The Boys of '77 - Bobby Downes
Nick Brodrick explores the 50-year football journey of a fleet-footed winger, whose energy and drive helped the Hornets achieve successive promotions in the late Seventies, before becoming one of the country’s most respected youth coaches.
One of the most memorable mental images of the Watford teams of the early Taylor years is that of the elusive Bobby Downes jinking down the left wing, a dropped shoulder unbalancing the opposing full back, and a surging run finished off with a pinpoint cross to a Jenkins or Mercer. No mean finisher himself, Bobby went on score 22 goals during a total of 230 Watford appearances in a six-year stay, characterised by whole-hearted commitment and a never-say-die attitude.
A native of Bloxwich in Staffordshire, his playing career began at nearby West Bromwich Albion, then sitting comfortably mid-table in Division 1. 17 years old, and keen to develop and learn the game, he was taken aback by the laid-back culture at the club, and particularly the lackadaisical approach to training. “There was so much time off. You’d knock at the manager’s door to ask if there was a chance of extra sessions, to be told you’d done enough already. I basically hadn’t got a clue what I was meant to be doing, and nobody was telling me anything. We spent more time in the snooker room than on the training ground, but at least I came out on top in a competition to win Jeff Astle’s cue!”
After a year at The Hawthorns, during which he turned professional but failed to break into the first team, Bobby was granted a free transfer, moving to Division 3 Peterborough United. His first game introduced him to the harsh realities of life in the lower leagues: “We played Swindon. Early on, I went round the full-back and put a decent cross onto the head of the centre-forward, who crashed it against the bar. As I was running back, a voice said, ‘Do that again, and I’ll break your leg.’ I went up to our centre-half and told him what the full-back had said. ‘He will, too’, he replied, ‘Better get over to the other side!”’
Finishing the season in ninth place, Peterborough were subsequently demoted to Division 4, after illegal payments to players were uncovered by the authorities; “I never saw any”, the player laughs. Following 23 appearances over two seasons, another free transfer took Bobby to Rochdale, newly promoted from their habitual home in Division 4. “I knew it was an important move in terms of whether I was going to make a career in the game or not. I chose Rochdale on account of the number of clubs situated close by: it’s a good area to be noticed.”
Another insight into the physical nature of the game back then came during a cup-tie against Manchester City. “Rodney Marsh trod all over my leg, breaking it”, he recalls. “He came to visit me in hospital: ‘I didn’t mean to do it, son’, he told me, ‘that’s football.’ It was part of learning the game. I actually did my rehab at Maine Road, and City were interested in signing me at one stage, so the story goes.”
After a promising first season, life in Division 3 became a continual fight against relegation for Rochdale. They finally succumbed in 1974, finishing bottom, with only two victories all season. In spite of the team’s abject performance, Bobby’s own displays had caught the eye of a number of opposing managers, and a bid of £10,000 from Hornets’ boss Mike Keen brought the player to Vicarage Road. He soon became a fixture in the first team, but all was not well at the club. “There were some very strong characters in that dressing room, and they tended to call the shots. A few were rather fond of a drink, too. Some were inclined to go missing away from home.” With the side adding up to a lot less than the sum of its parts, a miserable season ensued, culminating in a second successive relegation for the player.
Two years of attractive underachievement by the team followed, before Graham Taylor arrived and immediately changed the whole dynamic of the club, with Bobby one of a group of players whose form was transformed under the new regime. “It was the first time I met a coach I took notice of”, he recalls. “I’d had seven or eight prior to Graham, and it was the first time one had really told me what he wanted me to do.”
He became an indispensable member of the side that went on to win the Division 4 title at a canter. His goals-per-game ratio was transformed, testament to the new manager’s exhortations to get forward at every opportunity: “He told me to get at the full-back, get into goal-scoring positions and not to go backwards. I think I scored five of the six goals that were nominated for ‘Goal of the Season’.” The one that won the award was a thunderbolt from the angle of the box against Aldershot. “I think that one won because I just kept running after I struck it, and finished up leaping over the fence onto the dog track!”, he laughs. “The goal I scored against Crewe was better, in my view – a bit Scullion-like. Graham wasn’t a big one for compliments, but he did go so far as to say I’d had a decent game that day.”
The following season, a run of 66 consecutive league appearances (one as substitute) was halted by a nasty injury suffered in the top-of-the-table clash with Shrewsbury on Boxing Day: “Jake King elbowed me, fracturing my cheekbone. I had an operation on New Year’s Day and was then brought back for the League Cup semi-final second leg against Forest at the end of January; I was nowhere near fit.” Bobby spent the next two months in and out of the side, before regaining full fitness in time for the crucial closing group of fixtures that would determine whether promotion would be secured. “We really needed to win the last three to go up.”
His winner in the nervy 1-0 home win over Chester was a notable milestone, “My only headed goal’”, he laughs, recalling the time colleagues presented him with a cabbage, in recognition of his reputation as the worst header of the ball at the club. “Then we went to Hillsborough. The coach windows were smashed outside the ground; we were kneeling on the floor. We didn’t play well that day, but we got the job done.” Bobby provided the cross for Ross Jenkins’ equalising header and was heavily involved in the move that led to Ian Bolton’s late, match-winning penalty.
The deciding fixture against Hull provided further insight into the imaginative methods used by the Hornets’ boss. “The final game came after our rivals had finished, which wouldn’t happen today, so we knew what we had to do. A trip by coach to France had been set up to play Sochaux, during the break before the final game. Graham told us he wanted us to practice for being in Europe - in Europe! - and that he wanted us to play for a goalless draw. It was pretty boring, but it took our minds off what was to come.” On the big night, Taylor, still seething over the 0-4 reverse in the away fixture against Hull, called the players together. “He said to us, ‘Eight of you played in that game, so you can put it right by winning 4-0 tonight.’ Well, he got what he wanted!”
Bobby’s Watford career came to an end following the Boxing Day, 1979 defeat to ‘them up the road’, a game that ruined many a Christmas. “Graham was looking to change things. He was particularly incensed that we had got off the coach at Stamford Bridge and no one seemed to know how to get to the changing rooms! He thought we needed to get some players in who knew their way around the higher divisions.”
Bobby had spent the majority of his Watford career living in digs with the redoubtable Molly Rush, but had recently bought a house locally with new wife Elaine, and so the subsequent move to Barnsley came as even more of a wrench. The South Yorkshire side were on a roll, however, and secured promotion to Division 2 in Bobby’s first full season, under the stewardship of Norman Hunter: “A great guy - probably still the best player at the club at 38. It was the time of the miners’ strike, and we’d get 5,000 to watch training - they’d nothing else to do! The fans were a tough lot, we’d not lost at home for around a year, but drew after being two up against Blackburn and got booed off!”
His swansong as a player came at Blackpool, managed by Sam Ellis. “He said play for a year, then we’ll get you into coaching. I suffered a serious knee injury, which specialists spent 12 months failing to diagnose properly”, he says. Bobby spent the following four years as coach at Bloomfield Road, before the call came from Graham Taylor, newly-appointed as Aston Villa boss, to join him as youth-team manager. “Graham was right at the top of his game, and built a fine side at Villa. We had great times and plenty of laughs, as he went toe-to-toe with Doug Ellis. On one occasion, he managed to get him locked out of the ground!”
During Taylor’s unhappy tenure of the national side, Bobby moved to Port Vale, before the pair were reunited at Molineux. “Graham was really unlucky at Wolves. He’d have sorted them, given time, and he’d developed a brilliant plan for the creation of a new academy, which they carried out to the letter after he’d gone, and which I later used as a template at Blackburn.” After Taylor’s acrimonious sacking, Bobby served briefly as caretaker-manager. Was he ever tempted to move from coaching to management? “Not really; it did cross my mind, and if I were to have done it, that was probably the time. I loved coaching: I was a better coach than player. I only really enjoyed the outdoor stuff, not the administration side, which was a big part of a manager’s role back then.”
The two friends were to be reunited once more – back at Vicarage Road, with Bobby installed as Director of Youth, alongside Taylor as General Manager and Kenny Jackett as team manager, but after one season he was offered the post of Director of Youth Football at Premier League Blackburn, thus beginning a highly successful association with the Lancashire side lasting a remarkable 12 years. Here he was responsible for unearthing and nurturing young players such as Damien Duff, Phil Jones, David Dunn and Grant Hanley, who between them generated transfer income of nearly £50 million.
In the 2009 close season, approaching his 60th birthday, Bobby retired from the game, at least briefly. He was tempted back by the offer of a role alongside the mercurial Billy Davies - “An excellent coach: Premier League quality” - and joined Nottingham Forest as Head of Recruitment. One of Bobby’s two sons, David, today holds down exactly the same position with Sheffield Wednesday, having worked in the same role previously at Villa Park. Ten years on from supposedly retiring, Bobby is still working in the game - by a delightful twist reporting to David, as a part-time scout.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bobby is still in love with the game, accepting the huge changes it has undergone with his trademark equanimity and dry humour. Few people in the game could match his knowledge and recall of players past and present, and fewer still have served it with such distinction.