Our Man Almen (Volume 4)
James Garrett offers a personal appraisal of Almen Abdi
My favourite Watford players have always been creative midfielders: those players who have a different way of thinking, of looking at the game, of having that extra second on the ball. Maybe it’s because we haven’t had that many of them that they stand out so. Over the past 30 years we haven’t had a huge amount of players who make the midfield role look easy. I used to want to be Craig Ramage, who despite our love for him, never fulfilled his huge potential. Then Allan Nielsen, who had the ability who time his runs and passes to a level I’d never seen at the Vic. Players such as these didn’t always have the rest of the team fully on their wavelength. In the summer of 2012 things changed. Almen Abdi joined, alongside a supporting cast of footballers who seemed out of place at Watford.
It was all so new; we had been used to struggling, clinging on, playing well every so often, and generally with a dearth of midfield talent. Now within the space of a few weeks at the outset of the 2012/13 season, we started to play with a real swagger. Almen hit the ground running - he scored in the opening day win at Palace, while the first real sight of him at Vicarage Road saw him nonchalantly sweeping home a penalty in the second minute of the match against Birmingham City.
He always looked to receive the ball and immediately go forward. It sounds easy, but there are not too many, even in our current squad, who do this seemingly simple thing. He would then see if there was a killer pass on, and in the 2012/13 season, the year he would be crowned Player of the Season, this was usually for Matej Vydra. One of the most memorable Abdi games was a home win against Forest, where he provided two assists for Vydra and quietly ran the show.
He knew how to hit a ball too, netting a scorcher against Palace again, in a Friday night game, and an amazing free kick away to Wolves. Watford disappointingly dropped points in those games, which contributed significantly towards us falling agonisingly short of automatic promotion.
This all happened while our Swiss playmaker and many of his team-mates were on loan from Udinese. Abdi signed permanently at the start of the 2013/14 season. This proved to be a desperate season for him, where he was plagued by a mysterious foot injury that he just couldn’t shake off. Thankfully, he was fit for the promotion season of 2014/15. It was one of the early games of the season that saw probably the best ever Abdi performance, against Huddersfield. Down to ten men and leading 3-2, he had already scored earlier in the game, but instead of holding on to the ball in the final minute he burst forward, received a pass, twisted past the final defender and fired home into the corner of the net. It was a beautiful goal and showed the team that playing on the front foot would ensure promotion. He scored vital goals in away wins at Reading, Bolton and Forest. Perhaps his most famous is the beauty he scored from 25 yards away to Fulham. Receiving the ball with his back to goal on the half turn, he didn’t even look up before bending it into the far corner. The keeper didn’t even move.
It always appeared odd that he never added to his paltry number of Switzerland caps while at the club, but he was to enjoy being a Premier League footballer, for one season at least. Sadly, he never quite fitted into Quique Sanchez Flores’ rigid 4-4-2, mostly playing a wide midfield role, which just wasn’t his position. We saw glimpses with a superb goal at Stoke and a glorious free kick at home to Villa, but he never got the chance to get into those central pockets of space to really show his worth. It’s a shame, as there seems little doubt he could have really done it in the Premier League.
It was both surprising and sad to see him go; it seemed Sheffield Wednesday were getting an amazing deal for £3.25 million in the summer of 2016. However, three years on, it’s now clear that, surprisingly, they didn’t. He played fewer than 30 games for Wednesday and is largely derided by their supporters for scoring only one competitive goal, being injured a lot of the time, and costing them a lot of money in wages. Ultimately there can’t be any doubt that his time at Watford represented the pinnacle of his career. At the top of his game, he is my favourite player; when he was on the ball things would happen, just like John Barnes in my early days of watching. So, I salute you Almen, thank you for the memories, and just wish I’d seen you play for us more . . .
This article is from Volume 4 of The Watford Treasury, to purchase this publication in all its visual glory, please follow the link below: