“At the moment, I’m happy doing what I’m doing,” Nigel Callaghan says. “I’d sooner be a millionaire, but I’m happy.” He takes a sip of his cola and looks around the pub in Stafford, his adopted hometown, full of people taking advantage of the cheap fish and chips on a Friday lunchtime. “Financially I made nothing out of football. I’m as rich as the next person in here. People say to me: ‘How much would you be on now?’ I’ll never know. When I was playing I’d put myself up there with the top‑10 crossers of the ball – I could hit a ball off one stride. I could whip them in, I could bend them. Full-backs didn’t know whether to get tight or stand off.”
Watford face Manchester City in Saturday’s FA Cup final but when they last reached this stage, in 1984, Callaghan was the 21-year-old whose pinpoint deliveries from the right wing – along with those of John Barnes on the opposite flank – were the cornerstone of Graham Taylor’s tactical plan. But he has not played since the mid-1990s, with any hopes of a return to even the occasional social kickabout having ended when he was diagnosed with arthritis a decade ago. “I don’t know if it’s got anything to do with the football,” he says. “I certainly got kicked a bit when I was a winger; that won’t have done me any good.”
It was the start of a horrendous few years: an anomaly discovered during routine blood tests done as part of his treatment for that condition led to a diagnosis of bowel cancer in 2009; an operation failed to completely remove the tumour, and another scan following six months’ chemotherapy found that it had spread to his liver.
“I was really bricking it,” he says. “I’d had six months of chemo, that was really bad. I wouldn’t wish chemo on anyone. Then to be told it was an even bigger operation … I even went on holiday with my mum the week before I went to hospital, because I honestly thought that was it. I went in for the operation and as they wheel me down I’m thinking: ‘Have I told my mum I love her? Have I said goodbye to everyone?’ And then you count backwards from 10 and that’s it, you’re out.”
Callaghan lifts his shirt to reveal a scar that tapers down and then around his stomach; nearly 70% of his liver was removed. Five days later he was home, and all tests since have been clear. “Do you know the worst part about cancer? And I’m pretty sure anyone who’s had it and survived will tell you. It’s not the scars and the stitches, it’s not the operations, it’s the mental scar it leaves,” he says. “Because even when you’re clear, you’re still thinking: ‘What if it comes back?’
“When I first went for my six-month checkup, I walked out eight times. I couldn’t do it, because I didn’t know if I had that gun with a bullet in it. I’m not the same person I was before I had the cancer. I don’t want sympathy from anyone, I just get on with my life and try to have a good time.
“I’ve been clear for more than five years now so I don’t have to go back for tests. I’m not sure I’d want to know if it came back, to be honest. I’m not sure I’d want to go through all that again. I’m a firm believer in ‘when your time’s up, your time’s up’. If I was meant to die I’d have died on that operating table. People tell me: ‘You shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that. You drink too much, you’re having too much salt.’ Do you change your life completely so you’re not enjoying anything you do, or do you think: ‘I’m going to enjoy myself’. You can’t cut everything out of your life.”
Had things gone only slightly differently, Callaghan would never have become a footballer at all. After coming through the youth system at Watford he was judged too slight, and told he would not be offered an apprenticeship. His form over the following month was so impressive that not only was a contract swiftly produced but he ended up being invited to move in with Taylor’s family, at least for a week.
“We had a bit of a love-hate relationship,” says Callaghan of his first manager. “I think Graham saw me as a bit of the son he’d never had, and he wanted me to do well, but because of that he was more critical of me than he was with other players.
“I got the brunt of it sometimes, and I got a bit of a mickey-taking from the lads. They’d call me the teacher’s pet, because I was staying round the gaffer’s house. I suppose at the time I didn’t like it a little bit. I understood what he was trying to do, but I didn’t understand why I was staying round his house. I think I was the only one who did that.
“Then he’d wind me up. If I got a free-kick wrong in training he’d go: ‘I won’t let you go out with Joanne if you do that again.’ So I was getting all the banter from the lads, about me and the gaffer’s daughter. She was a lovely girl but we were just friends, and we became friends because I stayed at his house for a week. But ask me why I was staying there, I don’t know.”
Taylor’s methods might have been occasionally mystifying but they were certainly successful. Under him Watford launched themselves from the Fourth Division into the top flight; within four years of Callaghan’s debut they won promotion to the First Division, finished as runners-up, played in Europe and reached the Cup final, blowing away teams with their commitment to high-tempo pressing and attacking.
“Kenny Jackett and Les Taylor were the engine room. They’d get it and if they could play it straight away they would. Get it out wide, get the ball in the box,” Callaghan says. “John used to beat players, he had his tricks. And me, if I could get the ball into the box I did. All this rubbish they used to go on about, saying we were a kick-and-rush side – rubbish. We were direct and we closed players down and we pushed up as a team. If you watch Manchester City, they squeeze. They’re compact. When they lose the ball, it’s not two players who squeeze, the whole team squeezes. That’s something Graham used to say: if you can press in the final third, a lot of goals will come from that. We’d go into every game believing we could win. We went to Liverpool thinking we could win. We never did, mind.”
They played Everton, another of the era’s great teams, in the Cup final. Callaghan remembers the buildup as a whirlwind of TV cameras, with Michael Barrymore japing in the team hotel on the morning of the match. “Before you know it 90 minutes have gone and you’ve either won or lost,” he says. “All that buildup and all of a sudden it’s over.”
Everton won 2-0 – Callaghan is far from alone in still grumbling about the second goal being allowed to stand despite an apparent foul on the goalkeeper, Steve Sherwood, by Andy Gray – and from there the team went into gentle decline until Callaghan, Barnes and Taylor left within four months of one another in 1987 and it stopped being so gentle. Callaghan was first to go, spending two seasons at Derby – where he won promotion again – before being reunited with Taylor at Aston Villa.
For most of his career he had, with the blessing of his various managers, spent his Saturday nights moonlighting as a DJ and it was to this that he turned when, after a miserable final season at Villa under Ron Atkinson, he stepped away from the professional game aged only 30 and spent his first summer of freedom in Corfu. “When my contract finished and I was more or less told to naff off by Ron Atkinson I just thought: ‘I’m going to go abroad, I’m going to go out, and if I want to have a drink I’ll have a drink. From the age of 11 I never smoked, I never drank, I never went out with girls. All I wanted to be was a footballer. Suddenly, no one was going to tell me what to do.”
At the end of that summer he tried to force his way back into football, spending six months at Millwall without making a first-team appearance, playing for a few non-league clubs and, briefly, in South Africa (it was after a training session with Baldock Town that he tipped off Watford about a promising young striker named Kevin Phillips) before he decided to concentrate entirely on music. Now 56, he continues to work as a DJ.
“I’ve never had another job. I’ve never sat in an office, done 9-5. I finished my football career early but I didn’t do bad. I played in an England Under-21 final, played in an FA Cup final, came second in the top league. There were a lot of great moments. I’ve done a lot of things in my short career that a lot of players haven’t done, so I’d never complain about what I had. And I’ve done all right out of DJing, to be fair. I’ve stayed in the entertainment business. There’s no way DJing can even come near scoring a winning goal or playing in front of 100,000 people, but I’ve made a good life out of it. I think I’ve been quite lucky.”