It’s taken a week longer than intended to finalise a list of my top six Watford midfielders since the 1996/97 season, not least because it was difficult to whittle the shortlist down.
The criteria have remained the same as the top six Hornets defenders I selected – you can read that list here – and players such as Tom Cleverley, Gavin Mahon and Adam Johnson were all very close to inclusion. But here’s the six I eventually opted for:
For my money the best signing since the Pozzo takeover at Vicarage Road and arguably the most stylish midfielder to play at Vicarage Road in the past 18 years.
One player doesn’t make a team but if Watford had not been denied Abdi’s services for most of last season due to injury, it is reasonable to suggest they would have finished higher in the table.
Technically excellent, a fine reader of the game who can weigh with his share of goals, the Swiss has the ability to control a match seemingly effortlessly at his best.
Conventional wisdom has it that a side should be built from the back – and that continues to have plenty of merit – but if the Hornets can secure the services of Daniel Tozser, there is a decent argument for shaping the team around the Hungarian and Abdi.
A team can possess flair by the bucket-loads but it needs glue to hold it together.
There are several players in the past 18 years who were able to bond a team from the centre of the park and Steve Palmer would have been a strong contender for this role but he was my in my top six defenders.
Richard Johnson is included in this list for other reasons and Mahon and Eustace also did the ‘ugly’ side of the game very well in their time at Vicarage Road, with their influence on the pitch not fully appreciated by some until they weren’t in the side.
But Eustace just shaded it for me because of everything he bought to the table, not just as a player – and that is no way intended as a slight on Mahon’s all-round qualities.
The type to lead by encouragement and example rather than vocal outbursts, the former captain's qualities off the pitch also made him an ideal professional to have in the squad.
The Hornets undoubtedly suffered from the absence of such traits last season but that is ground about which much has already been said and written.
A lot of thought has gone into whether to include Hyde in this list because although the former Cambridge United midfielder, signed for £150,000 (what a bargain that now looks, incidentally), was a mainstay of the Hornets midfield for the majority of his seven seasons at Vicarage Road, he was one of those players for whom the word infuriating was almost created.
At his best, Hyde was almost untouchable, possessing every attribute you’d want in a top-class midfielder. But the reason Hyde didn’t go on to have a career at the very peak of the game was because he was, well, infuriating – and I still can’t put my finger on why. Commitment wasn’t an issue, he certainly wasn’t lazy, but there was something enigmatic about him.
For those two glorious seasons during Graham Taylor’s second stint, Hyde was tremendous. He continued to have some very good games before departing Vicarage Road, but not enough of them.
“Shooooot!” The long-range blockbusters will forever be a part of Vicarage Road folklore and rightly so but there was so much more to ‘Johnno’ than his master-blasters – and had it not been for a cruel knee injury the Australian could have gone on to forge a career at the highest level.
It is easy to forget the early days of Johnson’s Hornets career; at times uncertain and prone to making mistakes, there was a time when there were doubts whether he would make the grade. But then along came Hyde and a superb central midfield unit was born as the Hornets once again rose through the divisions.
To use modern football language, Johnson could play the holding role because for bravery, commitment and determination he could not be faulted. But there was so much more to Johnson’s game than doing the ‘dirty’ side, his superb passing ability to name but one.
When Watford were relegated from the Premiership in 2000, Taylor signed two players from Tottenham Hotspur. Goalkeeper Espen Baardsen looked like he might be an astute signing for a while, but it was the Danish midfielder who was to prove by far the better of the pair in his three seasons at Vicarage Road.
The personification of ‘all-action’ with seemingly limitless energy levels, the Dane could cover every blade of grass on the pitch at his best and do so with style.
The problem with Nielsen was – and it was not his fault – that he wasn’t played in his best central midfield position most of the time. Often deployed as a makeshift winger and sometimes further back, that limited his effectiveness but his commitment could never be questioned.
It wasn’t so long ago that Young was been lauded as a key figure in the England team. Since then his career at Manchester United has, at best, stagnated and, in my view, it is now time he left Old Trafford to try and rediscover the form that secured a multi-million move to then Premier League champions. It was those qualities that first came to the fore at Vicarage Road.
The now 28-year-old first rose to prominence under Ray Lewington but in the Hornets’ play-off winning season of 2005/06, Young was immense. Capable of playing on either flank or in a central striking role, he was an integral part of the Hornets’ attacking armoury, scoring some spectacular efforts in the 14 he netted during that campaign.
All pictures: Action Images.