So much water has seemingly passed under the bridge since Emmanuel Dennis left Watford and yet it really was only in late August 2022 that he departed for Nottingham Forest.

Much has changed, both for the player personally and at the club he now returns to. Indeed, the Hornets are now on their third coach since Dennis said farewell to Rob Edwards after two Championship games.

The Nigerian international barely got a chance at the City Ground, and his loan move to Turkey this season came to an end after only eight appearances.

In fact, he has played less than 24 hours of club football since departing from Vicarage Road.

Anyone who saw his substitute cameo against Southampton will, just like Dennis himself, know he’s going to need some time before he is back to the swashbuckling and often breathtaking attacking force Watford fans saw in the Premier League.

And to him, that’s what it is all about. Playing football. Emmanuel Dennis is driven by playing football.

While his experiences since he left the Hornets may not have seen him hit the heights many expected, he himself feels his football over the next few months will do plenty of talking for him.

“I just want to enjoy football. I don’t have nothing to prove to no-one,” he said.

“I want to make myself happy, and my teammates, my family and the supporters happy. That’s it.”

The 26-year-old veers between appearing stern and deadly serious to being a downright good laugh when you interview him – a bit like on the field of play, you’re not quite sure what you’re going to get next.

When I asked if he would be repeating his memorable goal celebration at Norwich, he began his answer very deadpan.

“I would love to do it,” he said, seriously and with a pause, “but the thing is they said it’s not so good for the knees.”

Suddenly he throws his head back and roars with laughter, before explaining: “I was doing that when I was young, so people said why don’t you do it in a game.

“I’d love to do it again now but they say it’s not good for the knees and I’m getting old you know.”

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There are two things that Dennis refers to regularly during our time talking: his desire just to play football, and how happy he is to be back at Watford.

He may only have registered 37 appearances for the club, but clearly it has left a mark on him and there’s no doubt from the way he talks and his body language that this was a move he wanted to make.

“The team has a goal. They want to go back to the Premier League,” he explained.

“The group is so good, full of young and very respectful players, energetic and fun. I’ve liked working with them since I came back here.

“We just have to focus on the main goal because the whole club wants to be back at the top level.

“I’m happy to be back here and I’m just going to help in any way I can, and in every way possible.”

When he left to join Forest, he would have found a very crammed car park at the training ground as some 25 other players also signed for the club that summer.

However, Dennis doesn’t feel that was why it didn’t turn out how he had hoped.

“It’s football. Sometimes you go to a place, you give it time and then ok, it doesn’t work,” he reflected.

“They signed a lot of players but I don’t think that’s the reason why things didn’t work out.

“But I’m here now and that’s what I want to talk about, where I am now.

“The past is in the past already and I’m focussed on helping Watford, training hard, listening to the manager and getting my fitness back.”

Mention of fitness led to a discussion about his substitute appearance on Sunday, and what looked like a pretty demanding 15 minutes.

“Fifteen minutes? After five minutes I was dead!” said the striker, before again joining the room in a hearty burst of laughter.

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“Look I’m happy to be back playing football and I want to get fit as quickly as I can to help the team and give everything for the club because it has so much in my heart.

“I was so tired after just five minutes on Sunday, but slowly I’ll get back to the level that everyone expects.

“I’m working hard with the manager and the players, and enjoying being here. The atmosphere here has always been good with all the staff.

“I love being here – it’s like family to me, you understand.”

When pushed about how long he might need to get fit, Dennis sat back and with a twinkle in his eye said: “You’ll see when I’m back. It doesn’t hide you know.

“It’s not going to take long. A week maybe. Perhaps I’m back now, you don’t know.”

The main thing is, as he reiterated, that he feels in the right place to get back to ‘the level’.

“I’m enjoying it. The group is very good and the vibe is so good.

“The players are always happy and they listen to the manager, and the manager is a very good person.

“His mentality is about work hard and discipline, which I think is normal in football.

“I’ve been here for about a week now and I’m really enjoying it.

“The group here now is different, because the players here before were a bit older.

“The vibes are different, but this group feels more happy and you can see they have a lot of energy.

“We have ambitious players which is very good when they’re young.

“I’m enjoying being with the group and I can see they are always excited to work and train. We have very respectful and humble younger players who want to learn.

“Even here the first time, and now coming back, there has always been good energy here.

“There has always been positivity here. In football stuff happens, that’s natural, but it doesn’t kill the vibes and the happiness among the players.

“The energy in the group has always been the same, and I think that’s the culture in the club.”

Of course, bringing up that “stuff happens” naturally led to asking if he felt there was a lack of discipline within the Watford squad during his first spell at the club.

“There has always been discipline at the club. Always. That is number one in football,” Dennis asserted, before leaning forward slightly and asking: “Do you have instances of where players didn’t have discipline before?

“There has always been discipline. It was there before, I’m back here and it’s still here.

“This is a very serious club and the coach is always disciplined. I like that.

“The manager is good, I was training with the boys today and they are happy and laughing.

“In training you can talk to the manager, and that is good for the club.”

There is no doubt that during a very dark season that led to relegation from the Premier League, Dennis was one of the bright lights.

There were some memorable games – Everton away for example.

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“The one thing I remember about that game was the fans celebration was intense, and some of them fell and some injured themselves. I was worried about that.

“Other than that, it was a good atmosphere because of beating Everton away and scoring five, and I think three of those were after 72 minutes.

“It was really good, and an amazing memory.”

Then there was the win over Manchester United at Vicarage Road.

“Man United 4-1 is also a very good highlight, but we were playing at home so maybe a bit more expected.

“If that had been an away win it would have been crazy but not at home with the players we had.”

Talking of the players Watford had then, one of them is now back in the top-flight and suddenly it’s not just Hornets fans talking about Joao Pedro as being one of the best around.

“I’m not surprised. Everyone knew he was a quality player. He’s a baller,” said Dennis.

“I’m happy for him and he has talent.

“We all know what he can do and he’s just doing it.”

Last time around, I didn’t have the chance to get to know Dennis, but I asked him if he felt he had changed in the 18 months he had been away.

“Right now I’m a bit older and more mature, and a different person than I used to be before.

“Every day you learn and I have really learned a lot.

“It’s helped me become a better person and a better football player with a different mentality.

“I’m more humble, more hard working, more listening.

“When you’re young you make a lot of mistakes, and then you learn from the mistakes.

“Now I’m 26, I’ve matured, I’m a Dad as well, and these things make me matured and a different person. I’m happy and I thank God for that.”

The only thing that seemingly surpassed the player’s own personal joy at returning to Vicarage Road was that of the fans, who were counting down to the official announcement and recording podcasts dedicated to him.

“I was as happy as that too,” he said.

“I haven’t been that happy in a long time.

“I wasn’t playing football and I’m a very ambitious guy. I want to play.”

In summer 2022, it was always pretty obvious that at least one of the Dennis/Pedro/Ismaila Sarr trio was going to leave, even though they all started in attack on the opening night of the 22/23 season.

Watford Observer: Celebrations the last time Dennis played at Vicarage Road in a Championship game.Celebrations the last time Dennis played at Vicarage Road in a Championship game. (Image: Action Images)

“Believe me, I never wanted to leave,” Dennis said.

“We went down but I wanted to stay, it’s ok, that’s part of life.

“There are a lot of players who go down with their team and keep playing, like Grealish with Aston Villa. They go down, they come back up.

“So why not? If you go down, stay there if you’re happy, if you’re playing football.

“At the end of the day that’s it: playing football.

“It doesn’t matter where you play the football because football is meant to make you happy.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s in the Championship, in League One or wherever.

“People put too much pressure on themselves. It’s good to be ambitious but just be happy and keep doing what you’re doing.

“If it comes, it comes. Don’t go killing yourself looking for stuff.

“Don’t go somewhere and then at the end of the day find yourself struggling. For what? Why would you risk happiness?

“Ok, you want to go to another level. But wait, keep working hard and if it comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, what can you do?”

And while it was Edwards who bid farewell to Dennis, while he was away both Slaven Bilic and Chris Wilder spent time in the head coach’s office before Ismael arrived in May.

“It’s good to have a manager that stays, but in football you’re playing, a new manager comes, and you have to start from zero.

“Then another one comes and you start from zero again. That has always been my mentality.

“It’s good to have a manager that stays and builds, everyone understands him.

“But football is difficult because when you win and you have a system, people are going to study you and understand how you’ve been successful.

“Players feel change. Change in life is normal, and although you might try to put in the same performance every time you might not be able to do it.

“So it is good to have one manager, and the one we have here is good.”

Ismael’s Watford have a very distinct style of play.

“I like our style of play, yeah. I like it,” smiled Dennis.

“When I was sitting on the bench on Sunday I was watching and I was excited.

“The boys play so good, you can see the energy and how they run a lot. You can see they were happy in the way we play.”

The head coach has said that he intends to use Dennis out wide rather than through the middle. When I put that to the player, his unequivocal answer was not in any way intended to sound arrogant or bullish – it was purely a sign of his self-belief, coupled with his clear desire just to be out on the pitch.

“I can play anywhere,” he said.

“I just train and wherever the manager wants to put me, I humbly play there.

“I just want to be on the pitch, helping my team.

“I only struggle when they put me in goal though!”

By now, the Dennis comedy machine was on a roll, but as things drew to a close he once again made it clear that he is here to play.

“When I played in the Ukraine, the coach there he played me all over the place.

“I played everywhere on the pitch.

“That’s fine. I just want to play. I just want to play football.”