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Nigel Gibbs

Player, Watford, 1983-2002

I was in awe of Graham Taylor when I first met him.

I was 11 years of age and with my father, Dennis Gibbs – who back then, in 1977, was asked to join Watford as a youth coach and scout.

From the age of 12, I then began training at the club in the evenings as a schoolboy, and occasionally saw the boss during school holidays. I was also watching Watford from the terraces.

I was later very fortunate to be offered an apprenticeship by him. He made you feel welcome, he was warm. Even when he had come from Lincoln to Watford and they were in the Fourth Division, he had an aura about him. He then achieved promotion in his first year, 1977/78 – he built a really good team spirit, and made the team very organised so that everyone knew their jobs.

There was always a lot of physical work under the boss. A lot of running, and a lot of football work – getting everyone as fit as possible. His thing was being professional. Whether it was a warm-up, a gym session, a running session or a football session, you had to do it to your maximum. That was how he described being a professional – attention to detail.

He also knew the right way to speak to you at that particular time – whether that was to give you a rocket or to encourage you and offer an arm around the shoulder and a wink or a smile. That was his way. He had a good sense of humour, but you knew he was the boss – he ran the football club.

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By the time I was in the team, as a full-back (below), I knew my job within the framework of the team. My main responsibility was to stop the opposition’s winger getting crosses and shots in, and getting tight. Every player who played under him would say the same – that they knew what their responsibilities were.

The boss also had an unbelievable ability – bearing in mind there were 22 players on the pitch – to bring up something at the end of the game that had happened in that game. If I’d let a winger get a cross in, he would know: “You’ve got to get tighter. You’ve got to get a block in.”

It wouldn’t matter if it was the youngest or oldest player. That was the other big thing about him – everyone was treated the same. It didn’t matter if it was John Barnes or Luther Blissett – those were the standards he set.

That extended to timekeeping, what the players knew about the opposition, and about how he wanted to play; that we were living right, that we were getting the right rest. This was the early 1980s – he was ahead of his time.

“His knowledge of how the club was running was second to none – he knew everything”

Every eight games we would have a meeting, and he would bring out the stats from those games and go through them all. We’d know exactly how we won and why we lost, what we had to get better at, and what we’d done really well. Other people helped him, but you didn’t have analysis guys then – he had watched a tape after games. At the time I didn’t know any other team doing that.

Tom Walley ran the youth department, and he worked very closely with the boss. On matchdays, he would be on the bench. There was a very close relationship between the first team, the reserves and the youth team, and that was one of our strengths – everyone worked together.

When I was playing for the youth team in my last year at school, the boss would know the results. We wouldn’t see him on a daily basis because we were at school, but because he had asked Tom he would be aware of who had played well.

He took an interest in every department. His knowledge of how the club was running was second to none – he knew everything, and that was the club’s strength. We were one club.

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I made my debut aged 18 years and three days in the UEFA Cup. I’d only played a few games for the reserves and I was still in the youth team. I’d signed a contract, but that same week the boss signed another right-back in David Bardsley. I wasn’t sure where I was going to fit in, whether I was good enough, or whether he rated me. Charlie Palmer and Pat Rice were also already there.

My contract was signed on the Saturday – he negotiated the contracts, so it was just me and him – and the game against Sparta Prague was on the Tuesday. “I want you to be at the club,” he said. “You’ve got a chance to be a professional. You’re going to have to find a way to defend those crosses on the back post, and work harder getting forward.

“We really like you as a defender, but these are the things you’re going to have to work on. But we believe in you.”

“He said that I did well – and that was good enough for me”

We had a lot of injuries, so a lot of the youth team and the reserves got their opportunity in that run in the UEFA Cup. I was called into training on the Monday and the Tuesday morning – in those days, we used to train on the morning of the game – and that morning the boss called me in afterwards.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m good, boss. Thank you.”

“What you doing later on?”

“I’m going to come to the game.”

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“What about playing? Do you think you’ll be alright playing?”

“Yeah, I’ll be right, boss.”

“Okay. You’re going to start.”

That was it. If he’d told me a few days before I might have been nervous, but on the morning of the game I was ready to go. What an opportunity. I reported back to the ground later; I was in the team, and made my debut.

“He wanted you to be part of the community, to do your shopping locally, and to have humility at the town’s club”

We lost, but he said I did well, and that was good enough for me. Then I was back in the youth team on the Saturday – there was no getting above my station.

I played the second leg away to Sparta Prague, but spent the rest of that season in the reserves. It wasn’t until the second half of the following season, 1984/85, that I broke into the team.

The other big thing the boss wanted was for us to be a part of the community. We all had to live within 20 miles of Vicarage Road. We did a lot of local functions. We went into schools and to school fetes, to local cup finals, to pubs if they were raising money for charities, and to presentation evenings.

Every year we’d go to the hospitals and give presents out to the children, and to the Junior Hornets’ Christmas parties. We’d have the end-of-season sponsors’ do. I went to a bar mitzvah of a Watford fan who wanted someone from Watford there. It was all part of his vision for the club. No one was excluded, and no one questioned it.

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Watford was one of the first clubs to have a family terrace – the boss himself ran the London Marathon to raise money for it – because it’s a family club and people took a lot of pride in that. He led that.

He wanted you to be part of the community. To do your shopping locally, and have humility. Being local also meant being on time for training, and not having to travel too far meant resting – it was the attention to detail he wanted at the town’s club.

Mention Cassiobury Park to the players and they’ll think of the hill runs. He had a saying: “To be physically fit, you’ve got to be mentally fit.” Knowing you could come through those hill runs and cross-country runs was important.

We used to play cricket, pre-season, against local teams. Every year we’d play three local teams, building up the fanbase and the community spirit. The lads walked down to the local shop to buy a roll at lunchtime. All of that was a massive part of our success.

“The 1984 FA Cup final against Everton was the highlight”

We played exciting football, too. You were excited going to games, and that momentum grew. I didn’t play one game under the boss that we didn’t try to win. There was just a buzz around the place – everyone was together.

Coming second to Liverpool in that first season in the old First Division, 1982/83, was some achievement. For a club of the size of Watford to do that was incredible. The emergence of John Barnes and Luther Blissett, who played for England, and Kenny Jackett (above, with Taylor), who played for Wales; the signing of Gerry Armstrong from Tottenham.

The club was developing. Gates went up, the stadium improved, and that success off the pitch was a big thing for the boss as well.

John Barnes was the best player I played with at Watford, and Luther was incredible. John has since spoken about the grounding and football in the early years at Watford, and the values instilled in him by the boss and other coaches there. A lot of the players who moved on would say their early years were a massive part in the way they developed.

In that period we rarely finished outside the top half of the old First Division, which was a real achievement. In 1985, we won 5-1 away at Tottenham and then beat Manchester United 5-1 at home two days later. In 1986, we played Arsenal on a Monday and then the Tuesday night, and we beat them twice. We beat Chelsea 5-1 away on the last day of the season.

We were giving the big teams a real challenge, because we were hard to play against. Myself, Gary Porter, Worrell Sterling, Steve Terry, Kenny Jackett and Nigel Callaghan had come through the youth system – that’s a lot of players.

Many will tell you reaching the 1984 FA Cup final against Everton was the highlight. I was in the squad for the build-up, at the hotel, and the coach going to the game up the old-fashioned Wembley Way.

I was in the changing room before the game, and then went up into the stand because I wasn’t playing. But it was an incredible experience for me, the team, the club and the supporters.

“Everyone was gutted when he said he was leaving for Aston Villa”

It was huge around Watford. The whole town bought into it.

There were flags, scarves and bunting everywhere around Watford, and tickets were sold out. Sir Elton John was the chairman and owner. I’ve a mate who’s a Watford supporter, who met his wife in the queue for the final.

The boss oversaw it all. His man-management was brilliant. We were disciplined, and he did his homework on those who came into the group to make sure he selected the right captain, built teams, and knew when a player was coming to the end of his career.

Sometimes we would come in to training, then go for an hour’s walk and then to the pub – or go for a drink and then an hour’s walk. Another time we walked around Cassiobury Park and then to his house, and his wife Rita made everyone a cup of tea. We worked hard, but when we could enjoy ourselves we would. He just knew what to do, and when.

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It didn’t matter what you were at the club – he wanted you to give your best, and if you gave your best then he was happy. He had time for everyone. On his passing, you heard about people who got letters or phone calls from him after they’d written to him.

Everyone was gutted when he said he was leaving for Aston Villa in 1987. Graham Taylor was all I’d known, and he knew my strengths and made me a regular. He had his reasons for leaving, but I found it devastating.

It came out of the blue. John Barnes also left for Liverpool that summer, so that was our best player, and the best manager, both gone.

I wrote a letter to the boss – he was still the boss, so I still felt a little bit nervous around him and found it easier to write – to thank him for helping me in my career and to wish him luck. He wrote one back with words of encouragement.

“To achieve back-to-back promotions as we did was incredible”

“I know where you are – I’ll still be watching.”

He then tried to sign me, but Villa were in the Second Division then and I was with Watford in the First Division, so I didn’t go.

For Watford, him leaving was on a par with Sir Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United. To follow him and the success he had was always going to be a hard act. Dave Bassett came in but didn’t last very long. Steve Harrison, who was assistant to the boss for many years, came back, but we got relegated.

We just missed out on the playoffs after relegation, struggled, and eventually got relegated again in 1996. Those years were very difficult, but I felt confident in the summer of 1997 when he came back.

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I didn’t think I’d ever return to what was by then the Premier League, but when he came back you felt it was going to be good. We won the league and got promoted, and were back in Division One.

I was confident everyone would be together and pulling in the same direction and organised. That gives you a better chance, but getting into the Premier League – with the strength of it at the time – felt a long way off. To achieve back-to-back promotions as we did was incredible.

His aura and organisation meant it happened pretty quickly. “This is what we’re going to do. This is how we’re going to do it. This is what’s required.” You can never guarantee a result, but you can guarantee a performance – that was another of his sayings.

It was a rollercoaster. We signed Ronny Rosenthal from Spurs, and he was too good for Division One. Another bit of genius was changing the system to play three at the back.

“The atmosphere that night against Birmingham was one of the most incredible I’ve played in”

Tommy Mooney was a striker, but we played him at left centre-back because we knew that we would probably dominate the ball and that he could step out with his left foot and play.

I played right wing-back, Peter Kennedy played left wing-back. There was also Micah Hyde, Richard Johnson, Allan Smart and Nicky Wright. They were hungry for success. We had a really good side.

Apart from Ronny, those who signed came from lower-division clubs – you have to have that hunger to be successful and push every day. The boss had that ability to sign those players, encourage them, and push them – all of the things he’d done before. There was also some experience, so there was a good balance.

We won the Division Two title on the last game of the 1997/98 season, at Fulham, who under Kevin Keegan had to win to get into the playoffs. That was my first winner’s medal as a player.

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We had one of the smaller budgets in Division One, and what was probably a mid-table team. Then, after Christmas, we got some momentum, and ultimately won eight games out of nine before getting past Birmingham on penalties to reach the playoff final. The atmosphere that night against Birmingham at St Andrew’s was one of the most incredible I’ve played in.

We’d had a little bit of luck, but we had worked hard and taken our chances when they came. Bolton, our opponents in the playoff final, were a really strong team who should have been in the top two – but we had already beaten them twice that season.

There were 11 days between that semi and the final, and because the season was finished we couldn’t train at our normal training ground – so we needed other places to train and to keep the players occupied. First we trained locally, near the stadium, and then we went to Merchant Taylors’ School in Rickmansworth.

I had the news that I wasn’t going to be playing – he pulled me to one side and said he was going to put Paul Robinson back in. Only three subs were allowed, and the boss always had a goalkeeper on the bench because he didn’t want to get caught out – so I also knew I wasn’t going to be a sub.

“It was Graham Taylor and Elton John – they built the club”

We were the underdogs, but we had belief. There were media obligations, but we kept it low-key and went into the game with close to our normal preparation. We took 40,000 fans to Wembley – our tickets sold out – and we had extra tickets because Bolton didn’t sell all of theirs. That gave us massive support, but without doubt the boss had the ability to not add to the pressure.

It was really disappointing not to play, but we played really well and deservedly won 2-0 – and I was the first one to go and congratulate him. He’d adapted to change in that second spell – without doubt he would still have been able to manage today. After the Wolves and England jobs, and everything that went with them, it was a real achievement.

It didn’t matter what your background was or where you were from – you were part of the club and part of the family. Everyone who played for Watford under the boss will meet up after years and get back in as if they were teammates still – that’s how it was. Everyone was together, going in the same direction.

In my early days I was sponsored, and I still speak to those sponsors. Football has grown since then, but you look back on it with fondness and enjoyment.

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My father, Tom Walley and the boss were the biggest influences on my career. I still use his values now. I’m sure Kenny Jackett does, too.

He encouraged me to take my coaching badges at a very early age, and encouraged me to get involved, so I used to go along with my father on the evenings and help him coach the kids. Then, when I got in the team, he told me to write little notes about the wingers I played against to give myself some help the next time.

I owe him a lot. He signed me as an apprentice, as a pro, gave me my debut, and played me regularly. He gave me advice along the way, and was on the end of the phone if I wanted to call him – even when I wasn’t at the club and he was chairman. He would do that to any player to help in any way he could.

When we speak about Watford, it’s Graham Taylor and Elton John – they built the club. The Pozzos have come in and developed the stadium fantastically, and again got to the Premier League, but I don’t think that would have happened without Graham Taylor.

He built the club up from nothing. One of the things he always said was: “Make sure you leave a legacy.”

He certainly has.

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