Lee Sinnott is one of only 12 men to have played in an FA Cup final for Watford. At 18 he was the youngest member of a very young back four (the oldest of the quartet was 21-year-old Steve Terry). Sinnott had only joined Watford the previous September and by his own admission probably wouldn’t have played in the cup final had Paul Franklin or Steve Sims been fit.
Many supporters may remember him for his prodigious long throw-in which could be as good as a free-kick or corner. Sinnott was quick, athletic and versatile and Taylor used him both full-back positions and even as a wide midfielder during his time at Watford.
When I met Sinnott, he was managing non-league Bradford Park Avenue, and so we arranged to meet at Wooley Edge Services near Wakefield as he headed to an evening training session with his players and I started by asking how he and Watford came together…
Where was the tournament?
It was played here. [England]
How did you do?
We lost in the semi-finals against Czechoslovakia. We then played the third-fourth game against Italy at Vicarage Road and won on penalties.
I took a penalty. It was the worst penalty in history – well, it’s not, because it went in. But it was a terrible kick. I basically nutmegged the keeper who was already diving before I’d kicked it.
So you and Bardsley played in the same defence?
Yes. I was playing left back and centre half in those championships and Bardsley was at right back.
You were at Walsall at the time and although you were still only 17, 18, you’d played quite a few games for them hadn’t you. Were you surprised that a First Division club was coming in for you?
When I was at Walsall I was raw. I think people thought I was talented but I was so raw. If I hadn’t gone to Watford, who’s to say I would have had 19 years in the game? GT, John Ward and Steve Harrison taught me the game. I played about 80 games in four years there, which is not that many I suppose but I learned so much. I was in and out of the team, doing different jobs for the team, but I was still young. I was 22 when I left and I was ready to play for a club week-in, week-out.
What did Watford teach you?
Everything really. On the pitch, yes, but off it too. Most of my defensive work was done with Steve Harrison. In the early 1980s there was a very young squad at Watford and the coaching was intensive but perhaps I could have done with playing alongside a few players with a bit more experience to bring me on a bit. There was a lot of responsibility and I think I coped well with it. Steve Terry was great to play with but he was young too. A year with a 30-year-old who’d been around ten years or so might have helped me, but I can’t complain. I got to play in an FA Cup final at 18.
What sort of defensive coaching did Steve Harrison do?
He worked with us one-to-one. I’d do a session just me and him and he taught me the basics. My biggest attribute was my pace but he taught me that you can’t rely on that all the time, you won’t get away with it every time. Those basics of defending were paramount to me. When you are quick you try to get out of every situation with your pace but he taught me to read the game, anticipate, reduce the choices the forwards had and force them to make their decisions. If you can give the striker only one option by pushing him wide, pushing him into traffic, putting him on his wrong foot you reduce what he can do to score. When a forward basically only has one choice that’s when he will make mistakes. So Steve taught me how to play against people and make them play the game the way I wanted them to play it. Simple things but clever too.
So how did the move to Watford actually happen?
Apparently the deal was organised [between the clubs] on the Friday [in September 1983]. I didn’t know this, but the deal was all set up to be done on the Monday. We [Walsall] went away to Bolton on the Saturday, lost 8-1 and I got myself booked.
Alan Buckley [the Walsall manager] took me into the office on the Monday morning and I thought he was going to bollock me for the result or the booking but he said he’d agreed a fee with Watford and we were travelling down in the afternoon to sort out the deal. Amazing really, get beat 8-1 in the Third Division one day and join a First Division club two days later.
Not just a First Division club but one that had finished runners-up in the league the previous season. Did you expect to play when you arrived?
I certainly didn’t expect to walk into the team. I knew I couldn’t play in the UEFA Cup games and when I arrived I did get an idea of just how many injuries they had.
For me it wasn’t until the team got knocked out of Europe that I settled in really. When I arrived I went straight in and played in the league games but I stayed at home when the team went away in Europe. I watched all the home games and they were amazing nights. There was an electricity about the stadium and let’s be honest that wasn’t the easiest thing to generate because of the shape of the stadium.
I suppose it shouldn’t have made any difference really should it because I had that run of league games but everyone was switching focus to the European matches. They’d prepare for those games and of course I couldn’t play so I’d be in and out of the group, or I’d be working in sessions against the forwards who’d be playing in the European matches.
I think I was probably just really happy to be playing at all. I didn’t think that because I’d been bought for £130,000 I was above those who came through the youth system. I was a young player and I felt like a young player so I thought myself very fortunate to be getting this opportunity. I was knuckling down to work at Watford because I knew what a great chance I had been given. I am not saying we messed about at Walsall, but GT had that authority, like a school teacher, he had the respect. He could just change the tone of his voice and everyone knew.
What did you make of Graham’s coaching and management?
He had a very structured way of running the club. He knew how he wanted it to be, he knew how to get it there. It was disciplined and the day was structured. It was like going to work – not in a bad sense – but you knew the day would be full and you’d be busy. It felt serious, like we were all there to try to improve. Walsall had been my home town club and I didn’t know any different to that but Watford was a different level, and that’s no disrespect to Walsall.
It was probably exactly what a young player needed because those early years are where you can develop bad habits. There was no room for that with Graham and the rest of the coaches. They had eyes everywhere. They knew if you weren’t fit enough, they knew if you weren’t putting in 100 per cent.
What was the coaching like?
He set people targets. If you put the seeds in a wingers’ minds that they need to get in six crosses in in the first half, you may not get six, but you might get four and that might create two chances. If you said nothing you might only get two crosses, so he was encouraging players to try to beat their targets all the time.
I think Graham grasped from very early on how to win games. He worked out how goals were scored. People used to give him stick, but look at his ideas, they have stood the test of time. If you create more chances, then you might score more goals.
Targets were set for offensive players but we were all reminded that we had a role to play in that. If you were playing left back you were asked to try to contribute some crosses in the game. Can you get forward and put the ball in five times? If the left-back can do that and Bardsley can do the same on the other side that’s another 10 crosses from your defenders. Of course, don’t forget to defend but can you contribute? He encouraged me to try to get forward for corners. Can you chip in with seven or eight goals over a season? Okay, I wasn’t going to score that many – in fact I think I only scored a couple for Watford – but we were encouraged to think about what we could do at the opposite end of the pitch.
I suppose your scoring opportunities were limited because you were known for your long throw so more often than not you were putting the ball in the middle. I assume you already knew you could throw the ball.
I did. I remember throwing one from the Vicarage Road end, level with the 18-yard box and it landed the other side level with the six-yard box. It became quite a good weapon. If you can throw the ball 40 yards it’s useful, either to relieve pressure at the back or to put the ball in the box and Graham liked me to use it.
In the pre-season of 1984 we were doing different training and we were playing tennis. I smashed the ball down at the net and I did my shoulder. It would pop out every so often and when it popped out I had to get it popped back in again. I didn’t get it repaired until 1993 so that curtailed the throw a bit. I had to adapt my throw and it was a lot more in the wrists later on than the shoulders.
Yes, I’d had a little taste and whether or not Graham thought I needed a bit of time in the reserves or what have you, I don’t know, but I do know injuries got me back in the team. Ian Bolton had left. Paul Franklin got my place in the team and he did extremely well for a few months. He was excellent at Birmingham in that quarter-final but then he got injured. I have to say, if he’d been fit he’d have played in the semi-final and final instead of me.
I wasn’t expecting to play every game but with the injuries I got in the side and stayed in.
Steve Sims got injured just before Franklin so Steve Terry came in and that ended up being the Wembley partnership.
That’s right. When I’d got in the team at the beginning, Simsy was number five and I was number six. I never considered myself a number five. I’d play off the number five. I’d sweep up and take the quicker player [opposition forward] and the five would organise and attack the ball. Simsy was the 30-year-old I probably needed but by the time I got back in the side he was injured.
I’m not criticising Steve Terry at all and he was a lot more experienced than me but he’d probably say he was still learning too. But I think we built a good partnership in the time we had together.
What do you remember about the semi-final against Plymouth at Villa Park?
It was a hot day. I found the occasion drained me. The nerves leading up to it. Graham tried to treat it just like a normal game but it’s not, is it? The energy you burn thinking about it, wondering if you’ll have a good game, going over in your mind the basics, by the time you go out there you’ve thought about the game so much you’ve already played it once.
I don’t suppose it made it any easier because they were a Third Division side.
The opposite, I’d say. All the expectation was on us. The expectation was huge. We were the First Division side and we were expected to get to Wembley, not just by our fans but by everyone. And you know what the FA Cup was like, especially then, people loved an upset. I doubt there was a neutral in the country who didn’t want Plymouth to win.
Although we were the better side in terms of quality, it was hard to play and they were in it to the death. They had a chance in the last two minutes and the ball bobbled all the way across. If you asked a neutral who was the First Division club and who was the Third Division club they’d be hard pressed to pick.
When I look at the results, it reminds me that right before the semi and the final we got hammered. We lost 6-1 at Norwich before the semi and then before the final we lost 5-1 at [Nottingham] Forest. I remember the Forest game because I was up against [Peter] Davenport. He caused me a problem. I couldn’t get near him. I was mobile but his movement was excellent. I was a yard or two behind him in body and mind and he gave me a lot of problems.
We’d got ourselves to the final. Subliminally, were our minds elsewhere? We concentrated on the job in hand but were we thinking back to the fact we were in the final? I don’t know but I don’t think those two results are a coincidence. I do remember after the Forest game someone said, ‘If we play like that at Wembley we’ll be humiliated.’
In the run-up to the final I suppose your job was made even harder because you knew Wilf Rostron would miss the game.
That was an unjust sending off [at Luton]. I realised straight away he’d miss the final. That took away something that Wilf had worked damn hard for. You feel for people. I remember thinking it just wasn’t fair.
I thought we did well in the final until they [Everton] scored. We had three half-chances before their goal but once we went one down it was different.
Being so young it could have gone two ways. We were the youngest ever back four in a Wembley final at that time. I don’t think anyone has beaten it either. We could have frozen or it could have gone over our heads but I think I was level-headed, I was a logical person. When we came out in our suits I felt nerves but when we came out for the match I didn’t. We had a game to play. I think the semi-final helped me in that respect. I didn’t spend a lot of energy before the game.
I was confident that Steve and I could do the job. We were up against two good, good forwards. Andy [Gray] and Graeme [Sharp] swapped around. I was more looking after Graeme Sharp but they were clever with their movement and we had to improvise at times. Everton were very prominent down the flanks. There were four quality wide players on the pitch and I think their wide men played better on the day. I am not blaming our wide men because I don’t think we got them in the game enough for them to do what they could do. Everton got the ball to their wide men more.
At the final whistle you feel like you just want to get off the stage. It’s not your moment. The Everton fans applauded us, which was nice. When I got back to the hotel it hit me I’d been in a cup final and I wondered if I’d ever get there again. Back at the hotel, that was probably the first time it sunk in what we’d done and it was a sinking feeling.
I’d say GT and Neil Warnock were the two influential managers I’ve worked under. Graham taught me so much, Neil got me at Huddersfield when I was an experienced professional. Eleven years later I went back [to Wembley, for a play-off final against John Ward’s Bristol City] and Neil said, ‘This is not a day out. It’s a day at work.’ We didn’t treat the 84 final like a day out but was I ready for it? I think the pain of losing the 84 final stood me in good stead to win that play-off final.
The following season, Graham signed a new number six. What did you think about that?
That’s right, he went to get [John] McClelland. John was a lovely bloke but he was taking my place in the team. He covered the ground so quick and he organised the back four. He was a great signing for Watford but not such a great signing for me!
Initially I wondered where I was going to go. A footballers’ life can change in half an hour because a new player can arrive in your position and suddenly everything changes. I remember Graham saying to me that he was bringing John in to play and he told me he wasn’t sure when I’d get back in again but that I was only 19 so I had no right to expect a place.
When did that conversation happen?
Either before just before we knew John was coming or just after he arrived. He [GT] spoke to me about it. I had played 50 games in two years with Walsall from the age of 16 to 18, then another 22 games for Watford, including the cup final and I had only just turned 19. I didn’t have divine right to be in that team but it was still disappointing because once you’ve had a taste of it you do want more.
Did it cross your mind to go elsewhere?
No, because I didn’t actually lose my place in the side until later on that season [1984-85]. When John arrived I think he took my place for the first one [against Sunderland] but then I got back in and played left back, right back and played the left side of midfield.
I played left side of midfield one game up at Liverpool because Mark Lawrenson was playing right back for Liverpool and so I was put in there to defend against him because he liked to push forward. I was brought in to do that job and Barnes was moved into the middle. To go to Liverpool and not to concede was an achievement. [This was the FA Cup quarter-final, a 0-0 draw, the following season, 1985-86].
I was only 19 so that season [1984-85] I was very happy to play the number of games I did play [38 in league and cup]. Even the following season, when I didn’t play as much, I was in and around it most of the season.
We had a lot of things in common because of the age. We were all young players and we’d have a laugh and a joke. You’d pick your laugh and joke with George [Reilly] just in case. [Laughs]
We were growing up, we were finding out who we were, testing the boundaries, I suppose. We made a couple of mistakes that he let us know about. Before the hairdryer treatment was even heard of, we’d had it. It was dished out but with affection and only when it was appropriate. He didn’t tell us off for no reason, we’d always done something to deserve it. He did it because he cared and we needed that discipline I am sure. When you think about it, 18, 19, that’s not long out of school, or it’s kids at university. Just because you’re a footballer doesn’t mean you are a mature person when you’re 18 or 19. He was feared slightly and we never got too close to Graham. Maybe the older players did, but we were young players and we were respectful. Back then he was the manager, the boss and you didn’t cross the line with him. He’s a very warm man and he has always been friendly and helpful to me and when I think back he was a warm, friendly man then.
You didn’t play as much in your final season with Watford [1986-87] but you did get to go back to your old club, Walsall, for the FA Cup second replay.
I was nervous before the Walsall away game. That was the first time I’d gone back and I think you are always nervous when you go back to your previous club, especially that one, because it was my club, the one I supported. The previous game was a 4-4 draw at Vicarage Road. I didn’t play but I knew we had got away with it in both the games. It really had the makings of an upset. Fellows Park was a tight ground and with David Kelly and Trevor Christie up front they really gave us a fright but we managed to get through it 1-0.
And then you were picked to play in the semi-final against Tottenham having not really figured in the team much up to that point.
That’s right. I came in because, I think, he [Taylor] wanted to try to match up with Tottenham, so I was at left-back against [Chris] Waddle. I think Wilf moved into midfield a bit to mark [Glenn] Hoddle. But it was a strange day. We didn’t get going. The game was over before it started. If we’d got a foothold in the game we might have had a chance but we never got into it. They had a game plan and they played to it.
When did you know you were going to leave the club?
My contract was coming to an end and I knew a third of the way through that season that I needed to move for my career. When Graham left it happened quite quickly.
[Dave] Bassett came in and I had a brief conversation with him. I was on the transfer list at that time and we agreed it was okay to stay like that so I knew he wasn’t going to stop me going.
Even though I pretty much knew I’d be leaving I went on the trip to China at the end of the season. It was interesting and I am so glad I got to experience that because it was an amazing trip. We played the games at midday and pitchside it was 110 degrees.
I didn’t eat much though. When we arrived we had a banquet – nine courses. I’m not too sure what was in some of those bowls but I’ve never felt hungrier after a nine-course meal. We lived on rice out there because some of the things were not to my taste.
I remember when Elton’s baggage turned up at the hotel. There were nine suitcases, all shapes and sizes. I saw one long thin one and all that was in it was hats.
I shared a room with Bardsley. We were in a room next to Elton’s suite and we could hear him talking on the phone.
I remember one night, Elton sat at the grand piano and played for us. A hotel guest who wanted to run out and tell people Elton was playing and he ran smack into a plate glass window and we were all laughing at the poor guy.
Elton was a wonderful man, really into his football, very friendly and just liked to talk about football with us. He’d sit and talk to us about the games in such detail – he really knew what he was talking about. It was a shame we couldn’t have won a trophy for him.
You mean the Great Wall of China Cup doesn’t count?
[Laughs] I think at that time we were good enough to win a cup. When you look at it Coventry won the cup around that time. Oxford and Luton won the League Cup didn’t they? Norwich too? All clubs about the same size as Watford. We were a good cup team and we always had cup runs, it’s just a shame we didn’t manage to win one.
What comes to mind when you think back to those days?
I think the thing I will look back on is that Graham Taylor signed me and I got to play for him and learn from him. He was often very calm but every now and then he’d give you the hairdryer treatment. He was very good at that. Sometimes if someone shouts all the time all you see is the mouth moving, you don’t listen to the words but Graham got his message across and sometimes he had to shout to do that effectively.
Playing in the First Division was great. I did get back there [with Crystal Palace] but to be in and around a First Division team for four seasons really helped me make a career. I came up against the best forwards in the country and it helped my game. When you drop down it is a bit easier but whatever kind of player you are there’s always someone bigger, faster or stronger. If I went into Billy Whitehouse or Tony Cascarino in a physical battle I’d get my face re-arranged so I had to think my way around the problem and beat them with my game.
Watching John [Barnes] taught me a lot. He was strong as well as having that pace and he taught me that against really good players you couldn’t rush in because if you did they could make a defender look silly. Nigel’s delivery of the ball was better than John’s and so against him the job would be to stop that cross because he’s not going to run you down the outside too often. Training with these players every day brought me on.
I remember the running too. I bet there won’t be a player you speak to who doesn’t remember the running. Of course, we trained hard at all the clubs I played for – footballers train hard, but Watford was another level.
We used to do fitness work on a Tuesday – 12 minutes running up and down the terraces, then 12 minutes round the track, then 400m back-to-back, and then 12 minutes keepy-uppy, counting how many times you dropped it in 12 minutes. I probably dropped it 20 times or whatever. Barnes, Kenny, Nigel, never dropped it. You’d be tired from the running and your legs would be gone. Windy day, eyes running, GT shouting at you. Barnesy was immaculate. He was an athlete in every sense of the word and he had such control of the ball. Him and Dave Bardsley were both quick over 400 metres, so they were always pushing each other.
GT drew up this 10-mile run. He’d given us maps. He must have set the course a couple of months earlier and part of it was through all these nettles. Tony [Coton] got a lift across Cassiobury Park from the park ranger. Myself and Dave Bardsley wouldn’t have thought about that.
I remember Graham was always thinking about how to improve, not just the team but himself. He was inquisitive, innovative. It’s probably not a new thing now but I remember about six of us went to see a psychologist. Back in the mid-Eighties that was not something I’d heard of people doing. Anyway, we went to talk about positive thoughts. I don’t know he did it. Maybe he thought I needed to be more positive, I don’t know.
Positive mental attitude came into it in the sense that you’d refocus for the last 20 minutes of a game and almost start again in your mind. If you’d kept a clean sheet for 70 minutes, you’d refocus and play the last 20 minutes as if it was a new game. For a manager to get instructions onto the pitch it’s difficult so the deeper you get into a game the more your own mind comes into it. We had these phrases, triggers, I suppose, and you’d think ‘next 20 minutes is key.’
What was the psychologist like?
Footballers can be cynical and I think he chose those of us who might be receptive to it. I approached it with an open mind.
Did he insist you went?
No, he didn’t tell us we had to do it but he did ask. We went to see this woman in Watford and she talked about how to stop negative thoughts and asked a load of questions about how I approached things. I think it helped. If Dave Bardsley had gone it wouldn’t have had any effect on him, I don’t think. It wasn’t for everyone.
He used to give me stick for being miserable but Dave would say everything was shit [Laughs]. Steve Terry is a great bloke and he’s got that comedy timing. Like I say, a football club is a group of people and you have a bit of everything and I think you have to have a bit of everything. If you’re all one type of person I don’t think it works.
We had a lot of young players and I think Graham and all the staff took our development seriously, not just as players but as people. He gave us a list once of everything we should have in our house! A vacuum cleaner, an ironing board. From my point of view I knew what I should have in my house, but perhaps some others needed to be told. He also told us what to eat at times. He’d ask what we’d had for dinner the night before. He was a bit worried as young lads that we’d all be eating McDonald’s or kebab and chips.
I bought a sports car, a Fiat X19, in my first year. I was driving through the town and he [Graham Taylor] was at the bank, and he was walking across in front of me and I flashed the lights. The car had headlights that came up out of the bonnet and he must have thought ‘You flash git.’ He pulled me in the following week and gave me a bit of a doing!
But it was Tom [Walley] who was the aggressive one. He did love a shout, Tom, but he was with the youth team so I avoided all that. I used to hear him get going and think I was glad I’d been at Walsall when I was a young player!