João: Am I Supposed to Live Without You?
Nick Catley prepares to say farewell, but not goodbye
At Huddersfield, as the hubbub died down from João Pedro’s second goal, a beautifully judged and executed looping header, the bloke behind me leaned down, clearly with something important on his mind. “If he goes in January”, he confided to me, “we’re fucked”.
It was difficult to disagree with him, although we may not have had the same reasons. It’s been clear for a while that João is growing in stature, to the point where he is the best player on the pitch in most games he plays, often by an almost laughable margin. His skill has been obvious since we first saw him. Since then, though, he’s been adding and adding to his game. His vision and power have grown almost visibly, his heading is technically excellent, and recent evidence suggests he’s developing the last piece in the jigsaw – a finisher’s instinct. He’s completing himself as a player while we watch.
So – there’s little doubt that losing João permanently would be a serious blow to our promotion prospects. If I’m absolutely honest, though, that’s not what bothers me. Being taken apart every week by teams owned by global conglomerates and sports-washing nation states isn’t really what I signed up for. But I would just be as devastated as that bloke at Huddersfield to lose João. Very simply, I adore watching him play, seeing him improve, discovering how far he can go. He excites me in a way that no Watford player has excited me in a very long time.
He won’t be with us much longer, of course. He belongs on a bigger stage. But players don’t have to be with us for a long time to be special. Fans of the generation before mine talk in awed, quivering terms about the likes of Tony Currie and Charlie Livesey, players who just stood out and were fondly remembered, even though they weren’t around for long. I never saw them, so certainly can’t make comparisons, but it feels like João is approaching this territory.
It’s not just the brilliance. Players this talented very rarely come with João’s work ethic – at times, he’s as likely to appear in our penalty area as the opposition’s. He’s everywhere. He’s consistent, too – if not in achievement, then certainly in effort. Even in games where things don’t work out for him – the defeat at home to Coventry springs to mind – he keeps going, remaining brave both mentally and physically, never going missing.
Strange as it sounds, he’s also as close as we ever get these days to one of our own. Ribeirão Preto is a fair distance from the maternity ward of the Shrodells, but we’d agreed to sign him soon after his 17th birthday, before he’d made his senior debut for his Brazilian team (and the idea that moving from Fluminense to Watford is a step up will never cease to blow my mind). Now 21, we’ve seen him grow up.
He also has just enough edge. It’s often possible to intimidate skilful players out of games, but João’s tougher than that. Immediately prior to that second goal at Huddersfield, he’d been fouled and needed treatment, for which he was booed by the home crowd. He looked angry, running down the wing as if on a mission – he wasn’t about to pass to anyone – and clearly had payback on his mind. He won the corner that led to his magnificent header, and the game was over.
Finally, he just gets it. It’s a quality that’s difficult to define, but it’s there in his celebrations, his interactions with the crowd, his whole approach. Put it this way – it doesn’t feel like coincidence that the team he humiliated most with his skills this season was Luton.
These are the things that endear you to crowds. A young Brazilian who earns more in a year – or certainly will soon – than most of us could hope to make in a career seems an unlikely fan representative on the pitch. But that’s how it feels at the moment.
His Boxing Day injury against Millwall – in the face of pretty intense competition, the worst thing to happen in that game – changed things a little. It now seems unlikely he’ll be leaving in January, although it may still be that the one thing that would keep him with us beyond the summer is promotion to the dragon’s lair, although that’s looking increasingly unlikely. But whatever happens, please, can we see his magic for just a little longer? And if we do, let’s try to breathe in every last drop. Savour it as much we can. We might not see anyone like him again for quite some time.