A graduate from Tom Walley’s youth team, Jimmy Gilligan was part of the FA Youth Cup winning team in 1982 and was in and around the first team for about three years. When we approached Jimmy for the interview, he was keen to stress he didn’t consider himself a Watford legend, however he does hold the record of scoring Watford’s first ever goal in European competition. He also returned to the club later at the start of his coaching career.
Recently at the FA, Jimmy rejoined the club as Head of Technical Development in summer 2021. Watford Legends spoke to Jimmy in early 2018.
Thanks for talking to Watford Legends. You came through the youth ranks at Watford. How did your involvement with Watford first come about?
As a thirteen, going on fourteen year old, playing for the Herts FA at Woodside Leisure Centre, I can’t remember the county we were playing against but we ended up losing 5-1.
Tom Walley was there watching, at the same time as a Chelsea scout. Tom approached me and asked for my Mum and Dad’s phone number, the Chelsea scout approached me at the same time. By the time I got home which was in Stevenage, Tom had already called my Mum and Dad and I was off to Watford. The Chelsea scout had approached my Mum and Dad and they weren’t interested. Tom had just jumped the gun and got in there very quickly.
As a 13 year old boy and someone approaches you for your phone number, is that a bit weird?
Not in those days and don’t get me wrong, we were looked after by people. We had a manager called Dick East who looked after us properly. Tom approached Dick first and then Dick told me and said Tom wanted to speak to me and it went from there.
I was going to turn 14 within about a month of that conversation. In those days, you couldn’t sign as an Associated Schoolboy until you were fourteen years old, and you probably couldn’t train with the club unless you were an Associated Schoolboy. Whereas things are dramatically different nowadays, you didn’t join a club till you were fourteen; you played with your mates at school, in the county, in the district, and dare I say it for your Sunday team.
So to go back to your original question, it would seem very weird in today’s society, but I was like every schoolboy with the dream of wanting to play football, so any thing I could grab hold of I did!
Speaking of Tom Walley, many players from that era give him a lot of credit for their development. I assume it’s the same for you as well?
Yeah, I would imagine people have got lots of stories to tell about him and I wouldn’t be any different! He was a massive disciplinarian, we worked really hard as young kids there. Tom cared about us in a way you probably wouldn’t understand until you were older.
In modern day times, Tom would probably struggle to do what he did, how he did. But equally, Tom would be perceived as a guru of youth development and rightly so. If you look at the conveyor belt of players he brought through at Watford, at Arsenal, and then back at Watford, it’s quite phenomenal really.
You were part of the Youth Cup winning side in 1982, beating Manchester United. Would it be fair to say you were massive underdogs going into that final?
Just a little bit! If there was a statement to say under the underdogs, that would be about right!
We were a youth team that had never won anything, never pulled up any trees, other than producing players for the first team, which at the end of the day is what it’s all about. Certainly at Watford it was.
From my point of view, we were going into that game with nothing to lose really, we were the underdogs. If you look at the team that United had – Norman Whiteside, Mark Hughes, Graeme Hogg, Billy Garton, Clayton Blackmore to name a few. Those names just roll off your tongue. For our youth team, the name that rolls of the tongue is John Barnes.
Yet, you could argue that we had Gary Porter, Nigel Gibbs, Ian Richardson, Paul Franklin. We’ve had a lot of players that went on to get a very good living out of the game, and are still involved in the game in one capacity or another.
By this time, you had already made your first team debut?
Yeah I made my first team debut when I was 17, down at Aldershot and I was fortunate enough to get on the scoresheet. I’d hardly had any games, but I’d had a stint around the first team.
At Watford it was very well structured, if Graham thought you were ready, you’d go into the team. Equally, he would think nothing of kicking you back out of the team. I suppose nowadays, they call that rotation, in my day, we’d call that being dropped!
As I said earlier on, it was my dream to play in the first team and thankfully I got the chance to do that on a number of occasions, nowhere near enough. But it was a real honour for me to play. Although I was a Stevenage boy, it was as close to a home town club as I could get, as Stevenage weren’t on the map then.
And before you played in the First Division you had a brief loan spell at Lincoln City?
Yeah I had a disastrous spell at Lincoln. I went on loan there. Obviously, it was a club Graham knew a little bit about having come from there, and John Ward as well.
You know under the gaffer, you never questioned anything, you just did what he said. So the conversation went something like this…
“Jimmy, you’re going out on loan”
“Ok gaffer. Where?”
“You’re going to Lincoln”
And that was it.
I went there under Colin Murphy who was the manager, and did an unbelievable job at Lincoln. I went there under the guise that I was actually going to play first team football. It was all about giving me a bit more mental resilience, and making me understand the senior game a bit more, and probably getting kicked up in the air and everything like that. And I didn’t start any games that I can recall. So it was a really disappointing month.
The ironic thing was, that when I got called back to Watford, I literally did the month and went back, the following weekend I was in the first team with Watford. I’d had a real bad experience at Lincoln where I was meant to get some game time, hardly played in that month, not even reserve team football, and then I came back to Watford and played in the first team! I’ve got no idea what that game was, but I just recall that happening.
Everyone talks about the gaffer being before his time, and he certainly was. You don’t need anyone to tell me that was psychology at its best. You know, I was really low coming back from Lincoln, thinking what am I doing now, and before I know it, I’m in the first team. It was really quite unbelievable, and an interesting time in my career.
You were involved in the European games including scoring our first ever goal in Europe. What are your memories of that?
(Laughs). So we go away to Kaiserslautern…
If you look at the history books, Thomas Alloffs, Hans-Peter Briegel, these are German superstars of the time. If I’m not wrong, I think Hans-Peter Breigel was a pentathlete, and not only played football but also competed in the modern pentathlon games. So it was quite extraordinary.
By rights, we shouldn’t have got anything out of Kaiserslautern at the time. We go over there, it’s a really tight ground, I remember coming out at the start of the game and the flares going off and we don’t get that in the UK obviously, and we’d never experienced it. In the team as I recall we had Charlie Palmer, Ian Richardson, Nigel Callaghan, Kenny Jackett – quite a young side with some older players sprinkled in.
In terms of the goal, I’m sure it came in from the left hand side. It’s missed one of their first defenders and gone shooting across the goal. What Graham worked on with Nigel and Barnsey, was if you get to that byline, the ball goes in low, hard and fast if you get the opportunity to get it in. As a striker, what you used to do was gamble on the ball coming in. You knew it would come in, you knew there’d be no chopping back and turning back out. If they got past their man or got half a yard, it was coming in the box. I don’t know if it came in from Cally or Barnsey, I can’t remember to be honest. But what I do know is it came across, missed the first defender, and I was literally on hand to knock the ball in the net.
Right behind me, on the photos you see, Wilf Rostron is stood literally two yards behind me. So if I hadn’t put it in the net, I know Wilf would have done. I can remember Wilf saying to me, if you hadn’t have got that, I was right there! Then you’d be speaking about Wilf being the first goalscorer for Watford in Europe.
It was being in the right place at the right time, knowing and trusting that the players in the positions that they need to be in are going to do their job, and as a striker just making sure I made the box, and that was what we were all about.
As with the youth cup second leg, it was a magical night at Vicarage Road. I’d watched a magical night unfold as a schoolboy, when the first team beat Southampton 7-1. Then to be involved in two things that I can recall – the FA youth cup, where you’re a kid and playing in front of 15,000 people, and then you’re playing in a magical European tie in front of a packed Vicarage Road, evening game, under lights, you can’t write those stories. They’re stories that happen to people and I look back now, they’re one off moments that only you that’s been there can really feel it. Even now, talking to you, I can feel that night against Kaiserslautern, I can still feel scoring the winning header in the youth cup final. All of those things, I will take to the grave with me.
Do you think a lot of that win was down to the attitude the Watford players had compared to Kaiserslautern who appeared sloppy, arriving dressed casually etc..?
Being much older and wiser, I think the jeans is more a European thing. But I do think they underestimated what special nights can happen at Vicarage Road.
There’ll be loads of fans around the world who will say there’s special nights here or special nights there, but that club was a special club at that time. What we went through, it was a proper family club. You could know and touch every one of those 21,000 people if that makes sense? You had an affinity with the town and the town had an affinity with us.
We had nothing to lose in that tie, we’re 3-1 down, we’ve got to go for it, we got a goal quite early on in the game, and everything panned out for us. A couple of weeks ago you saw Wigan beat Manchester City in the cup, so those things can happen now, but not so much probably. But you look back at that time and say what a great little story that was, to tell the kids, tell the grandkids and to pass down the family.
Yeah of course. Any club where you get to the final you’d love to have an involvement. At that time there was just one substitute in the game. I remember training with the group for the first three days of the week, and what used to happen, the cup final squad went off to the hotel and spent the next couple of days in the training ground area and the hotel. Obviously Neil Price played in that game who came through with us.
Do I feel I should have played? No, we had some great players and I wasn’t anywhere near ready to play in a cup final. But I’d loved the opportunity to have done it.
The club being the club it was were brilliant with all the non-playing staff and the admin staff. We all went on the coaches together with our wives, partners and families. It hurt losing the game, and I still think to this day that goal was a foul, but that’s been debated a million times over.
We had a cup final party at the chairman’s house. It was a little bit sombre but it was still a nice affair. At the end of the day it’s still an unbelievable achievement of getting to an FA Cup final for a club like Watford at that time.
You seemed to be the back-up striker to Ross Jenkins, George Reilly and finally Colin West, and you’d scored a few goals. Did you feel disappointed not to be given a chance to establish yourself?
When George went, I thought I might have a chance to be fair. And then he bought Colin West.
I didn’t play many games, but if you look at my goals per game ratio, it was as good as anyone’s, and we were playing in the first division, which is now what the Premier League is, and I’m playing against Aston Villa, West Brom, Manchester United, Liverpool.
(Jimmy played 29 games plus 12 as sub and scored 13 goals).
Part of me never really understood why he wouldn’t give me a run of fifteen or twenty games to see if I could do it on a regular basis for him. But the gaffer was the gaffer and god rest his soul, I still respect his decision to this day, so no axe to grind there. But I would have loved more game time.
You moved on to a few clubs after Watford. Would it be fair to say your favourite time was with the two Welsh clubs?
Without a doubt. They were unbelievable career points. Coming from Lincoln who had dropped out of the league and Frank Burrows buying me for £17,500, to this day if you speak to him, he’s always said it’s the best bit of business he’s ever done. For me as a player it was the best of business he’s ever done because it resurrected my career!
Frank grouped together a team of players he paid very little for or free transfers – Phil Bater, Paul Wimbleton, Alan Curtis, myself, Brian McDermott, Graham Moseley, all of those kind of people. He turned us into a really effective, hard-working, structured team, that won promotion from the fourth division to the third, coming runners-up to Wolverhampton Wanderers, who had an unbelievable strike partnership of Steve Bull and Andy Mutch. It was an unbelievable time for us really, a great time.
I’ve got to say, and I had so much respect for Graham, but Frank was possibly the best man manager of me that I ever came across. He knew what ticked my boxes, he knew how to upset me, how to cuddle me and get round me and my goalscoring record there in the two and half years I was there speaks for itself as well.
Was it a bit brave to sign for Swansea after being at Cardiff?!
Well I had that disastrous spell at Portsmouth for nine or ten months, where they signed me for £350,000, which was a lot of money in those days. Ironically, Frank had left Cardiff and was at Portsmouth, that’s why I ended up there. And then I left Portsmouth to go to Swansea under Terry Yorath, and then Frank ended up at Swansea.
I honestly didn’t realise the enormity of playing for both Welsh clubs when I did it, and probably if I had, I would never have put pen to paper, because of the expectation, the animosity. I played in derbies against Swansea for Cardiff and knew of the animosity between the two clubs and the cities, but I was so grateful really that I scored goals for Swansea and was accepted by them, and for the two years I played for them before I retired, I think they would look back at me and I would look back at them and say that was a very good fit for both the club and the player. But I’ve done a couple of interviews since, and there aren’t many of us that have done the dual clubs, and got away with it, dare I say it. I think I’m a lucky one!
After your retirement as a player, you started your coaching career back at Watford as well. How did that come about?
Yeah that came about from a phone call from Eddie Plumley one morning. Actually, the first call came from Kenny (Jackett) saying Eddie Plumley’s going to ring you about being the Football in the Community officer. So then Eddie rung me and obviously I knew him from my time playing, lovely man, would I be interested in being the Football in the Community officer at Watford. I didn’t even need to think about it, it was a definite yes, because I’d retired from playing and had a spinal fusion, I was doing a bit of work for a friend and it wasn’t involved in football.
So I went to meet Eddie and literally was given the job that afternoon. John McDermott was there as well, he’d moved on and become Youth Development Officer at the club so there was a space and I went in there. I think I had two and a bit years as Football in the Community officer, which was an unbelievable grounding in terms of your coaching, where you’re working. So I also worked at the Centre of Excellence, so it got me involved in what would now be called the Academy, and I remember going in there, first it was with the u14s.
Then John McDermott left Watford and I became the Youth Development Officer and started to move on from there. I was back at the club as a coach for about four or five years, and in that time Graham had come back to the club. Glenn Roeder was the manager when I was Football in the Community Officer, obviously with Kenny doing the assistant role.
Everything in the community role was easy, I knew everyone there, I knew a lot of the players. Whilst I was the Youth Development Officer, I used to get people like Steve Palmer, Tommy Mooney, Darren Bazeley, Gary Porter, Nigel Gibbs, Keith Millen all involved in coming up and coaching the kids, and then I got the Youth Team Coach’s job which was an unbelievable job for me and something that I wanted.
I ended up spending five or six years back at Watford, and then what happened there was that I got a phone call from David Platt out of the blue. I’d done a bit of work with David at Watford. David was doing his coaching badges and came in and used the youth team as guinea pigs to do some coaching with, and suppose I struck up a bit of a friendship with him.
Then it was a month or so later he got the job at Sampdoria. I asked Graham if I could go and do a sort of educational visit to Sampdoria, which Graham was more than happy to allow me to do, so I went and spent a week with David watching how the first team train, watching the Italian way of doing things, strength and conditioning, psychology, and David was brilliant with me, he looked after me so well. He treated me like I was his brother really.
He never got on really well there, he hadn’t got his full qualifications at the time and things didn’t work out for him and he came back to England and gets the Nottingham Forest job and rings me up out of the blue and says I don’t suppose you want to be my reserve team manager do you? That was going to be my next experience I wanted to take on – nowadays they call it the u23s Manager – that was what I wanted to do.
Funnily enough, I said to Graham at the time, would there be an opportunity, and to be fair to him, he said Luther and Tom are doing it and I don’t see any progression forward, so I said I’d like the opportunity of going and speaking Forest. He wasn’t very happy, because he doesn’t like his staff leaving during the season, which is what I did. But we had a polite conversation, and I said it’s no different to your ambitions when you went off to do England, and I’ve got ambitions for where I want to be, and if you’re telling me they’re not necessarily going to be at the club then I’d like to look elsewhere for that opportunity. So I went off to Forest and became the reserve team coach.
You’ve had roles coaching both younger players and at first team level. Do you have a preference?
Definitely. I had a brilliant club, MK Dons. Fantastic chairman, Pete Winkleman and the directors were amazing.
I went there with Stuart Murdoch who was also from Watford many years back. He was the manager, I went as his assistant. Stuart got sacked unfortunately and Pete put me in charge, asked me to take the first team as caretaker manager with Steve Palmer, which I did. And that six weeks in charge of MK Dons first team taught me I never, ever, ever wanted to be a manager.
I don’t think I was very good at managing upwards, which I’m better at now. I didn’t like dealing with the day to day press stuff. Pete was unbelievable, he never interfered. I don’t mind coaching first team players, but managing them is a different kettle of fish.
To answer your question, I think I’m good at developing players, and my age group would be 16-21. I think that’s where my bag is. The Nike Academy was an unbelievable academy for three years. We produced some really good players. Tom Rogic, David Accam in the MLS, Jorge Grant who’s at Notts County on loan from Forest. There’s been numerous players who’ve come out of the Nike Academy from myself and the staff but also Jon Goodman who worked there as well.
And currently you’re working at the FA? Tell us about that.
I am a National Coach Developer which is coaching coaches through their qualifications. You will have heard of the UEFA A Licence, UEFA B, the Advanced Youth Award. For CPD (Continued Professional Development) I run the position specific courses. I tutor on the A Licence and the B Licence.
I also look after four clubs, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Notts County and Mansfield. I work with them once a week at least, going in and working with their coaches who are going through qualifications. I’ve just come from one at Mansfield now, and part of my job is going in, watching the coach do a session, filming him, giving some feedback and working with him to get him through so we get him to a point where we sign him off on his A Licence.
That’s my job right now and has been for the last two years and it’s something I’m really enjoying. It’s a massive organisation to work for, and one I really am enjoying working for and on behalf of.
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