By Ed Perchard
When Joy Mukena was told by his academy coaches at Spurs that he didn’t have a future at the club, it could have been the end of a dream that had consumed the young defender for over a decade.
But Watford’s history is littered with stories of persistence paying off. Ashley Young, released as a 15-year-old, forced his way into a part-time scholarship and five years later was leading the club to the Premier League and carving a career that would take in World Cups with England and European glory with Manchester United. Kevin Phillips, unwanted by Southampton, fought back to become a Watford star and Premier League top scorer. Then there’s that Troy Deeney guy.
Towering centre-back Mukena is striving to be the latest in that line of successes, working to prove those that have written him off wrong.
Growing up in Tottenham, a Spurs fan from birth, it had always been his dream to play for his local side. On the books from the age of nine, he had travelled across Europe playing in the top level of youth football, growing as a player as part of one of the most highly-rated groups of youngsters in the country. But after all that hard work, in the second year of his scholarship, the then-18-year-old was told that this particular dream was not going to come true.
“I was playing a few games but then my performances started to fizzle out,” he said. “By January I got told that I wouldn’t be getting a professional contract, so I had to look at my options. Obviously I was disappointed – it was the club I’d been at for ages and I’d supported the club. But it motivated me, I want to show them that I could do this, that I can be a professional in the Premier League. I saw it as a minor setback for a major comeback – that’s the type of mentality I had. I didn’t really get too disheartened.”
It’s testament to Mukena’s resolve that he was immediately looking for the next opportunity, not willing to wait to the end of his scholarship – and he had a good idea of where he wanted to go.
“When I first got told by Spurs, my agent asked me if there was a club I had in mind. The first one I said was Watford because I already knew a couple of the boys that were already here, like Dion Pereira (who started at Tottenham before joining Watford’s academy), and they really sold it to me and told me it was a good environment to develop in with good people around.”
After a successful trial, Mukena officially signed for the club in March 2017, and that environment made the transition a smooth one. At his new home, he set about proving that he was destined to be a Premier League player.
At Premier League level you are not just competing with the best English talent to make it at your club, but the best players from across the world. Mukena describes himself as a calm and composed centre-back, a Paolo Maldini who likes to be in the right place rather than one who flies around crunching into tackles. His footballing education at Spurs, which saw him face the top sides from around the globe, has prepared him well for the cosmopolitan world of modern football.
“Playing in European tournaments is obviously challenging, but it gives you a good indicator of where you are compared other teams around Europe that you’re supposed to be on a par with,” he said.
“Depending on what country they come from they have different general types of style. For example, Germans are more robust and have more of a team-based structure. If the teamwork’s good then everything’s alright. Spanish clubs are more about keeping the ball on the deck, playing nice football. And when you came up against different teams you had to adjust how you played.
“That sets me up well because you know more about how to play against different players from different countries, and when managers from different countries come to the Premier League they will implement their way of playing.”
And aside from this cultured footballing upbringing, the 6-foot-3 Mukena, who grew up in one of Tottenham’s toughest estates, is no stranger to hard work. Faced with a formidable squad of promising young players, he used youth loans to Brighton and Southend to show that he was Spurs material and force his way into the youth side.
That persistence has already paid some dividends. Within a year of joining Watford, Mukena was playing a role in one of the club’s most famous evenings in modern times.
Under the hot floodlights on a cold February night, the Hornets routed reigning champions Chelsea 4-1. With injuries to several defenders, Joy was drafted into the squad, and took his place on the bench next to someone else experiencing game day at Vicarage Road for the first time - Javi Gracia.
“Obviously that was the high point of the year. I just remember before the game the aura was so positive. We felt like the team was going to win, everything was good. Even though we had a lot of players out injured there was a good team vibe. I found out a couple of days before that I’d be travelling with the first team so I had to pack my bag for the next day and go to the hotel with them. That was the first time I’d travelled with the team.”
Six days later he was in the matchday squad again for a trip to West Ham, and that meant a whole week of match preparation with the first team. Mukena says that the specific preparation required added a new element to his week: “It’s a lot more regimented. There’s more of a plan on how to stop the opposition and a lot more clips to watch, so you can put more tactics in place and understand your job a bit more. It was more mature.
“In the Under-23s you do get video analysis, but the teams can change a lot. You can have an Under-18s striker one week and a first team striker the next and you don’t really know who you’re going to come up against. But in the first team, you know who’s been playing week after week.”
Mukena is keen to get more video homework put on his plate in the near future: “Having a taste of first team football felt special. It’s where I want to be. It’s more motivation. It was like having a little bit of a sweet. I’ve got to have more.”
The son of Belgian parents, he has aspirations to follow teammate Christian Kabasele into the national team, though he is also eligible for the DR Congo. For now, though, he’s just focused on proving the doubters wrong and becoming a Premier League footballer.
“As long as I’m always learning and taking on all the information that people are giving me I believe there is more to come, because nobody is ever the complete player at 17. Even as you get older you can still learn.”