First Team 29/04/2019

Gray: “It Feels Like The Fans Are Really Behind Me Now”

Andre Gray says the backing of Watford fans is behind his improved fortune in front of goal this season.

The former Brentford and Burnley forward was at his instinctive best to half-volley the ball into the back of the net in the 49th minute of Saturday’s frustrating defeat to Wolves, taking him to nine for the campaign.

That strike looked set to be yet another crucial goal at The Vic – following Gray’s run of three successive winners on home turf against Everton, Leicester City and Crystal Palace - before Diogo Jota broke Hornets hearts with a late winner.

But Gray is relishing the buzz of playing in front of the Hornets’ faithful home and away and says their backing has been pivotal in improving his form.

 “It definitely feels like they’re really behind me now, which helps me as a player quite a lot,” said Gray. “I’ve scored some important goals this season and that has really helped.

“Knowing the fans are on your side gives you that edge at times and it’s good to feel so much more welcome. You’re more relaxed about things, less anxious when you’re playing, and that obviously then gives you more confidence.

“I started the season well and scored three goals in something like the first six games, so it was a good start and I think that always helps any striker with confidence.

“I’ve just knuckled down and got on with things. I’ve been honest with myself every day.

“I know how far I’ve come – five years ago I was still coming through non-league – so I don’t like to moan about things.

“I try to put a lot of pressure on myself to keep improving so that I can contribute to the team, and thankfully I’ve been able to chip in with a few more goals this season.”


His outpouring of emotion when he scored against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday was more than just your regular goal celebration.

The forward, who was born in Wolverhampton and played for Wolves before being released by the club as a 13-year-old, has taken the long road to the top biut, now there, has no intention of resting on his laurels.

Gray has gone on to become a player closing in on 100 Premier League appearances under his belt. If he wasn’t ready then, he certainly is now, having worked his way back up the leagues.

“Being released and having to fight my way back through non-league taught me a lot – I don’t think I’d be the same person or player if it wasn’t for that,” explained the 27-year-old.

“I just think I wasn’t really ready at that time. There were players there who were better than me and that’s just how it was. I certainly don’t have any regrets about it.

“People like me have had to come out of Academy football and I might not have got to where I’ve got to without going through non-league.”

Andre Gray’s interview originally appeared in The Hornet – the Watford FC matchday programme.

First Team 29/04/2019

Affleck’s Angle: Joie De Vivre

Kevin Affleck waxes lyrical over Étienne Capoue's sensational season...

If you headed for the exits a bit sharpish on Saturday it was understandable. That defeat was a real kick in the teeth.

Had you stayed, like a handful did, to perhaps pick over the bones of what you just witnessed, you would have been cheered by a lovely moment in the centre circle.

Before award-winning groundsman Scott Tingley had even had time to fire up his lawnmower, Étienne Capoue bounded out with two of his three children. They messed and larked about with a ball in the centre circle for a good ten minutes. It was difficult to work out which of the three was having the most fun.

Previously you could have accused Capoue of not really caring about what just happened in the previous 90 minutes. “How can you be frolicking about just after your European hopes via the league went up in smoke?”

Not anymore. His joie de vivre is what’s making him tick, resulting in a series of sustained, high-class performances from the middle of midfield this season. It’s difficult to recall him having a bad game during this thrilling campaign and even if he has, he probably never dipped below a six out of ten. Whatever he’s doing, whatever mindset he’s in as he approaches his 31st year this summer, it’s working a treat. He’s playing the football of his career and has been an absolute joy to watch.

He’s comfortably been the best outfield player this season and it seems a straight shoot-out between Capoue and Ben Foster for the Player of the Season gong. The Frenchman got my vote. He had it a long while back.

It’s the first time he’s really been in the running for the top prize during his near four seasons with the club. It’s the first time I’ve even considered voting for him. In previous seasons could you probably count the votes he tallied on two hands. Now you’ll need one person to count them and another to verify them.

The first season he was here he didn’t even attend the End of Season Awards night. And last season, after the final home game of the campaign, against Newcastle, the players gathered in and around the centre circle to see who would be named Player of the Season. Well, almost all the players did.

Capoue was standing on the touchline near the dugout deep in conversation with Filippo Giraldi. He knew he was not even in the race let alone the photo frame for the gong, so he decided to chew the fat with Technical Director instead. But that’s the thing: he should be. He should be on tenterhooks, standing shoulder to shoulder with his teammates and rehearsing his acceptance speech. Given his heavenly talent (there is nothing he can’t do as a midfielder), he really should be in the running for the top prize every season. He should be winning it back-to-back.

On Saturday, he played so majestically that it was tempting to just stop the voting, close the poll and give it to him at half-time. It was yet another contender for the Display of the Season. He did everything you’d want of a midfielder against some high-class company. João Moutinho and Rúben Neves patrol the midfield for the Portugal national team, but Capoue ran the game, playing it at his tempo, deciding when to quicken it up and when to slow it down. He produced a drop of the shoulder in the first half to ghost past Moutinho in the sort of space you’d find in a telephone box.

There was the extraordinary goal-line clearance he made to stop Raúl Jiménez opening the scoring. The fact he was even back there spoke of his new-found commitment to the cause. In the next breath he was powerfully heading away a Moutinho corner – watch how many times he does this at the near post from a corner, it’s no fluke – and there was even a fist pump on the slide in the second-half when he won a throw (yes, a throw) following a tussle with Matt Doherty. It once looked like you couldn’t get Capoue to celebrate if he was recalled to the France squad and now he’s celebrating throw-ins.

The knowledgeable crowd are identifying with it too and roared their approval when he chased down Conor Coady and then Wily Boly to win another second-half throw in front of the Graham Taylor Stand. He’s become a real favourite and it’s his song that really gets the crowd going at the minute. The crowd weren’t quite in unison at Wembley in the semi-final until they went through their playbook and belted out the one about Capoue and Zidane. Then they were off, up and running.

Capoue is still not getting the recognition outside the confines of Vicarage Road, although that won’t bother him one iota. He doesn’t play the game for plaudits or medals. He almost looks like he plays it for fun sometimes.

Abdoulaye Doucouré was in three XI’s I saw of the best players outside the top six. Doucouré is a mighty fine player and will probably go on to have a better career than Capoue, but Doucouré isn’t even his club’s best midfielder this season.

I’d go a step further and argue that Capoue should have been in the running for the PFA team. He’s been that good. Of the out and out central midfielders in the league – and I exclude the Silvas in this – I’d only have Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne ahead of Capoue in my XI. He comprehensively outplayed Paul Pogba at Old Trafford.

Pogba and Capoue share the same agent, Mino Raiola. I spotted Raiola at the training ground 18 months ago and assumed, somewhat wrongly it turns out, that he was there to negotiate Capoue’s exit. Shows you how much I know. It wasn’t the wildest conclusion to jump to, though, as his client was not really featuring under the former Head Coach.

Raiola was actually there to thrash out a new contract until 2022. Capoue has not looked back since and is turning into the player Tottenham thought they signed in 2013 with some of the proceeds of the Gareth Bale transfer to Real Madrid.

Garth Crooks said that Spurs had sold Elvis and bought the Beatles that summer. You can certainly imagine Capoue swaggering across Abbey Road and it’s certainly all, ahem, coming together for him right now. All he needed was love.