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Gone but not forgotten:
Neal Ardley
Position: Most of them
From: Franchise FC - free transfer - August 2002
Record: Played: 120(8) Scored: 7
To: Cardiff City - contract terminated - March 2005
Career stats: Soccerbase
See also: Past player profiles
He was: A contradiction

There was a moment during the first half of Neal Ardley's final appearance in a Watford shirt - we'll be kind and describe it as an undistinguished farewell - when he needed to play a simple backpass to Richard Lee. Plenty of time, with the ball under control and only half-hearted pressure from a Preston forward some distance away. I could've managed it, probably...but not with quite such grace, sculpting the pass with the outside of an angled boot so that it skipped back to the keeper and sat obediently at his feet. Entirely unnecessary, really. A straightforward side-foot would've done the job just as well. Proof, though, that Neal Ardley will always be one of those players, in part.

But only in part. There are certain things that you expect from creative midfielders; there's an arrogant slouch that inevitably comes with the ability to arc a pass over forty yards onto someone's toe. One thinks of Craig Ramage, the last of those players to grace the Vic Road turf, who spent as much time pointlessly sulking, diving and preening as he did being the swashbuckling hero of his imagination. And then one thinks of Neal Ardley at his sublime best, much less extravagant than Ramage but still capable of reading between the game's lines in a way that only those players can, and of producing passes that fully realised the vision. With the outside of the boot, preferably.

And yet, and yet. That doesn't really fit. Following on from the immediate recruitment of Sean Dyche, Neal Ardley was Ray Lewington's second signing...and while slightly quieter, the statement of intent was no less emphatic. At a time when the squad was still littered with Vialli's expensive, disruptive failures and when the club was still (and, of course, is still) coming to terms with the financial aftermath, the fresh arrivals were indicative of the new regime's urgent priorities: solid, dependable professionals with vast experience at the right levels of the English game. More, they brought personalities that contributed to the spirit in the dressing room rather than sucking it dry, and they complemented each other too: Dyche, loud, bullish and confident; Ardley, more considered but no less assertive. Signings as gob-smackingly, stupendously, obviously right as Vialli's had been wrong. We didn't have any money to gamble with, so we didn't gamble.

And that is Neal Ardley. Perhaps. All of that creative quality, with precious little baggage. The flamboyant stereotype doesn't fit at all: there's no flash, no evident arrogance in the way that he goes about his business on the pitch. He'd been at Wimbledon for about thirty-seven years, for heaven's sake, and you didn't get away with poncing about in unusually-coloured boots at that club. It took an awfully long time, a fair few heated discussions, and a run of inspired form in late 2004 for quite a lot of people to realise, but we'd managed to acquire an old-fashioned grafter with a very new-fashioned right foot. For nothing.

That's the contradiction, then. Or perhaps, just the kind of balance that you don't often get at this level, where players are generally either this or that and rarely both. But there's no reason why you have to be an anonymous journeyman to be a team player, why being able to conjure up wonderful things with your feet rather than using them to kick people into the advertising hoardings should make you any less committed to the club that you serve. Whatever role you play, all that's required is an understanding of the game's fundamentals, an enjoyment of the day-to-day business of being a footballer.

One of my abiding impressions of Neal Ardley - and he left more abiding impressions than most - is of watching him work on Richard Lee's kicking during pre-match warm-ups. On more than one occasion, he could be found leaning on an invisible golf club on the edge of the six yard box and offering quiet advice, often with a sweep of the arm to illustrate the trajectory of the desired kick. That's a coach of the future, clearly. But even if he decides to run a pub when he retires instead, that's a player who can see the whole picture, above and beyond their own particular role.

Which is why it always seemed extraordinary that so many people failed to grasp why he was virtually an automatic choice for the majority of Ray Lewington's reign. The same reasons, I suppose, why so many people failed to grasp why Lee Cook wasn't an automatic choice. Seen from the stands, there were certainly occasions when Ardley's form stuttered and stumbled and when costly errors undermined his positive contributions. You don't get flawless on a free transfer, I'm afraid. But seen from the dressing room, you want and need players who'll listen to and understand instructions, then take responsibility for trying to implement them on the pitch. Those would be the people that you'd rely upon week after week, even if they did occasionally make a hash of it. Football isn't that far removed from the rest of the world.

Thus, while much of the post-mortem's attention has been focused on Terry Burton's departure to Cardiff, the loss of Neal Ardley as a dependable, consistent presence within the squad seems to me to be a much more significant factor in Ray Lewington's downfall. That he was the leading assist-maker in the division by the Christmas of 2004 is one thing...and quite a big thing, clearly, for a side that had often struggled for creativity. It was more than that, though: it was the crumbling of one of the foundation stones, a structural faultline in a squad that had previously held together under severe stress.

Given that Cardiff's approach - based around a derisory offer that, even then, was dependent on the club retaining its Second Division status - was cheeky at best and deplorable at worst, it's hard to hold the player entirely responsible. It's also impossible to avoid the reality on the pitch, though: when we needed Neal Ardley, he simply wasn't there. That Christmas period speaks for itself: for the first time in the campaign, below-par performances became the norm rather than an extremely rare exception, and Johnnie Jackson provided lightweight, makeshift cover for one of our key players. That would've been quickly forgotten, had Ardley's form recovered to anything like the level that had attracted Cardiff in the first place. It didn't.

There were signs, mind. Before we condemn those last months entirely, we shouldn't forget a quite lovely final goal at Loftus Road, swept over the keeper's head from twenty-five yards to provide some consolation for a hefty defeat. More importantly, there were indications that his fluency might be returning, suggestions that we might not have seen the last of our favourite stock move - Ardley cross, Helguson header - and that he might still have a significant role to play in the coming weeks. Those impressions were reinforced by an assertive forty-five minutes as the team took a two-nil lead over Leicester, with Ardley's thoughtful prompting and probing very much to the fore. Given that it's not even obvious who'll be taking our corners henceforth, one wonders how much we'll miss that rare, precious creativity during the remaining games. Quite a lot, I would venture.

Enigmatic and charismatic without really trying to be so, the acrimonious nature of the departure - packed off to Cardiff just a day after Lewington was "relieved of his duties", leaving behind some fairly pointed comments about the people who run the football club (and, notably, outspoken support for the departing manager) - is, in some ways, an appropriately distinctive end. It's hard to resist the temptation to place more credence on Ardley's statements than the contradictory view from a spin-happy chief executive. Tempting, but not particularly reassuring, since the natural conclusion is that the club lost the players, not the manager....

But let's not end it there, on the souring of the relationship. Because I'll be the first to admit that creative midfielders ain't really my thing, but Neal Ardley's unique brand of workmanlike artistry quickly and permanently overcame those reservations. There was something about his style, for me, that made it damn hard not to be very vocally on his side...although Boxing Day at Gillingham, when he persisted in delicately chipping set pieces into the face of a howling gale, did test even my patience. The performances had very definite peaks and equally definite troughs, but few Watford players in recent years have been as steadfast in the face of crisis and criticism, and none have delivered so many crosses onto the heads of grateful strikers.

That's the class of Neal Ardley, the player. Delivery. The class of Neal Ardley, the bloke...well, I wonder whether that belongs to another era, already. A complex presence, there was also a fundamental honesty about an Ardley interview that went slightly beyond the usual clichés. A broader, deeper understanding; not much, but just enough. Just as there's a stereotypical creative maestro, so there's the "player's player"...and he wasn't that either, quite. Nevertheless, one always had the sense that Ardley was a footballer for the whole week, not just on Saturday afternoons, and that there was a great deal to his contribution that even the educated eye never saw.

One thing to remember him for in fifty years' time, then, when the dust has settled and everything else has faded with time. Derby at home. A massive, massive game...easily forgotten now, because we won the luxury of forgetting with a victory that night. When Neal Ardley captained the side in the absence of others, when we needed leadership, responsibility, controlled passion both on and off the pitch. And he led, by deed and by example. By taking it upon himself to stand up in the dressing room while the manager was elsewhere and give his own personal talk to the team before kickoff...and that takes genuine f***ing guts, that's so much tougher than waving a fist to incite the fans. That's the stuff that heroes are made of, except that heroes are probably too self-centred, too shallow even to think of it....

I've got no closer to his essence, I don't think. Certainly, I've undersold his trundling elegance during his richest form, and I haven't mentioned the extremely characteristic willingness when played on the left flank to take on defenders and cross with his weaker foot, just often enough to make them wary. Or his remarkable ability in the air, stretching to flick many a long punt into the path of the strikers...which really is something that we won't be able to replace from within the current squad. Like so many other little details, these are circumstantial, yet telling.

So, here lies Neal Ardley's Watford career. Great right foot. And the rest....