Another trip to the north-west meant I could schedule a couple of interviews back-to-back. First up I travelled to Manchester City’s training ground, which at that time was at Carrington (not to be confused with Manchester United’s training base, which has the same name) a short drive outside the city. Hodges was working as reserve and youth team coach at City at the time and he invited me into the cafeteria where we had a cup of tea while young footballers had their lunch at other tables.
I could see why Hodges fitted in with the Crazy Gang. Quick-witted, sharp and with an infectious laugh and an accent straight out of south London, he was fun to listen to and as I left I reflected on the fact that I’d have liked to have asked him more about his later days at Watford. But the thing with all these interviews was that they were concerned with a specific period in the club’s history, and I had already planned to bring the curtain down on my story shortly after Graham Taylor left in 1987. Hodges was the first person I spoke to who had not signed for Taylor and so his perspective on Bassett’s takeover was interesting.
So many people think of Wimbledon as the Crazy Gang and long ball and nothing else. It’s true we were all strong personalities and we were big lads. People perhaps thought it was unrefined and maybe that we bullied teams but we played a bit of football too.
How did you end up at Wimbledon?
I went to Wimbledon under Dario Gradi, I was a 15-year-old schoolboy playing in the reserves alongside Dave Bassett. He was a better manager than he was player, that’s for sure.
I turned down Chelsea to go to Wimbledon and I got in the team at 17 and we progressed as a team and went up through the divisions. We had a reputation. In the Fourth [Division] maybe it was a bit crude but as we went up we had to adapt it a bit. It was like Watford, with [Ross] Jenkins up front and the wingers. Crosses, shots, get the ball forward and create chances.
The thing was, the further you got up the league you found you couldn’t just boot it. You had to have good players, just as Watford did. Sometimes it was a means to an end and you could use that style to get on top of teams who didn’t fancy a scrap but you still had to play.
As we got bigger and bigger and further down the line, we adapted it and we had some good players who went on and did well for big clubs.
What was Dave Bassett like?
Bassett was one of the lads. He was brilliant and he encouraged all the high jinks. There was a great social side to it and we went out together because we were all young lads. We had no senior players, no ex-international players and so we were always proving ourselves. We were just bludgeoning our way through, living the life and enjoying the experience.
But we were deadly serious in our work. It was the classic work hard, play hard thing. They were a bright group of people, a bright group of footballers. They definitely weren’t just a bunch of thugs.
What did you think of Watford, who had risen through the divisions a few years ahead of you?
Watford’s reputation wasn’t really deserved. When you get to the top and play against Man United and Liverpool you realise they are not mugs. At Wimbledon we won at Man United, won at Anfield. We didn’t get the credit we deserved. People just think of the long ball game to this day and I think it’s probably the same with Watford.
We all came through the ranks and the leader [Bassett] had a massive influence on us, he moulded us into men, into a team.
Did you know much about the theory behind the style of play? I gather Wimbledon used the same people to analyse the games as Watford had done.
There was a fella in the army called Reep [Charles Reep] and he used to sit down with us on a Monday. His approach was advocated by the director of football at the English FA, Charles Hughes, at the time. I just looked at it as putting pressure on the back four. They couldn’t cope with Wise, Fashanu, Cork, Wally Downes, later Glyn Hodges. We got the ball forward and we attacked the defence and we knew that the more we attacked them the more chances we’d create.
What Bassett was very good at was that we knew how the opposition would play, because he’d had them watched, and so we’d impose ourselves on them from the off.
How did you come to join Watford?
Wimbledon had got to the First Division, finished sixth in the first year and Bassett left – to join Watford. It was starting to break up. Nigel Winterburn went to Arsenal. I went to Newcastle but I’d spoken to QPR and Watford.
I was impressed by Newcastle because it was a massive club, I was excited about playing for those fans. Sometimes there were nearly as many fans watching training at Newcastle than there were at Wimbledon first team matches.
But I was a bit worried when I got there and the manager played me on the right wing. I knew I was in a bit of trouble because he thought I was a right winger, but I was a left-footed, left winger. I thought ‘Hold on a minute, I’m not sure he’s done his homework on me here.’ I quite enjoyed it when Mirandinha turned up. He was a Brazilian striker and I loved playing with. But I didn’t really settle that great.
It was only after a few weeks of the season when [Willie] McFaul [the Newcastle manager] called me in and said, ‘You’re not playing this weekend, you’re going down to Watford to talk to them.’
I went to meet Elton in a hotel in Green Park. I’d chosen Newcastle but I didn’t think it was going to work out. Sometimes you click at a club, sometimes you don’t and I didn’t really settle too well, as I said. Bassett came in for me in the September and the manager didn’t seem too bothered one way or another if I went. They made a bit of money on me so I think everyone was happy.
I knew they hadn’t had a good start and I’d been in a relegation side before and I noticed confidence was low when I got there. I thought, ‘Uh-oh, this doesn’t feel great.’
In hindsight perhaps it was the easy way out going to Watford. Perhaps I should have had a bit more of a bash at Newcastle but at the time it felt like the smart move – go and work with Bassett again.
I knew Kenny Jackett [from the Wales set-up], I knew Mark Morris. Graham [Taylor] had this radius that the players had to live within but Bassett wasn’t bothered by that so I moved back to south London and he didn’t have a problem with that. I was outside the thing a bit, perhaps didn’t get to know my team-mates as well as I could have, but I had no problem with the travelling.
The team never really got going that season did they? Did you ever think you could pull clear of relegation?
We beat Arsenal 2-0 that year, in about the November and I thought then, ‘Here we go, we’ll pick up now.’ We could do it, but we couldn’t do it week after week.
Did you get the sense Bassett was unpopular with the supporters?
I guess I did but I think they were unhappy with all of us at that time. [Laughs]. Results were going against us and maybe Bassett wasn’t their cup of tea but I can assure you we were giving it everything, it just wasn’t working out. I wasn’t there when GT was there but he built that club. Everything was about GT. He’d done this, and he’d done that. It was his club really wasn’t it. Bassett came in and I think he turned everything upside down. I don’t think he necessarily did it on purpose but I think he thought that what had worked at Wimbledon would work here. Bassett was a confident guy and I knew from seven years with him at Wimbledon that it did work. I just think the players struggled to adapt to his methods and you know how quickly a season goes by. It’s October, then it’s nearly Christmas, then it’s February and you’re right in the shit.
What was your own relationship with the fans like?
I always felt the fans liked me and I enjoyed playing at Vicarage Road. I remember I broke my foot and I think West Ham was my comeback game and I got a good reception. I won player of the year the year I missed half the season with injury, I scored goal of the season. [Twice, v Barnsley in 1988-89 and v Oldham the following season].
But the year we went down we just never got going even though I thought we would turn the corner. I knew the results were going badly, but Bassett went out of the blue. I wasn’t expecting him to get the sack at all.
It was just after Christmas and I think they should have given him a bit longer, but the results dictated that. I always thought we’d be okay because we were never adrift. There was always a way out but we just didn’t get the results.
Do you think Bassett realised it was a mistake too?
I don’t know. I spoke to him about it once or twice and he’d say, ‘Yeah, that went well didn’t it!’ I think in hindsight following Taylor wasn’t the best move. Let someone else deal with that and then go in afterwards. But the thing about Bassett that I thought was a bit unfair was the suggestion he didn’t care or he didn’t work as hard as Taylor. Bassett was always a worker. He wasn’t blasé about it. He worked hard and he put everything into it.
What happened when Bassett left?
We were training at Cassiobury Park and he came over and told us he was going. Then Tom Walley took over as caretaker for a few days.
And then Steve Harrison was appointed. Did you know him?
I remember I had been at a function, an after-dinner thing, and Steve Harrison was there and he was absolutely hilarious. He was like a stand-up comedian, honestly. One of the funniest blokes I’ve ever met. When he was coming in, all the players asked the ones who’d been there before with Harrison what he was like and the boys said he was a fantastic coach.
I was hoping that he could turn things around and that the club would be okay. The thing he had in his favour was that he had everyone’s backing from the start.
He was a very good coach. He was very thorough. One of the first sessions he came to me and said to me, ‘The left back deals with the right winger, don’t come back and support him, you get forward.’ I was happy about that because it meant I could go and play.
The team got relegated but quite a few of the top players stayed.
When you’ve been relegated you feel responsible. I felt I wanted to stay and bounce back. Looking around in the dressing room and the way Steve had gone about things in the summer I felt we could bounce up. He brought in some good players – Paul Wilkinson was one. I enjoyed playing with Paul. Alan Cork was one of the brightest centre forwards I’ve ever worked with, but Paul Wilkinson was very close to that. We had a good side. We started really well and for a while we looked like we were the best side in the league by a mile.
Yeah, during the promotion challenge, I broke a bone in my foot. The weight bearing bone in my foot. I kicked someone’s studs and it hurt so I knew it was broken. I was in plaster and I missed the rest of the season. I was so disappointed to miss the play-offs. We fell away and we just couldn’t get it going again. The fact we lost to Blackburn on away goals after two draws really stung, you know? To go out without being beaten. That didn’t feel right and I think they changed the rules after that.
The following season wasn’t as good and Steve Harrison was replaced by Colin Lee. Were you sorry to see Steve go?
I was. I knew he was a good coach and I knew he was a good man but I don’t think I saw the best of him when he was the manager. I remember we went away on a trip to Merthyr Tydfil to play a testimonial game and we stayed over and all had a good night out. I always remembered the sportsman’s dinner I’d been to before I joined Watford and I remember the players saying how funny he was, but I never saw that side of him. I’d heard from some of the players what he was like but I think the pressure he was under was unbelievable. Whether he put it all on himself or not, I don’t know. I remember one night saying to him, away from the other lads, ‘We’re all behind you, relax a bit more and enjoy it, we’re all with you, don’t be someone you’re not because you’re the manager. We respect you.’ I probably shouldn’t have said it, but I felt he should have been more himself. I wonder if he thought he had to be like Graham, but Graham was a one-off. No one should try to be like him.
When you think back now, what do you remember about your time at Watford?
I enjoyed it. Okay, relegation wasn’t a lot of fun and the injuries I had weren’t great. But they were a good bunch of lads. The only player I found a bit aloof was John McClelland, I never really got to know him. He was a bit older than me and he was a bit of a one-off. Very smart guy, very mature, maybe not one to join in with the banter. Nice enough guy but not someone I felt on the same wavelength as.
I won goal of the season twice, and that stands out.
I used to love the Watford Observer and all the reports. I’d go through it looking for my name, just to see how well I’d done. [Laughs]. I remember Terry Challis did a great cartoon because I got suspended two Christmases running. He had a picture of the boys doing the training, all the running, and at one side I was sat at a table tucking into a huge Christmas turkey. It was fantastic. I asked Oli Phillips if he could get me a copy. I know Terry was having a dig at me, but it was so funny. I thought it was brilliant.
I also remember playing against Leeds and we won 1-0. Chris Kamara ran up to me and he stood next to me and marked me. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said he’d been told to man-mark me by Howard Wilkinson
I said, ‘Alright,’ and then I went and stood right next to Mel Sterland, their right-back. Kammy said, ‘What are you doing?’
‘Well, I’m going to stand here all game, and if our ten can’t beat your nine, then fair enough.’ They didn’t know what to do!
We had some good games and when I was in good form it was a great club to be at. I suppose I enjoyed winning them over. It was some act trying to follow John Barnes. I didn’t feel it particularly but I think to start with they saw me as a Dave Bassett man but over the time I was there I think I won them over. No one can replace John Barnes at Watford so I tried to just be good at what I was good at.