Kenny Jackett was the manager of Millwall and when I first contacted him in April 2009, he was in the middle of trying to steer the Lions out of League One. Because of that, he asked if we could speak on the phone and so one afternoon in early May we talked about the 1980s at Watford.
I’d been in the squad, I’d been involved more but I think he was waiting until we were definitely safe [from relegation to Division Three] before giving us a go.
We travelled up on the train to Sunderland away, coming back after being beaten quite heavily, as you say. I had gone on for Dennis Booth in the second half. Graham is up the front of the train. Dennis is sat next to me and he said, ‘Well, that’s it for me, son. It’s up to you now. I’m an old man now. Go and make that place in the team yours.’
It was quite a tough day to make your debut, I imagine.
It was because they needed to win because they were going for promotion. It was a great atmosphere at Roker Park that day. We were well beaten. Those old grounds were very, very intimidating. For myself, at 18, being a Watford lad it was a special day even if the result was not what we wanted. My parents still live on the Hollywell estate. From my back garden where I grew up I could see the floodlights at Vicarage Road. So to actually get a game was fantastic, even if you have been well beaten.
It’s a big transition from being a schoolboy apprentice to actually playing in the first team and it wasn’t until I got on that I realised that first team football is not just one level above reserve football it’s three, four steps up. The pace of it, the intensity. It matters. I am not saying reserve games didn’t matter because at Watford we had a winning mentality at every level but it’s not the same. There are young players, old players, people coming back from injury so the intensity just isn’t the same.
Watford was undoubtedly your club, then? Your dad Frank had played for them in the 1950s so it was in the blood.
He did. He played a few games and we were local. But we were football people. My dad and my brother were both very keen on the game. We’d go to watch Watford, or Spurs or Arsenal. I remember when I was about 15 or 16 and we went to White Hart Lane and saw Glenn Hoddle and then when I was 19 or 20 I was playing against him. I was a local lad and a Watford supporter but I am glad I watched different clubs because I think it showed me different things.
There was quite a turn around between the 5-0 defeat at Sunderland and the 4-0 win over Burnley.
We were a different team at Vicarage Road at that time. It was the final game of the season, we were safe and I think Graham wanted us to throw off the shackles a bit. It had been a tense season in some ways but he threw me, Steve Terry and Nigel Callaghan in – Nigel was a year younger than me but we were all young boys. He [Taylor] was maybe saying, ‘Go on, show me you can play in this side.’ It was a great finish to the season for me to get a taste of it and then have a summer thinking, ‘I want to be in that side.’
You were a product of the youth system under Tom Walley but I guess you were on the books before Graham arrived as manager so you know what it was like then.
The first team didn’t have a bad year the year before Graham came in under Mike Keen but really it wasn’t a club that was going anywhere. I was training with Dave Butler then – he used to look after the youngsters but there was really no system to speak of. We used to run round the pitch, up and down the terraces and then play five-a-side in the car park.
When Graham came in I was suddenly very aware of how the club was progressing. I remember [Alan] Garner was decent, one of the better ones at the club, and he brought in Ian Bolton and Sam Ellis at the same time. I thought ‘Christ, there’s a good centre half already and he’s just brought in two more good centre halves.’ You know when a manager does that he means business. Garner and Bolton kept Sam out of the team.
Sam played in the reserves. I won’t be disrespectful to say they didn’t have a youth policy, but Tom was just starting and he was putting it in place. I was 15 and playing in the reserves. I was left back and Sam Ellis was centre half. He’d been brought in as club captain but Garner held him out of the team for a while. Then they bought [Brian] Pollard and [Dennis] Booth. From what I saw of the first team at that time I could tell that the manager was building a team that won a lot of matches. The atmosphere around the place changed more or less overnight. Suddenly there was a level of organisation and focus that had not been there before and that filtered down. Tom is a hard, hard man. Not nasty at all but very demanding of you and of himself. He worked hard and he wanted you to work hard to make the best of the talent you had. He could make you or break you but if you could cope with Tom it was almost easy as you went on.
It strikes me that when you were a teenager in the reserves the club was in the Fourth Division and as you got older the first team was going up through the divisions so by the time you were old enough to break in you had to be good enough to play two divisions higher than when you’d started out, if you see what I mean.
That’s a good point. When you think about what Tom did, what they all did, he had to develop players who would be good enough to play in the first team because Watford couldn’t go out and buy a new team every time they went up. So the young players had to be good enough to make a contribution. That shows what a good job they did. I was fortunate in that I had a bit of versatility. I don’t know whether in hindsight it was a good thing for me but I could play in defence or midfield. I was useful to the team.
Your first full season, then, was 1980-81 and within a few weeks of it starting you’re up against Southampton in the League Cup. They were a First Division side and beat you 4-0 at The Dell but that just set up one of the most remarkable results in the club’s history.
The 7-1, yes. I remember playing against Kevin Keegan in the first leg. Mick Channon, Dave Watson, Chris Nicholl – they were a good side. In the second leg, the forwards were unbelievable that day. We got to a stage where we were thinking ‘Can we keep it going?’
Your adrenaline is that high and the crowd can sense you are only a goal away and the opposition are vulnerable. We began to feed off the crowd.
Before the game GT said we had nothing to lose. These were established top-class internationals so we didn’t have any pressure to win. He just said we wanted to give a good account of ourselves and come out of it with our heads high. Give it everything we’ve got, play with no fear, let’s go and attack. Then he said, ‘You never know where it might take you.’ It took away any fear of failure. One of Graham’s big strengths was that he put the responsibility on effort, application and performance rather than result. You knew you could go out there and work hard for 90 minutes and that that was the job, the bit you could control. None of us can control the result. We can influence the result with our performance but sometimes you can play well and lose. So he made sure we focused on our performance level. That was what he assessed us on. At some stages during that spell [the early 1980s] the forwards were absolutely frightening. We had this belief that the forwards could score goals. We were very good at set pieces.
I did have some defensive instincts in midfield. [Wilf] Rostron was a very good player but he could attack and get down that left so well that we needed someone to hold and drop in and cover if necessary.
A couple of rounds later you beat Nottingham Forest, who were the reigning European champions, 4-1. Was that when you started to think something special was happening?
I remember that game because he played [John] Ward wide right. Tactically Graham did so well. John Robertson was doing well for Forest on the left wing at that time… John Ward sat right in and nullified John Robertson. Wardy was a centre forward but he used his experience to do that job. Graham spotting that was very clever. For an attacking manager that was a very defensive move, but it was a clever move. That was the key that night. Ward stopped Robertson from leading Notts Forest, which he did at the time. He was the catalyst for them and we kept him quiet and we got on top in the game. So much of our preparation was about what we did in a game, how we were going to win it, but every now and then Graham would do something like that.
Then came Coventry City in the quarter-final and after a draw at home they won the replay 5-0.
Professional football is a thing of extremes. You get extreme highs and lows. That could happen sometimes. We were an attacking side but every now and then someone did catch us. At Coventry he played myself and Steve Terry at centre half. [Steve] Harrison was left back. Mark Hateley and Garry Thompson were just coming through for them and they had a wide right player called [Peter] Bodak who scored a great goal early on. He was terrific. We never got going and we couldn’t hold them at the back. It was one of those games where we got taught a few lessons. Of course, we didn’t want to lose 5-0 but sometimes it is the games like that which help you develop the most.
Did it help that your dad had been a footballer?
He was certainly a big, big support. My whole family was but my dad was a big support. My brother had been an apprentice at Luton, he’d played a good standard in non-league so we could always talk about the game. They were both interested in football. It was just an extension of the normal conversation at home. My dad really helped me with my game. He was always constructive in what he said and that is important. Rather than dwell on the things I’d done wrong in a game he would think of a way of turning it round so I could take something positive from it. He’d been a professional footballer himself so he knew what it was like. My father Frank and my brother Alan were big supporters.
I had to have my knee cartilage out. That was the start of some quite extensive knee problems for me. It was a more difficult injury to recover from than it is now. It was before micro surgery. They had to open it all up and the thing they did was take the cartilage out. It took quite a while to recover from. Really it didn’t ever heal up or go away. There was damage to the lateral cartilage in the right knee and it was something I had to manage for the rest of my career and in the end I did have to retire early.
It was very frustrating being on the sidelines that season [1981-82], but when you are learning about being a footballer that’s exactly what it is like. I was still very pleased the club was progressing and willing the on while my focus was on trying to get back ready to play.
You were back for the start of the next season and the First Division campaign. Were you confident going into that season?
There weren’t many at the football club who had proved themselves at that level. We were very keen to do that. I know I was. I wanted to play at the top and I wanted to show I belonged there. Pat Rice had a massive influence on the club when he came in. Massive influence. His standards of behaviour, the way he played the game, the way he trained.
We may not have been experienced but it was a very talented group and it was a hungry group. We really were determined to be aggressive and positive.
What did you think of the style of play and particularly the controversy about it?
It was blown out of proportion. It was a bit of a myth that we were all long ball football. We had very good forwards and we got the ball to the forwards as often as we could. On my side of the pitch was [John] Barnes and myself and Rostron got the ball to him as often as we could and we tried to leave him up the pitch as much as we could. It sounds blindingly simple but if you have a player as good as John Barnes you want to get the ball to his feet as often as you can, not smash it down the pitch for him to run after. For two years he was the best player in the country playing for Watford and he proved that at Liverpool when he was one of the best players in Europe at that time.
People talk about long ball but I think it was the pace of the play that unsettled people. We did things quickly, directly, we didn’t let anyone settle. We didn’t give anyone time on the ball. We got forward in numbers, we got back in numbers. You talk about football now and that is what every manager and coach is trying to get his players to do.
The pitches were not the best in the winter so what’s the best way to move the ball forward? Do you kick it through the mud and guess whether it will get to its target or do you play it in the air and make sure it gets to its target? A pass played in the air is not a bad pass. A bad pass is a bad pass.
[Ross] Jenkins by then was a really good centre forward. He was mature, whereas we were kids. He led the line and he could hold the ball up. He was almost unplayable in the air at times. [Luther] Blissett’s pace and power terrified people. His shooting early was fantastic. As soon as he saw the goal he shot and it led to so many goals because if the keeper saved someone would be following it in. We had a spell in the First Division when Ross was injured and John [Barnes] went up front and to be fair they [Blissett and Barnes] were even better. I remember [Terry] Butcher and [Russell] Osman saying to me after a game, ‘How do we play that?’ They were strong, quick, they could drop deep, they could run in behind. A nightmare for defenders, and Butcher and Osman were international defenders.
My job was simple by comparison. I just had to win the ball, break up the play, give it to the wingers. Billy Hails the physio, if I was playing left back or left midfield, it became a bit of a running joke because before a game he’d say, ‘Ken, get the ball and give it to Barnesy.’ But that was simple.
We were a well balanced team. We worked hard at our understandings. If you are doing all that work and you know the guys up front can get you goals, you enjoy it.
Graham was very good mentally at saying we could challenge them. If they beat us today, they’re going to have to be at their very best. If Spurs beat us then there’ll be no complaints if we’ve made them pull out a top-class performance. If we make it easy for them, we’ll be unhappy about that. We set out to challenge the big clubs and make it hard for them.
I remember against Liverpool, we were 1-0 up and [Kenny] Dalglish completely sold me a dummy and went through and put it over the bar.
What do you remember about the European games?
I didn’t play in Bulgaria but I remember Callaghan telling me how well he’d done when he got back. [Laughs]
Against Kaiserslautern John Barnes marked Briegel at corners. GT told Barnes he had the strongest upper body in the club so he had to mark this big German. As the ball came in he had to get his body and chest on him and check his run and hold him off. He didn’t foul him at all, but he used his strength to hold him up with his chest and check his run.
There were the younger players coming in, a bit like you had a few years earlier.
I think we expected the young players coming in to be good. That was how it was – if you’re good enough for our reserves we expect you to be good enough for the first team if you have to come in. They did come in and they were good but maybe over six months they weren’t quite what we needed at that time so the manager brought in some new players.
What did you make of Callaghan, because he was so talented but…
Callaghan was as good as the best of them them but maybe didn’t fulfill what he could have. Callaghan was trusted to perform and had been in the first team. For Jimmy [Gilligan] and Ian [Richardson] to come in and replace Luther and Ross [in the European games], that was amazing.
Cally was a great player. A great, great player. If you ask me about players from that time, yeah, Cally was good enough to play for England but there was something that wasn’t quite there for some managers, maybe.
I think Graham thought that too. He kept going back to Cally a few times when we thought he might move him on. The thing was, it was hard to find forwards as good as that.
I remember we got to the Birmingham one and we were not too far away by then. That was when you started to think about Wembley. The quarter-finals is where it is all heightened and we knew that the last four was us, Everton, Southampton and Plymouth. No disrespect to Plymouth but that was the one the other three all wanted because we knew it gave us a great chance.
But I missed the semi-final with a knee injury. I injured it the week before the match. It was horrible. The semi was a funny one for me because if the lads got through there was a chance I’d be fit for Wembley but I was still very disappointed to miss the game. I had confidence that we could win it but it was odd sitting there watching the Plymouth game.
You’re not a good spectator if you’ve got a possibility to play. It was quite tough watching. We were a close group and I wanted the lads to do it so I had a chance to play in the final.
How touch-and-go was it for the final?
I was back in the side about three weeks before but the first game I was a bit sore. I came back in as early as I could because I wanted to make sure I was fit for the final.
The build-up to the final was a bit surreal. We couldn’t train at our usual training ground because of the contract.
What do you mean?
I don’t know the full story, you’d have to ask Graham but I think I’m right in saying that we rented the training ground in Stanmore but the contract ended at the end of the league season. They tried to extend it but it was already being used by someone else. I wouldn’t offer that as an excuse. We trained at Stanmore, then we moved down the road in Stanmore to what was called the Wimpey grounds and it’s now a golf course. Come to the Stanmore station, turn right, go left at the roundabout. That was a training ground at the time and we went there for the week leading up to the final. It was strange because it was a change to our usual routine.
What do you remember about the match itself?
Everton were a better side on the day and we couldn’t get going. They were strong and dominant defensively and they had a good keeper.
The build-up was fantastic, the match less so. It was great to go there with your friends. Luther came back for the game and it was great to see him. The cup final was a bit of a celebration of how far the club had come.
Watford established themselves as a mid-table club. How big an achievement was that for a club the size of Watford?
I think it takes special people, and Graham is a special person and he had people around him who were special too. I think if we look at the year after Graham left it shows you how easy it is for everyone to take for granted staying in the First Division, as it was then. It was a real achievement every year to finish halfway up the league and I think every year we had a few really good results. We’d beat Liverpool, or Manchester United, or Tottenham or Arsenal, or we’d have a run in one of the cups.
But I think it was always going to be very difficult to sustain because everything up to then had been a first. The club had been making history for ten years and it was a little unrealistic to expect the club to keep moving upwards. There was always going to be a limit to what a club that size could achieve.
Graham Taylor had pulled some rabbits out of the hat over the years. Tony Coton had the court case hanging over him when he came in but that was a brilliant bit of business. John McClelland was another one. Players of that calibre coming to the club was down to Graham. He persuaded them, I’m sure, but he was able to get people like that. I remember John McClelland putting Dean Saunders in his pocket. He told me: ‘I’ll take him.’ And after an hour the game was over for Dean really.
Graham drilled it into us to push the top players and see if they really were that good. I remember when we played Tottenham at Vicarage Road and Hoddle scored that fantastic goal. He turned on the edge of the area and put it into the top corner. Fair enough. Make him produce something like that. If they are that good, make them produce that to beat us.
I suppose the only disappointment was that we didn’t get back to a cup final and win one. I think that was our time to do it as a club. We got to the quarter-finals, the semi-final again. I remember the Liverpool one , we had that game but Liverpool were so good at getting themselves out of trouble. [Ian] Rush was running away from goal to the corner and he won the penalty. Tony went out to him but who am I to criticise Tony Coton? He was a fantastic goalkeeper.
The semi-final against Spurs  was another one I missed – a knee injury again. That was so strange. Talk about bad luck. You’ve got two senior goalkeepers and then the biggest game of the season and you are training two days before with a goalkeeper from non-league because they both got injured. Could Steve [Sherwood] have played? Well it may have been a risk. He hadn’t been training. I really don’t know. Again I was hoping they could win it so I could play in the final but that was one of those days when nothing went right.
At the end of the season, Graham left. Did you know he was going to go?
Not at all. I didn’t have any sense that Graham was going to go. Sometimes the signs are there but you don’t see them so maybe I just didn’t see what was going on. He may have had problems or feelings that built up. Perhaps he felt like a new challenge and who could really begrudge him that?
You can’t under-estimate the effect of losing Barnes. We knew John would go at the end of the season and again how could we keep John Barnes for another year? He’d done more than enough for Watford. Arsenal were on to him and on to him and on to him. In the end no one could blame him for leaving. None of us blamed him for going. We were delighted he was going to such a big club as Liverpool. But the question was who could you replace him with? Graham had always pulled the rabbits out of the hat but could he do it again? Maybe he thought that if he had to build the team again he’d be better taking a new challenge at a different club.
I think he was always ambitious and wanted to manage England. Let’s be realistic about it, would Graham Taylor become England manager while he was at Watford? I would think that would be a very long shot. I know Bobby Robson went from Ipswich to England but Ipswich was a bigger club and they’d won the FA Cup and UEFA Cup with Bobby. To become England manager I think Graham knew he had to prove he could do it another club, a bigger club.
What did you think of his replacement?
It was a hard one for Dave [Bassett], I’ll be honest with you but it came down to the players he brought in. No disrespect, but the players were not of the standard.
There were still some decent players coming through the youth ranks. Iwan [Roberts] and Malcolm [Allen] could have been a good partnership but asking them to come straight in and do it was too much at that time.
Bassett sold some good players too.
We missed Kevin Richardson. That was the one that made me think. As a player you concentrate on your game and do you job for the team and you don’t get involved in the manager’s decisions. Now I am a manager I will talk to my senior players about the squad but it’s down to me to make the decision and the players know when they have said enough. I don’t think I said anything at that time but to lose a player of Kevin’s quality made me wonder what was going to happen. A player of his ability was always going to have options to move on. To be honest, we did well to get him in the first place.
What did you think about Steve Harrison when he came back as manager?
It was his first job as a manager and having been a manager and remembering when I first started I now have an appreciation of how hard that was for him. Steve was an excellent coach, an excellent defensive coach and for a long time he’d been the one who would keep the players’ morale high. He’d have a laugh and a joke and if the manager was making us run and there was the odd grumble he’d do something to raise our spirits and say, ‘Hey, come on, do your work and remember it’s better than sitting in an office all day.’ When he was a manager he couldn’t have that close relationship with the players and I don’t think it was natural for him.
But that first year we had a good side and a good crack at promotion. It came down to the play-off second leg against Blackburn and they scored an away goal where we hadn’t. It was a typical goalscorer’s goal for [Simon] Garner. It went through some legs and went into the corner. That was not a great game. It was very tight because everyone knew what was at stake.
Within a year or so of that game you had to retire early.
That’s right. I retired at 28 which was obviously earlier than I wanted but my knee wasn’t going to enable me to play on any longer at the level I wanted to. I could maybe have dropped down but by then I was already interested in the coaching side of the game and there was an opportunity to do that at Watford with the young players, first on a part-time basis and then full-time.
You might have broken the appearances record had you managed to play on. Do you think you’d have stayed a one-club man?
I don’t know, possibly I would have. There was talk of me going to Villa with Graham when he went there but nothing came off. That might have interested me. I wasn’t totally closed to the idea of going somewhere else if it helped my career and I would have worked with Graham again, as indeed I did when he came back as manager and I was part of his staff and I was the manager for a year [1996-97].
Did you see a different side of him when you worked with him more as an equal.
I did. I got to know him as a person more. He talked to me as an equal and he asked my opinion. I don’t mean for a moment that he talked down to us when we were players and he was the manager but it was a different relationship. I think when he came back he had mellowed a bit. In the 1980s he was so driven. He had so much energy and dedication for the job. He was still as dedicated when he came back but he delegated more. Perhaps he trusted other people to deliver his message more. He recognised the value of the players hearing a different voice every now and then. Sometimes you need to give the players a break from your voice and let someone else in and he certainly did that with me and Luther second time round. But his ideas about the game were as strong as ever. He wanted to attack and cause the opposition problems and he was still Graham Taylor. He could spot a talent that other people had maybe overlooked, he could get the best out of people and he could create winning football teams.