Our summer has so far consisted of a number of protracted transfer sagas – mostly involving the will they/won’t they decisions of the Udinese triggermen, but the two signings that the club have officially acknowledged (not, to this date, including Javier Acuña) has come out of relatively nowhere. On Sunday, news filtered out via Twitter that a young striking prospect in Uche Ikpeazu – who we’ll profile later in the week – had signed from Reading, precursored only by a vague reference in the Watford Observer to a “young Championship player”, and now, out of the blue, comes news that Lewis McGugan, a free agent after his Nottingham Forest contract ran out, has signed on a three year contract.
The good thing about McGugan – one of the good things – is that he’s an established Championship player; at 24, he’s already played in 206 league games. Yes, this is good for hitting the ground running, fitting in etc. etc. But the real benefit of this is that I don’t have to spend a thousand words telling you about what he’s achieved previously in life, and how he’s achieved it.
In brief: McGugan was born in Long Eaton, a Derbyshire town seven miles from Nottingham, and became involved with the Forest academy from a young age. He made his first team debut as a substitute in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy a week before his 18th birthday. He went on to make 17 further appearances that season, 15 in League One, and score two goals. The season ended with Forest’s shock play-off semi-final defeat to Yeovil. McGugan started both games, capping a promising debut season. After impressing in the first leg – a 2-0 victory for Forest at Huish Park – he delivered the corner that Scott Dobie converted to make the tie 3-1 on aggregate. Forest manager Colin Calderwood substituted McGugan on the hour, looking to defend the two-goal advantage, only for his replacement David Prutton to get himself sent-off, prompting a 5-2 defeat that put the Glovers through by one goal.
Forest did manage to get themselves back in the Championship the next year, and McGugan contributed with 6 league goals in 25 starts. The last of those came on the final day of the season. His curling 28th minute free-kick, fittingly against Yeovil, proved to be the winner as Forest secured second place.
In the five years since, whilst Forest have remained a solid, if unspectacular Championship side, McGugan has played 158 league games, of which 107 were starts. A return of 32 goals in that period is pretty striking for a midfielder, if one dedicated to the attacking form of the game. His penchant of scoring goals, often spectacular ones, have seen him linked with some much bigger clubs than Forest, but he hasn’t moved until now.
The reason for that is his inconsistency. Though outsiders will remember him for his thrikers, those who watch him regularly bemoan his long periods of ineffectiveness. He’s had to live with labels of laziness, arrogance, and that most damaging of monikers – ‘supersub’.
Last season, when Forest went ten games unbeaten, galvanised by Billy Davies’ return, McGugan had a run of his own, scoring in six consecutive games. Remember when Danny Graham, our undisputed number nine scored in seven straight games, and was roundly lauded? McGugan managed his run despite only starting one of the games – on four occasions, he wasn’t even on the pitch for thirty minutes.
Sure, the footballing mantra goes ‘you never change a winning team’, and Billy Davies strikes me as the sort of manager who lives and dies by banal platitudes, but when a sub is scoring goals in the 84th, 90th, 84th, 82nd, 97th and 81st minutes, you have to wonder why they aren’t being put into the starting lineup. The answer comes in the description of McGugan as a ‘Match of the Day Player’, someone who can produce highlights, but whose failings tend to go unnoticed in an abridged form of the game. Think Matthew Taylor or Kanu. His work-rate has been called into question, and subsequently, the reaction to his departure has been mixed.
Criticising work-rate is a dangerous thing, however. To the untrained eye – of which there are several thousand present any given Saturday – lack of needless movement and wasted energy categorises itself as laziness. Tamas Priskin and Alex Geijo are the Watford players that spring to mind, criticised for not supplying those most British of qualities: grit and determination. It is a tag that is hard to shake, and once a player is burdened with it, other characteristics are skewed to suit the image: confidence becomes arrogance, an ability to hold onto the ball becomes greed, and a desire to play more becomes a slamming of the manager.
Which is not to say that Forest fans are wrong when they call him inconsistent, they’ve seen him a lot more than me, but in more the continental surrounds of Watford (a phrase I NEVER thought I’d write), I wonder if he’ll fit in better. He will also have been held back at Forest by being a creative attacking midfielder in a constant flurry of systems and philosophies. The entertaining Davies was replaced by the pragmatic Steve McLaren, was replaced by the exceptionally direct Steve Cotterill, was replaced by the fluid Sean O’Driscoll, was replaced by the uber-defensive Alex McLeish, was replaced by our Billeh again. It’s not easy to produce your best football when the way you’re instructed to play changes every few months.
Away from consistency issues, when he’s really on his game, McGugan can completely dominate a match. I recall being at Carrow Road to see McGugan’s Forest take on relegation-threatened Norwich in December 2008. The midfielder, 20 at the time, completely orchestrated his side’s 3-2 win. As the ball came to him in the right channel, he stepped over the ball and turned his man, beat him on the outside, cut into the box with an incisive move and with the goal gaping, laid off to an arriving midfielder to score the first goal. McGugan scored the second himself, running onto the ball in the centre circle before driving forward, shaping to shoot on the edge of the area, slicing through the backline and placing the ball in the bottom corner.
It was a fantastic solo goal, and one of a different quality to the thirty yard screamers that McGugan is better known for – Watford fans will remember him mystifying Scott Loach (who’d have thought it) with a swerving drive.
There were times last season when Watford’s opposition parked the bus, packed the box with men and watched as we failed to play our way through the bank of ten bodies. Having someone who is a legitimate threat from distance could both ease the frustration when a defence doesn’t succumb to our movement and make managers think twice before allowing our players the rule of the middle third.
Another department in which we struggled was the lack of having an impact player to come off the bench. Fernando Forestieri can change the tone of a game, but there was nobody who you could look to and think: ‘they’ll be good for a goal’. McGugan provides that, though a goalscoring back-up striker would be preferable. Providing he doesn’t kick up a fuss when he’s not in the team – which will surely be the case on occasion due to the talent in our squad – he could really be an asset both as a starter and a substitute.
At the moment McGugan is a talented player who’s failed to cement himself as a leading Championship midfielder. A change of venue and a more accommodating system could help him make that leap.