In Depth: Graham Stack On Watford, Arsenal & India
When it comes to schooling today’s aspiring footballers on the stark realities of life as a pro, you’d be hard pushed to find a former player as well-versed in the potential highs and lows of the game as Graham Stack.
From having a front row seat on the substitutes’ bench as Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ made Premier League history, to slumming it in India at grounds where even the provision of running water was not guaranteed, Stack has seen it all. Both good and bad.
And it’s the lessons learned from a wide-ranging playing career that has also seen the now-37-year-old posted in Belgium and Scotland, as well as the lower leagues of the English game, that the Hornets’ new Head of Academy Goalkeeping believes will stand him in good stead as he takes the next step in his coaching career.
“It was the team spirit and personalities – the mentality of not wanting to be second best – that made that Arsenal team so successful,” said Stack, reflecting with watfordfc.com on the Gunners side that went an entire season unbeaten on its way to Premier League glory in 2003/04.
“You saw that day-to-day in training, whether it be keep-ball, small-sided games or one-on-ones. Take Sol Campbell and Thierry Henry; Sol never wanted to be beaten by Thierry. They pushed each other on so much and the bar had been set.
“I was still a young lad in that dressing room. I had been out on loan in the Championship and in Belgium, but by comparison I was the least experienced player in the squad. I played five League Cup games and we lost in the semi-final, but it was great to have involvement in that campaign.
“Jens Lehmann never got injured. Most goalies miss a game or two at some point but I think he was unbreakable. A part of me is gutted I never got to play my part in being an ‘Invincible’, but Jens said himself I was integral to how he performed. I did all the warm-ups on a matchday and took massive pride in preparing him. It was a lot of responsibility.
“I saw first-hand the frame of mind and shape you need to be in to be a winner. You can’t just get out of bed as a young pro or an Academy player and expect to turn it on. They were at it every single day, there was never any part of the warm-up where they weren’t tuned in. I witnessed the very best doing things properly, so there’s no excuse for anyone else not to.”
By contrast, Stack’s spell as a player and goalkeeping coach with Indian Super League outfit Kerala Blasters during the second half of 2016 – when he was reunited with his former Reading boss Steve Coppell – taught the Hampstead-born stopper that there’s no room for ego when working with local footballers who aren’t used to the pristine pitches and plush training centres that are now so commonplace in the English game.
“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Some of the things I saw away from football were crazy. It was so sad, considering India is such a rich country. The infrastructure and the roads were just so poor. Even the stadiums and the facilities were so behind. On my first day at training there were 20 ladies with a bucket each sprinkling the pitch. It’s so hot out there, the pitch dries up in minutes. There was no running water and the ground was rock hard,” he recalled.
“I’ve been fortunate to work at clubs where the facilities and pitches have been immaculate, then all of a sudden I’m at the complete other end of the scale. But you just have to embrace it and respect the country you’re in. It opened my eyes a lot.
“The people were incredible – no egos and no agenda. Everyone just worked hard to get the best for each other, which I absolutely loved. It was quite refreshing after playing in England; the mentality was completely different. I was coaching goalies who’d never really had any coaching before, and to see the progress we made with them in four or five months was so fulfilling.
“We got to a final and I played in front of 80,000 people and saved a penalty in the shoot-out, so in terms of a footballing experience it was incredible. In terms of a coaching experience, working with Indian goalies – one of whom was an international – that was amazing too.”
During an 18-year playing career, Stack spent time at no fewer than 12 different clubs – including stints with Beveren, Millwall, Reading, Leeds and Wolves, among others – but the goalkeeper’s path might have followed an alternative route had circumstances at Watford been different while on trial with the Hornets in 2012.
“When I came back from my time at Hibs I was trying to find a move down south and settle with my family. My wife was pregnant with our fourth and I’d been up in Scotland for three years. I was at the stage where I wanted to come back and settle because the kids were going to school,” he said.
“I’d been on trial at Preston, but I spoke to Alec Chamberlain and came to Watford for two weeks. I played in a pre-season game at St Albans and then I was on the bench for the following game against Gillingham. I knew that Barnet wanted to sign me so two weeks into my trial I told Gianfranco Zola that I’d been made an offer to play in League 2.
“At the time Manu Almunia was here, as well as Jonathan Bond and Jack Bonham. I knew they wanted to get Bondy out on loan but the club had so many players. Gianfranco said it wasn’t anything to do with my ability or my personality, I just couldn’t be brought in until some people went out.
“The Barnet offer was there and they told me I had a couple of days to decide, otherwise they would bring someone else in. So my hand was forced slightly, and it was a shame the opportunity to sign for a Championship club had gone by, but the timing just wasn’t right and I went on to have three brilliant years at Barnet.”
Of course, the Hornets’ London Colney training ground was already a familiar haunt for the former Arsenal man, who learned his trade there during the early days of his career prior to the Gunners’ move next door in 1999.
“I love coming back now,” admitted Stack, who finds himself coaching the Hornets’ Under-18 and Under-23 keepers on those very same pitches. “When I drive down the driveway it brings back so many memories. I remember coming here as a 12 or 13-year-old during half-term and watching the Arsenal first team train.
“As an Academy player I did my first year here and then we went across the road to do my second year. I have loads of good memories playing Under-17s football here, so I was really comfortable coming back knowing it wasn’t going to be all change. Obviously the pitches have improved and there have been some changes, but it’s still very familiar.”
It was whilst on Arsenal’s books that Stack encountered his main source of inspiration as a goalkeeper and as a coach, the legendary Bob Wilson, who played over 300 times for the Gunners, winning the First Division and FA Cup titles at Highbury before going on to coach the likes of Pat Jennings, John Lukic and David Seaman.
“Bob was my first goalkeeping coach. He was very simple and very basic. He was working with England’s number one at the time, so if it worked for David Seaman – and then worked well for Richard Wright, who broke into the England side at the time – then it was going to work for me,” he recalled.
“What I love about Bob is that he was so simple. Everything he did was related to games and it was all about keeping the ball out of the net in any way possible. He had that element of training that you loved, and he created an environment between the goalies which was a little bit special.
“They call it the goalkeepers’ union. When you are working together, you want to push each other and demand more from each other. But at the same time you are competing with each other, because I wanted to play every Saturday. But as a coach you have to give everyone the same opportunity to be better.”
After 18 months turning out in the National League with Eastleigh, Stack finally called time on a lengthy and diverse playing career, opting in September 2018 to hang up his gloves in favour of a coaching position with Watford. Naturally, making the decision to retire was both tough and painful, but within minutes of meeting the Academy’s decision makers he had been convinced it was the perfect opportunity.
“I’d been thinking about retiring for a little while but I still had a contract at Eastleigh and I still felt fit, so was it too early? I played in pre-season against Millwall and I played really well, so I left the game thinking maybe I still had more to offer. I was offered two roles in the Championship and I had four opportunities to consider in total, but I decided to commit to playing,” said the 37-year-old.
“But I wanted to be competing and challenging for the title or at least promotion, and the way the season was panning out, we were mid-table and it wasn’t going the direction I wanted. I was spending three hours in the car getting to training and back so the journey was getting the better of me too.
“I was one of the strongest and fittest at the club and I’d always wanted to play until I’m 40, but sometimes you have to think about what’s best for your family and your career. I’d done all my badges over the last 10 years and got as many qualifications as I could to help ease the transition into coaching, and after the first seven or eight games of the season I spoke with Darren Sarll, who invited me in for a chat.
“I sat down with Darren, Barry Quin and Andy Scott and it was obvious this is a great club that is on the up. In the end it just seemed like such a good fit and I decided on the spot that I was going to retire if I was offered the job. I made my mind up the moment I arrived. It really felt like the right place to be. Now I’m here, I’m absolutely over the moon.”
A few months into the job, Stack – who also set up his own Chorleywood-based football academy two years ago – hopes the will to win and the desire to improve that he couldn’t help but learn during those early days of his career will in turn rub off on the young goalkeepers on Watford’s books hoping to forge a career of their own.
“Part of my psyche has always been about winning, and that’s just how I’ve been brought up. My Dad never let me win anything and I’m a bit like that with my kids. Winning is a habit, and it’s a habit that I love. I don’t like being second best,” said Stack, who is in the final year of a Sports Broadcasting and Writing degree, which he has undertaken during his spare time.
“We have competitive elements to what we do with the goalkeepers – it might be a game of head tennis or a shooting drill where we keep track of goals scored. I want to create that mentality where if you get a whole team of natural winners it will certainly put you in a better position.
“Ultimately I want them to enjoy my sessions and to train with a smile on their face, like I always did. But at the same time I want them to have high standards and understand why we are there, which is to help make them the best goalkeeper they can be. That’s something I take quite seriously.
“I want to give up my experience and knowledge from all the great coaches I’ve worked with and taken bits and pieces from over the years. As a player I never wanted to be a number two or three, I always strived to play and be a number one. Hopefully I can pass on that mindset and determination to some of the young goalies here.”