The Enjoy the Game Interviews were conducted by Lionel Birnie in 2009
After speaking to John McClelland in Wakefield I headed to Grimsby to meet Steve Sherwood at his office near the regenerated docks where he worked as a financial adviser. Just as I’d anticipated, Steve was the definition of a gentle giant and I couldn’t help notice how his huge, bear-like hand enveloped mine. Steve struck me as a kind soul and as we chatted I wondered how he coped with the dressing culture and particularly the criticism that came his way after the 1984 FA Cup final. However, it was another incident – when he was left out of the team for the semi-final three years later – that perhaps hurt him even more and caused tears to well in his eyes. However much he disliked that decision, he refused to hold a grudge.
I started the conversation by asking Steve how he ended up at Watford, a run-down club in the Fourth Division that was going nowhere, and yet joined them on their incredible rise up the league…
I had been at Chelsea and I’d had a successful period at Brentford on loan where I really enjoyed it. I went back to Chelsea and played some games in the first team, had a bad game at Southampton and then didn’t get a look in so when the offer came I jumped at the chance to join Watford. The thing was, they already had Andy Rankin, a good, experienced keeper, and so I couldn’t get straight into the team. Andy was consistent and a hard man to replace, especially as I’d been playing only every other reserve game at Chelsea.
What was Mike Keen like and how did Graham Taylor differ?
Mike Keen was a smashing guy but the discipline was not the same as it was when Graham came in. With Mike, players used to come in and say their legs were tired and you’d get the next day off. You’d never dare say that to Graham.
If Graham had not joined the club, I’d never have had the career I had. I needed someone to kick me up the backside and tell me I could do this, and give me something to aim at. When Graham arrived he said, ‘Come on, you could be in this team.’
He picked you to start with, then Andy got in, then you got in and then Andy played the second half of the season as the team won the Fourth Division title. What do you think Graham was looking for?
One of the things he wanted was a keeper who could kick the ball a long way and put teams under pressure. That was probably Andy’s weakness. Sometimes he struggled to reach the halfway line. But it took me a while to convince him. Right at the start, from the first meeting, he made it clear what he was going to do. I was sat in a little chair, he was up there, which was no mistake I’m sure. He said, ‘I’m going to take this club places, do you want to be part of it.’
I remember him asking, ‘How easy do you want it to be?’ and I said, ‘Well, as easy as I can make it, obviously.’ That clearly wasn’t the right answer. He said, ‘You’re going to work hard, you’re going to sweat.’
The physical regime was hard. We did running in the morning, then shooting, then we did a session in the sandpit and I got cramp in both me calves and they had to carry me to the changing rooms. But I played into my 40s and that was because of the physical fitness I got at Watford.
Alan Hodgkinson was brought in as goalkeeping coach. I was still pretty raw and that helped me. Despite my age, I hadn’t played that many games.
When we got into the Second Division, we signed Eric [Steele] and after a season I got back in the team and GT said, ‘You’ve wasted a hundred grand of the club’s money you have.’
Eric used to throw the ball out from the back but we played a different way. If you played with four forwards, as we did, you needed to get it up the pitch quickly. I could kick it a long way but I was also a good shot-stopper.
What did you think of Graham’s tactical approach to the game? He wasn’t so concerned about defending but for a goalkeeper clean sheets are your currency aren’t they?
I didn’t like letting in goals of course but I liked winning more than keeping a clean sheet. He wanted us to be an attacking side and he knew pressure brought goals. He wanted to be in the other side’s half as much as possible. It was a simple philosophy.
But when you really think about it, the shape of the team doesn’t score you goals, it’s the players who do that. We wanted to pen people in to their own half so that the likes of Luther [Blissett] and Ross [Jenkins], and later John Barnes and Nigel Callaghan, could score goals.
The thing was, all of the back four could hit great long passes, especially Ian Bolton and Steve Sims. We got behind teams and we could create chances.
After successive promotions, and particularly playing such a key part in getting out of the Third Division, were you disappointed that he signed Eric Steele? Did you feel he was trying to replace you?
I think Graham had a question mark over me. When he signed Eric that was the kick up the backside I needed. It was a very competitive environment and you had to be at your best to get in the team. I hated watching if I wasn’t playing because you want to play. It wasn’t that I wanted the team to lose, but I didn’t want the goalie to do well, if I’m honest. It probably rankled with Eric that I kept him out of the side as much as it rankled with me when he kept me out.
I was looking at some photos from the Third Division days and you weren’t wearing gloves, which I guess wasn’t unusual then but is unthinkable now.
The problem I had was I had really big hands. The old green gloves were useless because my hands were too big. Pat Jennings had some gloves made, but I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t until the newer gloves came out that I started wearing them regularly. They helped me, definitely. It improved your handling. If the ball was there to be caught, I’d try to catch it.
When you got back into the team, in December 1980, you made the number one shirt your own but it didn’t get off to a great start did it?
Eric had played in the League Cup tie against Coventry [which ended 2-2] and he [Graham Taylor] put me in for the replay at Highfield Road. We lost 5-0. At the time, I thought, ‘God, this is a disaster,’ but to be fair to Graham he gave me a chance. He wasn’t basing his decision on one match and he knew I wasn’t one to shirk things. If goals are going past you, confidence dips, but he stuck with me.
Coaching from Alan really helped and knowing that the manager had decided to back me made a big difference. I was a confidence player but I remember getting player of the year at Brentford when I was there on loan so I knew that if I got a run of games going I would do well.
We got thumped at Coventry and perhaps I was trying too hard. I know Graham wanted me to come for crosses, because Eric wasn’t doing that, so I perhaps was too eager that game, probably tried too hard to come for crosses.
Watford finished ninth in the Second Division that year, which was the highest the club had ever finished at that point. You must have felt that the sense of momentum by then?
Definitely. He brought in Pat Rice and that really raised eyebrows to get a player of his quality to come. Pat was the best captain I ever played with and he was the making of Nigel Callaghan. He played on that right flank with Nigel ahead of him and Nigel’s best play came when Pat was behind him. He was a great signing for the whole club.
I always had the feeling we’d do well with Graham, right from the start. He had an aura about him. This guy knows what he’s talking about. I always felt so positive because he was positive.
I was a quiet guy, I suppose, but I liked the fact we had so many strong characters in the team. When we played Manchester United in the FA Cup, we beat them 1-0. They had Bryan Robson in midfield – an England international – and Les Taylor just treated him like a normal player. In the dressing room Les would be one to say, ‘Let’s go and pulverise this lot.’ I loved that, it used to spur me on.
Did you feel ready for the First Division?
I did. We felt we could beat anyone. I can’t explain how high we felt after that Wrexham game [when promotion to the top flight was confirmed]. We went out in town afterwards and all the supporters were out. I’d played in the First Division and I was one of only a few who had – Pat was one, Gerry [Armstrong] was another – but that was when I’d been much younger. I now felt ready for it. We still got some hidings but we bounced back from them.
The bond with the supporters was really strong at the time too, wasn’t it?
We used to mix with the supporters. It did feel like we were part of a big family. The players were family but the supporters were like the extended family.
I used to live in Harwoods Road [near Vicarage Road]. Before I got married, I had my stag do in the town at Baileys [the nightclub, where Pryzm is now] and the buggers [team-mates] took my trousers off and ran off with them. I walked home in my long leather coat but no trousers and a policeman stopped me. He said, ‘You’ve got to have a good reason for this.’ The next morning, Sam Ellis had put my trousers on the flagpole on the corner of the ground. It was fantastic.
They used to take the mickey out of me something terrible but it was always just the right side of the line and Steve Harrison used to make sure it stayed fun. That’s my memories of those days – laughing so much in the dressing room. We worked hard but you had fun too. I felt so good, I was so fit. I’d never been fitter. I am sure that was part of what made it all feel so good.
What was the training like? As a goalkeeper, Graham didn’t go easy on you?
I was playing for the reserves one Saturday and I came in the morning and we did a full weights circuit and then some running. We worked as hard as we would during the week but this was a matchday. We were knackered but playing a reserve game against Brentford and we drew 2-2. When we got back into the dressing room, GT said, ‘That proves to you what you can do.’
He was putting it across to us in the right way. When we felt tired did we really feel tired or could we give a bit more? Because sometimes it’s that little bit more that can win you a game. We felt we would last games better than other teams.
That fitness helped in the First Division?
It did but the fact that a lot of teams used to have the keep through the ball out to the full-backs helped too. We had Luther and Ross, who were so fit and could run across the line and close down so quickly for 90 minutes.
At some point you started wearing an all-red goalkeeper’s kit. Was there any reason for that?
It was Rita’s decision [Rita Taylor, Graham’s wife] to wear all-red. She liked me in all-red apparently! As long as I was in the team I’d have worn all-pink. I didn’t like the tight shorts that were the style then because I was a bit bigger round the waist than most. I don’t know what the thinking was but I liked it. Perhaps it made me look bigger in the goal than if I was wearing green and blending in with the pitch. Maybe strikers sub-consciously aimed at me. Goalkeepers wear all colours now don’t they, but it was a bit different at the time.
You can’t have expected to finish runners-up in the First Division at the first attempt?
I think what helped was that Graham focused on one game at a time. He might have been looking ahead but for the players we were just going from game to game and the focus was all on trying to win, no matter who we were playing.
It did help that a lot of teams didn’t like the way we played. That helped us a lot. We got criticised but people couldn’t live with it because we were different. There was an aggression to our play, but in the right way. We didn’t let anyone settle and have an easy ride. We got a good start and just kept going. I was so confident that year [1982-83] and it was without doubt the best year of my career. We beat Liverpool in the last game of the season and then we were waiting on Notts County beating Man United to see if we could finish second – then that result came through.
Individually we may not have been as good as Liverpool or Manchester United and so on but together we were such a unit. On our day we could beat them all, we just perhaps didn’t quite have the consistency.
When you think back to some of your team-mates, what comes to mind?
Ian Bolton was one of the worst trainers I’ve ever seen [laughs] but get him on the pitch he was so reliable. His brain was so quick. He had closed off an angle before most players had seen the danger.
Luther was so bubbly in the dressing room. You’d hear his laugh from down the corridor. That was so infectious. If you hear someone laughing like that when you come into work your mood just goes up and you think, ‘Today will be a fun day.’ When he went to Milan he was a hard person to replace.
When we reached the First Division for the first time we had players coming in who’d had careers already. I’m not saying they weren’t good players, but I think that was the start of some of the problems. They didn’t have the Watford mindset in the same way as those of us who had come up through the divisions. Even the likes of Pat [Rice] had been on a bit of a journey with us. When we signed players in the First Division it was different. I’m not sure why that was but it was. I had the feeling some of them thought they were better than Watford. They didn’t say anything but it was just an attitude thing. Maybe they didn’t feel they had anything to prove, or they felt they had already proved themselves, whereas a lot of the rest of us had been written off in one way or another. Gradually it changed the club a bit.
You got to play in the UEFA Cup. What were those European games like, particularly the away games?
I remember in Germany, at Kaiserslautern, we were trying to get to sleep and there were all these klaxons going off outside the hotel. The atmosphere in Bulgaria was so different – like nothing else I’d ever experienced.
We had to get used to it quickly. I remember a couple of years before that he [Graham Taylor] took us abroad to play a friendly in France [against Sochaux]. He told us to play as if we were playing for a draw away from home in the first leg. We defended so well I didn’t have anything to do.
But nothing could prepare you for the atmosphere. Sofia [Levski Spartak] was so volatile. They were whistling constantly, which I wasn’t used to.
We arrived before the Sofia game and their players were in their uniform doing their army training, marching round the ground. Roy Clare [the kit man] had been in the air force and he loved all that. He said, ‘Oh this is what we should be doing. That’d sort some of these young lads out.’
We had a bit of that discipline though – without the marching! We’d come so far as a group of players that it felt special, there was a sense of togetherness and a feeling we would do anything for our mates.
In Prague [against Sparta Prague] the pitch was absolutely frozen solid. Our players were sliding off the pitch. I am sure they had some kind of illegal studs because they [the Sparta players] were taking the ball past people and stopping. I don’t think the game should have been played. It was like ice under the snow and you couldn’t keep your feet. It was proper ice under the snow. We lost 4-0 and one of the goals, a long shot, I just skidded across for it.
The squad changed quite a bit that year [1983-84], as you said, but arguably the team was partially rebuilt just in time for the FA Cup run and everything slotted together at the right time.
The new players were different and they did add something new. Some of them would go out all night.
Mo [Johnston] and George [Reilly]. I think GT found it hard to control them in the way he had controlled us. We were so used to doing as we were told and suddenly these lads were doing what they wanted. But they were good players so I think Graham let them have a bit of leeway.
GT was demanding but he was very fair. If you worked hard he’d look after you. If you knuckled down and did your best that was what he asked and he would excuse a mistake or two if he thought you’d put everything into it. He also knew how to build a team of characters who’d get on. I made friendships I will always treasure. Simsy [Steve Sims] and I roomed together on away trips. We used to play cricket in the hotel corridor. We’d have a little bat that we’d take on overnight trips and play one v one cricket. I remember we knocked over a plant once and Graham found out and gave us a telling off. It all sounds so innocent now doesn’t it?
What about the cup run? Did you have that feeling that it might be your year? Do footballers get that sense or is it just one of those clichés?
We drew at Luton in the third round after being 2-0 down early on and I felt like we got away with that one. The replay was was end-to-end for 120 minutes. We won 4-3 in extra time but no one could defend that night. It must’ve been a great game to watch.
I think we were so used to taking each game as it comes that we were just going from round to round one game at a time. That sounds boring but it’s how it was.
In the draw for the semi-final we got Plymouth, who were Third Division. I was on my way to the ground and I pulled over to listen on the radio. I was sitting in a layby. That’s the only time I remember a cup draw.
The semi-final was the most nervous I’d ever been for a match. We had everything to lose. When we got out on the pitch I thought, ‘If we’re not careful, we could lose this.’ In the second half Plymouth really gave us a game. We had a bit more quality but Plymouth had some good chances. It was touch and go. It was a very nervous game.
Getting back on that coach knowing we were at Wembley was fantastic. We were a bit wobbly getting off the coach in Watford and no one drove home, that’s for sure.
Then it was a case of thinking, ‘God, I could get injured.’ I felt so sorry for Wilf [Rostron, who was sent off at Luton and so suspended for the FA Cup final]. We played so well at Luton and we loved beating them but afterwards I felt so bad. Poor Wilf. I don’t think Roger Milford [the referee that day] liked Watford very much.
As the goalkeeper did it unsettle you knowing the left-back would be different at Wembley?
We had gone from having a settled back four to a lot of changes. Remember Simsy got injured a few months earlier. Paul Franklin, who had played well in the earlier rounds of the FA Cup, also got injured. So the centre backs changed with Lee [Sinnott] and Steve [Terry] coming in. Steve was young but had played a lot but Lee was only 18. Changes do affect you as a goalkeeper. If you know the people in front of you, you know what they’re going to do in certain circumstances and it does give you confidence. Neil Price came in as left-back and it was a big ask for him. Trevor Steven [Everton’s right winger in the cup final] was a really good player and he’d have given anyone a problem. Those four had only had a few games together at that level so it was difficult.
We missed Wilf because he was a great competitor and he never got the run-around. He was good going forward. Instead of over-lapping all the time, he could also go inside. It was a big loss in the cup final.
Did you know what the cup final team would be in advance or did he wait until the day at Wembley to name it?
He named it the week before. From my point of view it took the pressure off. But the different build-up, I did find it difficult. The night before a game you do your own thing but the routine was different. When you’re in for two days before a game in a hotel it upsets the rhythm. The wives were only allowed to come in for a chat after our evening meal and then they went, so it was all different. The thing was, we were in Watford, in the Hilton, and in the back of your mind you’re thinking, ‘I could be at home, there’s no need to be here.’ If we’d had to travel 100 miles for the cup final it would have felt more natural.
Any game you just want to get there and get on the pitch. The worst thing was waiting for the pre-match meal, which was televised. Being with the players was fine, but all the waiting was too much for me. I just wanted to get out there on the pitch and have a good warm-up but there was a big band playing. The band was on our side of the pitch. Everton were passing around and running like normal. Our warm-up was interrupted. It’s a small thing but that annoyed me.
What was the week before the game like?
I think after we beat Plymouth everyone was thinking about Wembley. In fact, we were thinking about it before the semi-final. If you look at the results we got beaten heavily in the league before the quarter-final [Watford lost 4-1 at Leicester the week before beating Birmingham in the cup, then 6-1 at Norwich a week before the semi-final, and 5-1 at Nottingham Forest two weeks before the final]. I think it was on our minds.
That Norwich game I played with a bad thumb injury but I didn’t tell anyone. I don’t think I should have played, but there was no way I was going to miss that game in case he left me out of the semi-final. With the cup final coming up I was going to play unless there was no way I could actually walk out on the pitch. But I was favouring it a bit, and I shouldn’t have played. You only have to be five per cent off for it to make a big difference. I don’t think I was at the peak of my form.
Coming up to the cup final, quite a few goals went past me and I think that’s one of the reasons the referee didn’t give the foul.
I was building up to asking about that. Any Watford fan will be convinced that Andy Gray fouled you by heading the ball out of your hands for Everton’s second goal at Wembley. You clearly think it was a foul.
It certainly was a foul, no doubt about it. If you get a tape and watch the replay, they showed it from behind the goal, and if you see it in slow motion he headed my arm.
I don’t blame Andy, he was going for the ball, as any striker would, but it was a foul and the referee – Mr Hunting [John Hunting] – should have given it.
That took everything away from the game for me. After that it was nothing. The build-up was great. We went to visit the stadium a few days before the final. That was good. And it was a great day. It passes just like that. But it was a foul and I’ve never forgotten it.
Having said that, if I was manager of a team, I’d want Andy Gray in my team. He’d go in for a ball that was no right to be his. That was his way of playing. It was a foul though and it killed the game off. What was really disappointing was that I had all my family there. The following day the papers gave me terrible criticism. It was all my fault, apparently. That was the lowest I’ve ever been in my career. I felt I got the blame from the media. The fans were alright to me though, and I really appreciated that. When we went round the town the next day [on the open-top bus tour] they were chanting my name and that meant a lot. I’ve seen John Barnes interviewed about it an he said we went there and were a bit naïve but I think we did alright. If we’d gone a goal up we’d have won that cup final. GT kept the pressure off as best he could and prepared us well and I thought we were ready. Before the game he said, ‘Just go and win it.’
Can you think back fondly to any of it?
I do remember thinking the Wembley dressing rooms were a bit run-down!
We had a party at John Reid’s place but it was a bit flat. Really, because we’d lost, it was awful. Wembley was an awful place to lose. If there were 48 hours I could cut out of my life I would. On the one hand it was good that it was summer and we had a holiday but on the other it took a while to get over it. Until I played the next game it was awful. People say, ‘Well, you’ve played in a cup final, not every professional gets to do that,’ but when you’ve lost you don’t think of it like that.
And I can’t forget the foul. I remember Bob Wilson [the former Arsenal goalkeeper, who was working for ITV] came round the back of the goal and said to me, ‘That shouldn’t have been a goal.’ Nice of him but it doesn’t change the result.
What happened at the start of the 1984-85 season? Did you know that Graham was looking to bring in another goalkeeper?
There was stuff in the press and we had a goalkeeper come on trial during pre-season but I still considered myself number one. Once the season started, the supporters were getting on my back a little bit at that time. Supporters do have a big effect on a team. If they get behind a team it’s surprising how much it can lift you.
Goals were going past me although they weren’t my fault a lot of them. But because of the cup final and the goals, people were on my back. That’s what happens to goalkeepers. I remember GT taking me in and saying ‘You’re not making the match-winning saves you did two seasons ago,’ so there were clearly some doubts. Maybe I needed a kick up my back-side again, but Tony [Coton] came in although nothing really changed until he [GT] got John McClelland in.
What did you think of Tony?
A good goalkeeper, obviously. It’s funny for goalkeepers, though. You know that the manager is not going to make a change week-to-week. He might shuffle the other ten around a bit but most managers have a first-choice keeper and a second-choice and it usually takes an injury or a big change of mind to get back in. Tony had a court case hanging over him when he arrived and GT saved him from prison I think. Had it not been for Graham he could have been in real trouble.
I only stayed at Watford because I loved it there. I’d married a Watford girl and my children were born there. I wanted to play but Tony was so consistent. It was going to be hard to get him out of the team again.
You stayed until 1987 when perhaps you could have gone?
I had a contract and although I wasn’t happy not being in the team I was happy to stay. I had a testimonial year coming up and we had the game against Hearts, who came down from Scotland for it. David James came on for me and I got such a good reception. It was a great night.
Would you have stayed on after Graham left?
I think I was probably the first one to know he was going. Among the players, at least. He called me in for a chat and said Dave Bassett was coming and he told me I’d be better of looking for another club. I’d been happy at Watford for ten years – I’d earned pretty good money. I was on £450 a week basic and £75 a point. I think £32,000 was the most I earned in a year. Just shows you, doesn’t it!
Before all that happened, there was the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham. Tony Coton had got injured and you were back in the team. Then you got injured.
I dislocated my finger. Normally not an issue but the problem was the length of time before it got put back in place. We were at Lilleshall and the nearest hospital was miles away, which is daft for a training establishment. It was out of the socket for four hours. Badly dislocated. My little finger it was.
What had happened?
I’d made a save and I caught my hand in a divot. Steve Harrison tried to put it back in, which he’d done many times before but it was badly dislocated and he couldn’t do it.
Did you know then you would miss the semi-final?
It happened on the Thursday, I think, but they left it as late as possible to make the decision. He brought in Gary Plumley, I assumed as cover. On the Saturday morning I felt I got through the fitness test okay. I was lying down and GT was kicking the ball as hard as possible into my hands. Nigel Gibbs was doing it too. Graham called me in afterwards and asked me how I felt. I said I felt fine and that I could get through the game no problem. But he said, ‘I’ve decided not to play you.’ I couldn’t believe it. This was on the morning of the game.
We had the fitness test in the grounds of the hotel on the other side of the park from the ground [Villa Park]. Afterwards, he called me up to the hotel room and said he wasn’t going to play me.
I was disappointed, to say the least, but at the time I thought, ‘Well, he must have seen this lad play and he must’ve been playing out of his skin.’ I didn’t realise he [Plumley] wasn’t playing league football regularly. It wasn’t till later I realised he hadn’t been playing. I just thought ‘Why?’ Graham said he’d tell me one day but I haven’t asked and I don’t really want to know.
That must have been a hard day.
Watching that game was so difficult. I just didn’t want to be there. Before the game the supporters didn’t know the team. I saw some supporters and they were chanting my name and they didn’t realise I wasn’t playing. I can remember Steve Harrison coming in after the warm-up and saying, ‘I hope he plays better than he warmed up.’
Did you feel let down by Graham?
I was angry. It takes a lot for me to lose my temper. I am a pretty placid person but I am determined and I do have an inner strength. I don’t know how I got through watching that game [against Tottenham] because I was angry. At the end of the game people were coming up to me blaming me for not playing and I thought, ‘It’s not like I wanted to be sat in the stands.’
At the end of the day, I had not been in the first team regularly for a long time. Since Tony joined almost three years earlier. I’d played a lot of reserve football and I’d come in when he was injured. But although I hadn’t been in the team, I was the number two and I felt I was fit enough to play.
We played Chelsea three days later and I was back in the team and so determined to prove him wrong. We won 3-1.
I was so angry, and that’s why I felt I had to say something. That is the only time I have ever had a go at Graham Taylor and I didn’t do it lightly but I spoke to the press and I criticised GT for that decision. I wasn’t bothered what he thought about that because, if I am honest, I felt he should have got criticised for that decision.
I got it out of my system. Long after I’d left Watford, when GT was England manager, I think, a couple of the papers rang me up asking me to do a story running GT down, going over it all again. I said, ‘No way.’ As far as I was concerned that was the only mistake he made in ten years. I am bound to think it was a mistake and I am sure looking back he accepts it was a mistake.
Did you ever get to the bottom of why he made that decision?
Not really. It was my testimonial year. He said to me that if I had a bad game it would have ruined my testimonial game but to me that’s not a reason.
I proved my point by playing well against Chelsea, but I have never said anything more about it because I’ve got that much respect for him. Keeping a clean sheet against Tottenham in what proved to be his last game at Watford was nice though.
There were times he’d left me out when I’d deserved it but that time was unfair and unjust in my view. I owed a lot to Graham Taylor but at that time I hated him. I wanted to play in that game against Spurs and have another go in the cup final.
One bad decision doesn’t mar ten years of happier memories though?
No, it doesn’t. To get through ten years working with a man and to only have one bad memory is pretty incredible isn’t it.
He made all of us in a way. He made me want to be fit, something I’ve carried on into retirement. I remember going to Norway for pre-season and getting up before dawn, running to the track, doing a 12-minute run, then coming back for breakfast, then going back and doing more training, then an afternoon session, then playing a game in the evening. It was incredible amount of work. Every single run was timed, so he knew when people were losing pace or not fit or not trying.
He recognised that facts and statistics don’t lie. Football was a game based on impressions of things but he was the first person I worked with who was totally professional in his approach, just how a good business should be run.
What was it like leaving Watford after more than ten years?
It was time to move on but it didn’t start too well at Grimsby. I was staying at my Mum’s for a while and it wasn’t until my family moved up that I started to settle in. It was a big shock to my system. We were relegated [to Division Four] in my first year and to be honest it was an awful team. Then Alan Buckley came in as manager and we had two promotions.
What are your fondest memories from your time at Watford?
The friends I made, the things I learned. I used to watch Eric Steele writing stuff down in a notepad and I always knew he’d go into coaching [which he did at Manchester United].
My family grew up in Watford. My son Dean was born on the morning we beat West Ham 2-0 in the FA Cup. Craig was born the evening after we beat Sunderland 8-0. Nice of them not to arrive between 3pm and 5pm wasn’t it!
Beating Manchester United in the FA Cup was special. Sammy McIllroy had a chance right near the end. But my best game was a 1-0 win at Wrexham. They absolutely pummelled us in the second half but I thought, ‘No one is going to score past me here.’ It was one of those days that you get sometimes as a goalkeeper and wish you could have every game.
If I could change anything I wish the FA Cup final had just been like a normal game. We’re just like animals really, creatures of habit, and I liked the routine we had. You eat the same food, do the same things at the same time. Routine is a big thing. I liked to have the same player warming me up before the game. Nigel Callaghan used to warm me up and I liked that. I used to miss him if he wasn’t in the team.
But the cup final was strange. We were stuck in a hotel even though it was only a game in London. There was a band on the pitch before the game so you couldn’t do your proper warm-up. But nothing will ever take away the sound of the crowd, coming out of the tunnel and seeing the Everton crowd and then all that yellow and red. Wow. I can still remember the feeling on the back of my neck.
I remember seeing a quote from Brian Clough of Nottingham Forest about me. He said, ‘He’s an honest lad but we’ve put more goals past him than I’ve had hot dinners.’ [Laughs]. We did lose there 7-3 in the League Cup once. I was rooming with Simsy and he liked to have a nap in the afternoon. As he got out of bed he felt his knee tweak and he said, ‘Oh it’ll be okay,’ but he had to come off after 15 minutes. Everything went wrong that night but of the seven I didn’t think there was any that I could have saved. They were either top corner or one-on-ones. Sometimes you get nights like that.
But I suppose I will be remember for the cup final. I think I played alright. I didn’t have a lot to do. They didn’t really pose that much of a threat but the two goals were the killer. The first goal was fortunate. It was a mis-hit shot that went straight to Graeme Sharp but he controlled it so well and I was wrong-footed. The second one, well, we could speak about the second one all day and I’ll not change my mind about it…