Steve took over as manager in late 1990 with the Hornets struggling at the foot of Division 2 (now the Championship). He managed to turn things round and avoided relegation with a game to spare. Steve left the club in 1993 to rejoin Tottenham Hotspur as Assistant Manager.
Steve is now Director of Football at Exeter City and spoke to Watford Legends in 2011.
Hi Steve. Thanks for talking to Watford Legends. You were player-manager at Brentford. How did your move to becoming Watford boss come about?
I resigned at Brentford because things had gone well at my initially, but I was then working for a manager who was particularly negative. I sold a player at tribunal for £90,000 who we had signed on a free from Arsenal two years earlier. Travelling back from Manchester, where the tribunal was, the chairman asked me who I was going to get in to replace the sold player. When I told him I knew from that moment that he did not want that player. The player was Gary Elkins who always played well against Andy Sinton. Andy Sinton was our left winger and was the best left winger in the league. Whenever Gary Elkins played against him Andy didn’t perform. That was enough to tell me that this player was a good player.
Anyway it was obvious that the chairman didn’t want him and was taking advice from other people, and not from the manager who was working for him. So I decided I was wasting my time and resigned from the job. I spent about four months out and my solicitor also worked for Jack Petchey. I think I was mentioned in passing to Jack. I went for an interview, as did other people I suppose, and managed to get it which was great.
Do you know who else was up for the job?
I don’t know.
What did you feel you had inherited on day one?
A club that was bottom of the table. I had watched them a couple of times and didn’t feel that they should be as low as they actually were. But when things are bad a lack of confidence can take over. I thought the least I could do would be to keep them out of trouble. I felt I could come In with a clear head. I think Colin Lee was my predecessor and he had made some signings that when the team was bottom of the league he must have wondered if they were the right signings. If you make a bad signing it is like a weight around your neck.
Jack Petchey was one of the wisest men I ever met, and I don’t mean in football terms but in a business sense. He decided to make the change and bring me in and I was told I would have been in a stronger position if I was already in a job, which I understand and that I had no money to spend but if I generated any money I could spend it. Jack Petchey minuted everything and everything was detailed. So I knew exactly where I stood. And as a manager you want that clarity.
I proposed to Jack to spend some money we may get out of trouble. I knew that was my job, and by proposing, say to buy a defender for £200,000 what might that save you by not going down? So although there was that clarity from Jack I knew there was still the option to have the discussion to maybe go another way.
What did you make of the team you’d inherited?
Decent players. I’d known about a lot of them, such as the Holdsworth players and David James. I only had one day to make a decision on Tony Meola, so didn’t know a lot about him. There were some decent players there who were obviously underperforming. With the squad that was there I felt that they definitely shouldn’t be bottom of the table.
I was not particularly taken with the players who had just been brought in. You have to make decisions quickly as from the point of taking over on 1st December, time is running out. You can’t just roll along and assess things in three months as by that point time is running out.
So how did you assess the players?
I thought that the new signings were not doing great – Gavin, Byrne, Kennedy, and although he had been a fantastic player, Alan Devonshire. I thought that they were not up to the standard of the Championship.
We had a kick in the teeth with David Holdsworth getting injured but luckily there was Ashby and Soloman who could come in.
And then there was some talent on board with the likes of Paul Wilkinson and Willie Falconer.
One of the rare bits I did was bringing in Peter Nicholas, who was the captain type and Joe McLaughlin, although Joe had had some personal issues and wasn’t quite the player I knew him to be.
What was the mood like?
They were very dispirited and low – they were bottom of the league. So I made the point in the first meeting that I had been doing some scouting whilst I wasn’t managing, and I had done a couple of radio commentaries, and that Brighton, who were mid table, were no way better than this team. We had to agree it had been a bad half a season, but we had to let it go and sort it out in the second part of the season.
Who would you single out as the most impressive talent at the club?
It was easy to see David James had the best chance to go the furthest. Looking at him as a 17 year old, and looking at his physique, you could see he had a great chance. It was a good experience for him that season.
I really liked Falconer and Gary Porter, thought they were good players.
Over your time at Watford, was there a game that stood out for you?
I have a couple of answers to that. For a depressing answer, I would say we had a three nil defeat at home and someone threw a dustbin on the pitch, and they had lit the contents. That was a negative as we had just had that nice patch when a new manager comes in and results had been ok. That was a negative.
I think the year after we won an away game at Middlesbrough. Lennie Lawrence said afterwards that we were the most improved team in the league. It was even better to win given that they had taken Willie Falconer and Paul Wilkinson from us. I think they had beaten us three nil at home earlier in the year, so from a football point of view that was a high.
In terms of the importance of the game the Oxford game was the most important, but I don’t think the game itself was particularly great.
So when the time came that you left the club, how did your departure come about?
It was end of season and I went on holiday. Glenn Hoddle was offered the Tottenham job by Alan Sugar and said no, so it was offered to Ossie Ardiles, who had been successful with West Brom. Ossie and I had a long standing agreement that whoever got the Tottenham job, the other one of us would go as assistant. He called it in. I refused as I was a manager. I was in America for two weeks and I think he called me five times a day. In the end I agreed and in hindsight I should have been stronger about saying no.
I thought for me with my Spurs history it would be like going home. But it was not like going home at all as the whole club had changed. I played for Spurs for 19 years but if I had played for Alan Sugar I wouldn’t have stayed for 19 months. I’m not a Spurs fan or even from North London, but for me Spurs was a spiritual home.
What was Alan Sugar like as a boss?
He’s a very good businessman but I think the jury is still out as to whether he is a good football businessman. I think if he had consulted more people about the traditions and ways of Tottenham he could have got more out of the club. He obviously had some issues with Venables and some of those issues meant that he didn’t trust anyone really.
I think it was the biggest mistake of my career to go there. Was it the biggest mistake to leave Watford, yes and no. Was it the biggest mistake to join Tottenham, yes and no. Was it the biggest mistake to go and work for Alan Sugar, one hundred percent yes.
Would you say you enjoyed being the Watford boss?
Overall I would say yes. There were issues of course, like the training ground was always a problem, but those issues are always there. The chairman was great in his ways, and within the rules he laid down was great. I thought that avoiding relegation was as good as a promotion.
I felt a little misunderstood by the Watford supporters who were probably surprised by how many players we lost after coming up, but you must understand that when the chips are down the agents like to have a word in their client’s ears about engineering moves.
I thought that the Watford Observer were excellent with their coverage, but sometimes felt like they wanted to know everything. A football club ultimately belongs to its supporters, and so transparency is needed, but it is also a business and not everything was disclosed. And I wasn’t going to suck up to the local paper. I think this edged a bit of opinion against me.
I’m not sure how I sat with the Watford people. I remember I said one day that I would love to hear them cheer as loudly for Furlong as they did for Blissett. Of course the reason they cheer for Luther is that he’s great, but we needed to look more at today, and who was scoring the goals for us today. I felt a little bit at my time at Watford that there was still a big hankering for the past. Graham Taylor was a great manager, but he did cause a huge shadow over the initial managers who followed him.
Thanks for talking to us Steve.
No problem gents, all the best.
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