Not being picked in the starting XI is disappointing for any professional footballer. Not making the bench is even more miserable. But not even being part of the 25-man squad? That’s bordering on insulting, especially when you’ve played 300 senior games and spent a dozen seasons in the Premier League.

However, in January, that’s exactly the position Dan Gosling found himself in.

Just 12 months earlier the midfielder had joined Watford from Bournemouth, and went on to make 13 appearances and scored twice as the Hornets secured promotion back to the Premier League.

Yet a lot can happen at Vicarage Road in a year, and three head coaches later Gosling found himself without a squad number and not just surplus to requirements for matches, but also for training sessions too.

“Being left out of the 25 was a shock, I’ll be honest,” he said. “That’s as bad as it gets really. I thought it would be okay staying at the club and training, but after a couple of weeks I realised it was going to be very tough.

“I was working with the first-team squad but we had so many players that it was overcrowded. If they were doing a drill that needed 20 players, I was the first player to be told I wasn’t needed and so I’d end up training on my own.

“If someone got a knock or left the session, then I’d be called over to replace them. Otherwise, I’d spend the session on my own.

“It was tough, because you can’t help feeling unwanted. I just said to myself that I had to try and come in each day and be happy, work hard, get through it day by day. I concentrated on my all-round fitness, did a lot of gym work. I pretty much switched off from games as I knew I wasn't going to be part of them.”

When Gosling was told he wasn’t going to be part of the 25-man squad at the end of the January transfer window, he was offered the chance to go and play elsewhere.

“The club wanted me to go on loan during that January window, but I said I didn’t agree,” he said.

“I felt I should be in and around playing at Watford, I wanted to fight for my place. I’d also just relocated my family – I have three children under 5 – a few weeks earlier and I didn’t want that upheaval. It would have been really tough on my wife, as she was pregnant with our third child at that time. I didn’t think it was fair on her, fair on my kids and I just refused as I didn’t think it was the right thing for my career or for my family.

“I felt like I was being unfairly treated so I dug my heels in. The loan options were for clubs in the north, I’d just moved my pregnant wife and kids to this area and I couldn’t consider a loan that wasn’t commutable. I wasn’t going to uproot them to a new area and then move up north for three months.

“My wife understands how football works and she knows you move around. But having literally just moved, and with a baby on the way, I just wasn’t prepared to move away for three months.

“The club said I wouldn’t be in the 25 if I stayed, and even knowing that I stuck to my guns and said I’d stay here.”

Not long after the bombshell of being outside the 25-man squad, Claudio Ranieri lost his job, Roy Hodgson arrived and Gosling was back in the squad – though only because another player departed.

“When Roy came in I wasn’t in the 25, but then Ashley Fletcher went out on loan and that opened up a place,” he explained.

“I found that all very strange. If the club knew they were going to loan him out, then why include him in the 25 in the first place? I think he was only in one matchday squad, then he went out on loan. But while he was still here, that took my place up."

It was all very different to how things looked like they might pan out, as Gosling came on for the closing stages of the opening-day win over Aston Villa at Vicarage Road. Did he ever expect his season to unfold the way it did?

“Virtually end that day you mean?! No, I didn’t see that coming really,” he said.

“I actually thought I was going to start the Villa game as I’d played in pre-season, scored a couple of goals and was doing at least as well as anyone else.

“Then in the week leading up to the game the club signed another midfielder and he went straight into the team. I was a bit shocked but I had to deal with it. I’m professional, I adopt a professional attitude and I got on with it.

“I prepared as well as usual, warmed up well, came on for the last 20 minutes and we won the game. I was due to start the next game at Brighton as Kucka had got injured, but I got Covid and that sidelined me for four games.

“But then after I’d got better, that was pretty much me done for a few months, other than sitting on the bench.”

The 30-year-old former Everton and Newcastle midfielder said that, on reflection, the warning signs were there.

“We just kept bringing players in. They signed Peter Etebo on loan from Stoke, he’s back at Stoke now. I know he got an injury but he didn’t really play much,” said Gosling.

“They signed Tufan from a Turkish club. He was here on loan: is he going to really care if the club goes down? He knew that whatever happened, he could go back to wherever he came from. He’d never played English football at all, never played here, never played in the Premier League. He wasn’t bothered and he wasn’t that fit either.

Watford Observer:

Ozan Tufan

“They signed Kucka. He’d played at the top level in Italy but had never played in England, didn’t know any of the players but goes straight into the team. Now he’s off playing in Slovakia.

“So there were three players in the same position as me, and they’ve all gone now and none of them are playing anywhere as good as Watford. Tufan has joined Hull. With all due respect to Hull, they aren’t as big as Watford.

“I just felt bringing in three players ahead of me was the wrong decision. The club and my agent were telling me I was seen as a big part of things, they didn’t want to sell me. It was all so strange.

“Did the club work out they hadn’t recruited as strongly as they as they thought, and we might be in relegation trouble? Did they want me around to help get them back if they were relegated?

“I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but those were the vibes I was getting.”

Having featured in the win over Villa on August 14, Gosling didn’t cross the white line again until September 21.

“I got picked to play against Stoke in the Carabao Cup, and I was told to go out there and show us what you can do,” he said. “We lost the game but I played 80 minutes and gave it my all. Then I was back out of the picture again.”

Gosling decided to confront the issue head on, and went to speak to head coach Xisco Munoz.

“I spoke to the manager two or three times,” he said. “I remember I wasn’t even on the bench for the game at Norwich, and Xisco just said that we had a lot of players in the same position and I needed to bide my time.

“That was fair enough, I got my head down and worked – and then he got the sack a couple of weeks later.”

Watford Observer:

Claudio Ranieri

The departure of Munoz led to the arrival of Claudio Ranieri, a manager who had won the Premier League with Leicester City. His time with Watford was to be short, unsuccessful and, from Gosling’s point of view, no fun at all.

“That time with Ranieri was just really unenjoyable,” he said. “The training we did, the spirit they created, the staff that came with him – the whole thing was just miserable. They were miserable, and it made it miserable.

“I was surprised they lasted four months to be honest. I have been in football a long time, and so have a few boys in the squad, and that time was as bad as it can get.”

There were stories of training sessions often being long periods of five-a-side football. Was that true?

“Yes, and I absolutely hate that!” said Gosling. “If you’re going out on the training pitch and just doing five-a-side games day after day, it is literally nothing football. It’s kid’s football. As a pro, you don’t learn anything from it.

“There’s a time and place for five-a-sides obviously, but it’s usually a few fun games at the end of a session. Doing whole sessions of five-a-side every doesn’t win you games. Look at the results on the pitch.”

Unfortunately for Gosling – and Watford fans – the departure of Ranieri and arrival of Roy Hodgson saw very little change, on or off the pitch.

“To be fair to Roy, what he did in training was very repetitive, but at least it was game-like situations. You do need to freshen it up a bit though. This is 2022,” said Gosling.

“I’d be watching games and I just wanted to shout and communicate, and nobody was doing that. The way the team was set up wasn’t the best. The preparation going into games wasn’t the best either.

“Roy and Ray gave it a good go at the start, but after a while they seemed to give up as well. When you see that, and you see and hear arguments – well, what chance have you got?”

Watford Observer:

Roy Hodgson

The unwanted record-breaking run of home defeats, the sequence of dismal performances, and then relegation was confirmed. Could it get worse? Apparently so, at the training ground.

"We had players walking into training saying they’d had enough now,” said Gosling. “The team was down and we had players that knew they’d be leaving. Players were saying ‘well I’ve played 20 games, the team is down, I’m done here and someone else can have a go’.

“I thought that attitude was a disgrace. There were a lot of disgraceful attitudes here last season and that’s ultimately the reason we went down. It wasn’t a question of ability. Maybe some players didn’t always hit the levels they are capable of, but it was the attitude of individuals that did for us.

“It was a real disgrace, easily the worst dressing room I’ve ever been a part of. So now that we’re clearing the decks and trying to build something new is refreshing.”

Having been in the deep freeze since a 25-minute appearance as a sub at Leicester in the FA Cup defeat in January, Gosling was suddenly back in the team for the final three games of the season, and the reshuffled team ended a run of six straight defeats by drawing 0-0 with Everton at Vicarage Road.

“The difference was, in those last three games of the season, you had players on the pitch that actually cared. Look at someone like Kalu: signed in January, didn’t kick a ball really until those last three games. He was training hard, doing the right things – but if you’re never getting picked to play then you can’t show it.

“In those last three games you had people on the pitch that cared about Watford and wanted to play with a bit of pride. Before that you had people who didn’t really want to go out there and run around.”

However, after the Everton game came the final home match of the season and, perhaps befitting of such a season, Watford rounded off things in front of their own fans with a 5-1 whipping at the hands of Leicester.

“That Leicester game was strange because we started really well,” said Gosling. “We got a goal, and could have gone 2-0 up when we hit the bar. Then we made four or five individual errors that led to the goals. It wasn’t like they were ripping through us, they punished our errors.

“There was nobody on that pitch that day who wasn’t up for it, and you couldn’t always say that previously. We made mistakes and we got punished, but each one of those players cared.”

Watford Observer:

Rob Edwards gets his message across during the Hornets' pre-season trip to Austria. Picture: Alan Cozzi/Watford FC

With such a grim season now behind him, Gosling is revelling in the changes that Rob Edwards has made, both on and off the pitch.

“The fresh start is so good,” he said. “We’ve signed a couple of hungry players, and I know the hope is that we get a few more through the door. We do need more new faces. But it’s just so refreshing.

“Rob and Richie have come in with new ideas, fresh ways of doing things and we are working in a way that fits in with 2022. Football has moved on – last season at times it felt like we hadn’t.”

From a player’s perspective, what has the new head coach done differently in training that is making a positive impact?

“Well for starters he’s out in the middle of the pitch coaching,” said Gosling. “One thing I’ve noticed is that he likes to do extras with individuals at the end of training. That was something I had got used to before last season. Rob has brought that straight back.

“It’s great because clearly Rob wants to make every individual at this club better. Whether you’re 18 or a 30-something, he wants to work on a part of your game that he thinks he can improve so that his team do well.

“Last season, as soon as training was done, everyone was off. People were fed up with what we were doing.

“We had so many players here last season that we ended up in a queue to train. You’d have three sets of defenders waiting behind the goal to come on every ten minutes. You'd be doing a warm-up and then you’d have to stand still for ten minutes because it wasn’t your turn. In the middle of winter you’d be freezing and thinking ‘I really don’t want to be doing this’.

“We were training at walking pace. That’s no good for anyone.”

Watford Observer:

Dan Gosling in pre-season training. Picture: Alan Cozzi/Watford FC

The pace and tempo of training is reflected in the style the new head coach is looking to play. That is something Gosling is revelling in.

He said: “Under the new gaffer, training is 100 per cent. We are at it. That is how it needs to be. Last year we were training at walking pace, our preparation was sloppy, and we were going into games like that. Of course you’re going to have players going out on the pitch with no energy.

“Now the work is proper hard but that's how it has to be. You know when you go out for a game that everyone is up for it, and knows what they’re doing.

“We’re trying to be a pressing team this season, last year we just sat off every single team. That isn’t a good look, it brings criticism from the fans. It looks like a lazy attitude. You can sit off teams and not be lazy, but the way we were doing it was just not right. The fans had every right to be calling us out.

“Now we have a lot of energy, we have players who have the right mindset. We want to press high, we want to squeeze the pitch and trap the opponents in. Hopefully the fans will recognise the hard work we’re doing. Players who graft, players who are committed, players who give everything, that’s what fans want. That’s what gets them up out of their seats.”

The squad have, from day one, been shown a strategy that Edwards and his coaching staff believe will bring success.

“The new gaffer has come in, spelled out exactly what he wants and how we’ll be doing it, and there has been no diversion from that,” said Gosling. “Under previous managers we’d work on something for a fortnight, then the next week we’d be doing something completely different.

“As a player you’re thinking ‘okay, we’ve worked on doing this for a couple of weeks, and now we’ve got to disregard that and do something else?’ “The message from Rob has clear and consistent. We know what we’re doing and that we’ll be sticking to it. The players have to adapt to that.

“It will take time. We are progressing though, and Saturday against Wycombe was much better than the Tuesday before against Bolton. We are getting fitter, we are learning what the gaffer wants, we are pressing far harder, and players are adapting to new roles.

“It might be uncomfortable for a few lads at the moment but that’s often how it is when you are changing the way a team plays. Once we get it right, all of us will see the benefits. It just will take a bit of time.”

The behind-closed-doors friendlies meant those able to attend were close to the pitch and, with no crowd noise, could hear what was being said on the pitch. One thing that stood out was Gosling’s loud and clear voice, almost like a coach that was playing in the game.

“Being in the middle of the pitch I can see certain things and I’m in a good position to communicate. I feel like I understand the system and the game of football.

“I feel I can help other players. For instance, Ken Sema is learning more about playing left wing-back and I’m trying to help him with when to go forward and when to drop off. I look at Joao and think I can talk to him to help with when to press, when to hold back.

“There’s a lot that goes on in a game of football, and I’m just trying to help my teammates. If I can help them then that helps me and the team.

“I really believe you need voices on the pitch and that is something I know I can bring. When I played in the Everton game at the end of last season, I felt my voice made a difference on the pitch.

“If you look back at that game, we won so many second balls that night. It was just helping people to know when to tuck around, when people needed to get inside, when the strikers should drop, so that when the ball drops we have players in the best position to get it. Then you have possession, and you can play your game.

“Too often last season we were spread out on the pitch because we didn’t get tight or drop off. They’re simple things that I can see, and I don’t know if that’s experience of English football, playing a lot of games at a decent level or just something I have naturally. But if I do it, and it helps, then that’s good for the team.”

However, there have been concerns that a high-intensity, pressing game is not something that lends itself to players of an...older persuasion.

“I think this ‘Over 30 club’ is all a bit of a myth,” Gosling laughed.

“Maybe 15 or 20 years ago when there was more of a drinking culture in the game of football, you might have had players who struggled. But today players are just so professional, and they look after themselves.

“If you were to look at the club’s running stats for last season, or for this pre-season, you’d see who wins the endurance sessions. That’s all I’ll say.

“Age is just a number. Robert Lewandowski has just signed a long-term deal at Barcelona, and he’s 33. Christian Eriksen has just signed a three-year deal at Man Utd and he’s 30. Players today can go on playing to a high level well into their late 30s.

“Your brain can help you cover the ground. Your experience will gain you a yard. Players like me and Tom Cleverley, we don’t know everything for sure. We’re not perfect. But we know plenty and you won’t find anyone that runs harder or is more committed than us.

“I’ve never had any pace anyway, so I can probably go on until I’m 45!”

Watford Observer:

Tom Cleverley

The likes of Gosling, Cleverley and Craig Cathcart have often been seen chatting to Edwards during training, and before or after friendlies.

The midfielder explained: “Just after he got the job, the gaffer called a few of us more senior players into his office, and just wanted to find out about the club, what he plans to change and why, how he wants to play. That was really nice.

“His door is really open. He is a very approachable guy. You could ask any of the staff and players, and I know they’d say the same.

“They encourage two-way discussions with us. Sometimes they might come to us with a clip of a something, sometimes we’ll go to them and ask to look at clips of games or training. They love working with us.”

The use of that video analysis is something that Gosling felt was missing with previous head coaches.

"It’s 2022, we are videoing training and so why not use that? It’s called modern technology. In the year and a half I’ve been here, I’ve not had a coach do that before this summer. We have so much analysis available to use, but we just weren’t using it.

“We were training and then going home, come back the next day, train and go home. Now we have a gaffer and coaches who are consumed by football, they think about it all day long. Their first thoughts are how can we improve that player, how can we improve the team.

“The new coaching staff are winners who want to succeed, and the players here now also want to succeed. We want to win the league.

“I’m so encouraged by this pre-season. I won’t lie, it’s tough learning a totally new system. But being shown clips of video that can help you and the team be better when you’re laying on the physio bed, or having lunch, or whatever – that's nice. I want that. I love the game of football.

“I want my coaches to come to me and tell me how I can improve, what I’m doing right and wrong, because I want to be the best I can be and I want to win.”

Watford Observer:

When tempers boiled over during the Hornets' trip to Bournemouth in February 2021

Gosling has a track record of winning the Championship, having done it with Bournemouth. Did he know when he joined there was no love lost between the two sets of fans?

“Yeah, I knew all about that. We’d played quite a few times, and we’d been involved in promotions and relegations at the same time. That’s what grew the rivalry.

“I’d not long been here when we had that very feisty game down there. We lost the game and that was a big moment for them. But some of the things that went on, and are still going on in social media, weren’t pleasant.

“I knew all the Bournemouth lads personally, and they’re not really like that. There was no issue with any of the Watford lads and them before that game. It was a case of a couple of individuals doing things that set it off. I can’t see Watford trying to sign Jefferson Lerma any time soon, put it that way.

“The thing is, he’s a nice fella. I don’t know what happened that day. It was strange.

“When you cross the line, you want to win. And he wanted to win that day at all costs, and that seemed to include being happy to have an opponent sent off. It’s not great sportsmanship. Having said that, if Watford were in the FA Cup Final and winning with a few minutes to go and someone tapped my leg, I might go down too. I just wouldn’t scream!”

It had to be asked – did Bournemouth ever train in the art of winning free-kicks and penalties?

“I can’t ever remember us specifically speaking about it,” said Gosling.

“We had Wilson and King up front, and fast wingers who got in the box. When you’ve got that strength and willingness to run in behind, then you do get tugged and wrestled. It usually favours the attacker because defenders panic. A little nudge, a little pull – some players do look for it these days.”

Watford Observer:

Dan Gosling scoring at Carrow Road

In the promotion season, Gosling carved himself a slice of Hornet history when he scored the winner at Norwich.

“I wasn’t due to be starting that game,” he said. “I travelled up thinking I wasn’t in the team because the day before I wasn’t named. I hadn’t been starting for a while and I’d talked to Xisco and Francisco about why, so that I could understand better.

“I wasn’t due to start at Norwich, and then before the pre-match meal Xisco pulled me to one side and said I was starting. I didn’t feel I had to go out and prove a point, I just went out to play my game and do my job within the team.

“I can always pop up with a goal like that one. It was a typical sort of goal I score. I actually had a few chances in that game, and it was about time I’d put one away.

“It was a win that gave us an edge to go up. We had to beat Millwall at home the next week but that win was a big one for us.

“I only arrived in January but I wanted to help get us promoted from the moment I got here and it felt like that was a big night. To score the winner felt like I’d done my bit.”

And so to the new season. What are Gosling’s thoughts?

“I don’t think I have to prove myself but when you only play a handful of games in a season, it is easy to be forgotten about,” he admitted.

“A lot of people make comments on Instagram like ‘where’s Gosling gone’ and it’s not easy because they don’t really know the reasons.

“If anything, I want to prove a few things to myself this season. I know I can play, but I want to achieve something with Watford. I want another promotion, I want to win the league.

“We have competition within the squad, in every position, and crucially we have players that want to be here and who want to help get the club back up to the Premier League. If you have 11 guys and a bunch of subs that want to run hard, want to work, want to succeed, then we can get promoted.

“We have a squad capable of achieving that, and our aim is promotion. If we can do that, it will be a huge achievement but we are well capable of it.”