When I rang Luther Blissett he already knew what I was going to ask. Nigel Gibbs had told him to expect a call from a journalist who was writing a book about Watford in the 1980s. ‘Who else have you spoken to so far?’ he asked. ‘Les Taylor, Tony Coton and Nigel Gibbs,’ I said. ‘How’s Les?’ he asked, ‘and why didn’t you call me first.’ He laughed at that.
We arranged to meet at The Old Mill, a pub-restaurant just on the edge of Berkhamsted. Luther turned up in classic sports car. I don’t know anything about cars, but I think it was a 1980s Alfa Romeo or it could have been a Mercedes. Either way, it was an eye-catching car. At the time he was heavily into motor racing, having set up Team48 to give black drivers, mechanics and support staff a break in motorsport. The team took its name from the arrival of the SS Windrush in 1948, which brought people from the Caribbean to Britain.
Luther Blissett had three spells at Watford as a player and served as a coach, so there was a lot of ground to cover. We started at the beginning because Blissett witnessed the whirlwind impact Graham Taylor had on the club when he arrived in 1977.
I came to the UK from Jamaica when I was six and I went to school in Willesden, played football all through my childhood and I was invited to train with Watford. I signed for them when I was 17, in the summer of 1975, just as they had been relegated to the Fourth Division.
Really the club I had joined was really a club that wasn’t going anywhere but when you’re a kid you just want to sign for a professional football club. Mike Keen was the manager who signed me and in that first year there was talk of me getting a start in the first team but it didn’t happen until right at the end.
Mike Keen was a very nice person but probably the senior players who were there, the ones who had had a career in the game, were a little bit too strong for him. The players were running the club really. That is not too much of a problem if the manager wants a real strong dressing room and the players know that at the end of it all they still answer to the manager but that I never got the feeling that was how it was.
The biggest change was when Graham Taylor came [in the summer of 1977]. Yes, he wanted a really strong, together dressing room, but everyone answered to Graham Taylor. No longer were the players calling the shots. There was one man in charge.
What did Graham change when he first arrived?
There wasn’t a lot he could do initially about things like the training facilities. Yes, Elton John was the chairman and he had a lot of money but there was a limit to what Graham could do in a short space of time. So he looked at things he could change quickly. The players, for one, and the way we worked. If we were going to be successful he wanted to have players around him he could depend on. He brought in Sam Ellis and Ian Bolton, then Dennis Booth. Sam and Dennis had worked with Graham before [at Lincoln City]. They were very strong characters and they pulled the dressing room together. They took absolutely no crap at all. The captain, Sam Ellis, was very good. A very intelligent man. He could put you down very quickly. He’d cut you to ribbons easily with his use of the English language and that put you in your place. If you saw the size of him physically you wouldn’t challenge him either, so he was a commanding character in the dressing room.
Very quickly the dressing room was no longer a place run by a select few, it was a place for all the players, as it should be.
You were young and promising and you played a big part in winning the Fourth Division championship, even if half your appearances were from the bench.
The situation was that I had been here a season before Graham arrived. I had made my debut and scored on my debut. When he was first made manager, he held a meeting with every player individually. His office was at the end of the corridor in the old main stand in room that was later to become the players’ bar. When it was my turn to go and see him I sat there in this little chair and he said to me that there was a feeling that the club was going to let me go but that Tom Walley had told him to take a look at this boy Blissett. Graham said to me that he always listened to what people told him but it was up to him to decide whether to go with someone’s advice or not. When I was part of his coaching staff later he would always listen to me. He was very single-minded and he ran things but he listened to those around him.
I went in there not really knowing what to expect. He said my name about three or four times and then said, ‘With a name like that, you’ve got to be a star.’
You were a forward player but were you a striker at that time?
I’d played centre forward, on the wing. Before me there was Keith Mercer, Alan Mayes and Arthur Horsfield up front. Billy Jennings had gone to West Ham. I was just looking for any chance because there was only one sub at the time so there wasn’t a great deal of opportunity to get into the team.
Graham started preaching to me, to all of us, about how to train. Work in training, train with the same intensity as you play in a match, work hard in training when you’re in the team and even harder when you’re not, because training is where you earn your place. He told me that I had to impress in the reserve team. Basically every day was about trying to show I deserved a chance in the first team.
It was when the team kicked off in the Third Division in 1978-79 that you really got a regular place.
I came on as sub against Newcastle United in the League Cup and scored twice [in a 2-1 win]. Things had started to change a bit. We had our own training kit, which we looked after. It might sound like a really small thing but it was a big deal at the time. Before that there was just a big set of training kit that everyone shared. Sometimes it didn’t even get washed overnight so you’d come in and be fishing round in this big bag of smelly kit. It was just hung up in the drying room overnight and it was stiff and horrible.
We used to train on some fields in Horseshoe Lane with people walking their dogs past us. Graham looked at dozens of places in and around Watford for a regular training venue and we started training up at Shendish, which was a country house for the John Dickinsons paper company and is now a golf course. I didn’t like it up there because it was the coldest place in the world. It had its own little micro-climate. In winter the snow took ages to clear, there’d be mist and it was perishing cold. In summer it was so hot and the ground would be bone hard. We’d do our longer runs in Cassiobury Park in Watford. On Monday mornings for a while we’d train at the YMCA gym doing a class called Pop-Mobility, which is what you’d call aerobics now. There were a few laughs and jokes about it, with us stretching and running on the spot but Graham was into everyone having a high level of general fitness. Not just fit for football but fit, able to bend over and touch your toes, athletic. We’d do weights in the gym and sometimes he’d let us play squash, badminton or a bit of five-a-side.
I wasn’t one of the ones who looked forward to running. I hated the cross-country. When I’d done it at school it didn’t take much to persuade me to stop running. We’d get out of sight of the teachers and walk and start chatting. Graham taught me to enjoy running, more or less.
A lot of the things he was doing were ahead of his time – certainly at Third or Fourth Division level. He kept records of every physical session. He kept times of all our runs so he could tell whether we were slowing down. That is the difference between a professional and an amateur. A professional looks after the details and it is the details that make a difference.
Graham looked at some things that other people might have thought were insignificant. He kept a record of our weight. He started looking at diet and at what we were eating before a match.
What was food you ate like in those days?
When I first travelled with the reserve team to an away game it was a Thursday and I was still at school. They rang the school to see if I could be released to go to Brighton. We got on the coach to set off for the evening kick-off and at 5.30 we stop at a hotel for a pre-match meal. It was a huge lump of steak and masses of chips and I thought, ‘Wow, this is brilliant.’
Having a steak perhaps didn’t do me any harm but it didn’t do any good because it hadn’t been digested in time for kick-off, but that’s how it was. We thought a good steak two hours before kick-off was perfect. The steak was out of the window and pre-match meals were eggs, beans and maybe a bit of toast and jam. Stuff that was light and easy to digest but would release energy quickly, when you needed it. Everything has moved on from there and we know more about it but back then that was quite new and Graham instigated that.
What about the discipline?
He brought in a dress code. There were a few grumbles but he was right. People who go to work in an office have to wear a suit. People who go to a factory wear overalls. We were going to work for a professional football club and we were representing that club. Maybe we take it for granted now but he introduced standards that everyone was expected to meet. He banned jeans, not because he hated them but because they were open to interpretation. People’s idea of jeans are very different. Some would wear smart jeans, some might have a rip in them, others might have a load of paint on them from doing the decorating at the weekend. So we had to come in in smart-casual clothes. Trousers, a shirt or polo shirt with a collar. No t-shirts. Eventually we had club tracksuits to travel in and club blazers for formal occasions but at the start he just introduced simple things that smartened the whole place up. You know yourself, if you go to a meeting wearing a jacket or a tie you feel different to how you would if you were in jeans and a t-shirt.
Did all the players observe the rules?
He didn’t expect us to live like monks but he expected us to live properly in the period leading up to games. We could have a drink on a Saturday night but there was a 48-hour period before a match when we were expected not to drink. So if we had a game on Tuesday night that meant no alcohol on Sunday or Monday. I was never a drinker so that wasn’t a big deal for me. The thing was, that was the rule and everyone knew the rules and broke them at their peril.
I think culturally I maybe had a bit of that ingrained in me. Coming from West Indian parentage and background, you are given very strict rules. When you are brought up in the Caribbean it can be very strict. You grow up knowing the boundaries – this is acceptable, this is not. I think I realised very early that if I wanted to achieve something I had to be disciplined and work hard. I had made my choice to be a footballer and I knew that if I went against the way I was expected to behave I would not have a career.
Did he trust the players to buy into all that?
I think he moved a few on who he realised weren’t going to buy into it. The way he presented it was clever. It was optional in the sense that if you didn’t want to play by his rules he would move you on to another club, but if you decided you wanted to be part of it he wanted that total commitment. I think there was trust in that. We were grown men and he trusted us but he wasn’t an unforgiving man. People made mistakes, they got told off and we put it behind us. There weren’t many clubs who would send their players to the local pubs on a midweek night to pull pints for the supporters, which is something we did for a while. He trusted us not to have a drink ourselves – or just to have a half or whatever. There were no staff there to supervise us, he told us what he expected and we didn’t want to let him down.
Was there an element of fear?
I don’t think it was fear. We weren’t scared of him. You can’t respect someone and play for someone the way we did out of fear. Of course, there were times when we knew he was going to lose it because of something we’d done but it was done in the right way. He trusted the players and among the group there was a sense of dependence on each other. We had a bit of control over each other. If someone did something out of order, one of the other players would say, ‘Hey, that’s not on,’ and it would all be sorted before Graham even had to get involved. That was the atmosphere he built. It was an exceptional thing to be a part of and an amazing place to be.
If training started at 10, or 10.15, we’d be there at 9.30 because we wanted to be there. No one shot off in their car at the first opportunity after training. We’d stay around chatting. As much as people in football tell you that is what they are striving for that is actually quite a rare thing, I think.
What about in terms of what happened on the pitch? Did Graham’s style suit you?
He always liked to get forward. He liked people who had pace. He liked people who would get stuck in and try to win the ball, put their head in where it might get kicked. You have to have an edge in the British game.
I struck up this partnership with Ross Jenkins. He was the tall target man and I played off him. In the Third Division we were fantastic. He scored 29 in the league and I got 21. That’s 50 goals between two of us plus another 15 in the cups that season.
People think Ross and I just happened but it didn’t just happen. We worked longer and harder on the training ground to make it work. Myself and Ross would be the ones to close down the opposition’s four defenders to stop them getting out with the ball. Then we would be the ones who’d have to make the runs into the channels and across the pitch. We did an awful lot in training every day and it meant it got to the point where it was second nature. We knew where we were. I knew where Ross would be and he knew where I’d be. It wasn’t an accident, we put the work in to make that happen.
We beat Manchester United at Old Trafford in the League Cup [in October 1978, Blissett scored twice]. The second goal was a typical training ground move. Ross received it in the channel, laid it back to Booth. I knew where I had to be, pulling off to the back post to attack the ball because I knew where it would be coming. I made my run just before he [Booth] struck the ball. I got between the centre halves and the ball arrived and I headed it in. We practiced that, the timing of the run, the movement, and so for it to come off in a game as big as that was great.
I didn’t relish the closing down. I knew I had to do it but it was bloody hard work. The thing was, the rewards were there for you. If I won the ball back off their defenders I might have a one-on-one with their goalkeeper. So the carrot was to win the ball back as far up the pitch as possible to create a scoring chance.
There was more to it than kicking it long then?
There was so much written about us being a long ball side. In the Third Division they were going to show us how to play football, in the Second Division they were going to show us, then in the First Division they were going to show us. Sides would play the ball out from the back and that just played into our hands because we would close down, force a mistake and intercept. We’d set traps for them. We’d drop off one full back but close down the other defenders and tighten the space in midfield. That meant they had to pass it to the full back we wanted to have the ball and then we let him have it knowing that his options were limited because we were marking them well. Then we’d close in and force him to smash it up the pitch, which was the last thing he wanted to do. So we’d force mistakes and force them to give us the ball back.
It was the press who decided that all Watford did was launch it. I don’t think too many people actually studied the way we played, they had already made their minds up.
Sometimes we would go long, straight up to Ross and he’d flick it on, I’d run in behind and score. We could score a goal with three or four touches – goal kick from Shirley [Steve Sherwood], flick-on from Ross and a touch and shot from me. There’s nothing wrong with that. It was exciting because we would want to get the ball into areas where the opposition were least comfortable.
The key to it all, though, was out fitness. We were a fit side. Teams could usually match our pace and intensity for an hour but they wouldn’t go much beyond that. We could steamroller teams in the last 20 minutes because we were fitter and stronger than them. We started games fast to unsettle the opposition and we finished strong – look at the number of early and late goals we got. It was a lot.
It was difficult when we first got to the Second Division because really we’d got there with a team that had come out of the Fourth Division only 18 months earlier. It was maybe a step too far for two or three of the players but Graham gave that team a chance before changing it. We needed some fresh legs and it took him a while to get the people in who would take us on. People like Martin [Patching] and Wilf [Rostron] came in and they had played at a higher level than many of us so that started it. Then gradually Graham got the right mix to push for promotion but it took two years.
We were up against better players and teams were more aware of us. They understood a bit more about how we played. Some of them played the offside trap and they did it well, which was not something we’d really had to worry about lower down. The better sides did not take risks at the back. So we had to adapt.
One thing I was very aware of was that Graham Taylor never got complacent, or allowed his players to get complacent. More or less every season he brought in a couple of forwards and sometimes I found myself out of the team. I had to get back in by working harder. I always believed in the ability I had. Even when he left me out I didn’t think it would be for long. I thought I could score goals against anyone.
But having a new striker arrive, whether it was Malcolm Poskett or Gerry Armstrong, made me focus again. It was a kick up the backside, which everyone needs now and then. My reaction was, ‘If you want this shirt you are going to have to be some player.’
Finishing towards the bottom of the Second Division first time round must’ve been hard after two seasons of success?
It was difficult to deal with and the spirit around the club did suffer a bit. When you’re winning it’s easy for everyone to be happy. When you’re not winning you find out who you are. Goals were harder to come by. We weren’t making as many chances. You could go a few weeks without winning. I am a positive person so I look back on it and think that it helped us, it made us tougher, more determined.
We almost lost to Harlow Town in the FA Cup in that season. I was so relieved because it wasn’t until about five minutes to go that we finally took the lead. They really rose to the occasion and we were lucky to get away with it. We just wanted the whistle to blow.
Graham was always trying to improve the players he had and bring in new ones who would improve us. And I saw that there was no room for sentiment. A year before that, when we were still in the Third Division, I saw that close up. Sam Ellis had been magnificent when we won the Fourth Division, particularly in the first half of the season when we were getting going. He was our captain. Reasonably early in the Third Division season we were playing away [at Hull City] and getting beaten. It ended up 4-0. At half-time, Graham said to Sam, ‘It’s over isn’t it, son.’ And that was Sam Ellis, who’d been with Graham at Lincoln, later would be a coach, one of his best friends. Brutal. But Graham did what was best for the team, always.
The following season, 1980-81, Graham signed Pat Rice and Gerry Armstrong from Arsenal and Spurs. They were quite an upgrade on the players who had arrived up to that point. What did you make of it?
I think back and it was just an exciting time. It felt like there was an energy and purpose about the place. People inside the club knew we were going places and so although it was amazing that we signed someone of Pat’s reputation and experience – a Double-winner at Arsenal – I can’t remember being surprised. You always felt special things were happening.
They both brought something different to the dressing room. Whatever story you had, Gerry had one to top it. A friend or an uncle or a cousin who’d done something incredible or hilarious. He had so much self-belief, it was amazing. He brought a different style of humour to the dressing room. They were both from Northern Ireland, of course. Gerry was more personal in his comments to people. Before it had not been like that but he was joking. It was just his sense of humour and we got used to it. Pat was incredible. A man born to be a captain. Them arriving gave everyone a sense of what could be achieved.
A couple of months before they came in we played Southampton in the League Cup. We lost the first leg 4-0 at The Dell but I didn’t get the feeling it had been that bad. They were a bit better than us and they took their chances well but it wasn’t a 4-0.
The second leg at home was more or less a write-off as far as other people were concerned. I don’t think we really expected anything. We were talking about getting a bit of self-respect back, maybe we could beat this First Division side and it would go down as a decent result but no one thought we could actually go through.
As I remember it, we were 2-0 up at half-time. Half way to getting level. Then we went 3-0 up and all of a sudden there’s momentum but also pressure to complete the job. Southampton scored and we probably thought we’d blown ourselves out. Then we just steamrollered them and it was 7-1 in the end.
Southampton came with the wrong attitude. They thought that at 4-0 it was all over and it’d be a walk in the park. Once we got a couple there was no stopping us. We sensed blood. They’d left one or two players out, including Kevin Keegan, and by the time they realised they were in trouble it was too late, they couldn’t do much about it. We just kept going. We never thought to ourselves, ‘Okay, we’ve scored a couple of goals, that’ll do,’ we went for a third and a fourth.
In boxing if you knock someone down and they get up you knock them down again. It might sound a bit much but if we knocked someone down we’d start kicking them too, so they couldn’t get up. I don’t mean in a literal sense. That was our attitude to a match. Beat them and make sure they stay beaten.
Is it too easy to say that John Barnes was the final piece of the jigsaw? He arrived in 1981 and promotion was sealed at the end of the 1981-82 season.
I hadn’t seen John Barnes until the pre-season when he joined us. I’d heard about him, that he’d played for the reserves and that he was a bit special but when you hear that someone is a bit special you do think, ‘Yeah, okay, I’ll wait until I see it.’
Well, John Barnes was a bit special.
The first game of that season was at Newcastle United and I got sent off for retaliation. Callaghan had scored a great goal that flew into the top corner. I was playing in midfield because Jenkins and Armstrong were up front. Their midfield player kicked me once too often so I did him and got sent off. That was the longest 20 minutes I can remember because I was in the dressing room listening to the crowd thinking, ‘Please don’t let them score because if Newcastle equalise my life will not be worth living.’ As it was we held on and won the game and I don’t think Graham said anything to me about getting sent off.
A few weeks after that, Barnesy made his debut at Chelsea. What a place for a young black player to make his debut that was at the time.
But there was nothing he couldn’t do. He had pace, he had tricks and skill, he could shoot, he was pretty good in the air. He could beat defenders inside and and out. He was not easy to push off the ball.
I can’t say I thought at the time, ‘Right, now we are ready to go for promotion.’ We just thought, ‘Let’s win this game,’ then ‘now let’s win this one.’ It wasn’t until the spring that we knew that promotion really was on and we had to get it done.
What was it like when your first played in Division One?
Just like the previous year, I started the season in midfield and it didn’t faze me at all. The first game was against Everton and I was up against Steve McMahon, who was a hard player.
We had worked very hard through pre-season and our confidence was so high. We thought there was no reason we couldn’t go on winning.
Gerry [Armstrong] had been at the World Cup in Spain and scored that goal for Northern Ireland against Spain so he was the star. We slaughtered him in the dressing room to make sure he didn’t get too carried away with himself. He played up front against Everton and scored the first goal [in a 2-0 win]. I was in midfield with Kenny Jackett and I know Kenny hated playing with me because he knew I would go forward at every opportunity and he’d have even more work to do in the middle. Every time the ball went forward I was trying to burst from deep and get beyond the defenders because I wanted to be playing up front really. After a few games I got back in and Gerry spent so much time on the bench that season we called him The Judge.
The goals started to flow pretty quickly for you.
Against West Brom I got two and had a third that was disallowed. I thought I had a hat-trick. That win put us top of the league and if I think of any period of my career that was the time when we had so much self-belief we felt we could beat anyone. The games were easy – we just went out and played.
Then there was the Sunderland game that we won 8-0. It was 4-0 at half-time and Callaghan had got a couple and he was telling everyone how he was the club’s top scorer of the season. In the second half I surpassed him and ended up with four. We won 8-0. Back in the dressing room Cally was disappointed. He was like a little kid, really. ‘I can’t believe it, Luther, you’ve overtaken me!’ But that’s how it was. We’d won 8-0 and Cally was annoyed I had more goals than him!
It was a pretty sensational start. Did you think you could challenge for the title?
The thing was we hadn’t played Liverpool, Tottenham, Man United or Arsenal at that point so there was still a lot to be done. People were wondering if we could go on and win the league but we had a few bad results here and there. The thing was, we either won or we lost. We weren’t so good at digging in and grinding out a draw for a point. Graham didn’t want that. He wanted to be dynamic and attacking and there was a freshness and honesty about that. Maybe it was naïve at times but we wanted to win matches.
You finished runners-up to Liverpool, although some distance behind in terms of points.
We didn’t rest on our laurels. We had a good start but we weren’t thinking, let’s make ourselves safe and then ease up. In the new year, Ross got injured and I played up front with Gerry or Jimmy Gilligan in a few games, then the gaffer decided to play me with Barnesy and that gave us another dimension and we kept winning, although we’d already lost too much ground to Liverpool.
You ended the season as the First Division’s top scorer and as an England international too.
I got the England call-up really early on. I’d played for the under-21s back when we were still in the Third Division. I’d played in B internationals. My first senior international was against West Germany. I got on for the last 15 minutes. Then I got called up for the Luxembourg game and scored a hat-trick.
I was enjoying my football so much. There wasn’t the hype then and people wouldn’t see that much football on TV but we were getting talked about a bit. It was a great, great time. I was scoring goals and I kept scoring.
When did you first learn that Milan were interested and did you want to leave to go to Italy?
There’d been speculation but I’d not paid any attention to it but one day I got a call from GT to go and see him at the ground. He told me Milan were interested and that they’d offered half-a-million pounds. He said, ‘We’ve told them that if they want to talk seriously they’ll have to come up with a million pounds, so that should be the end of that.’ Cheers gaffer!
I was at a club where I was enjoying my football so much. It genuinely hadn’t crossed my mind to move but once the interest was there I had to give it some thought. I thought that going to Italy would help me develop as a player and help me as an international.
Milan had just come back up to Serie A after being relegated and they had Joe Jordan as centre forward. It was a big, big club but it was not a Milan team of old, or indeed Milan of today. They didn’t have that top quality of player but the idea of going to Milan really interested me.
GT said, ‘Well, they’ve come back with an offer of a million but it’s entirely up to you if you want to talk to them. If you want to, fine, if not then it ends here.’
We met on the hottest day of the year in a room with no air conditioning or windows. I hardly said anything. They had an agent with them. I had to get an agent. Eddie Plumley [the chief executive] was there. The agents were talking about the financial aspects and the guy from Milan was saying what they were going to do to make sure I settled at the club.
I was suddenly conscious that a million pounds is a lot of money. My annual salary was about £55,000, which is the most I earned in a year during my career. Very good money at the time.
I wouldn’t change it. I am glad I did it. It would have done me better to hang in there for another year and see how it went but I needed to be enjoying what I’m doing and the enjoyment had gone. I wasn’t getting the chances to score. Not scoring goals is one thing but not getting any chances is really not fun. There were some good players there – [Franco] Baresi [legendary Italy defender], Filippo Galli [who came to Watford under Gianluca Vialli], a guy called Evani [who played for Italy in the 1994 World Cup], Mauro Tassotti.
It took me a long time to understand the Italian mentality towards the game. At Watford we treated every game as the most important game. It was intense but it wasn’t stressful. We went out to play friendlies in the same manner. In Italy, the friendlies and cup games were really laid back and relaxed but when the league games came round everything was very, very tense. Everything hinged on the result. The performance was secondary almost. The players found it hard to express themselves. It was very defensive, especially away from home. Some games there wouldn’t be a worthwhile shot to talk about. That was just not the way I was brought up to play football. The philosophy was to keep the ball and not give it away, even if that meant going nowhere with it.
The atmospheres could be very hostile away from home because Milan visiting was a big deal. The coach would get attacked with bottles. On the pitch we’d get a lot of abuse. That was how it was. The players and opposition were fine. They were hard and could be very physical but they didn’t overstep the mark. It wasn’t nasty because I was a different colour. They hated us all because we were Milan.
It was frustrating because having had a taste of what pre-season was like and suddenly to find it was a totally different game was not something I’d been prepared for. To me, football is about scoring more goals than the opposition. I couldn’t see the point of this style of play.
Of course, word spread back to England that I wasn’t scoring and the press called me Luther Missit. To be honest, I didn’t mind that because when I first broke through the headlines all said ‘Black Flash’ and ‘Black Magic’ and at least that wasn’t acceptable any more.
I started having Italian lessons because I wanted to make it work. A few of the lads had a bit of English and they made me feel very welcome. In footballing terms it was never a problem communicating. Anyway, I was usually up front on my own so there was no one to talk to!
But the lifestyle was not for me. It was quite isolating. We all lived in separate parts of town, all over the city and surrounding area, so there wasn’t really any kind of social life. I started to enjoy getting away from training, enjoying the 20-minute drive back home to switch off from football. That just wasn’t me. I lived for football.
You mentioned the newspaper headlines that were common back then when talking about black players.
Yes, the fact you were black came into it in a why it didn’t with white players. You never saw ‘White Flash’, ‘White Magic.’ You never saw a white striker referred to as ‘The Light Destroyer.’
But there was abuse from the terraces too?
Yes. That took a long time to change. They were still throwing bananas at John Barnes in the late 1980s.
What did you make of it? And what did Graham say?
Graham’s values were obvious from the way he treated people and he didn’t treat me any differently because I was black. He saw me as a man and a footballer and at that time you could not take for granted that everyone would do that.
You heard the abuse – the chants and the monkey noises but when you’re playing a match what can you do? Go and confront the crowd? We could only answer that abuse on the pitch by trying to silence them with our performances. At an away game if we were getting abuse from the home fans all we could do was ram that abuse down their throats by scoring a goal and winning the game. At that time, that was all we could do because there wasn’t anyone in charge of the game [the football authorities] who was saying, ‘This is not right.’
You came back to watch Watford a few times but when did it come up that you might rejoin Watford.
I went to watch them at Tottenham and Leicester when I came back at Christmas time when we had our winter break. I didn’t think I wanted to come back but when things started to appear in the paper I started to think about it. Milan were going to bring in other foreign players to replace me – they could only have two, I think, so there was very little chance they’d keep me.
The Manchester United thing came up but I chose not to go there for one or two reasons.
Why was that? Do you want to elaborate?
No. But it’s not for the reason you might assume.
There was a chance to go back to Watford before the transfer deadline and I think I am right in saying that if I had I’d have been eligible for the FA Cup semi-final and final, but that didn’t feel right. I felt I had to do a year in Milan, see it through.
I came to Wembley for the FA Cup final as a guest of ITV and I went on the pitch before the game. One end was all yellow and red and I felt deep down in my stomach I should have been playing. I had a brief chat with one of two of the players but I wanted to get away from them because it was their day, the biggest day in the club’s history and I wasn’t involved.
I rejoined Watford a couple of weeks before the season started. It took a while to get the deal done. They had Maurice Johnston in my shirt – a very good player – and George Reilly, but they had half a new team practically. I’d only been away a year but it felt an awful lot longer than that. Things had changed so much. There were younger players like [David] Bardsley and [Lee] Sinnott. I was coming back into it and I had to re-establish myself.
Did you know Maurice would be leaving to join Celtic shortly? There was a lot of speculation.
I didn’t know and it didn’t worry me one way or the other. Competition didn’t worry me. It took me a little while to get back into the groove. I played in the first game of the season at Old Trafford [a 1-1 draw] then got injured against QPR on the Tuesday night. I fell awkwardly in front of the main stand and injured my shoulder. I came on as sub against Arsenal and scored but Graham wasn’t really sure about his best side and there was a lot of chopping and changing. I also felt Graham had mellowed a bit. He gave us a bit more latitude. Things were still very firm but he did give a bit more room to express ourselves on the pitch.
The most successful one was with Ross, wasn’t it. George would get himself into trouble, arguing and fighting with people. Gerry would be a bit naughty every now and then too. Colin West was a great player. A good, good target man who probably didn’t achieve what he could have with his ability.
I suppose the thing about being a centre forward is that it is the one position that people are always looking to replace. If a team isn’t doing well, the first thing a lot of people will look to change is the centre forward. Up front you are an individual that is also part of a partnership. If your partner isn’t scoring, the partnership gets broken up. So it can be strange. If you don’t score for four or five games you know your position is being reviewed.
I was lucky that I stayed in the side apart from a couple of bad injuries. I fractured my knee cap at Leicester and against Man United, when we beat them 5-1, I’d scored one and was going in to get my second when the goalkeeper’s knee caught my head and fractured my skull.
Did you feel like the club could challenge for the title or a cup or was being mid-table and safe from relegation the realistic limit?
There was an internal pressure we put on ourselves to challenge the top sides. Remember, English clubs were banned from Europe in that time so that was one less thing to aim for. I always felt we could win a cup. I thought 1987 was going to be our year.
We always knew we could beat Arsenal in that quarter-final. They hated playing us and we had a really good record against them home and away. At the end they were all appealing for a penalty. They were arguing all over the pitch, arguing with Graham Taylor on the touchline. Everyone had stopped but I heard Graham yelling, ‘Keep going! Keep going!’ I broke with the ball and put it in at the second attempt. After that they could argue all they liked.
I was just as confident of beating Tottenham in the semi-final but then we lost Coton and then we lost Sherwood. After 15 minutes we were 3-0 down. It was asking a lot with the goalkeeper [Gary Plumley]. It’s heart-breaking for the supporters but for us players, oh that one hurt. We really felt it would be our year. Leeds and Coventry was the other semi-final and Leeds were in Division Two at that time. To lose it in that manner hurt. It still hurts to this day.
What did you make of the situation with the goalkeepers?
Steve Sherwood probably could have played with his finger the way it was. He’d come in for loads of stick after the cup final but that was from the press, not the players. We were with him. Steve was a good goalkeeper and he was better than what we went with. But he did get stick.
Even when we were 2-0 down I thought there was a long way to go and a chance if we could just rally and get in the game but the third was the killer. At 3-0 we were out of it. The problem was the way the goals went in. That was very deflating. There were shots that really should have been saved and you know if there’s no confidence in the goalkeeper everyone is looking over their shoulders. We worked hard and never gave up but it was such a disappointing day.
Then came the end of an era with Graham leaving.
Absolutely. It really did feel like, ‘God, this is the end of an era.’ That’s the way to put it. He had made Watford Football Club. The foresight of Elton John and Graham’s ability to plan and organise had made that club. I was shocked and surprised. The football club he had created was something very, very special.
I remember thinking, ‘Goodness me, whoever comes in now will have to be someone who understands the club.’
Did you have an opinion on who should take it?
When you’re a player you know that you’re never going to have any influence over that. The decision will be made by the chairman or the board and we have to go with it, or move on. I remember Trevor Brooking’s name came up. I thought maybe Wardy [John Ward], as GT’s number two, would have been good.
To be honest, when Dave Bassett was named I thought, ‘Okay, well, he understands how a club like this has achieved what it has achieved.’ He had come up through the divisions with Wimbledon. I thought there might be some small changes but there wouldn’t be mass upheaval. He was someone with a similar work ethic and similar beliefs about the game. You know, everyone in it together, putting the team first.
It didn’t work out like that. Where Dave Bassett went wrong was that he let go of too many players, and too may younger players, and he brought in people who were whole-hearted but they were just not the same calibre. We were no longer the up-and-at-‘em side we had been a few years earlier. We had moved on and evolved. We played a lot more ‘football’ if you want to call it that. We mixed things up, looked to go through the middle a bit more sometimes.
That was wherer the problems lay. He was trying to recreate the Watford of 1979, which was an approach that probably had gone past its sell-by-date. That’s what people underestimated about Graham. They didn’t realise that he had never stood still. We had gone beyond that and we had some bloody good footballers. We didn’t just smash the ball into the corners the way Wimbledon had done. We had the likes of Kevin Richardson, who was a footballer, and Mark Falco, who could play the ball. But he moved them both on.
I don’t want to be disrespectful to the players Bassett signed but some of us were thinking, ‘these players’ performances are not up to the standard we need’. That was unheard of before. That goes for the coaches too.
In the October I went to speak to Bassett about it and said that I felt Alan Gillett was not treating us with the respect we deserved for what we had achieved. We were not Big Time Charlies who needed to be pampered, by the way. But he was treating us like school kids. I actually felt that what Gillett was doing was undermining a lot of what Dave was trying to do. I don’t think the players had a problem with Dave but the coaching staff were making the divisions worse the way they were treating the players.
Not long after that, Bassett dropped me. [Laughs] I was not stirring trouble. As a senior player I felt that going to speak to the manager was doing something pro-active to help him, to help all of us. I thought it would help him to see how some of us saw things. His response was to leave me out.
It stopped being a fun place. To me, training was about working on the basics, yes, but it has to be fun. Hitting the ball into the channel every time was fine but Trevor Senior couldn’t play the game that way.
Trevor came in with a great goal record [at Reading]. He arrived at Watford two years late. He needed to come to Watford under GT. He had to be running the channels and he just wasn’t capable of doing it. He was chasing the ball all day and then he couldn’t get into the box to get on the end of things.
Even now, it’s not hard to see what went wrong. At one point he had me, Wilf, Tony Coton – the heart of the team – all sitting in the stands.
We were at the bottom of the league and things weren’t improving. Watford supporters are not renowned for turning on the manager and chanting, ‘we want him out’ but when the supporters started that I knew change was inevitable.
The problem was, by the time Steve Harrison replaced Bassett it was almost beyond the point of being able to do anything about it.
When I think back to how much went into building it all up over ten years, the speed at which it unravelled was remarkable. It just shows the importance of one man. Graham Taylor held the whole club together. There were rumours about the ownership after he left. Reports in the paper that Elton was trying to sell. No one took charge of it. If that had happened with Graham he would have called a meeting to either tell us what the situation was, or tell us it was none of our business and we were to concentrate on the football. But we were totally in the dark, reading and hearing rumours about Robert Maxwell buying it or whatever.
Steve tried to galvanise it but I knew him as a player and a coach and he was a joker. This was not the Steve Harrison I knew. He was serious. I think he felt he couldn’t have a laugh because he was the gaffer.
Just after we got relegated to Division Two, he moved me on. I was fine with that. If there was no place for me, I could handle that, but I wanted to play football so I went to Bournemouth. I didn’t want to make life difficult for Steve by hanging around and being that popular older player who’s always there. He was going to go with Paul Wilkinson and Dave Bamber up front and he had Iwan Roberts coming through. I still loved Watford and wanted them to do well so it was best for everyone if I moved. When I heard they were interested in me, I went to see Bournemouth play Man City. I sat in the directors box and thought, ‘I can score goals for this team,’ so I signed. They were in the same division as Watford at that time.
A couple of years or so later you were back for a third spell at Watford.
That was a sentimental move. No one can be a footballer for ever and when the opportunity came up I wanted to go back. It’s a fact of life that nothing stays the same for every but when I came back [in 1991] absolutely nothing was the same as it had been. It felt like the club was being run for the benefit of certain individuals. I found it hard to accept that we trained later in the day under Steve Perryman because half the players were coming round the M25 and Peter Taylor [the coach] was coming from Southend. Once you start making concessions like that you’re never going to have any success. When I went to Bournemouth I moved down there. I don’t think you can be a professional footballer if you spend four hours a day in a car and you’re wondering when training will finish because you don’t want to get stuck in traffic on the M25. It’s pretty simple stuff but there are fundamental things about a club that make it what it is. When I went back for the third spell we did hardly anything in the community and the stuff we did do was all done by the players who lived locally. It’s not that they resented visiting a school or the hospital but when half the squad just clear off and never do any of that side of things it splits the squad.
Was there anything from your playing days at Watford that you took into coaching?
I always wanted to be involved with a team that attacked and was aggressive. I find keep-ball so boring to watch. Of course it’s important to look after possession but it’s not a crime to give the ball away in their half trying to do something that will hurt the opposition. Losing the ball in your own half is not on but just trying to keep the ball for the sake of it bores me to tears. I was so lucky to work with Graham as more of an equal when he came back to Watford, although I was still learning from him even then. As I said, he listened to what we said and took it on board even if the final decision was his to make. Some of the long discussions me, Graham, Kenny Jackett and Tom Walley had about the game, sitting round with a cup of tea and a biscuit in his office, are some of the moments I will treasure for the rest of my days.