The Right Stuff
Tim Turner explains why his Watford heroes have tended to play in a particular position
I have a theory that your favourite footballers, and where they play on the pitch, give clues as to how you see yourself – or, perhaps more significantly, how you would like others to see you.
To take an obvious example, if your favourite Watford players tend to be talented but unpredictable midfielders, the chances are that you like to think you too are a maverick, a free spirit who can’t be tamed. If you’ve always tended to root for out-and-out goalscorers, maybe you see yourself as a high-flyer, someone who gets things done, whereas those who idolise goalkeepers are probably careful people who take pleasure in living an orderly life.
So what does it say about me that my favourite Watford players over the years have mostly been right-backs?
When I started watching the Hornets in 1970, I was blissfully unaware that the incumbent right-back, Duncan Welbourne, was on his way to making history; in November that year, an injury brought to an end an incredible run of 280 consecutive league games. He would go on to become the first player to make 400 appearances for Watford, and is still the only one to start 400 games.
Of course, I didn’t know all this at the time and my first proper favourite player was a striker – Keith Mercer, a barrel-chested teenager with a fearless (some would say suicidal) approach to the game. But in retrospect, Welbourne set the template for what was to come: right-backs were men who stuck around.
After he left in 1973 to end his career at Southport, though, the next decade was not a notable one for Watford right-backs. There may be some of you who have happy memories of John Stirk or Mick Henderson, but I struggle to recall them as anything more than functional.
Then, 10 years later, along came the first of my right-back heroes: Nigel Gibbs. He was one of our own, which helped, but above all, he was reliable – he never let us down. If only the same had been true of his body; two bad injuries in the second half of his career kept him out for long periods, without which he would surely have overtaken Luther’s all-time appearance record. He still could have if GT hadn’t inexplicably preferred the woeful Des Lyttle in the Premier League season at the turn of the millennium.
The other memorable thing about Gibbsy was his goals. Admittedly, there were only seven spread across 18 seasons, but they were almost all rockets from outside the area of the kind we more readily associate with Richard Johnson. (You can find a few of them online if you don’t believe me.)
By the time he retired in 2002, his successor had already started to establish himself as my new favourite. Making his debut against Birmingham after the injured Pierre Issa had been dropped off a stretcher (still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen at a football match), he quickly made the right-back slot his own, a consistent (and consistently underrated) defender who rarely got bested by an opposing winger. Because his game lacked elegance, successive managers doubted him and left him out of the team, only for him to win them over and regain his rightful place. Like Sir Nigel, he could easily have broken the club’s all-time appearance record if those managers hadn’t underestimated him.
Of course, Lloyd only scored two goals (and one of them is generally agreed to have been intended as a cross), but that only adds to the legend. One of my lasting regrets is that I missed the QPR game, as I wasn’t feeling well and it was on TV anyway, so what did it matter? How wrong I was. When Lloyd powered that header in, I nearly fell off the sofa. It remains one of the greatest moments in modern Watford history.
So there you have it: Welbourne, Gibbs and Doyley, three of the top five in the all-time list of Watford appearances. So what’s that got to do with me and my self-image? Well, I like to think that, like them, I am reliable, loyal, in it for the long haul. And, while I may not be a flashy person, I have my moments.
But why right-backs and not left-backs, you might ask? If you did, I would point out that the two most prominent left-backs in my time watching Watford have been Paul Robinson and José Holebas and, while there may well be people out there who identify themselves with those (undoubtedly talented) players, I’m not sure I’d like to meet them in a dark alleyway.