There can be something inspiring about the uninspiring. In the same way we naturally root for the underdog, it’s possible to retrospectively have a fuzzier feeling about a player who, at the time, may have caused a collective shrug.
The unglamorous signing has its own place in the pantheon of football transfers, and is another delight that few teams in the top flight will get to experience. The gallows humour required to put a positive spin on a defensive midfielder on a free from Peterborough is a joy in itself. This is an unveiling that will never take place on WhatsApp, unless you happen to be close friends with the club secretary.
Let me illustrate this proposition with the introduction of one Ben Watson. Ben Watson was signed to bring discipline to a rabble, to put an authoritative stamp on a team that had enough exotic attacking players on the field at any one time to play what often turned out to be, in practice, an experimental 3-0-7 formation.
One day after Ben Watson signed for Watford, an expensively assembled team of misfits found themselves two goals down at home to Blackpool. Blackpool were in the process of an Oyston-provoked jettisoning of players and supporters, hadn’t won an away game since the Boer War, and were fielding a strike partnership of Ishmael Miller and Steve Davies.
This is the perfect moment for an uninspiring signing, simply because the circumstances surrounding introduction are peak dispiriting. “Lads, we’re 2-0 down at home to the worst team at this level since the Crusades. I’m bringing on Ben Watson.”
There was strong sunshine that day. Even so, the beacon of Ben Watson’s pale gingerness echoed around the stands, warning any approaching ships that Vicarage Road was, politely, currently rocky ground. Something had, however, changed in fifteen minutes. I’m not sure if it was a look then-manager Slavisa Jokanovic had given the players at half time (he was always a man given to a murderous stare), or if the sheer comforting nature of Ben Watson’s appearance, like a blanket materialising when you’re sitting outside and it’s starting to get a bit nippy, had convinced Odion Ighalo not to turn in for the night just yet, but a blitz ensued.
From 2-0 down, a Watford side whose only compositional difference was a jobbing midfielder let go by Wigan, proceeded to go 5-2 up within twenty minutes. Ben Watson had a foot on the ball. Ben Watson was trying the revolutionary tactic of not letting the other team have the ball. Ben Watson was providing balance to a team given to doing a decent impersonation of a see-saw repeatedly hitting an uncoordinated child in the face.
Watford won that game 7-2 and never looked back. Even in the top flight, we’ve had the good luck to revel in the “actual scenes”, as today’s youth are wont to say, surrounding Ben Watson scoring a goal directly from a corner. Against Manchester City.
When an uninspiring transfer works out this well, it is a thing of sheer beauty. The Championship, with its mildly random nature and unforgiving harshness, has a habit of throwing up these successful oddities. Getting relegated and then celebrating relegation by signing Ciaran Clark, for example, can’t have been a gratifying experience for Newcastle last season. Yet now here we are, with Clark a key player in a resurgent Newcastle side. We are probably just minutes away from Ciaran Clark having a street named after him.
Uninspiring Championship signings throw up all sorts of questions. Why have four different teams been promoted with Matthew Connolly in defence? These are the sort of questions that should be spouting think-pieces. I would gladly read two thousand words on the ephemeral nature of Matthew Connolly’s career, eternally a servant of a specifically unfulfilling kind of success, as if he was nature’s balance for Nigel Quashie.
Ben Watson looks like he might leave Watford soon. For all of the good that a conveyor belt of middling foreign talent over the last five years of Pozzo ownership has done this club, he is the most vital signing. There should be a very unassuming statue of him, and possibly the statue should perform some sort of vital street furniture function, like also being a bench.
He is a man of unassuming utility, and at a time when it’s become a cliche to say the transfer market has gone wild, we must give greater weight to celebrating the churn, to highlighting the glories brought to teams by picking up a journeyman bargain who doesn’t really do much apart from point a lot and not give the ball away.
Show me a proper appreciation of your low-key legends, and I will show you a proper appreciation of the game.