A History of a Player in Ten Objects - Nigel Gibbs
Reckon you’ve got a lot of Watford memorabilia? You’ve got nothing on Nigel Gibbs. Olly Wicken has the privilege of exploring Nigel’s stash.
In the living room of his Watford home, about an hour into our conversation, Nigel Gibbs shows me a photo he recently found online and saved to his iPad. “Take a look at this…”
The shot was taken after the successful penalty shoot-out at St Andrews in the Championship Play-Off semi-final second leg against Birmingham in May 1999. It’s a joyful image. The entire Watford team, many of them shirtless, is euphorically saluting the travelling fans after the famous victory. On the far right of the group is Nigel himself, also shirtless.
As I look at the photo, I’m not surprised it’s something Nigel wanted to save. Already during my visit, I’ve discovered that Nigel Gibbs is a man who has kept all kinds of mementoes of his decades as Watford fan, player and coach, and this particular shot is a fantastic memory of what was arguably the headiest moment of his Watford career at that point. But now he taps the screen twice and expands the image. He says to me: “Do you see that?” He points to the top of his red shorts. I can see there’s something tucked behind the waistband: a folded sheet of paper. He says with a smile: “That’s the list of penalty takers from the shoot-out.”
I can’t help grinning back at him. We’re only a short way into our time together this afternoon, but I already know that what he’s showing me is a wonderfully and typically ‘Gibbsy’ thing to have done. That night in May 1999, as a local lad who’d supported Watford from the terraces, he’d played his part in one of the most dramatic and ecstatic nights in his club’s history. So he’d wanted a tangible keepsake for posterity, something that would stay with him beyond the emotion of the moment.
It’s at this exact point in the afternoon that I understand why he has such a vast amount of memorabilia from his time at the club. Playing for Watford meant so much to Nigel Gibbs that he wanted to keep a record of as much of it as he could.
I’d arrived at Nigel’s house having never before set foot inside a footballer’s home. I hadn’t known whether there’d be evidence of a successful playing career on display in the reception rooms, or whether it might be contained in a study, or discreetly tucked away on the walls of the loo. In Nigel’s case, it proved to be all three places – and beyond.
His living room is a fantastic space that’s beautifully kept. It’s large and bright, with a full-size snooker table in the middle. As Nigel and his delightful wife Heidi (a Watford girl) welcome me in, I notice that the furniture and ornaments are modern and stylish. But my eye is drawn immediately to the frames on the wall.
Some of these display England shirts and caps commemorating Nigel’s appearances for the England Youth and Under-21 sides. Another frame preserves an AC Milan shirt signed for him by his full-back idol, Paolo Maldini. But the majority contain Watford-related items. There are evocative photos of the night at St Andrews in 1999. There’s his signed Premier League shirt – number 16 – from the following season. And there’s a signed shirt from his second testimonial match in 2002.
As we move into the room, I notice a glass case on the far side of the room. I can see it contains medals and awards from Nigel’s time at Watford: it’s a trophy cabinet. But when he points out some of the other items in there – unusual and unique items we’ll come to later – I start to realise that what he prizes about his Watford career isn’t just the silverware. Nigel Gibbs and Watford go a lot deeper than that.
There’s further proof of this elsewhere in Nigel’s home. In an adjoining room, there’s a copy of the recent Watford v Manchester City cup final programme on a side-table. In his study, there are framed photos of himself in action against Gianfranco Zola and Thierry Henry. He also has a superb panoramic photo of a packed Old Trafford in the middle of which he’s playing at right full-back in a white Watford away shirt. I’m already starting to think there’s a heck of a lot of Watford stuff in the house.
And then he takes me to his shed. At the far end of his garden, Nigel’s shed contains the kinds of thing that a lot of readers of The Watford Treasury undoubtedly also own. Facing the door, neatly arranged, are two rows of Watford-badged programme binders. They contain every match Nigel played for Watford, and plenty more, stretching back to the 1970s. Next to the programmes are his Watford books. All the essential ones are there: Oliver Phillips’ ‘Centenary History’ and ‘Golden Boys’ hardbacks; Trefor Jones’
‘Watford Season By Season’ and ‘Illustrated Who’s Who‘; Lionel Birnie’s ‘Four Seasons’ and ‘Enjoy The Game’; Matt Rowson’s ‘Watford FC On This Day’; and several volumes of ‘Tales From The Vicarage’. As a visiting gift, I’ve brought Nigel three paperbacks of my ‘Hornet Heaven’ stories. I was hoping he might add them to his definitive Watford bookshelf. I’m not sure there’s going to be room.
On the floor of the shed I see the first signs of memorabilia overflow. There are large plastic crates containing yet more programmes. And there’s a cardboard box that I reckon must strike a chord with a lot of Watford fans of a certain age. It’s brimming with VHS tapes of Watford highlights from the 1980s. Nigel says he isn’t sure what to do with them, but doesn’t want to chuck them out. It’s every fan’s dilemma.
Back in the house, we sit down and chat. He’s been through his vast array of Watford stuff and selected a few things to show me.
And they turn out to be marvellous. What he’s chosen aren’t the usual items - medals and awards - that a former player might proudly show off. He’s still owns those, of course. But the stuff he’s gathered together provides a much deeper insight into his relationship with the club over the course of his life. It reveals exactly how much Watford means to him. It’s a history of Nigel Gibbs in ten objects.
A SUPPORTERS CLUB CARD
“I started following Watford when my dad, Dennis, became a part-time scout and coach for the club,” Nigel says. “My first season as a fan was Graham Taylor’s first season as manager (1977/78), when we were champions. I was there for the celebrations on the pitch, and going up to the pond, and what have you.
“As I got older, I was watching home and away with my mates as much as I could. I was one of the few who went Southampton home and away (in the League Cup in 1980, 7-5 on aggregate). I was in the Supporters Club. Look…”
He shows me the membership card he’s kept. He was member number 654.
“I’ve got tickets from some of the matches,” he says, and shows me one from March 1978.
Then he shows me the satin scarf he wore as a fan, faded yellow, with the era’s disgruntled cartoon hornet printed in black, and ‘THE ROOKERY’ printed in red in a 1970s font.
As he shows me these items, I remember how, as a fan of a similar age, I also once had a Supporters Club card and a ‘silkie’. But I didn’t keep mine. I’m struck with admiration. I think of myself as a fairly full-on fan, but Nigel has outdone me. Even though he went on to make more starts for Watford than anyone else in the club’s history, playing in the top flight and Europe, Nigel Gibbs has kept reminders of the days he spent as a fan watching the Horns from lower division terraces.
This is what, as a fan, I’ve always wanted every Watford player to be like.
A PAY SLIP
“To sign as an apprentice, that’s unbelievable for me.” All these years later, there’s amazement and excitement in Nigel’s voice. This is a man who made 491 appearances for Watford, but it’s as if he’s still trying to come to terms with the fact that he actually got to play for the club he supported.
He hands me a letter of welcome from Graham Taylor, dated 10 May 1982. The great man has written: ‘I hope… that it is the start of a successful career for you’.
I smile as I read this. As a Watford fan, I’m fully aware that GT’s hopes had a habit of coming true. They certainly came true in the case of young Nigel Gibbs of 29, Spooners Drive.
Next, Nigel shows me the first apprentice contract he was offered. Then he hands me a thin sheet of paper and says: “Here’s my first pay slip.” It’s from August 1982. It’s his proof that he was actually employed by the club he’d been following from the terraces and stands. He wasn’t just a fan anymore. “I got £40 in my first pay packet. That went up when I turned pro: I was playing in the First Division on £80 a week.”
Former footballers often complain how little they were paid in comparison to today’s wages. But there’s no note of complaint in the voice of Nigel Gibbs. Even today, he’s grateful that he had any kind of career with Watford: “If you’d given me one game as a professional, I would have taken it.”
It’s easy to picture a 16-year-old Nigel keeping his first pay slip as evidence to himself that he’d become an actual employee of Watford Football Club. As a young hopeful joining a top flight club, he couldn’t have been certain how many more pay slips there would be in future. But, over the next 20 years, he piled up more than 1,000 more pieces of the same form of evidence. Evidence that he belonged.
Nigel shows me his first professional contract. He signed it in November 1983 as he turned 18. It may be standard-issue in format, but, to Nigel, it’s special. We move on to talking about his first-team debut, which came just three days after he turned pro. It was in the UEFA Cup at home to Sparta Prague: a local kid was suddenly playing in the third round of a European competition.
“My debut was obviously a big thing for me at the time. And it was Europe. I’d heard of Sparta Prague. If I could have chosen a debut, I’d have chosen that game. I got this from my school, would you believe…” He shows me a telegram from the school telling him how proud they were of him. He’s kept it, it seems to me, because his debut in 1983 remains a big thing for him in 2019.
Two weeks later, he played in the return leg in Prague. “It was another great experience for me.” He shows me a set of colourful pennants. “I don’t really remember how I got them,” he says. “Sparta Prague gave them to us, I think.” He pauses for a moment and says: “I don’t know how many people would have this sort of stuff.” Later, when I listen back to my recording of our chat, I can hear a note of self-doubt in his voice when he says this, as if he shouldn’t have kept these things. (Throughout the afternoon, Nigel describes himself self-deprecatingly as ‘a hoarder’.) But, at the time, I don’t notice any such tone because my heart is too happy that Nigel Gibbs has never thrown any of this stuff away. It means too much to him.
Now he goes over to the trophy cabinet. He says: “This is where I keep my main trophies. But there’s a little cup and saucer in here that they gave me.” He brings it out. I stare at it. I’ve never seen a Sparta Prague teacup before. I couldn’t even have imagined that a Sparta Prague teacup might actually be a thing. But Nigel has got one. “I keep everything,” he says.
When he describes how the players travelled back to England with the fans and the press on the same plane, I’m amazed he managed to keep the crockery in one piece. Eventually, I watch him put the thing back on its shelf. And I think to myself that there’s something rather wonderful about a trophy cabinet with this kind of cup in it.
A PARTY INVITATION
Watford had a reputation as ‘the family club’ in the 1980s. For Nigel, this was literally true because his father worked there too. But there was another way in which the club felt like family during that era: how the staff was treated. Nigel tells me this came from the man at the very top - Elton John. “He was different class for me and Heidi. On our wedding day, he lent us his car and his driver. Then he dedicated a song to us at his concert at the Vic on our wedding anniversary. He was really good to us.”
Elton’s generosity to all the staff at the club included hosting garden parties at his house in Windsor. Nigel has kept the personalised invitations. “The parties were just incredible. One year, we had races in his garden on a load of Sinclair C5s that he’d got in.” (Note for our younger readers: C5s were electrically-assisted three-wheeler pedal cycles. They never caught on, mainly because they were rubbish.)
“There was Luther Blissett and John Barnes and everybody driving these things round. It was crazy.” Nigel grins as he tells the story all these years later. It’s no surprise he’s kept a souvenir from an amazing event like an Elton John party. Anyone would.
Luckily, his invitation cards have lasted a lot longer than the Sinclair C5 ever did.
A 1984 CUP FINAL TIE
The club’s first FA Cup final in 1984 was an amazing experience for any Watford fan. And because he’d started making appearances in the first team, Watford fan Nigel Gibbs got to experience it as a player.
“It was amazing to be involved in the build-up,” he tells me. He has action photos of himself from the League games he played in the run-up to the big day. And he has a press photo of himself, David Bardsley and Pat Rice tugging at a number two shirt, a staged visualisation of the speculation over who would be selected at right-back for the final.
“I never actually expected I’d get to play. I was proud just to be part of it. I was wearing a Watford club suit and tie on the team coach to Wembley. It was an unbelievable privilege.”
He shows me the official tie. It’s proper. It reminds me how, for the 2019 final, the Watford team wore suits without ties. And it makes me wonder whether, in 35 years’ time, instead of ties, the players will have hung onto the white trainers they wore. I doubt it somehow.
He says: “I watched all those 1984 videos (the BBC Grandstand footage) that someone put on YouTube before this year’s final. I saw myself in the background quite a bit.” I don’t ask him if he found a way to download and keep the videos, but by this stage I feel I know the man well enough to guess that he would definitely have wanted to.
A PHOTO ALBUM
“Nowadays, whenever I see an old Watford photo online I put it into an album on my iPad. But I’ve also got pictures I took at the time.” Nigel fetches a photo album from another room. I know what to expect: I’ve got similar-looking albums myself — full of not very good snaps from sunny foreign trips with mates. And Nigel’s albums prove to be no different. Except that, in his photos, his mates are the likes of Luther Blissett, Steve Sherwood and Gary Porter, on a trip to China with Elton John in May 1997. “Going to China was incredible,” he says. He adds a little guiltily: “I brought back a ridiculous amount of stuff.”
We flip through the lads-on-tour photos. Here’s the Great Wall Of China with Gibbsy standing alongside Kenny Jackett and Tony Coton, holding The Great Wall Of China Cup that the team has just won. Here’s Luggsy (Lee Sinnott) and Simmo (Steve Sims) on a boisterous coach journey. Here’s Elton, looking bored at the airport. They’re definitely not the greatest photographs ever taken, but this only makes them more personal. They look like a bunch of holiday snaps, but they’re a record of an extraordinary time in Nigel’s life - the time he went on a tour with Elton John. For Nigel, playing for Watford never felt like a job.
A DEFLATED FOOTBALL
“In 1992 Steve Perryman made me club captain and I was voted Player Of The Season by the fans. I was very proud to have achieved that with the club I supported as a boy.”
On top of this, Nigel was awarded a testimonial season for ten years of service.
“It was a great honour,’ he says, his gratitude shining through again. “I’d take that all day long.”
But the 1992/93 season didn’t go so well. “The club was in a bit of a poor state,” he recalls. “Then I injured a knee in September and again in October. I was out for more than two years in the end. It was difficult.”
On a shelf in his shed, he has a football that commemorates his testimonial season. It’s a symbolic coincidence that the ball is as deflated as Nigel felt at that period of his career, when he was unable to carry on serving his club.
AN EMPTY CHAMPAGNE BOTTLE
Nigel doesn’t drink champagne: he’s teetotal. Nonetheless, he does have some empty bottles at his house. They’re in his trophy cabinet. He gets one out and says: “In my first year as a coach (2002/3), we won the Premier Reserve League. We were the first non-Premier League team to win it. There was champagne afterwards. Winning as a coach was a big thing for me, so I took a couple of bottles home to remember it by.” This success was the first proof of a coaching talent that would later land him jobs with first teams at Reading, Millwall, Leeds, and Swansea.
He shows me another bottle. It’s from the day he won a league title with Watford. In the sunshine at Craven Cottage on 2 May 1998, he made his 38th League appearance of the season as Watford clinched the Division Two championship. The champions’ medal he received is also in the trophy cabinet, gold and glinting. But it’s so very Nigel Gibbs that, as he left the dressing room at Fulham, he stopped to pick up something else that would bring back vivid memories of another great day for his club. “The bottle was in the dressing room. I thought ‘that would be good to keep’.” Heidi has just popped into the room and hears this. She rolls her eyes and says with a smile and a laugh: “Yeah, we don’t have enough stuff, do we!”
AN ANFIELD TEAM SHEET
After a couple of hours in his company, I’m definitely getting the hang of how Nigel Gibbs does memorabilia. He owns the handwritten Liverpool team sheet from the only time Watford have ever beaten them at Anfield. Of course he does.
In August 1999, after Tommy Mooney’s goal won the game 1-0 for the Horns, Nigel did what he’d done with the champagne bottle from Craven Cottage, and the list of penalty-takers from St Andrews. He got himself a special souvenir of a famous occasion. But, in a way, this was an even more remarkable act, and even truer of the man that Nigel Gibbs is, because he wasn’t even playing. “I was in the squad,” he tells me, “but I wasn’t selected.”
Other players might have sulked at their exclusion; other players might not have cared about the momentous significance of the victory. But Nigel Gibbs, a Watford man forever, went and grabbed himself a primary historical document.
A SECOND TESTIMONIAL SHIRT
It’s clear that Nigel collects memorabilia in unusual quantity. But he also collected testimonials in unusual quantity. He had two. His second one was in 2002, to mark twenty years at Watford Football Club. After we’ve sat and looked at so much of his amazing collection of stuff, I ask him the ‘Desert Island’ question: if you could only keep one Watford-related item, which would it be? He thinks for a while. “I suppose I should say Heidi, my wife,” he replies.
Maybe he’s joking a little, and he knows it wasn’t the answer I was wanting, but it seems to reflect the man he is. What matters to him most are his family, his friends, his community, his club. Nigel and Heidi have been together since they were teenagers, just as Nigel and Watford Football Club have been. He’s given a lovely and, I think, truthful answer.
After re-focusing on memorabilia, Nigel gives me his decision. His desert island item would be a shirt from his 2002 testimonial match, the one he’s got in the frame on his living room wall, embroidered with the match details and signed by significant people in his life.
“I was very fortunate to play for the team I supported as a boy, and that shirt would allow me to remember the previous 20 years,” he explains, modestly summing up the simplicity of it all. Nigel loved playing for Watford, and Nigel doesn’t want to forget a thing.
When I leave Nigel’s house, the living room looks like a bomb’s hit it. There’s stuff everywhere. Over the course of our chat, he’s fetched in crates of photographs, boxes of badges, a few old Watford handbooks, handfuls of old Watford ties, a 1980s Watford suit, bags of old Watford kit and loads more sundry items. (He has a menu from a 1980s players’ dinner that’s printed with in-jokes that are unrepeatable today.) I offer to help tidy up, but he says he needs to go through it all himself.
My last question is whether there’s an item he wishes he’d got but doesn’t have. He knows the answer straightaway. He was very proud to have been voted Player Of The Season by the fans in 1992, but winners don’t get to keep the trophy or any kind of replica. All he received was a set of Clements vouchers, he says. Having got to know him a little, I’m now expecting him to run off and find the vouchers - carefully preserved - somewhere in the house. But Heidi says the vouchers were spent at the department store: she says Nigel bought a tracksuit. I grin. Having seen Nigel’s photo of the appalling 1990s tracksuit he was wearing at the trophy presentation, I’m not surprised he didn’t want to keep the club one.
We say our goodbyes. Spending time with Nigel has been wonderful: it’s been a joy to learn how much his Watford career means to him. I haven’t learned this only by listening to what he said. Seeing his collection of memorabilia has proved it. The volume of stuff, the breadth of stuff, the types of items, the uniqueness of certain things, it tells you everything you need to know about the man who supported Watford as a boy, played for them at the highest level, and in the end spent twenty years at the club he loves, valuing every single day.
I walk away down his driveway having thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon with such a modest, easy-going, and thoroughly likeable man. But as I drive away, I realise that what I actually liked about him most was that, at heart, he’s like any Watford fan. If we had Nigel’s footballing ability and the chance to play for the club - even once - wouldn’t we want to capture and cherish every second of it? Nigel Gibbs is all of us.