Steve left with Graham Taylor to join Aston Villa in 1987, but returned six months later as Manager. He left the club early in 1990 as he struggled to make the transition from coach to manager.
Steve spoke to Watford Legends in May 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic.
Hi Steve, thanks for talking to Watford Legends. You joined the club originally from Blackpool, I hear it was on the recommendation of Dennis Booth?
Yeah that’s right I was at Blackpool with Dennis before he moved to Southend. I’d actually left Blackpool to go to Vancouver Whitecaps in 1978. Graham had said to Boothy that he wanted a left-back that could defend.
To cut a long story short, he gave me a call and asked if I fancied coming down to Watford. I knew Graham’s reputation and what he’d done, getting them out of the division so I thought I’d go down and have a look.
What was it like at Vancouver Whitecaps? It must have been a bit different to the modern MLS.
It was fantastic really. The only thing was I was younger than most of the team, I was only 25. Most of the team at that time had had their career and were 29 or 30 plus. The likes of Kevin Hector and Alan Hinton, Jon Sammels and Stevie Kember. Phil Parkes was the ‘keeper.
You were playing against players of all different nations which we hadn’t really done at Blackpool, so it was a great experience but I missed the English game, the blood and thunder and looking at the results on a Sunday.
We’d had a baby out there, my youngest daughter was born in Vancouver and has dual nationality, my wife was missing home so it was the circumstances really. I got a few phone calls off people, but then Graham rang and I thought I fancy this. From what Boothy was telling me this was a team on the up, he was telling me how they trained, how they worked and how they played and I thought I wouldn’t mind having a go at that.
So I went down to have a chat with him, I went down on the train which is a story. It was the old Watford Junction with wooden canopies over the platform and the car park just outside it. He knew what time I was due there, but he said when you get there give me a ring, which I did. He said I won’t be long, about 20 minutes.
When you’re 25 you think well I’ll have a walk round, got back and still no sign of him and I thought I’m not ringing him again. To cut a long story short, he was sitting in the car watching me for 20 minutes, because he’d never seen me before, so he was seeing how I moved, what build I had, how I reacted. He was observing me before I’d even signed!
He got out the car and said I’m sorry I’m a bit late and I said I’ve seen this car, 25 minutes ago. And he said yeah, I’ve just been watching you! That was an insight to the man.
That must have been a great time to be at the club.
Yeah I was there about three years, 78 to 81 I think it was. The thing about it was it was on a different level, the training. The physicality, the work, the intensity and the preparation. He was thirty years ahead of his time, what he was doing and how he was training.
It took me a while to pick the pace of the training up. We’d have a practice match on a Friday morning sometimes, which I’d never done, usually it would be a light workout and a few set pieces, maybe a five-a-side. The whole concept of the club was completely different to anything I’d ever experienced and it me while to get into it.
We had the stats out for how we played, how many tackles we made, how many assists, how many recoveries, how many headers. You went in on a Monday morning and all the facts and figures were there for you.
He’d say to us, don’t say anything to anybody else, just let them think we’re a kick and rush side. The organisation, the planning and the detail that went into training was phenomenal. They do all of that stuff now in the modern game with analysts and stats on an individual. We were doing that in 1978.
I had a bit of a second wind after I’d been there about five or six weeks and then had a bit of a dip. Me and Keith Pritchard shared the left-back spot in the 78 season and then I came into my own a little bit after that.
The feeling of the town and the club, as one, was fantastic. You could feel the heartbeat of the club and the heartbeat of the town and I thought it was brilliant.
Did the set-up under Graham Taylor encourage you to move into coaching yourself?
That’s exactly right.
I’d missed preseason in the first year, so in the second year I wanted to make sure I was prepared. I worked hard in the summer with Boothy, up and down the hills in Cassiobury Park. And of course, Graham Taylor gave you a program to do as well, but I did work on top of that.
I was flying in the second year when I came back. As they say, I made sure I hit the ground running! And he was quite impressed with that. And I thought, I like this, I’m taking a bit of interest in what he’s doing. I was noting things down, things he was doing. And I’d go and watch Tom Walley in the afternoons, working with the young kids, and I thought this guy’s unbelievable.
I learned so much of those two, and they were in the main responsible for me going into my coaching career.
You obviously went into coaching, but you had a few games for Charlton before then?
Yeah a very few games. I had a bad knee and I got a contract off Alan Mullery when I shouldn’t have done really.
After about six weeks my knee kept puffing up. He was looking for a Reserve Team Manager so I said to him, I’m not going to be able to play all the games for you so I’ll take the Reserves. And without being boastful, as player-manager for the Reserve team we ended up winning the Midweek League.
Graham got in touch and asked what I was up to, and I told him I was looking after the Reserves. He already knew of course. I told him I wasn’t going to play any more and he asked if I fancied going back. He said he was interviewing John Ward for the Reserve Team Coach and that I should come and have an interview.
I went and did the interview, all suited and booted. He said to me you’ve come smart and I said well first impressions count gaffer, you taught me that!
He ended up giving Wardy the job, but he said would I consider coming back as Assistant Youth Coach? It was on half the money I was earning at Charlton but I was up for it. So he said sort it out with Charlton.
I went and spoke to Alan Mullery and said I had the offer from Watford on half the money but was still on the wage there, what should I do? He said for being so honest and for taking the Reserves he’d settle up my contract. I never asked for anything, but he said it cost him less than hiring a reserve team manager.
I think he was sacked within three months so it didn’t do him any favours! Alan Mullery was a smashing bloke, great player as well.
How did the coaching work with yourself, Graham and John Ward. As a defender did you tend to work more with the defensive side of things.
I worked for about three years with Tom which gave me a great grounding. Then he moved Wardy up to Assistant Manager, and one morning he said “morning Steve…” – he was the only one in the club that never called me Harry! Anyway he said to me, you take the session today.
I’d just come up from the youth team coach and not done anything really, just a few warm-ups. So I had a few panic thoughts as to what I was going to do, you know? I thought keep it simple.
So I got Barnesy putting cones out on one side, Luther on the other and all of that. I did three games of ten minutes of head-throw-catch, only score on the volley. It wasn’t a coaching session, more a keep moving session. But it was bright and there was no stopping and the lads enjoyed it.
Graham said that was fine. All the time he was observing me, seeing how I handled it. Anyway he pulled me in and said he wanted me to be First Team Coach, that was in 1985 I think.
Supporters from that time always talk about the nights at Baileys. It seems you used to take a starring role in those nights!
I was co-star I think, with Wardy. He always played the straight man. The thing about the Baileys nights was that everyone partook, even the quiet lads did something.
We used to arrive at Baileys on a Sunday morning and we’d do one rehearsal and run-through. Sunday lunchtime we’d have a few pints, then we’d arrive half an hour or so before and get on with it. Oli Phillips was a great help, as was Terry Challis, they’d organise it and give us scripts.
As I said earlier, the feeling amongst the fans, the players and staff was absolutely fantastic. They were willing us to be funny and for everything to work. Good job they did cos we were crap most of the time! (Laughs). I remember we did Showaddywaddy and we all had the teddy boy outfits on, Graham was in it with gel in his hair looking like Billy Fury, Roy Clare and Billy Hails.
There was also one where I was doing Elton, they had the record on and I was miming to him. And no-one knew, I put a trampette out of sight. And you know how he used to jump up on the piano, he doesn’t now of course. So I jumped off the piano, on to the trampette and back onto the piano. There was uproar! Elton was there that night and comes onto the stage and said to me “you b*stard!”
The players from that time also talk about Elton’s parties. Do you have any memories from them?
He had about a dozen of those Sinclar C5s for the lads to go racing round his estate. They did an Egyptian theme and it was all palm trees, camels, snakes, grass and pyramids. A big marquee. He must have spent thousands on it.
Everything was free, you could use the swimming pool. Billy Connolly was there, Michael Parkinson, a few others, Kiki Dee was there. He pushed the boat out to make you enjoy yourself, he was such a thoughtful bloke.
When GT left to go to Villa he took you with him and not John Ward or Billy Hails. Did that ever cause an issue between the group?
It was the end of the season and Graham got us together and said he had an opportunity to go to Aston Villa. He said we could either sign a contract which had been offered to stay at Watford, or if we didn’t sign the contract, he’d take us to Villa, because Villa might not pay compensation. Everyone else signed a contract, I didn’t.
I said I love it here at Watford, but if you go and want me to come, I’ll go with you. They all got sorted out anyway, but that was the reason.
You were back six months later as manager. How did that come about.
That was a big mistake. We’d got it right at Villa and were going to get promotion.
I’d spoken to a couple of people at Watford and went down, of course Elton was there and Bertie Mee, who were very persuasive.
I said yes, and it was the wrong thing to do. I let Graham down in many respects, and I let Villa down.
Going back to Watford was exciting. I wanted to become a manager eventually, but it was too early, I was too young.
We did alright the first year, missed out in the play-offs. No other team got knocked out the way we were, because away goals counted double in those days. That was a bit of sickener in many respects.
After that it went a little bit flat. I made some decent signings and my record as a manager is not that bad. But I hated every minute of it. If I’d have had the courage, I’d have said to Bertie this isn’t for me. A week was like a month in jail. Being a white collar worked rather than a blue collar worker and being apart from the players.
My biggest regret was falling out with the players. I didn’t treat the players right, particularly the younger ones and have tried to apologise to a few of them for that, not all of them but I will do eventually.
It didn’t end up in a very nice way and I left to go to Millwall and the albatross was lifted off my shoulders. I was back doing what I was good at.
I was a very good coach, and I don’t mean that boastfully. I wasn’t a good manager, and I was an average player. I had a good career in coaching after that, and it’s a pity it took that time at Watford to make my mind up about that. I think I would have had a better reputation had I not been a manager.
You were back in football quite quickly at Millwall. How was working with Mick McCarthy?
He was brilliant.
He was the most down-to-earth bloke I’ve ever known, alongside Graham of course. They were very much of a similar vein, they didn’t suffer fools gladly, they spoke in straightforward terms and expect you to take it the proper way, and they did things the right way and expected you to do thing the right way also.
In a nutshell, they were men, proper men, both of them.
You also worked again with GT with England. How did you find that compared to club football?
In many respects, the only difference was that you didn’t have them Monday to Friday. You had them for four or five days before a game.
The biggest thing I took from working with those players was that they always wanted to be the best, whether it be a game of five-a-side, head tennis, a game of cards or a match. They were natural winners. They had the utmost belief in themselves that they were the best. And that’s a lovely thing to have.
Of course they still have to perform on the pitch, but the top players have ultimate self-belief.
You also worked with Aidy Boothroyd for a spell who had also spent some time at Watford.
I think he’d mellowed a bit since his time at Watford. He was very straightforward and very open.
He had an assistant manager with him which was fine with me but he was a bit worried about it. I said to him as long as I’m useful to you, I’m here, if not we’ll part company. I think he appreciated that.
I ended up being the auxiliary coach, working with individuals and with units, like the defence or the forwards. I did a few sessions but he was only young himself so he liked to take a lot of the coaching, but at least I felt useful.
One day I said to him, you alright gaffer? He looked like hell, he was pale, rings under his eyes, he looked like a panda. I asked him when was the last time he had a day off. I told him it was three weeks and four days ago. I said to him, get dressed, get your keys, go home and take your good lady out for a meal and have a walk round the park. Come back in the morning, and then do the same thing next week.
He came back and he said “H, that’s the best bit of advice I’ve ever had.” I was really pleased that he’d taken it, and he did that every week. He was a workaholic, they all are. Graham was, and I used to have to tell him, leave them to me today, go and take Rita out. He trusted me to do things right, and to be trusted is a lovely thing right?
You also worked with Gareth Southgate who’s gone on to be quite successful as the national coach. I think when you worked with him he was quite new to the managerial side of things?
He was, very much so. It was all a bit too much for him really. The team wasn’t playing that well. I’d had a year with him and we’d done alright. The second year, my health was kicking up a bit so I left, and he floundered a bit and they got relegated, and I think they were near the top of the division when he got sacked at Middlesborough.
Gareth is the ultimate professional, he was as a player. Top international player at Middlesborough, and we’d have a defensive session every Thursday, and he’d be the first there and the last to leave.
What he did do, and this was full credit to him, was that he analysed what had happened to him, and the biggest thing he improved was his demeanour, his presence. It’s about impact as a manager. I used to say to Aidy, don’t go down on to the training pitch before the players. But as soon as you walk down the hill, you see things brighten up.
The great managers, Graham, Cloughie, Fergie. They all have that presence, that control. He (Gareth) took that on board and developed a presence, and you see it when he’s being interviewed, how concise he is, how diplomatic he is, how honest he is. And you think to yourself, I’d play for him.
And that’s the secret, you don’t play for clubs, you play for managers. He has the presence and the respect now that players want to play for him. And it’s not come naturally, he’s learned it the hard way and made himself a better manager.
Are you still coaching at all?
No, I’m a professional grandad now! Not that I can give them a hug and a kiss at the minute, but they can come and tap on the window or stand the allotted distance so we can have a chat.
I watch the England games because of Gareth, I’ve known him over 30 years.
Blackpool and Watford both look after me. I’ve got a great friend in the from my Watford days, Paul Stallard, and he helps me out with tickets when they’re playing in the North-West.
I remember when I was struggling as a manager and I met him in Cassiobury Park and he said it was good to see things picking up. I said “picking up?!”, I thought he was going to slaughter me! Since that time we’ve been the best of friends, we’ve been to stay with him, and him and his lovely wife come and stay with us. He brings me a keyring up every now and then! He keeps me up to date with the gossip and what’s going on round the club.
Quick Fire Round
|Favourite Ground (apart from the Vic)|
|Fulham – I’ve never had a bad game there.
I even marked George Best there, he was about 34 and he was probably not at the peak of his fitness at that time! In those days you had to man-mark people. That was my job in the Blackpool team, I couldn’t play but I could defend.
So Harry Potts the manager said I had to mark George Best, who was my hero. I used to go and watch him when Blackpool weren’t playing. So I stuck with him and in the first half he never had a kick, because he never moved! We came in at half-time 2-0 up.
Second half we go out and I feel this tap on my shoulder and it was Bestie, and he was like, “you alright son, I might start doing a little bit now”. For 25 minutes he ran me ragged. He nutmegged me three times, played a one-two off my shinpads and called it. He scored one and made one. I was on my knees and he was like “that’ll do me”. He didn’t do a thing after that but had proved he could still turn it on.
I followed him round in the players bar for 20 minutes afterwards trying to get his autograph and still couldn’t get near him then.
George Best without a doubt.
I’ve seen Pele live, Eusébio, Maradona, Cruyff, and Messi and he’s in with them.
|Best Ever Player|
|Pele for me. He was such a humble fella as well. He had everything and I can’t see anyone else scoring 1000 first class goals.|
|Team Supported As A Boy|
|I love eels. When I’m in London I always go to a pie and mash shop. There used to be a great shop just off Tooting High Street.|
|I love a glass of wine. I love a glass of Amarone or two. Not too much as I’m on medication!|
|Miles Davis, Ben Webster, Cannonball Adderley. I love a bit of jazz. My favourite is Georgie Fame, I’d go anywhere to see him. He’s a Lancashire lad which makes a difference!
When we’re in London we go to the jazz clubs like Ronnie Scotts and 606.
|Favourite Holiday Destination|
|I’d have to say Italy, southern Italy. Anywhere past Rome.|
|Favourite TV Show|
|Going back a bit but Cheers was a I don’t watch soaps or reality shows. I love a good drama. It sounds a bit high-brow but I also like the arts programmes, like Andrew Graham-Dixon. We like to visit the galleries as well when we can.|
|One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest, the most poignant but funny film I’ve seen.|
|A maroon 1966 Mini Minor. I loved it, I used to polish it every week until you could see your face in it. It fell to bits after 18 months mind!|
|I’ve got a little Mercedes Coupe. I have to lie on the kerb to get out of it! It’s 12 years old, it’s done 125k miles but it goes as well as anything and has taken me all over the country and I love it to bits as well! It will take me into the sunset I hope!|