Chatting to Luther
Colin Payne talks to Luther Blissett in YBR!
Certain people only need a first name, their surname just a luxury add-on for official business, a requirement only on passports, driving licences, or their Tesco Clubcards. Luther is a fine example. Now 62, it feels there’s never been a time when he hasn’t been part of Watford FC, even though he last kicked a competitive ball 28 years ago. His DNA runs through the fabric of this club, part of the holy trinity alongside Graham Taylor and Sir Elton John.
No player has played more for Watford, scored more for the club, or, highly likely, been loved more within WD18. He was the first Hornet to play for England, score for his country, and earn the club £1,000,000 in transfer revenue. Luther has done it all. We are chatting via a Zoom link, with our hero rather bizarrely superimposed in front of a scene from the town’s Parade, the words WATFORD spelt out in lights behind him. It’s the first time I’ve actually met him properly, but somehow I feel like we’ve talked a million times before, that I know him so well. He appears warm and friendly, as I suspected he would, but also that love of a football club shines through so clearly.
I’m keen to look back at his early days at Vicarage Road, the kid from Willesden breaking through, so I ask: where did it all begin?
“Around 1974, when I was about 14 years old. I joined because they were doing open training sessions at RAF Stanmore. The biggest shock was the fact that you actually trained, it wasn’t just football. I’m thinking ‘what are we doing, we came here to play football’, and they had us doing other exercises, running and all sorts of stuff I’d never done before. Normally you’d turn up, boots on, and you’d go off and play. That was the introduction to what we were potentially going into.”
Luther obviously made an impression. Watford had recently fallen through the trapdoor into the then Fourth Division. They were a club struggling, and he was signed up by Mike Keen in 1976.
“I was never an apprentice, at 17 I signed as a professional, me and Kevin McCarthy were the youngest two there. So, we did all the jobs that all the apprentices would normally do. I think current young players would probably learn a bit from doing those jobs, like sweeping up the dressing room, or getting all the kit together at the end of the day, just to remind them that you haven’t made it yet. Just because you’re now signed at a football club doesn’t mean you’ve earned your stripes yet."
“I remember my first pay packet; it was £30 per week. Incredible! Back in 1976 that was a decent bit of money. £30 a week, you could go out and buy a three-piece suite for 75 quid!” Luther laughs, reiterating that he was talking about a quality one at that. “I remember walking home on that first day, pre-season, after getting off the train from Watford back to Willesden, and going past car lots and thinking ‘Oooh I can buy that, and I can buy that as well, and I can buy that as well!’ I’d never been in that position before, for you to have more than a couple of pounds on you at a time was a rarity. Suddenly going back with £30 in your pocket, plus the fee which they gave you for signing your first contract, it was so exciting.”
Of course, Vicarage Road was a different place in the mid-seventies, these were the days when investment in the ground constituted a fresh barrel of stout in the Supporters’ Club bar, and Elton had only just wrested the club from the frugal grip of Jim Bonser. I wonder what Luther recalls of the ‘stadium’ at that time? “It was such a different place, the dressing rooms were quite bleak, a glorified version of what you’d find in a park or a school. The changing rooms were basic, somewhere to just hang your clothes up and have a shower, or that big old bath was there as well. That really was what it was like. The dog track was around the pitch, the fans were just of that era as well, there was nothing glorious or super-comfy about us. It was just a football ground, with the most important thing being that the football pitch was there; and Watford did have a very good pitch back then – at least until it got muddy in September. You’d get up to about six weeks out of it and then it would go to hell. As a young kid coming through and being at a football club it was exciting because on a Saturday, when I was playing in the youth team, you’d finish in the afternoon, and would get back to Vicarage Road, and you’d get clubs like Preston North End turn up, and there I am chatting to Bobby Charlton in the tunnel and he’s asking, ‘how you been?’ It was special.”
As the always-consummate professional, Luther has very much led by example, both on and off the field. It was no secret that prior to Graham Taylor’s arrival the club had a bit of a drink culture, with the dressing room dominated by certain senior players. How did someone who has always conducted himself so well, yet at the time would have been powerless to change things, find that environment? “You had working class guys that were doing a job that nobody saw a great deal beyond, especially the division we were playing in. It was not a great deal removed from what their friends and members of their family were doing. So they enjoyed a drink, and it was part of what they did. A lot of them smoked too, to the extent that football was almost the other thing they did. To become a true professional all of that needed to go. It needed to be about the football, you needed to look after yourself, the way you prepared, all of those elements Graham Taylor brought with him. That was an important moment for me and other young players too, obviously the likes of Ross Jenkins were already there, and we all know what happened there as time went on.”
It couldn’t have been easy for a young black man, or actually boy, to have been breaking into football at that time. Britain was a vastly different place to what it is now, with some very different views. “My time, when I was coming through, was very difficult because normal life was filled with racism. It was on prime time national TV; it was the normal language. People said things, and they had no thought as to how that may make you feel. You got used to pretty much having to fight for everything. Where I grew up in Willesden you had certain elements of people around you, and you’d become quite mindful of the company you were in. You would try and conduct yourself as best you could to give yourself the best chance that people wouldn’t prejudge you. You kept your head down, and did your work, it was really a case of people that you came across – whether they were players, coaching staff, management in some instances or just generally supporters – you just treated them with the respect that you would expect back yourself. I think if you can do that you have less chance of coming across people that try and hold you back, and that was my attitude from my mother and my parents. They’d always taught me that is how you should behave. I try to do that even now, if someone treats me the way I like to be treated, and vice versa, it’s not an issue. Although you do come across people who are not that way inclined, and it is then how you deal with that. The important thing was, back then, you didn’t always have the support of the people around you, because they didn’t want to get involved in it. You just had to get on with it. The main problems were when we travelled and played away from home. Once Graham arrived it was a great place, you felt like you had an opportunity because he wanted the best for the club, the best for each other, so he wanted the best players he could get his hands on. And if you were that, you’d be okay.”
“I’ve read one or two things where they say they have it worse now than we ever did. I think you need to revisit history. What I had was nothing compared to the likes of Martin Luther King, and people before them, history tells you we all have tough times for whatever reason that might be. Now, I feel, the ones that use racist remarks, most of them do it deliberately but the ones that do it in ignorance you deal with them, try to put them straight, educate them and have the conversation. We need to be very much in that way of thinking because it’s so easy to brand anyone who uses a racist remark as being a racist, but that is not the case. Some people are just ignorant, and it’s the way they grew up, the areas they came from and who they grew up with. That becomes the values they generally have. It’s not necessarily their fault, just what they have been brought up with. Our job is to say, ‘Look I find that offensive, and I don’t really think you should be talking to me or anyone of colour like that.’ Most people will have that conversation with you.”
Looking back, I wonder what the highs and lows of his career were. Luther pauses a moment, then smiles. “My highlight has got be representing England while still a Watford player, there had not been a player at Watford who had done that. That for me was the enormous highlight of my career and my life. That was special, and to score a hat-trick whilst doing that was special again, because it had never been done, never achieved before. Going to Manchester United in 1978 we end up scoring two goals there. It was a great time, and that period of my career started properly at Watford. A fairy-tale thing, scoring two goals against Newcastle, then starting against Manchester United, beating them at Old Trafford, that’s just incredible. As for the lows, getting injured. A lot of people would think it is the racism, but when you’re injured you can’t do the thing you love. Football has been more important, because that made me able to cope with the other side of it, the racism and all. I knew then if I performed well, I could shut a lot of those people up – don’t argue with them, play your football the best you can. When they realise your focus is on that they soon stop.”
Over the lockdown period Luther has been involved in numerous projects, including quizzes, reaching out to fans, raising both awareness and funds for good causes, and finding time to form the Watford Former Players’ Club. The latter venture (along with all the others) is something he is passionate about, reaching out to former colleagues, both those he played alongside and those who followed over the years. Why is it so important to him? “I felt it was something we needed to do now. In 2009, Graham asked Neil Price to start a Player Association because they did one at Wolves and Aston Villa, and he felt it was a good thing for the players to have somewhere they could still come together and have that contact and team bonding which they had when they were playing together. Neil and myself had spoken about it and we decided to really get this thing kicked off. With Covid we did some work with the Mayor’s office. It’s been amazing, it’s about bringing people together. Graham Taylor’s legacy, for me, is about togetherness. He did that at Watford, he brought the town and people together, for the love of their football club. The players and the fans are the same. The supporters play their part because they pay good money every week to travel up and down the country, on wet horrible nasty days, turn up and sing their hearts out to encourage us on the pitch. So, we need to do whatever we can to bring that community spirit back, because I felt over the past number of years it’s not really been there, and this Covid has come at a time that has shown that we really need it. People need to reach out for each other, have a conversation with someone and say, ‘Look, I’m thinking about you’. The former players’ club is very much part of that, where they come aboard, predominantly with the players Graham started with. We started with that because it was about Graham, we’ve now got lots of different players enrolled in it. It’s very important to keep that connection, looking back, with local community projects, and men’s health is now a big part of it. If people can talk to somebody it helps no end.”
Having talked to Luther for around 20 minutes it’s clear that his love of Watford, the town as well as the football club, is something that has not dimmed. But his love of people is what sets him aside, it’s the players, both old and current, and the supporters that mean most to him. He is a true ambassador for all that is good about this club, and long may he continue!