Position: Midfielder/Central defender
From: Ipswich Town - £135,000 - September 1995
Record: Played: 256(15) Scored: 8
To: Queens Park Rangers - free transfer - July 2001
He was: A superb servant
Career stats: Soccerbase
See also: Tributes
Look, I'm allowed. During all the events of the last couple of months, I've kept a very level head. I've
written balanced, reasonable pieces about the arrival of Gianluca Vialli, the removal of the coaching staff, the
loss of Tommy Mooney, the decision to seek a stock market listing. I've been objective and pragmatic, while others
have raged and enthused around me. And now? Well, now I'm going to let off steam.
The departure of Steve Palmer represents spectacular, incredible idiocy on the part of the new management team.
So loyal, so selfless, so thoroughly bloody useful...and someone, in their infinite wisdom, decided that
we didn't really want him. As if there could ever be a time when Steve Palmer wasn't worth his wages, when he
wouldn't do what was asked of him without a murmur of complaint. No matter what your business is, when you stumble
upon an employee like that, you hang onto them. Full bloody stop.
At thirty-three, some would argue that Steve Palmer's superb prime is behind him. They'd probably be right...but not
as right as they think. It's not so very long ago, back at the all-conquering start of the 2000/01 season,
that yer man was a fundamental part of the some splendid performances. Then, as so often, his knack of making
sure that the house didn't get burgled while everyone else was out partying provided a typically unspectacular
foundation on which to build.
It was always thus. From a casual glance at a bustling midfield, Steve Palmer was an inelegant, if industrious,
player. Those who looked more closely became drawn in to following him around, and his extraordinary reading of the
play took on a beauty of its own. While others would be ball-watching, Palmer followed the movement of attacks,
predicting them and snuffing them out long before they'd reached fruition. It's a skill, that.
And that skill was allied to a professional attitude that was simply beyond criticism. It's easy to dismiss
the bizarre achievement of starting matches wearing all fourteen shirt numbers during the 1998/99 season as an
act of GT-encouraged comedy. But behind it lurks a more significant truth - that Steve Palmer was ready to do
whatever job needed doing, without moaning or bitterness. As Richard Johnson's emerging influence pushed him
out of the frame, Palmer filled in the gaps whenever they appeared. And filled in very, very capably.
You shouldn't underestimate the importance of that contribution to the Second Division Championship. A squad
with someone like Steve Palmer, or Nigel Gibbs, in it is so much richer, so much stronger. Just as there are
times when you need a Mooney to do something extraordinary, so there are times when you need a Palmer or
a Gibbs to bear a burden, to give you one less thing to worry about. You don't get to use the word "selfless" very
often when you're writing about footballers.
Of course, he achieved far greater recognition during the following campaign, deservedly winning the "Player of the
Season" award for his half of a mighty defensive partnership with Robert Page. For those devoted Palmer-watchers
among us, there were yet more revelations, including a surprising turn of pace for someone with such an awkward running
style. Again, you were repeatedly reminded that he was a quite splendid player of the game, so wonderfully capable
and consistent and quietly commanding. At his best, he simply let the team form around him.
If he was sometimes exposed by the quality of Premiership opponents, he was hardly alone. Besides, there were still
times when he was majestic, most notably in that famous victory over Chelsea when he was the pick of a set of
performances that matched up to the greatest in Watford's long history. And even last season, which is where
we came in. Perhaps, though, he suffered more than most from the disintegration from November onwards - the
general lack of cohesion did him no favours.
Regardless, I would continue to argue that, in terms of sheer, unspectacular service, Steve Palmer was
the best signing that Watford Football Club made during the nineties. Along with Nigel Gibbs, he was the
most admirable of footballers, the most honest and decent of professionals. He gave us great acres of marvellous
performances, both in times of crisis and of triumph. And, personally, he gave me enormous, straightforward
Undoubtedly, Steve Palmer wouldn't have been in Gianluca Vialli's starting eleven. Equally undoubtedly, that
wouldn't have affected his relentless service of the club. He would've been there, ready when we needed him
and uncomplaining when we didn't need him. Kenny Jackett, who clearly must've had a hand in the transfer,
knows what he's doing. At some point next season, we will regret the decision to show Steve Palmer the door.
I regret it already.
Cast your minds back, if you will, to the run-in of the 1990/91 season. Steve Perryman's Watford played Ipswich at Vicarage Road. The Hornets, desperate for the points as they were embroiled in an ultimately successful battle against relegation to the old Third Division, received a helping hand from an unlikely source. If anyone could have predicted the part the unlucky Town centre half who netted an own goal that day would go on to play for his opponents, frankly, they would have been laughed at.
Watford and Steve Palmer crossed paths again in September 1995. Glenn Roeder coughed up £135,000 to secure his services from the Suffolk club and installed him into the midfield at Tranmere. That game may have been remembered for a rare Jamie Moralee winner or an even rarer three points at Prenton Park. As it was, the bustling midfielder who fetched and carried and worked his socks off for his new team-mates ensured that we would look back on this game as the start of an era for Watford. The second piece (after Tommy Mooney) of the team that went on to secure successive promotions was in place.
Not that the first two seasons of Steve Palmer's time at Watford were much of an indicator of what was to come. Relegation and thirteenth place in the Second Division hardly hinted at future glories. Not that Palmer could be held to blame, as his hard-working and selfless displays earned him the reputation that we all came to know and respect. Often unspectacular but always a team player, be it at centre half or centre midfield. As GT became so fond of saying, he always gave of his all.
There was more to Steve Palmer than just the committed professional footballer: his university background and degree in software engineering gave him the nickname of 'The Professor'. You always felt he might have been more at home with garden centres, dinner parties and Trivial Pursuit than the more common hobbies of footballers like girls, gambling and beers. At some point, though, an alternative university lifestyle came to the fore as the "Walking along, smoking a bong" song took off and the WFC faithful regularly serenaded their hero with that ditty. You have to wonder what he made of it.
Back on the pitch, as we all know only too well, GT returned to take charge of the team in '97 and Micah Hyde and Richard Johnson's blossoming midfield partnership, coupled with Robert Page, Keith Millen and Mooney's central defensive excellence, meant 'The Smoker' played a utility role. It was one he filled with his customary amount of professional brilliance. When called upon to replace any of the five mentioned above, he excelled. He even played both wing back positions in emergencies. He finished the campaign with a flourish and set a unique record by wearing every first team shirt during a season. Who can forget that last home game of the season when he started in goal? The chants of "England's number one" were hilarious, and he loved it too.
The following season began with questions as to which players might not make the step up to the First Division. Some said Palmer might be one such player. If fans were thinking it, Steve certainly wasn't. Injury to Keith Millen and a switch back to a flat back four gave him the chance he was looking for and he never looked back that season. The partnership he formed with Page gave GT the rock on which he built that second promotion. This was Palmer's season all along. He was rarely short of outstanding that year and he gave many a much-vaunted striker a tough game. He finished the season as a richly deserved "Player of the Season" and as a Wembley winner. It seemed that nobody could have been more delighted for the club than him.
As the Premiership campaign dawned, the questions arose once more. Could Steve Palmer survive in the top flight? That he became the only Watford player to be an ever present gives you the answer. It was a tough season and no player tried harder to stem the tide and postpone the inevitable relegation than him. Only last season did his performances start to fade slightly but he still remained as committed to the team as anybody and still gave of his all. Not to mention the crowning moment of his thirty yard screamer in the home defeat by Preston! As the season drew to a close, Steve was on the bench more often but there was a certain amount of surprise when he was transfer listed by Gianluca Vialli.
My personal view is that he could still do a job for us. Of all the players listed, he was the one I would most like to have seen stay. That sort of versatility and application doesn't come cheap these days and he surely had a place in GV's squad for next season. Going right back to that Tranmere game, a friend and I decided to sponsor his kit on the journey home. You couldn't wish to meet a nicer bloke and right to this day he remembers us both. He sent Jo a card on her wedding day. He spoke to me at the supporters' night and said he wanted to play as long as he could. A player and person like Steve Palmer deserves the chance to play first team football right to the end of his career.
But not for the first time this summer, our loss is QPR's gain.