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Tom: The Man Who Created Footballers

Colin Payne looks at the massive contribution Tom Walley has made to Watford Football Club


There are two photographs, that will probably be familiar to most Watford fans of a certain age, that brilliantly highlight Tom Walley’s career at the club. The first was taken the night the Hornets beat Plymouth to secure promotion to the then Second Division, the young Welshman looking on from the Directors’ Box with those boyish good looks, muddied and exhausted, but ecstatic all the same. The second, 32 years later, shows him looking considerably more weathered, that dark head of hair now grey, standing shoulder to shoulder with Graham Taylor, literally the Gaffer’s right-hand man as he bids a fond farewell to the Watford fans that had made the trip to Turf Moor. 

Tom joined Watford from Arsenal in 1967, signed by Ken Furphy. A capable wing-half, he was popular with fans, who appreciated his tenacity and graft with a little sprinkling of aggression. During that momentous championship season in 1968/69, he appeared in every League fixture, pitching in with five goals, a reflection of his importance in a team built around hard work and a disciplined approach. The following two seasons, bar an impressive cup run all the way to the semi-finals, could charitably be described as a time of consolidation, or more realistically an outright backs-to-the-wall struggle against relegation. With investment centred around a new wing to the East Stand, there was nothing in the pot for new blood on the playing side, and halfway through the third season in the second tier he was sold to relegation rivals Orient, who unlike George Kirby’s Watford had the good fortune to survive the drop. Mike Keen brought him back to Vicarage Road in 1976, but Tom would only make a dozen starts before injury scuppered his playing career. 

In August 1977 one of Graham Taylor’s first acts as manager was to make the player staring at retirement his youth team coach. It was an inspired move that would prove pivotal in the club’s progress. Within a couple of seasons the results of the decision were coming through the club’s ranks – Steve Terry, Kenny Jackett and Nigel Callaghan all made an immediate impact as they progressed through Tom’s youth team, saving the club a fortune in transfer fees, whilst creating a genuine pathway for young men to progress seamlessly into the first team.

It seems a far cry from today’s model where a player is more likely to be discovered in the suburbs of Lagos than in a satellite town near London, but in 1982, just days after promotion had been clinched to the top flight, Watford’s junior side achieved its greatest feat. The team Walley created beat Manchester United in the FA Youth Cup final, in a thrilling tie that saw the young Hornets triumph 7-6 on aggregate. Over the two legs that team contained the likes of Nigel Gibbs, Paul Franklin, Neil Price, Worrell Sterling, Ian Richardson, Jimmy Gilligan and Gary Porter, not to mention the luxury of drafting in John Barnes. It was the sheer quality of those graduating from Tom’s team that would take Watford on their European adventure less than two years later, with no less than 13 of those appearing in yellow that season having come through the club’s youth structure.

Tom would again reach an FA Youth Cup final in 1985, losing out to a talented Newcastle team containing Paul Gascoigne. The young Hornets side contained Malcolm Allen, Tim Sherwood and the Holdsworth twins, all of whom would go on to prominently feature in future first-team action.

However, developing top-tier players at quite a prolific rate was just part of the story, as many of his charges would testify. Tom Walley was both a taskmaster and a mentor to those young players, and his style was unorthodox at times. He had, and no doubt still has, the ability to use the f-word as noun, adjective and verb all in one sentence, and was notoriously forthright, whilst always being fair. It was said that he developed those players as good men as much as talented footballers.

In 1990 he followed Steve Harrison to Millwall, where he spent six successful years, duplicating his FA Youth Cup record of reaching the final on two occasions, winning one of them. A brief spell at Arsenal followed before Graham Taylor once again brought his ‘right-hand man’ back to Vicarage Road, where Tom stayed until they both retired in 2002.

It’s hard to overestimate Tom Walley’s role during the early eighties and beyond. For the entirety of GT’s first period, he created an environment that not only created quality players, but also developed those boys into men that fitted into a football club that stood for something. That he still attends matches more than 55 years after making his Watford debut is telling, for he is truly part of Vicarage Road.