James: “My Heart Has To Be With Watford”
He’s a four-time FA Cup finalist who kept goal for both Watford and Manchester City during an illustrious career, but David James says his affiliation with the Hornets and the family values that have been present since he arrived at Vicarage Road as a teenager mean he’ll be rooting for the team in yellow come 5pm on Saturday.
A youth team product who played 98 times for Watford – then racked up 100 outings for City more than a decade later – James will be cheering on Javi Gracia’s men from Hong Kong, where he’ll be playing in a seven-a-side tournament alongside some of the game’s most famous former stars.
“I’ll be a long way away but I’ll be cheering for Watford,” the ex-England international told watfordfc.com. “City are one of the teams I’ve represented and I still have a lot of affection for them, but having grown up at the club – I spent seven years there even though I was only in the first team for two – my heart is definitely with Watford.
“I joined in 1984, the same year Watford reached the final for the first time, and I felt like part of the fabric. I spent all my time hanging around in the club shop and the ticket office; I was the apprentice who never went home. When Tony Marks locked up the club shop at 5pm I’d usually be walking out just in front of him.
“I went back a couple of years ago and Heurelho Gomes was describing the club in exactly the same way I remembered it. He said the owners had brought the family values back to the club and as a former player who grew up there, to see the club in its modern version of the same ethic is fantastic.
“Even the stadium is amazing. It actually looks like a proper Premier League football club now and Watford getting to the FA Cup final is an amazing story, even taking away the events of the semi-final, which were borderline heroic. The way the club is at the moment, the way it’s got back to what I used to value it as, my heart has to be with Watford.”
And he’s backing the Hornets to spring a surprise too.
Pep Guardiola’s side won their last 14 Premier League games and are fighting for a first ever English domestic treble, but James believes with game-changing players like Gerard Deulofeu at their disposal, Watford have what it takes to make some history of their own.
“Watford are there on merit. When you’ve got someone like Deulofeu – who I’ve loved ever since the first time I saw him when he first came to England – he’s capable of turning a game on one moment. It’s not just him either, there’s capability in that side to win the game, for sure,” he said.
“The interesting thing with City is that before the Brighton game they hadn’t smashed anyone for quite a while. Yes they’ve been winning games, but they’ve been winning them by the odd goal. You’d imagine there was a lot of focus on becoming Premier League champions and it could mean they’ll go into the final with a bit of fatigue because of their exertions.
“Watford will have to nullify their threats of course, but that’s the same for any match. They’ll have to beat one of the best keepers in the league in Ederson, but it’s 11 v 11 and if everyone plays well for Watford, City will have to equal them. It only needs one or two players off form and Watford could end up winning the trophy.”
If that happens, it’ll be quite the moment for Heurelho Gomes, who has excelled in Watford’s goal throughout the tournament and has hinted heavily that this season could be his last.
Such is the respect between the Hornets’ keepers that regular number one Ben Foster claims he’d refuse to play if selected ahead of Gomes for Saturday’s final, and James says he has first-hand experience of the camaraderie that exists at the club’s London Colney training base.
“Ben wasn’t at the club when I went to the training ground but the relationship amongst the keepers even then was really good, so it doesn’t surprise me he came out and said that,” he remarked.
“Ben will be thinking about retirement himself in the not too distant future so it shows a great level of respect. It’s a good camp. I had a chat with Troy Deeney as well and it feels like a really good place where everyone respects each other.
“When I met Heurelho I came away thinking what a lovely guy. He’s only conceded three goals in the competition so far so he definitely deserves his spot. If he hadn’t played so well during the earlier rounds then Watford wouldn’t be in the final now.
“It’s a chance to be a hero and with Heurelho possibly retiring in the summer you could almost write the back page already couldn’t you? That would be so romantic. It would be unbelievable.”
But would it gain as many column inches as the infamous cream suits worn by Liverpool ahead of their 1996 FA Cup final defeat to Manchester United?
James denies being the man behind the outlandish outfits – laying the blame on another ex-Hornet – but the 48-year-old says suit fittings and heightened media interest are all part of what will have made for an unusual build-up to this weekend’s game for the Golden Boys.
“Our suits were mentioned more than our performance, I think. John Barnes chose them as club captain. I made the initial call to Armani but he took control and did everything from then on in. I thought it was a great suit – if we’d won we’d have been the best dressed team to ever win the cup final, but unfortunately we didn’t,” he claimed.
“That was all part of the build-up, but the media thing was the biggest thing because there’s so much attention on the club and the players involved. There’s some wonderful stories within that Watford squad. Heurelho, for example, might be retiring and there’s the fact it’s only Watford’s second FA Cup final, so there’ll be plenty to talk about.
“The hardest thing for the players is tickets, because all of a sudden everyone wants to go to the cup final. In the old days you got something like 20 to 25 tickets each and you’d have 50 so-called friends you’d never heard of getting in touch. You’ve got to prioritise your friends. It’s a different experience, but that week building up to the match can get a bit hectic if you don’t organise things properly.”
Having suffered FA Cup final heartache with Liverpool, Aston Villa and Portsmouth, it’s natural that the 2008 triumph – when Pompey defeated Cardiff to lift the famous trophy for the first time since 1939 – is one of James’ most cherished moments.
And it’s that experience that, according to the former goalkeeper, provides the clearest indicator of just what a first FA Cup final win would mean to the town of Watford.
“Portsmouth reminded me of Watford in the sense that it was a community club, and that was very evident when we got to the final. Everybody was supporting Portsmouth. We’d already beaten Manchester United at Old Trafford in the quarter-final when they were heavily fancied to win, and then we were favourites because we were the only Premier League side left,” he recalled.
“Winning the final was just great, especially because it added to the FA Youth Cup medal I won with Watford 30 years ago, ironically against Man City. There’s not many people who have won both. But the best bit was doing the open-top bus the day after. There were apparently 200,000 people at Southsea Common. When you think Portsmouth’s population is just over 200,000 that shows what it meant to the community.
“If Watford win the cup you know that pretty much the whole town will be there to celebrate. What happens after in terms of getting into Europe and everything else is magical stuff, but the most impressive moment is always seeing the community share in the club’s success. It’s so special, and hopefully that’s what will be happening in Watford after Saturday.”