Paul Franklin played in every round of Watford’s FA Youth Cup-winning run in 1982 which culminated with a 7-6 aggregate win over Manchester United in the final. He then was a mainstay in the reserve team, playing 135 times in the Football Combination side – more than anyone else during that period. He made his Football League debut in the 2-1 win against league champions Liverpool on the final day of the 1982-83 season, marking Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush, arguably the best strikeforce in the country at that time.
At the start of the following season he began to establish himself as the likely successor to Ian Bolton, he played in Europe and enjoyed a good run of form as the FA Cup run got going, only to suffer a knee injury that led to three operations in quick succession and which curtailed a very promising career.
When I was young, my whole life was about football. At weekends I used to play twice in a day. The manager of the club I played for in the morning wouldn’t allow scouts to come and watch because he thought it would destroy our dreams. But the team I played for in the afternoon would, and when I was 14 I was spotted by Tom Walley.
With Tom, you were either one of his blue-eyed boys or you took a bit of stick. I took a bit of stick. He liked me as a player but I think he thought I was a bit quick with my replies. I’ve been called a smart-arse in my time.
But I got into the reserves quite early, during my first full year as an apprentice. I played in the reserves the year we won the FA Youth Cup and as a result I felt like when I played for the youth team it was easier.
But Tom was brilliant. Hard, yes, but you knew what to expect and he got the best out of people. He could spot players and he could get them working. It was all pretty basic, straightforward stuff – you knew what your job was and it was drilled into you daily. Most of our training sessions were forwards v defence so everyone was working on situations they faced in matches. If you couldn’t do it on the training pitch you didn’t play on a Saturday. When he was working with us defenders, the first priority was to defend. He was very good at his job and he prepared us for matches.
Was he intimidating?
He was, but he also cared about you and so it was the perfect balance. We were taught that football is not a career that just happens for you – you have to make the most of what you have got. It was very enjoyable but it was very hard. He pushed people hard, very hard. We used to run up and down the terraces, he’d make us carry each other up and down the terraces. It was hard training but he always knew he could get just a little bit more out of us. Just when you thought you were done there was another run. Just when you thought you’d had enough, he wanted more. Just when you were ready to give up, he wanted more. And you either buckled under that, eventually, and couldn’t give any more, or you did more and that made us.
It built a tremendous spirit among us too. We used to group together as young players and say, ‘We won’t let him beat us.’ If one of my team-mates was struggling, I would say, ‘Come on, let’s get this running done and think about how good it’ll feel when it’s over!’
The proof that it worked was to see that number of players come through and eventually play in the first team. That was remarkable.
What was it like winning the FA Youth Cup?
We were expected to do well. We were used to beating the youth teams from Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham – they were the big sides in the South-East Counties League. We were not allowed to be intimidated by them because they had a Spurs badge on their shirts. I think it was drilled into us to treat the opposition with respect but not reverence.
We were so fortunate that Graham Taylor recognised the value of youth football. We always felt part of the club. It wasn’t like it was them and us. Okay, so we had to clean their boots and clean the dressing rooms but it was like one big happy family. It really was. We got good coaching and training from the older professionals and the discipline was there. Sometimes we’d train with the first team and all that was part of our development.
The youth cup run was brilliant. We’d all been together as a group since 14, so it was great. It gave us the first glimpse of what being a pro was all about – preparing for big games, travelling away for a cup tie. We won at Old Trafford in the first leg and then the second leg went to extra-time and ended up as a 4-4 draw so we won on aggregate.
United had Norman Whiteside and Mark Hughes up front. Two months later, Whiteside played in the World Cup for Northern Ireland, he’d already played for the United first team. Hughes went on to be one of the best strikers in the country and played for Barcelona and Bayern Munich. In both games the forwards were on top, so it probably wasn’t a great one for the defenders on either side.
In the second full season, I played the youth cup games while I was in the reserves. If you were good enough you’d play for the reserves. I was professional in the second season but could still play for the youth team. I played in the reserves, then I’d go and play the youth cup games and Tom would tell you who to mark. He’d be talking to you in the dressing room. Sometimes he’d be straining away in trap two telling you what he wanted you to do in the game. I remember we were playing Southampton and it was Danny Wallace he wanted me to mark, and there he [Tom Walley] was in the toilet, straining away, telling me what Wallace was good at, what he was bad at. That was my job to mark him out of the game.
Did the senior players set a good example?
They did. The discipline came from the top down. I remember I was injured at roughly the same time as Gerry Armstrong. I got on well with Gerry but seeing him work on his recovery was a real lesson for me. His professionalism getting fit was fantastic. Wilf was fantastic. Steve Sims, Ian Bolton they were the players in my position and I tried to learn from them. Ian Bolton was the player I wanted to emulate. Steve Terry and Kenny Jackett were just ahead of me and they were getting into the first team but the message was always that if you were good enough you would get a chance. We had a few who came in and maybe led some of us astray, like Maurice [Johnston], but on the whole Graham Taylor ran a very tight ship.
What do you remember about your debut?
I played my first league game the on the last day of the season they finished runners-up. We played Liverpool in the last game. We’d had a testimonial the week before for Ross Jenkins against Luton and GT had said to me ‘If you perform well in this game’ even though it was a friendly, if you play well you’ve got a chance of making the game on Saturday. I must have done okay against Luton because he picked me.
He told me I was in the team on the Friday. I didn’t sleep that night. I was in Garston in digs, with Neil Williams and Worrell Sterling with Mr and Mrs Lowery. I was there for four-and-a-half years and it was like a second family. I was 18 at the time and all my family came up for the match. I was petrified before the game but it went well, although it all went far too quickly. Elton was on the pitch afterwards.
I was up against Kenny Dalglish – an amazing experience in itself. My first game, we beat the champions, finish second in the league and we were doing a lap of honour at the end. Not bad!
Before the 1983-84 season I had a really good pre-season. The second game of the season was Ipswich at home against [Paul] Mariner and [John] Wark. I was not picked for the game so I was in the players’ lounge before the game. Billy Hails came in and said ‘I hope you haven’t been drinking’ because Steve Terry had come in with an illness and been sent home. I assumed I’d be on the bench but I walked in and GT said ‘right, you’re playing.’
Injuries gave me the opportunity. We were into Europe and so the squad was really stretched. I got in for the Ipswich game and managed to stay in.
That meant you played in Watford’s first European game – away to Kaiserslautern.
My dad recorded the highlights on TV and I watched it when I got home. I remember the commentator saying ‘this new lad Franklin has got a very difficult job marking Allofs tonight,’ and just as he said that the bloke scored. [Laughs] One-nil down after about ten minutes. We got level but lost 3-1 and I think we thought it was possibly beyond us.
We were such a young team, but Pat Rice was a huge help. We could have gone under in that game at times but we kept ourselves in it and of course they won the second leg 3-0 and got through.
I was out of the side a few weeks but got back in before the Levski Spartak away game. The first match had been a 1-1 draw but GT told us we weren’t out of it, that we could win it. And we did. That was an absolutely amazing game.
Now it was a case of establishing myself into the first team. GT spoke to me and said ‘Ian Bolton is reaching the end, and I see you as the natural replacement.’ He felt Kenny was more productive in midfield rather than in defence. True to his word I had a regular run of games and I started to establish myself. Before that I’d been picked for the England U21s and from about the November to March I was a regular in the side and playing really well.
Then you got injured.
It happened during the Birmingham away game in the cup [FA Cup sixth round] but I managed to stay on and complete the game. A lad called Howard Gayle went down the byline, just inside the box. As he turned to cross it, I blocked the cross, stuck my leg out and it went for a corner. I turned and marked up and thought nothing more of it. I carried on and finished the game.
Then on the Monday we had the day off. On Tuesday we were back in for light training. While we were stood there my knee began to swell for no apparent reason. I went back to the ground from [the training ground in] Stanmore. The club doctor got me a scan and they said my cartilage had gone. It hadn’t gone completely but GT said he really wanted me fit for the semi-final so they said they could trim the cartilage and I should be fit in a few weeks.
I wanted to play in the semi-final, so I said fine. I had the operation and I was back training two and a half weeks later. Building up to the semi-final, he [GT] wanted me to play in a game, but my knee went in a fitness test before the Norwich game [lost 1-6]. It went again, then I had another op and I was on crutches.
After the second op they’d removed all the cartilage and they said there was still a chance of playing in the final but I was back training and it went again and I had a third operation by the time of the final.
Do you feel you were rushing, or being rushed back?
I suppose so. Three operations in three months, or whatever it was, and it kept going, but that was how it was then. Players had cartilage trimmed or removed and recovered from it but in hindsight I needed time to recover because it was never the same again.
You were out a long time after that.
My next game back was against Birmingham, 20 months after it had first gone [December 1985]. There was a bomb scare during the game and we all went off and that really helped me because I had a 20-minute rest. I had been back in the reserves but the pace of the first team was higher.
My next game was against Liverpool at home, and I was pretty poor. Paul Walsh played and scored twice. He was my nemesis anyway but he gave me a hard time that day. I never really regained my pace, I didn’t have full mobility.
I went out on loan a couple of times [Shrewsbury and Swindon]. I played left back for Watford against Everton. I played right back a couple of times, but I was never really the same. I managed about seven games in two years for Watford. I couldn’t play two games in a week because my knee would swell up after every game.
It was a very long period of recovery. Having missed out on the cup final as well it was very disappointing.
It was devastating to miss the semi-final to be honest. That was hard enough but I had that hope I could be fit for the final. I may be fit enough for the final. Then to miss it because of another setback and to be on crutches was devastating. To do the tour round on the bus and go to Watford town hall there was Wilf, Steve Sims and myself and we were the three forgotten people really. GT kept us involved as much as possible but it was horrible. Not his fault, not anyone’s fault, but missing a cup final is a really hard thing to take. When you’re young you think it’s going to come round again and of course it didn’t.
Did you know the injury was going to make it hard to have a career?
When I came back a season and a half later I knew I couldn’t perform as I did before. I’d lost pace. At First Division level you needed pace. I could read the situations as I did before but my legs wouldn’t get me there as quickly. When you’re talking about half a yard, half an inch makes a difference. GT realised that. The injury ruined everything.
I think Graham had a lot of time for me as a player and I think he was hoping I’d get back to what I could produce. After that Wimbledon game [September 1986], where I was rubbish, he got rid.
I went on loan to Swindon with Lou Macari. He wanted me to stay another month but I absolutely hated it. Watford was so well organised, you knew where you were supposed to be and what you were doing, what you had to wear, but at Swindon there was no discipline. Lou was a bit of a gambler himself. Before the game people were rushing out to the players’ lounge to watch the 2.30 race on television, people were placing bets. It was a totally different environment and I didn’t like it.
I played seven times for them and Macari asked me to stay on. I’d gone back to see GT but I said, ‘I don’t mind going on loan but I don’t want to go back there.’ I’d been to Shrewsbury just before, which I loved, but they couldn’t come up with the fee. Then I got the free transfer and went to Reading but my knee was always a problem.
What did you take from your time at Watford, because later on you coached with Martin O’Neill at Wycombe, Norwich and Leicester.
I think the thing you don’t realise until later is that everything is done for the benefit of the players. You could say at Watford it was treating people like kids but Graham’s attention to detail was meticulous. If you were going abroad you all handed your passports in. Everything GT did was for the benefit of the player and the benefit of the club.
Whether he was in the Fourth Division or the First, he’d run it the same way. He was hands on on the training pitch. Even in the youth team, Tom Walley would have the opposition watched. They would give you information to work on. Some of us hated it but it could be helpful, sometimes it could be the difference in a game. We’d do a lot of shadow play. On a Friday you’d line up and be the opposition if you were in the reserves, playing against the first team. It was meticulous. He didn’t leave anything to chance. On Saturday you couldn’t have an excuse because you’d have been told. You couldn’t say, ‘I didn’t know their forward would do that,’ because it would have been covered. Very rarely did they miss anything.
You think every club does it like that but then you go off to other clubs and see that it’s not as meticulous. Even in the summer we’d have a training regime, and we’d come back a couple of weeks earlier than everyone else.
When I was part of it, I took the mickey out of it in a way. I made jokes about the running and the regime, the organisation and all of that, but as soon as I left, it was all I wanted.
Graham didn’t mind us having a go or a moan, as long as we got on with the work. We could moan all we liked as long as we did it. You knew where the line was because you’d get a whack, a clip round the ear from Tom, when you were a young player.
GT dominated the whole club, whether it was going to the annual firework night, or singing the Christmas carols or organising cricket matches in the summer. He absolutely made that club.