Iconic former Watford forward Luther Blissett talks about the Hornets, Bournemouth’s battle against relegation and how Harry Kane can fire England to the latter stages of Euro 2016 in an exclusive interview with news.bwin.
news.bwin: Watford have been one of the surprise teams of the season so far, what do you make of their performances?
Luther: A lot of people have said they’ve surprised everybody, but the most surprising thing for me is that they bought a lot of new players in at the beginning of the season and started well. Normally you expect a sticky start with so many new faces, but they started well and have maintained that level so that’s been very pleasing and the manager deserves a lot of credit.
We’re all looking forward to seeing what they can do in the second half of the season and the away performances in particular have been fantastic.
news.bwin: With the introduction of a European flair to Watford this season, what do you make of performances of domestic striker Troy Deeney?
Luther: Troy Deeney has been a real leader for that team this season.
Watford, like Leicester, have been playing two upfront and have been winning games doing so, which is very unusual in the Premier League. Troy has been working his socks off to give Odion Ighalo the space to get into those positions and has been the man to link up the play, whereas Ighalo has been the man in the more advanced position to finish off.
Some people are disappointed with Troy not scoring enough goals but they have to realise that it’s very difficult to score goals in the Premier League when you’re the one creating the space for the other striker. Normally when a striker is going through a lean spell, you tell them to be more selfish – but Troy is having a great season being selfless. He has built a great rapport with Ighalo and it’s keeping Watford in the top flight.
news.bwin: Do you think if he carries on producing these impressive performances, Deeney deserves an England call up?
Luther: I think it’s going to come down to how many goals he scores because, despite his contribution this season, goals is what will get the attention of the England manager.
If Deeney had scored the number of goals Ighalo has, no doubt about it. Of course I want to see Watford players in the international set up but he’s a few goals short at the moment. When you’re scoring goals, you force an international manager’s hand.
news.bwin: Looking at fellow newcomers Bournemouth, they haven’t had the same success as Watford, what do you put that down to? Is it just bad luck?
I believe Bournemouth will stay up, but they’ve been very unfortunate. Last season they had very little interruption to the way they played injury-wise, whereas this season they’ve lost three of the players they bought in, plus Callum Wilson.
The Wilson injury meant they started on the back foot and it’s taken a bit of time to get on to the front foot.
news.bwin: They’ve just brought in Benik Afobe: do you think he’s the striker they need to stay up?
Luther: He’s a proven goalscorer in the Championship, but you never know with quality Championship strikers if they have found their level, or are primed to succeed at the higher level.
The way Bournemouth play, the strikers need to be willing to press high up pitch and if they do so, they will reap the rewards. I see no reason why he should not be a success at the club and the manager is learning all the time and very quickly. When you’ve lost a lot of players and you’re not winning games, it can be debilitating for the squad but Eddie Howe has done very well in rallying the boys and getting them back to winning ways.
news.bwin: You had a famously brief stint at AC Milan, which must have been a great experience playing alongside Franco Baresi and greats of his calibre. Do you think more English players should head abroad to learn a new style/culture of football and do you think in turn that will benefit the national team?
Luther: Yes it will do and that was my motivation for going. A lot of people asked why I went to AC Milan, but when a club like AC Milan come in for your services – at a time when Watford had just finished second in the country and I was top scorer across all of Europe that season – you think to yourself what a great challenge and opportunity to test yourself in Italy.
Their system of man-to-man marking was a great teaching to me and my footballing ability. It made me a better player and also showed me how people around the world play. I think British players looking to go abroad should do, as it will be a great experience for them – you cannot underestimate the knowledge you gain.
news.bwin: You were nearly part of one of the best club teams of all time with the likes of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard coming in slightly after you. Do you regret not staying longer in Italy?
Luther: If there is a regret, and I don’t think it is a regret, it’s that the timing of going was not quite right and it should have been another two, three years later when their attitude to the game was changing. When they brought in Arrigo Sacchi, they looked at the game differently and thinking of ways to be different to everyone else.
At the time, Italian teams were using a sweeper and keeping the ball but when Sacchi came in, the style of football changed, as it had done in the Netherlands. He added flair to their established, structured defending. They went 4-4-2 and started to play offside, which was a new concept back then, pushing up and squeezing teams. Then they had forwards who wanted to go forward and score goals and the midfielders to supply them with the ammunition.
The mentality changed and has remained today, attack is the best form of defence. Look at teams such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, teams that want to win things, when they attack they really go out and look to hurt teams. The idea is that you can’t pepper your goal when you’re too busy defending their own.
- Eddie Howe mulling over Bournemouth's performance
- AC Milan's Dutch contingent form a wall
- Arrigo Saachi (in charge of Parma) is credited for revolutionising the Italian game
news.bwin: Moving on to Euro 2016, how will England fare this summer?
Luther: A lot of people are thinking the same thing – that England are going to go there and disappoint – but they need to realise that we no longer have the calibre of players that the likes of Spain, France and Germany have.
Those nations have their players playing in the top teams, in the top leagues all around the world. We’ve got a limited number of players playing in our own league. We are realistically not one of the top ten teams but the fact of the matter is that we’ve had a great qualifying campaign and we’ve seen players blossom.
If we can go to the Euros and get out the group stages, then it’s anyone’s guess. If the team grows in stature and believe then they could get to the semis and final, it’s definitely attainable.
news.bwin: Going back to your point about the Premier League, do you think England struggle in international tournaments because of the influx of European players in the Premier League?
Luther: Absolutely no question about it in my opinion. A lot of people say we’ve got a great Premier League but when you look at teams such as Chelsea, you look at how many Englishmen they’ve got and how few are featuring in their starting eleven – you can’t possibly build a good national team without players playing regularly at a high-level.
The difference between our younger players and those from abroad is that ours tend to drop a division when they can’t get first-team football, foreign players head to a different country. Playing top-tier football, in a strong league, should be prioritised ahead of second tier football.
news.bwin: So with team selection, is it a case of selecting younger players who are playing well like Dele Alli and Harry Kane, or more experienced players like Wayne Rooney?
Luther: The fact of the matter is that we’ve got quite a varied squad of players coming in this last qualifying campaign. If you stick with a formula of mixing experience with the likes of Rooney, the leader of this group, and youth with Kane, who brings new enthusiasm to the team, then you’ve got good balance.
It’s important we have a good mix of players and I think at the moment, we’ve got a good young group. It’s a great place to start from with a few more young players emerging between now and the end of the season.
news.bwin: On the competition as a whole, which teams do you like the look of and which strikers do you think will grab the headlines?
Luther: You can never look too far beyond Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Belgium. Belgium have a team that, if they can get it together, can be absolutely spectacular in this tournament. I’d love to see the Belgium team grow and become that team that they potentially could be.
Taking over from what Spain have done, dominating the European scene, they look like the team that could really push on and stay at the top. You can never write Germany off because they have a way of doing things which works in tournament football.
England have to rise to it and if Harry Kane can do the business, carrying his club form into the tournament, he can be dangerous. If you have a potent scoring threat and keep things tight at the back then you’re obviously in with a chance.
The winner will come out of one of those four teams, Belgium, Germany, France and Spain, with England as an outsider like Italy. It really comes down to how you start the tournament, as Greece displayed in 2004.
news.bwin: Who will win the tournament? And who are your dark horses?
Luther: I think England could be that dark horse team. People will point to their qualifying and say they weren’t really tested but all you can ever do is beat teams before you.
We’re due another performance like Euro ’96, winning exciting games. I’m tipping England to be the surprise team, going to the semis, potentially the final, and if they do, they’ve got every chance.