The Boys of '77 - Roger Joslyn
Several decades before the phrase ‘box-to-box midfielder’ was first coined, a vivid prototype was busy plying his trade at Vicarage Road. The man behind the flowing locks and piratical beard, the lung-bursting runs and audible tackles was Roger Joslyn, and he was to become a Watford legend. Nick Brodrick caught up with him, and found the energy levels as high as ever almost 40 years on.
“I was keeping bees, looking after pigs and racing pigeons, riding my own horse”. A broad smile plays across Roger Joslyn’s face as he recalls a quite idyllic upbringing. The farm was situated in Colchester, close to the border between Essex and Suffolk, and you can still hear unmistakeable strains of the local accent in his voice today. Joslyns had farmed there for generations, and it was taken as read that Roger would follow in his father’s footsteps. By his early teens, however, the young man himself had other ideas.
By this stage he was playing regularly at school and district level, and his performances – at right back – had begun to attract considerable attention. “Leeds and Ipswich were top sides at the time and both approached me; Leeds offered a three-year apprenticeship when I left school. It’s funny that, although I loved playing, I’d no thoughts of a career in the game at that stage.” He laughs as he recalls kicking a ball against the walls of the farmhouse for hours on end: “Left foot, right foot. It’s why I was such a two-footed player. I was always breaking windows, though. My father said that I was breaking so many, it was time he showed me how to replace them.” Unbeknown to his father, this only played into Roger’s principal ambition: to become a builder and carpenter.
Turning down the Leeds offer, he joined a local building firm at 15, staying for 14 months. At the same time, his local club was also making overtures, and he began to turn out for Colchester Casuals, akin to a United reserve side. Finally succumbing to ‘continual mithering’, he signed apprentice forms at 17 at the beginning of the 1967/68 season, making 12 appearances before signing a professional contract at the end of the season.
Dick Graham joined the club as manager, and immediately moved Roger into midfield: a prescient move, you might have thought. Not a bit of it, according to the player. “I’d have been a much better full back,’” he argues. “I enjoyed seeing the whole game in front of me, and I could bomb up and down the flank all day.” He was good enough to attend England trials in the position, but the die had been cast.
After three seasons at Layer Road, he moved to Aldershot, where he was a virtual ever-present for the next four years, scoring the goal that took the club into Division 3 for the first time in its history in 1973. With his contract there coming to an end, he decided it was time for a change of scene. This wasn’t as straightforward as he had hoped. “I’d given them four good seasons, but I was ready to move.” The decision was driven more by considerations of where the recently-married player and wife Jackalyn preferred to set up home, rather than purely footballing reasons.
In the days before the Bosman ruling, it was clubs, rather than players and agents, who called the tune over transfers. Aldershot initially refused to sanction his sale, leading Roger, who had been Aldershot’s PFA representative, to seek support from Gordon Taylor, then as now the association’s chairman. The two were well known to each other, as Roger was involved in working groups charged with exploring ways of delivering greater freedom of contract, alongside the likes of Alan Ball and Terry Venables. After attending an FA tribunal, a fee was set for his transfer. The system then in use provided for this to be reduced as time passed without any deal being concluded, which tended to concentrate the mind of the selling club. Watford, who had been interested in the player for some time, bided their time until the price came within budget range, at which point a cash-plus-player deal was put together, with striker Pat Morrissey moving in the opposite direction.
Making his Hornets debut in the 3-2 win over Port Vale in November 1974, and rapidly becoming a terrace cult-hero based on his voracious appetite for work and fearsome tackling, he went on to record 27 appearances during the season. All to little avail, however, as the team ended up in 23rd place, returning to Division 4 for the first time since 1960. Having anticipated an upward move, he found his career going into reverse: “The club was poorly managed; the team had no focus or discernible pattern of play. Aldershot was run much better”, he recalls.
The following season saw him make a mere 20 first-team appearances, the only occasion in his 13 full seasons as a professional that he made fewer than 37. The team’s progress continued to stall during the 1976/77 season, and a third year in the League’s basement beckoned. To everyone’s surprise, things were about to change radically, as Chairman Elton John decided he’d seen enough, and brought in his own man to move the team forward.
“I said to my wife when I got home after Graham’s first day at the club, that if you were ever to have seen a future England manager, then he was it,” Roger smiles. “Training sessions under the old regime were quite poor; this was much more like it. I loved the Cassiobury Park stuff, especially the cross country runs, which I was pretty good at – no-one could beat me. After a while, he began getting me to start behind the others, partly to see how much I was keeping up my sleeve. I still always finished first, and ended up being presented with a framed picture, recording my best times. I trained the same way as I played: on the edge, but not over it.” Notwithstanding that his ferocious tackling is probably the quality best remembered by Hornets fans, Roger remains justifiably proud of a career record containing not a single sending-off.
Early meetings between the two forthright characters were predictably lively, and very productive. “I let him know where the problems lay, in terms of the dressing-room, whilst he did a lot for my confidence as a player. He told me I had more creative ability than I’d been given, and was giving myself, credit for. ‘You can play, so go ahead and play’, he said. Nice and simple. He also said, ‘There’s an art in tackling, and you’ve got it.’ ’’
The change in Roger’s play was noticeable, as he added new facets to his game and became an indispensable member of the side that rose quickly into Division 2, missing only five games across the two promotion seasons. There was also a significant improvement in the goalscoring department, with him hitting the net 14 times during this memorable period, including a purple patch of five in seven league and cup fixtures at the beginning of the Division 3 season. Undoubtedly the most important goal came in the promotion-sealing victory over Hull City – one of the most joyous occasions ever witnessed at Vicarage Road.
The player himself surprisingly has limited recall of this momentous night, or indeed most other games throughout his career. “I played an awful lot of games, and ultimately, it’s your job. Don’t get me wrong, I loved playing, but once a game was over, it was ‘on to the next one’. Like most players at the time I played through injury whenever possible – pain-killing injections and so forth. You didn’t earn a vast amount, but you earned less when you didn’t play!”
The start of the 1979/80 season saw him “probably fitter than I’d ever been in pre-season.” During matches, however, he began to experience ominous discomfort from what proved to be a serious hip condition. “I could play through it without too many problems, but the lack of rotation in my hip meant I was putting huge pressure on my back”, he says. Simultaneously, the manager was looking to restructure the side in quite radical fashion, with the ultimate goal of Division One in mind. According to the player, “he and Bertie Mee, who was becoming increasingly influential, shared the view that today’s side should always be capable of competing one level higher.”
After an unbroken run of 13 appearances at the start of the season, Roger was to play his final Watford game in a defeat at Orient on 13 October 1979. In total, he made 214 first-team appearances in all competitions, scoring 21 goals. He reveals that the manager admitted later that he broke up the dual promotion-winning squad too soon, particularly when it came to the side’s engine-room: “Dennis Booth and I complemented each other’s games and had a great understanding. We also were both extremely consistent. I think it took him quite a time to replace that blend.”
Taylor suggested a move to Swindon, where he thought Roger would fit in well, but the player chose Reading, “purely because they’d allow me to commute from the Watford area, where we’d put down extremely strong roots, whereas Swindon wouldn’t.” It proved a backward step, however. “When I left, Watford was being run better than most First Division clubs. Everything was in place: roles, people and systems. Reading was a mess: like going back to the Watford I originally joined.” On-field success aside, the one aspect of the club’s activities he particularly missed was the community involvement. “I loved the hospital visits and all the supporter engagement, in workplaces, pubs, and so on.”
Roger went on to make 77 appearances for Reading before his by-now arthritic hip became too much, and he retired from the game in January 1982. Having taking his coaching badges, he was offered a manager’s job, but turned it down, deciding to focus on building his own business. He later spent four years coaching under-16s at Evergreen FC, an experience he claims provided almost as much satisfaction as his achievements as a player. He is a passionate advocate of the need to divert a greater share of the game’s riches into grass-roots football, and would also like to see the setting up of coaching academies, to improve dramatically the performance of coaches in local leagues. He confesses to have fallen out of love with the modern game at the very top level, watching far fewer televised games, on account of what he perceives as tedious build-up play, the paucity of scoring chances created, and an increasing level of cheating.
After leaving Reading, he wasted no time in pouring his considerable energies into setting up his new enterprise, manufacturing furniture for kitchens and bedrooms. What took place on Joslyn Fitted Furniture’s first day of trading illustrated, more than two years after he left Vicarage Road, just how highly he was regarded by his former manager and team-mates. “Graham brought all the players over to the opening, which was absolutely typical of him”. 37 years on, the business continues to flourish and the man himself, looking almost lean and fit enough to put the boots back on, shows no signs of slowing down. The trademark beard, however, is nowhere to be seen.