The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009
Without being unkind to Richard Hill, it is a stretch to consider him a Watford legend but one of the aspects of the 1980s story that interested me most was how quickly and spectacularly it all fell apart after Graham Taylor left. I’d read the reports, heard the rumours and thought I knew some of what had gone on behind the scenes when Dave Bassett took over but I was eager to hear the thoughts of the people who witnessed it and were part of it.
Richard Hill was Graham Taylor’s last signing for the club before leaving for Aston Villa. Hill had been starring as a dynamic goalscoring midfielder for Northampton Town, who were running away with the Fourth Division title. As a result, Hill was being chased by a number of top-flight clubs and in the spring of 1987 it was announced that he would be joining Watford in the summer.
My Dad and I made the short journey to Northampton to watch Hill in action against Southend United that April. The internet tells me that the Cobblers won 2-1 but my memory of the match is hazy other than being bemused by Northampton’s County Ground, which was part football stadium, part cricket ground. It meant the ground was three-sided, with supporters on one touchline standing on the grass behind a rope.
Anyway, despite his promise Hill’s Watford career was brief. Before mid-September Bassett had sold him to Oxford United.
I was quite surprised that Hill responded so enthusiastically to my request for an interview. And as I headed to meet him in a café at Oxford Services on the M40 – how very 1980s football that was – I wondered how much I could find to talk about with a man who made only four first-team appearances for Watford. It turned out there was quite a lot of ground to cover and, as is often the case, it is the bit-part players who have the clearest view of the drama taking place centre stage.
In 1987 you were starring for Northampton Town, who were running away with the Fourth Division title, and a lot of clubs were watching you. How had you got to that point?
The manager at Northampton Town was Graham Carr, who had brought me through from non-league. He’s the comedian Alan Carr’s dad. I saw something on TV the other day when Alan Carr met Elton John and Elton said to him, ‘Hey, I know your dad.’
We were going really well that year. We had a good side – Trevor Morley was in it and he went on to join Manchester City and West Ham. I was a midfielder who got forward and I was scoring a lot of goals and the papers picked up on it. We got Newcastle United in the cup and although we lost 2-1 we got a bit of attention. Newcastle was Graham Carr’s team. Then I heard Spurs wanted me to go on loan, but Graham thought a loan move was a bad idea. There were bits in the paper about Liverpool, Newcastle. That’s how it was then – if you’d scored 20 goals in the Fourth Division by about February everyone was interested. Spurs was a funny one, they said they would definitely sign me permanently at the end of the season if I went there on loan first but I said, ‘Well, if you want me, why not sign me permanently now?’
How did you learn about Watford’s interest? Graham Taylor kept his transfer targets quite close to his chest.
I wasn’t aware that Watford were even watching me but one morning I was at home. I’d been married about 10 months and it was about eight o’clock. My wife was getting ready to go to work and I was ready for training. Graham Carr rang and said, ‘Put your suit on, we’re going out for the day.’ I met him at Northampton’s ground and I said, ‘Gaffer, where are we going?’
He told me we were going to London because Chelsea wanted to speak to me. We went to Stamford Bridge and met their manager, John Hollins – his son is Chris Hollins who does the sport on BBC Breakfast, there’s a bit of a TV theme here. Graham, John Hollins and I went down the Kings Road for a spot of dinner. We had a nice lunch, glass of wine. Then we met Ken Bates, who said that if I was going to sign for them I’d have to cut my hair. It’s all gone now but back then I had a bit of a mullet. Blond on top, long at the back.
Chelsea then wanted me to go through the medical there and then but I thought, ‘I’ve come down to talk to you, not sign straight away.’ Chelsea was a big club, in the First Division, but mid-table, so it’s not like they are now. Anyway, I had agreed with Graham Carr that if we agreed a deal now, I’d stay with Northampton until the end of the season. He had said to me that I’d regret it if I played three-quarters of a championship season but missed the celebrations of clinching promotion and winning the trophy. I was confident that I could stay for a few more months and still move on and advance my career.
I said I’d think about it and I don’t think Chelsea were all that impressed. I think they expected me to be falling over myself to sign for them. I didn’t have an agent then, so Graham Carr was giving me a bit of advice.
Before we left Chelsea, Graham rang Northampton Town to see if there were any messages and there was one. We got back in the car and Graham said, ‘On the way back to Northampton we’re going to call in at Vicarage Road.’
I sat in Graham Taylor’s office with him and Eddie Plumley, their chief executive. The whole atmosphere, and Graham’s presence in the room, was impressive. They way they spoke to me was totally different to what had happened at Chelsea. As I sat there I found myself thinking, ‘I want to play for this man.’
Watford were doing well that season – top half of the league and having one of their cup runs. It felt like a club that was alive.
Graham Taylor said he wanted me to sign and that even though I was coming from a Fourth Division club they would class me as a ‘senior player’. He said they had a salary cap but that I would be a senior player on good wages. It was a little bit more than Chelsea were offering but it was more than the money. The club wanted me to come in, settle in to the First Division and then do my stuff. Graham talked about the gap between the divisions but said they’d help me and they wouldn’t put pressure on me.
Then he said, ‘Go away, have a think about it. Talk to your wife.’ I didn’t have to think long. I was going to join Watford and we agreed it and shook on it. It was late March, just before the transfer deadline, which was towards the end of the season in those days. I could have joined Watford there and then but he said they were in the middle of the FA Cup run, hoping to get to Wembley, and I was cup-tied anyway so I wouldn’t get much of a look-in. He said that no matter how I played for Northampton over the rest of the season they’d take me.
It was a gentleman’s agreement – we didn’t sign anything – but Northampton organised a press conference for the following day to announce it. When we got back to Northampton we went to a hotel to meet some of the directors and they had some champagne. It was a big deal for them too – they’d got me from non-league for next to nothing and now they were going to get more than quarter-of-a-million quid.
I called my wife from the hotel and she said, ‘What’s going on? I’ve had people ringing me all day saying we’re going to Chelsea?’ I said, ‘No, no, we’re going to Watford.’
The next morning, early, about 7am, the phone rings at home. On the other end of the phone someone says, ‘Don’t sign for Chelsea. I want to talk to you. Your club hasn’t told you this but another club is interested in you.’
It was early and I’d just woken up but the voice was familiar. I just couldn’t place it. I said, ‘I’m not going to Chelsea but I have agreed to go somewhere else.’
‘Where are you going?’ said the voice. I’m still trying to work out who it is.
There was a silence and in that moment it dawned on me who was on the other end of the line. It was David Pleat, the Spurs manager. He said, ‘Richard, I can guarantee you that we will beat whatever anyone else has offered you if you speak to me today.’
It all sounds quite exciting. Supporters perhaps didn’t realise how much went on behind the scenes in those days.
Yeah, and the player is stuck in the middle. No wonder agents got involved. You had all these people around you and although they all say they want what’s best for you, they want what’s best for them too. Graham and Northampton wanted as much money as they could get, then you’ve got clubs trying to offer you stuff. When a club wants you, the player has got so much in their favour.
Anyway, I told David Pleat I had agreed to sign for Watford and that there was going to be a press conference in Northampton that morning. He said, ‘Cancel it and I will drive to Northampton to meet you.’
I said, ‘Mr Pleat, thank you very much but I have given my word to Watford.’
That sounds remarkable. Tottenham were a much bigger club.
I know but I wasn’t stupid. I was 23, 24 years old, I’d come out of non-league, I’d done really well in the Fourth Division and knew I could play higher but did I want to go to a club like Tottenham, struggle to get in, sit in the reserves and then have to get a move somewhere to play? I felt Watford was the right sized club. I knew Graham Taylor would give me a chance and he’d be patient. Graham Carr had told me all about him. I knew that if I had a couple of bad games he might take me out but he would put me back in again and help me adapt. As I said, the meeting at Watford just felt right. The thing that spooked me a bit was the idea of going into London. Watford was a bit smaller and I was a lad from Hinckley. I didn’t realise then that I could just as easily have lived in Leverstock Green and played for either Tottenham or Chelsea – I wouldn’t have had to move into the big city, but I didn’t know that then and there wasn’t anyone to tell me. Obviously it didn’t work out at Watford so maybe I should have just gone to Tottenham. We’ll never know.
What sort of player were you?
Energy, action, covered a lot of ground. Could tackle and pass and I could break forward, get into the box and score goals. At Northampton I think we played a slightly less refined version of the way Watford played. We weren’t as neat and tidy and didn’t have as many skilful players but we were about energy and attacking. Probably a more basic style.
When did you eventually join up with Watford?
A: This is the thing. It had been announced I was joining Watford but I hadn’t signed a contract although there was one ready to start in July. I concentrated on Northampton and we won the title but I kept an eye on Watford’s results, of course. They were fantastic with me. They’d ring me up every now and then and they asked me to call them too, so we were always in touch. It was quite daunting ringing a First Division club and ask to be put through to Eddie Plumley or whoever. The receptionist would say, ‘Who’s ringing?’ ‘Er, Richard Hill. I’m joining you next season.’ ‘Oh are you? Okay.’ Then I’d hear Graham Taylor in the background asking to have a word and I’d be nervous.
They said I could go down and train with them if I liked and Northampton would have been fine with that but I decided not to. I didn’t want to be different. I was a big Leicester City fan and they got me tickets to see Watford play at Filbert Street. I took my seat in the stand and Tony Coton, who was injured, was a few rows down. He turned and waved to me and I thought, ‘Tony Coton knows who I am!’ Football is amazing really. At some point in the game the Watford fans starting singing, ‘There’s only one Richard Hill.’ Goodness knows how they knew I was there. My dad was with me and his chest was right out here with pride. Although I’d not gone to train with the lads during the season, when they invited me to go on the tour to China at the end of the season I said yes. I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet all the lads before we began pre-season training.
But of course before that tour Graham Taylor left to go to Aston Villa. How did you find out?
I heard it on the radio. I think I was at home and it just came on, ‘Graham Taylor is going to be the new Aston Villa manager.’ It hit me like a bombshell. Bear in mind I’d not signed anything. I had a gentleman’s agreement and there was a letter of intent but no contract. I suppose that worked two ways, I could have pulled out, but I had given the club my word. When we heard Dave Bassett was going to be manager I asked Graham Carr to ring him and see if he still wanted me and Bassett said yes. I didn’t know what was going to happen, really, but I had made up my mind to go to Watford. I had signed because of Graham Taylor but I thought, ‘Well, I’ve signed for the club, not just one man.’ Hmmm.
So you went on the trip to China.
Bassett was announced as manager the day before we flew out. I’d been to have all my jabs done for the China trip. We had this drinks reception at the Chinese embassy and I met the lads – Mark Falco, Luther, Nigel Gibbs, Coton, even though he was injured, and John McClelland.
I was out of my comfort zone, really. The do at the embassy was like being at a party where you don’t know anyone. Dave Bassett gave a little speech, ‘Hello lads, I’m the new gaffer, enjoy China, have a great trip and see you all for pre-season.’ It was strange the manager wasn’t coming but that was how it was. He had plans, I guess.
It was a horrible, long flight. I was sat next to Gary Porter and Gary was fine but from his point of view he was stuck with the new lad when he probably wanted to be with his pals. There was small talk, ‘Where are you going to live? Are you married? Do you play golf?’ or whatever it was, but I felt for him because he’d drawn the short straw really being stuck with me. It’s hard joining a new club. Like joining a new school. You’re desperate to fit in. You’re trying to work out what the hierarchy is in the dressing room. Who’s going to take the piss? Trying to fit in on a long-haul flight wasn’t easy.
What were your impressions of China?
The hotels were nice – all American chains and very westernised – but the food was challenging at times when they gave you the Chinese stuff. It wasn’t like a takeaway! We had this long flight. I think we went from Heathrow to Italy and then Italy to somewhere or maybe it was straight to Beijing. I can’t remember but it was a long time. On the longer flight they gave us a box with two sandwiches a chocolate bar and a drink and that was it for about eight hours. By the time we got to China we were starving. For some reason, probably as a welcome for the manager who wasn’t there, I don’t know, we got sent loads of boxes of Bassett’s liquorice allsorts. They arrived at the hotel and while I was there I pretty much lived on them. We did have steak and chips a couple of times a week but it was a long tour, a couple of weeks, so I remember being hungry a fair bit of the time.
What did you make of your new team-mates?
Well, Trevor Morley, who I had played with at Northampton, said to me before I left, ‘You have got to make an impression early on – not just on the pitch but off it. Make an impression.’
I had these words going round in my head and when we got to China, for whatever reason – and I am cringing here – I took the piss out of the chairman! One night early on he did a bit on this massive grand piano in the hotel bar and I said, ‘Oh I’ve heard you before, you’re shit.’ The lads laughed and Elton laughed but I took it too far. It was just a joke but I was worried it had gone down wrong. The first person I saw the next morning was the chairman. I said as politely as possible, ‘Good morning, Mr Chairman,’ and he smiled and laughed and he was absolutely fine but I’m a bit embarrassed about it. I was just trying to fit in and I couldn’t take the mickey out of a team-mate so I thought I’d show I was one of the lads, brave, or stupid, or whatever.
The trip must have been memorable.
Incredible. You don’t realise the opportunities football give you at the time. What a trip. To have a free trip to China at a time when it wasn’t all that easy to get in there I don’t think. We went from Shanghai to Nanjing on the train, a beautiful six-hour train ride. What an amazing city. We went to the Great Wall and the Yangtze river.
Do you think the trip helped you settle in? What was it like when you returned for pre-season?
Well, this is where things probably started to go wrong. I look back now and probably it was a mistake but my wife and I had booked a holiday to Auckland that summer. I’d played briefly for Christchurch United in New Zealand and I loved the country and my wife and I wanted to go back. I’d won the title with Northampton, I’d signed for a First Division club and things were going to get more serious so why not have a really good, memorable holiday. We’d booked three weeks in New Zealand and a week in Hawaii for the summer and it was all booked and paid for long before I’d agreed to join Watford. We couldn’t cancel it, or didn’t want to cancel it.
Watford were perfectly happy for me to fly from China to Hong Kong so I could then meet my wife to fly on to Auckland but she wasn’t happy flying all the way to Hong Kong on her own, which is fair enough. So, I flew from China to Gatwick, went home, then the next morning we were going back to Gatwick to fly to New Zealand. I must’ve spent about 30 hours in the air. It wasn’t very clever.
I enjoyed the summer, maybe a bit too much. I was in good shape so I thought I could have a few beers, eat well. I thought that I couldn’t undo all my fitness in a month – besides there’d be pre-season training to work it all off.
When I joined Watford I was living in a hotel down there. Home for us was in the Midlands, north of Northampton. Living in a hotel wasn’t great. The food wasn’t what I needed. It was boring. Some days I would drive back up to the Midlands and commute back again for training the next morning, which wasn’t the smartest thing either. But I didn’t realise that at the time.
Also, my body didn’t know what time zone it was in. In late May I’d been to China and back, then a month in New Zealand and Hawaii in June, then we were off to Sweden for a pre-season trip for two-and-a-half weeks. That was a heavy trip, training twice a day.
It was something Graham Taylor had booked. We stayed in this dry hotel, like a Christian hotel or something, with no bar. Harry [Bassett] wasn’t best pleased. It was a real one-horse town and I’m sure Graham would have picked it because he’d want the focus to be on training. It wasn’t inspiring but we were there to work.
Watford was totally different to what I had expected. Even for me – someone who hadn’t been there and didn’t really know it, this wasn’t the Watford it had been a month previously. I don’t want to be critical of Bassett’s staff because they were nice guys but they weren’t as inspiring as the guys I had met at Watford, the likes of Wardy [John Ward] and Steve Harrison.
Were things okay on the pitch?
To be honest, I did not play well in pre-season. People thought I played ‘in the hole’ at Northampton, just off the strikers but I didn’t. I played with one other midfielder and I would push on and the other lad would sit and hold. I wasn’t good enough to play behind the front two. It’s tight in there and you have to play and make space and you’re easy to mark. I was a midfielder who got forward.
Even at Northampton, when we got the ball forward we were looking for our own players. With Harry [Bassett] we tended to get the ball forward into space, into the corners, behind defenders and try to gain ground that way. Force throw-ins and corners.
In hindsight I just wasn’t in good enough shape to play the way Harry wanted. He wanted the ball over the top straight away and we’d squeeze in and force throw-ins. When the opposition cleared it we all sprinted back. I didn’t have the legs for that because of the summer I’d had. It’s hard enough to be in two places at once but that seemed to be what he wanted – up there when we were attacking, back there when we weren’t. Kenny [Jackett] was a fantastic box-to-box player. What an engine and his timing, fantastic. But even he was struggling.
What about the other new signings?
It was a strange time and if I am honest it wasn’t the nicest place to be. The atmosphere was not the best. Imagine what it was like for the lads who’d been at Watford with Graham for years to suddenly see us come in. They brought in Mel Rees, a lovely, lovely lad, God rest his soul because he died far, far too young. He arrived and he was a good goalkeeper, 20 years old and a talent but you got the feeling they were pushing him to replace Tony Coton. How can you replace Tony? I don’t know. Was Tony too strong for them or too much of a voice?
Peter Hetherston, Tony Agana… not the same quality of players. Tony was a lovely lad but straight out of non-league. He went on and had a really good career, especially at Sheffield United, but he wasn’t John Barnes, was he? Hetherston was going to replace Dave Bardsley.
We were lacking a striker to play with Luther and we had this Australian lad called Dave Mitchell who came on trial in Sweden. He’d been at Glasgow Rangers and I think John Macca [McClelland] knew him. We won 9-0 and he scored six. They weren’t the best opposition but Mitchell was sharp and we thought he was going to sign for us. Then he came in a few days later and said, ‘Cheers lad, I’m off.’ We said, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘The gaffer doesn’t want me.’ I thought that was strange. Did Dave Mitchell want too much money? I’ve no idea but the next thing is Trevor Senior comes in. Trevor had done well at Reading but in his first game [in Sweden] he missed an open goal. He was a lovely bloke but I could see he wasn’t going to do it. There were players at Northampton who had a better chance in the First Division than he did.
Did you have a bad feeling before the start of the season then?
I just didn’t feel any harmony. There was more togetherness at Northampton. Footballers like to know what’s going on, what the regime is. I felt Bassett wanted to go even more direct but knew some of the players wouldn’t wear it. So he was caught in two minds. He had strong professionals, excellent players that were popular but they didn’t fit with his ideas. I think if Bassett could have done it exactly the way he wanted right from day one it might have been okay. People say he tried to change too much but I think he didn’t change enough. I’m not saying I wanted to be in a team that was Wimbledon mark two but if that was Bassett’s way he had to commit to that. Instead, he sort of half did it. He wouldn’t have been able to sell Tony Coton and John McClelland because there would have been uproar, and rightly so.
Even though we beat Wimbledon [1-0] on the opening day of the season, it weren’t right. The lads weren’t happy. The atmosphere weren’t right. I had been at a club where it was great to go into work every day. All of a sudden I was thinking, ‘I can’t do this for three years.’
I didn’t play in that Wimbledon game but I came on as sub a couple of times and I started a couple of games but I didn’t do myself justice and I hold my hands up there too.
What was it like day-to-day then?
Training wasn’t enjoyable. We did 11 v 11 pattern of play all day, every day. Well, that’s what it felt like. We’d just play a match and he’d stop it and put us in the positions we should be in, tell us exactly what to do and restart. There’s a place for that but not every day. There’s no enjoyment in it. It was one-dimensional, monotonous and from my point of view it wasn’t helping me get back to the fitness level I knew I needed.
The thing is, I’m 20 years older now. I was a young man, then. I’d had a great couple of seasons at Northampton where it was fun because we were winning. At Northampton there was variety to life. At Watford we were bored. I am sure if you interviewed Harry [Bassett] he would have plenty to say about the players’ attitudes towards him and looking back probably my attitude was not the best. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to play well for Watford but it was not the club I thought I was joining.
My biggest regret is I didn’t play well and make it work there because back then when you spoke to other players and said you’d been at Watford it meant something. They asked you about it. Unfortunately my experience was not the best. The name Watford went from the top of the game to the bottom. Towards the end of the season with Northampton we played Lincoln City and Watford’s old striker Jimmy Gilligan was playing for them. A decision went against me and I had a right go at the referee. Jimmy said to me, ‘Just a warning but if you do that at Watford, Graham Taylor will slaughter you. He’ll take you off if he hears you speak to a referee like that.’ Jimmy talked to me in the bar afterwards about what Watford was all about, how you respected yourself, your manager, your team-mates, the supporters, the officials, the directors. It was something that stuck with me and I have to be honest I didn’t see that side of things at Watford. I am sure Bassett respected people too because he’d been in the game a long time, been very successful and has a great reputation but it didn’t come across that well. In my opinion he alienated the spine of the team – Coton, McClelland, Luther.
You moved on only a few weeks into the season, joining Oxford with David Bardsley.
Harry knew Oxford wanted me. Oxford had been one of the clubs interested in me but with all the talk of Tottenham, Chelsea and Watford they didn’t really come into it. But Harry had been in touch with them and said, ‘Do you still want him?’
We played against Norwich at home and lost 1-0. He took me off and after the game told me about Oxford. I was pretty happy to talk to them because if the manager is trying to sell you after a few weeks it’s better to go.
Do you remember anything about the few games you did play for Watford?
At Forest I went on with about 30 minutes to go and I should have scored. I went to shoot from about 12 yards and stubbed my toe. I can still see it. My luck just wasn’t in.
We played at Old Trafford and went up on the Friday night. We hadn’t pulled up trees at Forest and we didn’t do much better at Manchester United but it was only 2-0. There was no panic because we were thinking, well, you can play well at these places and lose.
We played Spurs at home and I got a start but had to come off with cramp. Yes, the pace was quicker, yes it was a warm day, but I should have looked after myself better. I was out of condition. That has to be my fault. I should have realised that I had to be really on it to make the step up to the First Division, that it wouldn’t be easy to just play my way in. But on the other hand there are elements within a week’s work on the training ground that can help you get fitter. Most footballers will do only what they have to do and what they are told to do. I think we did two days of running and the lads told me that in the past it would usually be two weeks. A lot of the tactical training was stop-start. Sure, I could and should have gone in the afternoons but I needed to be told. If someone says, right, we’re doing football drills today, you do it. But if they say, okay, we’re doing four 400-metre runs and they’ve all got to be under 70 seconds then you bloody well do it. And that’s what I needed.
The Spurs game was okay. I thought I did okay but then got cramp. Against Norwich I was woeful. Mike Phelan kicked me right on the coccyx in about the second minute and I was in quite a lot of pain after that. I couldn’t run it off. You could have taken me off after ten minutes, never mind 55.
So that was it?
Yeah. To give Harry credit, he worked wonders. He got the club’s money back on a player he didn’t fancy. Dave Bardsley and I went together to see Oxford’s manager Maurice Evans at a hotel in High Wycombe. Dave was just as keen to get out – although he was a bit of a moaner, to be fair.
As far as I was concerned, I didn’t want to stay at a club that didn’t want me but I did walk away from a very good three-year contract, which I wouldn’t do now.
Oxford was a nice club and it was good to be somewhere you could smile again. Unfortunately, I did my knee ligaments. I completely ruptured my knee – did the lot. Anterior, medial. It was a pre-season friendly against Aylesbury. I went in for a tackle and the fella fell on the outside of my knee and his entire body weight just crunched it. I looked down at my knee and it was bending the wrong way. I had an operation the next day but in those days you couldn’t come back from those injuries as you can now. I was never as fit as I had been. In the end I had three operations and knew I wasn’t coming back. Oxford had me insured and they offered me a settlement if I retired. For the first time I took a financial decision rather than a football one. With the money they were offering I don’t think I’d have earned that if I’d stayed playing.
After that I coached. Managed Stevenage for a while, and I enjoyed that. Then I’ve been assistant manager at Gillingham, Tranmere, back at Northampton, then QPR until that all ended.
Have you not seen the video of the bust up?
There was a game at QPR’s training ground against the Chinese under-23 team [in 2007]. There were a few bad challenges and then there was a massive bust-up and I was right in the middle of it. I was trying to sort it out but people on both sides were throwing punches everywhere. I was charged with ABH initially but the charges were dropped two weeks later. Once the police charges were dropped the FA took over and I was suspended. The whole thing cost me £10,000 with a barrister and solicitor but it was the damage to my reputation.