From Shoot! magazine in 1979:
The morning training session is over. Eric Steele, Watford’s £100,000 goalkeeper sits back in a comfortable chair and enjoys a refreshing cup of tea. But you won’t find him idle for long!
He’s too busy settling in at his new club, getting his own career back into top gear, and planning how best to continue the schoolboy coaching he built up so successfully in Brighton.
But there is time to look back on the move that took him back into the Second Division, in October.
“I didn’t want to leave Brighton,” he says. “That’s the first and most important point. It wasn’t my decision, it was Alan Mullery’s. I think he was wrong and I’ll be proved right in time. Once he’d made up his mind, I had to resolve myself to leaving.
“But it hurt. It took me a long time to get to the First Division and I think that in the ten games I played, I proved I was good enough to keep my place at that level. But once I knew I was on the move, I wanted to get away as quickly as I could.
“I went on the list on a Thursday and Watford came straight in for me the next day. I’d signed for them within a week. I was very happy to join such a progressive club. I would never have come here if I didn’t believe we would be a First Division side in a couple of years.
“Since I arrived at Vicarage Road, I’ve been impressed with the whole set-up. I like the way people look at the game. I’m sure I’ve made the right move. Some people may wonder why I went to a Second Division club. My answer is, I’ve taken one step back to take two forward. I’ll return to Division One, with Watford.”
At Brighton, Eric filled much of his free time by coaching schoolboys and helping handicapped people. He intends to carry on the good work in Watford as well as keeping an interest on the South Coast.
“I’ve been interested in coaching ever since I left school,” he explains. “I was going to train as a teacher, but then I got the chance to join Newcastle United and I took it. But I never lost my interest in coaching.
“The main idea I want to get across to the lads is that they should enjoy their football. Professional players have to live with pressure, but while you’re at school it’s fun. If any of the kids think they’re good enough to earn their living from the game, they should work hard on their skills. But they should try to get some qualifications behind them first.
“If they’re good enough to make the grade at 16, they’ll still be at 18. Football is a very insecure business. You’ve got to have something to fall back on.”
Eric has seen the cruellest face in football. Young apprentices of 17 or 18 who have failed to live up to their early potential. They’re on the list, with nowhere to go. They feel washed up, before their young lives have really begun.
“That’s why I tell the lads to work hard at their school work, as well as their football.”
Eric did just that, when he was a lad, up on Tyneside. He left school with three ‘A’ levels, but still found plenty of time to play football.
“I played three games, every weekend,” he smiles. “I’d finish my school match on Saturday morning, then dash off to play for Wallsend Boys Club. A lot of good players, like Ray Hankin and Chris Waddle, came from there. On Sunday mornings I had another match and every Sunday afternoon… I died!”
Eric’s enthusiasm for the game always comes across when he coached schoolboys. But would he like to see more stars taking the time to give something back to the game, at grassroots level?
“A lot of people say players are too selfish to give up their free time, but I don’t think that’s the reason so few do it. SHOOT readers might be surprised to hear me say this, but a lot of professional players lack self-confidence. The thought of standing up and talking to a crowd of youngsters brings them out in a cold sweat.
“Every player has his own personality. Some are good at talking to people, some aren’t. But the ones who are shy often enjoy coaching, once they’ve got over the first ten or 20 minutes. I noticed that when Brighton had a sponsored scheme last year. Every week, two players would go out to a local school and talk about the game.
“Some of the players weren’t too keen, but they all relaxed and enjoyed themselves in the end. Now, at Watford, people at the club seem to think along the same lines as me. People are encouraged to work and get involved with the local community. I think that’s the way it should be.”
Watford’s soccer stars of the future will be getting plenty of sound advice from Eric in the months to come. Talented youngsters need help. And who better to give that help than the local soccer stars?
“Professionals do have a fair amount of free time on their hands. I think it should be used to put something back into the game. Coaching can be hard work, but when you see your idea getting across to the players, it’s very satisfying too.”
If more thought like Eric Steele, the future would look brighter for British soccer. And after the controversy and disappointments of recent months, Eric’s future looks rosy again, with Watford.
“The club’s only going one way,” he says, finally, “and that’s up.”