The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009
Ross Jenkins is one of the four players who symbolises Watford’s rise through the divisions. He was at the club when Graham Taylor arrived and he was the only one who had played for the first team when they were 92nd (bottom of the Fourth Division) under Mike Keen, and 1st (top of the First Division) six years later.
Jenkins had lived in Spain for many years but I spoke to him when he returned to visit his mother in London.
There was something quite symbolic also about the fact he was the final Watford player I interviewed for Enjoy the Game.
Watford were drifting in the Fourth Division when Graham Taylor arrived. What was it he changed?
I think the biggest impact he had was the fact he knew how he wanted the team to play and he also knew how to put that into operation. Some people know how they want you to play but don’t quite know how to help the team reach that goal. Graham was very clear-minded in those days. He not only knew what he wanted but how to go about it as well.
Was the club as much of a state as I’ve been told?
It probably was. Having not had a very easy ride of it for a few years, the co-ordination of the club was not very well run from the top down. I think football was starting to change and become more professional and Watford maybe needed to catch up a bit. But we had a situation where we had some good players. We just weren’t really a team. Some of them went a while along the journey, including me, but the actual business of putting together a team that could play together and get results wasn’t in place. And that’s what Graham Taylor did.
Was it clear from the start what Graham’s style of play would be?
Yes, it was and I was glad when Graham came in because I had been brought up at Palace and we had a strong system. At Watford [before Taylor] we sort of played off the cuff. There was a lack of pattern of play and a lack of team understanding. Although Mike Keen tried to get more of a team situation going during his time it was when Graham came in that it changed and he was able to do that quite quickly because of his experience at Lincoln.
He maintained the way he did things at Lincoln. We did work exceptionally hard on the training field, both in physical training and pattern of play. He inherited some good players, though. He made some signings that were very important but I think it would be unfair to say he changed everything. We weren’t bad players, we just needed that organisation.
Can you remember having a conversation with Graham early on? Did you know he’d had a tall centre forward at Lincoln who was quite similar to you?
I do remember going in and sitting down and he said that everyone was going to have a chance to show what they could do before he made any decisions. He was basically saying it was up to us as players to show we were could be part of his team. He said, ‘I am going to do what I’m going to do to turn this club round and people can come on board for as long they like.’
I don’t know if Graham knew exactly what sort of player he wanted up front but he did want someone who could do certain things and make certain runs.
The point about Graham Taylor was that he carried the thing through. He stuck to what he believed in and he was successful so it maintained the momentum.
The style of play suited you, though? Being the target man and a lot of the ball going up to you.
Yes, it did suit me because if they played the ball up, I would try to win it. I could hold it up and wait for the midfielders to support. Or I could play it wide and make runs into the penalty area. We got a lot of stick for it, but when we got into the First Division we showed that if you can play open, attacking football we could beat these teams. People thought that the style of play would only go so far but that wasn’t the case, as we proved.
I also think the style of play was exceptionally entertaining for the supporters. We scored a lot of goals. We attacked from the kick off. We used to play teams off the park on occasions and they couldn’t live with us when it all clicked.
We were all out there and I had an attribute of being able to read the game and my runs were usually very good. As we went on, I was getting a lot of confidence because the idea was to get the ball up to me and let me do something positive with it. The linking play I found quite easy because that was what I was good at. I could occupy the two centre halves because of my size and presence. They used to say that if a missile went across, I’d be able to get on the end of it.
You and Luther struck up a very good partnership, particularly in the Third Division where you scored so many goals.
We pushed up the pitch and made defenders drop deep. They were worried about Luther’s runs. He had pace and he could run from deep so no one wanted to push too far up and give themselves problems if the ball went over the top or in behind. So we were able to keep pushing up and that gives just that few extra yards for everyone else to play in. Those extra yards might not look like much but they were so important because they gave us the upper hand in matches.
I don’t know if it was a case of creating our own luck but we worked hard on it and in the Third Division we did establish a very good partnership.
That season, and especially the League Cup win over Manchester United, really made people take notice of Watford didn’t it.
We got a great deal of publicity because of Elton John as well, and especially around our cup games the press wanted to speak to Elton.
Having Elton as the chairman put us on the map but we had to back that up with results on the pitch. I’ve just been to Africa and if they ask what I did I mention Watford and they all remember the Elton John era.
People remember my name now and I think ‘well, you must have a better memory than me.’ I blame it on all the balls I headed. When I started I played with a leather ball.
You say Graham stuck to his ideas but when the team reached the Second Division he did sign different types of players didn’t he?
If I remember rightly, towards the end of the Third Division season he did try to change the team a bit but it didn’t really click and he had to change the team back a bit to get over the hill.
Graham was always very positive. He brought in two or three players to strengthen and it all went from there. A lot of Fourth Division clubs were not well run, there were limitations on their playing staff, their finances and their grounds. Watford was making improvements in every area at that time. The ground improved everything improved.
Did your wages improve?
A bit! A bit, but not all that much if you think of the journey we were on but that was how it was. Everyone thought we were earning really good money but that’s hog-wash.
When did you start to feel the club was going to get to the very top?
I think once Graham came in, we noticed the changes to the club. It was very important that the directors were supportive and they were. A lot of success comes from having a very solid boardroom of people who had an idea of how things should be done. Everything comes from the top down. The chairman wanted to be successful, the manager wanted to be successful and as players it was our job to stay in the team so we could be part of it all.
You’d played in the First Division with Crystal Palace, so what was it like to get back to the Second with Watford?
I think we were all trying to get to grips with the higher standard of football and the manager was preparing for that by bringing in Sims and Train and one or two others. I broke my ankle at Swansea and I was on the back track for a while.
I pretty much had to write that season off. I came into the team again when I was fit but I think Graham thought maybe I couldn’t do it any more, or that it was time for a change, I don’t know.
I think the team struggled a bit because they had to play a different way. I was one of the principal players who made it work. Luther would make his runs off me, the ball would go up to me, and I think the defenders all had to re-adjust.
What happened after that, because you went to play in the USA in March 1981?
I went off to America to play throughout the summer. I got my fitness back. Graham was trying to cover his bases. He’d bought Gerry Armstrong from Spurs, who was a very good squad man, a very open, wholehearted kind of player. I came back from America just before the away Chelsea game [September 1981], and someone was injured and I played up front with Gerry and I slotted back in straight away.
That was John Barnes’s first start for the team wasn’t it? You must have liked having wingers like Barnes and Callaghan?
Barnesy was such a talent. We’d had Bobby Downes before who had given great service. Wingers were part of the game for us. Graham would play with two wingers where many sides played with one. When you looked at Nigel [Callaghan] you couldn’t believe what he produced but he did. Barnesy coming along, giving us that extra bit on the left flank balanced everything out. All of a sudden we had wingers on both sides who could produce something every game. We had a very solid base, but he gave us a bit more. You have to score goals and often they aren’t very easy to get.
Although you’d only been away a few months, did the team feel different when you returned?
We became a bit unstoppable. We were becoming a front four, Luther and me, Barnesy and Nigel. We were making moves that defenders didn’t like. Of course it would break down or you might not get the shot in, but we always played up against the back four – the idea was to get the ball forward, get the ball in early, don’t dribble back and forwards, get the ball in with good crosses into the right areas for people who are going to be making runs to meet it, and then there will be the chance to pick up the knock-downs.
Ideal for your game…
My dad did say to me that on my day I was the best centre-forward in England.
I read you’d once described your career at Watford as being the overnight success that took five years to happen…
That’s about right. [Laughs] The thing is, in my early years, I had been tall and slim so I didn’t have the strength to make an impact. I’d been at Palace and I was in a good side. [Malcolm] Allison took over and they went up to the First Division. If I hadn’t said what I said at Palace after a certain match, I could maybe have still been there.
I was playing in the First Division at Palace. I was the new kid on the block and we were playing Liverpool at home. At the time, Palace weren’t renowned for playing a lot of forwards. One newspaper wrote that Palace played in their usual formation of 9-0-1. It was a defensive team. We played Liverpool, they had Smith at the back. We had a throw in on the halfway line against us, so I had come wide to cover the full back. The throw went over my head to Tommy Smith, who ran through half our team and then passed it to someone else and they scored. And we lost 1-0 against Liverpool. On the Monday morning we had a little chat, which looking back was a very negative thing to do. The manager said to me, ‘What were you doing to stop this goal?’ I said I’d covered the throw, what were the rest of the team doing? The feeling was I shouldn’t have said anything and shortly afterwards I was moved out.
The move to Watford in 1972 wasn’t perhaps the best move for me. We were in the Third Division and after a couple of years we went down and then we were in the Fourth Division and it was not easy to get back out again. We had a couple of seasons in there before Graham Taylor came in.
It must have felt amazing to be part of that journey and go all the way from the bottom of the Football League to the top. I think you played in the side when they were bottom of the Fourth and top of the First.
It was. Of course it was. But when you’re doing it, you’re not really thinking about the significance of it all.
The vibrancy of the supporters was very good. We attracted more and more people. We had a great impact on the town. We got to the First Division and I think we made people realise they had a team that deserved to be there. The feeling was that everything was possible. Elton gave us a lot of support, of course. He was a world icon and he was behind it all and yes, he put in a lot of money but it wasn’t achieved by money alone, far from it.
So did you think that it was all over when you went to America to play for Washington Diplomats?
It came out of the blue. I had this difficult break and I was in plaster a while and it took a while to come back. I was put into a half plaster for another four weeks. It set me back and I was losing a lot of fitness. It took a while for the ankle to get going because it felt spongy. It took a while to get that back. The season ran out for me and I was losing fitness.
This opportunity to go to America to play there was a good one. They played their league through the summer so I could go there and train and play matches and get back to fitness. But I never saw the move to America as a permanent thing. It was always supposed to be a temporary thing. Oliver Phillips said in the Watford Observer I had gone, but as far as I was concerned it was a temporary move like a loan.
Even though there was a transfer fee?
To my knowledge I was never sold. To my knowledge I just went on loan for the summer. Oliver thought I’d been sold and bought back but I don’t remember it like that at all. If there was a fee, Washington paid Watford and then when I came back Watford gave the money back. I think it might have been something to do with the transfer rules at the time, maybe you couldn’t loan a player to a team in America, I don’t know, but as I understood it I was going on a loan and would be coming back.
What was America like?
I played a few very good games out there. I was put in with another 10 players I didn’t know and the experience of just going out and trying to get understandings with the players was a very good one.
I hadn’t played much football. I hadn’t really got the ankle going. It was a good opportunity to get my match fitness back during the summer.
Whenever I have left England I always found a better life – America, Hong Kong or Spain. I liked things more abroad, whether it be the weather, the vibrancy the atmosphere. That’s why I’ve lived in Spain for so long. For me it’s a better life and we’ve only got one life.
But America was very strange. It was like being in The Jetsons. You play this team, it could be Florida or San Jose or somewhere in Canada. You go to the airport and get on a plane and you fly for hours over nothing much in particular. The plane screeches to a halt near some skyscrapers, you get off and you get bussed to a great big stadium that’s nearer the skyscrapers. You had to wear funny boots because we used to play on astroturf or crushed up asphalt like clay tennis courts. The ball would bounce all over the place. You’d turn up to the game there’d be a few thousand supporters there, then you’d play for 90 minutes and you’d get back on the aeroplane and fly back to where you came from.
It’s a whole different ball game. They had their own way of doing things and they were trying to get football off the ground. They’d tried very hard in the 1970s and it hadn’t really worked, even though it was popular at that time. But it was a great experience to see something different.
But I was very keen to get back to Watford. I couldn’t see myself staying in America to play. I always felt I was going back and when I arrived it all clicked again and we got promoted.
And you scored the two goals against Wrexham on the night Watford clinched promotion…
We had a bit of an edgy run-in and we were just trying to get over the line. We were looking at the last two fixtures and thinking, well, no disrespect to Wrexham but we have a great chance to do it tonight.
It was a very good game for me. It was a great night. It was nice to think that they consider that the game that put us there. It was in terms of points but then again a lot had gone on before so the whole season isn’t about one match. I scored the two goals but it wasn’t about me. I’ve always thought that there were a lot of very good players, people like Roger Joslyn, who had played a major part in the whole thing and they weren’t there with us on that night. But I hope they felt part of it. I hope the players who got it all going in the Fourth Division and played their part in the Third and Second know that they played an important part in it.
What was it like at the final whistle?
As players we weren’t sure how to react when the crowd came on. We just ran for the dressing rooms. Then we went up into the stand, into the directors’ box and waved to the fans. It was a wonderful evening.
What was it like when you first got into the First Division?
In Division One things were going very well for me, then I got another injury problem and it was never resolved satisfactorily, even to this day, and it shut the door on my ability to maintain the required standard.
Sitting out the second half of the season during my testimonial year was disappointing. I felt I could have maintained my position in the side. We had Barnes who could step in and play through the centre because he was gaining strength all the time so I was on the sidelines with this injury.
And at the end of the first year in Division One a number of players went and I was one of them.
I left for a few years and when I came back [as a coach when Dave Bassett was manager] there were a few players I didn’t recognise. There were some managerial problems there after Graham left. It was a rocky sea there for a while.
You live in Spain now but how do you feel about Watford? Do you come back much?
Every now and then. I visit my mother in London and if I can get to a game I will go and I am always very well received, which is nice. It was a big part of my life. I lived on the Cassiobury Estate. When I was playing I had a few neighbours who were down-to-earth people but everyone was talking about the football club and they’d say ‘good luck’ and all that. Everyone was involved in it. We had a very good team, people identified with that.
Thinking back to specific matches, did you feel sorry for Sunderland when you beat them 8-0?
[Laughs] No, not at all. It’s a battlefield out there. The armchair watcher can feel sorry for someone but when you’re out there you just don’t let up when you’re in that position. That day we were so good because we clicked. When you get a goal or two up, the goals really change the game. When we were out there we’re programmed to perform a certain way and when it’s going well and we score a couple of good goals early on, the opposition were not sure what’s happening to them, and they fell apart really. They were being beaten not only in the run of the play, but the goals were going in as well.
You see teams get 4-0 up and they cruise along and that’ll do them, but Graham wasn’t going to let us do that because we hadn’t enough experience to take our foot off the pedal and ease up. It was a no mercy situation. We had to keep going because we knew no other way to play. We couldn’t just take it easy for the second half and give Sunderland any chance to score and maybe start thinking about a comeback.
What about the Southampton cup tie a few years before?
Southampton weren’t mentally prepared because of their 4-0 lead [from the first leg]. We rolled out and we got the early goals and that gave us a chance. They never got their game together and by the time they realised the danger, it was too late. By half-time there were two or three who didn’t want to be out there. We took full advantage and won 7-1.
We were a really attacking, exciting team to watch. People talk about ‘old fashioned’ wing play, but what was old fashioned about it? We were about having shots and crosses, exciting the supporters and trying to win matches.
It was wonderful to have wingers like Barnes and Callaghan, and Bobby Downes before them. When they get the ball they weren’t trying to beat the player twice or do too much, they were about service for the other forwards. A lot of wingers think that they beat the man and get the cheer and it’s enough, then they put the cross behind or into the defender or the wrong area. Our wingers were about service. They understood that it’s better for the team to score a goal than for them to look good. Cally and Downes could cross the ball really well without having to beat a player. They could whip the ball in with bend on it.
Technically Barnes and Cally were clean – clean footwork – and technically refined. Both of them could cross the ball with short back-lift. Nigel had little stubby legs but he could curl that ball in and you knew he was going to do it. That was the beauty about it, you knew they were capable of it so it meant you could rely on them. So you could time your run knowing the ball would arrive.
As a big centre forward who relies on service, they could make you look good.
Did you think about changing your game at all?
I always believed you should make your strengths stronger. Always work on your strengths and your weaknesses will come up with it.
My left leg was the shovel. If you’ve only got a shovel with your left leg, you don’t go and do 50 shots with your shovel. Of course, make sure you work on technique a bit, but work on your strong leg and make that as good as it can possibly be.
People said I was hard to mark, but what most people, supporters and pundits, don’t grasp, is that you attract the attention of the defenders. They are worrying about you because they are struggling against you, they’re the ones under pressure. If you can make them run into difficult positions, they hate it. If you can hold the ball up and lay it off you can put them under pressure. Maybe you didn’t score 20 goals but they are taking a lot of the concentration of the centre half and all of a sudden your partner up front has got a bit more room. Physical presence is very important in a team.
There’s a Ross Jenkins playing for Watford now. Have you met him?
I did when I was at a game not that long ago. I asked him if the Ross Jenkins name was anything to do with me and he said it wasn’t. [Laughs]
So your testimonial year turned out to be your last… By then you were very popular with the supporters, which I gather was not always the case in the early days?
I had a very good testimonial year, even if the injury was disappointing. I think from my very early time at Watford, I had always tried very hard, even in the early years when things didn’t go for me. I used to talk to the supporters and I felt that as things turned round, they appreciated I had always tried my best. They were pleased for me to get to 10 years of service. I came through and had a really good time. I had a lot of good support from the supporters over the years.
I think the coverage I got early on didn’t help. Oliver [Phillips] developed into a very good sports reporter [for the Watford Observer]. In my first years I didn’t think he was very good because I felt he had a number of negative angles to it. We became very good friends. We played golf one day and he was stuck in a bunker and he couldn’t get out of it. He completely lost it and that was interesting to me. I realised the actual technique of dealing with pressure in sport wasn’t one of his strong points and I did rib him a bit about that. I don’t think he had a full understanding of what it takes to compete at a high level and I must admit I had a bit of a smile about that. But we get on very well and are very good friends.
Do you think you were easy to criticise because when a tall player makes a mistake it’s often very noticeable.
That’s the job. To attract the attention and that has good and bad sides to it. Physical presence isn’t about knocking people about, it’s about leading the centre half to where you want him to be so that your team is able to make maximum advantage of it. I was always prepared to make mistakes. You can’t hide if you make a mistake, you have to keep going. Players who go into themselves when they make a mistake and try to hide, or players who want to play the perfect game, don’t last very long. There’s never a perfect game. Even if you win 8-0 there’ll be something you could do better.
So what happened at the end of the 1982-83 season?
I had my testimonial [against Luton] a few days before the last league game [against Liverpool]. I played in that but I wasn’t fit enough for the league games having been out since January. It was a lovely evening – a good crowd, a competitive game against Luton.
But my departure from Watford really wasn’t that nice. I had had this long injury, a hernia problem, and they never really got to grips with it. I wasn’t able to recover fully from it. I’d been there a long time and felt that I deserved a bit more time.
I got called in on before the last game of the season and was told ‘that was it’ Right, we’re playing Liverpool this afternoon, okay? And that was it.
When good things come to an end there’s always a certain amount of disappointment all round. I think perhaps Graham was disappointed too but he had to move on. I was unreliable, in terms of fitness, and therefore he couldn’t afford to keep me. I do understand that. I also understand that he wanted to wait until my testimonial match was over before talking to me.
I knew a few who left before me who weren’t overly happy with it coming to an end. But when you’ve been part of something good, you don’t want it to end. But life went on, I went to Hong Kong, Cyprus. It was just disappointing that I got the injury because I felt I could have carried on for another year or two at Watford.
When you are the manager, you have to get the best out of the player while you have him and when he can’t do it anymore you have to move him on. That’s how it works.
Did your relationship with Graham survive that?
Yes, I didn’t lose respect because he wanted to move me on. We’d always looked each other in the eye, so to speak. I think he respected everything I’d done for him and vice versa. When the time comes you have to sit across the table and one has to say, ‘Okay, that’s it,’ and the other has to say, ‘Okay, well, let’s see what’s next.’
It’s not easy for everybody but when you’ve run your course that’s it.
I think we held our own with each other. There were times when he ‘rested’ me and I’d always tell him he was wrong and look him in the eye while he was doing it. He rested me for the away game against Southampton and I sat on the bench and we lost 4-0. I came in for the second leg and we won 7-1. [Laughs] See?
There were another couple of times that he rested me. I said to him that he wouldn’t get anyone to do the job he wanted doing better than me. It’s very easy to look at the centre forward and change them, that’s natural, rather than looking at the rest of the team to see if they are creating the chances. In the old days it was always the centre forward who got left out. If you don’t score, you are vulnerable. Managers would often swap the centre forward in the hope it would spark something. But I was fortunate that when he did rest me, or try a change, more often than not it just reminded him of what I brought to the team.