A New Page
Nick Catley on the man who would become a nation’s hero
Perhaps the most iconic photo of the second Graham Taylor era at Watford – maybe even in all Hornet history – shows Robert Page lifting the play-off winners’ trophy at Wembley in 1999, shouting in delight as he does so.
When we look at that photo, we see a lot of things. We see Nicky Wright’s remarkable overhead kick. We see Allan Smart’s brilliant late finish. We see the binfire of a game against Tranmere. We see that incredible, tension-ridden evening at St Andrew’s. Most of all, we see Graham Taylor’s redemption on the national stage.
I wonder, though, how often we see what’s actually in the picture – our young captain, our on-pitch leader, celebrating a remarkable achievement.
Then again, Robert Page was a bit like that as a player. He was the one you didn’t notice so the others could stand out. His solidity allowed Darren Bazeley and Paul Robinson the freedom to rampage down the flanks. His consistency ensured Chamberlain and defensive partner Steve Palmer knew exactly what to expect, and what not to. And while leadership is difficult to define, teams don’t just play above themselves and go on era-defining unbeaten runs for no reason. He was a decent rather than outstanding athlete, but his greatest weapon was his mind. Page set the standards, quietly but firmly showing what was and wasn’t acceptable. Ask David Perpetuini.
It’s an interesting part of the Watford story as to why someone who grew up in Tylorstown in the Welsh valleys was with us at all. The answer, as with so many of Watford’s youth products of that era, was Welshman Tom Walley. His contacts network presumably went into overdrive on seeing the exceptional youngster, and Page was with Watford from the age of 11. He made his debut in October 1993, but we saw him only intermittently for a while as he gained experience while being gradually introduced to the first team, in the way that used to be so enjoyable as we saw youth prospects develop before our eyes – something it would be lovely to see again one day. It’s striking, though, just how closely Page’s first-team career at Watford mirrors Taylor’s second tenure. Having played only 12 League games in more than two seasons, he was brought in for the third game under the new manager, a goalless draw at Reading, then played whenever fit for the rest of his time at the club, which ended on GT’s departure.
Taylor clearly knew he had found the person he wanted to build his defence around – so much so that he named him club captain, aged just 22, on resuming the team manager role in the summer of 1997. Although Watford fans are conditioned to accept GT’s decisions unquestioningly, it’s also a measure of Page’s performances up to that point that no one batted an eyelid. Two promotions followed, while Page’s individual contribution was recognised in a less successful season for the team with the Player of the Season award in 1999/2000. His form dipped a little in the second half of the following season – although he certainly wasn’t alone in that. Gianluca Vialli arrived in May 2001 and, not being a huge fan of defenders who could actually defend, immediately stripped him of the captaincy and put him on the transfer list. Page moved on to a solid career with Sheffield United and others, and gradually slipped into the file marked ‘history’.
A few years ago, however, we heard that ‘Rob’ Page (he was always Robert to us for some reason, as if we were his mum and he’d traipsed mud through the house) had been appointed manager of Port Vale. Given his clear leadership qualities, this shouldn’t have been a surprise, and a spell at Northampton followed before he joined the Wales set-up. However, he rose to national – and international – prominence when appointed caretaker manager of the Welsh national side, and if the reasons he inherited the role were unfortunate, he made the most of it, being appointed permanent manager. Unsurprisingly the subject of plenty of media attention after leading his nation to their first World Cup finals in 64 years, it’s notable that he cites Taylor as his key managerial influence and someone he’d love to be able to pick up the phone and call.
Qatar could have gone better, of course, and it seems the immediate future for his team might be a period of rebuilding after a number of retirements, most notably that of Gareth Bale, but Wales seeing a group-stage exit in the finals of a World Cup as failure shows just how far they’ve come, not least thanks to him. Meantime, we’ll always remember Robert Page looking youthful (or at least as youthful as he ever got) in that legendary picture, fixed in time as an architect of one of our greatest-ever successes.