Neal joined the club from Wimbledon in the summer of 2002 and played for nearly three seasons, making over 100 appearances. Late in the 2004-5 season, he joined Cardiff City.
He has been manager at AFC Wimbledon since 2012, and Watford Legends caught up with Neal in 2009 while he was working as Academy Manager at Cardiff.
Hi Neal. Thanks for talking with us. You joined Watford from Wimbledon, where do you stand on the Wimbledon thing now?
I think that AFC Wimbledon is the ‘old’ Wimbledon. I think MK Dons are trying to get away from that and I think that the chairman is trying to get away from it all and make their own club.
Do you agree with how it all transpired or do you think more could have been done to keep Wimbledon in South West London?
I think personally that the name Wimbledon says it all really. A football club is the fans, lets be honest. The heritage, the tradition, everything. So for me Wimbledon was the club for the people of that area. It really should have been kept in South West London. The problem, though, was that the council weren’t really that keen on having a football club there, and I think that they were happy not to help too much. They want to be known for the tennis rather than having a football club.
And whilst Wimbledon were dying out, in the south London sense, you joined Watford. How did that come about?
It was quite strange really. I had a three year contract with Wimbledon and was one of the higher paid players after the relegation from the Premier League. Within that contract Wimbledon had a get-out clause. When ITV Digital collapsed, they had no choice but to tell me that they could no longer afford to keep me. It came as a bit of a shock. It was in pre season and I was expecting to have a season with Wimbledon, but the club used the clause.
So I trained for pre-season but didn’t play any of the games. Eventually my agent called and told me that Watford had expressed an interest, and also had the problem of not enough right-sided players.
I had to take a pay cut, and it was a very different club to Wimbledon, but I think that maybe I’d had my time there and it was time to go somewhere different. I’d had 11 years there since becoming a pro and it was time to move on.
And how did you settle in to Watford initially?
It was brilliant, I settled in really well. The only down side was that I went in to the Watford side at the start of the season without a pre-season game under my belt. You can work as hard as you can in pre-season, but without games you’re always going to be short and I remember I came on for 15 minutes at Leicester away in the first game, and then had the first home game, and after those games I was out on my feet. I was knackered after an hour. I think I managed to get somewhere around 47 games that season though.
Did you have to relocate or did you opt to stay in London?
Ideally it would have been nice to have been able to stay where I was, but coming on the M25 at junction 8 and driving round to London Colney at junction 22 sometimes would take me 2 and a half hours. I would sometimes get out of the car feeling like a 78 year old man! So my wife and I discussed it, and we agreed that if I was to give Watford my best then we would have to move to the area.
We moved to Chesham, which was only 20 minutes from London Colney which was perfect and we had three good years there.
You played in the FA Cup semi final in 2003.
I did. It was a season of turmoil really with the 12% pay deferral, and there was loads going on at the club. I think that the job that Ray – and the players – did was fantastic. However, and as I tell my players now, I got to two semi-finals with Watford and three with Wimbledon, and lost them all. So me and semi-finals don’t mix very well!
Did you enjoy playing for Ray Lewington?
l did. Ray is a good man-manager and a very bubbly character. And of course Terry Burton was good to work for as well. Terry had been my youth team boss and my first team manager it Wimbledon so I knew him well. I thought they were a good combination.
Do you have a particular game that stands out as a personal favourite?
Not so much a game for me, but there was a spell we went through in my third year. I was going through a time when I did have a certain section of the Watford crowd who were getting on my back, which happens sometimes, and we managed to score eight goals in three games and I assisted all eight. So I had a little spell where everything that was good with Watford’s play was going through me. That was quite satisfying.
I recall you were getting some stick, but that was because you were at right back. And your main position was/is right midfield?
I played all over the place! When I joined I played as a right wing back when we played three at the back. Then in my second year we went to a 4-3-3 and I played as the deep lying midfield player, and then Jermaine Pennant got signed and I went to right back. In my third year I went to left midfield. And it was from there that I went through my good spell of assisting lots of goals.
You chipped in with a few goals yourself. Do you have a favourite?
Probably from the game against Palace in a 3-3 humdinger at The Vic. I scored a nice free kick in that game that was my first of the season so it was nice to get off the mark.
You played over 100 games for the club. Did you anticipate when you left Wimbledon that you would play so many for one club, as you were approaching 30 by then.
I’m pleased with that and the main thing that pleases me about my time at Watford was that I felt I gave good service to the club. I filled in at a number of positions. I wasn’t possibly every fans cup of tea – many fans like the pacey strikers- but I felt I chipped in. I played 48 in my first year and 111 in two and a half years, and I feel that is good going.
Who are your mates from the club?
I’m still very close to Neil Cox. Neil and I were in the under 21’s together so we knew each other from there. Also Gavin Mahon and Sean Dyche. Sean and I still talk a lot through our youth team work. Neil and I also got reacquainted at Cardiff.
You’ve mentioned that you got a bit of stick from the Watford public, but how did you feel you got on with the fans overall?
It’s a strange one, and maybe this interview is a chance to put the record straight a bit. I got quite a bit of stick when I came back with Cardiff. I made some comments about the club as I left, but they were aimed at the chairman and chief executive, and never at the fans. I didn’t like a lot of the things I was hearing about what they were doing and planned to do. When I left I was so irate I spoke my mind.
It was a new thing for me to play against my old club at their stadium. I didn’t know if it was banter or more serious but it wasn’t great.
A lot of questions were raised at the time when you left for Cardiff, given that they were penniless, but somehow recruited Terry Burton and yourself.
It was a weird one to be fair. Cardiff had come in for me at Christmas, and I went to see Ray and explained the approach. It was also at a time when at Watford, I was on less money and on a one year contract. I explained to Ray that I had a chance for a two year deal at better money, so I asked to speak with them. The club said no and I wasn’t allowed to speak with them. My form dropped and I think some of the fans thought that I was trying to engineer the move.
When I did go to Cardiff they were close to administration and there were all sorts of problems. I think I was officially on loan, and a few clubs complained about this.
Until Cardiff you had always been relatively local. How did you settle over there?
I had grown up in the outskirts of London and had always worked there. London is a big place whereas Cardiff is a lot smaller. So I used to get recognised a lot more, and everybody knows everybody, and I think that helped me to settle.
You’re in charge of the youth set up now.
Yeah, I’m the Academy Manager and have been for the past two years. I’ve always wanted to be a coach and I have done my badges. So this is like my apprenticeship now. I’m making mistakes but learning a lot but I hope this will help me to be a first team manager somewhere. I’ve learned bundles in the last couple of years and I’m looking forward to somewhere along the line getting the opportunity.
Do you have a target of how many kids you need to get through to the first team?
No. We’re a small club with a small budget and we work for players to feed the first team and every now and again a wonderkid will come along.
What do you think of what Watford have done with the Harefield Academy?
I think it is a fantastic idea. You can’t get enough contact time with young players. Watford can do it with the academy where we have to get the players on day release. We played Watford a couple of time last year and they taught us a real footballing lesson, and I complimented Sean Dyche at the time. I think Watford have a hotbed of talent, even though they have to fight the other local clubs.
What do you think about the big clubs taking the younger talent from under the noses of the local, smaller sides? They seem to take players at 9, 10, 11 years old and put them in their own academies.
I think its totally wrong and the league have to protect the smaller ‘home town’ clubs. You have the Man City’s and Everton’s who have big academy budgets who can bring the players in to their set up, and then take the credit for the player being their own. A lot of the time the smaller clubs get a small amount of compensation, where they could have got millions after not many first team appearances.
Thanks for your thoughts on that Neal. Cheers for the interview.
No problem lads.
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