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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
Gone but not forgotten:
Heidar Helguson
 
Position: Striker
From: LillestrÝm - £1,500,000 - January 2000
Record: Played: 148(51) Scored: 64
To: Fulham - £1,300,000 - June 2005
Career stats: Soccerbase
See also: Past player profiles
He was: Terrifying

Heidar's departure ranks alongside the general election result as the least surprising development of the summer of 2005. A side in desperate need of rebuilding, no cash with which to do it, a twenty-seven year old striker quite obviously playing beneath his level, having hit twenty goals in the previous season including some eye-catching performances against top-flight clubs, with a year left on his contract. As soon as the opening million pound-ish bids were energetically but loudly dismissed by the Watford board and the well-publicised if futile interest in Sam Parkin was followed up with a cash offer, it was just a matter of where and how much we'd get for him.

The surprise, if there is one, is that we managed to hold on to H for so long. That we did is due in no small part to Ray Lewington, a manager who evidently won the player's trust as well as doing so much to develop his game. It's difficult to reconcile the reliable, aggressive, focused striker that Fulham have bought with the memory of the player that Lewington inherited from Gianluca Vialli, who played the striker inexplicably out of position, a criminal waste of resources that sums up his tenure.

Whilst Helguson was, except perhaps for that ill-fated 2001-02 season, never anything but a senior player in the Watford squad, he certainly took time to grow from the exciting if raw striker that Graham Taylor signed from Norway mid-way through our Premiership campaign. The Heidar Helguson of the last couple of seasons would never have made more than fifty appearances from the bench, even over a five-and-a-half season Watford career.

The flaws, in the first couple of years, didn't take much looking for. A catastrophically brittle self-confidence that painted itself very evidently on the Icelander's expression when the chips were down. For a centre-forward, a distinct lack of dependability when put through one-on-one against a goalkeeper. And a susceptibility to losing his rag completely and inflicting life-threatening challenges on opponents when he felt wronged.

All of which faults appear to have been almost completely eradicated in the new-model Heidar. Helguson's resolve is now quite terrifying, his focus all the more acute when facing challenging opponents. His temper is controlled, and if you'd still rather H was on the end of a hanging cross than a clever through-ball, his composure in front of goal has nonetheless improved no end.

Added to which of course, the things that he never had a problem with. There's not a striker outside the top flight that you'd choose above Heidar attacking a far post cross (and not many in the top flight either, if we're honest). Like Les Ferdinand, he makes up for his lack of inches (Heidar is only 5'10". Really.) with a quite ridiculous leap - witness his remarkable goal against Portsmouth in this season's League Cup Quarter Final when he beat Jamie Ashdown, 6'4" plus an arm's length, to a cross. But I don't remember Les Ferdinand seeming to relish physical confrontation like Heidar does. The more, the bigger, the nastier the obstacles you put between H and a high ball, the happier he seems to be.

Ray Lewington pinned his colours to the mast very early in his management, never making any secret of the fact that a fit Heidar was the first name on his teamsheet. Under Lewington, Helguson's seven substitute appearances were all either following injury - a slow recovery time is H's biggest remaining flaw - or during games in which a weakened first string was selected, Heidar a precaution on the bench. Helguson responded with increasingly responsible performances on the pitch and unflinching commitment off it, the negotiations which preceded his last Watford contract seemingly as drawn out as buying a newspaper.

In the last couple of years, Helguson was occasionally used as the spearhead in a 4-5-1 formation, particularly against senior opposition and never more memorably than against Claudio Ranieri's Chelsea side in the 2004 FA Cup. Heidar's incredible search-and-destroy mission achieved far more than a did-it-cross-the-line opening goal - Marcel Desailly, in particular, will still be having nightmares.

During Helguson's last season at Watford, comfortably his most prolific, Ray Lewington was sacked. After this, whilst Helguson's commitment and professionalism never wavered - it's difficult to miss the fact that we'd have been relegated without his goals in the last month of the season - he did seem to be enjoying himself a whole lot less. On more than one occasion, his frustration at the final whistle appeared to boil over; the writing was on the wall.

That's not what we'll remember him for though. We'll remember him for playing the game like we fancy we'd play it if we could kick a ball straight, were several stone lighter and so forth. And for celebrating goals with wild abandon, no pretensions of cool, no calm containment, just wild, uncoordinated and, frankly, often ridiculous flailing of limbs. We'll also remember no end of goals as simple yet beautifully undefendable as his goal at Bramall Lane, late in December 2003: wicked cross from Ardley, nobody's getting near H, bang, thankyouverymuch.

The clean-sweep of club awards that Helguson scooped at the end of the season bear testimony to the regard with which he's held by the Watford support. But I wonder if we yet realise how much we'll miss him. Even without the simultaneous departures of Webber and Dyer, replacing a totemic figurehead like Helguson on the cheap already looked like Boothroyd's biggest challenge; the years when we struggled to harness any physical strength in our forward line are still too recent, the memories of White, Dixon and company all too vivid.

There won't be any Watford fans who don't root for H in the Premiership. Quite what happens to our forward line without him is a very open question.

Matt Rowson