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A Different Kind of Classy

Ian Grant looks back at Nordin Wooter


The celebrations were vast and emotional. We’ve become used to feeling that almighty swell of pride as more chapters are added to this extraordinary story. But any sense of familiarity, any idea that this is only another famous victory to revel in, is swept away by the knowledge that it can’t last forever. Watching Robert Page on a lap of honour, punching the air in unison with the home fans, and realising that this is as good as it gets.”

And it was, of course.

Sometimes, not always, writing reports for BSaD was a genuine privilege: a fleeting, vital chance to grasp a moment and put it into words for evermore. Enough hours had passed for a vaguely rational response, not enough for hindsight to have begun to get its smudgy fingerprints over it all. You could try to capture how it tasted, how it smelt, how the air vibrated, and you could do it while it was still a source of astonishment.

The victory over Chelsea on 18 September 1999 was the culmination of something begun when Graham Taylor took back the reins over two years earlier. If only that culmination had coincided with the end of a season or the final of a trophy, then we might celebrate it more readily. Instead, it was quickly tarnished by the slide into relegation which followed, and what might well have been, all things weighed up, one of the halfdozen greatest Watford performances I’ve ever witnessed tends to be shoved on the shelf behind the much scruffier, much grittier win at Anfield a month before.

I mean to do it no disservice, but you can sum up that day at Anfield in a few words, perhaps even just a scoreline. The Chelsea game, however, was richer, deeper, overflowing with detail. World Cup winners were humbled. It would remain as the high water mark for 15 years. Tommy Mooney was injured in a kamikaze substitute appearance which seemed heroic at the time and seems rather more like foolishness now, and he emerged from the treatment room seven months later, and we won just twice in all of that time. Reading it back, and I realise that this is immodest, the report captures with fervent, zealous clarity the moment at which we soared closest to the sun and believed we could rise higher still, the moment when the wax in our wings began to melt and our plummet into the sea began.

And amid it all, debutant and then-record signing Nordin Wooter. Ian Richardson has a claim to a more extraordinary debut, but there can’t be very many more. What a moment to pull on the shirt, to hear the Rookery for the first time. Hardly alone, true, but he was sensational that afternoon, making incisive darting runs around the midfield, combining with Paul Robinson to set up a goal rooted in relentless, remorseless pressure on the ball. That, and the perfect timing of the pass, drawing three opponents around him before releasing Robbo on his inside, the blue shirts drawn across creating the space for Allan Smart’s superb finish. He looked as if he belonged. We looked as if we belonged.

It didn’t last. There was a thread through the signings in Graham Taylor’s second spell which suggested a desire to prize possession more, to refuse to fit the media’s preconceptions. A setting straight of the record, possibly, even if only subconsciously. Micah Hyde, Alon Hazan, Alexandre Bonnot, Charlie Miller; all of them could play a bit (although only one of them actually did). Nordin Wooter was a different sort of classy, but he was nevertheless far removed from the more functional wingers who’d contributed so much to the promotion campaigns. By ‘functional’, I refer to the crosses of Peter Kennedy, the raids on the far post of Nick Wright; by ‘functional’, I really mean ‘productive’. Nordin Wooter could never, ever be described as functional. Or productive, if we’re being honest.

As the season progressed - well, everyone else’s season progressed - we relied on him less for assists and more for distraction. “The sight of Nordin Wooter in full flow - that is, dribbling his way in and out and in and here and there and there and here and far and wide and near and wide and far and forward and back and back and forward until a sufficiently large crowd of opponents had gathered to rob him of the ball - was an entirely necessary reminder that football could still be fun, that things weren’t entirely bleak,” as I put it on BSaD. He retained an enthusiasm, an evident belief in the possibilities of each moment. He was never less than eager, energetic, enterprising. And yet, and yet...he was never more than that either. Somehow, he delighted and disappointed us at the same time.

Given the magic he worked with lesser talents, it’s remarkable that Graham Taylor wasn’t able to wring more from a player with so much natural ability. He had a wonderful, instinctive first touch. He was quick and mobile, hunched low over the ball with dreadlocks flowing behind, dancing light-footed around challenges. He always wanted possession, came looking for it when others would hide. He had it all, but we couldn’t make it fit anywhere.

It’s tempting to say that he would’ve thrived in a team which spent more time around the opposition box, where his mischief-making might’ve reaped greater rewards... except that his involvement in his second season, as our promotion push sputtered and died, was sporadic and frustrating. He scored a wonderful solo goal in a trouncing of Norwich late in the campaign, and right then it seemed as if it might all finally click, for him and for us, and I got drunk enough to be violently ill on the platform at Watford Junction some time in the evening, an incident about which I’m not proud, and later on, I realised that it was the goal he’d been trying to score for about 18 months and that scoring it once didn’t really make all that much difference to the overall cost-benefit analysis.

We needed a player who’d get his head up more, who’d see the overall picture. We needed creativity rather than indulgence. It’s no coincidence that we only saw the best of Heidar Helguson when we had Neal Ardley trundling up and down the touchline, curling those wonderful crosses onto his head at the far post. All the tricks in the world can’t substitute for an early cross with your centre forward’s name on it.

He left quietly at the end of the Vialli season, having very much not been the Italian’s cup of latte. I wrote that “for those of us who don’t live in houses and flats with unlimited storage capacity, an occasional clear-out of accumulated stuff is inevitable...and sometimes a bit heart-breaking. It’s hard to escape the same indistinct, foggy sense of loss when thinking of Nordin Wooter, whose Watford career began so illustriously and ended up, like that favourite childhood toy, in a black bin bag destined for the local charity shop. Because, although he might’ve been shoved into an available space at the back of the wardrobe in the end, we loved him once.”

And I love him still, just a little. He was infuriating, sure. But he could make us smile.