Neil Cox never wanted to leave Bolton for Watford and probably wished he hadn’t at times playing under Graham Taylor, but in the end the club treated him to some real money-can’t-buy experiences.
After all, how many footballers can say they played under Gianluca Vialli, went out for meals with Filippo Galli and got invited to gigs by Elton John?
Cox might not have enjoyed the smoothest of starts to life at Vicarage Road, but he certainly settled in eventually, making close to 250 appearances over a six-year period, comfortably more than he made for any other club.
He joined the Hornets in 1999 after they had beaten his Bolton side in the Division One play-off final to win promotion to the Premiership, but he was initially reluctant to make the move and, having previously played for Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough, perhaps understandably found Graham Taylor’s style of football a little hard to adapt to.
“Bolton were having financial issues,” Cox says. “Sam (Allardyce) pulled me and told me Watford had made me an offer. I told him I didn’t particularly want to go down south because I was a northern lad.
“But Watford were willing to pay £500,000 upfront and it was a chance to play in the Premier League again. So, it was to help the club really.
“I knew Graham Taylor from my Scunthorpe days. I went to school with his niece.
“But he was different. He’d done a great job of getting them promoted two years in a row. I signed in October and they had beaten Liverpool and drawn with Everton, but they were on the slippery slope.
“Teams were getting stronger and stronger. Clubs were signing top players and Watford couldn’t compete with that. It was almost a step too far.
“Taylor got away with what he did at Watford because the players bought into it. They launched the ball forward and got it in behind. Crossed it from where we could. Worked on stats. But when you’re playing against better players it was tough.
“It was a strange way of playing. I’d played for Bryan Robson and Ron Atkinson and they had always been about getting the ball on the floor and playing it that way. But Taylor was old school. Get the ball in the corners and then try and get it into the box.
“I didn’t know that old style still existed. Kick and rush. In the Premiership, teams could handle that. The game had changed.
“It was a good club to be at though.”
Watford finished bottom of the Premiership and then ninth back in the second tier the following season, after which Taylor resigned and was replaced by Vialli.
And despite picking Cox on 50 occasions that season, Taylor passed on the message to his successor that the defender was one of several bad apples that needed to be weeded out.
“When Gianluca Vialli came in he’d had a meeting with Graham Taylor who told him he needed to get rid of five players – and I was one of those players,” Cox says. “I was labelled a bad character in the camp.
“So, Luca pulled me aside and told me I was being transfer-listed, which I was fine with.
“I didn’t play the first five or six games. They put me in the team photoshoot though, so just as a laugh I did the old ‘for sale’ sign behind my head. Just as a joke, but he (Vialli) found it quite funny.
“Then there were a couple of injuries. I was training on my own and training with the reserves. He (Vialli) called me up on a Thursday and told me they had gone down with a few injuries and asked me to bring my tracksuit in tomorrow and travel with the club.
“I thought it was someone winding me up, so I put the phone down. He rang me back and was like ‘No, this is Luca’. So, I went up and ended up playing the next game against Wolves.
“On the Monday, he ended up moving me to centre-half and leaving out Ramon Vega. After that, I never missed a game. I played every game under him. He made me captain.
“I went round to his house. He told me Taylor had said I was a bad influence but that he didn’t see someone who was a bad influence. He said he saw someone who didn’t want to lose and had high expectations when it came to training.
“That was the way I was. I wanted things to be done properly and he liked that. That was what he wanted. He needed someone in the dressing room to take charge.
“We got on really well and I’m still in touch with him now. I know he’s been ill, but I’m glad he’s on the road to recovery.”
Friends in high places
As if the arrival of Vialli wasn’t exciting enough for Watford fans in 2001, the Italian also used his standing in the game to sign legendary AC Milan centre-back Filippo Galli.
And he may have been 37, but Galli made an enormous impression on all those associated with Watford, including Cox.
“He’d had Franco Baresi for 13 years and then suddenly he was playing next to me,” Cox says. “He was a great character. Thirty-seven years of age but strong and organised. A great Italian defender. Like running into a brick wall even though he wasn’t necessarily the biggest.
“I learned a lot playing centre-half alongside him. We’d do 10 or 15 minutes after training together. I had not played centre-half since I was 18 or 19 and now I was doing it every week.
“He just helped me out. We got on. He saw how I was with players and understood that. He understood I expected more off other players. We got on and went out for meals together with my family. He just got on with it.
“Someone who played for AC Milan and won all those trophies, he was just great to talk to.”
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And if going out for meals with a man who won Serie A five times and the European Cup three times wasn’t surreal enough for Cox, chatting about his children with Sir Elton John surely was.
And when Watford found themselves in serious financial trouble after the collapse of ITV Digital, it was the chairman who ultimately helped the players gain back the money they missed out on.
“We had to take paycuts and I was captain and had to sort it all out,” Cox says. “The PFA wouldn’t help at all.
“After we got to two cup semi-finals, I was the one who went to the club and asked for our money back. Eventually, new owners came in and we got our money back. Elton John actually helped us get it.
“I met Elton John a couple of times. One year we had a Christmas party where we all dressed as Elton John. We sent him a picture and within two hours he had sent money to the pub for some drinks.
“He would sometimes come into the dressing room before games and he knew everything about every single player. He would even know the names of my daughters. He knew the club back to front.
“He just wanted everyone to be happy and looked after. He even invited us to a few gigs.”
You wouldn’t get that at Bolton.