The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009
Had it not been for an injury that ruled him out for almost two years in the 1990s, Nigel Gibbs would certainly have overtaken Luther Blissett as the man to make most first-team appearances for Watford. As it was, he fell only five games short of beating Blissett’s record for league appearances, and 13 adrift of his record in all competitions.
Nigel was the third person I interviewed for Enjoy the Game. At the time he was on the coaching staff at Reading and so I made the short trip to Berkshire and met Nigel in the canteen at the club’s training ground.
You made your debut in a UEFA Cup tie, the home leg against Sparta Prague, and then played the away game too. That must have been quite an experience.
It was quite bizarre really. I had just turned 18 and had just turned professional and signed a contract. Then the manager went out and bought David Bardsley, another right-back. Pat Rice had more or less retired but he’d gone and signed another right-back so I didn’t really know where it put me. The gaffer trusted young players but I wondered if I would get my opportunity. Then, within three days of signing my pro contract I was playing against Sparta Prague, although I wasn’t told until the morning of the game.
What was that like?
I didn’t have time to take it in, really, but I don’t remember being surprised. I had played for the reserves a bit and felt I was progressing well. I’d seen lads who were only a year or 18 months older than me playing in the earlier rounds of the UEFA Cup.
What did you do when were told you were in the team?
I went home from the little training session we did that morning. There were five subs for the European games, but only one for league matches in those days, so the matchday squad was bigger and we had a lot of injuries so I wasn’t surprised to be involved and thought I might get a chance on the bench but to be in the side was obviously very exciting. I rested for the afternoon, rang my Dad, and then went back in. I can remember really enjoying the game. We lost 3-2 but the manager said he was pleased with me. They were a good side, by the way. Their movement and passing was very good. At the weekend I was back in the youth team playing a South East Counties League match and although I went to Prague for the second leg, which we lost heavily [4-0] I didn’t make my league debut for a while.
David Bardsley was not eligible for the European games because he’d joined [from Blackpool] after the registration deadline. I suppose Graham Taylor thought Charlie Palmer wasn’t the one for him.
What was that trip to Prague like?
We flew from Luton and there were the press and supporters on the plane with us. I’d never been on an overnight trip like that before, never been to a country like that. Czechoslovakia was behind the Berlin Wall then and it was very different to what we were used to. I roomed with Wilf Rostron, who took everything in his stride and that kept me calm. We trained on the pitch the night before and there was a lot of snow and the pitch was icy. It was December but their winter was so much harsher than ours. It was really, really cold. In the training session we were all trying to work out what sort of boots to wear to cope with the surface. To be honest, I couldn’t believe the game was going to be played.
In the end I went with a pair of moulded boots with leather studs and I think a few of the lads took a bit of the leather off the top to give a bit more grip. There was a big crowd [38,000], far bigger than anything I was used to.
But we just couldn’t keep our feet, couldn’t get near anyone. We were like bambi on ice and they knew what to expect and how to handle the conditions. We were lucky to get away with only 4-0. I did my best, which was no better than okay on the night. Then we got the flight home and I was back playing for the youth and reserve teams. Amazing really.
Watford had a reputation for developing young players so you must have been confident your chance would come again?
I suppose I was. Although I was in the youth or reserve team, Graham Taylor knew us. He asked the coaches, whether it was Tom Walley, Steve Harrison or John Ward, how we were doing. He spoke to us and made us feel like part of the club. Sometimes there were training sessions with everyone together. There wasn’t a divide between them and us. By 1983 we were a young squad so even some of the most established players in the first-team were only two or three years older than me. So you always felt there was a chance to make a breakthrough.
Watford was my team. I had watched them as a kid. My dad, [Dennis] was taken on the coaching staff. He had been manager at Hemel Hempstead Town. Dad and Tom Walley took the youth coaching. Tom was full-time, my Dad was part-time.
At the end of the season you played a couple of league games and were involved in the squad just before the FA Cup final. Did you think there was a chance of playing at Wembley?
We knew Wilf Rostron was going to miss the cup final [because he was suspended]. David Bardsley was injured. He’d been the regular right-back for the second half of the season but he had a knock. I was definitely aware that GT was trying to solve the problem of what to do with the defence. Pat Rice played in the last game of the season against Arsenal. He had more or less retired and that was his last game and as we were safely mid-table I am sure it was partly a nice way to give Pat a send-off, against his old team where he’d played hundreds of games, but I wonder if he was also in the running to play at Wembley? I came on as sub for Pat at the end of that game and both sets of fans gave him a great ovation. I had no idea which way it was going to go. The gaffer had to fill both full-back spots but I’d be lying if I said I thought I was going to get in.
There was a reserve game which I played in. Bardsley played as well to see if he was fit and he came through it pretty well. I was in the cup final squad and training and I thought maybe I had a chance if Bardsley had a problem. But once he played that reserve game I knew he’d be fit. I suppose there was a chance he might ask one of us to play left-back but in the end he went for Neil Price.
I’d not had a sniff of the first team since the European games. I didn’t expect to be involved [in the cup final] just because I’d played in those games, it was just great to be involved. Travelling up to Wembley on the coach was a great experience, even though I knew I wouldn’t be playing.
What were your early impressions of Graham Taylor as a manager?
I was pretty in awe of the genius of the man from the start. The way he spoke to you, the way he made you feel. He knew how to connect with people. The way he spoke to me might have been totally different to the way he spoke to someone else and yet you felt he was treating everyone the same. That may sound strange but I think that’s what a people-person does. He knew how to win football matches, he knew how to make complicated things simple, and he knew how to make people work. He wanted everyone to strive to improve. He knew that some very small improvements in a number of areas could make a big overall improvement and so he made us think about details. For me that was keeping fit, looking after myself, working on my strength and condition, working on my game all the time. He made you want to work. He also knew when it was time to make difficult decisions and move someone on. That’s the art of a great manager.
What were the other coaches like?
It was a great team at that time. From the boss to the coaches, John Ward, Steve Harrison, Tom Walley and my father, they were all different characters but they were all really, really good at giving a grounding in the basics and the morals. They cared about what sort of people we were turning into as well as what sort of players we were turning into. They were direct, honest and there was a sense of discipline they shared. It was a great, great learning curve. I had a good upbringing but Watford Football Club made me the man I am and I so grateful for that. At the time I don’t think we could have been anywhere better.
Eventually, towards the end of the 1984-85 season, you got your chance when Bardsley fell out of favour.
I was doing well in the reserves, just waiting for my opportunity. It was the first time I had a run of games and I settled in and did well. At the end of the season we went to Spurs and won 5-1. I just thought that was normal. We had results like that every now and then. I missed the Man United game two days later, which we also won 5-1. I remember being gutted because Man United were always my ‘other’ team. I’d played in the FA Youth Cup final match at Old Trafford when I was still at school and I remember I hit the bar at the Stretford End with a shot. I can still picture the bar shaking now.
Then the last game of the season was a Friday night at Anfield. We were 3-1 up and playing out of our skin and then Kenny Dalglish started to turn it on and we lost 4-3. Honestly, that was one of the best performances I have ever seen. The noise and the atmosphere when they got going was amazing. Being in the team and facing those sorts of players was a really good grounding. I went into matches not with fear but with a sense of focus, thinking, ‘I want to do well today.’ My game was about minimising mistakes so I was concentrating on positioning, not putting myself or my team-mates in trouble. It sounds simple but the key to defending is being switched on for 45 minutes, or however long the half is, and then playing with the same focus for the second half.
Did Graham coach you as a defender?
Not really. He was an attacking coach. Most of the defensive work was done by Harry [Steve Harrison]. We’d work as a back four. Graham was very thorough on the opposition. He would have these written match reports on the opposition and he’d hand them out. He didn’t force you to read it but he paid attention to who had a look and who didn’t. I always had a look because you never know, it might give you something for the game. He’d had the opposition watched so he was passing on as much as he could. He also advised me to write down in a little diary a little bit about every winger I played against, what they were good at, what their weaknesses were, so I got into the habit of making notes after a game. If a player was particularly good at crossing the ball early off his left foot, or if he preferred to cut inside, or if he liked to stay wide to receive the ball, I’d make a note because it would help me when I faced that player again. I’ve still got that book now. Graham had been a full-back and I learned years later that one of his coaches had given him that exact advice when he was a player.
There’s a thin line between genius and madness isn’t there. He could talk. After a game he’d go through the team, one-to-eleven, and he’d remember everything significant that you’d done in the game. So, if you let your man get a cross in in the 57th minute, he’d know. Now, he wouldn’t always mention it but you knew he knew. You knew he was analysing your game and so during games I’d be self-coaching all the time thinking, ‘Don’t let him get a cross in,’ or ‘Don’t let him take a shot.’
Of course, as a right-back I got to go up against John Barnes, the best left-winger in the country, every day in training. There’s no way that can’t improve you as a player. I had to work really, really hard to stay with him and when I played in games I’d often think, ‘Well, this guy isn’t as good as Barnesy,’ and it would help so much.
John McClelland joined and he was the best defender I ever played with. His running style was the worst I’d ever seen but he was never beaten for pace or position. He read the game all the time, adjusted his position a little bit all the time so he was rarely in the wrong place. He was a fantastic talker – always calm and in control. The tone of voice is important. He didn’t make us panic. He just gave us information that helped. Wilf Rostron was great too and because he was small, like me, he helped me a lot. He taught me how to get to the ball first, how to be strong. Everyone says you have to be tall to defend the back post but if you anticipate and get to the ball first you don’t need to be taller than the opposition.
Did any opponents give you trouble?
I remember the first game of the season in 1985-86 was against Tottenham at White Hart Lane. We’d won 5-1 there at the end of the previous season – so only three games earlier if you take out the pre-season – so it was fresh for them. We didn’t go there complacent, thinking we’d roll them over again but they were absolutely on fire that day. It was Chris Waddle’s home debut and he was so impressive. He used to switch wings and usually I’d relish the challenge of him coming over my side but that day he was unplayable. My heart sank a bit when I saw him jogging over to my side of the pitch. We lost 4-0.
But we were excellent at home. We made Vicarage Road a fortress. That season we only lost once at home in the league before New Year [against Luton Town]. We did believe we could win away but it was obviously harder and for the size of club it was always going to be difficult to go to the next level and challenge for the league championship. But we were a great home side. We set the tempo. The manager set the tempo and the players and fans followed. What I remember about the home crowd was that they were so supportive. They don’t boo you when you’re struggling. They weren’t intimidating but they could really get behind us and get noisy when we were attacking. It was perfect really.
Did the accusation of being a long ball team annoy you? You must’ve been one of the players who was looking to pass the ball forward early?
Yes, the job was to get the ball up to Luther or Colin West or whoever the number nine was at the time, or get it wide to Cally or Worrell Sterling. With Cally and John Barnes we had two of the best wingers in the country so it was obviously in our interests to attack. We never went anywhere for a draw. Never. We went to try to win the game and if a draw was the best we could get, fine, but we never went out to sit back, be defensive and play for a point.
The perception of the team was wrong because we had a lot of good players. Kevin Richardson came in and you can’t say he wasn’t an excellent footballer. We were better than a lot of people gave us credit.
Are there any matches that stand out for you?
The two games against Liverpool in the FA Cup quarter-final. We defended unbelievably well at Anfield to get the 0-0. Tony Coton was magnificent and it was a great achievement for us. In the replay they won themselves a penalty thanks to the referee, Roger Milford. It was never a penalty and we didn’t deserve to lose. There were 28,000 in the ground that night – the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen at Vicarage Road.
One year we beat Arsenal home and away on consecutive days. We played Arsenal at Highbury on the Bank Holiday Monday and then again on the Tuesday night. Imagine that happening now.
I scored my first against Newcastle. I used to get a bit of stick for never scoring but I wasn’t a full-back who went forward that much. I was a defender, whereas David Bardsley was more of a wing-back, not that we really used that phrase then. Paul Gascoigne and Glenn Roeder played in that game and we beat them 4-1. There’s no better feeling than scoring a goal.
Right at the start of the 1986-87 you got a bad injury, the first of a couple of long-term injuries.
It was at QPR, on their astroturf. I controlled the ball but the surface was so tricky, you never quite knew what the ball was going to do. It started to run away from me and suddenly I had a 50:50 challenge. I stretched for it, got caught and caught my foot on the turf. I fractured two toes and dislocated another. My mate was a QPR season ticket holder and apparently he was giving me abuse for going down but I knew it was a bad one. I was out until February. I blame the pitch because it definitely caused it. That injury wouldn’t have happened on grass. QPR had a plastic pitch, so did Luton and they all tried to say it wasn’t an advantage but it was a massive advantage because they played on it all the time and could train on it. We went there once a season and had to get used to it in 90 minutes. If you look at their home records at that time they were definitely very good at home.
You returned to the side just as the FA Cup run was heating up but you didn’t play against Tottenham in the semi-final. Why was that?
I got back in the side at the time we were playing Walsall in a tie that went to a couple of replays. They were in the Third Division and we were expected to beat them comfortably but they were very good, particularly up front. They had David Kelly who went on to play for Wolves and a guy called Trevor Christie. In the first replay, at Vicarage Road, it was 4-4 and I didn’t play too well.
I played in the quarter-final at Highbury against Arsenal and the gaffer put David Bardsley on the right wing ahead of me. Bardsley was on fire that day and he turned Kenny Sansom, an international left-back, inside out.
But then the came the build-up to the semi-final against Tottenham and one of the biggest disappointments of my career. We went up to Lilleshall at the start of the week and there was all the trouble with the goalkeepers. Tony [Coton] was injured. Then Steve Sherwood dislocated a finger. Everything was unsettled. On the Monday he took me to one side and told me he was leaving me out of the side. He said that Spurs played 4-5-1 with Clive Allen up front on his own and a very strong midfield with Waddle, Hodge and Hoddle. He said he wanted to match up against them, which was very unusual because he rarely used to change his system or shape because of the opposition. So he told me on the Monday I wouldn’t be playing but said, ‘I don’t want you to tell anyone – not even your family or friends.’ It was a horrible week for me because I knew I wasn’t playing and I knew it was unlikely he’d name a full-back on the bench. Knowing I was not involved for a semi-final was really disappointing.
Come the morning of the game, because I was the spare man, not in the squad, I was the one to help do Steve Sherwood’s fitness test. He was lying on the ground with his hands outstretched and I was booting the ball at him as hard as I could to test his hand. I thought he was okay. I thought he was fit but for whatever reason he didn’t play and Gary Plumley did.
It was such a bizarre week. We had to put the teamsheet in at 2.30, I think it was, and we went out to warm up at 2.15. The boss wanted me to get kitted up and go out to warm up so that Spurs wouldn’t know the team until as late as possible. So I went out to do the warm-up even though I knew I wasn’t even on the bench. I was thinking, ‘Well, I am a good pro and this is what the boss wants,’ so I did it. I went out and did the warm-up and kick-around then went back to the dressing room and got changed into my suit and went to sit in my seat up in the stand at ten to three, before the teams came out. A couple of fans said to me, ‘Alright Gibbsy? Aren’t you supposed to be playing?’
It was a strange week, a strange day and a strange game. Wilf did a great man marking job on Nico Claessen and Steve Sims dislocated his elbow and we lost 4-1. Then I got straight back in the team for the next match and on the final day of the season we met Spurs again and beat them 1-0.
That turned out to be Graham’s last match as manager. Did you realise that at the time?
Looking back maybe there were signs but when you’re a player you’re concentrating so much on what you’re doing. I had no indication. I’d not read anything in the Watford Observer. I certainly had no inkling he was going to Aston Villa.
How did you take it?
I’d never worked for any other manager. Never known anyone else’s way of doing things so of course I was wondering what it would be like. We went on the tour to China and Dave Bassett came to a little send-off party at the Chinese embassy in London before we flew out but he didn’t come on the trip itself. As a trip it was fascinating, a really brilliant couple of weeks. To get the chance to go and visit China, see those amazing sights and spend time with Elton. Incredible, really. But when we came back there was an atmosphere of, ‘Well, does the new gaffer even want half of us?’
We went on a pre-season trip to Sweden and everything was a lot looser than it had been. I thought it would be the opposite. Bassett had the reputation from Wimbledon and I thought it would be work, work, work, but it was like a holiday camp sometimes. Drinks in the bar, not the same discipline. Fair enough, Harry Bassett wanted to put his own mark on it and do things his way. Losing John Barnes weakened us immediately and he was never replaced. Then he sold Bardsley and Kevin Richardson which just seemed strange to me.
As a fella, I didn’t mind Bassett. Geoff Taylor, who was part of the backroom staff, was a great guy. But the turnover of players was too much, the change of style was too quick. We went far too direct. We’d always got the ball forward early but it was played up to forwards who would bring it down, wait for support, lay it off and move into space. Now we were too direct. It was hit forward into areas, then we tried to press them in. But the fact was, the players weren’t good enough. You can’t lose Barnes, Falco, Bardsley, Sims and Richardson and not replace them.
Did you think you could turn it around and avoid relegation?
I don’t know. It’s difficult when you’re in a losing team. You see people’s real colours. We weren’t together as a group, there were little cliques in the squad. Were those of us who had grown up with Graham seen as anti-Bassett? I don’t know. I certainly don’t think we were anti-Bassett but I remember around Christmas time four or five of us were all sitting in the stand at Portsmouth’s Fratton Park – me, Tony Coton, Luther Blissett and a couple of others – watching the game having been left out thinking, ‘This isn’t right.’ We weren’t the worst performers but we were left out. Bassett brought Gary Chivers in and he took my place and I don’t think he was better than me.
Having said that, how hard was it to follow GT? Graham had been there ten years – it was his club and it had been successful for a decade but at the end of the day the new manager had to take responsibility and they sacked him early in the New Year. It was a horrible season, even when Steve Harrison came in. We all knew him and it was a popular decision but there was a bit more distance between us and him than there had been when he was a coach. He was a great coach but when you’ve got to pick the team and leave people out it’s a totally different job.
What was it like when Graham came back in 1996?
I’d had another couple of bad injuries – one kept me out for nearly two years and almost cost me my career. When Graham came back I was trying to resurrect my career really. Kenny Jackett stood by me and I got back in the team. Graham started off with a more hands-off role but then he became the football manager again and we had success again, winning two promotions in a row. He had changed a bit. His methods were different, he’d adapted as the game had changed. He still wanted to win all the time but he was more mellow. I played a big part in winning the Second Division championship in 1998 and although I didn’t play as much the following year he brought me in to do a job at St Andrew’s in the second leg of the play-off semi-final against Birmingham City. He knew he could trust me and he put me into a massive game when I’d not played much all year. To play in the Premier League, even though we went down, was great too.
Then I got a chance to go into coaching when I retired although I finally left the club in not very good circumstances. [When Aidy Boothroyd was appointed manager]. I can understand people in football move on and no one is guaranteed a job for life but I was very disappointed with how they handled it and my support for the club was suspended for a while, although it’s back on now.