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Gone but not forgotten:
Gifton Noel-Williams
Position: Striker
From: Youth team
Record: Played: 127(66) Scored: 41
To: Stoke City - out of contract - May 2003
Career stats: Soccerbase
See also: Past player profiles
He was: An awesome prospect

It wasn't supposed to end like this. It wasn't supposed to end at all, really...but certainly not like this.

The most highly-praised youth product of his generation, Gifton Noel-Williams' future was simply dazzling from the moment when he became the club's youngest ever goalscorer with a classic turn-and-shot in a Second Division game against Blackpool back in November 1996. My word, that seems a long time ago. It is a long time ago, I guess. And heaven knows, there have been some unexpected twists and turns along the way....

At any point in time, every club has youngsters that promise to become something special, future Premiership stars and regular internationals. Every club experiences the disappointment of watching those youngsters wander away from the chosen path at some point in their career, for a multitude of reasons. That doesn't make the process any less vital, of course, and part of the purpose is the thrill of seeing youngsters explode onto the scene, a prize in its own right and worth a great deal regardless of what happens next. But...Bruce Dyer, Wayne Andrews, David Connolly, Darren Ward, James Panayi, Tommy Smith...if they're still players at all, they're not quite the players that we hoped they'd become. Gifton Noel-Williams was so nearly the exception to the rule, and was so unlucky to be denied the chance....

The memories of the 1998/99 season come forward most readily. But it's easy to forget that his goal total was already into double figures in the previous campaign, while he was still finding his way as a first team player, an awkward, troublesome player with so much to look forward to. No-one will ever forget Jason Lee's bobbling winner at Craven Cottage - and it's worth pointing out that the presence of that lanky, awkward, hard-working centre forward surely did the understudy no harm at all - but Gifton Noel-Williams scored the equaliser that day too. With teenage years to spare, he was already established.

Just as he appeared to learn quickly from Jason Lee, so he seemed to take something else from Allan Smart when Graham Taylor refreshed his attack for the First Division. In particular, the Scotsman's central strength - holding the ball, retaining possession and using it well - rubbed off remarkably quickly. Suddenly, he was growing so rapidly that we couldn't keep up. Suddenly, that beaming smile was lighting up Vicarage Road on a very regular basis as he loped across to greet his family in the East Stand. Suddenly, there was that Oxford game....

"Gifton Noel-Williams was just monstrous. The Oxford defenders simply couldn't handle him - the sight of a Watford centre forward receiving the ball with his back to goal, taking all kinds of stick from his marker, then wheeling around and roaring forward will be my abiding memory of this match. No comparison with predecessors will do. There was a time when Gifton was all mayhem and no refinement. That time was about five weeks ago. He's suddenly arrived."
True, Oxford were undiluted drivel, incapable even of remembering to bring the right kit. But still, and even considering that Gifton was responsible for one or two of the infinite number of wasted chances during that afternoon, it was a very special moment. The point is that, in contrast to the all-too-common pattern, Gifton Noel-Williams was still developing. The concentration and effort required to contribute to the first team only seemed to fuel his growth as an individual, as a reality as well as a prospect. Even then, he was raw...but, my word, he was getting closer by the day.

By Christmas, his physical presence was such that he was capable of this....

"Injury time began with a Watford corner. Kennedy touched the ball to Noel-Williams, who shielded it at the corner flag. Doherty, dwarfed by the Watford centre forward, challenged and knocked it out for another corner. Repeat performance, another corner. Repeat performance, another corner. Repeat performance, Doherty man-handling Noel-Williams and conceding a free kick. Repeat performance, another free kick. By now, all tension had evaporated, replaced by riotous laughter as Doherty managed to get himself a yellow card for a combination of dissent and not retreating ten yards. Then, finally, the cherry atop an already ample cake - Thorpe arrived on the scene, gave the referee some abuse and talked his way into a booking. Comic genius. The final whistle followed."

Even as he grew in stature, his game took on new dimensions. He still surprised us, left us gasping. He was so strong, aggressive, difficult to play against, and all of that raw power was increasingly coupled with composure, touch, and vision. A blistering combination, an absolute gem. And there was one perfect moment still to come....

"The winning goal was quite stunning. Ben Iroha's long throw into the box was controlled on his chest by Gifton Noel-Williams. With his back to goal and a defender in close attention, we waited for the lay-off to a colleague. Instead, in a moment of absolute genius, he hooked the ball goalwards over his shoulder as it dropped. The element of surprise was enough - Sorensen could do nothing, watching in astonishment with the rest of us as it bounced inside his right hand post, and Gifton was away to the corner flag to celebrate. An improvised masterpiece."
It's too easy to suggest that it all ended there and then, with that goal, the subsequent hack by Paul Butler, and the knee injury that ruined Gifton Noel-Williams' career. It didn't end there. Not really. But the hopes and the promises and the expectation didn't survive beyond that day, albeit that we were briefly and cruelly lifted by the sight of our young star tearing into the Sheffield Wednesday defence as we fought for Premiership survival. It was inevitable, though. The player who eventually returned could never become the player that we'd dreamt about.

Even without the after-effects of that horrendous injury - including arthritis, which he successfully managed in order to revive his career - he would've struggled. Before he departed for the treatment room, Gifton Noel-Williams was becoming a better player with each passing week, so it's not hard to see that the loss of two years at such a crucial, vital time was simply impossible to overcome. When he came back, he was our player. The time when he'd threatened to be our gift to the nation had passed.

There were still some fine moments. There were still goals, albeit that they never came with quite enough regularity to enable him to command a first team place without argument. There was still the core of the player who'd been so desperately missed, particularly in that marvellous knack of cushioning the ball and wheeling around with a defender hanging on for dear life. There was still much to make him valuable in his own right, regardless of the past.

The problem is that when you've been absent for so long and when your injury problems have been so well documented, everyone's suddenly a medical expert. Every bad performance is the end of your career. Every knock is a recurrence of that injury. Nothing stands on its own. Really, Gifton Noel-Williams has continued to contribute much to the club, even when further injuries and patches of poor form have hampered him. He was inspiring considerable excitement in Ray Lewington just a few months ago, as his comeback from another (different) injury accelerated beyond expectation. Did he, I wonder, ever get sufficient credit simply for being the player he was? (And, yes, I know that this piece does little to redress the balance.) If we signed him afresh today, unknown and untested, would we look for positives and, as a consequence, give him a slightly easier ride?

In the end, the decision to release Gifton Noel-Williams was, as with others, motivated by a tight budget. With other forwards - Jason Norville and Scott Fitzgerald, in particular - coming through, it was an obvious, understandable, and yet painful choice for the manager. His lack of goals during (half of) the 2002/03 season probably sealed his fate, for there is a clear and recognised need to refresh the attacking options within the squad before the next campaign.

But would we have released a confident, in-form Gifton Noel-Williams? And do the injuries really make that such an impossibility? No times two, to my mind. That some sections of the support were less than charitable during that last season, eagerly demanding retirement for a player who should always be regarded fondly, can hardly have helped Noel-Williams' struggle to return to his best. Naturally, more generous treatment might not have made any difference. But it would surely have done no harm.

It's a sad farewell, then. Like I say, it wasn't supposed to end like this. Gifton Noel-Williams was one of the most talented players that Watford Football Club has ever produced. And the player that we ended up getting wasn't bad either. Somebody else'll find that out too, I hope.