Arguably the finest player ever to play for Watford, John joined Watford at the age of 17 after being spotted playing for non-league Sudbury Court. He went on to make nearly 300 appearances for the club over six seasons, before joining Liverpool in 1987. At Liverpool he was named PFA Player of the Year twice also helping them win the title and FA Cup. He also won 79 England caps.
Since retiring as a player, John has worked as a coach and in the media. He spoke to Watford Legends in the summer of 2018, shortly after the documentary, Poetry in Motion was shown on BT Sport.
Thanks for talking to Watford Legends. You’ve recently released a documentary about your career. What was the thinking behind the documentary?
I got approached to see if I would like to do a documentary which was different to just talking about me and football and I thought, why not? Good for posterity and for the kids and the grandkids!
The story of how you were discovered is quite well known. What were your first memories of Watford?
I remember I was training with Queens Park Rangers at the same time as a 16 or 17 year old, and they were a bigger team than Watford at that time, especially in their own mind, so they had a different attitude in the way they treated me.
When I used to go training on a Thursday evening with Tom Walley, Tom was caring and looked after all the boys. I wasn’t a superstar, no-one was back then. They cared about all the players and I had a really good feeling about Watford. Bertie Mee came to see my Dad at home the season before I signed and said we’re going to look after him and stuff like that, and Dad had met Bertie before in Jamaica when he was managing Arsenal.
I just got a better feeling for Watford in terms of the way they looked after young players, and that bore fruit with Steve Terry, Kenny Jackett, myself, Nigel Callaghan getting into the team and Graham Taylor used to look after us.
So my early memories of Watford are completely different to my early memories of Queens Park Rangers. When the time came for me to sign a contract, not that QPR offered me one, but even if they had, and I was a QPR fan when I first came to England, it was always going to be Watford.
In the documentary there is footage of a televised game against Norwich in the old Division Two – was that one of the first times you were noticed on a bigger stage?
I don’t know, it’s not something that I thought about.
I suppose that was quite early on in my first season, it was on Match of the Day. I think football was changing in that it was showing not just matches but focusing more on players.
If you look at what’s going on with Sky now, it’s nothing like that, but I remember a time when Jimmy Greaves would come and film us training. It was a time when we were becoming more known to the wider audience rather than just to Watford fans.
You mention Graham Taylor’s influence early on in your career, how important was he in your development?
After my father, he was the greatest influence on my life and my career. Once again, you don’t know anything else, to know what would have happened if I’d gone to QPR or to Liverpool before. This is my life and this is all I know.
But I’ve always said, I was so pleased with how my career went in terms of me being at Watford for six seasons under Graham Taylor before I moved to Liverpool. It felt very natural for me to be with someone like Graham Taylor. I came from a very disciplined household, my Dad was very strict and so was Graham Taylor. We know what football was like back in the early 80s, the footballing culture for players, drinking and going out. I would like to think had I gone to another club I would not have fallen into that way of life, but you can never tell. It felt natural for me to be in that environment.
We’ve been told you liked a burger?
I still do! Everybody did, it was the normal thing in football. I didn’t drink beer but that was about it.
Obviously the Maracana goal is probably the highlight of your England career, but I remember also a brilliant cameo you had in the World Cup in Mexico. What are your memories of that?
I was just delighted to get on!
We were 2-0 down, going out of the World Cup and I’d not been on the pitch. I remember thinking everyone wants to talk about going to a World Cup, playing in a World Cup, and here I am at a World Cup and I’ve not been part of it. Viv Anderson’s been to two World Cups and not been on the pitch so how can he feel part of a World Cup if you don’t play as much as you’re part of the squad?
So when Bobby said to get warmed up I was just so happy. Also to go on to the pitch with Diego Maradona, who is my favourite player of all time, no matter what happened even if I’d just tripped and fallen over, I’d have been delighted to have been on the same pitch as Diego.
I remember I used to warm up in a lot of the games. Bobby used to get so engrossed in games and was so enthusiastic, even in the first fifteen minutes if something happened he’d be saying to get warmed up, so of course you think you’re going on. And of course, Mexico, a hundred degrees, you’re warming up for fifteen minutes, you’re sweating and Bobby’s forgotten you’re warming up and you have to sit back down! After a while, people stopped sitting next to him as he’d just look at someone and say to get warmed up.
In the last game I was actually sitting outside the bench and he looked along the line and said get warmed up and I looked to see who he was talking to and it was me. So I knew I was going on. It was just a feeling of complete and utter joy to have gone on the pitch in a World Cup.
Of course in 1990 I went to another World Cup, but at that time it could be your last and only World Cup so to have got on was special.
You featured Viv Anderson in the documentary, but didn’t show footage of the game against Arsenal in the cup quarter-final when you gave him a bit of a roasting…will that be in the DVD version?!
Ha, well I’m not part of what was shown in the DVD! I don’t remember that. Was that the game we beat them 3-1, the game where everyone stopped and Luther went down the other end and scored?
Viv’s a good friend of mine and was a very good player.
Looking at your move to Liverpool, comparing to the modern game, it’s unlikely you’d have stayed six seasons at a club like Watford before moving to a bigger club. Do you think you’d have been as successful at Liverpool without the six years at Watford?
No. Players play five good games and get transferred for £20 million.
What Liverpool did, and not just with myself; Peter Beardsley who was their most expensive player was at Newcastle for five or six years, Ray Houghton at Oxford for six years, John Aldridge, they looked at you to see if you had the consistency over a period of time before you come into the cauldron that is Anfield, to know you can handle this pressure. So they didn’t make many mistakes with the players they signed. They looked at you over a long period of time to see you had not just the quality but the consistency.
Now, and we’ve seen it in the past, Jack Rodwell left Everton to go to Man City, Scott Sinclair, these players who did great things for six months and then get transferred, and are they able to handle the pressure?
That’s why I’m glad for Raheem Sterling. I think he went to Man City too soon but with Pep he’s showing what he can do. Football now is completely different, agents are encouraging you to move to make money, rather than thinking what’s right for your career.
As Graham Taylor said to me when Luther went to Italy. I loved Italian football, I was 20 and I’d been in the team for three years and was playing well. And he said listen, you’re not ready, I’ll tell you when you’re ready to go somewhere and when Liverpool came in, that was it.
Would you say that first Liverpool team was the best you’ve ever played in?
Yes. Of course Rushie came back the following year as well. I think probably the first three years. Those first two or three years it felt like we’d been playing together forever.
Liverpool also looked at the players who could use their initiative, because we didn’t work on anything tactically. They didn’t do any coaching. That’s where they needed the players who could think for themselves, and it comes with the experience of playing for a period of time, rather than with young players and saying this is what you do.
Ronnie Moran’s favourite saying was work it out yourself. It was a real Liverpool thing and people who haven’t been there wouldn’t understand it, it would make no sense, you’re the coach, you tell us what’s going wrong. That’s a real Bill Shankly and Liverpool thing.
Was it strange the first visit back to Watford – the team was certainly a lot different by then!
It was nice to go back because I had lots of friends there, you know, Ann Swanson and people that I knew. But it’s a game and you’re playing for Liverpool against Watford. You want Watford to do well, but this is your team and you’re experienced enough not to let your emotion get into it.
Did I score, I can’t remember?
It was a 20 yarder I think. I’m sure I celebrated.
I can’t understand players who don’t celebrate because they used to play for the club. It’s a modern thing, back then Watford fans wouldn’t think anything of celebrating. Of course had I played for Liverpool then played for Watford and scored against Liverpool, the Watford fans would want me to celebrate.
You talked about the differences in training between Watford under Graham Taylor and Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish. When you coached, what was your preference in terms of how you worked on the training pitch?
Definitely Graham Taylor. I’ve never coached players like the Liverpool players we had…we didn’t need coaching!
My own ethos on coaching has to be that anyway. It has to be about organising the team, getting a template in place about the players in each position, and as much as you give them responsibility in terms of expressing yourself, it has to be within the framework of what the team does. Not necessarily the same way that Graham Taylor did it in terms of the way he played, but the same rational and perception behind it of every player knowing what to do for the full 90 minutes and when the ball is in certain positions.
Even if you look at the way Barcelona play, it isn’t just off the cuff football, they have certain movements, certain positions they have to be in to pass the ball and how to pass the ball. So from a coaching perspective I wouldn’t take much from Liverpool!
You’ve seen the different management styles of Graham Taylor at Watford, where he effectively ran the whole club, and worked as a head coach at Celtic with Kenny Dalglish working above you as a Director of Football, a set-up similar to how Watford is now run. Do you prefer the hands on coaching or the management side?
That’s similar to how football is now. I’d love to be a manager 40 years ago. Of course managers have got no chance now, have they? When they’re winning it’s all down to the team, when they lose it’s all down to you. You don’t have the power to manage the way you did before.
Graham Taylor would manage that because he would adapt. But Graham Taylor back then wouldn’t be able to manage now, because players would say they’re not going to do that. Back then when Graham Taylor told you to run through that wall, you did. Managers had much more power, and players were accountable for the performances and the fans would give the manager the power.
To give you an example, Kenny Dalglish, King Kenny, if he was disrespectful to Bob Paisley he’d be dropped from the team. They’d lose five games in a row and the fans would say keep him out the team. Whereas now, drop him from the team, lose one game, sack the manager and bring Kenny back in. Players are much more powerful now, you have to be a different type of a manager, to manage and caress people’s egos to make them like you. If they don’t like you, they can get you the sack.
If I’m going to be a manager now, I’d have to adapt, but if you ask me my preference, if I’m going to get the sack, let me sign the players!
You were invited back to the Tales from the Vic event recently. The reception you got was fantastic, you must have been thrilled.
I live in Liverpool now, my family are all there, have been for thirty years, so I’m a northerner now. But of course Watford has a special place in my heart and I still have a lot of friends down there.
The difficulty is, I hardly go to Anfield because I work away so often. I suppose Watford fans ask why I don’t go back, and it’s because I’m never even in the area even to watch Liverpool play. I’m still in touch with Luther, Kenny and some of the old boys.
Football has changed. Liverpool isn’t the club it used to be. Watford isn’t the club it used to be. If you look at Watford over the past five years, it’s not the club I knew, because it’s not the football I know. It’s not that Watford are different to anyone else, in fact they’re quite different in the way the club is run by the owners, but this is modern football.
The players had the relationship with the fans, the family atmosphere, Junior Hornets, players going to pubs to push over piles of pennies, the pancake race around the town centre, singing for the fans in Baileys and everything we used to do. But it’s not just Watford, it’s modern football and I think the balance is not quite right.
Quick Fire Round
|Favourite Ground (apart from the Vic)|
|Best Ever Player|
|Team You Support|
|I grew up in Jamaica so I didn’t really support anybody. When I came I used to watch Arsenal or QPR, so you could say QPR for one year.|
|Favourite Holiday Destination|
|South Africa, Camps Bay in Cape Town in particular.|
|Favourite TV Show|
|Coronation Street, Eastenders, Emmerdale. All the soaps!|