Paul Watson was a key component of the Micky Adams promotion side that started the club off on the road to success. A reliable young fullback who played on the “wrong side of the pitch” and was very good at set pieces. Focus’ Daniel Smith spoke to Paul about his memories of playing in SW6.
DS – First off Paul, how did you get your first opportunity in football and which position did you start out in?
PW – My first experience of a professional football club was when I was 12. I was asked to go along to an open day for Southampton after my school teacher had contacted them. I was asked back and stayed there until I was 16. I was a left winger to start off but then quickly reverted to a centre midfield role, before Southampton converted me to a left back.
DS – Did you have any role models in the game growing up?
PW – I’m a massive Man Utd supporter and as I played in midfield I was a huge Bryan Robson fan. What a player!! Unbelievable.
DS – How did you feel being a left-footed right back? And when filling in at left back which side felt more natural?
PW – My first experience of playing at right-back was on our tour to Ireland in 1996. There was a lad on trial who Micky didn’t fancy whilst Robbie Herrera and I was sharing the left-back slot in games. He asked if I wouldn’t mind filling in for a match. I loved it straight away as it gave me a lot more options on the ball. I didn’t mind playing either side, so when I needed to play on the left it was fine, but I never thought I gave as much going forward as I did on the right.
DS – Being left-footed, were you coached a certain way defensively for playing on the right-hand side? For example, whether to show the winger down the line or inside onto your stronger foot. Did it depend on the opposing player or was it more to suit what was best for you?
PW – I was always taught from a young age to show people inside to where all your teammates were up until an imaginary line 10-15 yards outside the box, but then to get people down the line and force them wide. It stood me in good stead to be fair. Then obviously you would know who you were up against and this might change slightly depending on which foot they used and their strengths.
DS – How did it come about that Micky Adams signed Darren Freeman, Richard Carpenter and yourself altogether from Gillingham? Were your negotiations done separately or at the same time?
PW – Mine was done separately as far as I am aware as I was up in Blackpool on trial the day I found out Micky was interested. So, it was either stay up there and possibly get something or come down and sign for Fulham, who in my mind were a big club and in London and also not too far to locate to. At that time Gillingham had offered me a new contract, but only so they didn’t lose me for nothing, so it was never an option to go back there under Tony Pulis.
DS – With the fee set much lower than the true value, how was the tribunal fee calculated in those days and how did Tony Pulis react to losing you for a cut price to Fulham?
PW – Ha-ha! It didn’t end to well with Tony to be fair, as I said earlier they’d offered me a new deal, but only so they could get something for me in a tribunal. I’d had a bit of a rocky relationship with Tony in that last season and it was never in my head to stay. I think, if my memory serves me right, they wanted 75k, Fulham offered 5 and I ended up going for 12! Massive cash in those days!!! I’ve no idea how they come to that, but I had to put in a written statement about a few things, I was interviewed and so were Tony and Micky I think, then a panel made the decision.
DS – Darren Freeman picked you as ‘teacher’s pet’ from his time at Fulham. Is this fair or would you like to defend yourself? What was your relationship like with Micky and was he the reason why you joined Brighton?
PW – Ha-ha, there were a few above me I think, but I just got on with things, never complained & did everything I was asked. Most of the lads were like that to be fair and I think that’s why we did so well. No one ever questioned the gaffer’s authority as we knew it was for our benefit. I ended up playing for Micky at 4 different clubs, so he was a massive reason why I went to those clubs. He knew my strengths and weaknesses and I knew how he liked his players to play and train. I felt comfortable in his teams and that got the best out of me.
DS – We depended a lot on your superb dead balls during that promotion season. Was this something you had to work hard on or was you naturally good at them from day one and do you have a favourite free-kick for the Whites?
PW – Yes, I always saw myself as a bit of a set piece expert, but it wasn’t something that I just turned up on a Saturday and did. I put a lot of time in to them on the training pitch, as did the whole team. We practiced defending and attacking set plays regularly. I think my favourite was Darlington (away), that sticks in my mind.
DS – You scored a delicious goal up at Hull in off the bar, do you remember it and was this your favourite goal for Fulham? If not, which was your favourite?
PW – Yep I think that one or the one at home versus Leyton Orient, with Peter Shilton in goal for them. I can’t separate the two really.
DS – Some quickfire questions for you now Paul. Let’s start with your closest mates at the club?
PW – All of them, an amazing bunch of lads.
DS – Roommate?
PW – Bozzy.
DS – Biggest moaner?
PW – Morgs.
DS – Biggest joker?
PW – Glenn/Daz (Cockerill/Freeman).
DS – Best prank?
PW – Debagging Corky and dragging him around the training ground in the snow!
DS – Best player?
PW – Morgs/Chippy (Morgan/Carpenter).
DS – Biggest personality?
PW – Glenn Cockerill.
DS – Best away day experience travelling as a team as opposed to the match specifically?
PW – Ballygar – Pre-season trip.
DS – Why Ballygar?
PW – Just because it was a great chance for everyone to get to know each other, especially the new signings. There was nothing else to do apart from train, play matches and have a beer or two. The people there were fantastic, so friendly. It still gets a mention every time I talk about Fulham. I also had the pleasure of going there with 3 other clubs, so I got to know it really well!! There are so many stories, too many to go into and some that will never be told. One that does stick in the mind is when a couple of lads were told that there was a fishing trip at about 4 in the morning, they got up waited outside the hotel and as everybody else knew, it was a wind up, there were a few curtains twitching and laughs the next morning! But there was honestly so many memories from that season and my time at Fulham that have stuck with me and always will, and that makes it one of the most enjoyable periods in my career and I love going back there.
DS – Who were the best and worst in training and why?
PW – Best: me!! Worst: Morgs, can’t remember him training too much to be fair!! Ha-ha.
DS – How did you feel when Micky was sacked, and all the big signings started following Wilkins and Keegan through the door? Also, what was your relationship like with Wilkins?
PW – Personally I was gutted. He didn’t deserve to go, and I thought it was a disgrace the way he was treated after what he’d done the year before. It was quite exciting seeing some of these big named players coming in as I was still quite young. Players like Beardsley and Bracewell who I’d watched so many times on TV and now all of a sudden, I was training with them every day. There was an air of predictability though as when you see full-backs coming in and the club being linked with these big named players that I kind of knew I would either be sold or if I played I wouldn’t be playing much, if at all.
My relationship with Ray was fine, I really liked him and his coaching, it was really good. I saw him numerous times since and we always said hello and had a quick chat. He’s another United legend of course and sorely missed!!
DS – Did you know that your time was up when you were sold to Brentford or did it end quite abruptly?
PW – Initially on the Friday before we travelled away, I was told that Brentford wanted to take me on loan with a view to a permanent, so yes, I knew my time was up. It was the first time Keegan had spoken to me since he’d been there.
DS – Did you learn things from the experience of promotion with Fulham that helped you when put in a similar position with Brentford and Brighton?
PW – With Brighton definitely, Brentford was another story though. People ask me now, do I have any regrets in my career, I reply yes, signing for Brentford. I went there because of Micky and maybe if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t have had the success with Brighton that I did, but I hated every day there. I couldn’t settle in the team, I didn’t play well. Micky again got the sack at the end of the first season when we got relegated and Ron Noades took over. The less I say about him the better. So, when I went to Brighton and a view of familiar faces were there and a few more turned up the next season, it just felt right. The atmosphere around the squad was similar to Fulham and we just got our heads down and worked our socks off. We were also joined by a young 19-year-old lad from Bristol Rovers, who did ok for himself. He did well for us and for Fulham funny enough… Bobby Zamora. Quite comfortably the best player I played with anywhere.
DS – Do you keep in touch with anyone?
PW – Yes, I still see some of them, not as much as we’d like, but it’s like old times when we do. The reunion last year was absolutely fantastic, it was like walking back into the changing room on a Monday morning! Brilliant. Some of the gear on show looked like they were stuck in the 90’s as well!!!
DS – Does the Cottage look different now that the terraces that you played in front of have been replaced?
PW – I have to say, it didn’t look too much different, I’ve come back over the years with Brighton as physio, so it probably hasn’t hit me as much, I just see more seats than terracing, that’s the one thing I notice. It’s a lovely ground though, I loved playing there and the atmosphere on matchdays is so different to anywhere else.
DS – As a player whose career happened pre-internet, are you glad that you missed the whole social media side of the modern game?
PW – Yes 100%. I am more than happy when I had my career, apart from the money available now!! You can’t be bitter about that though; the lads nowadays deserve it as much as we did back then. It’s just the sign of the times. I’m not massively into the social media thing though.
DS – What are you up to now?
PW – I’m the Head Physio at Sheffield United. I started doing courses through my playing career, particularly at Brighton. It was the path I saw myself taking rather than coaching or anything else in football. I am really enjoying it, it was a big step up for me from what I was doing at Brighton. Professionally it was the best thing I have ever done. I haven’t set myself any real career targets as such, I just want to be the best I can be and keep improving and learning. Let’s see where that takes me.
DS – Finally Paul, pie or pasty, which filling?
PW – Pie, Steak and ale!