Mariappa's Ten Years: Part One – The Younger Years
By Kevin Affleck
With 10 years’ first-team service now complete, the homegrown defender picks out his most memorable moments for the Hornets so far, starting with his first steps in football…
When did your journey at the club first begin?
I was playing for St Joseph's in Belmont Circle. I was eight or nine, just a young kid when I was asked to come down and train and the rest is history, really. Graham Horne spotted me. He was a really nice guy and me and my dad still talk about him now. I kept seeing him around and he scouted quite a few boys from that kind of area. He's a top man and did really well for me.
Did he recruit you on the back of your performances in defence?
Would you believe it, I was actually an attacking midfielder, scoring goals! I was quite big for my age so Watford put me at the back. Fast forward 10 years and I didn't grow so much and they kept telling me to go right-back but I managed to stick it out at centre-half.
How big a part did your parents play in your early Watford career?
My mum used to take me to training and my dad used to take me to all the games. If my mum was ever struggling my dad used to skive off work and he used to get into trouble for that. They were both massive for me and I wouldn't be here without them. They sacrificed their lives for me and my little brother, who played as well. They ferried us around the country and gave up everything for us. I owe them a lot.
How early on did you start dreaming about being a professional?
When I first turned up for my Sunday team, it was a bit of fun and a chance to play with my mates but when I got scouted by Watford, I started to feel a bit of pressure, even at that age. It's a professional club and all you want to do is be a professional footballer. I'd like to say 'Ah, it's a bit of fun' but even at that age I felt what was at stake.
Who was in the youth team when you first arrived?
Jimmy Gilligan and Chris Cummins were my coaches. They were brilliant for me. Chris stayed with me all the way up until I got into the first-team and although Jimmy Gilligan moved on, we stayed in touch and I played with his son Ryan. I had some brilliant coaches. Lee Harrington, Joel Grant, Toumani Diagouraga, Al Bangura, Andrew Chapman, Elliot Frost and Carl Matthews were my teammates. We had some great times and I still talk to many of them now.
Were you always convinced you'd make it?
I always thought I had a chance of making it and that never wavered. I was just focused from day one, even during some tough times. I was so focused on what I wanted to do and what I wanted to do in my mind.
And yet you weren't even offered a scholarship...
That was gut-wrenching as I'd played for Watford for seven years and everything had been geared towards that decision. I wasn't offered it at first but they told me I could still come in part time, like Ashley Young had done a couple of years before me. I got given a non-contract, which meant I could still come in every day but I didn't get the £70 a week wages. It wasn't about the money – it was about not being good enough to get a scholarship at the time. It was a tough thing to take but I played in the Under-16s the next day and really buckled down. I really focused and got rid of all the distractions that were around my life and it paid dividends.
You also dipped into other sports to aid your chances...
I was already playing basketball at school and that helped my spring, but I joined an athletics club and pretty much gave up every summer from the age of 16 to 19 and would just train for the whole summer. I really enjoyed it. I'm not going to say it was a sacrifice and that I wasn't enjoying it – I loved the process, putting in the work and seeing the results at the end of it. It paid off but I really had to invest in myself.
You've gone on to achieve a lot but you still cherish the FA Youth Cup run in 2005, don't you?
I still talk to a lot of those boys about that run now and it still brings a smile to my face. As a first-year scholar I scored in my first game against Wrexham and we lost in extra-time in the next round, but the second year we had a run to the quarter-finals. It was amazing. I didn't play in the first game because of concussion, but then we beat Middlesbrough and I scored the winning penalty in that one. We beat Newcastle who were really tipped to do well and then we lost to Tottenham. That doesn't look too bad on paper but we had beaten them twice in the league that season and were really kicking ourselves. I didn't perform very well and I really felt I let the lads down. It was a tough experience but that run and eventually getting the scholarship were two of the best years of my life.
See Mariappa talk through key memories from his ten seasons as he watches nostalgic footage from the archives in 'Mapped Out'...