We guested this piece for the Watford fanzine Golden Pages in February 2020.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, it’s fair to say there weren’t many Watford fans about. That’s nothing against the club, of course. It just so happens that Northern Irish folk tend to support a local league team, plus the likes of Rangers, Celtic, Manchester United or Liverpool. But fans of the national team also generate a soft spot for teams that our internationals play for – and this is where The Hornets come in.
Since the 1980s, there seems to have been the constant inclusion of a Watford player in Northern Ireland squads. Some are familiar names, so not so familiar – even to yourselves! We’re going to look at those players who have earned Northern Ireland caps whilst at Watford and it seems only right to start at the back with one legendary name:
52 Watford apps, 0 goals
119 NI caps, 0 goals (2/0 at Watford)
One of the greatest goalkeepers of the 20th Century, Pat Jennings was signed by Watford from his hometown side Newry Town in 1963 for a reported £6,500. Eighteen-year-old Pat didn’t look back, playing in every league game as Watford narrowly missed out on promotion from Division Three. International recognition quickly followed and in April 1964, Jennings made his international debut for Northern Ireland in a British Championship game v Wales alongside another teenager who had made his Football League debut that season, George Best.
Scouts quickly took note and Jennings signed for Spurs at the end of the season, playing almost 600 games over 13 seasons before making the surprise move to rivals Arsenal. Whilst at The Gunners, he became the first player to register 1,000 senior club appearances.
Despite facing tough competition over the years from the likes of Harry Gregg and Jim Platt, Pat took hold of the Number 1 jersey for Northern Ireland for over 20 years, culminating in back-to-back World Cup tournaments in 1982 and 1986. Jennings earned his 119th and final cap against Brazil at Mexico ’86 which at the time was a British record. He is widely regarded as one of Northern Ireland’s greatest ever players.
97 Watford apps, 18 goals
63 NI caps, 12 goals (21/5 at Watford)
Another legend of the Northern Irish team, Gerry Armstrong signed for Second Division Watford in November 1980 after failing to establish himself as a regular at Spurs. Eighteen months later, and Gerry was about to encounter the perfect summer: firstly promotion with Watford to the top flight of English football for the first time in their history, then scoring the crucial goal as Northern Ireland beat Spain 1-0 to top their group and progress to the second round of World Cup ’82. Armstrong ended a remarkable summer by claiming Watford’s first ever goal in the First Division.
A move to Real Mallorca followed and Gerry retained sufficient form to play for Northern Ireland at Mexico ’86, earning his last cap alongside Pat Jennings against Brazil in the final group game but his best club form was arguably at Watford. More recently, Gerry Armstrong has been a co-commentator on La Liga and Northern Ireland internationals and he remains a cult hero for Northern Ireland fans for that World Cup goal against Spain.
1984-1988, 1990 (loan)
234 Watford apps, 3 goals
53 NI caps, 1 goal (21/0 at Watford)
John McClelland was 25 when he made his international debut for Northern Ireland and almost 29 when he signed for Watford during the 1984/85 season. His late maturity brought stability to both club and country and he was voted Watford’s Player of the Year on two occasions. Following Watford’s relegation in 1988, McClelland spent a season in the Second Division with The Hornets before making the move to Leeds United. After a brief return to Watford on loan in 1990, he returned to Leeds and perhaps surprised himself by winning a League Championship medal in 1991/92.
John was a regular in the Northern Ireland set-up during his time at Watford and although he was a member of the 1986 World Cup Squad, he did not manage any game time due to the emergence of Alan McDonald.
More recently, McClelland has been a stadium tour guide at Elland Road and worked as a postman!
The Wing Back
114 Watford apps, 18 goals
20 NI caps, 0 goals (9/0 at Watford)
Peter Kennedy made his name in the Northern Irish Premier Division as an attacking wing back with Glenavon and then rivals Portadown before signing for Notts Couty in the summer of 1996. The following summer, Watford snapped up Kennedy for E130,000 and certainly got their money’s worth!
The 1997/98 could not have worked out any better for Peter, finishing as the club’s top scorer and a Division Two Championship medal. Further success was to follow with The Hornets winning the Division One play-offs the following season to gain promotion to the Premier League. It was a remarkable rise from part-time football to the richest league in the world in three years.
Following his international debut in November 1998, Kennedy was a regular for Northern Ireland at left-back for the next five years before losing his place to Plymouth’s Tony Capaldi.
Kennedy left Watford to drop down a division to Wigan in the summer of 2001 where he once again achieved promotion from the third tier. Following spells at Derby (loan) and Peterborough, Peter Kennedy returned to Northern Ireland with Portadown and has coached a number of local sides since retiring.
The Hard Man
22 Watford apps, 1 goal
36 NI caps, 1 goal (7/0 at Watford)
Like John McClelland before him, Mark Williams signed for Watford at the peak of his career at 29-years-old. The Hornets had just been promoted to the Premier League and Williams was on the back of a couple of brilliant seasons for Chesterfield in the third tier, including that amazing run to the 1997 FA Cup Semi Finals.
Williams was a proper old school defender, hard as nails, yet not dirty and not afraid to get stuck in. Despite playing in two-thirds of the Premier League games, Mark left Watford after one season to sign for fellow relegated side Wimbledon, where he seemed to regain his form.
Mark Williams was a late-comer to the Northern Ireland set-up, mainly because we were notoriously bad at scouting players with Northern Irish ancestry back in the 1990s (or maybe there was an ignorance to it). Once, however, Williams made his debut, he became a fans’ favourite and was a mainstay in the squad between 1999 and 2005.
Since retirement, Williams has been in the public eye for two reasons: firstly for marrying glamour model Linsey Dawn McKenzie and secondly for bravely speaking out as part of the Barry Bennell abuse inquiry.
The Local Lads
OK, so ‘local’ is a bit of a loose term in this instance, but the following three Northern Ireland players definitely sound a lot more Watford than Belfast!
91 Watford apps, 1 goal
24 NI caps, 0 goals (9/0 at Watford)
16 Watford apps, 1 goals
2 NI caps, 0 goals (2/0 at Watford)
14 Watford apps, 0 goals
2 NI caps, 0 goals (2/0 at Watford)
Lee Hodson, born in Borehamwood, qualifies for Northern Ireland through his grandmother. In the 2009/10 season, the right-back broke into the Watford team playing regularly in The Championship over the next couple of seasons, coinciding with a quick-fire number of Northern Ireland caps. Since leaving Watford in 2013, Lee has had spells at MK Dons, Kilmarnock, Rangers, St Mirren (twice) and Gillingham and remains on the fringes of the Northern Ireland squad.
Adam Thompson, born in Harlow, was a regular in the Northern Ireland youth teams before making the breakthrough at Watford at a similar time to Lee Hodson. In 2011, Thompson earned two Northern Ireland caps and with a lot of competition for the centre-back spots, has not added to that tally since despite being involved in a number on squads in recent seasons. On leaving Watford, Adam had a successful spell at Southend and won promotion with Bury last season before their off-field issues led to his release. Thompson currently plays for Rotherham.
Michael Bryan, born in West London, is another player who qualifies for Northern Ireland via his grandmother. A winger, he made a number of starts and substitute appearances for Watford in 2009/10 and proved enough to earn a spot on Northern Ireland’s end of season tour of America where he played in two friendly internationals. Since being released by Watford in 2012, Bryan has drifted into non-league football and was last recorded as playing for Harrow Borough in the Southern League.
The Uncapped Hornets
Before moving onto Watford’s current Northern Ireland star, it would be a dis-service not to give a quick acknowledgement to three former players who earned a ton of Northern Ireland caps, but not whilst at Watford:
134 Watford apps, 2 goals
49 NI caps, 0 goals
8 Watford apps, 0 goals
39 NI caps, 1 goal
8 Watford apps, 0 goals
79 NI caps, 0 goals
2009 and 2014-present
172 Watford apps, 7 goals (to Feb 2020)
50 NI caps, 2 goals
Northern Ireland has always been blessed with top quality centre-backs and our final inclusion is no exception. Craig Cathcart has had to wait patiently to be a regular in his preferred position international level but following the retirements of Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes, he has cemented a solid central defensive partnership with Jonny Evans.
Cathcart was a youth player at Manchester United and like his international defensive partner, spent time on loan at Royal Antwerp before making his own path with Championship loans at Plymouth and Watford. Those loan spells caught the eye of newly-promoted Blackpool and suddenly Craig was riding their rollercoaster Premier League season.
A few weeks after his Premier League debut, Cathcart made his international debut in the unfamiliar role of emergency left back away to Slovenia. It turned out to be a dream debut, with Northern Ireland winning 1-0 and Cathcart setting up Corry Evans for the winner.
Consistent form at club level for Blackpool meant that Cathcart became a permanent fixture in the Northern Ireland squad and pushed hard for a regular spot after signing for Watford in 2014. Cathcart retained his place in the side following Watford’s promotion to the Premier League, giving Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill a pleasant headache in centre-back selection with McAuley and Evans also Premier League regulars.
Eventually, a solution was found and a change to three central defenders saw Craig become a regular start for Northern Ireland, culminating in a starting place in each of Northern Ireland’s four matches at the Euro 2016 Finals in France.
Northern Ireland never have a big number of Premier League players playing regularly, so to see Craig continue to strive at the heart of the Watford defence is fantastic and in no doubt gives Cathcart added confidence when pulling on the Northern Ireland jersey. Long may that continue!
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