Central Defender David came through the youth ranks at Watford, playing in the 1985 FA Youth Cup final. He made his debut in 1988 and played more than 250 games for the club. He signed for Sheffield United in 1996.
Since retiring, he has managed at a number of clubs, and Watford Legends spoke to him shortly after his appointment at Ilkeston Town in 2008.
Hi David, thanks for talking with Watford Legends. You started out as a trainee with your brother Dean at the club. Why Watford?
Dean and I were from East London, and we played for a local team called Free United, and we were spotted by a man called Ken Brooks, who at the time was a scout for Watford, and worked with Tom Walley who was the youth team coach.
And as you progressed, you had a more successful time with Watford than Dean.
Well Dean left because he could not get in the side. He had the same aspirations as me but at the time he had a number of centre forwards in front of him. I was ‘fortunate’ that there was an injury to Mark Morris before a game away at Portsmouth which allowed me in to the team, and I never looked back. Dean had to take a step back by going to Brentford to take the next step forward.
Were you always a centre-half in your youth?
I was a centre midfielder as much as a centre-half. I played for my district and county at centre-half, and Watford played me there as well. So I stayed in that position. Also, to have an experienced player like John McClelland alongside me was very helpful towards my experience. He’s a brilliant fella. I can still hear his voice now!
You played in some memorable games for Watford, like the famous Leeds victory. Do any games stand out for you?
To be honest, when I signed as a trainee for Watford my aim was just to play games. But to play over 300 games for the club, and captain them, was more satisfying than any one game. I am grateful to Watford for the opportunity.
And who would you say was your toughest opponent?
Are you still in touch with any of your former team mates?
I see them all over the place. We had some great characters. I used to stay in digs with David Bardsley, and it was always great to have players like Worrell Sterling and Neil Smillie around.
You started out with Graham Taylor.
Yes I started my apprenticeship under Graham, and then I played for Steve Harrison, Kenny Jackett, Colin Lee, Dave Bassett and Glenn Roeder. A number of managers.
And if you had to pick a favourite? Could you pick one.
I learned the most under Graham, certainly in terms of discipline and professionalism.
The most contentious of those was Dave Bassett – what do you remember of those times?
I got on well with Dave. He was keen to develop youngsters, and wanted to bring his own ways to Watford. But to follow in Graham Taylor’s footsteps was difficult. It’s like following Jose Mourinho now in terms of stature. Watford was Graham Taylor’s symbolic home. Dave was a good man, and I remember that when he went to Sheffield United, he wanted me to go there with him.
Was the dressing room divided at the time?
Well any new manager would try to stamp his authority on the dressing room, but the Graham Taylor way was still very much present in the dressing room and in the way of play. I personally was only in the reserves at the time, so it didn’t hinder Dean and me, but any club is governed by what was happening in the first team.
And then moving on from Watford you went to Sheffield United for a fair size fee.
I had previously had a number of opportunities to move on, and there were other players who could/should have gone also. But I had been with the club for 11 years and felt I was very loyal to Watford, but it was the right time. Sheffield United was a great club, and I liked Howard Kendall.
And as a London boy going up north to play, was it daunting to be in a big footballing city?
I remember getting off the train in Sheffield, and as a London boy I went up there with my eyes open, which was the right thing to do. I was met by Nigel Spackman whose is a great friend of mine. Sheffield United were very welcoming, and they were good people to work with. Howard recognised my leadership ability by making me captain straight away. I had a good bond with the fans also. I was keen to stay but when Steve Bruce came in the dressing room changed as he had his own ideas. It then seemed like the right time to go to Birmingham City.
What appealed about Birmingham?
Trevor Francis bought me. He’s a nice man, has a good manner and is a world renowned guy. I enjoyed working with him.
Then on to Walsall for a bit.
Walsall was a great time. I went there to get some fitness but got involved in a relegation battle. When I went there Walsall needed snookers and I was delighted when we survived and they maintained their status. I remember in my first game we beat Charlton in the cup. It was a great team effort at that time. I have fond memories.
You sound like you really enjoyed your football career.
You have good days and bad days – like losing the Youth Cup Final against Newcastle. But as a boy who kicked a ball around in East London it was a dream come true.
And then on to Gretna…
I was approached by Brooks Mileson, and we had a discussion, and I was really interested in developing this small club with him. I did a lot of work behind the scenes. We worked closely together for three and a half years, had three promotions and got to a Scottish cup final. We did alright didn’t we?!
Fantastic, yes. He’s not been too well recently.
It saddens me that he is so unwell. He is godfather to my son Charlie. I speak to his son Craig every day, and I just hope Brooks makes a speedy recovery. I had a great time up there, great players, great Chairman and living in Cumbria was a great place to bring up our son.
You were made redundant there?
I knew it was the right time to leave as I knew Brooks’ health was worsening, and financially things were getting tough for them. People speculated that we had fallen out but it didn’t happen, and wouldn’t happen. Leaving seemed the honourable thing to do.
What have you been up to recently?
My wife Lindsey and I took some time out and went abroad for five months, whilst I looked for the right opportunity. But when you live in Cumbria nothing is round the corner. So I did a year’s work for the BBC and other parts of the media. I was offered the first team coach role at MK Dons with Paul Ince, but I didn’t feel that was right for the time.
We had moved in to a new house in Sheffield and it was a couple of hours away for a short term contract. So it wasn’t quite right.
And now you’re the new manager of Ilkeston Town.
Yes. I was lucky enough to be offered three jobs in three days, but I saw this as an opportunity to breathe new life in to a new club, with a new owner. The chairman and I are keen to develop a new path for the club. In a lot of respects I see parallels with the Gretna story.
Are you full-time?
I am employed full-time by the club, and the players are part-time. The players train two evenings a week and both days at the weekend, which is a little unheard of at this level. But we are trying to give the players discipline – they have targets for weight, body fat and stamina, my way will be structured.
Are you strict then?
The club finished 17th last year and we need to get higher. We’re trying to be a better organised non-league club. I remember Glenn Roeder used to make us run up and down the A41 past the Watford Hilton in the rain, but you do it because it’s the discipline requirement of your club.
You seem to have changed a lot of your squad since you arrived.
Well I need players who have the ability to adapt to the discipline of the club. It will be to their detriment if they do not. I ask for a good team ethic, and a good togetherness and belief.
Did you compete with your brother when you were playing?
Not so much compete. We looked out for each other. I remember being on the phone to him when Watford and Wimbledon were the last two clubs pulled out of the hat in the FA Cup draw and we couldn’t believe it. At Watford we had nothing to lose – we were the smaller side and Wimbledon were a well established Premier league outfit. I was warned by our mother not to kick him that day. People would always make comparisons but we were very supportive to each other.
That game saw the ‘Dead Ants’ celebration!
Ha ha, yes! I remember running back after we scored. I turned to Colin Foster and said “What are they doing!!” We didn’t want to join in on that one!
Do you keep an eye out for Watford now?
Of course I do. I did some work their last year for the BBC and saw some old, friendly faces. It’s a lovely club and it always will be. I’d love to see them back in the Premier League.
David, thanks a lot. Good luck for next season.
Yeah, cheers. All the best.