The Watford Observer has again teamed up with its friends at The Watford Treasury to share stories from its new book, Coming Home.
Nick Catley looks back at the Hornets career of a striker who came back in from the cold – Heidar Helguson.
Words you’d probably associate with Heidar Helguson: Emphatic. Power. Commitment. Energy.
Words you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Heidar Helguson: Deft. Silky. Languid. Delicate.
Symbolically for someone who would become our first great player of the new century, Heidar burst into our world in January 2000 in a home game against Liverpool, one of a barely credible five 2-3 home defeats that season. He made a massive impact, scoring on debut – beating defenders and keeper to a crossed free-kick, something we would come to recognise as a typical Heidar goal. His initial success can be seen from the fact he finished the season as top scorer. The state of our season can be seen from the fact he scored six goals, the last a superbly executed overhead kick to beat Coventry on the last day.
Heidar had a decent enough 2000/01, but flaws were also starting to emerge. He could struggle in one-on-ones, and was seemed hugely affected by setbacks. Wearing his heart on his sleeve (much better than the Bitcoin logo), along with the fact he played like he was trying to kick the opposition’s door down, made him a firm fan favourite, but his struggle to control his emotions could be a dangerous thing – particularly noticeable when his attempted amputation on John Curtis reduced us to nine men in the first half against Blackburn.
2001/02 was Heidar’s nadir at Watford. Gianluca Vialli looked at this Tigger in human form, with a bloodcurdling header (it’s a source of constant and continuing amazement that he was two inches short of six feet) and a striker’s instinct, and decided he would be a perfect wing back. He wasn’t. The season, on and off the field, was summed up when Helguson, only picked as a substitute and playing on the right of defence, knocked the ball back to a keeper who wasn’t there, leading to defeat against Manchester City in one of those ridiculous 6.15 Sunday kick-offs that ITV Digital decided (not) to pay £315m for.
Heidar appeared to have reached a crossroads, but his – and our – fortune was our next choice of manager. Ray Lewington helped him to previously unimagined heights. The change in Heidar’s confidence was obvious and immediate, illustrated most clearly in the storied game at Sheffield United after the ITV Digital excrement had hit the Watford-branded cooling device. He scored a striker’s goal and won a penalty in one of the most famous wins of those years. He wasn’t the captain, but he was becoming the leader by example.
The best, though, was yet to come. 2004/05 was Heidar’s best season in a Watford shirt. More than anything it was intensely gratifying to see how much he’d developed. He kept all the good stuff, but added composure to his game, and suddenly associating him with that second set of words didn’t seem so ridiculous.
His confidence was far more robust – his reaction to bad games was to have a better one. He had more awareness, bringing others into the play and developing into a genuine centre forward. You didn’t put your fingers over your eyes when he was through on goal. He even took (and scored) penalties – something unthinkable a couple of years previously. He was completing himself as a player before our eyes – and do fans warm to anything more than that? Over the course of a few months he evolved from cult hero into something more iconic and long-lasting.
The peak of his time with us, in my eyes anyway, came either end of November 2004 and propelled us from the last 16 of the League Cup to the last four. Southampton and Portsmouth were solid, established, lower mid-table Premier League sides. Both played their strongest team. To win either of these games would have been a decent achievement. To beat both would constitute a famous cup run.
And we did beat both of them. But that sentence is like saying that Tenzing and Hillary climbed a mountain, or that Victoria Wood told a few jokes. It doesn’t begin to do justice to the nature of the achievement. We bullied them. We battered them. We dominated them. We flippin’ murdered ‘em. That League Cup run, to me, is almost criminally under-appreciated in Watford’s history.
In my mind’s eye, Helguson was the only player on the pitch in those matches. This is perhaps because he had become the team’s spiritual leader to such an extent that we had eleven Heidars on display – spirited, tough, hard-running and indefatigable, but also intelligently making the right decisions.
Heidar scored three of our eight (EIGHT) goals in those games, and two stand out. The first against Portsmouth was peak Heidar, literally and metaphorically. He outjumped the keeper to a high ball in an unfair contest – the keeper had arms, but Heidar had springs in his legs. Think Maradona v Shilton, but fair. The fourth goal against Southampton, though, was New Heidar to the core, a cast-iron beauty – a screaming volley from a dropping ball that required composure and technique in equal measure.
By the end of the season it was clear he was a Premier League player in all but club, and he duly departed to Craven Cottage. We saw him again, most notably as one of Fulham’s scorers on the night it became clear our unexpected Premier League stay was only going to last the three seasons of the old joke – autumn, winter and spring. However, there was to be a Second Coming.
Returning to the site of former glories is always a touch risky, but we needn’t have worried. On loan from QPR in 2009, Heidar gave a debut performance that out-Heidared anything we’d previously seen – on as sub, two goals to complete a comeback from 0-2 down against Leicester, then taken off injured.
He had a decent season, but that seems the perfect ending to the story, so let’s leave it there. Heidar Helguson, Watford legend. All he ever left on the pitch were blood and sweat.
Home Tied was a short-lived fanzine produced by The Watford Treasury through the spring and summer of 2020, sold to a small, but enthusiastic, readership by mail order only. Mutating in YBR! (Yellow Black & Red!) later that year, an anthology of articles entitled Coming Home was produced, featuring the best of Home Tied, and available through the Hornets Shop, as well as Watford Museum.
YBR! is available at: www.thewatfordtreasury.co.uk/ybr.html