Five Stars: Watford's best players in the 21st century
Two down, seventy to go. In the second of the Five Stars series, Tom Bodell picks out Watford’s best players since the turn of the century. He has selected three local lads, including one current England international, and two Nordic Hornets. Interestingly, two of his picks currently top the Championship table with Queen’s Park Rangers.
Local lad Tommy Smith is an obvious choice and probably the one player all Hornets would agree on. Despite leaving the club twice in the last ten years, he repeated all his good work from his first spell when returning between 2006 and 2009 having initially left under acrimonious circumstances.
After rejecting a new contract at the club in 2003 as a striker, Smith left the club for Sunderland, moving on to Derby County before returning as an all-action winger. Dangerous going forward, contributing nearly as many assists as he did goals, he was the rare breed of winger prepared to put a shift in and track back to help his full-back out.
Whatever else you say about former manager Aidy Boothroyd, the £500,000 invested in bringing Smith back to the Vic for Watford’s inglorious return to the Premier League was money exceedingly well spent. The fact the Hornets managed to agree a deal worth £1.8million to let him join Portsmouth was almost as important for the club as the goals he scored — 27 of them in 135 starts and just the solitary substitute appearance in his second stint in WD18.
The signing of former Denmark international Allan Nielsen was something of a coup for Watford. Formerly of Tottenham Hotspur and with three international tournaments and 40-odd Danish caps under his belt, Nielsen was a cut above the rest of the Division One-level squad.
Boasting superb vision and a great passer with real style, guile and panache, Nielsen was equally well deployed out wide as he was in the engine room of the midfield.
On the final day of the 2002/2003 season, Nielsen took a slow and emotional final stroll around the pitch he’d once dominated along with Stephen Glass, before returning to his homeland for a final swansong with Herfolge. Both were released through necessity as the club could no longer afford their contracts, which was indicative of more prosperous times at Vicarage Road.
Another local lad, currently plying his trade in the Premier League with Bolton Wanderers, Paul Robinson would have to be considered a certainty at left back for most Hornets fans of the last 15 years when constructing their ultimate Watford XI.
On the pitch, Robbo was as hard as nails, not to be messed with under any circumstances and this led to the red mist at least a couple of times a season. Committed to the cause and extremely hard-working, Robinson was another eventually let go through necessity as opposed to desire on anyone’s part, sold in September 2003 for the paltry sum of £250,000 to West Bromwich Albion.
Nobody begrudged Robinson the move to a side that were looking to gain promotion to the Premier League and the greatest testament to him is that, in eight years since, he has never been replaced by a left-back of a consistently competent level.
On the pitch, a warrior; off the pitch, a consummate pro and a true gentleman — upon full time at one Vicarage Road clash, he made a beeline towards the disabled supporters section. Clearly a man on a mission, he handed his sweat-soaked shirt to a fan in a wheelchair, shared an embrace and trotted off again while applauding the Rookery End.
Icelandic striker Heidar Helguson is another to have had two stints at the club where he made his name in English football. Signed in 2000 while Watford were still in the Premier League but heading out of it at an alarming rate, he marked his debut with a goal in the home defeat by Liverpool. Not a bad start for an unknown Icelander.
For someone of his relatively short stature, there is no logic in Helguson’s ability to win headers. He was a committed servant of the club too. In one game, the ball hadn’t run for him and, instead of letting out some Icelandic expletives, he launched himself two-footed at the nearest advertising hoarding. If it had been a tackle, he would have been done for assault. The hoarding whimpered and off fell a good third of the advertisement.
The most recent and well-known of the five, Ashley Young was always going to be good. The coaching staff said it, the manager said it and, when he tapped into an empty net in front of the Rookery five minutes into his debut, Watford fans believed it.
However, what Watford fans didn’t know at that point was quite how good he was going to be. His winner for England in Denmark recently was a particularly proud moment for the Watford academy staff, as doubtless each of his England caps have been.
In the 2005/2006 promotion season, Young was sensational. For one so wiry, he had an ability to stay on his feet and ride challenges he had no right to elude. Fifteen goals and a bucketful of assists won him a place in the Championship Team of the Season. Nippy? Yes. Skilful? Yes. End product? Oh yes.
In January 2007, after a protracted saga, he was eventually sold to Aston Villa for £9.75m. Watford were laughing all the way to the bank. A good player, yes, but not that good, surely? It turned out Martin O’Neill had seen the boy’s potential too and it is now every other week that the Young one is linked with a £20million-plus move to a bigger club. Bring on the sell-on clause!