First Team 06/04/2020

Mariappa's Ten Years: Part Three – Professional Debut

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…


You reported back in the summer of 2005 after making the bench in the final game of the season against West Ham. Where was your mind at?

Being on the bench that day really inspired me to push on and make a career in the game. I went back to the athletics club in Harrow and worked hard that summer. I did sprint training three times a week and was part of the sprint team in all but competition. One of my coaches sadly passed away a few years ago but Rohan Samuel still comes to games now. It's good to have that connection.

Were you a 100m or a 200m runner?

Anyone who did a sprint distance from 400m down used to be part of the team at the Roger Bannister Stadium. My teammate Lee Harrington used to come down and so did Joel Grant. It was good fun and totally different to football. It was hard work but it was a different type of training and stood me in good stead for football. I liked to come back in good shape and there is nothing worse than reporting back and not having that base. You need to switch off from football in the summer and rest, but it was good to get into another sport and put my energy into that. I came back with a physical edge and was able to focus on football. The sprint training gave me lots of confidence.

How was your first full pre-season as a professional?

It was tough. There were lots of changes after Ray Lewington had left and it felt like a fresh start. Aidy Boothroyd came in and was young and hungry and very determined to do well. I trained with the first team straight away and it was all about trying to break into the squad. I didn't manage to get on the pre-season tour, so it was just about trying to get into that squad. There were lots of changes: Clarke Carlisle and Malky Mackay came in and they were really strong players, together with Jay DeMerit. It was going to be a real tough mountain to climb with the quality of that squad.

Where did you feel you were in the pecking order?

I knew I was behind them all. I never expected to play as an 18-year-old – I just wanted a fair opportunity and to be able to earn the right to play. That whole season I benefited from just training with the first team, day in and day out. I could have gone on loan but it wouldn't have been to the same calibre of club and I wouldn't have been coming up against the likes of Marlon King, Hameur Bouazza, Ashley Young and Darius Henderson every day. I remember Anthony McNamee used to twist me up every day in training. But it was the best thing for me at that age, to play up against those guys and train alongside Malky, Clarke and Jay. It was the best learning curve I could have had. It didn't always go well. I had bad performances and bad training sessions but it was against very good players and by the end of that season I felt I had grown so much.

How did you find Boothroyd?

Aidy had his own ideas. He was so headstrong and knew what he wanted. In the first meeting he said, 'We are getting promoted'. We all thought he might be a bit mad as it looked like we might be fighting relegation and looking to stay up with the number of changes that had happened. But Aidy got everyone on side and built a real togetherness in the squad. The outcome was we got promoted in the end and I learned a lot from Aidy, about myself in particular.

You were not involved in the first four league games of that Championship season, but then you got the nod in the League Cup tie at home to Notts County.

It wasn't a complete surprised to be involved. We had a big squad and the indication was Aidy would use the young players for the cup game. I remember being so nervous. I played at left-back, and the last time I did that was when I was 15. I was a right-back or a centre-back in the whole of my youth team days and in the reserves. I hadn't played left-back for a while. It was still really excited and nervous, all the things that come with it. It was a great experience.

Did you have all your family there that day, particularly your father who had been such a rock for you during the difficult time with the scholarship?

My dad followed me throughout my career but as soon as I turned pro, he got really nervous and used to prefer either listening to the game on the radio or watching it on TV. I know he was there for my first league start but I’m not sure if he was there for my debut.

You played in a back four that day with Lloyd Doyley, DeMerit and Carlisle, which was a more than useful defence to make your debut in.

I was very lucky as a young player to play with those guys mentioned. Being in that environment did wonders for me. We had a group of hungry lads and we all wanted to learn and push ourselves. It was a common theme from the club to play the young players. The club was never scared to play the young players as if you were good enough, you were old enough.

Young, Bouazza and Dominic Blizzard got the goals that night in a 3-1 win. The game was done and dusted after 48 minutes, wasn’t it?

I remember we played well as a team. We deserved to win. I was playing left-back and I remember trying to run the ball through the middle of the pitch. I think I got a bit over excited and was trying to do too much. Aidy told me at half-time to settle down a bit. It was a brilliant experience and something I'd dreamed about. It gave me a further taste of what I wanted to be. I've got a photo from that game and my dad has the match shirt up on his wall. You didn't get loads of shirts back then like you do now so it was brilliant to keep that one. I thought I did okay. I could have performed better but it was all about learning playing at left-back and getting better.

You didn't feature again until the next round against Wigan Athletic a month later, coming on as a 98th-minute sub after Wigan went 1-0 up with a penalty.

That was another good experience. I think it was the first time I had travelled away and stayed overnight. We got knocked out but they had a lot of experience on their side. I think Matt Jackson played and he later joined us. I came on as a midfielder for Gavin Mahon after they scored the penalty. We were really chasing the game and I was running around all over the place, launching long throws into the box. We threw everything at them and then got caught on the counter twice. So I'd played twice, at left-back and in midfield, but it was all good experience for my league debut later that season.


Also read:


See Mariappa talk through key memories from his ten seasons as he watches nostalgic footage from the archives in 'Mapped Out'...

First Team 05/04/2020

Big Interview: Craig Cathcart

Defender Craig Cathcart talks about captaining the team earlier this season, his highs and lows as a Watford player and family life in a self-penned interview...


STAND-IN SKIPPER

It’s been an honour to be named captain on a few occasions earlier this season, when Troy was out injured. I think it’s the first time for over 10 years that I’ve had the armband. In fact, the last time was probably when I was in the youth team at Manchester United. I was captain for Northern Ireland Under-21s a few times too but apart from that it’s not something I’ve done very much. During my time at the club the captain’s been a bit of a mainstay. To be honest, it doesn’t really change much in terms of preparation on a matchday for me. The only thing that’s really different is that you go to speak to the referee with the manager before the game. I’m professional anyway and I try to set a good example, even when I’m not captain, so it doesn’t change too much. That’s something you need to be doing more and more when you’re an experienced pro and you hit 30.

HEAD LOSS & HUDDLES

In terms of my leadership style, you’d probably have to ask the other lads. I just try to be professional and set a good example that way. I’m not a screamer or a shouter but I do have a little bit of a head loss sometimes. On the whole I don’t think that’s very helpful though. I’m not really one for a team huddle either. We do a lot of talking in the dressing room so when we go out onto the pitch everyone knows what we’re doing by then and in my opinion it’s time to just get on with it and show it.

THE HIGHS

In my time at Watford there have been some real highs. The promotion year was definitely up there as a highlight. We wanted to win the league so we were disappointed not to do so in the end, but the momentum that promotion run-in gave us going into the Premier League was great. That first year in the Premier League was special too. To do as well as we did was incredible. I managed to play more or less every game that year, which led me into the Euros with Northern Ireland, so that was a very special year for me. Obviously last year was great too and the FA Cup semi-final was the stand-out moment. It was disappointing how it finished with the final, but it’s that Wolves game that sticks in my head the most.

THE LOWS

There have been a few lows along the way, too. I’ve had a few injuries that I’ve played through for a few months. The hernia injury I had a couple of seasons ago was particularly hard. I couldn’t get a diagnosis so I was going all around Europe for a few months seeing different specialists and trying to find out what the problem was. That took a few months in the end, so it took up a big chunk of the season. My last knee injury put me out for a good bit as well. Serious injuries are obviously real low points but you just have to focus on trying to get back into the team and staying as fit as you can.

MOOD SWING

I saw Clevz said I used to be a lot more serious and stubborn when me, him and Danny [Welbeck] were growing up together at United, and that’s probably true! It’s hard to remember back that far but I’m certainly more relaxed than I was back then. At United I was trying the best I could and it was always quite serious, but I just couldn’t break through. I like to think I’m good fun now and I try to enjoy myself. I think you get more relaxed when you don’t take yourself too seriously anymore, and that’s probably the main difference. I think that just comes from experience and being in the game for a long time, you just tend to relax and not worry so much. Having kids helps as well – you might have a bad game but when you go home your family’s waiting for you and they treat you like they do every day, which brings you back to earth. It’s that life experience that makes you a little more relaxed.

DIGS WITH DANNY

Speaking of my time at United, I lived in digs with Danny for something like six months to a year and we had a lot of fun. I think he was 17 and I was 19 but we got on really well. We were with another lad from Northern Ireland called Chris and we used to wind him up big-time! When we played computer games, me and Danny would play on the same team and Chris would be by himself and we’d just hammer him and mess about in his room. Those were happy days and it’s nice to be playing with Danny again now he’s come to Watford.

FAMILY MATTERS

Away from football I like to focus on my family as I find it takes your mind away from the game. I used to do things like playing on the PlayStation quite a lot but it’s just not possible when you’ve got three kids running around different places. They’ve got school, after-school clubs, then gymnastics and so many birthday parties, so it’s hard to find time for yourself. My kids are two, six and seven and my oldest daughter was only two when we moved down to Watford so this feels like home more than anywhere else to us as a family. They love their school and they have a lot of friends here, so we’re really settled. When I find time I do like watching other sports, especially boxing. I also watch snooker every now and then when it’s on. I recently bought a VR headset to try and the kids really like some of the games on there, so I do get to do a little bit of game-playing too!