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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
Gone but not forgotten:
Neil Cox
 
Position: Right back / Central defender
From: Bolton Wanderers - £350,000 (plus increments) - November 1999
Record: Played: 244(4) Scored: 21
To: Cardiff City - free transfer - July 2005
Career stats: Soccerbase
See also: Past player profiles
He was: A vital part of our survival

A vital part

Before he even played for Watford, Neil Cox was a prominent figure in the club's history. It's May 1999, Wembley Stadium. Picture, if you will, Nicky Wright's stunning overhead kick flying over the head of a desperate Bolton defender, still on his goal-line after a half-cleared corner. That defender, as he always did, was stretching every sinew to try and keep his team on terms. It was a moment of destiny for everyone concerned, not least the man who would go on to play a pivotal role in helping Watford FC survive the greatest financial meltdown in its history. Had he got his head to the ball, maybe Bolton would have gone on to win, maybe we would never have got to the Premiership (not Premier, not a ship), maybe we would never have sold the club's soul to chase the golden goose, and maybe Neil Cox would not have gone on to have the same importance to our survival. But he didn't. Wrighty and Watford had that golden moment and it would be five months until Neil Cox crossed our path again.

As the following season of toil developed, GT decided he needed a little more experience in the defence. Half a million pounds later, Cox signed for Watford and went straight into the team at right back, making a typically solid debut at Sheffield Wednesday in one of the games of that ill-fated campaign. The writing was already on the wall at that point, and little happened over the next few months that suggested staying up could ever happen, and Watford went back to whatever Division Two was called back then as quickly as we'd arrived. That summer GT flashed a bit of cash and Watford went on a long unbeaten run to start the next season, with Cox to the fore. A first Watford goal at Huddersfield, followed by two identical headers in a demolition of Queens Park Rangers and two more strikes before November were the icing on the cake of a series of good displays, both personally and for the team.

Watford couldn't keep it going, though, and the second half of the season descended into a half-hearted scramble for a play-off place and the retirement of GT. As one of the senior players, the finger of blame for Watford falling away from contention was pointed at Cox, among others. The new manager, Gianluca Vialli, culled a number of those players and signed the likes of Ramon Vega and Patrick Blondeau as a new era began. Having been identified as a player Watford could manage without quite happily, Cox found himself in the out-tray and as the first team went off to Italy for pre-season, he was left to train and play with the reserves. What followed spoke volumes for his professionalism. While some of the other players sounded off to the press or sulked, Cox knuckled down, trained hard and played for the reserves while waiting for a move.

As a result, when an injury crisis presented an opportunity, he was ready and grabbed it with both hands. All of a sudden, we had a new centre half as more often than not, Watford operated with three at the back. When Cox was interviewed for "Look at the Stars" later that season, he said, "When Graham Taylor bought me, he told me he bought me as a centre half but I never played there for him. Now I've had that chance. People tell me that's my best position and I've always thought that". And he was right. Off the list and back in the side, Cox was rejuvenated. Where a lack of pace had sometimes been an issue at full back, his reading of the game enabled him to compensate and he turned in a number of good performances at the heart of Watford's defence, culminating in his being given the captaincy for a home game against Bradford. The ovation he got that day was richly deserved.

Despite the efforts of Cox and a few other players, the season petered out tamely. After Vialli's sacking, Ray Lewington took over the job of keeping Watford afloat. With pay-offs and budget cuts all around, Lewington turned to Cox to lead his team on the pitch, making him club captain. A month into the season came the moment that cemented his place in the club's history. As captain, Neil Cox was asked to broker a deal with the players that would help save the club from administration. The wage deferral is rightly remembered as a crucial step in the process of saving the club, and without Cox's leadership, who knows whether it would have even happened. The bond created between fans, players and club by the deferral was also special, and anyone at Bramall Lane when Watford memorably beat Sheffield United 2-1 in the first match after it was announced was in no doubt how much it meant. As he led his players to salute the fans at the end of that match, it felt like we were all in it together, fighting for the very future of our club, and Neil Cox among others was the on-pitch personification of that struggle.

That special bond saw Watford on to a comfortable mid-table finish and an FA Cup Semi-Final against Southampton. Throughout that season, Neil Cox was immense. Partnered with another who survived the cull and re-invented himself in Marcus Gayle, a series of captain's performances were the rock on which Lewington built his team. The following campaign started on a downer, but once again Cox's captaincy and a number of excellent displays, this time alongside another warhorse in Sean Dyche, was an important part in Watford's eventual run to safety. It's easy to forget in the current climate, and some would have history re-written or try to tell you otherwise, but with all the constraints on the budget and upheaval around the club, mere survival was and still is a major achievement. During these two seasons, nobody contributed more than Neil Cox. His importance to the team and the part he played in securing that should never be forgotten.

That said, Cox started his last season at the club by handing over the captaincy to Dyche. Maybe it was the fact he was less important to the team, maybe time started to catch up with him but one thing was certain. After a good start to the campaign, uncharacteristic mistakes crept into his game more regularly and though still far from being the liability some fans felt he was, his performance level dropped. There was still time for one final hurrah, as he gave a stunning display at Anfield in his second Semi-Final for Watford. But as Watford's league form began to suffer in the last days of Lewington's reign, so did Cox and a bad mistake, which cost two points against Leicester, contributed to the downward spiral. With Adrian Boothroyd installed as the new manager, Cox was dropped to make way for Danny Cullip and at the season's end, he was transfer-listed once again.

Such were the similarities between the end of last season and the end of Graham Taylor's last, you would not have bet against another renaissance. Cox praised Boothroyd's methods in the press and with a new manager to impress, and another year to run on his contract, maybe another comeback was on the cards. We'll never know. Once he'd been asked to train with the youth team, the writing was on the wall. The end came quickly and a free transfer move to Cardiff ensued. It shouldn't have ended like that. Six years of sterling service through times of crisis deserved more than the ignominy of training with the kids and not being given the chance to prove his worth once again. Like Steve Palmer in 2001, I can't help but feel his experience and past commitment to the cause made it worth keeping him about the place, at least until viable alternatives have been recruited. Experience doesn't seem to have much value round here at the moment, so our loss is Cardiff's gain. But for those of us with longer memories, and those of us who appreciate the many good things Neil Cox did for Watford FC, it remains a crying shame to see him go. I wish him well.

Dave Messenger

There'll never be another

Cox.

A name rich in comedic potential. A player rich in comedic delivery.

I have no intention of compiling a statistical summary of Coxy's time with us - Dave Messenger's admirably factual piece (above), backed by some soccerbase.com delving, does that job - but it would be fair to suggest that he joined the club at what could reasonably be described as A Difficult Time, in that we lost every week. Given the circumstances, it would have been difficult to shine - and he didn't.

As Dave rightly points out, given Coxy's subsequent devotion to the cause, it's entirely fitting that he should feature in one of the most evocative of all Watford action photographs - a shot that must grace many a SW Herts mantelpiece, not to mention a few Bedfordshire dartboards. That he's wearing the white of Bolton Wanderers, standing uselessly under the crossbar as Nicky Wright's exquisite overhead effort arcs beautifully above his head, merely adds a perverse poignancy to the image.

An early team photograph had our man placed alongside Micah and GT's hapless full-back signing from Forest, Des Lyttle. 'Hyde Lyttle Cox' suggested the caption. Sound advice - and there was plenty more where that came from.

I met him at the council tip in Wiggenhall Road one summer Sunday morning. He was idly lobbing cardboard boxes (helpfully marked 'Cox') into a skip. No more than two-thirds found the target but he appeared characteristically indifferent as to the resting place of the remainder. Having spent some years studying the back of his head from the Rookery, I felt as if I knew him. I approached, we talked, he was funny and likeable. I warmed to him. But then I knew I would.

A similarly-disposed Horn had been returning from a few days Portuguese golf when, having swiftly exhausted the limited facilities at Faro airport, he was startled to find pretty much the entire Watford squad returning, under Gibbsy's apparent supervision, from a training/golfing trip to the Algarve. Not wishing to abuse their semi-vacation status, he chose not to identify himself but merely to observe. Until, that is, he boarded the plane and found himself seated behind none other than our hero.

A lengthy and entirely pleasant exchange ensued (also featuring, to be fair, the equally amenable Richard Lee) which ended with my friend in possession of an Air Portugal sick-bag signed, after all due ceremony, 'Best wishes, Neil Cox'. Now can you see, say, Shearer doing that? No, me neither.

On the field he could somehow combine moments of quite sublime skill - witness that exquisite chipped goal at Molineux and also what was simply the best goal-line clearance I've ever seen, that outrageous overhead effort from under the Rookery crossbar, against Burnley - with complete nonsense.

Right from the start, he did ridiculous things. Sent off at The Vic against Everton during only his fourth home game for mouthing off at a linesman, the man bought-in by GT to provide a steadying influence at the back was quite clearly nothing of the sort.

But over time we warmed to the man and his ways. Those heat-seeking, testicle-clanging free-kicks, beloved of the BSaD supremo, became almost endearing in their inevitable hopelessness. The current flurry of dead-ball goals from Boothroyd's squad could simply never have happened with Cox in the side.

For me, however, the real Damascus moment came in the modest surroundings of Whaddon Road, Cheltenham during the League Cup replay in September 2000. He'd been with us for nearly a year and was clearly happier away from the intensity of the Premiership. Probably as a consequence, his idiosyncratic approach to the game was slowly starting to shine through. That night, though, was something else.

Even before kick-off he appeared unusually perky, bouncing around and eventually launching an appalling warm-up shot so wide that it flew straight through the serving hatch of a mobile burger van serving the less discerning of the travelling few.

All hell let loose. Lard, half-cooked gristle, slabs of vivid orange processed cheese and cholesterol-laden onions crashed against the rear window as this ill-directed missile ricocheted crazily from one surface to the next. The fat-splattered proprietors spun around to establish the culprit. Who, of course, merely looked up, raised an apologetic hand - and grinned broadly.

Later that evening, already 2-0 up (not that that begins to explain his behaviour), we won a free-kick in the home team's half, but really not far from the edge of the centre-circle. Coxy ushered everyone forward, took a prodigious run at the ball - and shot. From fully forty-five yards. The ball smashed against the top of the cross-bar before, spinning wildly, leaving the ground at considerable height. Our hero turned and slapped his thigh in panto-style feigned annoyance. No-one was fooled but you could only laugh along with him.

I'd been seduced by the eccentricity of this performance to such a degree that not far along the A40 I suggested to my regular travelling companions that Cox be awarded full Horn status without further delay. Not granted lightly, this would have elevated him, at a stroke, into the ultimate Hornet Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Coton, Gibbs, Endean, Bolton, Blissett, Mooney, Jenkins and so on. I was roundly and savagely pooh-poohed. In the cold light of dawn, rightly so. It was a classic case of premature evaluation and, to be honest, he never did make the anticipated step-up to join those ethereal figures.

His form eventually tailed-off quite badly and, although he could be relied upon to ooze character and personality, his shortcomings became increasingly apparent. It's interesting to note that while his 'Goals Scored' and 'Yellow Cards Collected' totals initially ran broadly in tandem, the final season's ratio was one to seven. Just a handful of appearances have followed for Cardiff before being condemned to what looks like a season of bench-warming, providing still further confirmation of Aidy's astute judgement.

Coxy made his debut for the club at Hillsborough, in a squad which included iconic figures such as Johnno, Stevie Palmer and Gibbsy. When he hung up his coat for the final time, at Stoke last season, it was alongside altogether smaller garments belonging to the likes of Osborne, Kirk and Bangura. He got on for the last few minutes at the Britannia that day, to help preserve the precious relegation-dodging goal poached by Heidar.

After the post-match jubilation subsided and as the players eventually left the pitch, he lingered and looked up to see if anyone was interested in him. A few were. He applauded, we applauded. He knew, we knew. Sure as hell Aidy knew. And that was it really. Off he went to Cardiff, following his talented but ponderous mate Ards, briefly recreating possibly the slowest right-sided partnership in world football.

So ladies and gentlemen, I give you Neil Cox. Scored two identical goals in a half against QPR. Plays golf off a handicap of two. Once headed the ball over the Main Stand. Changed hands for a career total of 3.4m. Forced Vialli into a humiliating climb-down. Looks like the Trumpton Mayor's clerk.

There'll never be another. And you know what? I rather miss him.

David Harrison