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Gone but not forgotten:
Scott Fitzgerald
Position: Striker
From: Northwood Town - free transfer - February 2003
Record: Played: 29(30) Scored: 12
To: Brentford - undisclosed fee - March 2005
Career stats: Soccerbase
See also: Past player profiles
He was: A playground goal-hanger

Sometimes, football can be quite tremendously dull. "It's a funny old game," say the pundits, excusing their use of a dusty cliché with a knowing chuckle. But it isn't, often. It's a very predictable, somewhat dreary game quite a lot of the time, full of issues that are debated in ways that make them seem polarised, energised, black-and-white...yet are, when you bother to examine things closely enough (or when you have the misfortune to listen to a radio phone-in), just a fairly mundane grey.

Thus, Scott Fitzgerald could do very little wrong during 2003 and the early part of the following year. And in 2005, he could do very little right. Given that he began it all as a non-league player, plucked from obscurity and given his chance of glory, you'd have thought that these two years would play host to a rags-to-riches-to-rags story worthy of the silver screen. It's not a normal career path, certainly, and you couldn't help but warm to the theme as he rose out of the reserves into the first team. But if you scrape away the sheen, there's that same dull grey just below the surface.

Perhaps uniquely, Scott Fitzgerald's time at Vicarage Road seemed to run along parallel paths, success and failure alongside each other throughout the entire ninety minutes. Really, it just depended where the ball was. Because, like fumbling with a Rubik's cube and completing one side only to disrupt another, we found that the answer to one long-standing problem - the lack of an instinctive, predatory goalscorer - immediately raised other issues, namely the difficulty of creating chances for that same goalscorer. It became an on-going theme during the 2003/04 season, ignored only by those who couldn't see beyond the fact that Fitzgerald was the club's top scorer.

Many an argument about team selection has involved the suggestion that strikers exist to put the ball in the back of the net and nothing else, and many a striker - Jason Lee, Allan Smart, Gifton Noel-Williams, to name three recent examples - has struggled to carry a somewhat disappointing goal return on the back of an all-round contribution. Scott Fitzgerald is the other side of the argument. Apart from a willingness to chase and harry when the opposition had possession - a willingness, coupled with his deceptive pace, that regularly saw goalkeepers get into a bit of a muddle - he contributed precisely nothing outside of the penalty area. He scored once from beyond the eighteen yard line - a lovely curled consolation at the Hawthorns - but otherwise, there was nothing to work with: no strength to hold the ball up, no awareness to bring others into play, no movement to pull the defence out of shape. He was even rather tentative in one-on-one situations.

This is harsh, of course. He was, after all, on an extremely steep learning curve, making his debut (and scoring on it, with a characteristically scrambled effort from half a yard) just a couple of months after becoming a full-time professional. That's an awful lot to ask, and one wonders whether he might've been able to mature away from the spotlight if he hadn't made such an immediate impact. Instead, he became an instant crowd favourite for his natural ability to intervene decisively as the ball rattled around the six yard box...and that's not a talent that should be dismissed lightly, for we'll be regretting its absence soon enough. It made him indispensable, just as the alter-ego that he inhabited for most of the ninety minutes - an awkward, stuttering novice, naive and lightweight - seemed to make him entirely disposable. It wasn't until other, fuller strikers - first Danny Webber, then Heidar Helguson - came into form at the start of the 2004/05 season that we were able to solve the problem.

Which left Scott Fitzgerald scrapping around in the reserves, confidence draining away. Then on loan to Swansea, where circumstances conspired to consign him to the bench. Then on loan to Leyton Orient, where he was (somewhat unfortunately, it seems) dismissed on his debut. And finally to Brentford, on loan initially and then permanently. Even if the final move seems to be curiously timed, given that Danny Webber's departure at the same time further depleted our striking options and left us with a striker-free bench for the trip to Burnley, it was increasingly hard to believe that this story had another chapter, a final twist.

Like I say, it seems polarised, black-and-white...but it's not, really. As a poacher, an old-fashioned playground goal-hanger, Scott Fitzgerald is pretty much peerless at this level. But there are few sides with sufficient creativity and strength to be able to afford to carry someone like that, to play with ten men until the ball skids through the six yard box. Goals win games, and some of Scott Fitzgerald's won games for us. But it's not that simple, over ninety minutes. It's just grey, below the surface.