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‘You are looked at as probably ‘the big I am, coming down here to play’' – Watford legend Luther Blissett reflects on non-league time

His name both commands respect and evokes a plethora of images of him at his formidable best. While Luther Blissett will always be chiefly linked to his record-setting exploits with Watford, the former England international’s football life is also interspersed with non-league involvement.

Alongside AC Milan, the former AFC Bournemouth star has the likes of Southport, Wimborne Town and Fakenham Town on his playing CV - which simply doesn’t happen without a deep-rooted and unshakeable affection for the game. His non-league link would also later encompass differing roles after playing, but for a man who outshone every one of his goalscoring contemporaries when Graham Taylor’s Watford finished 2nd in the top flight, dropping down the levels could have gone one of two ways.

The shift from the elite standards may have been such that it clouded the enjoyment of continuing playing, so did non-league bring him what he was looking for in that sense?

“Yeah, absolutely. A friend of mine at Fakenham Town said ‘what are you doing now you’ve finished playing?’

“I said ‘I don’t know’, and he goes ‘come and play for me’. I think that first game you walk out on the pitch and play, you are looked at as probably ‘the big I am, coming down here to play.’

“‘No, I’m here to play football.’ If anybody crosses that line with me then I’m more than equipped to deal with it because I’ve been in the game long enough, so let’s just play football and get on with it.

“That’s what happened, we played football, it was hard, it was physical at times, but there’s nobody who was looking to take liberties, so it was very enjoyable. You won some, you lost some, and that’s how football always is.

“As long as you can walk off at the end and say ‘we’ve given our best today.’”

Watford’s all-time leading scorer (186) and appearance-maker (503) across three spells, Luther’s coaching notably included working again under Graham Taylor, as the former England boss returned to the Hornets hotseat in 1996. Post-playing would also take him back into non-league, as manager of Chesham United, a club he would even briefly play for during his tenure.

As well as coaching at Hemel Hempstead Town, there would be a spell with Burnham. Intentions of helping oversee the introduction of an academy set-up at the Hellenic Premier Division club led to an unplanned stint as caretaker manager, in a 2016/17 season that also saw ex-Watford frontman Gifton Noel-Williams in charge for a time.

Luther reflects on those respective management experiences, at Chesham and Burnham.

“I think when you’re in charge and things go well, it’s the best thing, but it’s when things don’t start to go so well. All the cracks that are there start to come to the fore, and you’re always trying to analyse ‘what have certain people I’ve worked with or for, what would they do to help out in the situation to change things?’

“You’re always in this dilemma of what you can do with it, but at the end of the day, it boils down a lot to the players you have. If you have players that are capable of doing the job to a standard, it makes things a lot easier.

“Yes, you’re a coach, but having played the game, I know the game’s about the 11 that walk out on the pitch. If they are focused and they take on board what’s been asked of them, and they do the job to the best of their ability, then you don’t have too many issues.

“It’s one of those things, players cross that line and you’re in the hands of every one of them, but non-league, what I found, players have other priorities rather than playing football. You get phone calls on a Saturday morning, ‘oh, I can’t come today, because I’m taking the wife shopping.’

“‘You didn’t know this yesterday, or the day before?!’ So, things like that just made it very difficult.

“I played non-league for a bit after I’d finished, and literally they just paid my petrol at Fakenham, because I just wanted to play football. So I find it difficult when players are demanding literally wages for training one or two evenings a week and playing on a Saturday.

“That doesn’t equate in my brain, how that works, because you have a job, whereas this is something you do for a bit of fun. That’s what, in a way, took my love away from wanting to get too involved in non-league football in that respect.

“When players are more interested in what they’re getting paid, rather than playing, I think it causes too many other issues. In my mind, it’s not worth the battle in many cases that you have to go through with it.”

Previously reserve-team manager at Watford, Luther has spoken in the past of applying for the first-team job at the club in 2005, prior to Aidy Boothroyd getting the nod. Having also talked of loving being the one making the decisions and overseeing everything as a number one, has it been a case of opportunities not being forthcoming, or largely that different priorities in life have ultimately taken him away from continuing to pursue management?

“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.”

While he has never been short of endeavours to put his energy into, it is not to say that dealing with stopping playing was in any way seamless for the 14-cap ex-England man.

“At the time, you think you handle it very well, but one day you’re getting up going training every day and you know your routine, then that retirement comes. You wake up that first morning and think ‘oh...what am I gonna do with myself?’

“If you haven’t got something that you can go straight into, you’ve got a period of time where you have to find something to fill that space, and that’s the position I found myself in. You’d got so used to that routine, the organisation, you knew where you were going, when, and the people you would be with.”

That undoubtedly feeds into conversations he has had with another forward named Blissett – current Maidenhead United man Nathan. Luther is cousin to the former Torquay United player’s father, with Nathan speaking about the guidance he has offered him in the past.

“Really good that he’s there enjoying his football. It’s not a case of ‘oh, I wanna go and play in the League,’ he’s enjoying his football, because he knows where he wants to be.

“He’s got his qualifications with accountancy and the like, so he knows he can go into that side, and I’ve said to him ‘you don’t need to be a coach; with the qualifications you have, you can be the chief executive, you can be the financial director. Ultimately, you can work your way up and become the chairman of a football club, at whatever level you want it to be, so don’t just limit yourself to being a coach.’

“I think that’s good advice for any young person getting into sport now; don’t just look at one avenue when you start getting to the end. Nathan’s done that, he’s enjoying his football, he’s got a lovely family there with him, so we’re all very, very proud of what he’s achieved and the way he’s going about his life.”

Along with wishing Maidenhead well, Luther is also looking on from afar at non-league overall and very much keeping fingers crossed. Like so many, he hopes the vital involvement of supporters – from not only a financial point of view but simply a human level – will be restored to normality sooner rather than later.

“At non-league, they’re trying to let a few people watch here and there, otherwise the game will die. Especially at non-league level, the community comes into it big time.

“Clubs need to have a real, good link with the community, so even if they don’t go to watch, people may just contribute a fiver a week, £2 a week, whatever it may be, to the club, just to make sure they keep them running until people can pay to come back through the door properly. Football low down is in a very tough place.

“Hopefully, the reality will mean the owners cut back on what they’re paying players, so we get a bit more normality back. I think football even in the Premier League needs to have a look at that now, with what’s gone on; if you continue paying someone £100,000 a week when there are no fans coming in.

“Football, I think, is at a juncture where it needs to have a reset button and say ‘we need to get this back before too many clubs go under and they’re gone forever.’ I think we’re getting very close to the point where that might happen.”

Together with various ex-Watford players, Luther has been recently involved in their Former Players Club. With the goal of meaningful community impact, as well as bringing the players back together, the club originated from a conversation that former left-back Neil Price had with Graham Taylor, who was keen to see it introduced.

Reliving memories like the full debut hat-trick for England against Luxembourg, or that League Cup double for Watford at Old Trafford, will never get old. As touched upon, Luther’s on-field appearances continued some time after his last outing in the Football League – all the way through to briefly turning out for Chesham United in his late-40s, while managing the Buckinghamshire side.

So, was that the most recent competitive match for the great man?

“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.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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