Although Edo Kayembe’s dream to play at the recent of African Cup of Nations was ended by injury, Watford were still very much represented.

In fact, a former player and fan of the club not only reached the final, he also picked up the Player of the Tournament award.

William Troost-Ekong came so close to captaining Nigeria to success, having headed them in front in the final only to eventually lose 2-1 to hosts Ivory Coast.

The defender left Watford in the summer, having made 68 appearances and scoring twice during three seasons at Vicarage Road.

Born in Holland but with a Nigerian father, Troost-Ekong has led something of a nomadic life as he has lived in Holland, Belgium, Norway, Finland, Turkey, Italy and Greece.

However, it was his arrival in England as an 11-year-old in 2004 that was to frame so much of his life – including who he married and which team he supported.

“I came to England and lived in Bishop’s Stortford just before my 12th birthday and the start of the school year,” he explained.

“I literally came to England to go to school, and I went to Hockerill Anglo-European College which is a state school but they have boarding facilities for international students.

“My older sister was already there, and she was in Year 9 when I started in Year 7.

“The whole idea of my Dad was that we were going to get a good education, learn how to speak English and give us a chance to hopefully go on and do well.”

Watford Observer: William Troost-Ekong in action against Manchester City's Jack GrealishWilliam Troost-Ekong in action against Manchester City's Jack Grealish (Image: Action Images)

While he was there, he displayed enough football prowess that Fulham signed him as a teenager before he moved across London.

“I served my football scholarship at Tottenham Hotspur and I was there until I was 20. I was released and I went back to Holland,” he said.

“I’d played a few international games for the Dutch Under-19 team so I had some recognition there, and the other players I was playing with in that team were playing first-team football in Holland.

“I went on trial to FC Groningen, where they were just about to sell Virgil van Dijk to Celtic. So I came in as a young player to take over his number four shirt. That was the start of my professional career.”

Before he left England to go back to Holland, he met Molly – who was later to become his wife.

And it was that relationship which also paired Troost-Ekong with the love of his football life, Watford.

“I met my wife when I was at school in Bishop’s Stortford, she didn’t go to my school but we met through my best friend who lived in Ware,” he explained.

“She did used to go to the Watford games with her Dad when I was there, but I can’t say she’s a Watford fan. She supports whatever team I’m playing for!

“My father-in-law Adrian grew up in Rickmansworth, and his Dad used to take me to watch Watford,” he said.

“When I was playing overseas I’d come back to England during international breaks or if I wasn’t in the squad for my club. Adrian would then take me to watch Watford, around the time of Ighalo, Prodl, Cathcart and Troy.

“I remember being at the game when we beat Liverpool, Nathan Ake scored the first goal and Ighalo scored too.

“At that time I was Ighalo’s teammate in the Nigerian national team, but I was playing in Norway and we had a winter break so I was able to come over and watch him.

“My father-in-law has had a season ticket for more than 20 years, and when I signed for Udinese it was already something we joked about because when I first spoke to Gino Pozzo the possibility of going to Watford was also discussed.

“Then when I actually did get the call to say they wanted to take me to Watford, I was telling my father-in-law about it and he said ‘No, that’s not true, I read all social media and follow all the podcasts and nobody has mentioned you’.

“I said to him ‘Honestly, I’ve just put the phone down to Gino Pozzo and you’re going to find out about it’.

“I don’t think he actually believed me until I landed back in England and went to the training ground.”

Watford Observer: Nathan Ake celebrates scoring against LiverpoolNathan Ake celebrates scoring against Liverpool (Image: Action Images)

Back to Troost-Ekong’s exploits at the recent AFCON, and they become even more remarkable when you learn he played most of the tournament with a hamstring injury which has subsequently pretty much ended his season.

“I had a torn bicep femoris, which is basically the outside part of the hamstring,” said the defender.

“It happened during the tournament and I think I had a small tear initially in the second group stage game against Ivory Coast.

“I managed to play on and then after the final I had another MRI, and we realised it was really ruptured.

“It was very sore playing with it, and I couldn’t really train after the second group game. I was just trying ice to keep the swelling down.

“I might do half an hour of training the day before each game, and then during the game a combination of painkillers and adrenaline mean you can get through it.

“The day after each game it was definitely showing as I was struggling to walk.

“But thankfully now I’m sorted. I went to Finland to have surgery with Dr Lasse Lampainen who is one of the best in the world and has operated on quite a few Watford players in the past.

“I should be back and fit again in May, but I think it’s probably season over. You never know how rehab will go but I don’t want to rush it because at my tender age of 30 you have to be smart about these injuries.

“I want to be 100% for next season, 100% right. If I can play at the end this season that’s great, if not then I will be ready for next season.”

Watford Observer: Troost-Ekong in training with strapping on his thighTroost-Ekong in training with strapping on his thigh (Image: Action Images)

To get to the final and take the lead meant Troost-Ekong and his teammates were so close to glory.

“It was bitter-sweet in the end,” he admits.

“When you get so close all you want to do is win it, and I think the way the tournament played out with some of the more fancied nations got eliminated it just seemed like everything was working for us.

“To lose in the final is hard, but being really honest Ivory Coast were better than us on the day.

“But I brought home Player of the Tournament which is something special and something I wasn’t expecting at all.

“I still would have swapped it for a winner’s medal though.”

Losing to the hosts in their own stadium is some mitigation for not quite going all the way.

“I think it would have been a very different final if the tournament wasn’t in the Ivory Coast,” he said.

“They finished third in our group and qualified as one of the best third-placed teams, then they sacked their manager, and got through the next round with a last-minute goal.

“So many times during the tournament they had their backs against the wall that when they got to the final it felt like they thought they had nothing to lose.

“The whole stadium at the final was literally Ivory Coast. It was hard to spot any Nigerians in the stadium so it was like a real away game.

“It was hostile for us that day, and if it had been anywhere else I think we’d have had a better chance.”

Watford Observer: The defender celebrates scoring his penalty against South AfricaThe defender celebrates scoring his penalty against South Africa (Image: Action Images)

One thing AFCON did reveal was Troost-Ekong is a very impressive and successful penalty taker.

He scored the winner from the spot when Nigeria beat Ivory Coast 1-0 in their group game, then again against South Africa in the semi-final and also again in the shoot-out at the end of that game to secure a place in the final.

“I always enjoyed taking penalties and after training I always used to take them, but it’s hard to convince a manager to let you have a go when there’s strikers on the pitch.

“I understand that: scoring goals is their speciality and also sometimes it can help their confidence if they haven’t scored for a while.

“It just sort of happened by accident for Nigeria. I’d put my name forward several times and the manager was happy with how I’d been taking them in training.

“Two years ago we played Ghana in a World Cup qualifier, and it was a crucial moment in that game. I was captain and I remember Victor Osimhen giving me the ball, and I scored that one.

“Since then everyone sort of trusted me for the big moments, and the same thing happened in this tournament.

“I’ve never taken one in a club games. I have spoken to managers about it many times but I’ve never been given the chance.

“When I scored at AFCON the manager of my team in Greece, PAOK, text me saying I’d convinced him now!

“When I was playing at Watford we had penalty takers like Ismaila Sarr and managers wanted him to score goals and get confidence.

“To be honest, I don’t care if it’s me or someone else scoring them – but I do know if I take one and put my foot through it then there aren’t going to be many goalkeepers who save it!”

• In part two of this three-part interview, Troost-Ekong talks about his time playing for Watford, being “frozen out” after insisting on representing Nigeria at AFCON 2021, why the club tried to get him to move to Russia, and how his time with the Hornets did finally come to an end.