I had a trip to Manchester to cover some cycling at the velodrome so I thought I’d try to combine an interview for the as-yet-untitled book project that would become Enjoy the Game. Someone I knew at Manchester United had put me in touch with Tony Coton and he had agreed to meet me at the Macdonald hotel close to Piccadilly station one February afternoon in 2009.
Coton had been goalkeeping coach at Manchester United until bad knees forced him to retire and when we met he was busy scouting or as he said, ‘I try to watch games in between all the school runs.’
Yeah, John Barnes got a flukey one. [Laughs] To be fair he hit it right out of the centre of the laces and it dipped over my head into a part of the goal I couldn’t reach. No goalkeeper in the world would have stopped it!
We were near the bottom of the First Division and we had this reputation for being rough and we were in the quarter-finals by a bit of luck really. We’d had a good win against West Ham in the previous round. We were 3-0 up with a few minutes to go and their fans invaded the pitch, trying to get the game abandoned and replayed I think. We all came off and were standing around in tunnel. The West Ham manager, John Lyall, said to the ref, ‘Look, we’re not going to get a draw here so let’s just go out, kick-off, blow the whistle and get out of here.’
We got Watford and we knew it would be a difficult game but at home we fancied our chances. I think we even went 1-0 up, but they came back at us so strongly. [It ended 3-1]
What did you think of Watford before you joined?
I always liked watching them. If they were on Match of the Day I’d make a point of watching them, and it took a lot to get me out of the pub early on a Saturday night! When I came down to talk to Watford, Graham Taylor said to me, ‘Listen, we’ve got a defence that is leaking goals for fun.’ Birmingham had just been relegated to the Second Division and he’d come to watch me a few times. He’d stood on terrace behind the goal at Fulham and watched me. We won 1-0 but he was impressed with how loud I was. I’d kept six clean sheets in eight but he said I was vocal and I organised the back four well, which was something that Steve [Sherwood] was not so good at. The gaffer said he had a talented back four but they were naïve. As individuals they were great but they needed someone to give them instructions.
Birmingham was the team you supported as a boy. Was it hard to leave? And why did you end up joining Watford?
A: It was totally out of the blue. It doesn’t matter who you are, when someone shows an interest and pays you compliments, you are excited. I’d had a couple of run-ins with the law and I had this thing [a court case] pending. I’d been to a function and stayed at [team-mate] Mick Harford’s house. We went in to training and I heard Ron Saunders, the manager, wanted a word. I was trying to think back over the previous few days to remember if I’d been in trouble. The manager usually only called me into his office when I’d been up to something. He said that the finances at Birmingham City were not good, that I was an asset and that although they wanted to keep me someone had offered 300 grand. They said they were going to cash in.
I asked him who it was and he said that Graham Taylor had been on the phone and that a meeting had been set up to go down and see him at the Ladbroke hotel. I didn’t even have a car at the time, so our chief scout, Norman Bodell drove me down. I remember saying to him, ‘Norman this isn’t right. I can’t just go.’ My Mum had not long died. My Dad was living with me. I’d just bought my first house and I thought I couldn’t move and leave him on his own.
We stopped at Toddington services and I called my Dad from a payphone. ‘Birmingham are going to sell me, to Watford. I’m on my way down now. What do you think?’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘They’ve got John Barnes and Luther Blissett and they’re in the First Division. I think you should go for it.’
That was all I needed to hear.
What was the meeting with Graham like?
I was worried because I was in jeans and a t-shirt and I’d kipped on Mick Harford’s sofa. Graham knew everything about me, more than I knew about myself. I was so impressed by what he was saying. He said exactly what my Dad had said – that I needed to get away from Birmingham and from my mates because I kept getting into trouble.
I was never one to turn the other cheek. Just couldn’t do it. As soon as someone said something to me or one of my mates I wanted to know what it was. ‘You want to repeat that pal?’ I couldn’t leave it alone and it got me into trouble.
I listened to him talking and I agreed to sign. They lent me [Chief Executive] Eddie Plumley’s car to get home in. Maybe it was to make sure I came back and signed the contract. I spoke to Mick Harford and he said, ‘Make sure Birmingham pay you a bit of money because you’ve not asked to leave, you’ve got a contract, you didn’t get a signing-on fee and you didn’t cost them anything when you joined.’ Fair play to Birmingham, they paid up my contract.
What were your first impressions of Watford?
I knew I liked the club. I don’t know why but certain grounds make you feel comfortable and I always liked playing at Vicarage Road. I’d played well there when Maurice [Johnston] scored the winner with a tap-in and I made a fantastic save off a Wilf Rostron diving header. I don’t know what it was, just the same as you’re comfortable in one room but not another, I guess.
Graham spoke to me as soon as I signed and said, ‘I know about your reputation but I know you’re not a bad lad. You’re a good boy deep down and you look after your mates when they are in trouble but that has to stop. You have to get away from them and learn to walk away from trouble.’ He told me about the club’s reputation as a family club, so he couldn’t have stories in the papers about me being in trouble.
Was it different to being at Birmingham?
Birmingham might have been skint but it was a big club. There was the rivalry with Villa and when there were important games you could get 40,000 at home. People used to come and watch us train every day. Watford was a lot smaller, a lot quieter but so far ahead in many other ways. It was really professional. The fitness work was something else. I used to have to do the cross-country runs as well because even though I didn’t cover ground during the matches the gaffer wanted the goalkeepers to be fit, flexible and agile. The training was all about finishing and attacking play so I faced a lot of shooting practice. His thoroughness and attention to minor detail was amazing but the set piece work was long and tedious, although we scored a lot of goals from them.
I used to be up the other end on my own, taking penalties against an open net and celebrating wildly just to keep myself amused. I used to ask if I could go in goal and face the set pieces but he wasn’t keen on me doing it too often because he wanted Steve Terry and George Reilly attacking the ball and he didn’t want me getting an elbow in the face or worse.
Your debut was a 5-4 home defeat against Everton. Not the ideal start but I suppose it proved what Graham had been saying about the defence?
To be honest I was just embarrassed. I came into the dressing room afterwards and the gaffer said, ‘You’re the new signing so you need to go and do the press.’ I said, ‘Are you joking? I’ve just let in five goals, how can I do the press?’ But he wouldn’t let me get out of it.
Apparently I hit Andy Gray on the jaw when I tried to stop a cross and someone said they wished Steve Sherwood had done that in the cup final, but I don’t remember that. I just remember picking the ball out of the net and worrying that people were thinking, ‘Who have we bought here?’
Things gradually improved though? The defence tightened up, results improved and the team pulled away from the bottom of the table. Why was that?
We needed a bit of stability. When I was signing for him, Graham said he had an eye on a centre-half that would really improve things. He said that with me and him we’d stop leaking goals. The midfield and up front were fine. The weeks went by and I thought, ‘Have I been had here? When’s this centre half coming?’ It was a few weeks and then he got John McClelland from Glasgow Rangers.
Well, when I first saw John Mac come in for training I nearly laughed. He came out for training in a t-shirt, shorts and these little white ankle socks. He was all stiff. It looked like he could barely walk. I think he signed late in the week and only did one training session with us. I thought, ‘We’re in trouble here if the gaffer thinks this is the answer.’
Anyway, his debut was against Sunderland and they had Howard Gayle up front who had been with me at Birmingham. The ball came over the top and Gayle had three or four yards on Macca and I thought, ‘Well, I’m rubber ducked here, because Gayley is quick. I’d better get myself set to save a shot.’ All of a sudden, McClelland drew level with Gayley, came past him, took the ball cleanly away and cleared it down to the line to a team-mate. ‘He’ll do!’
You very rarely saw McClelland with mud on his shorts because he never had to make a tackle, he never dived in. He was so good with his positioning and so clean with his timing and interceptions.
During your first season you faced Sunderland again in a League Cup quarter final and lost to a deflected goal.
That game should never have been played. The pitch was rock hard, frozen solid. It was absolutely terrible but we knew the game was going ahead no matter what. I think there was so much fixture congestion because of postponements and with Sunderland travelling all the way down for a midweek game the decision was the game was going on come what may. I remember we had a training session on the pitch at 7.45 the night before so we could be ready for the conditions. I think the gaffer thought it would suit our style of play better but they had a shot that hit someone on the arse and that was it. We should have got to Wembley that year.
Which other games stand out?
We played Man United at home in 1986 and it was Mark Hughes’s last game before joining Barcelona. He threw his shirt into the crowd and my cousin caught it. All my family are United. There was the game at Anfield where we lost 3-4 and Kenny Dalglish scored one in off the post. That sticks in my mind too.
I’ll be honest, I always thought moving to Watford would be a stepping stone. I was hoping to play well, get established and get some media attention and move on. Remember there wasn’t all the games on TV like there is now, so it was harder to make a name for yourself. I thought being in Watford we’d get the national press along more than I did at Birmingham and it would get my name into the right circles.
It worked too. There was a chance to go to Tottenham when Steve Harrison was the manager but I turned it down. I know, it seems mad now. I don’t know if there’d been interest before but Graham was the sort of manager who would never tell you if there was. Steve Harrison said that if someone offered a million quid I could go but they wanted me to sign a new contract. Then Harry [Steve Harrison] left and Colin Lee came in and I knew I’d be going in the summer [of 1990]. They said they’d had some enquiries and I didn’t even ask who it was from. I knew I’d be going and it turned out to be Manchester City.
You had a couple of good cup runs after that but nothing quite went the right way at the crucial times.
The one at Anfield [the 0-0 draw in the 1986 FA Cup quarter-final] was probably my best ever game for Watford. It was one of those days when I made three or four saves early and I just thought, ‘I am not going to get beat tonight.’ They were so good but I just kept getting a bit of luck here and there. I was keeping everything out one way or the other. Every decision I had to make I got right. Just one of those nights. We held out and the Kop were clapping me and the Liverpool staff were congratulating me. Bear in mind they won the Double that year, so they were some side.
The atmosphere at Vicarage Road for the replay was special. Oof, the crowd was packed in. Some of them were on the floodlights. It was amazing. We were 1-0 up, John Barnes free-kick, with four minutes to go. ‘This’ll be some victory if we hold on,’ I thought. Then they broke through, Ian Rush is after a through ball into the box. I do think now, why did I come for it? I genuinely thought I could get it. He was running away at an angle. I reached for the ball. He went down. I never touched him. I swear I never touched him but the ref. Well, Liverpool were good at getting penalties.
Jan Molby took it and I thought I had a good chance of saving it if I could guess the right way. He side-foots the balls so if I go the right way, I am confident. He’s one of them where it looks a bad penalty if the keeper goes the right way. He’s looking at me, I’m determined not to commit early. He runs up and side-foots the ball. I can’t tell which way he’s going and I’ve got to go one side or the other. As soon as I go off balance one way, he steers it the other side. It’s as split-second as that.
Steve Harrison, who was the coach then, came running round the back of the goal and said, ‘Hey, chin up. We’re here because of the saves you’ve made.’ It didn’t make any difference really because I was gutted and I knew the chance was gone. In extra-time they had chance after chance. We were out on our feet and eventually they got the winner.
The following season, you beat Arsenal in a dramatic quarter-final but you’d been sent off at Highbury in the league game earlier in the season.
I called the linesman a fucking cheat. [Laughs] He gave a penalty against us – against Wilf Rostron, I think – and it was never a penalty. Cally [Nigel Callaghan] had to go in goal. They scored from the penalty and we lost. There’d been a few things in the game and Graham was irate. As I walked off, Graham said, ‘What did you say to him?’ ‘I called him a fucking cheat.’ Graham just rolled his eyes and said, ‘Okay. Well done.’ He knew I was bang to rights and I knew I’d been stupid. I tried to stand in the tunnel area to watch Cally. He was a decent keeper for an outfield player. No sub goalies in those days so he had to go in. Bob Wilson, who had been Arsenal’s keeper for years and was their goalkeeping coach still, I think, said to me, ‘Well, it wasn’t a penalty.’ Next thing I know a police officer is next to me saying, ‘You can’t stand there,’ and it was all a bit silly.
The ref was a man called Brian Stevens and when they announced the ref for the quarter-final it was Brian Stevens again and Graham did a lot in the press about him.
In the cup game we did get a couple of decisions that went our way so maybe the pressure worked a bit.
In the first half there was the mix-up with me and Macca [McClelland] and Ian Allinson nipped in and scored their goal. I called for it and bent down to get it but Macca had taken it away. I shouted but Allinson stabbed it in. I would usually do my nut at the defence if they ignored my shout but Macca said, calm as you like, ‘I heard you Tony, but I thought someone was behind me so I had to play it.’ Fair enough. Macca made so few mistakes I could allow him that one. He held his hands up and said he made a mistake and not every player is honest enough to do that.
Then there was the goal at the end. We were leading 2-1, trying to close out the game and Arsenal are pumping the ball into the box. There’s a challenge with Simsy [Steve Sims] on Niall Quinn I think it was. Arsenal thought Simsy had his arms on Quinn. The linesman flagged and they all stopped. We cleared it, Gary Porter helped it on and it went to Luther. He hit it against Lukic, their keeper, and then got the rebound. Goal! They all went mad and wanted the penalty but the goal stood. 3-1 to us and we had to get off the pitch pretty quickly at the end.
You missed the semi-final against Tottenham because of injury. That must still be a big disappointment.
It is. Tottenham was always going to be a hard game but at full strength I think we could have won it, I really do. Then, Coventry in the final. You never know do you now?
What actually happened?
A couple of weeks before the semi-final, we were doing some shooting practice. Steve Harrison said, ‘Okay, last couple and we’ll go in.’ Luther hit one and it struck me square on the thumb. I knew straight away it was trouble. I thought it was dislocated, which would have been fine. That happens all the time and Steve Harrison had popped my fingers back in plenty of times in training. But as soon as I took my glove off I saw nothing had popped out. It wasn’t dislocated, it was broken. We ran in [to the dressing room] and I said, ‘Harry, I’ve broke it.’ He said, ‘No, no, you’ll be alright.’ Steve was worried he would get a bollocking from the gaffer for staying out longer doing shooting, even though that wouldn’t have been the case. By this time it had really swollen up. Billy Hails [the physio] said, ‘Let’s get you to hospital,’ so we went to Shrodells.
The pain was bad. It was the thumb on my left hand. I had an x-ray but I knew even if it wasn’t broken the semi-final might be a problem. All the questions I had. If it’s broken how long will it take? Can I play with it broken? If it’s not broken will the swelling go down? Then the radiographer came and said, ‘I’m afraid you’ve got a fracture.’ Billy was looking at the x-ray and he had tears down his face.
They plastered my hand up and I got back to the ground and everyone is looking out of the window to see me and their heads dropped when they saw the plaster. Graham tried to pick me up but we all knew I was out.
That was a hard week or so. I went back up to Tamworth because I couldn’t be around the squad as they got ready for the game. I was in bits and I didn’t want to pass on my bad mood to the lads. I had to get out of the way. I got dropped off for the semi-final against Spurs at Villa Park and I could not believe Gary Plumley was going in goal. Steve [Sherwood] dislocated his finger in training the week before the match too. Sherwood said he was fit but the fans were thinking of 1984. Could he have played? Should he have? David James was the youth team keeper but he was about 16 and you can’t play him. It’ll destroy him if he has a nightmare. Next minute it’s Gary Plumley in goal. He’s a non-contract player, ex-pro, running a wine bar apparently, son of Eddie, the Chief Executive. All the lads said to me, ‘Who is he, T?’ I didn’t know him. I couldn’t say.
Going into the dressing room I felt terrible because it should have been me playing. As I walked down the touchline to my seat, hand in plaster, in my suit, a Watford fan shouted, ‘You fucking wanker Coton.’ Graham Taylor turned and said, ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘He’s let us all down, breaking his hand.’
‘Oh I’ve done it on purpose have I?’
Graham called the guy an idiot. The mood was all wrong. It was one thing after another.
At half-time I walked back down the touchline. We’re 3-0 down I think. I heard this shout. ‘Tony, Tony.’ I turned and the guy from before the game said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t realise.’ He knew what he’d said.
We lost 4-1 and in the dressing room after Mark Falco was crying his eyes out. Gary Plumley was giving interviews saying what a great experience it was. It was fine for him, a one-off, and he was going back to his wine bar. For us we were missing out on Wembley.
Did you say anything to Gary Plumley before or after the game?
Not really. I wished him all the best. There was nothing I could say to him beforehand. I didn’t know his game, what he was good at or bad at.
I do remember afterwards, Ray Clemence and Clive Allen of Spurs knocked on our dressing room door and said, ‘Bad luck lads. All the best for the rest of the season.’ I didn’t know that’s what happens after a semi-final or final, the seasoned pros come and say commiserations. I didn’t want them poking their heads round the door. It felt like gloating.
People said they thought Graham was going to come in for me and there were pieces in the paper but I said, ‘Well I’m going to have to disappoint him there because I’m Birmingham City through and through.’ A few thought I was going to jump ship. I probably could have gone to Villa but no, I don’t think so.
John Barnes was going, which was always going to be difficult to stop. A player like John and a club like Liverpool. No way are Watford going to keep him. But I was disappointed Graham was going because he was Watford Football Club.
What did you think of the new man, Dave Bassett?
Not your sort of manager?
No. A successful manager in a lot of ways but not for me. We had this end of season trip to China booked – a tournament to play in and a bit of travel. Bassett had already made arrangements for his holidays or whatever and wasn’t coming. Elton John and his manager John Reid came. Billy Hails, the physio, was made manager for the trip and he said: ‘TC, will you give me a hand with the team.’ I was one of the more experienced pros by then. Anyway, we won the Great Wall of China Cup and it was a good trip but when we got back to pre-season training everything had changed.
All the things Graham had built up went. The clean-shaven, no-jeans-to-training, call-me-boss discipline went. That changed over night. You could wear jeans, turn up with stubble, call the gaffer ‘Harry’. Training was too relaxed. He sucked all the hard work built up over years in five minutes really.
The players who had been there a long time like Kenny Jackett, Gary Porter and Wilf Rostron was real pros. They didn’t say too much but you got the feeling they didn’t think it was right. But you can’t say, ‘The old gaffer didn’t do this or that.’ You have to get on with it.
He [Bassett] dropped me at Christmas and put Mel Rees in. We’d lost 3-0 at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day and I’d had an iffy one so he dropped me. I walked out of the team meeting when he announced the team and I wasn’t in it. He hadn’t spoken to me beforehand and I think as the first team goalkeeper for three years he should have told me he was dropping me, not just tell me in front of all the lads. So I walked out of the meeting and went in the Red Lion at the top of Occupation Road. I ordered half a lager and thought, ‘What am I doing in here?’ I knew I’d made a mistake. Alan Gillett, who was Bassett’s assistant, came and found me. ‘He’s not cutting his nose off to spite his face, you know,’ he said. ‘One iffy game and I’m out?’
I didn’t agree with his training. He’d leave me stood on my own for ages – even longer than Graham did. Graham would have the juniors do some shooting practice with me or something if I was stood around for too long. Or we had a goalkeeping coach.
One day I ran over to Tom Walley and said, ‘Can I do some shooting with the youth team?’ He said, ‘Has Harry said it’s okay?’ I lied and said yes. Later on Harry had a go at me.
I went to see Bertie Mee, just about the most senior bloke at the club, someone everyone respected, and I said, ‘I need to get out of here. This isn’t going to work for me.’
He said, ‘Just sit tight. Leave it to me. I promise you it will be okay.’
About two days later they sacked him. The new manager – another Harry, Steve Harrison – came in and I was straight back in the team.
Bassett left but did you think the damage was already done?
He sold so many good players and brought in inferior ones. He sold Kevin Richardson for next to nothing and a few years later he’s won the league with Arsenal. I remember one day Kevin was doing some shooting and he hit one over the bar. Alan Gillett said to him, ‘Kevin, when you are shooting you need to get your knee over the ball to keep it down.’ Kevin said to me later, ‘Is he for real? I know how to kick a ball.’ Kevin had played in the cup final for Everton, went on to win the league. A class player and Alan Gillett, who had he played for? Non-league? Okay, no disrespect for that. Plenty of good coaches have played at non-league but they don’t go round telling good players how to kick the ball, they do things in a smarter way.
We were at the bottom of the league and morale was not good. By the time Bassett left it was too late really. We were going down to Division Two.
You almost bounced back to the First Division the following season.
We were doing well, top of the league for a while. Near the top all the way through. We drew both play-off games [against Blackburn] and went out on away goals. We didn’t lose a match but we went out. I don’t think that ever happened again.
We needed a bit of luck and in the final third of the season we ran out of legs a bit. We had about four games against Newcastle United in the FA Cup because you kept having replays until someone won in those days and it just got too much.
Birmingham was the club you supported but where does Watford fit in?
I went back with Sunderland and the reception I got really blew me away. I thought they might think I was alright because I’d done well for them and been player of the season but they were fantastic towards me and I wanted them to know the feeling was mutual. I always look out for their results and want them to do well. In fact, I went for the manager’s job when Aidy Boothroyd left. I met Graham Simpson and Mark Ashton but I’d been tipped off that it was Brendan’s [Rodgers] anyway. I’d never had an interview before so even though I knew I had no chance I took it as an opportunity to have a go at setting out my blueprint. Put it this way, it didn’t surprise me that they [Simpson and Ashton] didn’t last too much longer after that.
Getting inducted into the hall of fame was a real honour, although I don’t think the Russo brothers knew me too well because they introduced me as Tony Cotton.
I’ve got four girls and the younger ones are 14 and 11 and whenever we come down to London on the train and you go past Watford and you can see the stadium there, I say to my girls, ‘I’m a bit of a legend there,’ and they go, ‘Yeah, alright dad.’