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It's the summer of 1996. Watford, despite a late flourish under Graham Taylor, had been relegated to Division Two for the first time in seventeen years and were at a low ebb. As if to emphasise the point, the summer recruits to what we hoped was a promotion push were singularly uninspiring.
Steve Talboys, signed from Premiership Wimbledon, perhaps carried the greatest expectation. He went on to start three games in two seasons, including that ridiculous Auto-Windscreens game at Fulham, and still achieved notoriety. Nathan Lowndes looked like a low-risk gamble from Leeds' youth team. Nine years on, now at Port Vale, he looks much the same.
The other recruit was Alec Chamberlain. Aged thirty-two and with a dubious CV, his arrival was the least heralded, coming as it did on the tails of the arrivals of Keith Waugh, Perry Digweed and Steve Cherry in previous seasons. These similarly aged keepers had had a remit to do a job that, as long as they weren't given too long in the team, they did quietly. Chamberlain appeared to follow the same mould, certainly wasn't about to threaten the status of the popular Kevin Miller, and as if to reinforce the point started one game between the beginning of his first season and the end of April.
At which point, Alec lost the plot a little. Eight years on, he has, behind Andy Rankin, the second highest number of League starts for the Hornets of any post-war keeper. Amongst those games are some vivid memories... two player-of-the-year awards (including one received in an outfield shirt against Bournemouth in 1998). A monumental performance at St. Andrews in the play-offs a year later, including that impossible save from Michael Johnson's header and that invaluable stop from Chris Holland's penalty. The subsequent charge to the away end that matches Allan Smart's euphoria at Wembley as an emotional landmark. And then... saving another penalty (yes, he really did!) against Derby in the Premiership.
But it's not really about standout moments, pieces of brilliance. There's nothing flashy about Alec Chamberlain. Not flashy. Just good.
Espen Baardsen's brief spells as first-choice were in many ways as revealing of Alec's value as Chamberlain's own performances. An imposing figure and good shot-stopper, not to mention the subject of Watford's third highest transfer outlay, Espen nevertheless saw his defence crumbling in front of him, the defence that Alec's experience had for so long had a key role in marshalling. Chamberlain meanwhile, relegated when his performances perhaps hadn't merited such treatment, never allowed his damaged pride to stain his professionalism. He got on with it. And twice, under Taylor and again a year later under Vialli, won his shirt back.
2002-03, Alec's seventh season at Vicarage Road, witnessed a slight changing of the breeze. Still solid, still reliable, but no longer infallible, for the first time worried looks were exchanged at occasional uncharacteristic lapses. It speaks volumes that it's hard to remember him having a bad game previously... but now, having seen off formidable external challenges, it seemed that the man who was finally to steal Alec's position was someone on the inside, England Under-21 keeper Richard Lee.
Lee's injury at the start of the next season postponed any debate, but although Lenny Pidgeley briefly relegated Alec to the bench again in 2004, the goalkeeper who appeared to have been signed as cover in 1996 continues to step in and do a job as required, now a Watford legend. Richard Lee would appear to be the man for the future. unless, of course, Alec fancies fighting his corner again. He has just committed himself to his twenty-fifth year as a professional. it would be a brave soul that bet against "In goal for the Hornets, Number One... Alec Chamberlain" remaining as much part of Saturdays at Vicarage Road as the half-time shoot-out for a while yet.