The Mavericks: Craig Rammage
Nick Catley on the man with magic in his boots
The overriding emotion – or mine, at least – when looking back on the career of a maverick is… what if? What if they could just have had the right attitude, focused on the game rather than the lifestyle, played for the good of the team rather than themselves? However, this ignores two major issues.
Firstly, we never think about it the other way around. We never wonder what might have been if an honest midfielder with outsize lungs had possessed incredible skill levels. This, presumably, is because we all think the attitude and the running is the easy bit. But the physiological gifts, single-minded focus and self-denial required to be the kind of player who’s everywhere on the pitch, to stand out for your fitness and stamina in a group of people employed for their athletic ability, aren’t a given. In their own way, they’re as special as the skills of the maverick, just less obvious. Most footballers have them to some degree, because you don’t get to be a professional without them – unless, of course, you have the ridiculous ability of the maverick. We all think, of course, that if we ever got a chance, we’d give it everything for the moose, that the very least we should expect from players is that they run until they drop, as we would in their position. And it’s true, we would. But the vast majority of us would still be trailing way behind the play and blowing out of our arse, looking like the kind of player we think isn’t trying, within the first five minutes.
Secondly, and this one’s perhaps a bit more obvious, if you combine the perfect attitude and fitness levels with the skills of a maverick… you have a player who won’t be playing for Watford for very long. Two names spring to mind as fitting this brief, and there were exceptional circumstances for both. We were in the top dozen clubs in the country in all but John Barnes’ first season for us – still five of our six best-ever seasons in terms of league position – and even then, there’s no way he’d have stayed with us for six years in the modern era. And then there was Cliff Holton, who could quite easily have played at a higher level – he joined us in the Fourth Division from top-tier Arsenal – but chose Watford as it fitted in better with his engineering business, an issue perhaps less likely to net us a talented player these days.
Craig Ramage fitted the mould as if he was the model. He went missing from games, he failed to track back, he was pointlessly petulant. Off the pitch, he refused to move closer to Watford from his Derby home, a fact possibly not unrelated to what seemed to be a fairly uninhibited social life, and which didn’t help in accruing driving convictions. But on his day, the man had magic in his boots.
Signed from Derby County for what was, even then, a tiny £90,000 fee, his talents were immediately apparent. His best year for us was almost certainly his first full one, 1994-95, which ended in a seventh-place finish. It’s probably not coincidental that the team was primarily a defensive one, and that in Andy Hessenthaler he had the kind of midfield partner who, once he’d done all his own running, did all of Ramage’s as well, and even then was only just getting started. He was the luxury that team earned through solidity, and largely repaid the status with an impressive level of creativity, guile and indeed, in a team that was crying out for a finisher, goalscoring. In particular, his heading ability went way beyond the traditional maverick image – a powerful header from a difficult position against Portsmouth on Boxing Day stands out, but there were others.
If anything, there were even more glimpses of genius the following season, following a maverick-standard-issue return to pre-season a stone overweight, leading to his absence for the first month of the season. His home return, against Stoke, was probably his finest game in a Watford shirt – he scored a header and a free kick in a 3-0 win, as well as winning a penalty which Kevin Phillips missed. On the other side of the maverick coin (heads: a roaring lion; tails: a sleeping cat; inscription: ‘Unplayable On His Day’), if he was trying to prove a point to manager Glenn Roeder that day, with whom he was reputedly never too far from a rift, it was difficult to ask why he seemingly wasn’t trying to much of the rest of the time.
Other moments stand out – a glorious 60-yard pass to set up Darren Bazeley to cross for Jamie Moralee to score against Birmingham, and a chip across the box to find David Connolly unmarked to score against Reading that no one else in the team would have seen, attempted, or achieved. But the crucial difference was that he was a luxury Watford could no longer afford. The defence was creaking, and Hessenthaler was injured for much of the year. Ramage had become the player you had to build a team around who just wasn’t quite good enough to justify that status.
Graham Taylor returned towards the end of that season, of course, and mavericks weren’t really his thing – although when he did play them, he liked them to be up front where they couldn’t do as much damage. Indeed, it was noticeable that Ramage played further forward in the run-in, often wearing the number nine shirt, and scoring a hat-trick in the 6-3 defeat of Grimsby to complete an impressive 15 goals for the season.
The end was sad and yet somehow appropriate, as Ramage seriously injured himself while diving (for a foul rather than a header) in a September match against Peterborough. He did return for a few games at the end of the season, but with Taylor’s return that summer, the writing was on the wall.
Ramage never came close to his achievements at Watford with any other club. But maybe he achieved more than many others might have done. Maybe he used his skills to make the most of his limited talents in terms of stamina and application. Either way, the passage of 25 years makes it much easier to remember the good things and forget the bad. I can still picture that casual turn and pass against Birmingham from my seat in the Vicarage Road end, releasing Bazeley into acres of space on the wing. It was the kind of ball that would have fitted perfectly into a Taylor team, actually…
Wembley (he did a play a big part in that).