Taking a closer look at a Football League personality this week is Matt Rowson, co-pen of Watford blog BHaPPY (whose precursor was BSaD, the site that originally got me [Lloyd] interested in football writing). This morning, Matt considers the recent rise of Academy graduate and next great Hornets hope Sean Murray.
Watford are not the only side with a decent track record in terms of producing its own talent, but we do it rather well. Teenage striker Britt Assombalonga recently became the fiftieth Academy product to be given his Watford debut since its inception in 1998, a rate of roughly 3.5 per season. Manchester United winger Ashley Young is the most celebrated but the vast majority are still playing professionally, as are a number of Academy products who never made the first team at Vicarage Road.
Going back further, David James and Tim Sherwood are just two of a huge number to have come through the ranks and enjoy professional careers in the top divisions of the English game. Most famously, John Barnes spent a thrilling six years in Watford’s first team. Although admittedly signed from Sudbury Court a mere three months before he burst into the senior side, he was nonetheless only seventeen years old.
But the world has changed since Barnes ripped Chelsea up on his full debut at Stamford Bridge in 1981. It has changed since Ashley Young’s debut goal against Millwall in 2003. Thanks to the immediacy of information and ease of communication, thanks to YouTube, Watford fans have been anticipating Sean Murray for a very long time. Sean is 18.
Born locally, Murray made a rapid impact in Watford’s youth team. This goal was scored against Chelsea shortly after his sixteenth birthday. He signed a professional contract, still aged 16, in the summer of 2010, and the following season was a significant force as the Hornets made the quarter finals of the FA Youth Cup, this goal his second in a fifth round win at Craven Cottage. Early interest from Manchester City was rapidly rebuffed.
One of Malky Mackay’s last decisive acts as Watford manager was to award Murray his debut, as a late substitute against Queens Park Rangers in the final home game of 2010-11. By this point expectation had been built to such an extent that voices behind me in the stand were betting on the likelihood of Murray coming on and breaking the deadlock; a blessing in disguise, perhaps, that Adel Taarabt opened the scoring while Murray was waiting on the touchline.
But that’s the point, that’s what’s changed. We hadn’t heard of Barnes before he appeared on the bench in 1981. Ashley Young’s name had been mentioned in dispatches, but not to nearly this extent. Amplifying the pressure on a young prospect like Murray is the focus of attention, expectation, which even his most elaborately talented predecessors had been spared.
We watched and waited. Murray received the ball on the edge of the QPR area, his back to goal with a defender in close attendance. In one smooth and yet instantaneous move he spun sideways and backwards into space, taking the ball with him, now facing the play and conducting it. No nerves here. A full debut on the closing day at Preston and the stage was set for 2011-12.
His impact was somewhat delayed. Sean Dyche took over in the summer and, faced with the loss of much of Watford’s attacking threat in Danny Graham, Don Cowie and Will Buckley he set out to make the side solid. He succeeded too, but the chances offered to Watford’s youngsters were greatly limited, partly by circumstances and partly by strategy. Murray, whose involvement for the first half of the campaign was limited to two minutes of a woeful defeat at home to Forest, became one of the poster boys for the neglected youth as Dyche’s workmanlike side struggled for creativity.
Then suddenly, on the most dramatic stage of our season, he was back in focus again. Tottenham came to Vicarage Road in the FA Cup Fourth round in full flight; a narrow defeat at Man City their only reverse in ten. The Hornets were struggling, a third round win over Bradford puncturing a run of three league defeats. Dyche decided that the time was right.
Murray was in from the start, and played a part in the Hornets giving Spurs a far tougher game than might have been anticipated. It was nearly fairytale stuff, as a sweet second half move found Murray clear on the left of the area, curling the ball around Carlo Cudicini, reeling away in celebration with the crowd rising … as the ball rebounded off the inside of the post. Instead, Rafael van der Vaart’s deceptive strike got Spurs out of jail, as Harry Redknapp candidly admitted.
Murray started all but two of the remaining nineteen fixtures, missing a fortnight through injury. Watford lost one of those seventeen games. It would be misrepresentative of an astonishing run of team form to give Murray all the credit, but his impact was beyond dispute. Most visible of his contributions was a vicious array of set pieces: three of his seven goals came direct from free kicks, his dead balls created four goals for others.
But there’s more than that. Small and slight, he has deceptive body strength, a gritty competitiveness, tight control, an extravagant range of passes and breathtaking awareness. In a division where a solid base with a sprinkling of magic dust is a decent recipe for promotion, the Hornets have every cause to look forward to next season positively.
During the final day victory over Middlesbrough, Murray received a long pass from behind, flicked it in front of himself with one touch and played an accurate cross field ball in the same movement, to a standing ovation. He signed a three-and-a-half year contract in March; with vultures already circling it would be a brave man who bets on him seeing that out. Such is the way of the world. For the moment we just watch and enjoy.