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Alec Chamberlain at Watford

Alec Chamberlain at Watford

Alec Chamberlain at Watford

Alec Chamberlain at Watford

Alec Chamberlain at Watford

Alec Chamberlain at Watford

Alec Chamberlain at Watford

Watford

When Alec joined Watford in 1996, he would probably have laughed out loud if anyone had told him he'd play at Wembley, in the Premiership, and in an FA Cup semi-final during his time at Vicarage Road.

But he's done just that. He has also won Player of the Year twice, and fought back to regain his first team place after being muscled out first by Espen Baardsen, and then by Lenny Pidgeley.

And along the way he's become a popular and highly respected face around the dressing room, won the affection and appreciation of the supporters, and acted as a first class role model and ambassador for The Hornets off the pitch.

But to begin at the beginning. Alec was signed from Sunderland in the summer of 1996, initially as cover for Kevin Miller, who had been linked with a move away from Watford. His first team opportunities were limited in his first season, but at the end of it Miller headed off to Crystal Palace, and Alec fought off competition from the newly arrived Chris Day to establish himself as first choice.

And what a season it turned out to be, as Watford - with Graham Taylor back at the helm - won promotion as Champions. Alec was in fantastic form throughout the season, so much so that not only was he Watford's player of the year, he was also selected by fellow professionals as goalkeeper for the Division Two Team of the Year at the annual PFA Awards.

"It was a fantastic season, and to be honoured by fellow professionals, and to be the club's player of the season too, was more than I could have ever dared wish for," said Alec. "We were a good side, there was a great team spirit, obviously we had a top class manager in Graham Taylor, and I was confident we could hold our own in Division One. "What happened was way beyond expectation!"

Promotion to Division One was just the start of an amazing journey to the Premiership, with Alec again a key player as Watford clinched back to back promotions, and a place among the elite of English football.

Few people expected Watford to be in contention for promotion when the new campaign got underway, and some punters even wrote them off as relegation candidates. How wrong they were, and no Vicarage Road regular will forget the 10 game unbeaten run, which included six wins in a row to round it all off, that clinched the fourth and final play-off place.

Even then, Watford's prospects were talked down. But full of confidence, they beat Birmingham City in the play-off semi-final first leg, and took a 1-goal advantage to St Andrews the following Thursday. What a night, and what a hero Alec turned out to be.

Let's let him talk us through it: "We were within touching distance of Wembley, but Birmingham were going to be no pushovers - they'd already suffered the heartbreak of losing a play-off semi, and came at us at full throttle from the word go.

"We gave away a soft goal early on and for 20 minutes they besieged us, and to say I was kept on my toes was an understatement. But I sensed them getting frustrated, and the longer the first half wore on, the more we started getting back into the game, and the more I really started to believe we could do it.

"We had fantastic support, and that lifted us all too, but although we were giving as good as we got, we couldn't make the breakthrough, and 1-nil to Birmingham meant extra-time, because we were, of course, level on aggregate.

"By extra-time they were down to 10 mean after David Holdsworth was sent off, but nevertheless, they peppered our goal again, and I was really pleased with a save I made late on, and it all meant a penalty shoot-out.

"Talk about tension, but we'd prepared really well for such circumstances and were quietly confident - happily I made two saves and we won. The first save was from Paul Furlong, and I have a lot to thank Kenny Jackett for - he told me before hand which way Furlong tended to strike his penalties, and I went the right way.

"The second save was the one that got us to Wembley. Obviously on hindsight you feel for Chris Holland, who missed it, but all I was concerned about was that I'd saved it, and that we were through. It was a fantastic night, but we couldn't go too crazy with the celebrations because we then had the little matter of playing Bolton for the right to play alongside the Manchester Uniteds, Arsenals and Chelseas of this world."

And as we all know, Nick Wright's memorable over-head kick and the second and decisive goal from Allan Smart - not forgetting a superb first half save from Alec - saw Watford clinch promotion to the Premiership. May 31, 1999 will be a day that few, if any, associated with Watford FC will ever forget.

Alas, Wembley euphoria quickly became Premiership reality once the new season kicked-off. The obvious highlights were the 1-0 win at Liverpool and the 1-0 home win over Chelsea, but the simple fact was that Watford were out of their depth, and the Premiership odyssey lasted just one season.

And at the end of it, some people were even writing Alec off - though those that did, didn't know him very well. Graham Taylor signed Espen Baardsen from Tottenham, and Alec was relegated to reserve goalkeeper - but he was determined to prove the manager wrong. He did just that.

By 2002, Taylor had moved on, Gianluca Vialli moved in, and though the former Chelsea manager failed to provide the sparkle many expected, Alec clawed his way back into the first team, re-established himself as undisputed Number One, and ended the season as Player-of-the-Year for the second time.

And then came another change of manager, with Ray Lewington taking over after Vialli's departure. The next season provided more drama - this time with an FA Cup run.

At 38, Alec had never before gone further than the 5th round of the world's greatest knock-out competition, and when Watford were handed a 5th round trip to Sunderland, the hot money was on a home win. But at The Stadium of Light Alec was in great form yet again - this time in front of the TV cameras - and The Golden Boys shone brightly, winning 1-0, and setting up a 6th round meeting at home to Burnley.

Alec's FA Cup run was reaching new heights, and another memorable Vicarage Road afternoon - again in front of the cameras - saw Watford reach the last four. What's more a semi-final draw against Southampton gave them a realistic chance of achieving the impossible, and reaching the FA Cup Final.

Alas, it just wasn't to be. A thrilling atmosphere at Villa Park; but Southampton's Premiership pedigree proved too good for Watford's honest endeavour, and the Saints went through 2-1.

Said Alec: "Obviously it was disappointing to get so close to the Promised Land, then fall at the last hurdle, but realistically we had a fantastic run to the semi-finals, and it was a great experience for us all. Southampton were a good side under Gordon Strachan, and were better than us on the day if I'm honest, but we certainly made them fight hard for their place in the final." A month later, Southampton lost 1-0 to Arsenal at the Millennium Stadium.

The last two seasons have provided mixed fortunes for Alec. Early into the 2003/04 campaign he was sent off for the first and only time in his career, at Crewe, and lost his place in the team to the on-loan Lenny Pidgeley. That said, with 8 games to go, and their Championship place not secured, Alec was brought back into the side to steady the ship. No surprise that he did just that, and Watford soon swotted away any nagging worry about relegation.

He would have started off this season as Number One, but he took a knock in pre-season, and was honest to admit to Ray Lewington on the Eve of the new campaign that he probably wasn't fully fit for the game at Burnley.

Richard Lee was given the start, and took the opportunity with relish. Richard has been outstanding for much of the season, and happily credits the influence that Alec has had on him for much of his great form. Injury to Richard has given Alec the opportunity to make a popular return the first team in the fag end of the season, again with relegation very much a worry for the club.

Alec has been an outstanding servant to Watford, and though he is in the late autumn of his playing career, he is still good enough and fit enough to compete for a first team place.

But he is now starting to channel his energies into coaching, and Ray Lewington gave him the opportunity to look after the goalkeepers at Watford after Kevin Hitchcock left for Blackburn late last year.

Alec's reward has been another year's contract, and though he wants to keep playing for as long as he feels fit enough and good enough, coaching is an avenue he is keen to go down.

"I love playing and though I'll know when it's time to stop, I don't want to call it a day while I feel I'm still capable of playing at the highest level," said Alec. "That said, I'm really enjoying working with Richard Lee, he's a good friend as well as a colleague I respect highly, and hopefully as my playing days peter out, I hope I can help Richard fulfil the fantastic potential we've all seen he has this season.

"I've loved every minute of my time at Watford, it's a great club to play for, the supporters are superb, and I've made some great friends. I hope I have a future with the club on the coaching side, and I hope I will be witness to more great days with the club over the next few years."

For the record:-

Born: March, Cambridgeshire, June 20, 1964

Joined Watford: July 1996 (from Sunderland for £40,000)

Début: Crewe Alexandra (away), August 31, 1996

Watford appearances, 1996-2005 (league, FA Cup, League Cup):-

1996/97: 4
1997/98: 54
1998/99: 52
1999/00: 31
2000/01: 23
2001/02: 35
2002/03: 48
2003/04: 22
2004/05: 4

TOTAL: 272 (+ 5 as sub)

Accurate up to April 22, 2005.

Written by Peter Jones, of the PR consultancy Red Alert Media.





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