PFA team, that was one of the real highlights of my career.

I wanted to ask about the trip back to Kenilworth Road. Did you get a good reception?

I did actually!

I was thinking the worst, as you can imagine. We were 4-0 up inside 25 minutes, I then had to go out second half to the main Luton end. But incredibly, they gave me a great reception. I’m still stunned to this day that they did that.

I’d been back before with Sunderland, and the game didn’t go too well for us, and you can imagine, behind the goal I was getting a fair bit of stick once the goals went in. But because we were winning I expected to get it worse, but I got a good reception.

It was a bit of a surreal game. You want to win your derby games, but to win it that comfortably. Things turned quite ugly with the fans trying to get at Lennie Lawrence, it was pretty horrible. I think in the end we just wanted to get off the pitch. We’d got the game won and it was just a case of getting the job done and getting off the pitch.

Shortly before the end of the season, you started at centre-back. Were you prepared for that?!

Yeah, I wasn’t overjoyed about that I’ve got to be honest.

You couldn’t deny Steve Palmer the record. Graham obviously had this in mind and I understood that. The build-up to the game and to kick off was so different, and it was still an important game, one we had to win. We all like our routines and it just threw things out a little bit.

I’d won Player of the Season and I got presented with the award with an outfield shirt on! It was all a bit bizarre, but at the end of the day, nothing went awry. I started at centre-back, Johnno did what he was supposed to do and kicked the ball out of play. We managed to swap shirts and then it was business as usual and everything went to plan.

My main concern was that Johnno was going to shank the clearance and they were going to attack us, and I was going to be like a sitting duck. Steve Palmer would have been better at goalkeeping than I would have been at centre-half!

I wanted to talk about penalty shoot-outs. You were involved in one that season against Sheffield Wednesday, and again in the play-offs the following year against Birmingham. In both of them, the opposition ‘keeper took one against you. Did you have ever fancy taking one yourself?

Not really, no!

I don’t think I had the power they had. Both were left footers and there’s something about the way they strike the ball, like left-handed batsmen!

Kevin Pressman hit it like an absolute mule, he did it on several occasions in penalty shootouts. If he puts it where he tended to put it, there’s no goalkeeper in the world that’s going to stop it. It was in the top corner at god knows what speed.

Kevin Poole, I had a feeling he was just going to smash it. Again, he hit it so well I didn’t get a chance to react.

My penalty record was never that great, that was the ironic thing about the Birmingham game. I saved two, but there was a lot of good penalties. Maybe other ‘keepers managed to do things psychologically that affected the taker, I don’t know. Even if I did manage to save one, quite a few times they put the rebound in.

I never really fancied taking one, but I think I’d have been before Gibbo! He fancied it less than I did. I think the last penalty was Alon Hazan, then it was going to be Micah, then me and Gibbo left. I think that was everyone.

It’s surprising really because technically he was a really good player, but you can’t criticise someone if they’re honest enough to say they don’t want to take one. I’m sure he’d have scored if he took one. Look at some of the goals he did score, he could certainly hit a ball.

Obviously in the second one you crucially saved Chris Holland’s penalty, then had a great game in the final against Bolton. Do you think that was the peak of your Watford career?

Yeah probably.

It didn’t start that great against Birmingham, you know, 1-0 down and it was a right mess of a goal. We’d had a bad run into the ground from the Belfry, where we’d spent the afternoon. We didn’t have a police escort which I thought was really strange.

We got there late, it messed up the preparation and the warm-up, and it showed the way we started the game. We never really got going that night, we defended heroically but going forward we were second best.

Thankfully we got there in the end and everyone conveniently forgets about the early goal and goes straight to the good things that happened that night which is nice.

The big moment was the header from Michael Johnson which was the defining moment really. That was the one of the most important saves I would have made, probably more so than the penalties as if that had gone in there wouldn’t have been any penalties.

On the penalties, Paul Furlong’s was on Kenny Jackett’s advice. He felt that was where he put most of his penalties. It was still a good save, strong right hand. Chris Holland’s was just I went the right way and it was a poor penalty and then, you know, fantastic celebrations that will live long in the memory.

Then there was the build-up to Wembley, the hype about the man in the pink shirt. We felt really confident going into the game and treated it like a cup final. Bolton turned up in tracksuits, we turned up in suits. We went about it properly and it paid off.

Again, we had a bit of a wobbly start, that was my busiest period, the first twenty minutes or half an hour. But after that I hardly touched the ball other than goal kicks and things like that. Second half it was fairly comfortable. Once Smarty put the game to bed we could all relax and enjoy the scenes. The final kick was a goal kick from me and that was it.

Fantastic times.

The following season in the Premier League you picked up an injury in preseason?

Because we were so late finishing the season, it was May 31st, by the time we’d had the civic reception, open-top bus and all of that, it was the beginning of June before we’d broken up.

It was quick turnaround and Graham had already committed to going to the Isle of Man. People who actually sponsored me had been pestering him to go to the Isle of Man tournament which happens every year and he’d agreed to do it, probably not expecting we were going to get promoted that year. It wasn’t the best of preparation.

I dislocated a finger in a shooting practice. The ball wasn’t pumped up properly and moved around a bit. I felt something wasn’t right and took my glove off and my finger was at right-angles. I got it put back pretty quickly and tried to carry on and prove I was fit. I had a splint made, and the glove company Sondico made gloves that I could fit both my little and ring finger together into one finger.

Graham put me through a lot of shooting practice and decided I wasn’t fit to start the season, which was probably fair, so I had to wait until he was happy. So Chris (Day) started the season and I think it was West Ham before I played.

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I wanted to ask about the following preseason after relegation. I remember going to watch a preseason game, I think it was at Tamworth, and the club had just signed Espen Baardsen. Yourself and Chris Day came out to warm up and we were stood behind the goal, and you said “sorry lads, the superstar’s not here yet!” Would it be fair to say you were a bit unhappy the club had signed another ‘keeper?!

Yeah I was.

I didn’t see the need for it really. I think it’s fair to say I hadn’t had the best season in the Premier League, but we were up against it, all of us. It was ironic that the season after the Premier League he spent a lot of money on Espen and Allan Nielsen.

Obviously he was under pressure to play Espen as he’d paid a lot of money for him, we know how it works. But it was the way I was, I dug my heels in and proved that I was the better goalkeeper and in the end I kept him out of the team more than he kept me out.

I think Espen had made his reputation at Tottenham when coming in for short spells when Ian Walker was out. He never played a run of games and it takes a lot more in terms of levels of concentration and consistency to play 30 or 40 games back to back. And I don’t think Espen had that in the locker unfortunately.

He was never a massive football fan anyway. He was a different kind of character, he’d been brought up in the US and was into money and finance and that interested him more than football. He’s done well for himself, but he didn’t have the same desire to play as some of us did.

Under Ray Lewington you played regularly, but you lost your position to Paul Jones for the League Cup Semi Finals – that seemed bit odd at the time as you had been the regular ‘keeper.

I can’t remember too much about it. I was disappointed about it, but Ray’s a really solid bloke, I had a lot of respect for him. I think he was forced into it, by taking someone on loan you had to sort of guarantee they were going to play. I had the same thing with Lenny Pidgeley.

Paul was a really solid goalkeeper and I had no problem with him, we got on great. I was disappointed, but if you have respect for the manager, you have to train as hard as you can and prove you’re the right man for the job.

That’s all the advice I can give any of the ‘keepers I’ve coached. There’s always disappointment for any ‘keeper, but what can you do? You can be upset, but the only person who’s going to look an idiot if you don’t train properly is you. I think outfield players can get away with a bit more in training if they are p*ssed off with the manager, whereas if you’re the goalkeeper, you’re the one that’s going to lose out and just prove the manager right for not picking you. I guess that was a strength of mine to keep coming back from those disappointments.

Paul did well and came in for a short space of time, and I had sympathy for Ray in those circumstances so I had to swallow it and get on with it. I’ve seen Paul since then on charity days and the like and there’s never an issue.

I read that at the time, both yourself and Sean Dyche were car sharing from Northampton? That must have been entertaining.

Dychey hasn’t changed over the years, you get no bullsh*t, he calls it how it is. He’d had times out of the side as well when Marcus Gayle came in.

That’s where we became friends and we still live fairly close to each other. He’s only about a mile away, I can walk to his house. My house is about the size of his garage!

I don’t bother him too much, probably speak to him once a week. He’s at home with the family in lockdown but has plenty on his plate with all these conference calls he’s involved in, but that’s obviously the connection with what I’m doing now with Burnley.

That same season you also took on the role of Goalkeeping Coach. Was that something you were looking to do while still playing?

What happened was, when Graham left they brought in Luca Vialli and he brought in Kevin Hitchcock as goalkeeper coach, and that was the first time I’d ever had a full-time goalkeeper coach. That was a real shot in the arm for me, it was nice to do goalkeeping work every day. I got on great with Hitchy, I’d played against him when I was at Colchester, and I’d been on loan from Luton to Chelsea when he was there and Dave Beasant had his real catastrophe time, so we had a bit of history.

Obviously Gianluca only lasted a season, Ray took over and Kev stayed with him. But he’d got a relationship with Mark Hughes from his Chelsea days and when Mark got the Blackburn job he asked Kev to go up there and I think it was better financially for him, you know a Premier League club and so he jumped at the chance.

I got on great with Ray anyway as I’ve said, he’s a real solid bloke, and he trusted me to carry on and do the goalkeeping side of things while I was still playing and become player-coach. It was a natural process and by the time I retired from playing, Aidy Boothroyd was in charge and I went straight into full time coaching.

I was very fortunate and looking back to when I signed, Vince had great foresight. We probably didn’t expect me to play as long as I did but it was great to have that continuity and stay and work at a club where I’d had such great times.

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 One of the first ‘keepers you worked with was a young Ben Foster. It must be great to see the career he’s gone on to have.

Absolutely.

Again, it shows the mindset, because I was probably 40 at the time and I was expecting to start the season and then he signed Ben and I got told on the Friday. I remember pulling Aidy behind one of the dressing room walls and said, you know, what’s going on? And he was like, this kid can kick the ball a mile. I was a bit like well there’s more to goalkeeping than kicking Aidy!

I think at 40 I was able to swallow it a bit more than I would have been at 30.

I probably only worked with him for two days and he hadn’t really wowed me in training and in the games he didn’t start strongly. You could see there was lot of natural ability but he needed a bit of professionalism in his mindset.

But our relationship developed and I was hopefully able to give him a bit of a professional edge to his training and he’s gone on and worked under a lot more goalkeeper coaches and he’s now got to the other end of his career where his professionalism and fitness levels are a joy to see.

Looking back to those days, he refers to himself as ‘Fat Ben’. He wasn’t in as such great shape, but now he’s absolutely cut, with all the cycling and everything like that. He’s had knee problems but he’s been able to keep lean.

I think by his own admission, he’s never enjoyed training as much as playing. I think I prefer training in a way. I love training, I love goalkeeping training, and the matches were more of a nerve wracking experience if you know what I mean. Not so much the game itself but the build-up to it. Whereas Ben seems to thrive on the pressure of the game and comes alive on game day. That’s not to say he doesn’t train well, but I think his whole mindset and attitude towards everything has changed over the years and he’s become a different animal. It’s fantastic to see him doing so well and becoming the media superstar that he is!

Why do you think things didn’t really work out for Scott Loach?

It was really strange. We took Scott from Lincoln. The scouts had singled him out, he came on a bit of a trial and we had a look at him. With Aidy, again a lot of it was about his kicking, he could kick a long ball. He had a pretty solid all-round game and there were things he needed working on.

He got a chance quite early on and I think unfortunately, mentally he didn’t quite deal with the situation. I think it was more mental than it was his actual ability, the reason he didn’t push on.

At one point he was playing for the England u21s and got called up into the full squad for a game, I think Ben was involved in that game as well, and I went to Wembley. That was a real high point as a coach, to have two goalkeepers involved in the England set-up.

Scott seemed to go downhill from there. Once the crowd started to get a bit nervous with him, his performances became more nervous and it was a shame he couldn’t quite shake himself out of that lack of self-belief. I think I had more belief in him than he had in himself!

But it is tough out there. If you’re not on top of your game or 100% confident, things will find you out. He moved on to other clubs but never really hit the heights he had done at Watford.

When Beppe Sannino joined the club, he brought a ‘keeper coach with him. How did your role change?

When Beppe came in he brought five backroom staff I think, so I guessed there was going to be a goalkeeping coach coming in.

Will Jones who’s the kitman, we were really good mates and when I came off the training ground he pulled me into his little office and said, “Chambo, he’s brought a goalkeeper coach with him”. I was like, I’ve had a great run here, what can I say? It’s going to happen one day, I thought I was going to get sacked.

I got pulled in by Gianluca Nani, who was Director of Football, again expecting to get sacked. But he said we’d like you to stay, can you work alongside Paolo (De Toffol), and I was like, of course.

Paolo didn’t have a great command of English so probably needed a bit of help with translating things, not that I could speak Italian! But from speaking to him before training we could get some idea of what he was trying to get out of the session. I could explain to the ‘keepers what was needed and help with the serving. I was very much doing what Paolo needed me to do.

I was just happy to be part of the club and doing my bit really. It wasn’t ideal but I wasn’t daft enough to throw my toys out of the pram because my choices were trying to find work elsewhere or staying at a club where I had great history and still working with the first-team.

I was also doing all the interviews after the games. Beppe wasn’t confident to go in front of the cameras, so after the game I would meet with Richard Walker and Beppe, and Beppe with his pigeon English would try and explain what he wanted said about the game. It wasn’t always what I said as ultimately it’s your interview, and the guy from Sky or whoever has got their angle on what they want to ask you. So I tried to answer the questions and get the points over as best I could.

When Beppe left, we had that period with three managers in a few weeks. One was because of ill health, with Billy McKinlay it was looking like it would get back to what I would say was normal, you know British manager and good values and we were quite excited behind the scenes. But that didn’t last long for whatever reason. Slav came in and could speak English so the need for me to go and do the interviews wasn’t there so I got asked by Luke Dowling if I could go and do more work with the academy. So from then until I left in 2017, that was my role, working with the u18s initially and then when the u21s started and progressed to u23s.

I enjoyed my time in the academy as well. It was different. I can’t pretend I didn’t miss the first team, but at the same time, I met a lot of good people and a lot of good coaches who I’m still really good friends with now. So I look back on that period with really good memories as well.

What made you finally decide to leave the club?

It was a mutual agreement with the club that it was time to move on. We left on great terms in the end. It would have been a shame to leave somewhere after 21½ years under a cloud. I’ve got no bad feelings and it was all done amicably.

I had a lovely send off in the end at one of the games just before Christmas, unfortunately it wasn’t a great game as we got beat by Huddersfield. We had a lovely day as the guest of the club. That was a really nice way to finish.

You’ve mentioned you’re scouting for Burnley, are you still working with Wales as well?

Yeah I’m still doing that. Obviously the last round of games in March were all called off.

I got involved in that through David Hughes who I worked with at Watford in the u18s, a really excellent coach and someone I was still in contact with. When he left he joined the FAW and was running the u17s and the u19s. So he got me involved with the u19s and when he finished and went back into club football, Robert Page had taken over the u21s team, so he knew me quite well(!) and asked me to move up with the u21s, which again was a nice progression.

It gives me a bit of time on the grass with goalkeepers and it’s been a nice little sideline for me. Most of the time I’m out scouting now. Burnley have been great with me and allowed me to carry on. Martin Hodge who worked at Watford for a while is chief scout at Burnley and he also works with Wales, he scouts the opposition for Ryan Giggs. We’ve got the Welsh connections at Burnley!

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Quick Fire Round

Football

Favourite Ground (apart from the Vic)
Anfield.

The atmosphere and history of going to play at such an iconic place was amazing. Only ever got a draw there once, but nice to say I’ve had a clean sheet at Anfield!!
Toughest Opponent
Alan Shearer.

I do also remember the first game in the Premier League, the front two for West Ham, Paolo Di Canio and Paulo Wanchope caused us all sorts of problems.
Best Ever Player
Thierry Henry

Favourites

Favourite Food
I love food, probably Italian.
Favourite Drink
Guinness
Favourite Music
Paul Weller/The Jam/The Style Council
Favourite Holiday Destination
South Africa
First Car
Mini Clubman, probably the worst buy I’ve ever made!
Car Now
Mazda 6
Favourite TV Show
Going back a bit but Cheers was a program we looked forward to on a Friday night before a game.

I haven’t watched the second series of Sunderland til I Die but Malky Mackay said it’s worth a watch.
Favourite Film
Life of Brian