Magic Moments - Luther Blissett
Luther Blissett talks to Geoff Wicken about some of his favourite football memories
“Look at that!”, laughs Luther. “I’m not even listed in the team!” He’s flicking through the programme from the Swansea match in April 1976 – his first start in the first team. We’re sitting in the sunshine on an early autumn morning more than 43 years later. Luther has agreed to talk to the Watford Treasury about some of his favourite Watford moments, and I’ve brought along a pile of pictures and programmes to help with his reminiscences. I had suggested beforehand that he picks 10, and had tried to anticipate what they might be. But as he talks, more occur to him and 10 moments become 11, 12…
He’s so friendly, and seems so familiar, that I almost forget I’m in the company of the most outstanding individual player in Watford’s history. Luther had a wonderful career, through three spells as a player then another as a coach. He was an integral part of the rise through the divisions. He made 503 appearances, a club record. He scored 186 goals, also a club record. In Watford’s first season in Division 1 he scored 27, which made him the top goalscorer in the entire Football League. There were 14 England caps too. He established himself as a club legend.
For someone who achieved so much, one might not expect him to give the amount of credit that he does to other people: his team-mates, Graham Taylor, the supporters. But this humility is a constant theme during our time together.
You can also tell that he still loves football. There’s an enthusiasm – a boyishness, even – in the way he describes his love of scoring goals, or how he laughs while relating some of his stories. And in summary the moments themselves serve to tell the story of his Watford career.
We start in 1976. It’s not the beginning exactly – he tells a very good story about getting the afternoon off school in order to travel to Brighton to make his debut for the reserves, and how the pre-match nutrition consisted of large plates of steak and chips about two hours before kick-off – but that game against Swansea was a significant one.
1. First start, first goal
17 April 1976: Watford 2 Swansea 1
There was a good reason why the programme didn’t list Luther in the line-up. As he explains: “It was Easter Saturday, and we had two games in two days. I knew I would be playing on the evening before, after the other game – they said ‘You will start tomorrow’. I’d made a couple of substitute appearances by then. I don’t remember feeling nervous, or worried or overexcited about it. I was just looking forward to playing.”
‘And you scored’, I remind him. ”I did – something that I went on to do every time I made a debut, which was nice. It was up at the Vicarage Road end. I received the ball just about level with the ‘D’, and with my back to the goal. I turned and bent the ball into the top corner. That was the winning goal if memory serves me right. I don't think my performance overall was memorable, but the goal was obviously the most important thing.”
It was the last home match in a season of underachievement for Watford: typical of the kind of game in which an 18 year-old would be given a run-out. We know now that what followed was far from typical, but it didn’t happen straight away. Luther didn’t play in either of the two remaining games that season. Then in 1976/77, despite scoring regularly in the reserves, he was given just one start. The impetus from that first goal was lost. As he puts it, “the opportunity to play was never really there.”
2. Right place, right time
24 September 1977: Watford 2 Darlington 1
Then Graham Taylor arrived. Luther soon got more opportunities, starting with a run of games in September 1977. He scored in the first, at home to Grimsby, and got another at Reading. Then, in the game against Darlington remembered for the 37 minutes played by loan signing Bobby Svarc, he was on hand to score a scrappy last-minute winner. It was a goal which typified the natural striker’s knack of arriving in front of goal at the right moment. He looks at the pictures in the following week’s programme: “It might have been Bobby Downes who crossed it, and I got in front of the centre-half as the ball came across and just threw myself at it, and got a good touch on it. You can see the ball on its way into the net there, as the cross had eliminated the goalkeeper, so as long as I got a touch it was always going in. And there I was on the floor doing the ‘dead fly’!”
This prompts some reflections on goalscoring. “The important thing always was to try and make sure that you were in a position to score goals. I love scoring goals. There’s that great feeling of the ball crossing the line – because as a kid you never had nets, so it was always a case of the ball crossing the line – so when there were nets it was even better. That sight of the ball bulging the net and then just bouncing until it settles in the net…it’s still a wonderful sight to see.”
He remained in the first-team squad for the rest of the 1977/78 season, albeit often coming on as substitute, as Watford won Division 4 comfortably. The following season things really took off.
29 August 1978: Watford 2 Newcastle 1
1978/79 was one of the great seasons. Watford won promotion again and reached the League Cup semi-final. Ross Jenkins was the country’s top goalscorer with 37, while Luther grabbed 28. Yet he wasn’t even on the bench at the start. One particular substitute appearance marked the turning-point: “That season was when I made my real breakthrough, and it happened really with the Newcastle game. We’d been huffing and puffing, but not really threatening Newcastle enough throughout the first half, and Graham decided he was going to put me on. His words were ‘go on now and show us what you can do’, and I think it was only after my first few touches when I scored.”
Luther got both goals. “It was one of those nights when everything that I tried, it all worked out. I always felt that when you were sent on as sub you were put on to have an impact, to put the ball in the back of the net, so the team performance is raised. We got the job done. We were well worth the victory in the second half.”
From that point on, Graham Taylor picked him to start almost every game. He’s keen to talk about Graham, and uses an incident in the very next match as a reference point.
4. Booked for dissent
2 September 1978: Gillingham 2 Watford 3
“I got booked in the Gillingham game for dissent. It was on the stand side where the dug-outs were, and after the game Graham Taylor took me to one side (he chuckles at the memory) and said to me: ‘now I'm going to fine you for that, because you do not get booked for dissent at this club. I won’t have it.’ I never got booked for dissent again after that. He didn’t want to lose people through suspension when that booking was stupid. ‘If you get booked for a foul I'll accept it, but not when you talk yourself into the book.’”
I suggest that getting booked for dissent wouldn't necessarily qualify as a magic moment, but Luther disagrees: “Well it was!...maybe not magic, but it was an important moment for me, being booked for it, and being fined, and being verbally hauled over the coals by the manager, saying ‘that is not acceptable, that is not the way you behave.’ It never happened again, and even in your mad moments you never spoke back to the referee in that way.”
“Graham’s thing was always – and he’d try to drum this into everybody – that as a Watford player the example that you set was important. You’re representing each and every Watford supporter because they would love to be in your shoes. So that was always your motivation and what you went out every time thinking, that I’m playing for them as well as myself. That was the connection that you started to have with the supporters, and why I think the club developed in the manner it did. The players had that affinity with the supporters. That’s why it was such a special place. And for evening games it was quite an incredible place, as it was for that Newcastle game.”
He also pays tribute to another figure at the club. “I must also mention Bertie Mee here, because when I got in the team at Gillingham, he took me to one side at the training ground, and said to me: ‘with the ability you have, you have to stay in the team now. You’re more than good enough, but you're the only one who can do it.’ That was very important for someone other than Graham Taylor, and especially Bertie Mee, double-winning manager of Arsenal, to say that to me, to reassure me. But then I’ve still got to do it.”
5. National prominence
4 October 1978: Manchester United 1 Watford 2
A month later, Luther certainly did it. Watford went to Old Trafford in the League Cup and came from a goal down to beat Manchester United. Third division sides didn’t do this. The highlights were shown on BBC1 that evening. Luther headed both goals and became nationally known on the spot. But he’s keen to credit Graham Taylor and the team effort.
“Before the game Graham’s words to us were: ‘when you were kids, you never knew really who you were playing against, you never knew what their reputations were. You turned up, and you would just play. That is how football should be played. You just give your all.’ And that was our attitude.
“Martin Buchan, who was playing for United that night, told me recently how they just couldn’t believe how that Watford team put them under so much pressure. We just did that all the time. But they had their moments in the game as well, and our players had to do their bit, and at 2-1 Andy Rankin made the most amazing save from Gordon McQueen’s header. Andy from that near side of the goal has absolutely flown across and knocked it out from the top corner. That was an incredible moment.
“But yes, I was the fortunate one to be on the end of the crosses, from Bobby Downes and Dennis Booth. The second one was a move that we’d work on in training. The ball goes into the corner, Ross Jenkins runs into the corner, retrieves the ball, lays it back to Dennis Booth, just one touch and without even looking he knows where the ball’s going. I also know where the ball’s going, because it’s something we've done over and over again in training. But the centre-halves don’t know where it’s going, so in that instant as Dennis is pulling his foot back, I'm now timing my run. That's how I've got between them and made such a great header on the ball. I’ve got the momentum, and they’re almost having to make a standing jump. I held my run, and then came in and got in front of them, and headed it in. That goal was almost a textbook move from training.”
6. Delivering under pressure
5 May 1979: Sheffield Wednesday 2 Watford 3
Ultimately 1978/79 brought a second consecutive promotion, but it wasn’t straightforward. Watford faltered after January and the pressure built up. Luther acknowledges how other players delivered when it mattered: “That season wasn’t all just win, win, win. We had a period when we found it very difficult to get results, and the person who dragged us through that was Roger Joslyn. Roger scored vital goals at that time, and his contribution through that period when we strikers weren’t doing the stuff that we'd been doing most of the season was crucial. Had he not come through, we probably wouldn’t have got promotion.
“Then there was Ian Bolton with that last-minute penalty up at Sheffield Wednesday in front of (he chuckles again) that huge bank of Sheffield Wednesday supporters. I remember the penalty being given, we all line up on the edge of the box, and you look up, and you think ‘Jesus! All those people!’, and every one of them is baying for blood and they hate you!”
Luther expands on the aggressive atmosphere that day. “On the journey into Sheffield we went by this pub, and you could see it was full of Sheffield Wednesday supporters. They saw the police motorbike outriders, and they recognised it was the Watford coach. They all turned, and one of them threw this beer mug – it still had some beer in it – and it smacked into the side of the bus, and you thought: ‘ooh, that’s not very friendly, is it!’ It was brilliant!”
It was the enormity of the day that resonates most with Luther, although he did score Watford’s first. “That was a very early goal. A few minutes before that, I’d had one which flashed across me and caught my studs in the ground as I went to strike it, and it really hurt my ankle and my left foot. You could see the bits of turf fly into the air. So when this one came across, it was a case of ‘this has got to go in the back of the net.’”
7. Football with your mates
14 May 1979: Watford 4 Hull 0
Just over a week later, Hull were overcome at Vicarage Road and promotion was confirmed. Again Luther reflects on the team aspect: “All the players stepped up at certain times. They all contributed to us being where we were. We strikers got the headlines because we scored the goals, but the other players had to play their part just as much.”
We look at a picture taken after the game, of Ross, Luther and Ian Bolton in the dressing room bath. Ross is clutching a pint of lager. “There we are celebrating, with promotion done. I would have had a bottle of lemonade. We always had that, but it was what you drank. It was horrible lemonade!”
He pauses. “That’s a great picture. It’s interesting in relation to the inclusivity thing now…but that picture was what Watford Football Club was all about. You think about the background to where all three of us were from…we got together, all of us, and it was only about us playing football together and being friends. That was what it was all about. These guys I played football with, they became a massive part of your life.” He gets his phone out, and takes a photograph of it.
8. ‘I want to score!’
2 September 1980: Watford 7 Southampton 1
Perhaps the most extraordinary of all the Vicarage Road nights of the era was the 7-1 League Cup win against Southampton. Luther puts it in one word: “Ridiculous!” He elaborates: “Everybody stepped up that night. We got beaten 4-0 at their place. It was awful. We just couldn't get it together. We went back all forlorn and Graham Taylor said to us: ‘the worst we want to do is win the second leg and finish on equal terms’. The most important aspect of that result was that they scored to make it 3-1. They thought they had got the job done.”
In truth though, his feelings are mixed. He didn’t get on the scoresheet. “Seven goals, and I’m a striker! I didn’t score!” I mention that those who watched the game still talk about it. Alluding to his role in midfield that night, he responds: “I enjoyed watching it! It felt like watching it!” He looks at the pictures: “I remember Malcolm Poskett taking one off my toe, it did my head in. I’m thinking ‘how come I haven’t scored yet?’ Nigel Callaghan came off the bench, he scored, and I think I crossed it for him as well.”
‘You were playing in midfield…’, “Yeah, but still…I want to score! Yes, I was doing a job in midfield that night, but that’s my motivation, I’m a goalscorer. Wherever I am on the pitch, I want to score goals. The fact that I didn’t when you’ve got seven goals going in…you just think to yourself ‘what is going on?’”
It seems a good idea to move on.
25 September 1982: Watford 8 Sunderland 0
We jump two years to another goal-fest, in which Luther played a headlining role. A month into the 1982/83 season, with the club newly promoted, Sunderland were the visitors for Watford’s seventh match in Division 1. They were dispatched 8-0, and Luther scored four. “They should have been three up after 20 minutes, they had so many opportunities, but the moment Nigel Callaghan scored the first one it erased everything. Graham Taylor made us stay on our feet at half time, as he didn’t want us to ease off in the second half.”
Funnily enough, Luther hadn’t scored a hat-trick in the first team until that day. He had scored twice in the same game no fewer than 18 times, and it had become a talking point. “The hat-trick was more important to everybody else than it was to me. I wanted to get there just to stop people talking about it. The best thing was that everyone else could no longer say I hadn’t got a hat-trick! Graham Taylor did say to me: ‘you wait all this time, and you still can’t get it right – you get four rather than three!’”
10. England debut
15 December 1982: England 9 Luxembourg 0
Not long afterwards, Luther was picked for England. He had played for a few minutes as a substitute against West Germany, but this was his first start. “I was so excited. There's nothing better than putting the shirt on and representing your country. You’ve spent all that time watching England play on TV, and suddenly you’re thinking ‘that is going to be me, I’m going to be doing that.’ It’s just a
wonderful prospect to look forward to. Again there is no fear as such, I was just looking forward to playing with these other players – against whom you’re playing week in, week out – and benefitting from all the things they can do.”
The scoreboard at the end of the game displayed England 9 Luxembourg 0, with three goals for Luther. His observation today is almost a throwaway one: “You get the third one and think ‘goodness me, I’ve just scored a hat-trick at Wembley!’”
11. Keep going!
14 March 1987: Arsenal 1 Watford 3
One looks back now at the 1987 FA Cup quarter-final as the last great moment of the first Graham Taylor era. Luther scored two in Watford’s 3-1 win that day. He always liked playing at Highbury: “They had heated floors in the dressing-room. You’d take your shoes off and…ooh, lovely! They had a commissionaire on the door too. It was such a special ground to go to.”
“For the first one, Dave Bardsley went by Sansom and I side-footed it in at the near post. Then there was a great header by John Barnes for the second.”
We laugh about how the delay in confirming the final goal gave both fans and players a foretaste of the VAR experience. “That third goal – even now Arsenal supporters still say it should have been a penalty at the other end! I was always the one who was left upfield. I was on the dug-out side. They had their hands up appealing for the penalty, the ball’s come out and I’ve set off. As I looked around, Graham Taylor was literally on the pitch shouting ‘Don’t stop! Keep going!’ The first shot came off the goalkeeper’s leg, and I ran onto it and put it in the second time. That was in front of the Watford supporters. That was quite a moment.”
It’s the last one we talk about that involves Luther in playing kit.
12. Doing it again
31 May 1999, Watford 2 Bolton 0
The next few years saw the club on a downward trajectory. It was only reversed when Graham Taylor returned in 1996. Along with Kenny Jackett, Luther jumped at the chance to come back on the coaching staff. The enthusiasm with which he talks about this shows how much this meant to him. “To have played and given so much of your life to a club, and been a big part of them getting to the first division…to get the opportunity now to go back and be part of the coaching team to get the next stage of the club’s history going was very special. And to do that with Graham Taylor, with him saying to me would I come back and be his first team coach…you’d drop everything to go and do that.
“To get promotion in 1999 the way we did that day at Wembley was memorable for so many reasons. I’d been part of the team that went from Four to Three to Two to finish second in the First Division, and now we brought the club into the Premier League for the very first time. It was amazing. What Graham Taylor achieved in the way he structured the team, and the way he motivated those players to do what they did, especially in the part of the season when it looked like nothing was going to happen, was quite incredible. That came about through adversity – Allan Smart got sent off against Tranmere and you think ‘that’s it, might as well forget any thoughts of getting into the play-offs now.’ We were a goal down, yet the team got itself together to go on and win it. After that the momentum built up. The attitude each game was, ‘We can do this,’ and they’d put in the performance and they scored the goals. It felt inevitable that we were going to get to the play-offs, and once we’d got to Wembley there was total belief in the squad that, ‘We’re going to win this.’”
It’s a nice place to finish our conversation. The idea was to look back at key moments in Luther’s Watford career and we’ve done that, but in the process he has summarised his time with the club very neatly. He has been at pains to emphasise the role of others – players, coaches and especially Graham Taylor – and how all the successes were a group effort. Personally he set club records, but he hasn’t spoken about them. His pride lies in the collective achievement.
I paraphrase what Luther has just said: ‘You got into the top division as both player and coach with what was your club.’ “Yes, with my club. That is the most amazing thing. To have been a part of that, and play such a role in all of it, is very, very special. It’s something that very few people ever experience.”