November 2012. A great one for Watford FC. The blokes have gone undefeated, definitively putting themselves in the playoff reckoning, and the ladies’ side, not to be outdone, have continued their excellent nine game unbeaten run that stretches back to late September. Truly, everything is coming up yellow.
However, the end of November does not just bring possible accolades and optimism for the coming fixtures – it marks the end of a successful and inspiring stint at the club for the Head of the club’s Academy, Nick Cox.
That Watford is considered one of the finest and most progressive academies in the country (EPPP be damned!) is in no little part down to “Coxy”, who has risen progressed up the coaching ladder at the club to become a driving force in the Harefield project.
I first encountered the man some ten years ago, when he was the coach on one of Watford’s half-term coaching courses. His demeanour then was exactly as it is now – friendly, lively and always smiling. Of course, this makes him one of those most culpable for letting my significant talent slip through the net – but we won’t hold that against him. From there he has risen through the ranks of the grass-root development side of the club, putting equal emphasis on coaching and education.
The breadth of Nick’s impact on the club’s youngsters is well-documented, but for a more personal view of his role inside the club, we asked former Academy scholar Brandon Horner to share his experiences of the outgoing Cox.
When Horner arrived at the club as a 12 year-old, Cox was the Head of Education, ensuring that the young boys with dreams of becoming professionals did not leave themselves without a Plan B. Skills are one thing, but Cox was keen to ensure that the boys developed the maturity to aid them in chasing their dreams and to sustain them once they got where they wanted to be:
‘[He was] a coach that aided my skills massively on the pitch, but also as an educator off of the pitch, helping me understand about the importance of nutrition and the importance of being a “24/7 professional” as he would say.’
‘It is important to stay level-headed and keep on track with your studies as a footballer. Nick made sure we understood that. He was a massive part of the Harefield programme, helping all the boys in training and then sometimes in the classroom with school work and also football specific education. He did spend many hours at work, and for many people that would be a hard ask, but he seemed to enjoy working with us so it was easy to work with him.’
It was not just on the pastoral and educational side that Cox shone, however as Horner says, he is an accomplished coach: ‘Nick trained me in the mornings during school; he was a coach who liked to demonstrate the techniques to us as he was more than capable, he helped us increase the level of skill we needed to improve to get our scholarships. He was very hands on.’
An all-rounder then.
How do we judge a club’s academy? It is easy to point to the progression of young players to the senior side, but the harsh reality is that the overwhelming majority of budding footballers are not given professional contracts at the club, if they even attain scholarships in the first place. Horner is now enrolled alongside fellow scholar Michael Kalu at the Nike Academy, an institution designed to help young players released by their clubs get a second chance at professional football, and is under the tutelage of former Watford Academy doyen Jimmy Gilligan. He says that Cox never turned his back on him once he had not been offered a pro deal and that ‘when the time to leave came Nick helped me more than most would, he called clubs for trials and gave my name out to other clubs.’
It is clear that Cox is held in the highest regard not just professionally, but on a personal level too. What is evident in Brandon’s account is that his passion for developing the skills and the lives of these young boys always shone through:
‘As a person Nick is a down to earth genuine person that only wants the best for you as a player. He put a major amount of effort in helping all the boys in the academy equally. And as a professional he always gave the right advice.’
And that is an opinion that escapes those admitted to the inner sanctum of Harefield. His warm demeanour and beaming smile is ever present when he’s pictured in the matchday programme, and his popularity with ex-colleagues such as Malky Mackay and Ross Wilson is well documented.
Where his next home in the world of football is has yet to be confirmed, though Sheffield United and, surprise surprise, Cardiff have been touted as possible destinations. As for his reasons for leaving: that’s open for conjecture.
Although doubts about the future of Harefield were abated at the recent Fans Forum, only a select few know what the club now plans for the Academy. It could be that Cox was unhappy at Harefield’s Level 3 status, it does, after all massively undersell the achievement that establishing such an Academy at a club like Watford has been. Or it could simply be that after 11 years in the same environment, Coxy just wants a new challenge – he is, after all still a wee bairn at 35 – and the opportunity to establish a new legacy.
It’s unfair to speculate, but what is certain is that even when he’s gone, young lads signing their first pro deal and setting foot on the pitch for the first time will owe an awful lot to Nick Cox.