If you saw John Barnes play you’ll be hard pushed to think of a more naturally gifted individual to wear a Watford shirt. Plucked from what was little more than parks football as a raw, athletic teenager, he went on to terrify opposition defences in the First Division before moving on to Liverpool after six years at Vicarage Road.
I had been really looking forward to meeting and speaking to Barnes because he was one of my favourite players back in the 1980s – the one who got the crowd on the edge of their seat, or on tiptoes, whenever he got the ball.
He was manager of Tranmere Rovers when I got in touch with him and he suggested that we meet at a Holiday Inn just outside Aylesbury one Tuesday afternoon before their match with Wycombe Wanderers in the evening.
I arrived shortly before the agreed time and he said that instead of sitting in the hotel’s restaurant or bar he’d rather talk in his room. It was a slightly surreal experience, me sitting on the edge of one of the beds and him in the room’s only chair, and I got the impression he wasn’t totally focused on our conversation.
Perhaps he was pre-occupied by Tranmere’s match that evening, which would be understandable, or maybe he was not prepared to be asked to think back more than 25 years. It was an interesting chat but I felt like I was not really getting much beneath the surface.
I played at Sudbury Court for a year. I’d come to England when I was 13, from Jamaica. My dad was posted here as a military attaché for four years, so I fully expected to be going back when I was 17.
I played football here and for three years I played for Stowe Boys Club, which had a very good team. The coach at Stowe, Ray Sullivan, took two or three of us to play for St Joseph’s on a Sunday. A lot of the St Joes players played for Sudbury Court on a Saturday. Of the three of us who went to St Joes, I was the only one who then went up to Sudbury Court.
Were you always a left winger?
I’d played as a centre back for Stowe and St Joes. We were such a great team at Stowe we’d win eight-nil and so I was always getting forward. In the men’s league I wasn’t physically strong enough to play centre back, and I always thought of myself as a forward player, so at Sudbury Court I played on the left wing. In the men’s league the Sudbury players looked after me, they were all seasoned players. It could be physical. It was tough.
What were you thinking as you went from club to club. The standard was getting better but you were presumably not thinking about a career in football?
Not at all. As far as I was concerned, I was due to go back to Jamaica in about six months. I was just enjoying playing football and I liked playing for the better team.
But you must have been aware that professional clubs were watching you?
I heard that a taxi driver saw me playing and recommended me to a scout but I knew nothing about that until my father got a call from Bertie Mee to ask me to go and train with the Watford youth team. I went on a Thursday night up to Woodside and trained with Tom Walley.
I played at Orient and I scored with a volley. That’s what he said on my DVD. He said he hid me and took me away.
Everyone I’ve spoken to has a variation on this story. Steve Harrison says you played for the reserves and Graham Taylor said, ‘Get him off,’ so he could sign you.
They did sign me straight away but no, no, no I wasn’t substituted. As I remember it, I scored against Orient and they signed me. The thing was, I was too old to sign as an apprentice, so I had to sign as a professional, even though I was only 17. I was with the reserve team a couple of times in the April and May of that season [1980-81], so maybe that’s what Steve remembers.
Did it take much persuading for your parents to let you stay?
It was because of Bertie Mee that I stayed. My father knew Bertie Mee, and he met Tom, and he was happy for me to stay. My mother and father went back in the June. I started training with the professionals in July. I was living in digs in Oxhey and that was it.
How did your dad know Bertie?
My dad captained Jamaica. He loved football. For a 17-year-old boy being left alone in England with no family it could have all gone wrong so they had to trust that the club would look after me.
My father knew Bertie from when Arsenal went to Jamaica in the 1970s. He knew he was a disciplinarian. My father met Graham and he liked Graham too, so that was the most important thing. He knew I would be looked after, not just from a playing point of view but off the field too.
Talk me through how you got in the first team. Your debut came at the start of the 1981-82 season, which ended with promotion.
I played a game in the reserves on the first day of the season. I played against Swindon in the reserves and I scored after 30 seconds. I was happy to be in the reserves playing in the stadium. That day, Luther got sent off for the first team playing against Newcastle so I was in the squad for the next games against Grimsby and Oldham Athletic.
After a couple of substitute appearances you made your debut at Chelsea and it’s fair to say you made an immediate impact. Did Graham make sure you kept your feet on the ground?
Graham would keep the pressure off us a bit. He just said all we had to do was get the crosses in. That was my job. Get the crosses in.
This was my first experience of professional football. If I’d been around in the youth team, if I’d been an apprentice, I’d have known a little bit of what to expect. I didn’t know anything. I was a professional footballer for three months and before I knew it I was in the first team and being talked about as a future England player. It was as quick as that but I didn’t think it was strange at the time, I was just playing, enjoying the games and trying to do my best.
We were going for promotion but I didn’t really have the sense of where Watford had come from. As far as I was concerned, Watford were a good Second Division team at the time, but I never saw the meteoric rise so I didn’t think it was unusual that we were at the top of the table and winning games.
Not really. I don’t remember worrying, anyway. Graham used to instill so much confidence in you, so much belief and desire.
I remember playing Tottenham away. The fancy footballers, the archetypal architects of the game, and we were the demons of football, if you listened to the press. I remember they used to make fun of us. In the warm up they’d come out and kick the ball as high in the air as they could. Glenn Hoddle was there, they had a laugh about it. We loved playing against them and Arsenal. We had good records against them. They may have had better players than us but we expected to go there and win. We had a work ethic but we also had a game plan that was all about attacking and we found that some sides didn’t like having to cope with that for 90 minutes. I remember losing at Anfield and being so disappointed we’d lost. I couldn’t work out why they’d beaten us, because we felt we were going there to win. They were a top side, though, and they sucked us in and passed it round us a bit.
Some sides were a bit disrespectful in underestimating us and so were the press, saying we shouldn’t be playing football the way we played it. Teams like Norwich and West Ham particularly were supposedly noted for their passing and they looked down their noses at us a bit so it was always nice when we beat them.
You finished as runners-up…
What a great achievement. For a club like Watford. Could that happen again? Will a team come up through the leagues and finish second? I know Wimbledon did it after Watford – and they won the cup, of course, as I know only too well! – but Watford was a small club and they got almost all the way to the top. It was a great achievement and a lot of teams were completely unprepared for us when we first arrived.
We were maybe a bit fortunate on the last day because Liverpool had won the league several weeks earlier and we were at home, a big crowd, and it probably meant more to us that day than it did to them because they were the champions already. We won [2-1] and other results meant we finished second. Liverpool stayed after the game, they were flying out to Singapore for a tour, so they stayed behind and had a good party.
What did you think of the second season? Luther left, quite a few players left and the league results were not good to start with, but there were the European games…
I remember going going to Sparta – it was minus four and the pitch was bone hard. We were slipping around everywhere.
Looking back you can see that it was never going to carry on. I look back and think ‘did we expect to carry on and win the cup and then win the league?’ I think at the time we did expect that because it had all gone so well. Up to the FA Cup final I really felt it was going to continue but I think realistically when I looked at the top clubs and the players they could sign Watford were not going to win the league.
Did you miss Luther?
We did. He scored a lot of goals and you knew if you put the ball in the middle he would give his all to get on the end of it. Strikers can make wingers look bad, you know? If you put the ball in the right area but the striker isn’t there to meet it, it looks like a bad cross. Fans don’t criticise the striker, they criticise the ball in. Well, Graham criticised the striker – it was their job to get in the middle and get on the end of things and they did it every game. So if you put the ball in the right place but the striker wasn’t there, it would be the striker Graham would have a go at. That was great because we all knew what was expected. Graham liked early crosses, crosses that split the defenders, or curled away from the goalkeeper. Give the striker something to attack. In that way, he made it so easy for us.
Luther was very dynamic – balls over the top, chasing things, closing down. We replaced him with Maurice [Johnston] who didn’t do the same amount of work but was a clever player. Get the ball in the box and he’d be there. You would hardly notice him but he’d pop up in exactly the right place at the right time.
As time went on I stopped playing as an out and out winger. My game had started to evolve. Maurice came down and we got to the cup final but he left the year after. I would play on the left, or in the middle and I liked to do both.
What was it like when you first broke into the team. I’m thinking that making your first start at somewhere like Stamford Bridge in 1981 must have been difficult for a black player…
It was something we lived with, being black in England then. There was not a game back then when you didn’t get racist abuse. People made monkey chants. People threw bananas at me at West Ham when I was playing for Watford – that was long before I played for Liverpool at Everton and there’s the famous photo of me backheeling the banana off the pitch. It made an impact then because the photo is so iconic, so powerful, but it happened all the time.
Was it hard to keep your cool? Or did you get angry?
The one thing I wouldn’t do was show them it was getting to me and in a way it didn’t get under my skin. I wasn’t born or brought up here [in England]. I was a middle-class Jamaican boy and the way I was brought up in Jamaica was not to feel like I was of a lower class. So no one was going to make me feel that way, certainly not because of the colour of my skin.
It sounds like a cliché but all we could do was perform on the pitch. If they were giving us abuse, the best thing we could do, the most constructive thing, was to show them what we could do. What else could we do? Give them the satisfaction of knowing it was getting to us? If I could put the ball in the middle for Luther to score, that was the only answer we could give.
By the time I arrived, black players had paved the way to a certain extent. Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Brendan Batson at West Brom. Justin Fashanu. Viv Anderson. Luther was before me. But the chants were a regular thing but it did slowly change because it changed in society. Maybe football helped that. There would have been some Watford supporters, and some Liverpool supporters, who held those views but if they supported me, if they could see past my skin colour, they couldn’t very well give abuse to a black player on the other team could they. It became socially unacceptable to use certain words and society has changed so my children don’t have to deal with that, but racism hasn’t gone away. It is still there under the surface.
Do any games stick in your mind for happier reasons?
The game I remember vividly is the FA Youth Cup final [May 1982]. I didn’t play in the first leg at Old Trafford. I remember Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside were playing. I remember thinking that Hughes was better than Whiteside, who everyone was raving about at the time. I didn’t get much of a kick, I think I came down from the first team and thought I was going to run the game and it wasn’t that simple.
The FA Cup semi-final in 1987, but for the wrong reasons. I remember Glenn Hoddle patting me on the back after the third goal went in and said, ‘Just keep your head up.’ He felt sorry for us and recognised that we didn’t have a recognised goalkeeper. I don’t think it was Gary’s [Plumley] fault but it did knock our confidence. We didn’t know anything about him, what he could do, what he couldn’t do, and he was in the team for a semi-final. We didn’t know how he was going to cope. We didn’t have the confidence in ourselves. Regardless of the goalkeeper we should have put on a better performance.
It wasn’t quite the same as the FA Cup run three years earlier. You scored a couple of goals in the quarter-final against Birmingham.
That was a very good result because even though they were at the bottom of the league they were a good side, a very physical side. We played well as a team. Myself and Nigel [Callaghan] would get the kicks. Fortunately for me, it seemed the lunatics were the left backs. Remember them, Mick Dennis, Pat Van Den Hauwe, Stuart Pearce – they were left-backs. They used to go through him. Nigel always said ‘let’s switch sides.’ I remember we did that against Newcastle and they had John Anderson at right back, and he was a really hard case, and he went straight through Nigel as soon as he got the ball and Nigel said, ‘Let’s switch back again.’
How much did Wilf Rostron help you?
Wilf used to take the pressure off by telling me to stay forward. There were times when, I won’t say I went missing, but Wilf was talking to me all the time, keeping me in the game. He helped me immensely.
Did you miss him in the cup final?
I don’t know if I missed him in the cup final, but the team missed him. Neil [Price] had a great left foot and his delivery was excellent but he wasn’t very pacey. In a team where we had lots of possession he was a great player to have, but when Everton started to get on top, they realised that Trevor Steven could run Neil and that made it difficult for us.
The first 15 or 20 minutes we could have scored a couple. Once Everton settled down, Trevor really did well. I am never one for saying we’d have won if we’d had this player or that but it didn’t help.
How did you feel afterwards?
We didn’t expect to lose. We really didn’t. It was utter despair. We’d done well against Everton in the league. I felt the experience of a club made a difference. I am not saying they took it more seriously. We did take it as a lovely day out. We were enjoying it. Maybe they came to win it.
No, I was happy at Watford and I was still learning. I suppose I knew I wouldn’t stay at Watford for ever but I had been at the club since I was 17. I always thought I had to go to the right club.
It wasn’t until 1986 that I felt that Graham was going to go. I realised he wasn’t going to stay at Watford for much longer. Graham actually said to me in 1987 that it was time for me to go because he recognised I needed to move on. After the World Cup in 1986, I had decided it was time, but that is what football is like. I couldn’t stay for my whole career.
So Graham was involved in what would happen?
Graham had that conversation with me and I was guided by his advice. Once Liverpool had shown an interest, it was fairly clear I was going to go.
But I wasn’t the one seeking to move. I just knew it was time. Even before Graham left, we were talking about me moving on. It really was time for me to go. I’d played 30 times for England so realistically clubs were going to come in and Watford would not stand in the way of a good move. The thing for me was, what was going to happen?
There’d been articles in the paper that you were holding out for a move to Italy.
The media talk about Italy was wrong. There was talk about me going to Arsenal. Liverpool had come in for me in January 1987. If a move to Italy had come up I would have jumped at the chance at that time but there was no approach that I knew of.
Graham had said to me ‘stay to the end of the season’. Liverpool had come in for me in January but Graham told me I was staying and that was that. But the media said I’d snubbed Liverpool and that I was waiting for a move to Arsenal or Italy, but that was not the case at all.
Wherever I was going to go, I wasn’t going to go until July. If Graham had said the best thing was to go in January, I would have done, but he made it clear I was staying until the summer.
Just to go back a bit, can you remember any specific games at Watford? I’m thinking of the week in May 1985 when you beat Tottenham 5-1 away, then Man United 5-1, then led at Liverpool before losing 4-3.
I can’t remember any of that in any detail. It really is just a blur. At that time, because of the positivity and confidence that Graham put in us, it didn’t surprise me. I had the sense that we should have been getting these results, not in a big-headed or boastful way, but because we had such confidence in each other. That sounds like I am being blasé but if you mention specific results to me, I just think, ‘Yes, well, we used to go to the big grounds and get results.’ I remember we beat Liverpool at Vicarage Road a couple of times, and there was the cup game we should have won.
The one where you scored the free-kick and they came back late on?
That’s right. I remember thinking we were going to win, but they moved Jan Molby to a place just in front of the back four and I thought, why are they putting him in there? But he ran the game and we couldn’t really stop him.
A couple of people I’ve spoken to who were not part of Watford at that time have suggested that you might have felt restrained or restricted playing Graham Taylor’s way. Is that the case?
Not at all. I didn’t find it at all restrictive. I was a winger and he wanted me to attack, so it was great for me. It was about playing the right football for the players we had. But I don’t think Aston Villa played the same way as Watford when Graham went there, and England didn’t play the same way.
I look at it now and think what a genius Graham was. People might not want to think that but he was. At Liverpool we had great, great players. We didn’t do lots of tactical work. From a managerial point of view, though, Graham was much better than any other manager I’ve come across. He took some average players and made a great team. Liverpool had great players. Of course, there is an art to managing great players and maybe Graham wouldn’t have been able to do that. But Graham created a unit and a philosophy and made it successful.
Do any other players typify that Watford philosophy?
Luther more than anyone. He really embraced Watford the town and the club. He had a chance to go to Manchester United when he came back from Italy but he came back to Watford, not just because he was comfortable. He was a better all-round player when he came back. The camaraderie, work rate, integrity Luther had was inspirational. He sweat blood and tears for Watford. Everyone knew Luther. He did all the charity work and like all of us he thought that was important.
You were all asked to do work in the community. What did you feel about it at the time?
I thought the community work was what football was. You might do something every couple of weeks. We all used to do it. It wasn’t just whoever was injured who went to the schools or the hospitals or whatever it was. We all did it and we genuinely didn’t think anything of it because for me it was normal. I’d done it since I started.
I think Watford needed to do that. I don’t think many clubs did what Watford did then but it meant the club was part of the town. Graham was very strong on forging a relationship with town and the supporters and that helped us. We weren’t detached from things.
Was there an element of fear working for Graham?
In training you had to work 100 per cent because everyone was scared of Graham. I don’t mean scared in the sense that you couldn’t perform. He didn’t have to get angry very often because no one wanted him to get angry. He was the boss. Everything he did was optional but compulsory. Do you know what I’m saying? He said, ‘You don’t have to do this, but you will be better if you do it. If you don’t want to do it, you can go somewhere else but we’re going to do it like this here.’ The players bought into what Graham wanted and people wanted to work for him. You felt you wanted to please him. If he praised you, it felt good. He had that quality.
We worked hard. The cross-country in Cassiobury Park was hard. Everyone knew the course and there was a section where we had to go up this hill, down it and back up it again and then carry on. No one from the staff was there to watch us to make sure we did it, we just did it.
Why not just go up once, and come back down? Why not skip it? When I was at Liverpool people used to get in taxis and all sorts when there was cross-country running but at Watford everyone just assumed you had to give your best every single day.
No one was watching you but if I was 30 seconds of so off my best time for that course, I’d get a bollocking from Graham for not trying hard enough.
I didn’t want to do those runs. If Graham had given me the option not to do them, I wouldn’t, but it all made sense because we were winning. Fear helps a bit, though, believe me. Me running that extra mile and putting it all in, it made sense.
I got less fit as time went on at Liverpool. At Liverpool we were fit to play 90 minutes of football. But at Watford we were fit for sprints, weights, cross-country runs, everything.
Everything was documented. Graham was ahead of his time in terms of sports psychology, diet, everything. But he was fair too. He judged players against themselves, not against each other. Kenny [Jackett] was a dynamic player but he was always at the back on the long runs, always the slowest. Graham was always geeing him up, encouraging him rather than knocking him down. He knew Kenny was doing his best and if he could knock ten seconds off his time he would say, ‘Well done, Kenny.’
So his man-management was good?
He knew how to get the best out of people but Graham got frustrated with some characters. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. When working with different players who weren’t like him it made it frustrating for him. [Paul] Gascoigne for example. I think that made him pull his hair out.
What about Watford?
Well, he could sell anyone who didn’t work the way he wanted. [Laughs] Brian [Talbot] was a very strong character, quite set in his ways, used to doing things a different way at Arsenal but at Watford it was Graham’s way and I think some people found that quite difficult.
The thing was, Brian would do everything that was asked. Talbot was very fit. He was a great runner. He came along and beat me, and I’d been the best before he arrived. But he’d go out and drink, that was what he did. Brian wanted to get the ball down and play a bit more, but Graham didn’t want that at that time. But for Watford to sign ex-England internationals, it was great. But Graham still wanted complete control over the team and that is quite difficult when you bring those experienced type of players in.
We used to have these end of season nights at Baileys. We had to put on a comedy show for the fans. I had to dress up as a pregnant woman and pretend to be Graham Taylor’s long lost lover. I mean, it’s incredible really. People were laughing so much and I remember thinking, ‘Can we take the mickey out of the boss like this?’ But he went along with it. I can’t imagine many other clubs doing that at that time, and certainly not now.
Was the transfer to Liverpool already arranged before Dave Bassett came in?
I went to Dave’s house and we had a chat. He said he wanted me to stay. He had to be seen to be trying to keep me but it was already set up for me to go to Liverpool. Liverpool had made a bid and the club was going to accept it.
It turned out to be the right move because you won the league title, the FA Cup…
Yes, I was ready for it and I felt I played my best football at Liverpool. Had I gone to Arsenal or Spurs at 17, I wouldn’t have been the same player, I don’t think. It wouldn’t have been the right way for me to progress. I am glad I stayed at Watford as long as I did but that was how it was. I wouldn’t have got that chance to develop over six years and improve my game.
The last year was a bit up and down. I think the fans accepted I was going to go but some of them were having a go, saying I wanted to leave. Well, I suppose I did but it wasn’t like I was rejecting them. That was when the reality of football hit home – I realised that in football you do move on.
How did Graham compare to, say Kenny Dalglish, your manager at Liverpool, and other managers?
GT would always say he had ambition. He didn’t change, he was as driven for his last game as he was for the first. Very much like Kenny Dalglish – who was all or nothing. I remember at Liverpool we played Everton on the Wednesday, and then on the Saturday we were playing Luton, and in between Kenny left. No one saw that coming. No one had a clue but he had decided it was time to go. Totally single-minded. Graham was like that too.
Was he any different when you joined up as England manager?
He was still the same man but there was a bit more distance between us, between him and the players really. It was a difficult time for him. People might think the England squad was an unhappy place to be when he was manager but that’s not my memory at all. But if the results don’t go for you, the pressure increases.
Did you feel sorry for Graham when things didn’t work out?
Of course, of course. It was tough to see him go through that. Some of the coverage in the press was too much. No one deserved that but Graham especially so. Graham is a very decent man, totally honest with people and he wanted England to be successful more than anything else.