Ray joined Watford as Reserve Team Manager under Gianluca Vialli in 2001, taking over from the Italian as manager the following summer. With a very restricted budget, he guided the club to league safety two seasons in a row, and two cup semi-finals. He was sacked in March 2005.
Ray was interviewed by Watford Legends while Assistant Manager to Roy Hodgson at Fulham in 2009. He has since been Hodgson’s assistant for the England team and at Crystal Palace.
Hi Ray. How did you come to be Watford boss?
It was almost like I stumbled into it. When Luca Vialli became Watford manager I was at Brentford. I had fallen out with the Brentford chairman, Ron Noades. He was also the manager before me. Ron and I had been friends for a long, long time so it was very sad. We got to the position where I was locked in a contract but wanted to get out of it, but he wouldn’t do anything about it even though he wanted me to go as well. Ray Wilkins, who was assistant manager under Luca and has been my close friend since we were 10 years old, phoned me and said do you want to come over and be reserve team manager. I managed to get it sorted and I went.
At the end of the year when Luca and a few others left, Tim Shaw approached me and asked if I wanted to apply for the job. I asked him if it was worth me applying, i.e. did I have a real chance of getting it. He then told me I had a couple of friends on the board who would like to see me get it so give it a try. So I applied and as you know now I got the job. To be honest, I wouldn’t have applied if I hadn’t been invited to. I was expecting the sack if anything. Although I was caretaker over the summer after Luca went I was doing that thinking that I was just holding the fort until someone else came in to do the managers job. It all turned out quite nice for me.
I remember Oli Phillips telling me there had been a poll in the Watford observer and I got 1%, so I think I was a popular choice!
You had up and down times whilst Watford manager, do you have any particular period that you would say was your favourite?
I really did enjoy all of it. When I got the job I was told of the circumstances, though I don’t think I was told 100%. Later on in the season when we had to take wage deferrals that wasn’t expected at all. I was aware though that a wage bill of £14 million had to be reduced to £3 million in three years. But I went into it with my eyes wide open, and aware that that was what I had to do whilst trying to keep us at the level we were in the championship. I think it is safe to say things were worse than they were described to me. To be told after a few months that we had to take these wage deferrals or we would be going into administration wasn’t nice. In a strange way that was one of the best periods.
I remember we went away to Sheffield United and got a win, and that was one of the games that definitely brings a smile to your face. That was nice. Then in the second year we had the cup semi-final which was good even though we didn’t really perform on the day, and then the year after that we had the league cup semi-final. I can’t say any one period was particularly better than any other. It was always enjoyable for me. I never came home too frustrated, it was an enjoyable job.
Which of the two cup runs to the semis were you most proud of, and do you think we could have been more positive against Liverpool at home in the second leg of the league cup?
That’s a fair question, and a dilemma that goes through any manager’s mind. The equation was, after performing so well at Anfield and losing 1-0, do we really go for it from the very first minute? When you do that against the big clubs like Liverpool you leave yourselves very open and if they score then you have to score at least three so effectively you are out. So we thought we would keep it nice and tight first half and then really go for it in the second half. We changed the system for the second half to do that, but in the first half there was a little bit of caution because one goal would kill us off.
If we were playing against a team of equal strength then we would have obviously gone into the game with a 4-4-2. but playing against the likes of Liverpool, who you know if you open up too early they will pick you off, we just wanted to keep it tight and hope we won the toss and were kicking towards the rookery second half and open up and really have a go then. Unfortunately it didn’t happen. I can understand the question though. In hindsight maybe it would have been better to have been more brave and just go for it.
What were your first impressions of Ashley Young, and did you expect him to be the success he has been so far?
He is was and still is a very slight lad. I remember David Dodds telling me that he would play for England and he was proved right. What I was worried about was that I think we created a monster over McNamee. We went completely over the top with the boy. We were saying that he was going to be a wonder player and I think we actually spoilt McNamee. It was all too much too soon; he went of the rails and never really recovered. You can end up labeling these players and they can’t handle it. When Macca first came in he caught the public’s imagination. Such a young, small lad with such big talent. It weighed too heavily on him. But with Ashley when he came in we didn’t want to make the same mistake.
Nigel Gibbs was a big fan of his and backed Doddsy’s judgement. But we decided that whatever we do with Ash, we play it down and not label him as this superstar. The plan was always to bring him in then take him out, bring him back in and take him out again. None of us expected him to go on so quickly apart from Doddsy. There was certainly recognition of his talent though. It was unusual to have such a gifted and two footed player. He was also very bright as a footballer; there were not many things we had to tell him twice. We also wanted to take care of him because of his size as well, but we definitely knew we had a very good player on our hands.
It was impossible to tell just how good he would be though at such a young age. To see how he has gone on though is brilliant because he is a lovely lad, and his parents are wonderful people. He was one of the few people that didn’t have an agent. When we were sorting his deal out he came in with his parents and we looked after him when we signed him pro. They never made any demands about money; they just basically said ‘so long as you give him a fair wage and look after him then we trust you’. I’m really glad he has gone on to have the career he is having at the moment.
It is well documented that things were tight for the club financially, but are there any players in particular that you would have liked to have brought or loaned in when things were getting tight at the bottom?
Loads! I can’t name too many names for obvious reasons.
We had quite a strange occurrence at one point though. A friend of mine who is very wealthy made an offer to us. He knew we were tight financially so he made an offer to buy us some players. Whoever we wanted to buy, within reason, he would buy. He would then get a share of any profit made on those players. He wouldn’t decide when they would be sold, or how much for. There were two players I wanted to bring in; a young Jobi Mcanuff was one, and Nigel Reo-Coker as the other. We could have got them both for about £150,000 each. My friend was happy with it and was happy to buy them for the club. But then the club wanted him to pay their wages as well. He wasn’t happy with that, as he was correctly of the stance that it was the club that would be using them and benefitting from them, and the club would also be getting 50% of any profit despite not having to buy them in the first place. When you think that Reo-Coker went for £8 million in the end, we missed out. There were a few others he would have bought for me if the club would take on the responsibility of paying them. At the time Reo-Coker was probably on no more than £100,000 a year so we wouldn’t have been breaking the bank. But the chairman wouldn’t do it and the opportunity was missed.
There were a lot we missed out on. The other one that springs to mind is Paul Jones, the Wolves keeper. The club didn’t want us to take him even though we were desperate and about to play in a semi-final. They didn’t want to pay any of his wages. It was such backward thinking it was unbelievable. We had to go quite strongly to the board with that one, and say that if you don’t do it then you are not backing us and we will have to seriously think about staying here. That is how strong we had to get to get a ‘keeper in for a major cup semi-final. They wanted us to play with a youth team keeper in goal.
After you left Aidy Boothroyd took over at the helm with a more realistic budget than you had, and had success in taking us to the Premier League. Do you think that if you had that budget to play with you could have taken us up to the Premier League?
Aidy has a different philosophy to me. The route to short term success is long ball, no doubt about it. I personally wouldn’t have done that so the answer is no. I would have liked to have had the same budget as he had but that was never on the cards. I think he done the right thing, but I also think that is his philosophy anyway. He was the right man at the right time. If I was there though I would have still tried to play a little bit of football and that takes longer to establish. I don’t know what his wage bill was but it was a couple of million more than what I had to play with. He bought well though; the players that he bought in were good types. I would have liked the opportunity to do it. I was a bit miffed I got the wage bill to below the magic £3 million mark and then I was sacked only for the next man to get an increased budget. Good luck to Aidy though, no qualms with him.
Before you left Terry Burton moved on to Cardiff, and in some people opinions the team preparation seemed to drop a bit after that. Was Terry a big influence on team preparation and day to day involvement?
I think that’s unfair on Nigel Gibbs who came in and did fantastic. There is no doubt Terry is a great coach. We shared the coaching roles though and all had a big input. However, as a manager sometimes you need to step back a bit and let someone else do it so I went and got the best man for the job. That man was Terry Burton. Terry left because he wanted to and frankly the wages we were paying him were not very much. It took a while to persuade Terry to come and I done it on the condition that if he ever really wanted to leave and had an offer that he couldn’t turn down then he had my word I would let him go. That’s what happened when he left to Cardiff – they trebled his wages.
Cardiff at the time had reputed financial troubles, so it seemed baffling that they could afford to offer a lot more to a clearly important member of the backroom staff, and also how they managed to get Neal Ardley.
There is skint, and then there is really skint. We were beyond really skint! We were in deep trouble and struggling to pay the wages. The board was just trying to cut everywhere. Terry Burton knew Sam Hammam and so Sam knew what he was getting. Because he knew that he was prepared to pay the money, and it was money that probably wouldn’t have been bettered for that position at a premier league club.
It was the same with Neal Ardley; we just couldn’t afford to re sign him. I know Neal wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but he was a good man and a good pro. When it came to renewing his contract we offered him a third of what he was previously on. It was a tough time. Like I said, there are different levels of skint and I was led to believe that we were truly skint but then when Aidy Boothroyd took over there miraculously became more money available which was disappointing.
You went on record whilst at Watford saying that when Graham Simpson sacks you he will be very nice about it. Did that turn out to be the case?
Yes, he was very nice about it, true to form. Graham was one of these who appeared naive but when you look back he wasn’t as naive a he would appear. He came along to a number of supporters meetings and said he would never sack me which was a ridiculous thing to say. I told him it was a stupid thing to say but he maintained he would never sack me. Well in the end he sacked me! The only thing is I didn’t see it coming. Normally you get the usual signs and you do see it coming. You would get the fans turning against you, the dreaded vote of confidence and then you know what’s coming.
The only thing I got was a phone call from a reporter the night before who told me he had been giving it on good authority that I was going to get sacked in the morning. I was shocked but he assured me he was pretty sure. I then got a phone call at about seven in the morning from the chairman asking to see me. I went to his house. He told me it was the hardest thing he had ever had to do, but he thought it best we go our separate ways. The only thing I really didn’t like was that I wanted to go to the training ground and shake hands with all the boys and the staff. I was then given a letter telling me I was effectively banned from the training ground, from The Vic and also from making contact with anyone.
Why was that? Is that normal practice?
No, I don’t know why it was done. My first instinct was ‘sod you, I’m going’ but it was still only half past eight in the morning so nobody was in yet. I phoned my wife and told her the news and she wanted me at home asap. I went home and we phoned the LMA and they told me to fax the letter through so they could check it out. The players contacted me the next day to say that they would like to say goodbye and we met up in a pub in London Colney by the training ground. It was nice to get to say goodbye but it wasn’t the same as doing it on the day.
You went to Fulham after Watford, and are now assistant manager to Roy Hodgson. How do you like being an assistant manager as opposed to being a manager, and how do you enjoy working with Hodgson?
First and foremost, I have no preference as to whether I am a manager or a number two, you can slot into both. Being number one and in charge, like I was at Fulham, Brentford and Palace, the only real difference is the pressure you put on yourself. If you are committed and giving it 100% then your title is irrelevant. You are giving it everything you can and working hard all week in the hope of getting a result on the Saturday. The main difference is that your name isn’t on the television or splashed all over the papers. The staff do everything at Fulham to back Roy up, but it’s just that Roy is the face and the man that holds the responsibility.
If I got offered a manager’s job that was attractive to me I would put consideration into it but I am also as comfortable being a number two or number three. If you have a massive ego and want to be a number one all the time it is harder, if you don’t have the big ego then it is simple to slot into any position.
I’m very happy at Fulham, and Roy is a decent bloke to work for. Roy actually does a lot of the coaching himself even at 62 years of age, at least 75% of it. I chip in with my bit and Mick Kelly looks after the goalkeepers. It is quite strange and Roy is in the minority of managers in respect of doing most of the coaching himself.
How much of a part to play did you have in taking Heidar Helguson from Watford down to Fulham?
I recommended him. He was easily my most favourite player at Watford, he has a fantastic personality. I actually think, although I still haven’t been given a proper explanation, is that I refused to sell Helguson. I never regretted that decision even though it probably cost me my job. I recommended him to Fulham because I thought amongst better players he could do well.
He had an indifferent time at Fulham though and he picked up a few injuries which meant he never got a good flow of games. Since Fulham he has been a bit chequered as well again because of injuries. He is a fantastic lad though. I think the thing that appealed to the Watford fans and appealed to me was his never say die attitude. Wherever he was playing he would still do something for the side.
I think that maybe Helguson is one of those players that is too good for the Championship but not quite up to Premiership standards.
I actually think he is a little bit better than that. Heidar is one of those players that needs constantly patting on the back and 100% backing. I think going the other way and rollicking him goes the other way with him. The trouble with H is that he is technically a good player, but he sometimes lets his heart rule his head and will be running at 100 miles an hour trying to control a ball, which even Pele couldn’t do! If he just slowed down a touch and let his technical ability take over then he would have been a far better player. But he wore his heart on his sleeve, never gave anything less than 100% and was always the first name on the team sheet.
What went wrong with Scott Fitzgerald? He seemed to have one pretty good year then has not really been seen since.
Scotty was bought from non-league, came in and the adrenaline was flowing. It’s a little like when a team gets promoted and they are buzzing at first, but then the standard wears them down and it becomes too tough. That is what happened with Scotty. He made a big jump to come to Watford from non-league, endeared himself quickly with the Watford fans and scored some goals. He had some good qualities, but also had some glaring weaknesses.
We couldn’t make those weaknesses any better try as we might, and in the end the adrenaline wears off and he got a bit more used to it, but then found out the level was just a bit too high for him. I was surprised he didn’t do better at a lower division. He had that natural goalscoring look about him where he would just pick up space in the box and knock one in.
How would you say you got on with the Watford fans in your time at the club?
I think they were always really good to me. Wherever you go and whoever you are there are always going to be one or two that don’t like you. But by and large they were tremendous towards me. I have no complaints with the Watford fans at all. Even in the week leading up to me being sacked, there were one or two groans but no demonstrations or anything like that that you see. I really appreciated their support whilst I was there.
We put the opportunity out to people to give us the questions for this interview, and the biggest thing we had was people sending us messages asking us to thank you for steadying the ship through a very difficult time.
I have bumped into a few Watford fans since I left, and 90% of them have been really nice and said ‘Thanks very much’ etc. As a manager, you do expect criticism and you have to deal with it, but by and large my time at Watford was really good and the fans gave me great support, and I would like to pass on my thanks to any Watford fan reading this.
Quick Fire Round
|Favourite Ground (apart from the Vic)|
|Best Ever Player|
|Roast Beef and all the trimmings|
|Elton and Rod Stewart|
|Favourite Holiday Destination|
|Favourite TV Show|
|The Eagle Has Landed|
|What team do you support|
|Desert Island Woman|
|Nigella - so she can cook me my roast!|