"Setting the standard"
By Ian Grant
Really, anyone can sit on their backside for twenty years. Hell, I've been in my present job for nearly a decade…and I handed in my month's notice more than a year ago. That doesn't make me a hero, although you're very welcome to see it differently.
As for footballers, mere longevity isn't a cause for celebration in itself either. After all, I can think of countless players who would've driven me into a padded cell if they'd stayed at Vicarage Road for as long as our favourite right-back. God, can you imagine enduring twenty years of Des Lyttle? Is it possible to comprehend what that might do to your precious sanity?
So, Nigel Gibbs is still here, still part of Watford Football Club, ten years after his first testimonial and three months before his second benefit match brings the curtain down on his playing career. And, as the club's new chief scout and reserve team manager, he'll be around for a while longer too. But there's more to it than years, months, days, and hundreds of appearances. There has to be.
Nigel Gibbs is very special indeed. Part of a small band of players who are regarded by supporters and managers not only with universal admiration but genuine affection, it is nonetheless easy to sell him a little short, to make him look a bit drab next to the likes of, say, John Barnes and Luther Blissett. Any tribute to Nigel Gibbs will do well to avoid repeated use of words like "reliable" and "consistent"…and, while his reliability and consistency have been beyond question throughout his career, he deserves to be remembered for more than that.
Why is he so special? Well, that's simple - because he sets a standard. In a sense, the standard belonged to his first manager, as Graham Taylor rarely demanded more from his players than Nigel Gibbs could supply with astonishing regularity. The good-natured, diligent professional with a fierce competitive streak, the determined tackler with what might be termed an "old-fashioned sense of fair play", the loyal team member with time and enthusiasm to spare for the local community. Nigel Gibbs is very much a product of Graham Taylor's first era.
And yet, there's always been a feeling that he sets his own standards. Thinking back to Des Lyttle, I recall that when Colin Payne interviewed Graham Taylor for "The Yellow Experience", a Post-it note reading simply "LYTTLE" was stuck to the great man's desk. It's hard to believe that any Watford manager has needed to write "GIBBS" on a Post-it note. Perhaps enduring such a long, painful injury has contributed to his inner strength, but Nigel Gibbs comes across as being a remarkably level-headed, sure-footed - and yet thoroughly modest - individual. He doesn't need to be told what's expected of him, because he already expects it of himself.
Perhaps it's all a bit too nice and too well-behaved for some. But the fact remains that football is full to bursting with the likes of Craig Ramage, a vastly talented player wasting his career, or Lee Nogan, whose cynical dive conned the referee into showing Gibbs a red card (later the subject of a successful appeal) at Reading. For the most part, Watford fans will forget the chancers and the cheats, the boozers and the show-offs, the sulkers and the psychos. But they will not forget Nigel Gibbs.
Besides, let's not fall into the trap of assuming that something is boring simply because it's not fatally flawed. For some examples, we'll return to the 1997/98 season, in which the Hornets won the Second Division Championship and Nigel Gibbs made thirty-four league starts after seeing off a brief challenge from Lars Melvang....
You'll probably remember the FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday for Paolo Di Canio's extraordinary dismissal in the replay at Hillsborough. If you can recall anything from the first game at the Vic, the chances are that it's Peter Kennedy's brilliant equaliser. But perhaps you might also remember this....
"Gibbs? Words fail me, frankly. He grabbed the chance to test himself against the skills of Paolo Di Canio with both hands, out-battling the Italian until he became a peripheral figure and switched flanks after the break. Gibbs was phenomenal, unbeatable.
That contest set the tone for the whole game. Wednesday kicked off, won a corner and for a couple of minutes it looked like we might struggle. Then Di Canio took on Gibbs and found himself foiled by a sliding tackle. And there it was, GT's "they're not from another planet" comment proved in an instant. We didn't look back. Indeed, Gibbs went on to provide one of the moments of the season, knocking the ball past a bewildered Di Canio and collecting his own pass to joyous applause from the home fans."
Not just the capable full-back, then. Indeed, as the season progressed and Graham Taylor made fresh demands of his trusted servant, the oft-voiced and rarely contradicted comment that Nigel Gibbs wouldn't cross the halfway line for fear of a nosebleed became increasingly absurd and culminated in a moment to savour at Oldham....
"Gibbsy's biggest contribution was yet to come however. Quite how he ended up on the edge of the D, dead-centre, lining up a shot is still a bit of a mystery to me (although I seem to remember a luscious 1-2 with someone... Jason Lee?). In a style almost completely unlike a full-back with a strike rate of one goal every two seasons, Gibbsy drew back and let fly. Disbelief reigned as the ball flew silently into the top corner. As with Gary Porter's almost crucial goal at Norwich almost two years ago, time seemed to slow to half-pace. The ball hit the net... I'm sure everyone in the ground heard it. A millisecond of incredulous astonishment...("yes, that WAS Nigel Gibbs"). Then mayhem. Euphoria. As with Mooney's winner against Rovers, I found myself wondering how to possibly make enough noise to do justice to such a beautiful moment. Gibbs charged over to the corner to be mobbed."
But there was more to it than that one goal, superb as it was.
That season, he took on the challenge laid down by the temporary intrusion of the attack-minded Melvang. A thoroughly solid and immensely resilient defender throughout his career, he could never claim to be over-endowed with natural attacking ability. It didn't matter, though, for he compensated with sheer whole-hearted application. In a player profile on BSaD, I wrote that he "will never be one of these new-fangled wing-back wotsits". By November, reporting on an impressive victory at Northampton, I had to take that back....
"From completely shutting down the right flank (along with the superb Steve Palmer) to supplying Gifton Noel-Williams with perceptive passes to swinging in some really glorious crosses, Gibbs was immaculate. That he created at least three of our best openings, including the goal, speaks for itself. That I swear I saw him take on and dribble past a couple of defenders during the second half is simply a revelation.
The goal came from a wonderful Gibbs cross, sent with pace into the gap between goalkeeper and
defenders, absolutely begging to be buried in the back of the net. Peter Kennedy was on hand to do just that with a firm header."
More than anything else, that's how I'll remember Nigel Gibbs as a player. It's become commonplace for any tribute to pass comment on his apparent lack of attacking flair…but I've seen enough wingers who could beat seven opponents and cross the ball into the stand behind the goal to last more than one lifetime. Don't let it be forgotten - at that time, in that triumphant season, Nigel Gibbs was the best crosser of a football at Watford. Why? Because he applied himself to the task with his usual concentration, dedication and enthusiasm. Because he learnt to do it.
That is Nigel Gibbs. Nothing sums him up better than that season. When others might've rested on their laurels with retirement age approaching, he pushed himself further and harder to meet his own expectations and his team's requirements. That is why he was an absolute pleasure to watch, every bit as much as more fashionable players. And that is why he continues to be a joy to have around Watford Football Club.
He set the standard.
First published in "Look at the Stars"