David Bardsley played as a full-back and later a flying winger but left the club shortly after Dave Bassett took over as manager in 1987. When I spoke to him, he was coaching in Orlando, Florida, so there was the time difference to negotiate but I eventually got to speak to him on the phone.
I didn’t expect him to be enthusiastic about Bassett’s appointment – and so it proved, to put it mildly – but it was interesting to hear that he wasn’t keen playing on the wing either.
Sam Ellis was my manager at Blackpool and he’d been Graham’s number two, he’d been one of their players before that. When I went to Watford the people who were there running things all had some link to Watford Football Club and that is why they had their success.
What did you think of Graham?
He was a fantastic coach. A fantastic coach. Forget everything you’ve heard about him when he was at England. He was a great football coach and he understood the game inside-out. I had great times at Watford and I felt I was learning the game there.
You’d not been in the Blackpool team that long when suddenly you were playing in the First Division.
That’s right. I had been in the England youth set-up when Graham was the coach. I had played 10 or 15 first team games for Blackpool when he gave me a chance in the youth team. We had a really good tournament with the England youth team – got to the semi-finals, I think.
When I went to Watford the first season was really successful – we got to the cup final and we were playing some great football.
Did you find Graham intimidating?
Not at all because I’d been with Sam Ellis. Sam was like Graham. Very forceful in what he wants, very straightforward, very honest. If you didn’t know where you stood with Sam you’d not been listening.
I didn’t really want to go, to be honest. I was so young and just finding my feet at Blackpool but it was a move to the top division and Sam said I could go there and if I believed in myself I could do well. After a few weeks I settled in. Of course, I was still really young and to up and leave home was difficult to do but it was the best thing I ever did.
I stayed in a hotel for a long time, maybe 12 weeks, then I moved into digs with Lee Sinnott, Steve Terry and John Barnes. It was a great club because it was a young club – we were all the same age and we got on well together.
What was the adjustment like moving up a couple of divisions?
I didn’t have time to think about it! I arrived on the Wednesday and played against Luton on the Saturday. ‘Here you go, meet everyone. Now you’re in the team, son.’ It was as quick as that.
The thing that was different was the pace of the game but one of my attributes was pace. I must have done enough because I kept my place until I picked up a knee injury and nearly missed the cup final at the end of the season.
Did the fact you had so little time to think about it help?
Definitely. When you are that young you don’t really realise exactly what it is all about. If I’d had that time again at 32 years of age I would have without doubt have appreciated it more. Two years before I wasn’t even playing professionally. Then within a few months of joining Watford we’re on this cup run and I’m worrying whether an injury is going to stop me playing at Wembley.
The cup final was hugely nerve wracking, though. I wish I’d played in that game at 32. I’d have done a million things differently – things that a younger player is not mature enough to understand. I am probably a better player now at 44 than I was when I was at Watford, certainly when it comes to thinking about the game. You learn as you get older.
How close to missing the final did you come?
It was enough to be worried, and enough to be very relieved when I passed the fitness test and I knew I’d be okay. But the race to be fit affected me, of course. I didn’t want to miss the final. I was worrying so much about being fit in the run up to it that the game came and went before I knew it.
It was a really weird moment in time. I wasn’t injured. I was playing regularly in the reserves. I don’t know why I wasn’t in the team. I didn’t really question the decision so I don’t really know what was going on. I was not in the team, I did go to ask but I walked out the door not really knowing. So I buckled down and played in the reserves and I think maybe I was being given some time to do a bit of growing up. You get on with it and you learn the trade. Bitching and moaning doesn’t really get you anywhere.
You spoke to Graham about it?
I don’t think I spoke to Graham about it, no. I spoke to Steve Harrison about it and he said ‘get your head down and get on with it.’ I had to work hard to get back in.
When you did get back in, you were used as a winger as much as a full-back.
I think Graham saw that I could do something with my pace. That’s one of the reasons Nigel [Callaghan] ended up leaving the club, although there were other reasons as well. But I hated playing there [as a winger]. I absolutely hated it.
Really? You absolutely destroyed teams from that forward position sometimes. I’m thinking of the FA Cup quarter-final at Arsenal.
I am a full back. I’d spent all my life as a full back. As a full-back you make many errors and they’re going to stand out but I liked that pressure. I hated playing wide, I really disliked it. I was a full-back up to that moment and then I was thrown up there and I didn’t see a lot of the ball and it was difficult to be involved in the game. As a full-back you have a job to do all the time. A lot of the game starts from there too, so you are involved. You can start the attacks off, your distribution has to be good. It keeps you on your toes and it keeps you focused. On the wing you can be out of the game for long periods.
I didn’t complain. I maybe moaned about when I was at home, but I got on with it. I did my best for the team in the position I was asked to play.
Was the Chelsea away game [5-1 in May 1986] one of the first times you played there?
No, I came on as sub but he threw me on as left-back and I got forward and scored twice. I think I ran the length of the pitch both times to score. I think that’s when Graham saw my pace as an advantage. He knew my pace could hurt teams so he tried me on the wing.
I remember the Walsall games in the FA Cup [1986-87] – I played one at full-back, one on the wing. When you are young you are very inconsistent and you don’t understand the standards that are required. I was inconsistent so perhaps he thought that it mattered less if I was further forward, I don’t know.
Surely in the cup game at Arsenal you enjoyed it? You made Kenny Sansom’s life a misery that day.
I enjoyed the fact we won but even in that game I still wanted to play full-back. I didn’t really look at it that I was up against the England left-back.
I liked to get forward from deeper positions. I could attack even when I was at full-back, that’s how I saw it. Most of my time was spent overlapping and getting crosses in anyway.
I felt I was a defender. Later on Ryan Giggs said I was one of the top three hardest full- backs he’d ever played against.
What do you remember about the next round, the semi-final against Tottenham?
Losing Tony Coton was the real blow. Tony really was a great keeper, one of the best I ever played with and it was a blow to lose him but I don’t think it affected the rest of us that we had Gary in goal. I just remember thinking ‘well, this is the goalkeeper we’ve got, I’ll respect that he can do the job.’
It was hard to take losing in that manner though. Tottenham weren’t better than us, no way, not in a normal game. I played right-back, I was up against Steve Hodge and felt I did okay but we just didn’t play well enough.
I was very surprised. It came very suddenly and I am sure there were people who thought ‘brilliant’ but I wasn’t one of them. I was concerned about what was going to happen. I didn’t want the manager to leave because I knew that he was one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, we were successful.
I take it you didn’t rate his successor…
That absolute dipstick came in and took over the club. At the time, he’d done really well at Wimbledon, but I thought it was the end of the club as I knew it. There was this Watford-Wimbledon thing because they came up through the league as well and people thought they were like we were. When people came in they didn’t have any respect for what had been achieved before. The people who employed him have to look back on it, but I think they answered that because they sacked him after six months.
What do you think they should have done instead?
I think they should have left it with someone within the club. Steve Harrison, or John Ward. One could argue that if you put one of them in charge and let the club run as it was it would have been fine. Make one the manager and then have the other one and Tom Walley working with him. Keep as much of it the same as you could.
Dave thought he could bring in some clowns from Wimbledon and some players who he thought could replace the ones that were going. I was one of them he clearly didn’t think was going to be good enough for him, but I was more than happy to get my arse out of there.
Nothing was ever the same again from the moment Graham left. I don’t have anything personally against Dave or [Alan] Gillett. They have been successful, Dave highly successful. Dave admitted a few years later that he made a mistake letting me go but at that time I’d have paid money to be let go. Everything I did was wrong from the moment they took over. They were on my case. They were on anyone’s case who they wanted out of the club.
Did they pick up the vibe that you weren’t on side?
Probably. But I was a decent player and I had a bloody good career after Watford. I thought I was a really good striker of the ball, but they said I was kicking it wrong. I mean, fuck you. They put the ball down and said, ‘Kick it on the valve and it will go a certain way.’ I mean, really? He admitted it was a mistake [to let Bardsley go] in the end but it still stung and it’s hard to think about my time there without thinking about how it ended.
There was stuff that was totally unnecessary. He had Graham Taylor’s door taken off the office, because it was Graham Taylor’s door, so he had it replaced. The whole office was redone.
What were the differences between Graham’s style of management and Dave’s?
Graham was hard. He worked us. If we had a game called off, he used to take us on this ridiculous 12-mile run. I know in the later days people did get a lift round. Tony Coton did once and got found out. You’d run round the ground and up the terracing. It was horrible training but you did what you were told to do because you liked the man and because you were being paid to do it. He used to say there’s nothing like being as fit as you can possibly be, and he was right.
When this other crew came in it was like a big joke. The training was rubbish. There were no standards. It was Fourth Division training. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I wanted to get a move but I was in the reserves and I knew I had to put it in in the reserves because people were watching me and I needed to get a move. That regime could have screwed my whole future, so I was glad to get out.
Were you disappointed it was Oxford United who made the first move?
I’d have gone more or less anywhere. When I was at Blackpool, Man City and Man United were coming in for me. My parents didn’t really understand what was going on. Had I said no to Watford I might have gone to Man City with Paul Stewart. But Sam and Graham agreed the deal between them, I didn’t really have much say. So I knew I was good enough to play. I wanted to get out of Watford and Oxford made an offer and I enjoyed it there. After a couple of years I went to QPR and had a really good time there.
When did you know you were going?
I think I played in a reserve game at Swindon and the next day I was leaving. I was more gutted that Harrison or Ward or Tom didn’t get a chance. There were young players that those three had brought through. Harrison and Walley and Ward had created these young players who were coming through so why not give them the chance? We had a good thing going at Watford but it got ripped up. These guys who came into Watford screwed it up. I had nothing against him [Bassett] but I never spoke to him. I wanted to know why he wasn’t playing me but he said he was selling me and I said, ‘Great, when can I go?’
You went with Richard Hill.
We went to the ground at Oxford and signed and it was the best thing I ever did.
Did it sour your relationship with Watford, the way it ended?
Not really, because Watford to me was not Dave Bassett. It was the club that had given me a big break. I still have a lot of affection for the club. I went to an Elton John concert in Orlando last year and two Watford fans were sat next to us with scarves on. We had a chat and I still keep an eye out for their results and hope they do well.
What do you think of Graham now? You were called up by him for England later on.
Graham was the boss. He managed the club and he set the tone. You might see him on a Thursday or a Friday but Steve Harrison and John Ward were out there on the training pitch every day. They were as much the club as Graham was.
I got back in the England squad later and joining up with Graham was completely different then. I got in the team twice and I felt I had done enough to hold my place down. I would question why he was playing Lee Dixon because I was joining up with a manager I had a lot of time for and I knew I was playing well. What I saw when I got involved was that Graham had changed all his ethos and policies because of the players he was with. Because Graham changed his principles he failed, that’s my opinion. If he’d done it his way, he would have done well. When he did play five across the midfield, which I had been playing for QPR on the right side, he chose to play Lee Dixon there.
It sounds like you regretted leaving Watford… and that it overshadows a bit what went before?
I hated having to leave the club but it wasn’t really my choice. Well, it was, I had to go. I was still very young so I didn’t really say anything. I should have done but I was still learning about the game, about life. As I said, the 44-year-old me would react very differently but when you’re in your early 20s you don’t know. You’re still growing up.
That team [Graham Taylor’s final Watford team of the 1980s] had such togetherness. It was unbelievable. We finished ninth in what is now the Premier League. Now, you can correct me here but wasn’t that the second best position the club had ever had?
It was, and still is.
For a club like Watford to be top-half. Amazing but it was because of the club that had been built and the values. We were such a strong group. We could take the piss out of each other off the pitch but on the pitch we fought together. We really put it in because you wanted to help your mates.
Are you in touch with anyone still?
I’m in America, I’ve been coaching here and I went back to Watford not long ago, took a group of lads there and it wasn’t the same club. I don’t mean it was worse, it was different. Things change. It’s 25 years ago, so of course they do.
I saw Tom Walley recently and he’s never changed. I remember I used to go round his house and talk to him and he’d encourage me to keep working. That man was more of a legend than nearly everyone at Watford. The best people never change. I never saw him play but I can imagine what sort of player he was like. Everyone respected him, everyone knew what was required. Some of his decisions are the reason why Watford got to where they were back then but the credit has to go to Graham Taylor because he had a great team of staff. Did Graham hire Tom Walley?
He did, during his first summer in 1977…
There you go. He saw something. That’s what made Graham the manager he was – he saw what people had to offer.
All that went out of the window when Graham went. They didn’t have to bring Alan Gillett in [as first-team coach] when Bassett came. Maybe if Dave had kept on Harrison or Ward it might have been different, but Dave wanted his own people.
Derek French was a very nice guy. I listened to him. But he might have been the one saying to Bassett, ‘Get him out.’ I don’t know. But he was always nice and had nice things to say to me.
I made the decision to go because I could see it wasn’t for me but I don’t think it had to be like that.
There was a reason Liverpool kept their continuity going, promote from within. They brought through someone who knew the club inside-out. When the manager left they gave it to the assistant or the first-team coach.
The truth in it is that clubs these days give the job to someone who is out for a pay day. No one seems to talk the truth these days. Whatever happened to Aidy Boothroyd? I came over to Watford in 2007 with nine of my players and they trained there for two weeks. It was very good for them to understand the life of an apprentice football and they learned a lot. Watford had a great manager so why did they sack him? Why did they let him go? But I sat there with Keith Burkinshaw and Dave Hockaday and none of them were really the history of Watford FC. There were too many people in the room as far as I could see.
To answer your question, I’m not really in touch with people from back then. I don’t know what happened – you lose contact with people. Pricey [Neil Price] was my best mate at Watford. I shared digs with Lee [Sinnott], Steve Terry and Barnesy until he moved next door. That was in Garston. Then I moved somewhere else and the Holdsworth twins came in. It really was like a family in those days.