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Farewell, Captain Eustace 02/07/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Thoughts about things.

Club Captain. It doesn’t always mean very much, that. It’s often just conferred upon the senior professional, the latest in line; a ceremonial position with accompanying rights to drive cattle through the training ground on a Monday and suchlike. Truth is, there aren’t many who really warrant the accolade: to be a leader on the pitch is rare enough, to somehow encapsulate an ethos away from matchday and out of the spotlight is an altogether different matter, to convince others to embrace that ethos is still another. You can’t learn any of that. You’ve got it or you haven’t, and it’s up to others to decide.

In many ways, the most revealing moment of John Eustace’s Watford career came on a day when he was wearing an opposition shirt, loaned to Derby and back at Vicarage Road as a temporary Ram for the final game of the 2008/09 season. (In passing, chuckle knowingly at the thought that playing against his employers might somehow have compromised his competitive appetite. With some, maybe. With Eustace, no bloody chance.) Derby were rubbish, beaten comfortably; Eustace scored a late consolation, celebrated with the visiting fans and then acknowledged the rest of the ground with a cupped ear and a large grin.

But the final whistle was most telling. At that point, exiled by Rodgers in favour of younger, less combative models, the chances of further appearances as a Hornet were pretty slim; there was no need for more than polite greetings, nods and handshakes with former colleagues. But the reception he received from the Watford players was extraordinarily warm, beyond cordial: he was obviously missed, clearly looked up to by more than just one or two. The truth, when you thought about it, was that John Eustace was very much Club Captain even though he wasn’t actually at the club

As he leaves Watford Football Club to pursue options for extending his playing career, I invite you to consider how different it might all look without his influence. There have been four seasons since May 2009, of which three have involved young managers and bare-bones budgets and the fourth and most recent has involved a slightly older manager with a disparate, potentially transient squad. And I put it to you that throughout a deeply challenging period in our history, John Eustace has been the most vital and cohesive and consistent figure, the key to it all.

Much has changed during those four years. But this much hasn’t: that three different managers have been able to depend on a culture within the playing staff of hard work, professionalism and togetherness, with room for a bit of a laugh at the right time. That culture comes from leadership by example; it comes from within the dressing room itself.

It was abundantly and suddenly clear under Malky Mackay that we’d achieved continuity from the management right down to the youngsters. Even as an outsider, you could see where everyone fitted in, and how quickly anyone not subscribing to the central ethos would be forced to shape up or piss off. It’s not just about teamwork, about fighting for a common cause; that’s just the Hollywood adaptation. It’s about something much more subtle and fragile: a general tone, a shared work ethic; it’s about everyone turning up to work every day with the right attitude.

That structure is only possible if the manager is generous and trusting enough to let his senior figures, the leaders, have their voice and take their share of responsibility. But those leaders need to be generous and trusting in turn, and so on down the chain. There’s a place for being a bit terrifying, certainly, but it takes more than that, especially in modern football. Leadership requires mutual respect, not just shouting.

Of course, that professional culture hasn’t all come from John Eustace. But would it have been as durable without him, I wonder? Would it have survived three very different managers and countless soap opera ownership shenanigans? Would the dressing room have remained as cohesive, the training ground as hard-working? Would incoming players have been assimilated – or rejected – so quickly and effectively? We’ll never know, but I’ll hazard a guess…

All of which sidelines his contributions as a player unfairly…except for the fact that his contributions as a player were born of his personality as much as his considerable footballing talent. In the determination to adapt himself to different midfield roles – dismissive of the idea that he and Jonathan Hogg were incompatible, for example – there’s the same appetite for a challenge which greeted every fifty-fifty. If these things matter, he was technically a holding midfielder, certainly in the post-injury phase of his career that we’ve witnessed: combative, powerful, obstinate, quietly constructive rather than especially creative. But he had more in his armoury than that, particularly a keen and eager eye for goal when his role allowed it; always dangerous at corners, he won Goal of the Season for a brilliant overhead in 2010/11.

In the referee’s ear incessantly, he so evidently relished every aspect of the competitive scrap that you can fully understand his reluctance to end his playing career at this point. Assuming that he isn’t some kind of tactical buffoon, he’ll make one hell of a manager…but that can wait. There’ll be no shortage of offers when he does finally chuck his boots into the cupboard under the stairs.

So, there he goes. He was Club Captain from the moment of his arrival, even when others wore the armband, even when he was out on loan elsewhere. It’ll take some considerable time – and quite a force of personality from someone – before he isn’t Club Captain any more.

We’ve all seen some players come and go over the years, hundreds upon hundreds of them for good and ill and everything in between. I challenge you to think of more than half a dozen whose mark has been quite as deep as that left by John Eustace. And then tell him. To his face.



1. Kris - 02/07/2013

If there were ever a player for whom I wished ALL the best as he left – I can’t think if anyone more deserving those wishes than Eusty. When we signed him from Stoke they said his legs had gone, that he was past it, that injury finished him. For any other player that may have been the case but not him. Four years on, I regret him leaving but I completely understand and I will keep an eye out for Derby while he’s there.

Your point about management potential is spot on. How about him as GFZs replacement in a few years time. Now that would be something.

2. oldhorn - 02/07/2013

I remember the reception he got from Coventry fans on his return there and I know that if/when JE graces the turf at The Vic again, he will get a similar reception. Nothing but admiration for the loyalty he showed to us when he could easily have buggered off. Top bloke and I wish him all the very best.

3. Dom - 02/07/2013

Top man. Top professional. End of.

4. BobT - 02/07/2013

Excellent piece! Good luck and thank you Captain Eustace. I’d certainly be happy to see him back at the Vic in the future too

5. Luke Fairweather - 02/07/2013

Great post IG, thanks. Had the Pozzo revolution not happened, then I suspect that John would have taken over from Sean D as manager at some point. Just a thought….


Ian Grant - 02/07/2013

Yes, you might be right. Not sure how much of a club there’d have been left to manage without the Pozzo takeover, mind…

Luke Fairweather - 02/07/2013

Indeed, had we survived, natch.


6. Captain Toddy - 02/07/2013

Thanks for this ig. John’s a respected players ‘player’. Off the pitch he is a really nice unassuming guy. Jackie Bell and I have been one of his kit sponsors for a number of years. We shall miss him and wish him well.

7. Steveo - 02/07/2013

Over rated as a footballer IMO wasn’t missed under Rodgers wont be missed under Zola for same reasons

Top guy gave expierenced leadership when need in last year for MM and first year for SD

Ian Grant - 03/07/2013

That’s a bit of a daft comment, I think: all five Watford managers that Eustace has played under have had very different approaches, with the result that he’s been utterly indispensable to a couple of them (Mackay and Dyche) and much less vital to a couple of others (Rodgers and Zola). If Zola were fired and Dyche re-instated tomorrow, I don’t imagine he’d have much time for Almen Abdi; that doesn’t make him over-rated, merely a player suited to particular roles.

Vaughn Smith - 05/07/2013

A bit churlish. He had his limitations yes, but at various times he was the team’s best defensive player, best creative player and only scoring option, and usually all in the same game. I’m very sad to see him go, and ever sadder that he didn’t get on the pitch in the last third of the season when we could have really used someone with his nous in the middle of the pitch in a number of games that were drawn or lost.

8. Julian Gilbert - 03/07/2013

John Eustace, if you are reading this, thanks for your great service.

9. NickB - 03/07/2013

Fine words and well merited.
Doesn’t seem that long ago, however, that most sides had a real leader in the Keith Eddy mould. Says much about the modern game that we should be celebrating a set of character traits that would once have been fairly commonplace.
Not to be read as carping, I must be passing through that age where everything was better years ago…

10. JohnF - 04/07/2013

Excellent piece Ian and a well deserved tribute to JE. I don’t think Zola saw him as surplus but his injury problems were a major barrier to greater involvement this season. I recall, possibly incorrectly, that he was a shoe in until he was injured early in the season. I know that he was very highly regarded by Zola and Nani and he would have made a brilliant coach as he developed towards being the chief coach. A quietly spoken gentleman who was accepted by all of the players as the Captain. I saw him in action at the awards dinner, particularly with the younger players, where he went round for a quiet word with each one as part of the process of getting the morale up again after the Leeds game. He will be missed and currently I do not see a natural replacement.

Geoff - 05/07/2013

I spotted that at the sponsors do as well and a true mark of a man who I guess knew he was probably going even then.

I see and have heard the comments about the jinked passes and a few other implied negatives but personally I did and still do adore ‘Sir’ John Eustace……….a top bloke and clearly one of the key reasons this club did not fall apart post Boothroyd. Also a far, far better player than he was often given credit for and would have got to the very top in his career had it not been for injuries in his really 20’s.

Sorely missed and for me personally a true legend; thanks for writing the fitting tribute Ian.

11. Harefield Hornet - 05/07/2013

According to the WO the door is always open for a return at a later stage in a coaching capacity – at least while GZ remains at the helm. Provided much needed steel during turbulent times but drove the bloke who sits next to me mad with his little jinked misplaced chips and passes that occaisonally went to the opposition!

Good luck at Derby John!

Ian Grant - 05/07/2013

I used to love the trademark ‘chip around the corner’, personally. It was the “Neil Cox free kick into the wall” of its day, largely unsuccessful but pleasantly familiar.

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