Despite fears to the contrary – most recently voiced by in-club ambassador Luther Blissett at last month’s Tales from the Vicarage evening – we have continued to see a steady flow of academy-raised talent make their professional debuts at Watford since the establishment of Pozzo rule. This year, four more academy products were given their senior debuts, taking the number of home-grown players to pull on the yellow since the academy was created in 1998 to 56. Though we may not rely on our own young players as much as in years gone by, there is still a clear pathway from the classes of Harefield to the grass of Vicarage Road.
Over the past month four second-year scholars were presented with professional contracts, two of whom were graduate numbers 55 and 56.
Alex Jakubiak, striker
Of the four, Jakubiak will have the highest profile among Watford fans. From the same Isleworth estate as Bernard Mensah and the same school as Britt Assombalonga, Alex joined Watford at the age of 14. After spending his first year as a scholar in the shadow of Mensah, the quick striker has had a breakout year this season, scoring 23 goals in competitive games.
Goals are a dangerous barometer at youth level. Because of the differing rates of physical development, bigger players are often able to capitalise on their superior strength to create goal tallies that belie their actual ability. Alex, however, is no giant. His advantage is not brute strength, though he is by no means hesitant to put himself about and lay his body on the line to win the ball, but his clever movement and awesome first touch.
Jakubiak travelled with the first team squad a number of times this season before an impromptu loan too him to Braintree, joining Mensah as the Iron fought with a packed schedule to try and squeeze into a playoff place. Over the course of his month with the club he made two starts and nine sub appearances for ex-Watford midfielder Alan Devonshire’s side, including a debut goal against Wrexham.
Alex returned to the club early, and was on the bench for the games against Derby and Charlton before making his full debut in the Huddersfield debacle. In the ten minutes before the entire team descended into the footballing equivalent of a primordial soup he looked sharp and keen to make incisive runs, getting into position for one and a half good chances. In the subsequent forty eight minutes until his substitution he looked a bit lost, and in need of bulking up. Though looking good in such rotten circumstances would have been nigh on impossible.
With Troy Deeney (possibly), Uche Ikpeazu and Mensah, plus any inevitable attack-bolstering summer signing, ahead of him in the striking pecking order next year, Jakubiak most likely won’t see much of Vicarage Road next year, but the Scotland youth international – still 17 until August – has suggested in his short time in the lime-light that he has the potential to make it at this level.
Jorell Johnson, centre back
Stationed at the opposite end of the pitch but no less highly thought of at the club, Johnson is a commanding centre back who has battled back from an ankle injury that saw him miss four months of the season to reclaim his title as under-18 captain.
Though not overtly tall, Johnson cuts an imposing figure in the heart of a defensive three (perhaps it’s the extra inches provided by his shapely and voluminous afro). While youth-level centre backs have a propensity to seem one-paced and awkward – something I always felt Tommie Hoban suffered from back in his ginger-headed youth – Johnson exudes an air of tranquillity, whilst also exhibiting domination over his defensive domain.
Named for Superman’s father, the kid from Hemel, has the build and the game to slip into a Conference side even now. Of course, competing with seasoned professionals is a far cry from playing against the academies of Stevenage and AFC Wimbledon, but in my humble opinion, for what it’s worth, Johnson could make a sudden, Hoban-esque impact on the first team sooner rather than later.
George Byers, midfielder
Another Scottish youth international, the floppy-haired Byers looks like a young footballer of yore, modelling himself on PJ and Duncan and with nary a sleeve tattoo in sight. Byers, however, is straight out of the post-millennial midfielder handbook. Neat and tidy with an insightful final ball, you probably won’t see him booting an opposing player three feet into the air, but may well spot him on YouTube pissing around with a tennis ball for half an hour.
Byers, who turns 18 towards the end of May, will find it hard to muscle his way into a midfield two or three – as Luke O’Nien found out this season – but Alex Merkel seems to be off, and Byers is a similar player on a much, much lower wage. You never know though, given how our players seem to be able to pick up severe muscle injuries from paper cuts. He has some growing to do, of course, but I’d already put him in the ‘lovely little player’ category.
Josh Doherty, full back/centre back
The most surprising of the four, from what I have seen. Doherty is a left footed player who can play out wide or in the centre of defence and midfield. He got ten minutes at the end of that Huddersfield game, in which he sized up to Danny Ward and contested Deeney’s position as penalty taker – not the actions of a timid 18 year old debutant.
Given the nature of his penalty-taking technique, that may just be how Doherty rolls. Anyone who treats penalties with enough disdain to take them like this, like a disinterested old boy at a school fair’s Beat the Goalie competition, must be confident in his own abilities.
Josh joined Watford to serve his scholarship from his hometown club Newtownards. In his youth, he represented Northern Ireland as a striker, before being withdrawn to midfield upon his arrival in Herts. He has featured for his country up[ to under-19 level, where he has been a regular over the past year, scoring his first goal, a penalty of course, against Switzerland in March.
To be honest, Doherty hasn’t particularly stood out in the games that I’ve seen. That doesn’t mean too much, supreme talent-spotter that I may be. There’ll be quite a few players on their way out this summer, and Beppe has made clear his love of young players with the club in their heart. All of these players will get their chance to state their case in Italy this summer.
Alongside the joy of professional deals, however, there is always the unfortunate matter of relaseing the bulk of the club’s scholars. Jazzi Barnum Bobb, seemingly on his way to a developmental contract at Cardiff, leads the group released. From what I have seen of the full-back he looks to have the tools of a reliable football league defender. Bobson Bawling (winger) will be missed, if only for the tremendous one-two punch his name provides alongside JBB’s on the teamsheet. Daniel Wilks (goalkeeper) overcame a late growth spurt, but will not be kept on – a good shotstopper, he may land at a professional club. Ollie Cox, Kurtis Cumberbatch, Chris Dillon and Ryan Hope (all midfielders) make up the list.
If you really want to, you can read some reports of Youth Cup matches from the last two years, featuring all of the above, at these links: