Midfielder Les joined the club from Oxford United in 1980 and went on to make over 150 appearances for the club. He captained the team in the FA Cup Final in 1984. He moved on to Reading in 1986.
Now working back at his first club, Oxford United, Les spoke to Watford Legends in 2010.
Hi Les. Thanks for talking to Watford Legends. What made you make the switch from Oxford to Watford?
I had gone through the youth system at Oxford and we had had success. We had a good bunch of young pros but for me Oxford was a stepping stone to step up. At the time I was playing really well even though the team wasn’t being that successful. At the time we were in the old Third Division and I was keen to try myself at a higher level.
The manager had a word with me and told me and told me that two teams were interested, Chesterfield and Watford. I knew that Watford were in the next division up and straight away I looked at the table and at the time Watford were sixth bottom of the second division, but were still in the next division up from Chesterfield. So I decided to go and talk to Watford and Graham Taylor.
And what did you make of Graham Taylor?
Well he just sold the club to me. He told me that as well as me he was looking to sign Pat Rice from Arsenal and Gerry Armstrong from Spurs. It was a good move for me. I was going to the next division up and I think I had out stayed my time at Oxford.
You joined Watford in the middle of their whirlwind of going up through all the divisions. How did you settle in to that?
It had its ups and downs. My debut was against Luton which was a massive match, but I didn’t realise the magnitude of the Watford Luton thing. I was sub for the midweek game and came on when we were one nil down. I remember Malcolm Poskett put in a pacey low cross. I was on the goal line, and as I went to hit it the ball went through my legs, and I had missed an absolute sitter. If I had scored I would have been a hero, but unfortunately we lost.
I played another game and then was cup tied for the famous thrashing of Southampton. So I did wonder to myself if I was going to struggle to get in to the team. But Graham put me in the side and I was an ever present from there on.
Having moved up from the division below, did you eventually find yourself comfortable in that league?
I did, although I must admit it took me a while to settle in. I think because I had been at Oxford for so long I had been very comfortable with my surroundings. I had gone from playing in front of 4-5,000 at Oxford to playing in front of 15,000 every week at Watford. I was a bit in awe of it with some big names playing alongside me like Luther and Ross Jenkins.
At Oxford I used to play wide right. I had no pace but was clever with the ball, and when I joined Watford I was put in to central midfield, which was Graham’s decision. But then after half a dozen games I really kicked on and I enjoyed myself.
You were Player of the Year in 1981-82, the year Watford were promoted to the top flight. Did you really find yourself getting in to the groove of playing for the club?
I did. We had such a good group with experienced heads like Luther and young lads like John Barnes coming through. There were still a few lads like Ian Bolton and Steve Sims who had come through the leagues with Watford from the Fourth Division. It was a great bunch and we had such a belief that we would always win at home.
How did you enjoy your relationship with the Watford fans?
I think it grew and I think they appreciated me for the unseen dirty work. I worked hard and won tackles and gave the ball to the more flair players to do the attacking. The likes of Cally and Barnes got a good service from me also. In addition I scored a few goals too, and often they’d be the only goal in the game, so my goals were usually important. So I think the Watford fans appreciated what I was doing.
Well I think it is the mentality of Watford fans that the results may not always be wins, but there should never be a lack of determination and effort, so I guess you fitted that mould well.
I agree. And then on top of that Watford were doing such things as rolling out the first family enclosure, and there were schemes with Benskins where Watford fans would get a free pint if the team won, and often we’d be in the pubs with them. At the time many clubs didn’t have much of a connection with the fans, but we did, and Graham has to take a lot of credit for that.
Did you have good relationships with your team mates?
We all mixed together really well, and I think that goes hand in hand with a successful team. I couldn’t pick out one player that I got on especially well with as we all got on so well. Pat Rice was Godfather to my daughter, and Luther was Godfather to my son.
I still speak to many of the fellas now and see quite a lot of them. As I am still in the game I am in touch with most of them lot!
How did the team settle in to the top flight?
I thought we settled well and we took a lot of other teams by surprise. We weren’t looked at as being a good footballing side; in fact we were labelled quite quickly as a long ball side. But if you look at some of those players we had, they went on to bigger things, and played internationally, so there must have been something there in our game that helped our own players do well. But I think reporters and so on couldn’t see what we were trying to do.
We played some really good football in that first year and were very worthy runners up to Liverpool. We were definitely the second best team that year.
We all remember the famous picture of Graham, Elton and the team on the pitch as the announcement comes through that Watford had secured second spot. How did you enjoy that moment?
It was a great moment for the club but a tinge of disappointment for me personally as three games before the end of the season I had broken a toe, or in today’s money, my metatarsal. So I missed the last game of the season against Liverpool. It was a fantastic feeling to see a small club like Watford come second and be above the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal. I’ll never forget that I was a part of that.
You have done something that most of us Watford fans would trade in our children for, and that was to lead a Watford team out as captain at Wembley. How did that feel given the circumstances with Wilf’s sending off at Luton?
It took me a while to get my head around it as I think realistically I was fourth choice. Wilf was suspended, and Pat Rice and Steve Sims were also injured. Having said that you can guess how I felt leading up to the game.
I was in three minds as to what I was going to do with the cup if we had won. I didn’t know whether I should lift it myself, give it to Wilf or give it to the chairman. In all that time I had been at the club I had never been captain, so I knew I was captain a bit by default, and it did cross my mind what to do. I don’t know what I would have done when I look back now. I still feel honoured by it.
When did you find out yourself that you were to captain the side?
Two weeks before. Simsy and Pat Rice both had long term injuries, so I knew early on.
And how did you find the game?
We had such a young side it was very difficult. I think I was one of the oldest with Steve Sherwood, but all the players were in their early twenties.
On the day I felt that personally I played well. The team as a whole I think froze a bit. We had enjoyed a bit of an indifferent season, but that said, we always had a threat across our front four of Barnes, Reilly, Johnston and Callaghan. They got us out of trouble time and time again, but on the day the front four didn’t function as well as it could have done.
I think on the day the best chances fell to me though, but I didn’t convert. Olly Phillips at the Watford Observer said that the clock above the Rookery should be presented to me due to how many times I hit it in my time at Watford!
Well did you know that our friends at From the Rookery End recently found the clock at the Watford Museum?
Oh did they? Maybe I would put it on the side of my house and use it for target practice!
You ended up leaving in 1986 when you went to Reading. Why did you leave?
It wasn’t really my choice. In Cup Final season I damaged my cartilage against Oxford and I probably wasn’t the same player. And I think that GT thought that himself. He brought in Brian Talbot, and that was the first time I had felt rejected in football. When Graham told me that Reading were interested, and I knew that my first team opportunities were going to be limited, I decided to go.
So it was a bit of a mutual decision, but it was time to look on. Reading offered me a decent deal; I was about 30 at the time, so was worth doing.
I didn’t take it that well but in hindsight it was the right move, and the next day I phoned Graham and thanked him for helping me to achieve everything I wanted to in football.
As a youngster I always wanted to achieve my dream of playing at the top and playing against the top teams, and in Europe and Wembley. The only aspect where I failed was that I never managed to play for my country. But everything else I did, and I did it at Watford.
I ended up going back to Wembley with Reading and beating Luton 3-1, so when people introduce me as the man who captained Watford at Wembley and lost, I remind them that I went there a few years later with Reading and won against Luton!
You left Colchester in 1990. What have you been up to for the last 20 years?
I was one of these players where I knew my legs had gone and I had had enough of playing. I knew I had to work for a living and so I got a job at the local hospital. I worked there for five years and I found it really interesting and enjoyable.
The school where my children were wanted me to run an after school football club. The man at the school also knew the Youth Development Officer at Oxford, and from there I got a chance to coach one of the Under 16 teams and from there I have been Head of Youth at Oxford for the last 16 years.
I look to bring in good talent that we can either sell on or who can have an impact in our first team.
So although you had enough of playing you’re still happy to be involved in the game?
I love it. Football still has its sacrifices, weekends are always written off but I thoroughly enjoy it.
Well long may that continue. Thanks a lot Les.
My pleasure, thanks for talking with me.
Quick Fire Round
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