Luther Blissett interview: Golden Boys and the legend of the lost tape

Under a young manager by the name of Graham Taylor, Watford had just about all the pieces to the jigsaw. Nevertheless, the Hornets’ all-time leading scorer and appearance-maker Luther Blissett remembers one vital ingredient that was nowhere to be seen before a semi-final showdown with one of English football’s all-time great sides.

17th January 1979. Nottingham Forest are hosting Watford in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final. Brian Clough is four years into his legendary 18-year tenure, with Forest the reigning league champions and four months away from winning the first of their back-to-back European Cups.

As for the visitors, it is a remarkably tall order for the Third Division side, but they themselves are on their way to a second consecutive promotion under Graham Taylor. In the first of his two unforgettable managerial stints, the Vicarage Road outfit will go on to finish runners-up in the top flight to Liverpool in 1983, just five years after winning the Fourth Division. An FA Cup final appearance will follow a year later.

For now, trying to topple the Tricky Trees and make it to Wembley is the order of the day. In these contrasting times, Forest’s matchday programme costs 20p, while a win in league action will get you two points not three. Enjoying a three-week reign as UK number one, meanwhile, is a song you may hear once or twice more over the years that follow – ‘Y.M.C.A.’, by some characters calling themselves the Village People.

Catchy though it may be, it is not the track dominating the pre-match airwaves for the Watford squad, as marksman Luther Blissett recalls.

“We used to listen to some of (chairman Sir Elton John’s) songs going to the games, especially the year we got to the semi-final against Nottingham Forest. Every time we got on the coach to go to the game, we always played ‘Bennie and the Jets’, that last sort of five minutes leading to the game.

“I remember going to the Forest ground for the semi-final, we left the hotel, and for some reason, the tape wasn’t there. Nobody could find the tape, it was the only time we didn’t have it, and it was obviously the only game we lost that year in the competition.”

Sonically speaking, football dressing rooms were somewhat differently equipped at this time. Any suggestion of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity would have likely seen teammates giving you an especially wide berth, but the Hornets’ A-lister chairman was the man to thank for a little melody making its way in.

“We did actually have something at Watford,” Luther recalls. “Elton John obviously being chairman, he asked if there was anything we wanted, and we said ‘we’d like a decent radio for the changing room.’

“So he got this radio and we could put cassettes in. We always had music on, just in the dressing room, when you’re warming up, getting yourself ready to go out.

“I suppose music has always been a big part of it, then you go out and music is always blaring in the ground anyway. We obviously went out to Z-Cars, and it’s always interesting the different music at different clubs; I actually wrote all the ones down that they play at different places.

“It’s quite interesting the diversity of the music that they play, and music is very important, because it can get you in a good place.”

Although he is held in similarly high esteem at AFC Bournemouth, in the case of Watford, Luther is as instantly synonymous with the club as a player could be. His goals and his impact, followed by his continuing connection as both a coach and ambassadorial figure, continue to be looked upon with the utmost fondness (and more than a dash of gold-tinted nostalgia).

Watford’s first senior England player would become the first Black player to score for the Three Lions when he struck a hat-trick against Luxembourg at Wembley in 1982. Such an all-round legacy means that there has never been much of a shortage to those wanting to hear from him over the years.

The soundtrack to his life and times, though, is perhaps a less explored avenue.

“Well, music was everywhere; on the radio, and my dad used to play the guitar, so he would always sing various things. He made his own guitar actually; I remember when he was making it.

“So there was always music around in the house, and singing all sorts of stuff, calypso, or whatever type of folk songs. Especially coming from the Caribbean, the music I enjoy most would be the likes of Bob Marley.

“Thinking back to some of the artists from there, from when I was young, Ken Boothe for one, Aswad. It would be a lot of those guys, and then you’re talking about soul music once I came to England; Barry White, Luther Vandross – my namesake! I can’t sing anything like him, unfortunately.

“Stevie Wonder was a big influence and I actually saw him for one of my first ever concerts I went to, at Hyde Park, the British Summer Time concert they have there. That was the first time I saw him live and it was very, very special.

“Music plays a big part in all our lives and we all enjoy music. I’ve listened to classical music, I’ve listened to pop, jazz, rock music, I’ve listened to all sorts, and it’s whatever takes my fancy at that time.

“Music’s very important because it lifts your soul and it can be a great motivating factor.”

Schooled in Willesden, Luther signed for Watford as a teenager, at a time when the club had just been relegated to a fourth tier that they would later spring so emphatically up out of. Up until the age of six, though, he had lived in his native Jamaica.

Those Caribbean roots he has already alluded to were at the heart of his seminal music-buying experience.

“I think the first record I ever bought was Bob Marley ‘No Woman, No Cry’. It was on 12-inch; all music used to be on that, and then you’d copy it on to tape and you’d play it in the car, or take it on the coach and listen to it there.

“Nigel Callaghan actually was the one who used to do most of the recording and copying for the stuff to listen to when we were going on the coach.”

In both the sound and scoring stakes, Callaghan was a reliable supply line. From teeing up the likes of Luther and Ross Jenkins, the right-winger led something of a double life as he manned the wheels of steel as a nightclub DJ.

Admittedly, the bar is set slightly high for musical talent at close quarters when you can say Elton John was your chairman, but there was one multi-instrumentalist master that left Luther dazzled when he saw him perform.

“Courtney Pine – amazing. I’ve tried to play the old saxophone but when you hear someone who knows what they’re doing, you can’t get anywhere near what they can do.

“That was quite incredible, listening to him. YolanDa Brown we went to watch in London and she was brilliant.

“Jazz is something to listen to from time to time and it’s very relaxing, just one of those easy-listening things to take in. I went to a festival, for the very first time ever, and it was Cornbury; KT Tunstall was there, Keane, Elkie Brooks.

“Elkie Brooks was brilliant, by the way. I remember Elkie Brooks when I was growing up – now that I’m grown! – and she still sounded absolutely amazing, even now.

“I suppose when you’ve got talent, it’s always there.”

There was nobody who did it better than Luther the season Watford came 2nd in the First Division, with his 33 goals leading to his move to AC Milan that summer (1983). Of course, teammates were a fundamental supplement to that, and indeed his scoring exploits across his career.

What if he was to link up with one (or more) of them again, but entirely in the name of music? In this fantasy scenario, it is the recording of a cover song, so who would be joining Luther in the studio?

He has a significant head start over most players on this question, given that he played alongside one of the greatest rappers of all-time (not open to debate…). As Luther gives his response, the wing wizard in question does make the cut.

“I think we’d probably have one or two. Gerry Armstrong loved to sing, so he’d be very good.

“Yeah, (John) Barnes can do a rapping section, and who could be the other one? Kenny Jackett?…no, not Kenny!

“Probably Cally (Nigel Callaghan) would be quite good, but he’d be more the one who was playing the tunes. We’d probably record something like ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)’, because I was a big fan of Benny Hill – it got to number one as well!”

In terms of his own pursuit of the top, he had the ideal facilitator. With the greatest respect to other managers he played for, there could never be one to surpass the aforementioned Graham Taylor OBE for the central part he played in Luther’s football life.

He recalls the kind of approach that he feels drew the best from him in his career, which naturally links neatly to Taylor’s style.

“I think the best way that worked with me was somebody that believed in you. (Taylor) used to put the team sheet up on a Friday, after training, and you’d look down the list and you’d see the name on it.

“Even if it was number 12 or whatever, as long as you were on that list, that’s all the motivation I needed, that you were in the frame and he believes in you enough to put you on that list and for you to be involved in the game tomorrow. Also, Graham was very good at encouraging you to bring out the strengths of your own game.

“He used to say to me ‘if you get the chance to run at people, run at them. If you get beyond them, have shots at goal.’

“So he’d always pick out the stronger parts of your game and keep reinforcing that with you, to make that the primary thing that you thought about when you went out onto the pitch.”

Part of Taylor’s staff when he returned for his second successful managerial tenure in 1996, Luther recalls the times sat in the office with the backroom team talking about the game – tea and biscuit as standard – as among the fondest memories he has. Along with his various endeavours in the years since he stopped playing full-time, he had a stint as Chesham United manager, as well as holding the fort as interim boss at Burnham four years ago, having initially come in to help oversee the introduction of an academy.

Given what he was able to glean from those times at Watford on both sides of the white line, did he actively take that into his own coaching and management?

“Yeah, I always tried to pick out the positive things that players could do, rather than be concentrating on the things that they weren’t particularly good at. I’d try to say to them ‘this is what you’re good at, that’s what you need to keep working at.’

“If you can improve that, you generally find the things you’re not so good at, they improve because you have that bit of confidence.”

Luther’s post-playing career has also included time as reserve-team manager at Watford, and he has spoken previously of applying for the first-team job, prior to Aidy Boothroyd’s appointment back in 2005. By his own admission, making the decisions and overseeing everything as a number one struck a chord with him, so has it been a case of the opportunities not being forthcoming, or largely that different priorities in life have ultimately taken him away from continuing to pursue management over the years?

“I think it’s probably one or two of those things. If the job is there and you’ve got the access to get into a job, then you’re going, but come the time when you can’t get into that job, because jobs are filled, it’s then difficult, because what do you do?

“You have to find something to fill that time. That was filled with the odd bits of coaching, whether it was a kids’ team, or individual coaching with strikers, or areas of people’s teams, just to help them out.

“So it was filled with a lot of that, and as time went on, the jobs weren’t available. Then you have to find something else, and that’s where the TV and the media, that side, started to take over a lot more.

“In a way, you almost get left behind, because you get into doing things like TV more regularly and that takes over.”

Luther’s on-field appearances continued some time after his last outing in the Football League, from non-league spells with Southport (loan), Fakenham Town and Wimborne Town, all the way through to briefly turning out for Chesham United in his late-40s, while managing the Buckinghamshire side. So, was the latter, in 2007, the last time the great man was out there in the cut and thrust of competitive action?

“Actually, I played after that, for a vets’ team. They used to play in a vets’ league and play in cup competitions, so that was competitive, because when you walk on the pitch, your brain does go back to when you were in your 20s!

“The legs can’t get you there but the brain does! Some of those games got a little bit heated from time to time, because you’re just programmed to want to win, and one or two people thought they were still able to do what they were doing when they were teenagers or in their 20s, but that’s the beauty of the game.”

Together with various ex-Watford players, Luther has recently been involved in the Former Players Club. The idea had started some years ago with former left-back and ’84 FA Cup finalist Neil Price, who found that Graham Taylor was similarly keen to see it established.

The idea centred upon recognising and supporting some of the club’s erstwhile players, along with meaningful community impact and recapturing the link between fans and players. Luther spoke of his input in the association when asked of his current ventures and anything he has been particularly enjoying lately.

“I think the biggest thing, when you say enjoying at the moment, is getting involved in a lot of this charity and community stuff that I have. When you ring people or you put the word out on social media that someone is needing this help or that, the number of people that respond and actually say ‘yes, I can help, I can do this’, that has been such an uplifting part of all of this.

“The community spirit has really blossomed with people, and for me, that is one of the greatest things about human beings; regardless of how tough things may be, that we can still find time to help those who are in more need than us. That’s something that really warmed my heart, that I’ve been able to be involved in that.

“Secondly, which goes a lot with that, is the formation of our Former Players Club, which is to continue the legacy of Graham Taylor. The players all wanted to do it because that’s how they were brought up from when Graham Taylor arrived; it’s about helping your neighbour.

“I think for all of us, that’s the least we can do, to keep an eye on our neighbours and people around us, to help out wherever we can.”

For Luther and for those who got to share in it, the memories remain, side by side with the 186 goals and the 503 appearances that stand proudly atop Watford’s all-time list in both categories. This year more than ever, we have, as society, sought solace as well as enjoyment in the best of times from days gone by.

One October night at Old Trafford certainly ticks all the boxes in that sense. Three rounds prior to that aforementioned Nottingham Forest semi-final in the League Cup, Luther’s second-half double saw Watford come back to beat a Manchester United side two divisions above them.

“Jenkins has got Stirk there, he’s got Booth inside, number four…Blissett coming in…AND MAKES IT! Second round running he’s scored two. It’s no more than Watford deserve!”

Luther had the ultimate say that night and we end here with him called upon to do the same again (although towering headers aren’t strictly permitted for this scenario). Variations of this question have done the rounds in football interviews far and wide over recent years, and it has been the regular one to close these Beats & Rhymes FC conversations for some time, too.

The interviewee is asked for four examples of teammates from their career that they would particularly enjoy playing alongside in a 5-a-side match-up. There is no emphasis on nailing down a ‘best four’ they have ever played with, but it is safe to assume that any picks are made to give them a good chance of winning!

In fairness, Luther does fill each position with those he mentions – he would just need to let a few down when it came to a final starting selection!

“By the way, it would not be down to having a good chance of winning, it would be ‘we’re winning!’ That is the ultimate thing!

“So you’d want somebody as solid as anything at the back. You’ve got the likes of John McClelland, Nigel Gibbs, Kenny Jackett; I would stick any one of those at the back.

“I’d have to be the goalscorer, there’s no doubt! So you’d need the likes of a (John) Barnes or a (Nigel) Callaghan, and maybe a Les Taylor type in the middle that can set about people.

“You’ve also got the likes of Ian Bishop that I played with at Bournemouth. If you go to England as well, you’ve got Gazza (Paul Gascoigne).

“There’s so many players that you could have in your 5-a-side team that would make you a real handful for anybody. Your goalkeeper, you’ve got Tony Coton, Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence and the likes.

“The other person, I suppose, if you’re going for a defender, is (Franco) Baresi at Milan. I played as well with, in one game, Michel Platini, in a charity game in the Olympic Stadium in front of The Pope, with all the foreign players playing.

“Glenn Hoddle as well, goodness me. The thing is, there are so many players that I would have to sit down and look at it and put that team together properly, to make sure that we were just awesome, and that would be the end of it!”

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