Striker Ross joined Watford for a then club-record fee of £30,000 in 1972 from Crystal Palace. He went on spend 11 years at the club including playing in all four divisions, scoring more than 100 goals. He left in 1983 to play briefly in Hong Kong.
Now living in Spain, Ross spoke to Watford Legends in 2008.
Hi Ross. How did your move to Watford come about?
It came about because I opened my mouth at a conference! I was at Palace as a youngster, and we played Liverpool at home losing the game 1-0. On the Monday we had a review of the game, which you should never do because you should never look backwards in my opinion. Tommy Smith, or Chopper Smith as he was known in those days, saw they broke from the back and was involved in the goal. I asked what the rest of the players were doing as I had gone across to cover a throw in. That comment resulted in me being moved out of the club, but George Kirby had had a good look at me before and had seen me score quite a few goals for the reserves before having a good run of games in the 1st team.
George made an official move for me and it was all accepted. I was young then and didn’t have any real guidance and before I knew it I had signed and was a Watford player.
Quite a big fee you moved for, £30,000, a club record at the time. Did that put any extra pressure on you?
No the fee didn’t worry me at all. The fee became more of an issue for the newspapers, and the local observer hammered it. Watford were struggling though. They had had a good spell and gone up as far as the second division then but were heading downwards at the time and I came and found myself in a place that didn’t have much structure.
At Palace I had come through the ranks where we had a format to play to, and we understood each others games and knew each others movements. At Watford it was literally a case of when you get the ball, do what you do with it then give it to someone else! There was a lack of team understanding. If a team struggles it does generally tend to be the forwards who get the blame.
It seems like it took you a couple of seasons to get into your goal scoring stride?
True, I didn’t get into my stride early on at the club at all. There was a number of players coming and going, and also back then there was only a limited number of players a club could have because the finances were not there like they are now. You would generally have 13 or 14 senior pros then the rest would be made up of youngsters coming through. If a senior player got injured it would always be a youngster that would come in and deputise for them. So yes it was difficult.
It almost seemed that when you scored your first couple of goals for Watford you got sarcastic applause from some of the Watford fans..
Yes there was. It was tough, on and off the pitch. I didn’t feel I was getting good service, and also I was trying to settle my family and my wife wasn’t well. I also had a young baby at that time. I was like a fish out of water and it took me a long time to settle. At the time there seemed a lack of pattern that we were playing our game to. Because I was the tall striker, I was the target man in those days. So I relied on service and team play rather than trying to play as an individual. I wasn’t the type of player to beat 3 defenders then crack it in. I was better at trying to hold the ball up and bring others into play. Our wingers at the time though were not great at putting a ball on my head, most of the time they would knock it too deep. There were quite a few inter player problems as well which were not beneficial to the team.
There were a few personality clashes, which meant that some players didn’t want other players doing well. That meant that the service and team spirit were no where near as good as they could have been. The whole club was in a state of not performing.
After a couple of years the goals started to come more regularly. Did you begin to feel more at home then?
What happened was Keeny took over after Kirby and we had more pattern to our play. Keeny also brought some very good footballers to the club. I say we had more pattern to our play, but in my view it still wasn’t enough so performances were better, but not what they could have been. The real change came about when Taylor came to the club.
How big a change was it?
It was a change for everyone at the club. He was a young manager who had been making a name for himself up at Lincoln. He came in with a clean slate, knowledge of all the players and also a rigid structure of how he wanted us to play. Every player had a question mark over whether they would be involved, but he basically told us that everyone would have a chance and explained to us exactly what he wanted to do.
Training was immediately much harder and much longer, with a lot more work done on team play and formations. And of course he wanted to get back to having out and out wingers. In my opinion, you cannot win games unless you have wingers even today. You still see it though, teams playing with one up front and no real wingers to put the balls in the box. You even see it in the Premier League.
At one point you had the opportunity to leave Watford and join Huddersfield. Looking back, is that a decision you would still stand by?
There are a lot of decisions you can look back on in life. Going to Watford wasn’t beneficial to me career wise. I thought Palace made a mistake letting me go. A lot of the young lads I played with at Palace were coming through and going up and up. If I hadn’t gone to Watford then who knows for me? The Huddersfield situation was…well the club was fed up with me. The fans were coming round to me though because I always gave 100% for the club. Yes sometimes things didn’t work for me but everyone has bad days. Mike Keen was still in charge when Huddersfield came in.
I went up to Huddersfield and saw the manager, whose name I can’t remember now. He was really keen to get me on board and offered me everything I wanted including good money, certainly a lot more than I was on at Watford. He even drove me around a few estates to show me some nice houses. I remember it being a nice sunny day which always helps whenever you go north of Watford! So we had to put some thought into it. Yvonne was all for it, and I stayed up all night thinking about it. In the morning I phoned them and told them I was going to stay at Watford and sort things out. It gave me a bit more enthusiasm to mention ideas and formations for the team and made me more determined to make a go of it at Watford. Things didn’t work out for Keeny, but then Graham came in and was someone that wanted to grab the team by the scruff of the neck and get them performing.
You were then part of that whole fairytale rise from fourth division to runners up in the first. Was there any particular division that you enjoyed playing in the most?
It would be the First Division, because it effectively took me ten years to get back to where I originally was. In my ten years at Watford, at first nobody at first had me down as a player that could compete at that level. But I always had my beliefs about how football could and should be played and so I had confidence that I could compete and perform at that level. I was taken out of the top league at 21, and got back at 32. We started very well and were beating these so called big teams. We were more than holding our own and we certainly weren’t just accommodating teams.
We were effectively going out and saying ‘we play like this, if you want to beat us you are going to have to play us the way that we are good at’. We were not going to change or adapt for anyone.
The only time I saw us change at all in that era was a couple of years after I left when we played in the semi-final of the cup at Villa Park and I saw us actually doing some man-to-man marking and players playing slightly out of position to do it. We didn’t look good or perform well that day.
During your time at Watford was there a particular favourite game that you were involved in?
I don’t know about one particular game because you always prepare to go out and do your thing. You have to be in the mindset that you are going to make it work and get your game together early on. We had good players at the club that all clicked together. Taylor got players to play to there strengths and improved their strengths. You work on your strengths, not your weaknesses.
Certainly one memorable game was the Southampton game, especially as I was dropped for the first game. I remember Graham calling me over on the Friday lunchtime and asking for a quick word. When you are asked for a ‘quick word’ on Friday lunchtime you know what is coming! There was no problem though; me and Graham had a very good relationship. He would tell me he was resting me, and I would tell him he was wrong to but that would be it, no fall outs. I still strongly believed that the team was better with me in it, that was the belief I had. I felt it functioned better and allowed the other players to be more creative. I was the sticking point for the ball, the man that held it up and allowed other players to move across the line. I still don’t see movement like we had even now.
How did you enjoy playing alongside Luther Blissett?
Luther was the up and coming boy through Mike Keen’s time, and then when Taylor came in he inherited this young talent that was coming through. We quickly slotted into this partnership because he was so quick and he matured very fast. He was a strong lad, very muscley. He came on to the scene and could run and bounce like nobody’s business! He had a terrific shot on him and also was a great header of the ball as he proved away at Old Trafford. You think back to nights like that Southampton game, and it was just a magical night and really helped our partnership. That set the standard and showed that as a team we could go up against good teams and beat them. We were still being labelled long ball but I think that was just a reporter’s thing. A cross from the wing is a long ball, but that is surely what a winger is supposed to do?
Other players from your era have said that they also thought it was lazy journalism, and that a lot of the so called long balls were in fact perfectly placed long passes forward. Would you agree?
Yes. Also, there was the fact that Elton was at the club so we got much bigger headlines and attention from the national press. The press seemed to have a downer on us. Graham was great with the press, but I think they were disappointed because they wanted to see the razzmatazz of lots of little passes, and I suppose in a way we were a bit of a controversy. We didn’t mind, but we did feel it was a little unjust.
A long pass up to someone or a long pass into space because you knew that someone would run into that space is a fabulous thing. We used to work on getting the ball into the box at all opportunities but getting it in well. It worked for us. We were getting better, we were beating plenty of teams, the crowds were getting bigger and the enthusiasm was building all round the club as we went through.
We then had the season where we finished second to Liverpool in 82/83. Another good season and then you left?
It wasn’t a good season for me because I got injured! I was still in the team though. I got injured away at Spurs, a stomach injury. I came back and we had a big tie against Forest I think it was, in the league cup. I went and played in that and made my injury worse. I ended up developing a chronic injury which was misdiagnosed at first. I had a hernia problem. By trying to recover quicker and avoid injury it turned it into a chronic injury. That was bad because it meant I couldn’t get myself to the fitness levels that my game needed.
It was frustrating because we were finally back where I wanted to be and we were churning out some good results, and I found myself physically unable to play and that didn’t help with the structure of the team.
What did you do when you left Watford?
In the summer I got an offer to go and play in Hong Kong. I went for it because I had recovered enough to play out there as it was only a short season. Obviously if I had got my full fitness back I would have stayed at Watford to carry on playing top flight football, and by the same token I don’t think Watford would have let me go as I was doing a job at Watford which helped us as a team be very successful. It allowed people like Barnes and Luther to play off me, and also I was getting great crosses from Barnesy and Nigel. It was an unfortunate way to end my time at Watford. Football was more demanding then on the physical side of it, and it was very hard for me but I came through it and overcame the obstacles that were put in front of me. All through my time, even when I was struggling I always got a good response from the crowd.
How would you say you got on with the fans overall?
I like to think I got on very well in the end with them. I spoke to the fans quite often either at train stations or on the coach on our way to games, and generally got on with them. I think they could see that I had a particular way of playing and that I did have something to offer. It also helped when we were playing under Taylor in the Fourth Division, then the Third and I played the majority of the games. We were also good in the cups. I was club top scorer in Europe with some silly amount of games. It was all there for me.
We shot through the Third Division and nobody could really stop us as we had such a good side. Then we were playing Second Division and it was going OK until I broke my ankle and we didn’t have anyone else that could naturally go in and do the job I was doing. There were other times when Graham was looking at doing things differently and looking at different players but that is the manager’s job, its all about how you respond to it.
You won the player of the season award in 75/76; you must have been pleased with that?
Everything snowballed and was going very well. We were becoming increasingly successful as a club. I was talking to some supporters after the Carling Cup game against Spurs this season and they were telling me how much they didn’t enjoy being in the Premier League, as you have to put up with constantly being the underdog and they prefer to be in a league where they can win a few games and have something about them. Something I don’t understand, and bear in mind I live away and don’t see a lot of live football, is why are we not competing when we get our chances in the top flight? We did it when we first got in the top league, Hull are doing it this season, Bolton have consolidated in that league. I don’t know why we never made a good fist of it?
I think there are mixed views on this. The top 4 are becoming richer by the season and with that, the gap grows. The example you used of Hull is a prime one to use. They have had to spend a lot of money to even have a shout of staying up, and if they don’t then it is almost certain they will face financial difficulties in the next year or two unless a Russian sugar daddy turns up.
I can see your point, but what I can’t understand is that a team spends time developing in the Championship and builds up to get their chance in the Premier League, but when most teams get there they are not competing but they are almost waving the white flag and just accepting their fate before a ball is kicked. If you are a good footballer and you have a good manager then you should be able to give it a really good go. We went through the leagues and got up there and when we did get there, not only did we knock people about but we came second. That wasn’t because we were lucky, we were not lucky in the slightest.
To score goals in the Premier League is the hardest thing in football. Promoted teams are up against the task of trying to score past the most organised defences in England, containing some of the best defenders in the world. Even teams like Man Utd struggled at the beginning of this season. I remember watching them play Man City, and for 43 minutes they knocked the ball about and controlled the game but didn’t get any shots away and so even with all that possession, never looked like scoring. The end result of any passage of play has to be a good attempt at goal, otherwise what are you playing for? It’s what people want to see. Not just the ball hitting the net but the interplay, getting the balls round the back, getting the balls to the flanks and getting attempts on goal.
Under Graham quite often we would have 20 attempts at goal in a game. In that Manchester derby game I mentioned, it was great to see somebody like Rooney when he is motivated. You want someone like that up against a back 4, somebody who wants the ball so he can try and score a goal. You don’t want him chasing back, you want other players winning the ball and for him to make the runs and frightening the defenders. His job is to tread on players toes, lean on them and gain himself a couple of yards and then make a curling run.
Back to your time at Watford, did you live locally when you were here?
Yes I lived on the Cassiobury Estate. In fact I was back there before the Spurs game to see an old mate of mine. I enjoyed living there. My boy grew up there and went off to school at Parmiters. That was at the time I was doing a bit of double glazing installation after I left Watford.
So after Hong Kong and the double glazing, what have you been up to since?
I stayed in Watford until about 1990, and I was running the double glazing business up until then. Then my father died suddenly which none of us were prepared for. It made me evaluate a few things, and I had to take a decision on my business and either expand it or sell up. We decided to sell up and see what happened next, without having too much planned. I went with some friends to build a house in America for me to live in, just on a lake in Michigan which I had a big hand in building. I loved having this big wooden house, especially after seeing the care that goes into the finishing of it. I was really pleased with it.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out for us over there. I don’t want to go into it, but let’s just say somebody really didn’t like us over there. I did have the intention of living there for good and developing a career as a coach, as I had all the badges from the F.A.
We ended up going back to Spain where I had my holiday home and we settled down there. In about ’93 I got involved in this sports club bar in Javier called Lancorra. It had tennis courts, and we put in a pool, exercise rooms and stuff like that. I ran the kids five-a-side, and we also had an adult five-a-side league. It was quite a lively place, and was the main place to be of an evening or even during the day. Also Sky was just coming in then so we had a few televisions and showed a lot of sport, and we had quite a good scene going.
I ran that for seven years before it all got too much for me. The biggest mistake was my business partner and I done too much of the work ourselves and worked too hard and we should have offloaded a bit more to the workers. Also I was getting older, and I wasn’t able to maintain something I had always been able to. We both had a sit down and decided to sell it on, and that is what we did at the end of 2000.
In 2001 me and the missus decided to have a six month break in Africa. In all the time of running the bar, we had only taken one holiday which was a safari holiday and we loved it, so we decided to have a longer one to make up for lost time. So we flew to Cape Town where we had a friend, and within a week I had bought a car and some camping gear, and without any plans we just took off for 6 months. The car is now in storage, and every summer we go out and spend some time exploring a different part of Africa.
My son is married and settled now, and my step son is married and working in Dover so sometimes we come over to see him or he comes over to us. It’s quite a nice lifestyle now that suits us down to the ground.
Is there a day job now?
No, I don’t work anymore. My wife and I looked at our situation, and if we are economical then we can spend our lives together just exploring different avenues and having fun. If I worked it would take that away. The eight hour working day is gone now effectively, 10 hours is more normal now and that wouldn’t give us the freedom we are after.
I spent 20 odd years running myself into the ground with football, then seven years working with the double glazing which was physically hard. I am quite a hands on person so I always mucked in. It has all taken its toll which is why I am happy having a life of leisure. My knees are packing up now as well, I need new knees so that is something else I have to consider. My brain is probably a bit worn out now as well!
As an ex centre forward, what did you make of Watford’s current number 9, Tamas Priskin, during the Spurs match? There is a bit of a split opinion amongst the fans!
I certainly wouldn’t want to judge anyone on one performance. What I would question is why he, as a lone striker, is getting the service that he is. Whenever a team plays one up top, if the team is not doing well it is always the centre forward who gets the blame. It depends what system you are playing in. Sometimes you have five across the middle but not one of those will step up to try and score or create a goal for fear of giving one away.
So I wouldn’t want to judge him, certainly not on the second half as he didn’t get any service at all because after the first ten or fifteen minutes of the second half the team fell away again. The game then became scrappy. Spurs are not a great side this season; they have a lot of work to do. I know Redknapp has put a few results together but as a unit they are not performing. But at the end of the day, their boy Bent got the ball in the box and hit it. It may have had a bit of luck going in, but as GT always drummed into us, you have to shoot to score and that is what the boy done.
Quick Fire Round
|Favourite Ground (apart from the Vic)|
|Best Ever Player|
|Rock and Roll|
|Favourite Holiday Destination|
|Favourite TV Show|
|Any news show|
|Lord of the Rings|
|Desert Island Woman|
|I know it breaks the rules, but it has to be my wife!|