Keith Pritchett was the team’s left-back when Graham Taylor arrived in 1977 and he played all but one game in the Fourth Division title-winning season. Then he was locked in a battle with Steve Harrison for the number three shirt, eventually winning that battle only for an injury midway through the 1981-82 promotion season cost him his place to Wilf Rostron.
Pritchett was working in football in New Zealand and so I planned to get up very early one morning to catch him on the phone. It was a bit tricky with the delay on the line too.
Then I heard Watford were interested. When I first arrived, things were a bit relaxed, I thought. When Graham came it was like a whirlwind. The standards rose in every department on and off the field. The players really took to that. Those who took to it, stayed for a number of years. Those who didn’t moved on.
Can you remember your first conversation with Graham?
I can remember meeting him. He spoke to us all individually and we all had a 15-minute sit-down with him and he told us what he thought of us as players and asked us what we thought our strengths and weaknesses were. It was an open and honest conversation. I remember Graham asking if I struggled against fast wingers. I said that a number of full-backs do, but I said I was a forward-thinking full-back. I liked to get forward and make their winger face the other way. I had a decent left foot and delivery. I was fit and I could get up and down the touchline.
I didn’t really realise that was exactly Graham’s game. When I was at QPR and Wolves, they were my strengths. I wasn’t the toughest tackler in the world. But in home games, or when I didn’t have a winger [to mark] I’d get forward and play in midfield. It suited me and it suited Graham’s needs so I think I was probably what he was looking for in that first season.
You said Graham was like a whirlwind. What do you mean?
From the minute he took over he ran everything. He decided everything. Everybody knew what the boundaries were. There were dress standards and there were standards on how we trained. We trained how we played. There was no easy days unless he set us an easy session. The physicality of it suited me and once everyone was used to it we were definitely one of the fittest groups of players around.
I’d played in the First Division for QPR, but after Graham arrived Watford very quickly became a great place to be. There was immediate success and we won the Fourth Division title straight away.
You’d played in the team the year before under Mike Keen and finished about seventh I think. What was it that pushed the team on?
He signed a few players that improved us but mostly it was the way we approached games. We had a plan to win matches and once we got into gear we were very difficult to stop.
I played 45 out of 46 league games. I missed one game, which was against Wimbledon. I remember not training in the week leading up to the Wimbledon game – I was fit but GT chose to rest me, so I didn’t quite get the full season in.
The following season, the manager signed another left-back…
He did. Quite early on in the Third Division, he bought Steve Harrison, who was a different kind of player to me. We had a real battle for a couple of seasons.
When Steve came in, I did have a few conversations with Graham. I had a two-year contract and I said I wanted to stay and fight for my place. It was a great place to be at and I had no inclination to move even if I wasn’t guaranteed a place in the team. Steve was a tough tackling full-back and I was an over-lapping full-back. We were different players. He preferred Steve for a while but I still wanted to be there.
Two successive promotions must have had the place buzzing, but was it not frustrating not to be in the side all the time?
I played enough to be part of it. The one thing GT did was he had everyone together. He instilled belief in everyone and even if you weren’t in the side you were aware that you had to be ready in case your chance came round again. As we went through the divisions it was obvious he would bring players in so you knew there would be competition. I got back in the side in 1981-82 because I kept working, I made sure my attitude was right.
What about the style of play?
We had a long-passing game. People thought it was helter-skelter, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t random. We weren’t just booting it up the pitch. People who’d not watched us thought it was dull but we were so attack-minded it was never dull. Look at the goals we scored. We just gave the opposition no time on the ball. It suited my game down to the ground.
I remember in about 1981 they were shooting a TV show down at Vicarage Road. [The children’s programme, Murphy’s Mob].
Billy Wright, the old England and Wolves captain, was a technical adviser and he was often down at Vicarage Road working on the programme. Graham used that as a chance to get Billy to come in and talk to us about how Wolves had done it in the 1950s. They’d used the long ball and Billy said, ‘Keep doing it, there’s nothing wrong with it if you’re winning,, so that gave us even more belief.
Graham clearly had a plan to get to the First Division and he brought in players who had experience – players like Eric Steele and Wilf Rostron and Mick Henderson. Then there was Kenny [Jackett], Nigel [Callaghan] and Steve Terry coming through, and they were quality players, good enough to go in the first team at a young age. It was just the right timing for them to come through as we were in the Second Division and ready to push for promotion but for Graham to recognise they were good enough and give them a chance showed great confidence as well as judgement.
One of the best results of the period was knocking Manchester United out of the FA Cup in January 1982.
That was a great game. We caused United so many problems. They played with only one winger so I had no winger on my side which meant I could go forward into midfield. He moved [John] Barnes inside and he caused them real problems. It was one of those days where Graham went up against one of the best sides in the country and beat them tactically. We didn’t just upset the apple cart, we had a plan and we carried it out.
When we had possession I’d get forward. We’d allow them to get the ball but we’d close them down very quickly and that would unsettle them and they’d make mistakes. We did feel we could beat the big guys and we did that day.
Do you think Graham got the credit he deserved?
There was a lot of talk about Watford because we’d come from the Fourth Division and were on our way to the First. There was a lot of talk about Graham because he was a young manager.
There wasn’t so much football on TV so people had to come and see us to get an idea of what we were about. People would come – journalists – and they might see us give someone a hammering and they’d go away and all they’d talk about was the long ball. People thought we were the same as we had been in the Fourth Division – that we were bringing lower division football up the leagues and that we’d run out of steam eventually. But Graham had refined it. It suited him just fine if people wanted to think we were just a long ball team or if they thought we were just the same but the fact was we had better players and we’d really honed what we were good at.
There was a period when Jackie Charlton was manager at Sheffield Wednesday and he slated us in the press for a season and a half when we were both in the Second Division. He said he wasn’t going to play that way, then he bought Andy McCulloch, a big lad to play up front and they went more or less the same way we were. When he was at Ireland you could say he was playing a version of what we did at Watford, although I think we were nicer to look at.
There were a few sides who copied what we were doing and I’m sure Graham would have noticed that and smiled a bit.
You were in the side at left-back around the time John Barnes came in. What was he like in those very early days.
He arrived, played briefly in the reserves then he was in the first team. He was with us the whole pre-season and I remember seeing he was multi-talented. He was well up there in the cross-country runs. He could play squash, badminton, he was a very talented lad. He was initially quite shy. But he was brilliant straight away.
It’s probably fair to say that Wilf Rostron wouldn’t have been converted into a left-back had you not got injured?
We beat Derby 6-1 and if there’s ever a turning point that was it. I was in the team an we were 5-0 up. I’d had the ball and I just pulled to the left and my knee gave way and I’d done some medial ligament damage. That kept me out for four or five weeks. I think he tried Mick [Henderson] at left-back in the next game and then gave Wilf a game at left-back and that was me done. Wilf was tough to get past. His transition was immediate. He took to it like he’d played there his whole career. He was a tough full-back.
I had another full year on my contract, which would have taken me through the first season in the First Division but it became obvious the club didn’t want me to stay. Sam Ellis [Blackpool manager] came in for me during the promotion season but I wanted to stay. But by the November it was obvious I wasn’t going to get in, so I went to Blackpool then.
I was newly married. All three of my children were born at Shrodells. It was tough to leave but that’s the way football goes. There’s always a chance you’ll have to move on.
When Steve Harrison came I felt I could get back in, but when Wilf got in I couldn’t see a way past him. I didn’t want to be on sidelines. I was 29 and I needed to secure the next two or three years of my career. I went to Blackpool for a couple of years and then came to New Zealand and played here before getting into management.
What are your fondest memories of Watford?
I spoke to Graham not that long ago and it was lovely to catch up with him. He was someone who taught me so much, not just about football but about life. He brought a level of smartness and professionalism to the club. He was surrounded by people who shared his values – Bertie Mee, Eddie Plumley – and he made you want to live up to those standards too.
GT would know your family, your children by their names. When he met my wife it was always ‘hello Barbara.’ He had to deal once with my eldest daughter, who is now 32. She escaped from her mum’s grasp in the players’ room where the wives and families could go and got down the corridor. I think we were playing Bolton and it was half-time and we weren’t doing too well. She burst into the dressing room asking for her dad. She was only two-and-a-half. Graham was in the middle of a tirade when she came in. That broke the ice a bit. [Laughs]