By this stage I had a long list of Watford players to interview and in March 2009, I headed to the Barking Abbey School in Barking to meet a man who wrote his name indelibly in the club’s history book. I wanted to find out more about the club’s youth system, run by the incomparable Tom Walley from Jimmy Gilligan, the man who scored Watford’s first goal in Europe. Having coached at a professional level, when I met Gilligan he was working with teenagers who hoped to make a career in the game. I wondered whether Walley’s methods would be accepted today.
The youth team days were special, very special. Tom Walley was a great person. He ruled with an iron rod and he ruled with fear at times, but he loved us and he wanted the best for us.
It was the first time we’d ever won the FA Youth Cup. We played Middlesbrough and Wolves on the way to the final. The Wolves game, which was away, had been called off but instead of sending us home Tom Walley put us through our paces. We were running round the dog track at Vicarage Road. Then we heard Tom shout, ‘Stop, stop, stop. The game is back on.’ We won the Wolves game 5-0 [It was actually 5-1].
What was Tom Walley like? I’ve heard he could be terrifying but everyone speaks so fondly of him.
Tom is tougher than a sergeant major. He’s the hardest man I’ve met in my life. The Gaffer, Graham Taylor, is a very tough, stringent man, but Tom’s principles, his discipline, his desire were something else. He was hard on us every day and he didn’t stand for any nonsense. He did shout at you, he did swear, and maybe today you can’t do that but I genuinely don’t think it did any of us any harm at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.
At the time we had no idea why they were pushing us so hard, why he got into us every day, but now I know. It made us.
Tom would ring us up on a Friday night to make sure we were home. Or he’d have you round his house with him and Pauline. There’d be loads of us at Tom’s house, we’d be in bunk beds. One night Colin Hull [another youth team player] was on the top bunk and it collapsed on me. Tom came in, wondering what the noise was, saw what had happened, laughed, then shut the door and let us get on with it.
Even today, Tom still treats us like one of his kids. He’s never changed. When I see him, it’s ‘How are you boyo? Still keeping fit?’ It’s only now I’m my mid-40s the Gaffer [Graham Taylor] realises I am an adult. We were their boys. We were like sons to them.
There were a lot of clubs in London and the south-east scouting promising youngsters. How did you come to Watford rather than one of the bigger clubs?
I played at game at Woodside [Garston] for my county under-14s and we lost 5-0 but I’d obviously looked alright because after the game two people came up to me. Tom was one and a Chelsea scout was the other. I was a Chelsea fan so as I was getting home in my eyes there was no doubt about it. I’m going to Chelsea. But when I got in, Tom had already rung my mum. He’d called before the Chelsea scout.
I got in and said to my mum, ‘I’ve got a trial.’ She said, ‘I know, it’s at Watford.’
Tom had made such an impression on her in one phone call that she thought it was alright for me to go there. My dad said that Chelsea would be too big a club for me at that age. I did go to Chelsea for the trial as well and they did want to sign me as an associated schoolboy but my mum and dad refused it and I ended up going to Watford. At the time you think your parents don’t know what they’re talking about but they were absolutely right.
A lot of players who are spotted at 13 or 14 don’t make it. Why do you think you had a career?
Tom said my desire, my determination, hard work and effort were what he saw. Talent is important, obviously, but it doesn’t get you a career on its own. I did score goals. I was already tall and by the time I was 15 I was about 6ft 1 but I was very gangly – I’d not grown into my body. A spotty-faced boy!
You have a place in Watford’s history for ever as the scorer of the club’s first goal in European competition. That came against Kaiserslautern in September 1983.
Yeah, I’d made my league debut in the Second Division – just a couple of subs appearances – then I came in when Ross [Jenkins] got injured in the First Division. Around New Year  we played Manchester City at home and I scored twice in a 2-0 win but all the headlines were about John Bond [City’s manager] who said the ball must’ve been screaming because it was in the air so much.
When Ross left I thought I might get my chance and then George [Reilly] signed and I was disappointed. Now I realise I wasn’t ready for it, physically. I’d go in, do well, score but then the next game I was absolutely exhausted, not so much physically but mentally. I don’t think people realise the intensity of playing at the top level.
But what I hadn’t realised was that George hadn’t signed in time for the European deadline so he couldn’t play.
On the Monday morning, the gaffer called out the squad of 16 to go to West Germany and I was in it. There’s Ian Richardson, Gilligan, Charlie Palmer, about four or five of us who had played together for the youth team only a year or so before. All of a sudden I’m travelling to Germany. I don’t think it had sunk in that I might start the game.
It was so exciting just to be going abroad. I come from a working class background. My mum and dad worked hard to put food on the table. We didn’t go abroad for a holiday, our summer holidays were in Clacton and Yarmouth and places like that. I had been on a plane before but not very often so it was a very exciting prospect.
When did you realise you were playing?
The squad was announced on the Monday morning and then we trained and did our pattern of play and set pieces and that was when I realised I was going to be in the team. I am sure Graham had done his work on Kaiserslautern and had them watched but he was very much about what we did. Everything was about making sure we got our runs right. Graham never made us frightened of the opposition by telling us how good they were at this or that.
I didn’t know much about Kaiserslautern at all. It wasn’t like now where you can watch European football on TV every week. The only player I knew was Hans-Peter Briegel. He’d been a pentathlete as well, I believe, but he’d played in the World Cup. He was so well-built and so strong.
Graham’s training was thorough wasn’t it?
I didn’t know anything else at the time but when I moved on I appreciated how much work went into making us as good as we could be. On a Friday after training, once a month or every six weeks, he’d go through our stats. How many shots did we have, blocks, how many win-backs in the final third, crosses, how many times you lost possession.
Before matches, there’d be an A4 sheet of paper in the middle of the table for the players to go and read. There’d be a little bit about each individual opposition player, strengths and weaknesses. All typed up, compiled by the scouts and the staff. Some players would read it, others wouldn’t touch it. But it was there if you wanted it.
Graham was miles ahead in his thinking regarding statistics. Miles ahead in getting BMI tested and players bleep tested. We used to go to Tottenham Court Road twice a year to a health club to have proper fitness and medical tests and the results would be analysed. All that helped us.
There were some things that were still quite old-fashioned at the time. We weren’t so hot on hydration before and during the game as they are now. We’d have a cup of tea at half-time. We used to walk in and there’d be a bar of choocolate on our kit before the game. That probably wouldn’t be done now. But in so many respects Graham was at the forefront.
Football was different in those days. Young players didn’t have much money. I moved out of Stevenage where I lived with my mum and dad and I moved in to Radlett Road digs with Colin Hull with our landlady, who was called Joyce Fitzsimmons. We lived about four doors away from Les Simmons [Watford’s groundsman].
I didn’t have a car, so when we got the mini bus back from Stanmore to the ground with either Tom or Steve Harrison. Then I walked back to my digs. Most days I rang my mum when she got back from work. Then Colin and I used to sit and watch the horse racing on TV because that’s what the old girl Joyce liked to watch. We’d be picking a horse and cheering it on.
That’s a strong memory but we can’t have done it all that often because the horse racing was on in the afternoons and we very rarely got home from training before five in the evening. So maybe I remember it because it was something that we did on the rare days when we had an early finish. Sometimes, with Tom running the training, we’d get home at eight o’clock and be absolutely exhausted.
I remember being in my room, packing my bag, getting my suit ready, then going to the stadium, then getting the coach to Luton for the Monarch flight. We flew to Germany, went to the hotel and then trained on the Tuesday night at Kaiserslautern. I thought, ‘Blimey.’ It was empty and it wasn’t huge but it was impressive. The butterflies were going.
We didn’t do anything different to what we would usually do on a Friday, or on the day before any match. We did our set plays. We didn’t do anything differently, so it was quite reassuring. It was just the thought of the ground being full the next night that was in my mind.
To me it seemed bigger than Vicarage Road but looking back it probably wasn’t, but the terrace behind one of the goals went back quite a long way. It was a nice stadium.
Were you nervous?
I think it was the little differences that we noticed. There was a lot of interest from the press. We had the media watching us train, which we weren’t used to. But to honest, I didn’t know any different. I’d have been nervous for a First Division game, so it wasn’t any different. I roomed with Wilf [Rostron], which helped because he was so calm about everything. ‘It’s just a football match, Jim,’ that sort of thing. We got on well – my son is Wilf’s Godson.
I suppose the pressure was off in a way because no one expected us to win. The team was different to the one that had finished runners-up a few months earlier. Luther had gone to Milan. Pat [Rice] was coming to the end. No one expected anything.
Do you remember much about the game?
Walking out, the noise, the flares, I wouldn’t say it was intimidating but it was intense. The noise was loud and they allowed the flares. I remember walking out and it was packed. The crowd were close to you.
I remember the game starting and thinking ‘This is too fast.’ I was trying to catch my breath. In a way the game went in a flash, but I remember feeling exhausted.
What about the goal? In a way it was the goal that gave a glimmer of hope because the game was lost 3-1. 3-0 would have been game over.
Yes, Graham had drilled into us how crucial it was to get the away goal. The ball came across and it came past a melee of people and it missed Wilf and I stuck my leg out. It hit my leg and I thought it was going to go over but it went into the roof of the net. I was quite close in so it would have been easier to miss it.
It’s a nice slice of history.
It wasn’t until I got back to England that it really dawned on me that I’d scored Watford’s first ever goal in Europe. I suppose them I thought, ‘If I don’t play another game for Watford, I’m in the history book.’ Of course, that isn’t what I wanted. I wanted us to win the tie but later on it does sink in that it was a nice goal to get.
We flew home on the Wednesday night, straight after the game and the way I remember it we landed back in England when Sportsnight was showing the game on TV. It was a rapid turn-round. Off the pitch, showered, changed, coach to the airport, plane, home and back to my digs.
I do remember on the flight back something that I’ll regret this until the day I die, I suppose. Someone presented me with a bottle of champagne, it was either the crew on the plane or something, for scoring the club’s first goal in Europe. The lads said I should open it, and so I did. Looking back now, I made a big mistake that night. We’d just lost 3-1 and secondly, that was a special bottle of Champagne. I look back now and realise I should have kept it but I was a naïve kid at the time. That bottle should never have been opened, it should be sat at home now, to be cherished.
Had I been the gaffer, looking at me, I’d have been furious. He definitely noticed. I don’t blame him for that. He didn’t tear me down a strip for it but I knew he didn’t think much of it. Some of the looks he gave you made you realise he was thinking ‘You’ve made a big mistake there, boy.’ He definitely threw me a look. That was naïvety on my part. I got caught up in the elation of being the goal scorer, but it was a naïve thing to do. Now, as a coach, if one of the lads got on the bus after losing 3-1 I’d shoot him a look too.
I remember Pat Rice saying to me after a reserve game – I don’t know whether we had lost or not – but us young lads were talking and laughing and Pat said, ‘You boys don’t even think about the game.’ He said, ‘Now, I can’t get in the shower until I’ve spent 20 minutes after the game re-living it.’ Those words from Pat stuck with me. I tell the lads I coach now the same thing.
So the plane journey is a strong memory for me. Being on the plane was quite a nice atmosphere because although we’d lost it wasn’t one where we’d been disgraced. I think we’d come out of there and done okay. I still don’t think anyone gave us a chance, but we felt we did have a chance.
So Graham didn’t tell you off for that?
No, he didn’t have to. Anyway, I was back on the bench for the next league game against Stoke so maybe that said it all. I knew I wasn’t first choice. Graham had brought in George Reilly and he was first choice. In the modern day there’d be a big story about it but I just accepted it. Maybe as time went on I should have voiced my opinion more and said what I thought but I wasn’t a loud, pushy person, I just got on with it. My son [Ryan] is at Northampton and he does voice his opinion, he does speak up but young people today do have more to say for themselves. They question authority more.
You came on as sub against Spurs and then it was the second leg against Kaiserslautern.
Yeah, that Tottenham game was the one where [Glenn] Hoddle scored that goal – the one that was on the opening titles of Match of the Day for ages. I was stood right behind him when he scored that goal. I saw it leave his foot and Sherwood was back-pedalling and I thought, ‘Oh my god, what a goal.’
So what about the second leg against Kaiserslautern? Did you feel you had any chance?
We were working on hitting them very early, really hitting them hard and not allowing them to get into their stride. They were decent technical players but we thought we could unsettle them if we had a very high tempo from the start.
On the Monday we worked on our set plays and pattern of play, Tuesday we did a lighter session. The gaffer used to like us to come in on the day of a game so on Wednesday morning we did a few free kicks and a few things. Even on a Saturday we’d do that most of the time. Some players used to hate it but for me it was great. It’d get you up out of bed with a sense of purpose on match day. It would get you outside and awake and lively and really up for the game instead of waiting while the morning and early afternoon dragged by.
After the little training session I went back to my digs. Then we met at the Hilton hotel for a pre-match meal. The pre-match meal was around five o’clock. Chicken, beans, scrambled egg. I liked a can of lucozade and a chocolate bar. Barnesy liked roast chicken but if the gaffer caught him eating roast chicken before a game, he’d have shot him. There was a guy at the Hilton who used to do Barnesy a bit of roast chicken.
What was wrong with roast chicken?
The gaffer thought it was too greasy. We used to have boiled chicken, which just isn’t the same is it.
Vicarage Road was rocking that night.
The atmosphere was amazing. The fans all had these air horns. Ann and Alan Swanson who did so much to get things going with the supporters, particularly with children, were at the forefront of creating the family club.
That night was a real European night. They gave the horns out as people came into the ground. There were all these flags. It was noisy early. Vicarage Road wasn’t usually a noisy stadium but that night it was a great atmosphere.
You were partnering Ian Richardson, who you knew well from the reserves, but he was making his first team debut.
I remember in the tunnel I was standing in front of Ian and I turned round and said to him, ‘We will not lose tonight.’
Not losing is one thing, but turning over a 3-1 deficit…
It clicked, it worked and the rest is history. We were sharp out of the blocks and we did play well.
Ian scored twice.
He did exactly what he did in the reserves. He was a goalscorer. Quick, instinctive.
Ian’s goals were just like his goals for the reserves – reaching the foot out to touch the ball over the keeper, getting a shot in early – it just happened to be in front of 20,000 instead of a thousand. Charlie’s [Charlie Palmer] goal was deflected in. Was it flukey or was it a defender seeing the chance and having it drilled into him by the manager and the coaching staff that if you shoot and get it on target you have a chance to score, or at least force a rebound that someone else can score from?
Did Graham let you have a bit more of a celebration afterwards?
To be honest, there were never great, great celebrations under the gaffer. That wasn’t because he was a killjoy, he was a realist and he was looking ahead to the next game and he wanted us to be the same. But he was very satisfied that we proved people wrong, particularly the press and the pundits.
We were a working football club. We enjoyed winning but we weren’t in it for the parties. I remember when we won the FA Youth Cup Jim Harrowell, one of the directors, got us some bottles of lemonade to swig from so the press could take some photos. That’s how Graham would have loved it – celebrate with lemonade lads!
The first job was to find out where Levski Spartak were from. I knew they had a history in Europe. I knew that. Where they were in the world, I had no idea until that point. Sofia, Bulgaria, it turned out.
Against Levski at home I didn’t think we played too well. They were decent, and we were a bit huff and puff and 1-1 was probably fair. The second leg he didn’t play me. I did go to Sofia but I didn’t play, I was on the bench and even that was intimidating. People were hissing and spitting at you.
It was so different. Remember that in 1983 eastern Europe was quite different. I remember going to Sofia and we were in the coach from the airport to the hotel and there were queues and queues of people to go and buy stuff in the shops. That was a real shock to me.
I suppose we didn’t really have to worry about anything going on those trips because the club did everything. Eddie Plumley [the chief executive] sorted all the arrangements. He was a brilliant man. Shirley Evans, the gaffer’s secretary, did all the paperwork and visas and whatever. They were all meticulous. We just had to turn up with our suit on, in our gear. All the skips were packed, our boots were packed. So when we got there it was a bit of an eye-opener.
After the European games, George Reilly and Maurice Johnston established a fantastic rapport and it was going to be hard to get back in. Did you feel frustrated to be back on the fringes?
I was still young, just turned 20, and I was involved. I went to the Plymouth game as part of the squad. George was struggling with an injury and he was in and out before the cup final. I was in the 20-man squad that was initially picked, then that was cut to 16 who went to the hotel and I wasn’t in that.
Just before the cup final I played in the [Nottingham] Forest game at the City Ground. They murdered us. It was 5-1 but they were so good that day. I felt like a spectator most of the day.
The following season, I knew there were clubs who were interested. Charlton Athletic had come in for me and Lennie Lawrence had spoken to the gaffer and Bertie Mee. They wanted everyone to wait until they’d managed to get a replacement in. Then George Reilly went to Newcastle and there was a bit of an opportunity for me and I played a few games but I heard they were after Colin West [from Sunderland].
West came in and a few weeks later I’m sold to Grimsby. I wanted to go because I needed to play but I wasn’t ready for Grimsby. It felt like the end of the world. I let myself down there. I’d rather have gone to Charlton.
After Grimsby I went to Swindon and Newport and for a couple of years I was a lost person really. It wasn’t until I went to Cardiff that I settled somewhere, started playing well and scored goals. I didn’t go to Grimsby thinking, ‘I’ve scored in Europe, what am I doing here,’ but I didn’t stamp my mark on things at Grimsby.
But I had to move on because I wasn’t going to get in at Watford. Graham said it was time to go. There’s a letter from him wishing me all the best and he kept in touch. Even now I try not to call him Graham in case he tells me off. I still call him gaffer.
Everywhere I’ve been as a coach, whether I’ve been coaching men or kids, I’ve taken what Tom and Graham taught me. He and Tom Walley epitomise what my beliefs are. ‘Attention to detail,’ is a GT saying. So is, ‘Remember who you are and what you are.’ I say these things to people now and I can’t thank him enough for passing on some of what he knew. I’m sure a lot of people will tell you this, but he’s a fantastic man.