The news last week that Lloyd Doyley has signed for Rotherham came us a blow to all of us who’d secretly hoped he’d somehow manage to play out his career at Vicarage Road and then stay on in some kind of coaching role. It just seems wrong to see him wearing a different club’s kit.
It’s only a loan deal until the end of the season, but even the most deluded of Lloydinho fans (among whom I count myself) don’t really believe we’ll see him in a Watford shirt again, barring a freak accident involving the entire defensive portion of the first-team squad. At least Rotherham have given him a chance to prolong his career and display the defensive skills and discipline that made him, for several years, the best right back in the Championship bar none. At 33, and assuming his customary levels of fitness and dedication, he should have another three or four seasons in him yet.
I’ve wittered on about my admiration of Lloyd enough on this blog in the past, and about his status as one of a dying breed of full-backs who earned their place on defensive ability alone. Sure, he’s never been able to perform tricks like the sublime one Juan Carlos Paredes performed to skin his marker against Bournemouth yesterday – but if I wanted a winger shepherded away from the penalty area and closed down before he could get a cross in, it’s Lloyd I’d call on every day of the week.
Lloyd’s departure symbolises the end of another era, too: that of the homegrown player as fixture in the Watford first team. Looking at how the club has changed in the past few years, you do wonder when (if ever) we will see another player come through the Academy and establish himself in the team. There’s Tommie Hoban, who may have a chance when he gets over his long-term injury problems, but after that? You can’t really see George Byers or Josh Doherty displacing any of the existing squad members from the bench, let alone actually getting onto the pitch.
Of course, the gulf between the Academy and the first team is largely the result of the club’s success, but it also reflects a shift in policy. These days, we’re officially targeting older players with the nous and experience to ensure we can maintain our Premier League status – very few of our signings since the end of last season have been under 28 – and the younger players who do make the fringes of the first team tend to be high-profile foreigners like Obbi Oulare, who’d already played in the Champions League before coming here. It’s a policy that’s been spectacularly successful, so it’s hard to criticise.
In the meantime, until the Harefield Academy can start to turn out players of that calibre, the brightest and best Watford youngsters will continue to sign professional contracts, spend a couple of years playing Under-21 football and then drift off to other clubs (if they’re lucky). We’re not unique in that respect, of course, but at a time when other Premier League clubs have shown the ability to nurture talented young footballers and bring them through into the first team (Southampton and Spurs are two that spring to mind), it seems a shame that Watford is now possibly the club in the top division where you’re least likely to see an Academy graduate make an appearance.