Football: Gibbs the veteran of Vicarage Road

It is 16 years since the right back arrived at Watford and he is fighting for his place again
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The Independent Online
NIGEL GIBBS, 34 today, received an early, very expensive, but not entirely welcome birthday present earlier this month. The pounds 500,000 purchase by Graham Taylor was less of a gift than a challenge that threatens to curtail the Indian summer of Gibbs' career.

Taylor - who signed Gibbs as a Watford apprentice 18 years ago, then returned to lift player and club from the Second Division to the Premiership - bought Neil Cox from Bolton Wanderers.

The 28-year-old Cox plays at right-back, Gibbs' position, and went straight into the team, in place of Gibbs, against Sheffield Wednesday in Watford's last Premiership match. Gibbs came on for half an hour at Hillsborough as Watford gained their first point in eight matches but he is expected to be back on the bench for today's match against fellow strugglers Newcastle United.

So, having already dislodged Des Lyttle to reclaim a place in the side, Gibbs now has to start again as he seeks to prolong the second longest one-club career in the Premiership.

"I haven't been in to see the manager," said Gibbs when I asked him on Thursday. "It is his job to strengthen the squad and he's a good acquisition, he's got Premiership experience.

"You are going to get competition for places in the Premiership and I'll just have to fight for my place. I didn't start off first choice this season but I kept working hard in the reserves and my chance came along.

"I know they are looking to replace me eventually; I've had to compete against several right-backs who have been bought over the years here. Now I have to do so again."

Having come back from an injury that threatened his career, and the shock of being given a free transfer by Watford three years ago, few will write Gibbs off just yet.

He was actually released, by Graham Taylor, after the club dropped into the Second Division in May 1996. Injury had restricted him to 27 appearances in four seasons and it seemed his time at Vicarage Road was up.

"I'd missed 18 months with injury, my contract was up and I was given a free," he said. "I didn't want to go but I was one of the higher-paid players and I'd not played much. I had some offers from other clubs to train with them but nothing concrete so I came back to try and get fit. It went really well for me; I found myself playing in the pre-season friendlies and ended up playing more games that season than anyone. Since then I've not missed much. I broke a toe last year but the knee's been fine.

"Nothing beats playing and that experience made me appreciate it more. There's nothing worse than being injured; you can't even fight for your place. It's a hard battle. You have to keep yourself going, working with the physios all the time. The focus is always on the first team and if you are injured you get left out.

"If I get time now I always ask how the injured players are doing - I appreciate what they are going through. They like to have a chat and find out what is going on. They feel out of the banter in the dressing room, which is such a big part of the game."

It is 16 years this week since Gibbs entered that dressing room as player, 18 days after Tony Adams first pulled on his boots for Arsenal. But while Adams was eased in against Sunderland at Highbury, Gibbs' first two matches were Uefa Cup third-round ties against a powerful Sparta Prague side.

It was the same week that the football world was horrified at the revelation that Kevin Keegan was earning an astronomical pounds 1,500 a week at Newcastle (Alan Shearer now earns 20 times as much at the same club, Steve McManaman double that at Real Madrid).

Gibbs had only just signed professional forms, for somewhat less, and he recalled: "What a start: we lost but it was brilliant. I played because of injuries and ineligible players but I didn't know I would until the morning.

"In the away leg there was snow everywhere and it froze on the pitch. We could not keep our feet and I couldn't believe how well they held their balance."

Gibbs broke into the league team towards the end of the season but just missed out on a place in the FA Cup Final against Everton. He is now approaching 500 first team appearances.

"I started in the top division and it's gone full circle," he said. "There were times I wanted to move and the club wouldn't let me but I've got no regrets. I supported the club as a boy.

"It is a special club, ask anyone who has played here, they will have fond memories. It is a community club - people who come here are surprised how much we do in the community. It lost its way a bit. We had a few problems - an ownership change, management changes, players left, no finances - but then the boss [Taylor] came back and it has been great ever since. He's got the club involved in the community again."

There have been quite a few highlights on the way, and not just being a backing singer for Elton John in China. Chief among them is the Second Division championship two years ago, "the first thing I had won since the FA Youth Cup".

Last year's Wembley play-off win was more bittersweet, the jubilation at winning tinged with disappointment at missing out on playing there again. "It might come round again. The manager made the right decision," said Gibbs who was the first to congratulate Taylor on the final whistle. "I knew how much it meant to him after what happened with England."

It has been hard work since but Gibbs added: "We expected it to be difficult but we would rather be here, fighting to stay in the Premiership, than anywhere else.

"We're disappointed with the position we're in - we've lost 1-0 a lot and drawn games we could have won. The point at Sheffield was important but though we'd have settled for that beforehand we did enough to win it. Newcastle is a big game for us, we need to win our home games. It's all right being in the Premiership but the only way to enjoy it is to be winning."

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