Watford’s last FA Cup semi-final hero George Reilly has turned down an invitation to see his former club at Wembley today, deciding instead to watch their showdown against Crystal Palace from the comfort of his local.
It is a typical gesture from the battle-hardened and bruised No 9 who started working life as a bricklayer before a remarkable career that saw him play with John Barnes and Gazza, party alongside Elton John and throw one manager in the swimming pool among other exploits.
With most of his football money long gone, the 58-year-old has now returned to live in the same tough Danesholme estate in Corby where he grew up. And he has made a date today to be in The Talisman pub — he attended their opening 40 years ago — when Troy Deeney leads out Watford for their latest semi-final.
Former Watford striker George Reilly outside the pub where he will watch the Hornets’ FA Cup semi-final
The Scot celebrates after scoring his famous goal in Watford’s FA Cup semi-final against Plymouth in 1985
Even if Watford win the Cup this year, it is unlikely they will have as much fun as Graham Taylor’s boys of ’84, who beat Plymouth in the semi-final with a trademark thumping Reilly header before controversially losing 2-0 to Everton.
‘We had a big party after the final at [Elton’s manager] John Reid’s house in Rickmansworth. It went on all night even though we’d lost,’ says Reilly, whose shock of blonde hair has been replaced by a bald pate.
‘There were tents and marquees put up all over the grounds. Kiki Dee was over, at seven in the morning she got up with Elton to sing Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. Then we went straight to the open-top bus parade. Everyone came out, you couldn’t have got any more people if we’d won it.’
For Reilly, the whole glamorous Watford experience was an eye-opener and a radical change from his roots in a Northamptonshire steel town where thousands of Scots including George’s father Peter came south to find work.
Despite Watford losing the final against Everton Elton John’s manager John Reid threw the squad a party
‘Elton was around quite a lot in his crocodile-skin suit, real crocodile skin, and a white hunter’s hat,’ he said. ‘It was unreal and he got a bit of stick. But he could do what he wanted, he was the chairman!
‘We all played hard and partied hard. I knocked about with my strike partner Mo Johnston, I was his minder on and off the pitch. He got in a few situations and I had to bail him out. Charlie Nicholas was at Arsenal, so I used to look after both of them on nights out. They used to go out in their leather trousers. I’m from Corby, what the f*** is that? But they loved the limelight.’
At 6ft 4in tall, Reilly was under no illusions he was at Watford to win headers and rough up defenders.
Reilly (left) with team-mate and drinking partner Mo Johnston back in their Hornets heyday
‘I was an out-and-out centre-forward, last of a dying breed. Graham Taylor’s style with two wingers, Barnes and Nigel Callaghan, suited me down to the ground. I remember winning 32 aerial battles in one match. When I lost one, it used to annoy me.
‘I had a hundred stitches put in during my time. In one game, I had nine stitches at half-time, went out for the second half and within five minutes “Bang!”, split them all open again. But there was only one sub at the time, so you played on.’
The highlight came at Villa Park when Barnes crossed for Reilly to score the semi-final winner against Argyle in front of Watford’s ecstatic fans. The final itself was a bit of a let-down with Andy Gray’s second goal — controversially headed out of the hands of goalkeeper Steve Sherwood — proving decisive.
The goal that once got Reilly into some bother with an angry Plymouth fan on a building site years after retiring
‘Later on, Andy was a team-mate of mine at West Brom. I used to say “How dare you?” and he replied “Read the score in the papers, big man!” If I’d have scored that goal, I would have wanted it,’ says Reilly.
‘Barnes was just a kid back then, terrific. He’d beat five or six players in training, it was only a matter of time before he went to the top. He and Gazza were the best I played with.
‘Maurice Johnston was my best strike partner, along with Alan Biley at Cambridge. Mo could sense where I was going to head the ball and was on to the knock-ons like a flash. He did tell me though he’d never play for Rangers!’
Reilly has slowed down since then. Golf is his wildest activity these days and it is difficult to envisage the havoc he caused in his heyday.
For Reilly, the glamorous Watford experience was a radical change from his roots in Corby
‘I once got sent off against West Brom after the final whistle had gone,’ he says. ‘Alistair Robertson went to throw a punch and I poked him in the eye to stop him. It flared up and we both got charged with bringing the game into disrepute. When I signed for West Brom later, I walked into the changing rooms and a pair of boxing gloves had been left on my peg!
‘Another red card was for Watford against Nottingham Forest, just a late tackle. Brian Clough told the ref to send me off and he did!
‘When I signed for Newcastle, Jack Charlton said he’d heard I had a reputation doing this and that but didn’t care as long as I did the business at three o’clock. He started telling me a few stories what he was like running the streets of Leeds.
‘When Jack left and his assistant Willie McFaul took over, I knew my days were numbered. The year before I’d thrown him in the swimming pool with his suit on. We’d been in Fiji on tour and Willie had wanted to fight me, so I threw him in with his clothes and watch on. That is why I left Newcastle.’
After finishing his career at West Brom Reilly returned to bricklaying in Germany, Holland then back in Corby
Financially, that was a shame. The £1,000-a-week Reilly earned in 1987 was a career high. When he stopped playing, he returned to bricklaying in Germany and Holland straight out of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.
He briefly made the headlines again in 2003 when his ear was bitten on a building site by a man who purported to be a Plymouth fan still angry about Reilly’s goal.
It was presented as a slightly comical story but was anything but for Reilly. ‘Horrific, I’d prefer to leave it.’
Now he is back in Corby and no longer in the most robust of health. He spurns invites to Vicarage Road because he prefers people to remember him as he was, not as he is.
A small pension from his playing days remains and he is in the benefits system. The PFA help out with medical care. His dad and brothers live locally and he has two sons, one based in Wycombe and the other in Cambridge. He married at 28 but divorced at 31 which ‘cost a few quid’.
So, any regrets about his crazy roller-coaster career and life?
‘Not really,’ he says. ‘Every summer after the season had finished, I’d take myself off to Marbella for 12 weeks and have a great time. So I didn’t waste my money!’
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