Cool as Craig - Craig Cathcart
Craig Cathcart sits down with Olly Wicken to reflect on the 2014/15 Championship promotion season.
When your season’s going up and down like a rollercoaster, you need someone calm to steady the ship. You need someone as cool-headed as Craig Cathcart.
We had a topsy-turvy start,” Craig reflects, as he sits down with The Watford Treasury to look back on the 2014/15 season. “Fulham was a big turning point.” For the match against Fulham at Craven Cottage, on 5 December 2014, Craig Cathcart returned to the team. Things weren’t going to plan for Watford: the club was on its fourth Head Coach of the campaign, and the team had lost the last four matches. Having been top of the table a month earlier, the Hornets, with recent appointment Slavisa Jokanovic coming under pressure, were now outside the play-off places. “I was fit for those four defeats, but I didn’t really get a look-in with the new manager,” Craig says. “It was sort of out of the blue that Slav played me at Fulham.”
Craig replacing Joel Ekstrand was the only change to the team from the previous week’s defeat at home to Cardiff. Within twenty minutes Watford were 2-0 up. It ended as a comfortable and classy 5-0 win. “Those games are the ones that stick in your head,” Craig says. “That was the night everything clicked. We couldn’t have played any better, really. Defensively we were tight and some of the football we played was brilliant. It felt really comfortable. That gave us the confidence to go on a little run.”
A ‘little run’? The stats show that, with Craig in the side, we won 18 and drew three of our remaining 26 matches. Once he was in place, steadying things, we stormed to automatic promotion to the Premier League with a game to spare. Chilled understatement is very much a Craig Cathcart thing.
Watford fans had first got to know Craig in September 2009, when he arrived on loan from Manchester United as a 20-year-old. He made his debut in a 3-3 home draw against Leicester. The game is more famous for the arrival on loan of someone else: Heidar Helguson. (It was characteristically swashbuckling: he came on as substitute, scored two goals, and went off again.) But young Craig made an impression nevertheless. The match report by Matt Rowson on the BHappy website noted: ‘Craig Cathcart. Find myself reminded of a young Rio Ferdinand… cool, composed, effortless for the most part… and then suddenly falling on his arse at the least opportune moment.’
Five years later, having played in the Premier League for Blackpool, Craig rejoined Watford on a permanent transfer. He was still cool and composed, but he wasn’t falling on his arse anymore. It was Craig’s assessment of the squad’s potential that attracted him back to the club. He felt Watford were ready to earn a place in the top flight. “I knew the club a little bit from before but, watching from outside, I could see the squad was stronger. I remember thinking ‘This is a club that’s going places’. When I arrived, I knew how thick the squad was — a lot of experienced players. So I was optimistic that we could get promoted. After that, the way we started that season put that seed in your head that it could happen.”
That seed was planted by Watford’s winning four of their first five games. But the day after a rousing 4-2 home win against Huddersfield (after being reduced to ten men at 2-2), Head Coach Beppe Sannino left the club. Oscar Garcia was appointed, but he was only actively in charge for one game before he fell ill. Assistant coaches Ruben Martinez and Billy McKinlay oversaw the next three matches. Then McKinlay was appointed Head Coach. Two games later, he wasn’t Head Coach anymore. Slavisa Jokanovic was. “It took us a while to settle and find our feet,” Craig says. “But, after Fulham, we knew we were onto something and could do a bit of damage in the league.”
After his return to the side in the pivotal win at Fulham, Craig missed only one game in the run that took Watford all the way to the Premier League. It began with a victory at Reading. After Gabriele Angella was sent off just before half-time, Craig, alongside Sébastien Bassong, kept The Royals at bay. Then, with twenty minutes left, a crisp Almen Adbi half-volley secured a 1-0 win. “We didn’t play that well. We just dug it out,” Craig recalls. “There were a lot of those, to be fair.”
This is an aspect of the 2014/15 team’s strengths that he emphasises often: getting the job done. Occasionally, though, the job didn’t get done. On Boxing Day, Watford lost 1-0 at home to Wolves. Then, in the new year, there was a 3-1 defeat at Huddersfield. “That was Miguel Layun’s first start,” Craig remembers. “It was like a ‘Welcome to England’ sort of thing — Huddersfield and freezing. I could sort of sense it before the match. Some of the lads were tucked up against the cold. I don’t know if that made a difference, but that was a bad game. We bounced back quite well, though, after that.”
It’s another understatement. The next two games saw Watford score twelve goals. Craig volleyed his second goal of the season to open the scoring in a 5-0 win at home to Charlton. Then came surely the most extraordinary second-half in Hornet history — when Watford came back from 2-0 down to win 7-2 at home to Blackpool. “That was an incredible match,” Craig says. Anyone who witnessed the game will know that, just this once, Craig isn’t understating matters. “Ben Watson came on and maybe we changed our shape. But as soon as we scored the first goal, we knew. We could sense it. 2-0 down and then — boom — 4-2 within ten minutes. That season, we had the forwards that could change the game.”
Troy Deeney, Odion Ighalo and Matej Vydra scored six of Watford’s goals in that second-half against Blackpool. Across the season, they hit 57 between them in the league. Craig stresses the importance to the team of having three strikers in prolific form during the run to promotion. “If the lads up front weren’t performing, or things weren’t going their way, we could just change it, and whoever came on could make a massive difference. That gives you so much confidence, even as a defender, when you know you’re never out of a game because we can score any type of goal.”
Following the extraordinary Blackpool result, Watford were quickly brought back down to earth. Just twenty-six seconds into the next game, at table-topping Bournemouth, Gabriele Angella committed a foul for which he was sent off (later rescinded). “It wasn’t ideal,” Craig coolly observes. “I think I might have given away a penalty,” he says. “It was Bournemouth, so there must have been a penalty involved. Someone must have dived.” He’s deadpan as he says this: there’s a glimpse of mischief lurking behind the even-keeled exterior.
Mostly, during our conversation, Craig plays everything straight, the way he did on the pitch for Watford in 2014/15 and has continued to do ever since, both in the Premier League and in international competition for Northern Ireland. Whether talking about football or playing it, he comes across as totally professional. It’s definitely the case that his professional, committed and unflappable attitude, at the heart of Watford’s defence, was critical to how the rest of the 2014/15 season unfolded. Watford only lost two more games.
As we discuss the games from February onwards, two clear themes emerge. First, the resolve that was required in defence. Second, the striking talent that was available in attack. Craig describes the 1-0 home win against Blackburn as “one of the ones we dug out”. Then, talking about the 3-0 victory at home to Rotherham, he says: “We played four centre-backs across the back. We were professional. We knew if we could keep a clean sheet, our forwards could create trouble.”
Discussing the 4-3 win at Bolton, when the defence wasn’t as resolute as usual, he’s quick to praise others. “We could have lost that game, apart from Gomey. That triple save was amazing. As a defender, you’re disappointed conceding three goals. Gomey had to make a few saves and stuff. It’s one of them ones again: the strikers win the game for you. We had the strikers to do it.”
One of the strikers who came on as a substitute at 1-2 against Bolton and helped turn the game around was Fernando Forestieri. “So much ability. I’d put him in my perfect 5-a-side team because he could make something out of nothing,” Craig says. “He’d always look to nutmeg somebody. That was a good thing and a bad thing because sometimes in the game he’d beat somebody and come back and try to do it again because he knew he could. He could make a difference definitely, though. He was some talent. Off the pitch, you could see he was quite mischievous. But, out on the pitch, he could do some incredible things.”
We briefly discuss some other members of the promotion squad. Some more of Craig’s sense of humour and character emerges. “[Juan Carlos] Paredes, I sat next to him on the bus. Didn’t speak a word of English, but we got on like a house on fire. It was just sign language and stupid stuff, winding each other up. We had a weird relationship, but he was a really good guy. He would do stupid stuff. He would get a bit of orange peel and he would squeeze it in your eye. The zest comes off. It doesn’t blind you or anything, it just stings for about ten seconds. I actually do it now — I took it off him.
“Ikechi [Anya] was one of the nicest lads I’ve played with. He wouldn’t strike you as a footballer if you ever met him anywhere. He drove a Fiat Panda every day to training. It was a 1984 reg, or something. He’d wear his Watford shorts and a vest, he wouldn’t be bothered about stuff, he’d just be happy all the time. Win, lose or draw he’d just be the same. It’s a good way to be. You don’t want to be up too high and down too low.”
That last phrase perfectly sums up Craig Cathcart’s approach to football. It’s also a good encapsulation of a philosophy that drove the team to its success in 2014/15. Off-the-field changes in the autumn had had relatively little impact on the players, Craig says. The team maintained an emotional and psychological stability. “In the dressing room, I knew we had the players that could get us promoted. It wasn’t a case of a new manager coming in and doing something we’d never seen before. We knew the players could do it and we just needed the manager to come in and let us do it. I remember going into every game confident we could win. We knew every game was vital. That was the mindset we had: just worry about the games, don’t think about anything else. I think everyone bought into that.”
He says that there was great unity among the players, in contrast to the media’s perception of the squad as a group of multi-national players just passing through. “Most of the lads could speak good English and communicate. I’ve always said that the good thing at this club is that we’ve got so many cultures and different languages that anyone coming in always has someone to attach to and talk to and relate to.”
Watford went into Easter on the back of a 1-0 home defeat to promotion rivals Ipswich. Now they had two games in four days against two other promotion rivals, at Derby County and at home to Middlesbrough. At Derby, Watford had Marco Motta sent off before going 2-1 behind. But, after 75 minutes, Adlene Guedioura played a sublime pass behind the Derby defence for Odion Ighalo to score and earn the Hornets a draw. There was mayhem in the away section. Craig remembers the all-consuming elation he felt at that moment. “There’s nothing else. Just the release you get from your team scoring. Your first thought is to go and celebrate with them. But then, as you’re jogging back, you think ‚ ‘Right, we really have to concentrate now and get back on it’.” It’s that same thing again. Never too high, never too low.
Against Middlesbrough, Ighalo scored again as Watford won 2-0, generating real belief that the team could be promoted. Craig tries to explain the confidence that came from winning: “I don’t know if it’s subconscious. It’s weird, hard to explain. I don’t think the manager can really give you that [confidence]. You just get it as a group of players and it normally takes winning. The more you win, the more you build it up. That season, we felt we could win every game.”
Two games — two away wins — later, Watford were at home to Birmingham City. The Hornets dominated from the start but, ten minutes into the second-half, they hadn’t scored. Up stepped Craig Cathcart. “I still bring this up with the lads every now and then,” he says dryly. It was his third volleyed goal of the season, and the most spectacular. With his back to goal, he launched the ball over his shoulder into the net. “I can’t really explain it. It was one of them things. Ikechi dug out a good cross and I just stuck my leg out. I remember just catching it so sweet. It was past the keeper before he reacted. I don’t think I could do it again, to be honest. Give me the exact same ball another hundred times and I probably wouldn’t be able to put it exactly where I did.
“I knew how important that goal was. A good goal wasn’t as important as the fact that we’d scored. If it had come off my bum or something I’d have been celebrating just the same.” There were huge celebrations. But the job wasn’t done. Watford needed to win their last two matches to be sure of automatic promotion.
The following Saturday, Watford travelled to Brighton & Hove Albion for a lunchtime kick-off. Expectations were high. “I remember the feeling of going to the games and the fans being there before the match. You could tell they were expecting us to win. But they were so supportive. We knew they would turn up early, waiting for us, and clapping us in with the flags going and stuff.”
Troy Deeney, ‘Mr Watford’, as Craig calls him, gave the Hornets a one goal advantage in the first-half. The second-half was something of a rearguard action until added time, when Craig dispossessed a Brighton striker in Watford’s box and clipped a ball up the line to Deeney. ‘Mr Watford’ swung the ball across to an unmarked Matej Vydra who took a touch and slotted the ball home for 2-0. Cue mayhem in the away section again. “We didn’t really expect to get promoted that day. When Vydra scored that second goal, I just dropped to the floor, exhausted. I’m literally lying on the floor on the halfway-line with the relief. I think it must have been the toll the games took on us.” At the final whistle, it was, as yet, just another win. Watford’s promotion rivals were playing later. “We knew it was a big step. It was all about the team. You could see everyone on the bench, the sub goalkeepers, the lads that didn’t play, everyone was buzzing.”
The real celebrations were to come later. “We came back on the bus. We were pulling into the training ground as the final whistle blew on Fulham and Middlesbrough. The atmosphere on the bus coming through the gates was unbelievable. I don’t think anyone on the coach will forget that — and the whole day after that. They’re probably the moments you’ll remember the most when you look back in future. It’s like it was meant to be, the timing of it. We were coming through the gates exactly as the results came in, so we were all together. We could have got to the training ground a bit earlier and gone our separate ways and found out in a different way, but we were together. Even the lads who weren’t in the squad that day came in. Daniel Pudil was here waiting for us. I’ll never forget it. They had beers ready for us here at the training ground. Then we went straight into Watford and carried on from there. It was a messy night but we all enjoyed it.”
Every Watford fan everywhere enjoyed that night too. The job was done. The goal of promotion to the Premier League had been achieved. Throughout the season, the team had stuck together through adversity, remained professional and kept their heads clear.
But the night of 25 April 2015 was finally a night when, for the players, the philosophy of ‘never too high’ simply didn’t apply. For once, that evening, Craig Cathcart didn’t need to remain cool-headed.