Premier League

Gomes' Watford romance everything which is right about football

 • by Tom Bodell
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When Watford coach Javi Gracia selected second-choice goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes to start the FA Cup final against Manchester City, the criticism was fierce and widespread.

“I don’t think it is the right decision to play him,” former Newcastle United striker Alan Shearer, a TV pundit on the day, said before kick-off.

“I understand the sentiment, I understand that he’s a professional and he’s had a very good career but obviously he’s not their number one goalkeeper, he’s not their best goalkeeper.

Ben Foster is because he’s played in every single Premier League game. Gomes has played the five FA Cup games and two League Cup games that they’ve played, so seven in total. I think it’s a huge gamble.

“It’s their chance to make history and I think they should be putting their best team out. If they were, he wouldn’t be in that.”

“It’s alarmingly obvious that he’s played five games,” added Arsenal legend Ian Wright.

“It’s not enough to go into a game of this stature, but with my Watford head it’s his last game and he could go out a complete hero or it could blow up in his face. I hope he goes out as a hero.”

What was supposed to be the final game of Gomes’ career did not go to plan. Watford were beaten 6-0 at Wembley in their first final since 1984 and the Brazilian – though he repelled several efforts – was left red-faced on a couple of goals from Pep Guardiola’s men.

That should have been Gomes’ farewell, bringing the curtain down on a career which had seen him represent his country, play in the Champions League for PSV Eindhoven and Tottenham Hotspur and become a cult hero later in life at Vicarage Road.

As Watford’s FA Cup run continued, Gomes became more vociferous in his assertion this would be his last season before returning to Brazil to become a pastor. A deeply religious man, the 38-year-old told the club’s website of his intentions in March.

“I’m 99 per cent decided that this will be my last season,” Gomes said. I’m still feeling like I can go on for a few more years but I’ve got some plans and I believe it’s time now to think about it.

“To be honest, physically I’m maybe better than two years ago and you never know. I had been thinking about finishing my career in Brazil or Holland but I believe this time has gone and if I’m going to finish it will probably be here. Maybe I will change my mind, but I’m 99 per cent sure.”

When the Hornets announced their released and retained list in May, Gomes’ name was not in either category. The club were in talks with their two-time Players’ Player of the Season over extending his stay into a sixth year in WD18. Then everything went quiet.

That was until Friday when it was confirmed the hugely popular stopper had signed up for another year at Vicarage Road.

“The feeling was more to retire – I had my stuff packed! But the atmosphere that we created around the group is something special,” said Gomes.

“I feel as excited as I did when I signed my first contract here. I’m not going to say that this is my last year because you never know – I said that last season and I didn’t do it.

“This started in 2014 and now I don’t know when it will end. I believe we still have so many things to share together.”

Watford have not been particularly popular with neutrals since the Pozzo family took over in 2012. English football likes its established order. So when the Italians arrived, bringing with them a loan army which would make Chelsea blush, the Hornets became public enemy No.1.

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The fact the infamous 13-strong band of brothers pushed the Hornets to an improbable Championship play-off final did not go down well – not least with Crystal Palace boss Ian Holloway who ultimately got the last laugh with a 1-0 victory at Wembley.

Gomes did not join until two summers later, succeeding former Arsenal stopper Manuel Almunia. By now the rules had been amended so loanees from abroad counted against a seasonal quota like regular loans – which would have been the sensible ruling all along.

But Watford were still viewed as ‘everything that is wrong with the modern game‘ as four head coaches took charge during the 2014/15 campaign which, despite perceived wisdom, did not stop them winning promotion to the Premier League.

Non-Hornets supporters claim the club has no identity, that it is merely a farm for Euro-hopefuls to come, try their luck and move on; either earning a big-money move or slipping out the backdoor a failure.

While there’s never been another campaign like 2014/15, five men have led Watford in the Premier League. Only one of those, Marco Silva, has been removed mid-season. Yet the Hornets have a reputation as a club which sacks its managers – something the press get on their high horses about and put on a par with diving as an unforgivable act.

Even when Watford had their day in the sun, the narrative in the build-up centred around Gomes’ selection over soon-to-be-anointed Player of the Season Ben Foster.

The former Manchester United keeper has been exceptional since returning to Vicarage Road, 13 years after initially signing on loan from United as a fresh-faced 22-year-old. But Foster was happy to stand aside and let Gomes enjoy his moment, joking that he’d ‘refuse to play‘ in the final if selected.

Having kept goal all the way to the final; from Woking to Wembley, via Loftus Road and St. James’ Park, it was an act indicative of the friendship between the two men.

Watford goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes in Premier League action against Southampton

And this is precisely why Watford is not the soulless 21st-century club neutrals paint it out to be. They have simply adapted to the times, finding ways of boxing smart to bridge the gap created by the wealth which governs the game. But there is very much a soul to the club and anyone who has witnessed Gomes celebrate a Hornets goal knows this is a club he holds very dear. He marks almost every strike as if it were an FA Cup final winner, running, leaping and fist-pumping with a maniacal grin plastered across his face.

He is no longer Watford’s best goalkeeper. Foster is head and shoulders ahead of him. And there is no getting away from the fact a couple of the goals conceded in the FA Cup final were preventable. But, in reality, what’s the difference between 4-0 and 6-0?

Succession planning is already in place. In the not-too-distant future, a time should come when Swedish prospect Pontus Dahlberg overtakes the Brazilian and – all being well – Foster too. In the meantime, Gomes will work with the 20-year-old, mentoring him every step of the way until he is ready to get the keys to the place.

For now, though, Hornets fans can enjoy having someone who gets their club, loves their club and is the very symbol of everything which makes Watford much more than the neutrals would have you believe.

Heurelho Gomes loves Watford, and Watford loves him for it.

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