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The Quarantine Selection – Central Midfielders 09/06/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Jesus.  Two weeks you say?  Better get on with these, else the appearance numbers on those bloody quizzes will be out of date.

Central midfielders, more than perhaps any other character, defy rigorous categorisation.  I’ve done one, you can like it or not.  All complaints, queries, suggestions, protests to my co-editor, or in the Comments Box if you must…  FAVOURITES.  MINE.  Not necessarily “best”.

10- Micah Hyde

9- Nathaniel Chalobah

8- Gary Porter

7- Les Taylor

6- Gavin Mahon

Micah was terrific.  And one of the better performers in the horrible 1999/2000 Premier League season… but maybe didn’t quite realise how good he was.  Not assertive enough.  But still terrific.  There’s a bit of that in Chalobah too, though he’s someone who looks made for this level rather than maybe being able to elevate himself to it.  Elegant, assertive, you so want him to crack it.  But frankly he’d be pushing this list purely on the basis of that goal at Leicester, aged 18.  Gary Porter…  unfortunate in that his first team career arguably saw the club gradually decline (from a very high starting point), and that Dave Bassett turned up to turn him into a kicking machine just as he was beginning to look like he might run a top flight midfield.  Still a tremendous servant though;  only caught that 20-minute hat-trick against Bolton via frenzied radio updates, but the goal at Carrow Road was special.   Les Taylor… distinctive, ferocious, our best player in the Cup Final in 1984.  Looked like he was on fire when he was in full flow.  Gavin Mahon.  Stood out like a sore thumb amidst the candy shop signings of 2001/02 both as a (non) name and by coming in and wanting it rather than expecting it to be easy.  Battled back from injury to being a boo-boy when played out of position and scarcely fit early on to being a promotion-winning captain.

5- Tom Cleverley

Tom Cleverley’s status at Watford reflects our evolution over the last ten years. A decade ago under Malky he was a loan signing from Old Trafford;  few had heard of him, but he was quickly, obviously, a star in the making.  He combined inventiveness with hard work and a sensibleness that suggested that he was destined for great things in a quiet and unassuming kind of way, as much of Manchester United’s kids at the time were.  Tom scored eleven League goals that season from an advanced position of responsibility that he’s rarely been afforded since;  indeed, he’s only managed fourteen further League goals in nine-and-a-half seasons, his three since re-signing including late winners against Arsenal and Palace.  He was capped 13 times by Roy Hodgson but never celebrated as an England international.  He seemed to lack the arrogance to be robust to criticism, When he came back to the Hornets from Everton he was… if not a coup then still a very positive signing, despite our more elevated status.  Three years on…  injuries haven’t helped, the strength of our midfield options clearly a factor, but Tom’s four month absence from the side with a foot injury either side of the new year barely attracted comment.

But I’d have him in the side every week.  The squad, without question.  He’s intelligent, calm, sensible…   one of the guys who makes everything else look better.

4- Steve Palmer

Steve Palmer was 27 when he joined the Hornets.  Two remarkable things here:  first that a 27 year old had only racked up 100-odd starts for Ipswich, this reflecting a professional career delayed by a degree at Cambridge.  The second remarkable thing is that Steve was ever as young as 27.  Doesn’t seem possible.

His six-and-a-bit year Watford career was conducted in the manner of an indulgent parent playing with kids.  His ability to anticipate what was going to happen when it happened lead to him generally being in the right place without appearing to move at all to achieve this feat.  This applied equally at centre half and in midfield, or wherever else we ended up playing him (including the notorious run-out in goal) but he was always more fun in midfield.  Criminally discarded by Vialli, a decision that rather summed up his salary-over-reputation-over-style-over-substance squad.

3- John Eustace

Quite a scarey bloke.  The missing Shelby brother. You certainly wouldn’t mess. Which was part of what qualified him to be exactly the captain we needed at the time he was in situ. He had a fabulously haggard look to him in full flight, like a pirate boarding a merchant ship.  He wouldn’t have looked out of place with a dagger between his teeth.

He was a tremendous leader, a great captain but a very good footballer also; in your head he’s a fundamentally destructive influence but he attacked the box well and was a decent all-round midfielder.  His early career had promised much, but he picked up bad knee injuries first at Coventry and then at Stoke, the latter seeing him miss much of the two seasons preceding his move to Watford.  Despite being nearly 30 when signing his legs had relatively few years’ worth of games in them, which contributed to him playing at high velocity well into his thirties and was perhaps a factor in him voluntarily renegotiating his contract with Malky Mackay to navigate a prohibitive appearance bonus.  He played a handful of games in Zola’s first season but left for Derby at the end of the campaign where yet another knee injury ended his career.

2- Almen Abdi

You can’t help but grin, thinking about Almen in full flow.  This was what a step up really looked like, but unlike the Vialli-era incarnation of a step up here was quality blended with energy and humility.  What was not to like.  Even in the rarefied company of Zola’s likeable side he stood out, the gem around which the rest of the side rotated.  After an injury screwed up his second season – easy to overlook that in the chaos of that campaign – he was back with a flourish in 2014/15 as we were promoted.  A slide-rule pass here, a drive into the box there, a ridiculous shot curled into the top corner.  Almen was a thing of joy.

That he didn’t have more of an impact in the Premier League was a bit surprising.  He was a reasonably regular starter, but of the 25 he started he only played out 90 minutes five times.  The last of these saw the last of his 25 goals for the ‘orns, still the most recent direct free kick scored by a Watford player in a 3-2 win over Villa.  If fitness was ultimately the issue it was one that didn’t disappear with a return to the Championship.  He managed fourteen starts in three seasons with Sheffield Wednesday, who could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss had been about.  He’s still only 33 years old.

But what a sparkling memory his Watford career was.  That goal at Fulham, even on a ridiculous evening in a ridiculous season, even in that context, was jaw dropping.  A gem.

1- Richard Johnson

See, I was all set to wax lyrical about Johnno when someone else beat me to it in the latest “Home Tied”.  I tried to resist reading it until I’d written this and failed.  That’s what you get for not getting your finger out and getting the bloody thing written.  Second to market.  At best.

Anyway.  Johnno was fabulous.  In his early days he always had something, but he was ragged… like a parcel too loosely wrapped.  That parcel was wrapped tight from 1997 when he became the metronome of a side that gained successive promotions.  So much to enjoy… the controlled aggression (“well in Johnno”), the awareness, the range of passing.  And what’s not to like about a player who can kick the ball that hard?  One goal like that is something to cherish, Johnno has a catalogue.  Wolves.  Gillingham.  Bristol City (twice).  Bristol City, wow.  Stockport.  Tremendous.

A number of players were scuppered by injury in 1999/2000.  Johnno had two, the second of which in the 3-2 defeat to Manchester United the more serious.  His career never really recovered, albeit he started another 100-odd games here and down under for nine clubs, none of which saw the magnificent midfielder that should have graced the Premier League for longer.


Wingers to come…  centre midfielders quiz is here.  Every central midfielders to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80…  to reiterate, I get to decide who’s a central midfielder and who isn’t .  Central midfielders to have appeared in friendlies only are hidden bonus answers – some of them.

Central Midfielders Quiz


1. Chris W - 09/06/2020

Great stuff Matt. I was reading though the names with trepidation, thinking “he can’t be ignoring Johnno surely”. I am convinced he was the single biggest reason for the promotion in 1999.

Feels like we’ve been spoiled when there’s no room for the energy of Super Allan Nielsen or sheer style of Cool as Craig Ramage

Matt Rowson - 09/06/2020

Or Doucs, Caps, Kenny Jackett. Paul Okon. Plenty of quality options omitted…

2. Kristoffer - 09/06/2020

Maybe it is due to me being Danish but I am surprised at the omission of Allan Nielsen. Then again I struggle to name the player he should replace.

Matt Rowson - 09/06/2020

This is “favourites”, not “best”. I didn’t dislike Nielsen, he was great. But I wasn’t wowed by him in the way that many were.

3. Neil - 09/06/2020

Where’s Neil Redfearn in your quiz?

Matt Rowson - 10/06/2020

He played wide midfield at Watford, never centre-mid. That’s next up.

4. Joe - 09/06/2020

Another enjoyable trip down memory lane, thanks Matt.

I would have Capoue in my top 3. The most naturally gifted CM I’ve seen in a Watford shirt.

5. James - 09/06/2020

“like a pirate boarding a merchant ship” – perfect vignette of Eustace.

6. Harefield Hornet - 10/06/2020

Chuffed to see Almen Abdi at number 2 – wonderful player – made football look so easy!

7. JohnF - 13/06/2020

Really difficult one Matt. So many great mid-fielders and so many favourites. I would broadly come up with something similar as a list of personal favourites but maybe a different ranking. I met John Eustace several times and off the field he was far from scary but was a brilliant captain, acting as a mentor to younger players. The new crop are great to watch as well. Great stuff Matt, I can’t wait for the next episode.

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