Wednesday, 6 January 2010

You’re my favourite

Trying to think of something to write to usher in the fourth year of this blog, I realised that I’ve never listed my all-time top five Watford players. Those who’ve been reading carefully won’t be surprised to find that all five came through the Watford youth system (albeit that one of them signed fairly late) - somehow I can never feel the same affection for a player we’ve bought as I do for those we’ve raised.

5) Lloyd Doyley
No surprise here, either. A Watford legend in the making, and (I suspect and hope) destined to be an example of that increasingly rare phenomenon, the one-club man. The thing about Lloyd is that, unlike far too many footballers, he actually gets better as he gets older. Who’d have thought he’d be so good playing on the left, for example, or that he’d produce so many useful crosses this season. And as for the goal - no let’s not go there, the memory of missing it is still too painful.

4) John Barnes
Only number four? It’s true that if this was a list of the best footballers I’d ever seen in a Watford shirt, Digger would be right at the top, no shadow of a doubt. From the moment he came on a sub in a game against Oldham (I was there), it was obvious we had something special on our hands. So many memorable goals - one at home to Liverpool in the league (mentioned on WML today, funnily enough) sticks out in particular - and the kind of sublime skill most players can only dream about. And yet, churlish as it may seem to point this out, he wasn’t the most consistent of players. Maybe that’s inevitable - maybe gifts like that don’t lend themselves to consistency - but he’s the only player in this list who was capable of disappearing for a game or two.

3) Keith Mercer
Ah, my first favourite. I’ve written at length on Keith in an article that appeared in BSAD’s ‘Tributes’ section (you can read it here), so I won’t repeat myself. But I will repeat the description of the goal that typified his never-say-die attitude:

“One-nil up in a Second Round FA Cup tie against Colchester in 1977, Watford were still looking shaky when a clearance went bouncing harmlessly towards the Colchester penalty area. As the left back sauntered across to collect the loose ball he became aware of a bulky yellow and black object bearing down on him like a jet-propelled battering ram. Having sprinted half the length of the pitch, Keith had built up enough momentum to run straight through a brick wall, never mind reach the ball first. The hapless defender went flying like a skittle and Keith slotted the ball past the startled goalkeeper.”

2) Nigel Gibbs
I don’t need to explain to Watford fans why Gibbsy is so high on this list: say the phrase ‘model footballer’ and he’s the one I picture. Having said that, I think my championing of him was largely born of frustration with a succession of managers who relegated him to the sidelines in favour of ‘wing-backs’ who were better than him at getting forward and crossing the ball – and, repeatedly, worse at doing the job the full back is actually there for, ie defending. Darren Bazeley, Des Lyttle, even Patrick sodding Blondeau - they all kept Nigel out of the team, and thus denied him the all-time appearance record his ability and loyalty had earned him.

1) Luther Blissett
Still, if Nigel had to be kept off the top of the appearance list by anyone, it might as well be Luther (also the man who took Keith Mercer’s first team place, incidentally). As with Gibbsy, there was perhaps an element of protectiveness in my attitude to Luther, a reaction against the papers that labelled him ‘Luther Miss-it’, ignoring the fact that for every chance he missed, he scored from another. Even when he hit a hat trick on his England debut (in a 9-0 win against Luxembourg at Wembley - and yes, I was there), the press focused on the chances he spurned. He couldn’t win. But those of us who watched him every week knew his essential qualities: a born trier who would never let you down. The fact that he came back to the club twice after leaving only enhanced his legend.