By Kevin Affleck
It is probably best not to write off Miguel Britos. There is a fair chance you will end up with egg on your face.
Some questioned where on earth his career would go after he floored Alvaro Morata with a brutal headbutt during the Napoli-Juventus game in 2015. He got a three-match ban, but pundits felt the Serie A disciplinary committee should have thrown the book at him. From the wreckage of that situation, from wondering who would take a punt on him, Britos managed to land himself a dream move to the Premier League.
Then, after the move to the land of milk and honey, he hardly endeared himself to the fans of this great club when he got needlessly sent off on his debut at Preston. It was not the best of starts to say the least and supporters and coach Quique Sanchez Flores were left wondering how they were ever going to trust the seemingly hot-headed defender in the cauldron of the Premier League.
Samba Diakitè got a red card on his full Watford debut and looked what happened to his career at Vicarage Road. He only played four more times.
Sanchez Flores kept Britos waiting until the 24th of October for his next game, a full 10 league games into the season. Britos was keen to show he was not a loose cannon and in one fell swoop at the Britannia Stadium, against an all-action Stoke side who test your mental and physical resolve, he played superbly, with calmness and composure in a 2-0 win. That's why they signed him.
That win at Stoke was one of six in a spell of eight games, featuring five clean sheets, that effectively ensured Watford stayed up with something to spare. He played 27 times that season and his role in ensuring the Hornets were never ever in relegation trouble, a feat that gets better as each season passes, should not be underplayed.
He got sent off twice the following season, both for two yellows which can happen to any defender, but his Watford career was back at the crossroads point again in August 2017 when he was shown a straight red for one of the wildest challenges seen at Vicarage Road, the one that saw him lunge at Anthony Knockaert on the touchline in front of the Sir Elton John Stand. That took his tally to four red cards in two years and you wondered quite where things were going for him.
It looked for all the world like he would be released last summer, especially after Mohamed Salah gave him the roughest of rides in the rout at Anfield in March. He didn't play a single minute after that mauling at Liverpool and, in the final year of his deal, you fully expected him to be on the list of players the club were letting go. Thanks for all the memories, Miguel, especially for keeping us up that season. All the best. But no, back he came again from the dead after being offered a one-year extension.
The logic in the deal was, you guess, to avoid the situation that arose against Manchester City on the final day of the 2016/17 season when Valon Behrami had to play centre-half because there were no other fit centre-backs. Better to have someone experienced and popular waiting in the wings, content to play a peripheral role rather than pay a fee for someone unproven who is not that keen on being back-up to Christian Kabasele, Craig Cathcart, Adrian Mariappa and Sebastian Prödl. Fifth-choice centre-backs are not that easy to find. They do not grow on trees.
He was retained for days like the one at Woking, days like the one at St James' Park on Saturday when the Head Coach wants to juggle his resources. Javi Gracia knows he can count on him. He's a top pro. Ben Wilmot will have got a real education playing alongside him in the last two rounds.
“Miguel is an example in everything he does,” said Gracia. “He is very important player for us. It's true last year he didn't play a lot, but he is always a guarantee for us because of his experience and his quality of character.”
Britos showed he still has a bit to offer against Burnley the week before. He made one flying interception from a Dwight McNeil cross that was destined for the unmarked Chris Wood at the far post. Wood couldn't believe Britos had pulled it off. He was ready and waiting to tap in a near certain goal at the far post.
Britos then followed it up with a towering header against Wood, the sort of one centre-halves love when you thump the ball clear but manage to leave a bit on your man. Burnley had been all over the Hornets in the air, at both ends of the field, and here was Britos showing it wasn't all one-way traffic, that Burnley could have a bit back.
At St James' Park he showed the other side of his game, his ability to read the play. He was rarely on his backside, which is always a sign of a good defender. His keenness to stay on his feet stems from a chat he had with his idol Pablo Montero, the Uruguayan defender made of granite, when he was in his early twenties.
“He was a very clever player, he was very aggressive even though he wasn’t that big, he used his body well,” said Britos in a feature with the matchday programme. “He was a very good technical defender; he was able to read the game well and sense danger. He was telling me to improve my awareness when crosses come in, not just looking at the ball, but the men that are running into the box. He also told me to keep tight to the striker for reference and a lot of other good things. It was good conversation and it’s definitely helped in the development of my game.”
Once in each half at St James' Park he expertly out-manoeuvred and out-thought Jacob Murphy and by the end he was performing overhead kicks to clear the ball. Even when the game was won, at 2-0, he was talking animatedly with Étienne Capoue about a positional matter. The clean sheet mattered to him. He's a winner, you see.
“Off the pitch I am normal, on the pitch I am a little bit aggressive,” he said in an interview with the Independent in 2016. “You need to be a little aggressive. Football is physical, especially here in England. Maybe it is the adrenalin, because you want to win every game. So you fight.” You wouldn't believe he was this ruthless centre-half, this South American hard man when you see him wondering round the training ground with a caddy for his herbal tea.
Britos played with such assurance and such a competitive edge on Tyneside, adding a lovely balance to the centre-half partnership with his cultured left foot, that he now deserves, at the very least, to come into consideration when picking the team's Premier League XI. He's earned that.
Perhaps it would be unwise, at 33, to field him against teams with nimble and fleet-footed attacking players, but he looks like he's still very much got it against classic, out-and-out No. 9s. He and Craig Cathcart dovetail well together, like they did in the 2015/16 season, the right and left foot axis that didn't cost the club a penny in transfer fees. Saturday was their first appearance together since April 2017. They carried on exactly where they left off and this remember was the partnership that got the club to the semi-final of the FA Cup in 2016.
Britos probably thought he'd never go back to Wembley after that as a player as you don't get too many shots when you play for a club outside of the big six, especially at his age, but the famous arch is slowly, ever so slowly, starting to appear on the horizon, and Britos might get one more crack before the sun goes down on a career full of twists and turns.