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In the first of a three-part series, Sports Editor Anthony Matthews selects his top six Watford defenders since the start of the 1996/97 season
Come up with a list of my top six Watford defenders since the start of my Hornets-reporting days coincided with Kenny Jackett’s first league game in management at Dean Court (as it was then), Bournemouth, in August 1996. It seemed a simple enough idea at the outset.
Then I decided to throw the question out on Twitter to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently overlooked anyone. Half-a-dozen quickly seemed too limiting but I’ve stuck by my original intention.
The starting point for a list of defenders needs to be players who can, well, defend. But this isn’t about technical ability alone. I wanted players who bring or brought more to the table – character, passion, commitment, longevity where possible and a desire to respond to adversity.
Some or all of these traits, to varying extents, were or are displayed by Gabriele Angella, Clarke Carlisle, Marco Cassetti, Neil Cox, Marcus Gayle, Sean Dyche, Malky Mackay and Adrian Mariappa among others but here are the six I’ve opted for:
First on the list due to the alphabet but the selection that caused the most deliberation. But the now Vancouver Whitecaps player got the nod because his story was so appealing a film was made of it. After coming over from America, DeMerit played for Northwood in a pre-season game against the Hornets and was subsequently signed by Ray Lewington. Watford were rewarded with six years service during which the USA international became skipper and, perhaps most memorably, scored the opening goal in the play-off final success at the Millennium Stadium.
The current ‘Mr Watford’ who’s had more managers at Vicarage Road than most players have in their entire careers. The majority have tried to cast him aside but have quickly realised the error of their ways because the popular 31-year-old remains a strong and consistent defender. Doyley is seven appearances short of breaking into Watford’s all-time top five and, if he can remain fit, maintain his form and keep getting new contracts at Vicarage Road, he will be in with a chance of breaking Luther Blissett’s all-time club record.
Legend is a term banded about too frequently but it thoriughly applies to this man. But for injury, ‘Sir’ Nigel would be Watford’s all-time record appearance maker, although he does hold the record for most starts. It should be recalled that Gibbs was released by Graham Taylor at the end of the 1995/96 campaign, but he came back for pre-season, proved his fitness, earned a short-term deal, which was to be extended and missed only one game in the season under Jackett. That was the measure of the man, as was his trademark consistency. The manner in which Gibbs’ career at Vicarage Road was ultimately ended remains a disgrace but that is a distasteful episode I’ve no desire to revisit in the context of this list. Put simply, one of Watford’s all-time greats.
It can be argued Watford have had better defenders in the past 18 years but for passion, commitment and leadership qualities ‘Pagey’ has to be included. His Hornets honours read captain of the second division winning team of 1998, captain of the victorious Wembley play-off side 12 months later and Player of the Season in the Premiership the season after that. That’s some three-year CV.
Before Almen Abdi came along, Watford had another ‘Professor’. Palmer could have made it onto my list of top six midfielders (more of that next week), but he gets the nod as the other half of that superb central-defensive axis alongside Page in Taylor’s second time at the helm. A player who personified the word selfless, you knew exactly what you’d get with Palmer irrespective of what position he was asked to play. A superb reader of the game, Player of the Season for the Division Two title-winning campaign only to be foolishly let go in my opinion when Gianluca Vialli took charge.
Remember those moments when ‘Robbo’ was about to launch into a challenge, closing your eyes and thinking ‘don’t do it, Paul’? But you knew full well that he would - and normally did. Take that edge away though, and you wouldn’t have had the same player. Totally committed, passionate and the ideal man to have in the trenches when the chips were down. But a player doesn’t make more than 250 appearances for his home-town club – and more than 650 in total – unless he is good at his job. And that is why ‘Robbo’ is still going strong in the second tier of English football at 35. As for his career yellow-card count? It now stands at 157.
And one extra...Filippo Galli
Let’s be blunt, Vialli’s season had few redeeming features. But amid the over-paid mediocrity frequently served up, we were fortunate to be treated to a 38-year-old in the twilight of his career who broughthis own brand of Italian defensive style to Vicarage Road long before Cassetti and Angella landed in this corner of south-west Herts. Galli oozed class, natural authority and it didn’t take long to see why he had won five Serie A titles and three European Cups in a glittering career. He knew when to get the ball down and play and when not to but could also scrap when necessary. The former AC Milan defender only made 28 starts for Watford but I, for one, remember him fondly. Filippo Galli was cool.
All pictures: Action Images.