The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009

The great majority of the interviews for the book were done face-to-face but for logistical reasons some had to be conducted on the phone and this one, with defender Charlie Palmer, was the first of them. Palmer broke into the team at the start of the 1983-84 season and played in some of the UEFA Cup games but he then lost his place to David Bardsley and left the club at the end of the season.

I had thought that Palmer would be a peripheral figure in the story and in a way he was but it was his honesty about his own ability, his frankness admitting that when it came to playing at Old Trafford he just was not ready, and his insight into what it takes to make a career in professional football was revealing and indicative of the time.

I started by asking him what he thought of Watford 25 years after he’d made his debut…

Being at Watford was the making of me. If I’m honest, if I’d been at any other club, I probably wouldn’t have made it as a professional.

There were five of us who signed at the same time. Myself, Nigel Callaghan, Lukas Louka, Mark Fordham and Steve Morris. By far, Callaghan had the most ability. I just believed Tom Walley saw something in me because I had the attitude, desire, determination to make it. Coming from a working-class background I was determined to make something from the game.

What was Watford like?

It was a tight-knit, close-knit club. Graham had a knack of making sure everyone was part of it.

Some of things Tom got us to do though. We’d finish training and he’d kick us out of the minibus on the way back to Stanmore and we’d have to run the rest of the way – three or four miles. He’d slow down and stop the van to see who was putting it in and who was walking. We were put in this predicament but were we sulking about it or were we getting the work done? That was the way he saw it.

He gave us the opportunity to come in early at 8.15 to do sprints or weights. He was giving you the chance to improve yourself. If you wanted to go in early he would be there for you every day. He was firm but he helped us.

What about Graham Taylor?

Taylor could be even fucking firmer than Tom!

All the discipline came from the top. Our day was structured, we’d come in, do a bit of training, have a pre-match meal, then play the game. And that was in the reserves. If you were in the reserves you were expected to take it as seriously and be as professional and the first team. The reserves was not seen as the second best – we were there as back-up for the first team and we were trying to get in the first team so we worked as hard as them.

It was a job, but it was an enjoyable job. You turn up to the ground, you listen to the coaches, you take on board what they are saying and you work.

You got your chance to play once Pat Rice had more or less retired didn’t you.

Yeah, it took me ages to break into the side. I played a couple of Football League Trophy games but I had Pat Rice ahead of me and he was not going to get dropped.

Was it frustrating seeing the likes of Callaghan and one or two others get into the first team before you?

It was and it wasn’t. In the case of Callaghan, he was one of the best players I ever played with. He was always going to make it, so I wasn’t comparing myself with him. And I was cover for Pat Rice who was the captain, Arsenal legend, so I knew I wasn’t going to get in for a long run of games.

The thing was, I felt I was learning, improving, waiting for my chance. Tom was giving us the best possible chance to make a career in football, whether that was at Watford or somewhere else.

I remember going to West Ham and Spurs as a junior and seeing their youth team players in their club suits. Tom said, ‘Don’t worry about that, get right into them.’ We’d beat the big clubs and we’d get the belief and we’d also know that people didn’t like playing against us. We were hard, we were aggressive and we attacked teams. We upset teams, we were very direct.

What did Pat teach you?

The one thing I learned about Pat was that although he didn’t have much pace but his positional sense was amazing. I thought, if I can learn something from Pat I will improve. I thought, I want to be able to defend like him. I remember watching him mark Mark Walters, the Villa winger and a lad who had a lot of pace, and he didn’t get skinned once. Walters was quicker than him, better than him, had more tricks than him and yet he got nothing out of Pat all game.

I thought to myself that his covering was superb, the way he got players in front of him to close down and stop the attacks. He knew the game inside out. I used to listen to everything he said because I knew that if I could learn as much as possible from Pat Rice I could have a career in the game.

Pat didn’t quite retire at the end of the 1982-83 season but he wasn’t going to play as regularly, which opened the door for you.

When the chance came, he really gave me a boost. He was a genuine guy and he spoke to me and gave me advice. Okay, it was simple stuff – ‘Go and enjoy it, you’ve been on the sidelines a long time looking in, so go and take this chance and make the most of it,’ – but it was such a lift. I know everyone said he was coming to the end of his career but he was so inspirational.

You broke into the team in September 1983.

My first game was on the Astroturf at QPR. Then I scored on my home debut against Notts County. I don’t really know what I was doing up there to be honest. I hit one, it deflected off someone and went in. I was told to defend but also get forward. I was a fit lad so I could get up and down the pitch. If I can get noticed by getting forward and getting crosses in then that was what I wanted to do. I remember my dad was there and he was proud to see me play in the First Division.

There was no going to town to have a drink afterwards. Taylor wouldn’t allow that, Tom wouldn’t allow that. I know at other clubs the game on a Saturday was the thing you did before you had a night out but that wasn’t the culture at Watford at all. That was a god-send for me because it meant I just concentrated on football, which I needed to do.

You said Callaghan had a lot of ability. What was it like playing on the right flank with him?

Cally was a dream. You could give him the ball and he could put the ball in the middle. If I am honest, Cally didn’t perform to his potential. His ability was incredible. You gave him the ball when you were stuck and he’d put a cross in without beating the man. You could give him the ball when he was marked and it didn’t bother him. I thought they’d both [John Barnes and Callaghan] go on to play for England. He should have achieved a lot more. Barnesy did it but Cally lacked something.

Embed from Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images

Your third game was away to Kaiserslautern in the UEFA Cup. What do you remember?

I remember shitting myself when we went to train on the pitch. ‘Flamin’ hell, we’re going to be playing in this stadium tomorrow and it’s going to be packed.’ I enjoyed it, but I was young and occasions like that pass you by. I should have enjoyed it a lot more. I was petrified, if I am honest.

The second time I was petrified and felt the occasion was just too big for me – and I think Taylor knew it – was when we went to Old Trafford and we were going to go out to warm up and I got to the top of the tunnel and looked out and thought ‘bloody hell’. Instead of walking onto the pitch I went back to the changing rooms. I should have sampled the atmosphere. I went out and had a complete nightmare. As you walk up, you can see it, I got about three-quarters of the way up and froze. I wanted to play in the game but I was all over the place. I had a bad game and I wasn’t surprised when I got dropped. [Watford lost at Manchester United that day 4-1].

I should have walked out onto the pitch, seen the atmosphere and come back in. I let the stadium get the better of me that day.

Was it not just as intimidating in Sofia for the UEFA Cup game against Levski Spartak?

Sofia was hostile but Man U is Man U. Usually you go and have a look at the pitch, have a look at the areas you’re going to be playing. But I didn’t do that. Afterwards I asked myself if I was ready for it and I thought I needed to go back and brush up on things.

When you start asking yourself those questions you know you have a lot to learn. I was honest with myself. I had five good years but that one game I froze big time.

Before that you played against Tottenham and had the shot that resulted in a goal at home to Kaiserslautern.

The Spurs game was the one with the [Glenn] Hoddle chip. We got a bollocking after that because we were in a very strong position. With a bit more know-how we probably could have held on and won. It was a great goal by Hoddle but we were in a strong position and should have won. Hoddle hadn’t even looked at the goal. He knew where the goal was, he knew where the ‘keeper was and he just turned and hit it. That’s when you know you’re playing with the greats.

And then it was the Kaiserslautern game.

Kaiserslautern at home was an electric atmosphere. I don’t think there’s ever been a night like it at Vicarage Road before or since. They’ve had some big crowds but the atmosphere was amazing with all the flags and horns. I enjoyed it from the first minute to the last.

Were you confident or reversing the first leg result? What did the manager say to you?

I felt it was our night. I don’t know why but we were so confident. Fearless really, in the sense that we didn’t know what was going to happen but we’d already lost over there so we had nothing to lose at home. We could just go for it and be brave.

We had discussions in the morning. Let’s get one-nil up and see what happens. We got on top early then took control and I don’t think the Germans really knew what had hit them.

You didn’t feel at all daunted?

Not that night, no. We were at home and I was just happy to be in the side. It was drilled into us, whether we were in the junior team or the reserves, what was expected of us. So you knew what the job was by the time you got in the first team so it was just a case of trying to do that job as best as you could. The opposition might be better, the crowd will certainly be bigger, but just do your job. Defend when they’ve got the ball, try to get up the pitch when we have it, support Cally [Callaghan]. Look for the easy pass so we keep the ball. Watch their movement and hold your position well. Work hard. Really the style of play was the same, the discipline was the same.

Watford’s the only club where I’ve come in on Saturday morning at 10am to do a training session before a home game. Then you’d have your pre-match meal, then you’d have your team talk. And you’d have a team plan and everyone would know what that team plan was.

Later on I went to Derby County and although they were in the Third Division when I went there they were a big club. You could turn up at 1.30 and have a 10-minute talk about the opposition and I thought ‘hang on a minute.’ It wasn’t what I expected and it took a while to get used to it. I was still young and thought I needed to be told what to do but after a while the penny dropped and I just thought back to what Graham and the coaches had drilled into me and I used that. I knew how to play the game because of them.

We weren’t paid a lot of money and I don’t think the club was the richest so Graham had to make the most out of what he had. Graham was a great motivator. He got the best out of us.

I didn’t have the ability of some of them and people probably thought maybe I didn’t have enough to make a career, but Taylor and Tom believed in me and they gave me the chance. The stuff I learned at Watford I took on with me and I made a career. I will always appreciate that.

What was it like facing John Barnes in training?

John Barnes is the best player I’ve ever played with. Barnesy was unbelievable. I knew he was going to be a player from the minute I saw him. The reserves played down at QPR and he was wearing studs on their astroturf and he was amazing. He could keep his footing playing in normal football boots while we had the astroturf trainers on. To be fair everyone knew he’d be bigger than Watford. It was a privilege playing with him.

I also really rated Kenny Jackett. He could play left-back, centre half, central midfield. He was a great footballer, very knowledgeable. He’d go to play with Wales and I’d sit down and talk to him about the games. He was the year above me, but he was always going to be a big player and I think he was unlucky with injuries. When I think he was a year ahead of me but streets ahead in terms of what he could do. To be that versatile and be equally good in three or four positions – there’s not many footballers could do that.

Were you disappointed that your run in the team came to an end that autumn? You had a taste of it but couldn’t make that number two shirt yours.

I got a run of 14, 15 games. They brought [David] Bardsley in. They must have known they’d be bringing him in and I think I knew that it would make it hard for me if the manager was signing another young player in my position. I knew I didn’t want another two years not getting a sniff of the first-team. I knew I wanted to make a career in the game but you have to be careful. If you wait for them to sell you, back in those days you might not get much choice over where you went. I didn’t want to drop too far down and find that it was hard to get a career going.

I asked a couple of senior players what I should I do and they said different things. ‘Oh, give it time, Charlie, you can get in this team.’ Maybe one said I should try to go out on loan.

In the end, I plucked up enough courage to go and see Graham. He was a father figure to the young players and he was intimidating. Not in an aggressive way but he was the authority figure at the football club and if he didn’t like what you told him he could be very stern about it. It was nerve-wracking to go and tell him I wanted to leave his football club. That’s a no-no. Can you imagine asking Graham Taylor if you could leave? I know he wasn’t happy. Maybe he was teaching me a lesson by not putting me in his reserves. Maybe he wanted me to focus on getting in his team but I think I knew I wasn’t going to do that. Was it a lack of confidence? I don’t know. I just felt I needed to go away and play regularly in a first team and make myself into the player I thought I could be. It wasn’t that I wanted to leave Watford but I couldn’t risk my next move being into non-league.

I am a social worker now, I love my job and I am glad I had a career in football but I had to make that career. My son plays now, as a defender. You can make money out of the game in non-league now. You couldn’t back then.

You said it was intimidating asking Graham Taylor for a transfer, what actually happened?

He wasn’t happy, I know that. When you’re 20 you don’t ask Graham for a transfer. It’s not the done thing and I think he was a bit shocked. Pat was coming to the end and he brought in Bardsley and if I am honest, he was a better player than me at that time. I could see what Graham was doing and there was no way I wanted to go into the reserves and spend two years competing with Bardsley and not getting in the side. I’d done five years in the juniors and reserves and I needed to get playing. Go down to come back up.

I was brave. I went in and saw him [Taylor]. I said all the right things and I felt I dealt with the situation well. I was honest.

He set up a move to Port Vale, under John Rudge. I went there and from the moment I stepped out of the train station I wasn’t interested. I knew Derby were interested. I took less money and a year’s contract at Derby. Roy McFarland was interested in taking me on. I wanted to learn from Roy, who had been a good defender.

That happened at the end of the season, so you saw out the remainder of the year in the reserves?

Sometimes I didn’t get in the reserve team. One minute I was good enough to play for the first team. But then I wasn’t good enough to play for the reserves. I remember telling him what I wanted to do – that I wanted to leave –and the next thing I was sub for the reserves.

Why was that?

I think Graham ruled that club and he needed everyone to know it. He couldn’t have young players asking to leave. Whether he admits it or not, I think he did punish that sort of dissent. You did as you were told and if that meant you’re sub for the reserves then so be it.

I don’t think it was vindictive but I do think he used you as an example sometimes. Look what happened to Charlie. Don’t go thinking about asking for a move.

What stung me was that I knew I wasn’t going to be in the squad of 16 for the FA Cup final. I knew I was nowhere near the team but I was in the larger squad before he cut it down to 16 and on the Thursday we had a 40-minute practice match on the Wembley pitch. I assumed I’d be the right back for the reserves as we matched up and had a little game on the pitch. I thought, ‘I’m leaving this club in the summer but at least I’ll get to play on the Wembley pitch.’ He named the first team, then he named the reserves for this training session and I wasn’t in it. I had to sit on the bench while they had a practice match on the Wembley pitch. He didn’t have to do that to me.

I remember sitting there thinking ‘One day I’ll come back here and play.’ And I did. I played there – and won – for Notts County.

How do you feel about that now?

At the end of the day, Graham gave me the kick up the arse I needed. He gave me some incredible experiences. Maybe he decided I wasn’t good enough for him, and that’s fair enough, I probably wasn’t at that time. But I don’t hold any grudges. If I saw him now, I’d shake his hand and say thank you very much for the opportunity. It’s too easy in life to think back to things that didn’t go your way and say, ‘Oh that’s not fair,’ or ‘That was his fault.’ You take responsibility. Graham Taylor and Tom Walley taught us that. If you’re not in the team it’s because the manager doesn’t think you’re good enough, so work hard to get better.

I hope that if he thought anything about me he’d recognise how hard it was to tell him I wanted to leave and how honest I was with him and myself. I went on and I made my career at Derby and Notts County and I did well. I did that for myself but Graham and Tom taught me some lessons and gave me some skills to help me do that, and I would never forget that.