Gary first signed for the club in 1989 from Bristol Rovers for £500,000, and formed a strike partnership with Paul Wilkinson, scoring 18 goals in 43 appearances. He signed for Aston Villa on transfer deadline day the following season for £1 million. He returned to the club 1995 and made a further 29 appearances.
He now scouts for footballing talent in Europe, and spoke to Watford Legends in 2012.
Hi Gary, thanks for talking to Watford Legends. How did your move from Bristol Rovers to Watford come about?
Just the usual way really. I was scouted by someone and ended up speaking to a lot of other clubs but none really took my fancy in terms of leaving Bristol Rovers. I spoke with Wimbledon who were in the Premier League at the time; I also had a chance to go to Manchester City as well who were in the equivalent of the Championship then. Bristol Rovers were holding out for a decent fee for me at the time which was good for a club who were at League One level. They were my home town club and it was going well so I had to feel like it was someone I really wanted to leave for in order for me to go.
Why Watford ahead of Wimbledon or Man City then?
It wasn’t just Wimbledon and Man City, there were quite a few other clubs as well but Watford just felt the right club for me at that time. It was near London which was appealing for me, and having been at Bristol Rovers at League One level it was nice to go up a step and test myself at a higher level. Watford had been quite successful over the years as well so it just seemed a nice fit. I went and met the people and I really liked it and so that was it.
It was more of a gut instinct for me as opposed to my head thinking. Liverpool and Spurs were two others who were interested in me at the time so there was good interest but Watford just felt like the right move for me. The clubs agreed the fee and so when I went up I made sure I went with a completely open mind and that helped.
You were a 20 year old when you moved from your hometown of Bristol up to Watford, did it take you long to settle in?
The hardest thing to get used to was the traffic! Coming from Bristol where there wasn’t too much traffic in those days, it took some getting used to! I found myself having to leave my house an hour earlier to get anywhere. The next thing that took some getting used to was the house prices. They were crazy money even back in them days! So there I was living in my house in Bristol and quite happy, then getting a move to Watford which I was quite happy with until I realised I would have to live in a garage!
Where did you live when you were up here?
At first I rented a place in St Albans but I couldn’t really afford to buy anything there, or more to the point I didn’t want to take on that much debt. Contracts in those days weren’t designed to make you a multi-millionaire so I rented at first, and then after a little bit of time I bought a place in Garston. The prices crashed and helped me out a bit!
And how did you settle into working life at the club itself?
Really well. As a striker it is important to get off to a good start at any club and I think that applies at any level. You only have to look at Fernando Torres now to see what a settled start can do for you, or in his case the opposite. When you join a new club it doesn’t matter what you’ve done at your old club. You need to prove yourself to the new fans, your new team mates, the manager and coaches and everyone else at the club. It was a different kind of pressure. At Bristol Rovers the fans were chanting my name because I had earned the respect of the crowd and I had to do that all over again at Watford. You’re basically starting again.
Steve Harrison was your manager at Watford, how did you find him as a manager and coach?
When I joined Watford were struggling and Steve was under a fair old bit of pressure. Looking back, and I don’t mean any disrespect by this, I think he was probably more suited to coaching. I didn’t think that at the time as I was just concentrating on what I had to do and my own game. He is a very nice guy and a great coach, his sessions were always good. He is a really nice guy but I think the problem for any manager at that time was following in the footsteps of Graham Taylor. What Graham and Elton John achieved was special. Ok it was backed with Elton’s money but what Graham managed to achieve with it was very special and difficult for anyone to emulate so the pressure on Steve was immense.
We recently interviewed Paul Wilkinson and he named you as his favourite strike partner at Watford; would you reciprocate that?
Yes, Wilko was great. It was a funny time. When you look at the modern game, and I scout now for clubs as well as having held assistant manager roles and European roles etc. and it is so hard to find a decent striker now. But when you look at what Watford had at that time they had Paul Wilkinson, Gary Thompson, Dean Holdsworth, Iwan Roberts, and in my second spell we had the likes of Kevin Phillips and David Connolly.
When you look back at those names it was unbelievable what we had. But when it came to complementing my game Wilko was definitely the best. We still speak now, go scouting together and keep in touch. That’s probably why he names me, he wants me to find a couple of players for him!
At the time you played it was very common for players to be sporting a fine moustache, so why was it that you alone got bestowed with the nickname ‘Porno’?
I don’t know to be honest. I was a very young lad when I grew it and I always looked very young. I struggled to get in anywhere so it seemed like a good idea and I never got rid of it.
Have you still got it now?
Ha no I had to get rid of it. As the kids grew up they realised their dad was looking like one of these blokes from San Francisco so peer pressure forced me to get rid of it. I was aware of the nickname and my wife found it funny but I don’t think she would agree that it was an appropriate name to be honest, I didn’t exactly live up to the expectation – know what I mean?!
That is probably a conversation best left to you and your wife! Do you have any game or goals that particularly stand out for you in your time at the club?
The second spell I played in midfield so didn’t get many, but in my first spell I would probably say the first goal was the most important to get you off the mark. I enjoyed all of the goals though, I think I got 20 or so in a relatively short space of time. They were all good and I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Watford. The problem I had was that in the pre-season that I joined I tore the hamstring away from my knee. We had a friendly against Norwich and Tim Sherwood caught me from behind and that’s how I done it. It was a bad injury and that caused me to end up in a full leg plaster three times which was awful. I think I came back in about November and the team was struggling.
I hadn’t done any pre-season or any training; I literally came out of plaster and straight back in the team and played. I think I had barely played a game for Colin Lee in the league, and by the time I came back from that injury it was Steve Perryman in charge. I scored a few goals for him and then I got the move to Aston Villa. I will never forget that move as at the time I had one leg that was a heck of a lot skinnier than the other one as it had been stuck in plaster for so long and had lost all definition.
What made you decide to take the move to Villa?
If I am being totally honest with you I didn’t really want to move. I knew the timing was totally wrong as I was so unfit. I got away with it in the Championship but I could because I was used to that level and my confidence with the fans behind me was sky high, but my fitness levels were a lot lower than that! My right leg was literally half the size of my left. I then moved to Villa and they were down the bottom of the league, which is the reason strikers get signed, and the jump between the Championship and the Premiership is the biggest jump – always has been and always will be. So I’m moving up to the hardest level, to a team that are struggling and I’m completely unfit and my legs are different sizes! It was transfer deadline day and the move came right by the deadline.
At the time my heart was telling me no, I wasn’t ready. But when I got up to Villa and saw the size of the stadium etc. it is very hard to turn it down as you know there is a chance you will never get that opportunity again.
Did Watford lean on you at all bearing in mind there was £1 million on offer to the club?
No not at all. They were really good in fairness and were happy either way. Steve Perryman was the manager and I think he was ok with me going as it meant he could get a few players of his own in. For me to have been as unfit as I was it was a good deal for the club. When I said about being in a full leg plaster and not playing until November without training, I mean literally not one single training session which is unheard of. So the move was a good offer for the club. But as for them putting pressure on me to move, absolutely not.
You came back in 1995 when Glenn Roeder signed you and deployed you in a midfield role. What made you come back to the club?
I just liked the club, I always like Watford. I enjoyed QPR as well as we had some success there, though I broke my leg twice which wasn’t the best thing to do, and any clubs you enjoy being at you always have a fondness for and it was the same with Watford so it was easy to come back.
How did you find it when you came back?
Fine to be honest. The biggest shock was dropping down a league as opposed to going back to an old club. By that point the First Division had turned into the Premiership and the hype of it was massive and very different to the exposure given to the Championship but apart from that it was fine. I played in midfield which was slightly different. Kevin Phillips was up front at the time. Glenn asked if we could play together and we gave it a go, I think it was against L***n and it went ok. We played a few more games together and then I got a hernia which was terrible timing. The physio at the time thought it was a groin strain and that he could manage it but it was a double hernia.
How did you find Glenn Roeder as your manager?
I played with Glenn as well so already knew him and liked him as a manager. I think the year before I arrived he had played with a diamond which was quite forward thinking then and a bit different so he wasn’t afraid to try new things out. Every manager will get judged on results at the end of the day but he done some good things for Watford and made some good signings. I’m not including myself as one of those by the way! Kevin Phillips was a great signing as well as some of the younger lads he brought through.
And what is the day job for you now?
I work for a football agency company after spending three years at Stoke as a scout. We look after a lot of the top players such as Steve Gerrard, Jack Wilshere, Scotty Parker, Arteta, Cahill. It is a top agency and I set up the European side of it for them. I don’t do any agency work myself I just go and find players from all round Europe and then link them up with the agency. I suppose the simple way of putting it is that I am a scout for an agency.
What I was finding when I was scouting was that I had people phoning me up all the time trying to get me to help them out but I couldn’t help them all. It’s been a really successful time and we’ve helped to bring some top names into the English league, Jose Enrique at Liverpool is another one that we look after.
It sounds like apart from being Watford’s number 9 you have the best job in the world, flying around Europe watching football.
It’s amazing. I done 12 years as assistant manager and coach and to be honest I needed a rest from the results business. I’ve worked with some great people and done some good things at different clubs, and along with the people I’ve worked with over the years we have made some serious money for clubs down the years with some of the players we have brought in. For example at Bristol Rovers we had Ellington, Jason Roberts, Zamora, and Barry Hayles. All have proved to be top players.
In your opinion, what has gone wrong with Nathan Ellington? You have worked with him and seen the undoubted scoring ability that he has got but it just seemed to stop.
Some times their minds wander to other things. Modern footballers are very different to the old footballers. Players can become financially very secure in a very short space of time; just a couple of years in the Premiership will get you safe and sometimes that can just knock the edge off people. That happens a lot now and I think it will continue to happen to players in the future. Back when I was playing you had to play at the very highest level for a long time to get that security. I was lucky and played in the Premiership and financially I done ok but it was nothing like it is now.
When they start to go back down the leagues the edge isn’t there. Nath was always a great lad that we got from Walton and Hersham and he had a real hunger about him. He worked his way up and scored a lot of goals but he seems to have lost his edge for whatever reason. Also, sometimes moves just don’t work out. A lot goes with a move; the wife doesn’t settle, the area isn’t right, playing is just a part of any move. Look at Torres for a prime example.
Quick Fire Round
|Favourite Ground (apart from the Vic)|
|Best Ever Player|
|Team you supported as a boy|
|Anything, as proved by my belly!|
|Any easy listening|
|Favourite Holiday Destination|
|Favourite TV Show|
|Only Fools and Horses|
|Never happier than when|
|Desert Island Woman|