There was a time when any Watford squad included a number of homegrown heroes. Names like Blissett, Gibbs and Doyley just rolled off the tongue.

In more recent times, players who have ‘come through the ranks’ have been much less prevalent. In fact, in the last six years, only three players from the Hornets’ Academy - Dan Phillips, Alex Jakubiak and Brandon Mason - have started a competitive first-team game.

However, chairman Scott Duxbury went to great lengths to stress that as part of the cultural reset Watford wants to undertake, the progression and development of young players at the club will become a priority – and one that new head coach Rob Edwards is committed to.

Tommy Smith is doubly delighted to hear that. As a Hemel Hempstead lad he came through from the youth team into the reserves and then the first team, having two long spells as a first-team regular at Vicarage Road where he made more than 300 appearances.

Read more: Younger players to provide basis of Watford's way forward

His son, Max, is currently in the Watford Academy, so Tommy not only knows the immense benefits of giving ‘homegrown’ players a chance, he also has hopes his own son might do the same. However, it wasn’t plain sailing for Tommy.

“I actually got released by Watford as a schoolboy, and then got re-signed,” he said. “I was there until I was 12, and then came back just before the start of the Under-14 season.

“At that time, the club was absolutely renowned for producing its own players. There was a list of names who had gone on to great success with Watford, and some who went on to have careers at other clubs too.

“Back then I was playing football because I loved it. I was fortunate that I was half decent and able to play at a higher level than just school football or Sunday football. I always had dreams of being a footballer but I don’t think the realisation that it actually might happen came until I was older, perhaps around 16 when I was getting closer to the age that players were signing YTS forms.

“Once that happened it got a bit more serious, but as a 13-year-old I was just playing for the love of football, and you were still allowed to play for your school team and your Sunday team even if you were attached to a pro club. It’s so different now. You have boys signing at primary school and clubs wrap them up and only allow them to play for the academy.”

Having been in, then out, then in again, when did the teenage Tommy think he might have a chance of a career as a professional footballer?

“I think I first got an idea that I might make it around the Under-15 season, when I was playing regularly for Watford at weekends,” he said.

“We trained on the same night as lads that were a couple of years older and I could see some of them signing YTS forms. And then you realised there was a very strong link between the coaches that ran our sessions at Woodside on a Thursday night and the people who ran the first team.

“Because that link was so obvious, you did start to think that the first team wasn’t all that far away. You could see that there were only a couple of steps, if you kept progressing, between you and the first team.

“Paul Robinson was a couple of years above me and you could see him taking those steps and moving from youth football into the senior set-up. It showed all of us there was a pathway.

“It gave me a real understanding of what the club was about and how it developed players, and also a belief that I could achieve it. What the coaches were telling you was true because you could see players who trained on the same night as you progressing into the first team.”

Just making the step from youth teams to senior teams, having training sessions with the senior pros, being involved on a matchday and even getting a place on the bench meant so much to the young players.

“It made an enormous difference,” Tommy explained. “Suddenly you’ve gone from boys’ football into men’s football, and you are working with and involved with the first team. My generation did have a reserve team so we were probably exposed to men’s football a little earlier, but stepping up and training with the men, travelling with the men, being on the bench, it meant so much. You weren’t a boy anymore and you weren’t being treated like one either.

“The professionalism, the physicality, the responsibility – it is all very different. Nobody holds your hand or nurses you. It’s your responsibility to be where you need to be, do what you need to do.”

Nonetheless, there is a bit of Roy of the Rovers about it when your first time in the first-team squad is also the same day you make your debut.

“Yeah, my first time of being involved in the first team was actually when I made my debut,” he said.

“I had trained with the first-team squad on a few occasions because of being involved in the reserve team. I’d had a taster on the training ground, but the first time I was properly part of the first team was when we still trained at Stanmore and Kenny Jackett came to me while I was having lunch and said ‘go home and get your stuff, you’re in the squad for tonight’s game against Oldham’.

“So I did just that – went home, got my stuff, and then later that night I made my debut off the bench replacing Ronny Rosenthal.

“It all happened so quickly I had absolutely no chance to worry or over think things. It was a case of finding out I was on the bench, going home to get my stuff and then going to Vicarage Road.”

Watford Observer:

Tommy celebrating his winner at QPR

That was the season the Hornets won was then the Second Division. The following season in the First Division, Tommy announced himself in an away game at QPR.

“That game was really me making my first statement into professional football,” he recalled. “I’d played a couple of times the season before and it hadn’t really worked out for me. I got subbed at half-time in my only start. That was typical Graham Taylor, he didn’t mess about. If things were going wrong, he made a quick decision.

“At the time, I have to be honest, I thought the goal at QPR was a pretty good finish. But I’ve watched it again recently and it wasn’t that great really! I was five yards out and it almost hit me and trickled in the far corner. In my head I’d whipped it across the keeper and inside the post, but in reality it wasn’t quite that.

“I do remember that we had both tiers of the away end at Loftus Road that day, and there was a big following of Watford fans. It was the winner as well – we'd gone one down then Nicky Wright equalised with a real worldie goal.

“That game and goal played a big part in my life because it sort of propelled me into first-team football, and gave me a lot of confidence. It provided me with belief that I could do it at that level.”

So with that back story, it’s no surprise Tommy is a huge advocate of clubs bringing through their own players.

“You will not speak to anymore who will support developing your own players more than I will,” he said.

“It has to be a fundamental part of any club. It used to drive me mad when I was playing and people said the Spanish have got better young talent, or the Germans have got better young talent. No, that’s not the case. We’ve just created a Premier League that is the biggest in the world and it attracts the best players from across the world, and that means our brilliantly talented young lads haven’t really a got pathway.

“It’s only really been the last six or seven years where clubs – even the big ones – have started to believe in their youth systems and recognised that the players their academies are delivering are good enough to be in the first-team set-up.

“Not only are some of them good enough, but they hold their own, become stars and progress onto the international stage. That is so good to see.

“That is fundamental to the success of English football and I’m delighted it’s happening because we have a great standard of coaching in this country, facilities have improved remarkably and there is a very strong platform for talented young players to come through.”

Watford Observer:

All smiles with another Hornets' homegrown hero, Paul Robinson

Like many fans, Tommy was delighted to read comments from the Watford chairman in the Watford Observer that new manager Edwards would be driving to bring more young players through into the first-team set-up, and to then give them their chance to prove themselves.

“It’s what we all want to hear,” he said. “If I’m being honest, we need to see it start to happen though.

“I’m a local boy whose career started exactly that way at Watford. I go to games at the club and watch the team, my son is in the Under-15's at the club academy. I have to believe that Watford want to progress their own young players because, if I didn’t, then my son is at the wrong club.

“Now I’m a Dad and I have the opportunity to share some experience and background from my career to my son Max and some of his friends, it’s nice to have that confidence in Watford and tell them they are heading in the right direction. Watford might have been out in the wilderness a bit in terms of developing players and progressing them but clearly they want to change that.

“My son has been in the Watford Academy since he was in the Under-8s, and so I’ve seen the way the set-up has changed and developed. It is currently in the best possible position, and it is the best that I have seen it in those eight years.

“Richard Johnson and Jimmy Gilligan have done great work, and they are really driving things forward now. As I said, it did lose its way a bit and we may have lost some of our better players because they joined other clubs at a young age to play against better opposition in an academy that had a better structure in place.

“But now we will keep our better players and with Johnno and Jimmy in charge, and the club stating they want to place emphasis on developing their own talent, our young players will notice the differences and see a pathway to the first team.”