The Watford Observer has again teamed up with its friends at The Watford Treasury to share stories from YBR! Yellow Black & Red!

Matt Rowson looks back on the rumours, promises and those who nearly played for Watford.

It is beyond dispute that the names of players going back through your history of supporting Watford, however long that is, are evocative in themselves. You remember the significant goals, perhaps. The celebrations. The successes, perhaps the failure. Less widely acknowledged is another ledger of names. The dusty tome left on the shelf, rarely pored through with the same affection. The annals of players who didn’t quite sign for the Hornets.

I suspect that there has always been a category of such players. I have vague memories of Terry Gibson’s imminent signing from Manchester United being an item on the evening regional news bulletin in what must have been early 1987. He went to Wimbledon and won an FA Cup instead. A year or so later Steve Harrison was trying to sign Leroy Rosenior to help fire his side out of relegation trouble. Instead Rosenior joined West Ham, having baulked – he later reported – at the club’s insistence that he live within 12 miles of Vicarage Road. He then had the temerity to score against the Hornets on his Hammers debut for good measure, further cementing the relegation he should have been fighting against.

But it was the advent of the internet in popular culture that took this phenomenon up a notch. Never had rumour been so easily spread or so forensically examined. The early days of the Watford Mailing List in the mid-nineties were frenzied with such discussion. Sigurd Rushfeldt was an early topic of conversation; in 1995 Glenn Roeder was after a target man to partner Kevin Phillips and the Tromsø forward looked like that man until Birmingham City showed an interest. He would become the all-time leading scorer in Norway’s top flight, but his seven games for the Blues yielded no goals at all.

Watford Observer:

Barry Hayles moved to Bristol Rovers

A year later with the Hornets newly relegated to the third tier, Stevenage frontman Barry Hayles was the subject of much discussion, but Kenny Jackett was notoriously not afforded the limited funds required and Hayles moved to Bristol Rovers. Another year on and Trinidadian Jerren Nixon was the name on everyone’s lips; the Zürich striker had been tipped to be worth £10million one day by his then Dundee United boss Ivan Golac, but injury capsized his mooted move to Vicarage Road. He wasn’t the only Trinidadian nearly-man… two years later Stern John carried a mystique that could only be afforded to someone spotted by the guy who had found Dwight Yorke. John eventually joined Forest, the first of nine clubs in England, but never the Hornets.

By this time Sergei Cleșcenco’s star had risen and fallen again. The Moldovan made it as far as a youth team game against Northwood but work permit issues and his club Zimbru Chișinău’s intransigence put paid to that one. Clescenco would briefly resurface later in Tony Hawks’ book, Playing the Moldovans at Tennis. The author attempts to win a bet by finding each of the members of a Moldova side beaten at Wembley by England, challenging and then defeating them each at, yes, tennis and our man makes an eager late appearance courtside only to be rejected as he wasn’t in the specified starting line-up for his national football team. Again, so near and yet so far.

When Graham Taylor led the Hornets into the Premier League in 1999 the rumoured targets reached a whole new level of crazy. Taylor wanted an iconic figure to lead his inexperienced charges into the promised land; Italian hard man Giuseppe Bergomi was mentioned and German legend Lothar Matthäus confirmed an approach. Hristo Stoichkov had won the European Cup at Wembley with Barcelona in 1992 and expressed a desire to return to Wembley to lift another trophy; when it was pointed out to him that Watford were not the most likely team to feature in a Wembley final he replied, with characteristic modesty, that this would change if he arrived. Sadly for all concerned, this never happened.

Watford Observer:

Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov was linked with a move to Vicarage Road

As the year rolled past, the names continued. Often strikers, for some reason. Gianluca Vialli was keen on Albanian Igli Tare, then at Kaiserslautern, but the target man moved to Italy instead and is now Lazio’s sporting director. Sam Parkin was another big man who was nearly a Hornet but then wasn’t, opting to move to Ipswich rather than joining Aidy Boothroyd’s revolution at Vicarage Road in 2005.

There have been a couple of narrow squeaks in this list; Boothroyd himself was keen on landing Collins John on a long-term permanent contract that seemed horribly reckless on the basis of his subsequent ineffective loan spell, Watford’s board having knocked back the initial suggestion. Another dodged bullet years earlier had seen Dave Bassett removed from his position before he could finalise the signing of hatchet man Kevin Dillon.

Fast forwarding to closer to the present day, and our elevation to the top flight in 2015 and our current ownership’s fondness for a transfer saw the rumour mill spin out of control. Keeping track of the rumours has been a job in itself, but on the BHaPPY blog we’ve attempted to do so without passing any judgement on which links represent genuine interest and which are the fanciful work of agents, journalists or website editors.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult not to be impressed by our owners’ transfer business based on what we do know. Often, for instance, the Hornets have been linked to players who would end up joining the club several years later, indicating a degree of clarity and persistence. Ismaïla Sarr was first linked with a move to Hertfordshire in the summer of 2017 when he was still a teenager; he moved from Metz to Rennes that summer, but would be at Vicarage Road two years later. Two years earlier, as the Hornets were first promoted to the Premier League, a whole host of names were mentioned in dispatches who would become Hornets at a later date. Abdoulaye Doucouré was one such, six months before he arrived (also from Rennes) and Will Hughes another, his wait a whole two years. Stefano Okaka, Younes Kaboul and Adrian Mariappa were also mentioned 12 months before they actually signed. Three years later Craig Dawson’s signing was telegraphed 12 months in advance.

Watford Observer:

Hakim Ziyech in his pre-Chelsea days at Ajax

Another category of rumour has been plausible ‘ones that got away’… but encouraging when it appeared that we were able to anticipate early in proceedings where players would develop. Chelsea signing Hakim Ziyech was linked when he left Twente for Ajax in the summer of 2016, not a big name and not something plausibly fictional. Alain Saint-Maximin was discussed as an alternative signing to Sarr in the summer of 2019, but had first been linked to the Hornets three years earlier when still a teenager. Nicolas Pépé was mentioned in dispatches in the January of 2017, two-and-a-half years before he joined Arsenal, Sebastian Haller was 21 and at Utrecht when the Hornets were first linked to him in January 2016, Croatian World Cup final right-back Šime Vrsaljko was another target on promotion in 2015 – he would join Atlético from Sassuolo a year later. Left-back Ferland Mendy was supposedly a target from Le Havre in 2017 but joined Lyon instead, and Real Madrid two years later; 2017 clearly a year for left-backs, since we pursued Andy Robertson from Hull the same summer before Liverpool got their man. A year later Jamal Lewis was on the list after his first 22 games for a Norwich side that had finished 14th in the Championship. Perhaps most tantalisingly, what would have been a coup in persuading Mo Salah to stay in England rather than heading on loan to Roma in 2015.

Finally there are names who are perhaps closer to the spiritual brethren of Clescenco and Nixon, names that teased us but then disappeared into the ether. Luca Cigarini, Grégoire Defrel, Diego Perotti and Pablo Sarabia are hardly unknowns, all have had successful careers but the closest they came to Vicarage Road was in speculative pieces on the Internet. Were they ever genuine targets? Might they have been lined up for a friendly at Northwood or a call from Elton John? Sadly, tantalisingly, it’s likely that we’ll never know.

Copies of YBR! Yellow Black & Red! are available to buy from