Luther had three playing spells at Watford, the most notable of which was between 1975 and 1983 as the Hornets went from Division 4 to Division 1. He was then the top division’s leading scorer with 27 goals before joining AC Milan for £1 Million. He returned to Watford a year later and remained until late 1988 when he joined AFC Bournemouth. He returned to Watford for a third spell in 1991.
He holds the record for the most number of total appearances and goals as well as the respective league records. In total, he played 503 games in all competitions for the club (415 in the League), scoring 186 goals (148 in the League). He also won 14 England caps, scoring a hat-trick on his full debut against Luxembourg.
He was part of Graham Taylor’s coaching staff in the late 1990s, and was the first inductee into the Watford Hall of Fame. Watford Legends interviewed Luther in 2009.
Firstly Luther, can you tell us how you came to be a Watford player?
Well at the time I would have been 15 I think. There was a guy at my school called Paul Kitson, and when we started the next term at school he had just completed his first year at Watford. He was a bit older than me. I was sitting talking to him in the common room and I was asking him all about it, and he told me that the club was actually holding an open trial session at RAF Stanmore. About eight or nine of us from the school team went down there on the Thursday.
We got the train down there and walked into the place excited as anything. It was a bit of an eye opener as none of us had ever done any proper training before. All we had ever done was play football in the street, which we done almost every day. Our skills were honed by nothing more than playing football at lunchtime, after school in a field and in the early evenings in the street. That is where it all started from. Wally Fieldings and Roy Clare, who are both sadly no longer with us, were the first people from the club we met and it was them that took the training session.
About two weeks after that session, they picked I think four of us to go down and play in a trial game. It was an under 17’s game played at Hatch End against Southend. We won 3-1 and I scored twice. Seems like a long time ago now!
What can you remember about your debut?
It was against Swansea I think. Whoever it was against, I was crap. I was rubbish, absolutely awful! It was difficult because I was only told about it on the Friday night, and at that point I hadn’t done a lot of work with the first team. I had watched them, but watching them is one thing and doing it is quite another. Like with any team there are little cliques within it and they sometimes play between themselves almost. I remember the goal I scored though. We won 2-1 and I scored up at the Vicarage Road end. The ball was played into my feet from out on the right. I took one touch and nudged it out to my left, spun and hit it into the top corner from the edge of the box. Apart from that moment, I was crap in that game. I only touched the ball about a dozen times throughout the game.
Mike Keen had actually made noises about getting rid of me, and it was being discussed by all sorts of people at the club. Tom Walley, who was still a player but had involvement in the youth team, said to Graham Taylor that he should keep me and give me a chance. Thankfully Graham listened to that advice.
At the end of the season Graham arranged a meeting with everyone, and wanted to meet every single player on an individual basis. We had about 15 minutes each with him. I got called in and he told me to sit down. He was in this great big chair and I was on a little stool, so he was really looking down on me. I was only 17 so I was as nervous as anything. With a new manager coming in you don’t know what’s going to happen, and everything seems in slow motion. He had a piece of paper in his hands and he was reading that as we sat in silence. He then looked straight at me and said my full name 3 times with a couple of seconds pause in between each time. After the third time of saying it, he then said ‘well son with a name like that you are going to have to be a star aren’t you!’
He then told me that the previous manager was going to let me go but Tom Walley said I was worth giving a chance so that was what they were going to do. The rest is history!
That then gave you your first stint at Watford which included plenty of goals and also international recognition.
Yes I played a bit in the under 21’s. I think my first game was away at Wales. That was Bryan Robson’s last game at under 21 level as he was so good including scoring the winner in that game, that he got taken up to the full England squad after that game. It was no surprise though; he was a class act with unbelievable amounts of energy.
How did you find playing for England?
I found it a bit difficult at first, especially in training. The squad was and is even now made up of players from only a few teams. Back then the squad was mainly players from Arsenal, Spurs or United, so when you get players like me and Mark Chamberlain coming from Watford and Stoke you get the impression that the other players don’t really take you seriously. You feel like they are of the impression that instead of being there on merit and having the quality, that you are just there to see if you are good enough. It’s almost like you had to prove yourself to the others in training.
Make no mistake though; there is nothing better than playing for England. The very best bit is getting the phone call telling you that you have been selected to represent your country. That is amazing. After that call though I took my mindset back to what it always had been – I was just going to play football. It was another door open for me but at the end of the day put simply I was just going to play football.
England at the time was in this stage where they thought they were a lot better than what they actually were. If you remember at the time the England games were awful to watch. There was always a lot of the ball but without much else. We never ran at the opposition with the ball. It would just be passing it from one side to the other through your midfield four and keep doing that until we gave the ball away.
For the games like that that are all about possession but no end product, they are awful to watch from the fans point of view. What are they like to play in?
Awful. Horrible to play in. When you play for your club you have a system that you understand and also continually work on and try to improve at. When you then try and adapt that into the England set up it invariably doesn’t work. You would make the runs you were used to making, at the times you were used to making them and most of the time the ball won’t come.
Generally at club level for every ten runs you make, you expect the ball to come over three or maybe four times. In England games that wouldn’t happen. All you would get is a midfielder giving it to you to feet and wanting it straight back. It was frustrating. You need to get in behind the opposition and start pulling them about. When you do that they will start to panic.
Back at Watford, what was it like steamrolling your way through the divisions?
What Graham Taylor brought in to Watford was straight forward, simple thinking. We played to our strengths. It was as simple as that. Any successful organisation or team is successful because they play and work to their strengths. The strength of our team was the forwards. Our centre forwards and wingers. Goals win games, and scoring goals is what strikers did. So the remit of the team was to get the ball into areas where we could score goals from. It sounds too simple but that is what we did!
Every game was exciting to watch and to play in because every game we played, we went out to win it. We never went out looking for a draw. The opposition always knew that they would have to be on their game if they were going to survive the day. Most teams couldn’t handle it. We were making defenders have to really concentrate on defending and we found that most of them couldn’t do it. As we went through the divisions we really gained a reputation as being this supposed long ball team. We then started to come up against the teams that play football supposedly the way it is meant to be played – what a load of bollocks that is. They always wanted to show that they played football the right way and were a lot better than long ball Watford.
So we were quite happy to drop off them and let them tip tap it around to each other, and then all of a sudden as soon as they lost it we would hit them hard and fast and score a goal. Then go through the same thing of let them tap it about, lose it, we score…they always fell into the same trap. Every time. They were all brain washed into believing that we would hit it long and chase it.
Because they didn’t fully understand what we did, they didn’t know how to stop it. However we knew when the ball was going to be put in the box and where in the box it would be. We knew that as soon as our central midfield got the ball we should be ready up front, because the midfielders would knock it to a winger and they in turn would put it normally at the back stick where either me or big Ross would be to either nod it in or nod it back across goal to the 2nd striker. It was that simple.
Controversial question, who gave you the best service from the wing? Cally or Barnes?
Very difficult. Very, very difficult! They both had different strengths!
Barnesy could cross the ball with no space at all which was a special talent, where as Cally could bend the ball around his man to exactly where you wanted it. They both had different but very special strengths. The only way I could answer that question would be to find out who created most of my goals! Individually Barnesy was the most talented, but Cally had some great strengths in his game. Barnesy was the better overall player though.
A few of the other players from that team of the early 80’s have said that they believe Cally should have done better with the talent that he had. Would you agree with that?
Yes. Cally had an arrogance about him with the way he played, but he also never understood or knew just how good a player he really was or what the real strengths of his game were. Cally was always keen to prove to people how good a player he was. When players do that they fall into a trap of doing much more than they need to and that is exactly what he was doing. He would beat his man and then wait for them to catch him just so he could beat them again.
For me when you beat a man you should leave them in your wake so next time you take them on they really shit themselves, where as if you give them that second chance and you lose the ball or they get a nick on it then it gives them that little bit of confidence. Barnesy had it right. Once he beat his man that was it, you didn’t have a chance of getting the ball back.
And then came the end of the first era and you moved on to AC Milan. 25 years on, how do you feel about that move? If you had your time again would you make the same move?
No problem at all. I would do the same move again. One of the reasons I went to Milan was that I had just had a fantastic season at Watford, one where I got the opportunity to represent my country as well as being the top scorer in English football. So that was the perfect time to do it. At the time the opportunity came along, everything said to me that I should go. If you are going to leave a club that has been very successful for a move abroad, there are only a handful of teams you would go to such as Madrid, Barcelona or AC Milan.
Although it was certainly the right time to do it, it was still a tough decision. It was very late in the evening when I decided that I was going to go for it. Graham was very good about it. He told me that they had agreed a deal between the clubs and that if I wanted to go then he would wish me well, but if I turned it down and decided to stay then great. That was great because it meant there was no pressure and it was also entirely my decision. I have very few regrets in my life because I like to have all the facts about everything I do before I make a decision. That goes for anything I do in life. Therefore if I do make any errors then they are completely down to me and nobody else. I like to prepare and get things right because I hate looking back on decisions and wishing I had done things differently.
What is your take on your time out there? You scored 5 goals in 34 games which is below your ratio for the rest of your career.
It is similar to the England situation really. If you don’t create chances, you won’t score goals. Simple as that. They had no big names out there at the time either. The only one was Franco Baresi and he was only 18 or 19 at the time. The other big players had left when they got relegated for the match fixing scandal. They had just got back to the top division but didn’t have the money to go and attract big name players from other top European clubs.
The recruitment of me was simply looking to see who had scored the most goals in England, saw it was me so signed me. But if they don’t have creative players to set up goals for me then it was always going to be difficult. Going over there I was confident that if I had chances then I would put them away. In pre-season we played five games and I scored nine goals. That wet my appetite and I couldn’t wait for the season to start, I was very excited.
But the moment the league season started the emphasis went on keeping the ball. It was ridiculous. I would get the ball to my feet and have a defender get touch tight on me, which for me was brilliant because I knew I could lay it off then spin off and get in behind the defender ready to be put through on goal. But I would lay the ball off, make my run and the ball wouldn’t come because it had been played back to the sweeper!
Whilst you were out in Milan, Watford made it to Wembley. Does that stick in your throat at all?
I was and still am gutted about it. I was at the club all told from about ’74 or ’75. I had helped the club get to Europe but then never played a part, and then watched them get to Wembley and wasn’t there for it. Two of the biggest things to ever happen to the club and I wasn’t there for either, it was gutting.
After a year at Milan you came back to Vicarage Road, was it strange coming back?
It was a strange experience yes. The deal was all done but we were waiting for a few bits of paperwork and what have you to be done which meant that the deal officially being done was a week or so after. In that week that we had to wait I wasn’t allowed to train at the club, so I was just going for long runs and doing various drills in Cassiobury Park on my own.
When the deal finally went through and I was allowed to get back in the swing of things, I found myself back at the same club but with different players. A lot of the lads had moved on and been replaced by younger players coming through the ranks. So the club was still the same and being run the same way but the personnel was very different. Because of that it means that despite only being away for a year it still takes a bit of time to get used to it again.
I wasn’t a shoe-in for the team, either. Johnston and Reilly were scoring goals and whilst they were doing that Graham was never going to drop them, understandably. But that wasn’t a problem to me because I knew my chance would come and that I would take it. I have always been used to competition as one position Graham always bought new players for was up front, so it was nothing I hadn’t faced before.
What would you say is your best goal in a Watford shirt?
It has to be Old Trafford, 1978. The second goal which was the winner. We used to do a lot of work on patterns of play, and that was one of the occasions where what we had worked on was exactly what we done in a game. Down the flank where Ross would retrieve it, and lay it back to Dennis Booth. I knew exactly where Boothy was going to put it and when, which meant I could time my run to perfection. Boothy did what I knew he would and put it perfectly between the two centre backs and I managed to score from it.
Make no mistake though; as much as it was me that scored the goals that night, it was a phenomenal TEAM effort from back to front. We got battered towards the end but everyone dug deep, sucked it in and took anything they could throw at us. That was probably the best team performance I have played in.
What was your best individual performance in the yellow shirt?
There was a game when we played West Brom at home, I scored two that day but couldn’t get the hat-trick. A fortnight after that I got the four against Sunderland, probably one of those two games would be my best.
You came back to the club in the 90’s with Kenny Jackett on the coaching side of things, how was that?
Firstly, the club was a completely different place. Right from the board room down it was completely different. Before I came in as a coach I had already been working at the club from the previous Easter on the marketing side of things. It was a one day a week role that quickly became more, I was trying to get new companies on board for different sponsorship packages and what have you.
Because of that role I was watching a few of the games at the time, and you could see it wasn’t ideal. A lot of players had ability but no confidence, where as some just were not good enough. When we came in it seemed to shake some of them up and we got a few results, but as we all know now it culminated in that game at home to Leicester on the last day of the season and we just didn’t have enough to do it.
I remember we played Ipswich a few weeks before that game and we were winning but then the players legs went and it was all just too much for them. It was after that game that we really knew the game was up. One of the biggest problems was that the players were not fit enough. One thing you knew with a Graham Taylor side was that they would match anyone for fitness, so to find the players lacking like they were was a shock but there is little you can do about it at that time of the season.
The very top players can get away with less fitness sometimes because they make up for it with ability and are wiser as to how and when they spend their energy. At that time though we had average players and they simply were not fit enough. Some of them mentally were not tough enough either, so by the time their legs had gone their minds had as well and they were like zombies. If you believe that you have every chance of getting something out of the game up until the very last kick of the game then you are very hard to beat.
After we got relegated, we knew we had to prepare well for the next season. So we looked at the whole squad individually and the performances over the last 18 months or so, as well as their injury record and what type of injuries they were. We also needed to know how long they took to recover from games or injuries. After looking at that we decided there were a few players who were never going to be fit enough to play for Watford Football Club and to be the players we wanted them to be, so they went straight away.
Would you be prepared to name who they were?
No, that wouldn’t be fair. Some of the players we wanted to get rid of were on longer contracts so we were stuck with them, and so we done our best to get them up to our required level of fitness. The club had no money as well so everything was done very carefully with who we had in the squad. The fitness thing was far and away the biggest problem though. The majority of injuries the players were getting were soft tissue injuries and strains which showed they weren’t being prepared properly. If you prepare properly you can eliminate 90% or more of those types of injuries. So pre season preparation was about strength and avoiding the soft tissue injuries. Contact injuries still happened but they always will as that is part of the game.
Is there any one job on the backroom team you prefer to others? You have done different jobs at vastly different levels through the game, such as striking coach at Portsmouth to manager at Chesham.
One of my favourites was when Graham made me Reserve team manager. I had been working with Tom Walley with the reserves for 18 months anyway so I knew them well, and then Graham put me in charge of them properly. I loved it. I love being in control of it and making the decisions, and being charged with trying to get the best out of them. We only just missed out on winning the league that year that I had them.
I remember clearly we lost at home to Ipswich in a game we never should have lost by giving away two stupid goals, and in the end we lost the league to Derby by one point. I had an inkling at the time that that was going to be the game that cost us and it did. All I tried to do with the Reserves was mirror what the first team did; for example if we had an away mid week game we would be in early afternoon to go through set pieces, have a proper pre-match meal before jumping on the coach and going to the game. That was the routine for the first team, and I wanted my players to get in that same routine so if and when they did get called up, it was nothing too different from what they already knew.
During your time as Reserve manager, were there any players that really stood out for you that you thought would go on to do well in the game?
You’re testing my memory now fellas! Gifton started the season with us in the Reserves, I remember we played Wimbledon first game and we beat them 4-1. Gifton led the line superbly, he was magnificent. That was the game when Robbie Earle injured his spleen as well I think. Micah played a couple of times on his way back from injury or suspension. Whenever we got a player like that though that you knew was likely to only be with you for one game, I just asked them to go and help the other players out and use some experience. The players knew I had to give an individual written performance for each player after every game for Graham so they were never likely to slack!
Has the first team managers’ job ever appealed to you?
Definitely, I would have loved to have done it. When Aidy got it, I had applied for it beforehand. There was a bit about in a paper afterwards which some people took as me having a go at Aidy. I wasn’t – I was having a go at the club. Too many times you apply for jobs when the clubs have already got a replacement lined up.
They then go through the motions of asking for applicants and interviewing but the majority of the time a manager has already been hired. I knew the week before the position became vacant that Aidy had got the job. Before Lewington got sacked he was already in place. People in football talk, and you find these things out.
With all due respect, if you knew Aidy had got the job before Ray went, why did you apply for it knowing the job had been filled?
I was making a point, because it’s wrong. They should be open and transparent about the job and that is something that football needs to sort out and quickly. If they filled it in house then fine, don’t advertise it. But if they are not looking to recruit from in house and they advertise like they did then everyone should have a fair crack of getting it. It needs to be more transparent. What I think is that if they have 90 odd applicants then fine, keep that private. But when they whittle that down to a shortlist then that shortlist should be made available.
How do you get on with the club now?
Now, fantastic. I am always made to feel welcome now and the people there genuinely seem to be happy to see me. Before, it was more difficult. I always got the impression I wasn’t particularly welcome, maybe that is because I am associated with the good old days from the past. I don’t know. It is the history and the fans that define a club. If you turn your back on that then what have you got?
What is your take on the situation with L***n T**n?
I think it’s very sad. The rivalry in football is great, but what is the point of having rivalry if you are poles apart and you’re never going to play each other for years and years? Off the pitch you want them to survive, but make no mistake when you are on the pitch you want to kick the crap out of them. You take no prisoners when playing them.
The supporters are on a different level to the players though, we actually got on quite well with a few of the L***n players, but when you are on the pitch with them and they are wearing that shirt then for 90 minutes your friendship is forgotten.
Does it feel as fierce on the pitch as it does from the stands?
Yes, definitely. I hated going there; it’s a horrible ground to play at. They have horrible, tiny little dressing rooms and when you are walking in or out their fans are right on top of you and they slaughter you. Always good to beat them lot though.
How did you find the 4-0 game when you were on the coaching staff?
I wasn’t there! I was at Hayes or somewhere like that scouting someone. When I got the message we had embarrassed them like that I laughed and wondered how the L***n fans must have enjoyed it, and how good it must have been for our fans.
What is the day job now?
My two passions are football and motor racing. I couldn’t and still can’t see a football manager’s job on the horizon, so I decided to get involved with a motor racing project called Team 48. John Barnes and Les Ferdinand are involved as well as some motor racing people. We have got some kids involved in a project building a car from scratch that we will look to race for 24 hours at Le Mans. It is a way of trying to teach kids that they have to be involved and responsible with whatever they do in life.
Who is the better driver, you or Barnesy?!
I am, easily! That’s one thing I am better than him at!
Quick Fire Round
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|Best Ever Player|
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|Pretty Woman - For that bit when Julia Roberts bends over wearing boots and a short skirt!|
|Desert Island Woman|