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Playing for the People - Steve Harrison

Throughout the eighties, Steve Harrison played a major part in the progress made at Vicarage Road. However, more than that he came to represent the spirit of something truly unique. Colin Payne merely switches on a tape machine and listens… 


“I’m laughing because I’ve heard the end of it before!” Steve Harrison is starting another story, this time about Pat Molloy and some ‘magic spray’ he’d been sold. A born raconteur, Steve delivers the tale with immaculate timing, imitating Pat’s voice with what I’m happy to believe is uncanny accuracy, having never heard the doyen of the physio room actually speak. As with pretty much everything and everyone the ex-player/coach/manager had spoken about during my time in his company, it’s full of affection, warmth, and good humour. The fondness he retains for both the club and the area is plain to see, but it’s that love of the men he played alongside that really stands out.  

Describing himself as “an average player, a good coach, and not a good manager”, Watford fans were to witness him in all three roles. Without being harsh on Steve, it’s probably fair to say that his assessment of his football life is a balanced one, although the use of the word ’good’ to describe his coaching skills is surely an understatement on his part, as there is no doubt that in that role he was extremely highly regarded by both those who employed him, and by those he coached.  

He retired from the game at the age of 61, having worked almost continuously, in a variety of roles, since signing for Blackpool, his home-town club, as an apprentice in 1967, finally ending his career at a cash-strapped Coventry City in 2011. Yet he still has a passion for the sport. “All the clubs I’ve played and coached at have a special place, but two in particular: Blackpool, where I signed at 15 and stayed ten years, and Watford. Watford and Graham gave me a living. I was daft as a brush when I was playing. But coming to Watford opened my eyes up. And I must give a special mention to Tom Walley, who was brilliant; he was coach when I was his assistant. I have great affection for Tom, what I didn’t learn off of him isn’t worth knowing.” 

Steve was signed by Graham Taylor in 1978, on the recommendation of his former team-mate at Blackpool, and long-time friend, Dennis Booth. “Graham rang me; I had other clubs lined up, but he said, ‘Would you consider coming to Watford?’ When I spoke to Graham he really impressed me: he could see the path forward. I came in from Vancouver. The first training session blew me away, I thought, ‘By heck, this is some pace!’ It took me a while to pick it up, but once I had, and figured out what the Gaffer wanted me to do, I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m having some of that’. Graham transmitted the feeling we were bullet-proof; we wouldn’t get beat. As soon as you walked in the dressing room you had the feeling ‘We are going to beat these, if we do our job; we can’t lose.’ That was him. I loved Watford.” 

“I remember we played in that League Cup tie at Old Trafford, just three weeks after I got there. We were one-nil down at half time. We all came into the dressing room to find the Gaffer pointing at us, ‘You, you, and you! Come in. Sit down!’ We all sat down. He says to us, ‘OK boys, we’ve done alright; little Watford against the mighty Manchester United, we’re only one-nil down, let’s pat ourselves on the back, it’s a good effort. That’s great. I’ll tell you what, let’s get our clothes on now and all go home, we’ve had a nice day.’ 

Brian Pollard stood up. ‘SIT DOWN YOU!’ he screamed. ‘Do you think that’s it, you’ve done enough? Get out there! Harry, I bought you to tackle - I ain’t seen you tackle yet! Boothy, start dictating the game!’  

“So we went out there and went two-one up, but they were pummelling us. I remember that shot from outside the box. Andy (Rankin) saved it, went down and Gordon McQueen headed it, and Andy made that fantastic save. Tipped it past for a corner. I remember walking past Andy and saying, ‘I’ll tell you what, that was a magnificent save.’ To which he replied, ‘I was still going for the first one!’ That was Andy, he was so dry, unbelievable.”  

Steve laughs, which he does a lot, and it’s impossible not to laugh with him. You can see why he was such an influence in the dressing room at Watford and beyond, all the way to the England team. The tale of ‘the Gaffer’ in the dressing room has clearly sparked memories: “I remember one home game, I think it was Brentford, we didn’t play at all well.   

At half-time the Gaffer didn’t come in. So in the dressing room I was doing my impression of him addressing the players. I got hold of some soft soap, the stuff you put in your boots, and I threw it against the blackboard, saying, ‘That’s me out there, that’s me out there, but I’ll tell you what, that’s not me out there…’, with Boothy saying ‘Well make your mind up, Gaffer!’ And as I replied,” - cue pitch-perfect Graham Taylor impression – “‘Shut up you, shut up’,  the Gaffer came in. It all went dead quiet, and he just says, ‘You all alright? Boothy and Harry sorted everything out?’ He knew everything. He knew we would do something to give us energy, lift things. He would have been very disappointed if we hadn’t done anything, just left the players with their heads in their hands. He could still give us a rollicking mind, when he needed to, but he knew what we’d done. 

“Another time, I was then coaching, we had Maurice Johnston, ‘The Glasgow Playboy’. He was a lovely fella, he was a cheeky lad, a lovely kid. We were waiting for him to turn up for training at Stanmore, we were saying ‘Where’s Maurice?’ when we heard this screech, so we ran out to see what was happening. He had this white Triumph Stag, with white leather interior, and he was wearing a white suit, white shirt, white tie, white socks and white shoes. He looked like he had come from playing in a band. He’s running into a tree! He says to me ‘Harry help me!’   

“He was plastered; he’d just rolled out of Stringfellows, straight to training. Tom Walley says, ‘Pull yourself together boy, get yourself out there and don’t let the Gaffer down!’ We got him stripped off, under a cold shower, and poured some coffee down him. He was alright, trained OK, and afterwards me and Tom were having a cup of tea, and Tom says, ‘I think we got away with it, Harry boy.’ The Gaffer walks in and asks, ‘Is everything alright boys?’ ‘Oh yes’, we replied. ‘So you sorted Maurice out did you?’ I later asked Tom, ‘How did he know?’ But he did what he always did, he trusted us to do what had to be done. He was an incredible man.”  

We’ve only been talking a few minutes, but it’s clear that it’s neither the achievements, nor results that Steve treasures; it’s the people. Not necessarily what they can do on a football field or in the boot-room, but their characters, their personalities. He laughs again, only this time at the thought of what he is going to say. “Pat Molloy had a face like an elephant’s ballbag after someone had been chopping wood on it! But he was a great bloke. He had a salesman come and see him. He was selling that cold spray they use on injuries, but it was new then. He demonstrated the spray on Pat, getting him to roll up his trouser leg. Pat says, ‘Aye that’s OK, but I’ll stick with the bladder ball and water, thanks.’ So the salesman offers him a deal: try it at the game on Saturday, and if it works he’d give him 25% discount. So Pat agrees.   

“That Saturday, he has the spray in his bag. Roger (Joslyn) goes down at the side of the pitch. Well Pat can’t see a thing, blind as a bat, so the Gaffer says, ‘Hey Pat, injury, Roger Joslyn’. So on Pat goes, with us shouting, ‘Left a bit, Pat, right a bit…’, guiding him there. Eventually he stumbles into Roger, and tells him, ‘I’ve got this new spray, we’ll just try it shall we.’ And with that he goes, ‘Psssst’, and sprays Roger straight in his eyes! Roger jumps straight up, with Pat declaring, ‘Bloody hell this stuff is great, I’m ‘avin this!’ 

Roger’s shouting ‘Get him off, get him off!’ - his eyes were watering for the rest of the game!  

“I remember I was sub at Colchester for one game. It was a tough one, and Steve Sims went up for a header with a big forward. He broke his nose and his cheekbone was a bit indented. It was about 15 minutes before half-time, we knew he couldn’t play on. 

The Gaffer says to Pat, ‘Get him to the local infirmary.’ 

“So they get a taxi to the infirmary, and when they get there Simsy’s moaning like mad. So Pat shouts ‘Doctor, doctor, can we have some attention please!’ The doctor is busy and replies ‘I’ll be two minutes.’ Two minutes pass, then five…Well Pat’s really annoyed, and shouts back, ‘We’ve got a broken nose and a fractured cheekbone here!’ So the doctor replies, ‘OK, which one of you’s first!’”  

Again the laughter, but already another tale’s brewing. “Cally (Nigel Callaghan) was a terrific player, top class: left foot, right foot, perfect delivery. The Gaffer had a soft spot for him. Cally knocked on his door once and asked if he could take his daughter out! But he was a gentleman, a bit naive, but he had real courage, he always wanted the ball. Taking the ball when you know you’re going to get kicked, wanting it when you’re having a bad game, flying into a tackle. Yes, he had courage. 

“There was a time when we were training, and had a break, and Cally wasn’t there. We found him sitting on the steps by the car park. He said, ‘I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it…’ He pointed to his car. We looked over, it was a big black Datsun, and inside was the biggest Alsatian I’d ever seen; he’d only just got it. It was like a donkey, had giant ears. There was foam, upholstery and leather everywhere in the car! ‘I can’t get in’. Cally says, ‘It won’t let me in!’ Every time he went to the car the dog would go mad, slavering at the windows. He was saying, ‘Look what it’s done, look what it’s done!’  

“We had to call the Fire Brigade. They arrived, and said ‘How are we going to get it out?’ It was like Benny Hill! We all stayed and watched, and said, ‘Let’s give it quarter of an hour’. In the end they got one of those big butterfly nets, said to Cally ‘You open the door, we’ll catch it.’ It was rabid; they wrestled it into the back of the wagon.  The car was a write off! Cally’s saying to the firemen, ‘Don’t say nothing to anyone; please keep this quiet!’ In the end he couldn’t re-home it, lost £150 on that dog, and it went to live with the RSPCA.  

“These things would never happen in today’s game, everything’s covered by social media. You clean your teeth the world knows about it, there’s that much attention. It’s not a game now, it’s a conglomerate, a massive business. I’m not decrying it, some of the money they earn now they deserve, just as long as they perform. Every Saturday after the game, we’d go for a couple of pints, nowadays you couldn’t do that. There isn’t the camaraderie now, it’s not that we weren’t professional, you couldn’t be anything but professional under Graham Taylor, he was 20 years ahead of his time. I wouldn’t swap that joy, the fun, the tension, the camaraderie for what they have today. I’d swap the money though!   

“It was a magnificent time. It was a lads night out on a Tuesday night: all the lads went out, and that was all of them. Nowadays everything is analysed to the nth degree: the diet, the science, everything. But you can’t put on a chart the mood, the feel.  Bertie Mee said to me, ‘You do not play for clubs, you play for people.’ He was dead right. We still meet up, those players from the 80s.”  

However, there is a period of his time at Watford that Steve doesn’t recall with such fondness. For just over two years he was manager at Vicarage Road, between January 1988 and March 1990, taking over after Dave Bassett’s short spell in charge. Following relegation from the top flight, times were changing at Vicarage Road - Elton John was preparing to sell - yet optimism of a quick return to the top tier was rife. For much of the season Watford competed well, never dropping out of the race for automatic promotion, until the final couple of games, and a fourth-place finish saw them face Blackburn Rovers in the play-offs.  

“I was approached by Watford for the manager’s job. I was enjoying myself at Villa, but like everything, when a chance comes along, you feel you have to take it. I’d been in the job for just three months, and I should have said, ‘No, this isn’t for me’. But I had committed a lot of people to the club, had put people in positions, I couldn’t just leave. 

I was totally unhappy from the word go, but Elton was magnificent, he was brilliant every step of the way.   

“I just didn’t cut it. It wasn’t for me, I didn’t enjoy being on a different level to the players. I hated the attention, funnily enough. When people look at you walking through the town, or Cassiobury Park when you’ve had a bad game, all eyes are on you. I didn’t feel comfortable with that, even when we won. I fell out with myself in many respects. I lost the confidence of the players, particularly the younger ones - I wasn’t right with them. I’m sorry I was like I was when I was a manager. I tried to manage as Graham did in many respects. I should have been myself: lighter, bouncier, but I tried to suppress it. I tried to be strong, determined. That was the big mistake. I wanted to come out. If that was failure, so be it.  

“To be fair, we had played well in the play-offs; we were the only team to ever go out on the away-goal rule; it rankles a bit still. I didn’t respect myself in the end, and that shows. That play-off season the players were playing for me, the next they weren’t. I had fallen out with them. They were all good pros though, the older ones were fine, as were the younger ones, well, they all were. It was me; I just didn’t handle the situation. It was like two years in jail really. Management was not for me, getting back to coaching was like putting on a comfy pair of slippers again!”  

It’s only as we draw to a close that we realise that initially we had arranged to talk for a piece on the Bailey’s ‘Players Night’, and we hadn’t covered it yet! It was at these events that fans got to see Steve Harrison in full flow: the entertainer, the comedian, the compere. These events  typified the spirit Steve so fondly remembers, as Watford staff, players’ families and fans gathered to be entertained by ‘…Video Highlights of Watford Matches and fun filled entertainment provided mainly by Watford Players and Watford Observer Staff’. 

They were fantastic affairs, occurring annually at Bailey’s nightclub throughout the early eighties. This wasn’t black-tie corporate hospitality, this was chicken-in-a-basket, Babycham and Watney’s Best Bitter. It was manic, bawdy, and huge fun, and one of the best examples of a club breaking down the barriers between those who play and those who pay to watch them.  

“What other club has ever done a thing like Baileys?” Steve asks, clearly keen to get in one last anecdote.  “2,500 paying to get into a big nightclub, and watching a group of players, coaches and managers making a fool of themselves, and each other. We used to have one rehearsal, we were busy training after all. So one rehearsal the Sunday morning of the event, then off to the pub for a couple of pints, and then back ready for it to open at seven! There was no one who wouldn’t take part, a couple of shy ones who’d perhaps stay in the chorus, but if anyone had said no, they would have been stripped off and thrown on the pitch! We were as one, everyone wanted to play their part.” 

Again that laugh, then Steve asks me if I went to the one where he had dressed and performed as the then Chairman? Unfortunately, I’d only attended once, and it wasn’t then, so he fills me in on what I had missed. “I rang Elton up and said ‘I’m going to take you off at Baileys’. He said, ‘Come up and get yourself some costumes!’ Well that was an open invitation! So I went around there, I knocked on his door, he wasn’t in, but his house-keeper was. The first thing I saw was those massive ‘Tommy’ boots next to a pinball machine. So I said to the housekeeper, ‘Go on let me have a go, let me put the boots on!’  

“So I’m in the boots, playing on his pinball machine in his kitchen! His wardrobe was like a ‘Fantasy Island’ C&A! There was row upon row, about 16 rows of clothes. I was just trying them all on - the house-keeper was howling! So I found two costumes, the one I wore, and one with these giant feathers on. Plus a sparkly pair of big boots. But I never told the lads I had these costumes, kept it quiet. On the rehearsal, on the morning of the show, I had my two records, ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’. There’s a piano on the stage. Unknown to them I got a small trampet and hid it behind some flowers. 

“Well on the night, before I went on stage, Wardy (John Ward) introduced me as the Chairman! The place was in uproar, they all thought Elton was playing! He was in the place, he was there. They were all chanting ‘Elton, Elton’. I said, ‘Bloody hell, Wardy, what are you playing at!’ Well I started, climbing all over the piano, everyone’s clapping along, when suddenly I jump off the piano, straight onto the trampet, and back on to the piano! I did it a couple of times. Elton came on the stage behind me, I couldn’t see him at first, he says ‘You Bastard!’ then plays along with me. So my claim to fame is I’ve done a set with Elton John!” 

Steve Harrison - a true Watford legend, thank you.