Tuesday, 29 July 2008

A few good men

I’m old enough to remember when foreign players were a novelty, and having one in your team was a sign of daring. In 1981, when Graham Taylor signed Dutchman Jan Lohman from Belgian club Sporting Lokeren (which was confusing as well as exciting), it was only three years since the arrival of Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa at Spurs had alerted English clubs to the fact that it was actually legal to sign players who weren’t natives of the British Isles.

Still, it’s only in the past decade or so that buying foreign players has become commonplace, at Vicarage Road as elsewhere. And you have to say, Watford managers haven’t generally made the best choices. There have been a few foreign imports who’ve started well and then faded away, either through injury (Ronnie Rosenthal, ‘Bunion’ Ben Iroha), a drop in form (Espen Baardsen, Johann Cavalli) or general lunacy (Xavier Gravelaine). There have been plenty who have been, well, not very good in the first place, such as Johann Gudmundsson, Pierre Issa, Paul Okon, Ramon Vega and my all-time least favourite Watford player, Patrick Blondeau. And there have been far too many who have been all but invisible to all but the most dedicated followers of the reserve team - award yourself a point if you ever saw Lars Melvang, Sietes, Herwig Walker, Adam Griffiths, Adrian Bakalli or Tony Meola in action.

So choosing my all-time favourite foreign Watford players wasn’t actually all that difficult when it came down to it. Here they are, in reverse order. (NB: For the purposes of this list I’ve ignored anyone from the British Isles - sorry, Dominic Foley - and anyone whose international selection was achieved using the Jack Charlton “You like Guinness, you must be Irish” principle – sorry Micah, sorry Marlon):

5) Nordin Wooter (Netherlands, 1999-2002, 70 games, 3 goals)
Look in the dictionary under ‘flattering to deceive’ and you’ll find a picture of Wooter – but by God, it was fun watching him deceive us. For much of his time at Vicarage Road he seemed on the verge of becoming the best winger in the world, handicapped only by a mystifying unwillingness to actually cross the ball or shoot at the goal. Just once, it all came together: a home game against Norwich on a sunny spring day when he picked up the ball around the halfway line, dribbled around the entire Canaries defence (or so it seemed at the time) and thumped the ball into the net with the aplomb of a man who knew he was capable of it all the time. For that goal alone, he makes my top five.

4) Allan Nielsen (Denmark, 2000-03, 113 games, 19 goals)
One of those midfielders you only really appreciate when they’re no longer there (from Les Taylor to Gavin Mahon, Watford has a history of them), Nielsen ran his socks off for Watford during some tough times, providing unparalleled commitment and a handy knack of appearing in the six-yard box in time to get on the end of a cross. But what I really remember is his final game, and the moving farewell the Rookery gave him when Ray Lewington substituted him a few minutes from the end. Not many players get that kind of send-off.

3) Filippo Galli (Italy, 2001-02, 29 games, 1 goal)
Vialli signed a lot of rubbish, but Galli was his one undisputed gem, a central defender of true class and grace, capable of snuffing out an attack and redistributing the ball with the minimum of fuss. Not for him the clumsy foul or the hurried booting of the ball into the back of the stand. Seeing Galli play in the heart of Watford’s defence was like turning up at the pub to watch your local blues band and finding that the guitarist has been replaced by Eric Clapton. In that miserable season, he was one of the few players I truly admired.

2) Richard Johnson (Australia, 1991-2003, 278 games, 22 goals)
It’s the goals I remember most – above all, a last-minute screamer to beat Wolves in a midweek game when GT was in charge of the opposition. Looking at the stats, I’m surprised to find he only scored 22, or around 2 for each season he was at the club. I suppose the fact that those he scored were mostly spectacular long-range efforts that left goalkeepers looking foolish tricks the memory. As for his midfield skills, I don’t have the appreciation of tactics necessary to do justice to them. I only know that his enforced absence due to injury for the majority of that first season in the Premiership was one of the main reasons we went down. If only...

1) Heidar Helguson (Iceland, 2000-2005, 199 games, 64 goals)
What can you say about Heidar? There have been better strikers at Watford - you wouldn’t bet on him in a one-on-one with the keeper, for instance – but few who were more whole-hearted. His heading ability still astounds me when I recall it, the way he could outjump defenders who were a foot taller than him. He never stopped running, never stopped trying, even when he was inexplicably stuck out on the wing by Vialli. I’d take him back in a flash, even now. You want strikers in your team who look like all they want to do is score goals, and that is Heidar Helguson.

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