The President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick recently joked about newly promoted Premier League team, Watford becoming a new “camp” for the Super Eagles. It is a running joke in the country’s football circles yet its essentials are true.
The Hornets currently have five Nigeria internationals. Well, six, if you add 19-year-old forward Dapo Mebude who has represented Scotland at youth level but could still switch allegiance at senior level. What this means is that, if all six players were to start in a match for Watford, that would be more than half of the first XI made up of Nigerian players. That would also be a record for an African Nation in the Premier League. Now, it is largely impracticable but theoretically possible.
There have been imports of such nature- Wolverhampton Wanderers currently have 10 Portuguese players on their books, twice more than the English players in the squad. They have a Portuguese coach too.
Watford aren’t doing anything novel. Yet, this is different, and more so for Nigerians. No doubt, there will be increased interest and support for the Premier League club. The question though, is, why have they opted to spice up the team with this amount of Nigerian flavour? Does Xisco Munoz truly believe that this crop of Super Eagles players can do the job of at least, helping them avoid relegation this season?
The answer, still, is, why not? Since the club had been successful in the past with their signings of Nigerian players (not all, but most) that should give enough confidence to trust in more Nigerians.
It is difficult to look past the contributions of forward, Odion Ighalo for the Hornets from 2014. It typified a period Watford can’t forget setting the foundation for their recent trail of investments in Nigerian stars.
Ighalo had moved from Norweigian club, Lyn to Udinese in Italy, but failed to make a true mark, appearing just six times in the league. In that time, Giampaolo Pozza had acquired Granada in the Segunda division. The 20-year-old (at the time) would then be loaned to the Spanish outfit to get playing time. There, he made the mark, scoring 16 goals in 26 appearances. Yet, there was still something lacking in terms of consistency. In 2012, Pozza had also now acquired Watford. Ighalo was headed to England on another loan two years later and after six seasons in Spain. This one, though, was nothing like the others. It lasted only three months. They terminated the loan contract and signed him permanently.
The Nigerian took off! Watford did too. The Club had finished in 13th place the season before and hadn’t gained promotion in seven years. They had managerial inconsistencies, too. At the end of the 2014/15 campaign, three managers had taken charge of the team. Yet, they only lost top place on the final day. Ighalo scored 20 league goals in 35 appearances in the Championship to help them secure passage to the Premier League. What might have looked coincidental and mechanical would eventually turn into a transfer masterstroke. Indeed, they had done a similar transfer with Uche Agbo in between Ighalo’s transfer from Granada to Watford but he never featured for the English team. That didn’t work and he returned to the Nazaries.
Watford tried it again- with another Nigerian. Isaac Success had excelled at the African U-17 Championship in 2013 but he picked up an injury at the World Cup in Qatar which the Golden Eaglets won. Even then, his talent had been noticed by Granada. They signed him immediately after the tournament and he featured 20 times, scoring 9 goals for the B team. He made the step up to the senior team and played one and a half seasons before joining Watford in 2016. Five seasons later but the 25-year-old hasn’t delivered enough given the potentials he showed at the under-age tournament. This owing a lot to injuries but plenty more to indiscipline.
In 2018, Super Eagles defender, Williams Troost-Ekong was signed by Udinese from his Turkish club, Bursaspor. He quickly became one of the most reliable players for the Bianconeri and made 66 appearances in two seasons. It was a no-brainer that he would quickly make the switch to the English club in the Championship. After 32 matches, including 31 starts, 12 clean sheets, and an average of 3.7 interceptions, Troost-Ekong has helped Watford back into the Premier League. Another move for a Nigerian pays off. In short, another transfer masterstroke.
This season, Watford have taken it a notch higher by signing three more Nigerians or at least with Nigerian roots. Dennis Bonaventure has come in from Club Brugge for €5m. Oghenekaro Etebo has arrived on loan from Stoke City and Dapo Mebude from Rangers. They will expect the new lads to replicate the feat of their predecessors.
Watford have received value from their investments in Nigerian football players in the past. They have placed their trust in more players this season. It is yet another time for these ‘Naija’ boys to repay the trust.