Palmer the all-rounder ready for United test

A former colleague of Michael Atherton is relishing his challenge at Watford

The days of the great football-cricketers, biffing a century before lunch at Lord's and then dashing off to Highbury, are long gone and will never return; the demands of modern fixture lists in the two sports ensure that. But tonight at Vicarage Road the last of their latter-day heirs will line up against whatever 11 players Manchester United deign to field in aWorthington Cup tie.

The days of the great football-cricketers, biffing a century before lunch at Lord's and then dashing off to Highbury, are long gone and will never return; the demands of modern fixture lists in the two sports ensure that. But tonight at Vicarage Road the last of their latter-day heirs will line up against whatever 11 players Manchester United deign to field in aWorthington Cup tie.

Watford's midfielder Steve Palmer is not only that rarest of birds, a League footballer with four A levels and an Oxbridge degree, he has played first-class cricket too. It was only one match, but the details are all there on page 647 of the 1988 Wisden, which records that at Fenner's from 22 to 24 April "Cambridge University drew with Lancashire".

Given that the Light Blues were midway through a seven-year drought without a victory over a county side, that was an achievement in itself. So were the performances of S L Palmer, a first-year undergraduate from Christ's College, who on his debut had the England batsman, Graeme Fowler, leg before for 49 and then hit 18, batting at No 9, before losing his wicket to another Test player-turned TV commentator, Paul Allott.

It sounded like the sort of effort to merit all-rounder status and promotion up the order, but the young Palmer, having spent the two previous terms playing football, had already decided that a certain amount of academic work was going to be necessary if an engineering degree was to follow.

He reluctantly told his team-mates, including a certain Michael Atherton, that a programme of essays during the lunch interval and lectures when rain stopped play was not a viable proposition and there ended a promising cricket career. Atherton would make a distinguished mark with both Cambridge and Lancashire before the end of that season; Palmer, though already established as a University football Blue, had to wait a while longer before he was spotted playing against an Ipswich XI and offered first a six-week trial and then a contract.

It was not the sort of thing Cambridge University careers officers were used to hearing, but, like David Beckham at the opposite end of the academic scale, Palmer insisted: "All I ever wanted to do was be a footballer."

Yet far from being some sort of creative intellectual fashioning the play in midfield, Palmer is a hard-running, foraging scuffler who prides himself on hard work and reliability. He played for five years at Ipswich, three of them in the top division before learning from the new manager, George Burley, that the club had accepted an offer from Watford, where he has served with equal determination and even greater consistency. He wore all 14 shirts (including the goalkeeper's) during the 1997-98 season, was voted player of the year in the following campaign and has been ever-present now for 97 games.

The last 18 of those, this season, have seen Watford unbeaten in the League, out- lasting the infinitely more glamorous Fulham at the top of the First Division. Palmer believes they have used the experience of last season's not unexpected relegation to good effect. "We weren't quite sure at first how we'd re-accustom ourselves to this division," he said. "I thought it was important to get a good start, but I don't think anyone could have been expecting the start we've had."

Last season's results included a 4-1 defeat at Old Trafford - Watford were doing nicely for 37 minutes until Yorke, Cole and Irwin suddenly struck and the visitors were walking back to the dressing room 3-0 down - and a gutsy3-2 home loss to United in April after leading 1-0, which finally banged down the lid on the relegation coffin.

"I went into the Premiership with the attitude that we had a fantastic opportunity to play at some wonderful stadiums against great players, and try to make the most of it," Palmer said. "While the over-riding impression of the season was one of disappointment, you look at positive things that come out of it, like maybe some sort of subconscious learning experience which is being reflected in how we've started this season.

"The big difference I've found between the two levels is among the forwards. It's that ability to take chances - and their pace."

The impression is that, having come up against United twice last season, Watford's toilers will not be upset if the visitors' team sheet arriving in their dressing room around seven o'clock is of something less than Champions' League standard. "We can only play against whatever side they put out against us," Palmer added. "They're entitled to put out whatever team they want to. All we can do is try to beat them."

Bizarrely, Watford are trying to succeed this evening against the Premier League champions having already failed this season to beat Cheltenham Town and Notts County, neither of whom they managed to beat at Vicarage Road in the home leg of Worthington Cup ties.

In addition, personal incentive will be high for Palmer, who as a young Brighton supporter was at Wembley for the 1983 FA Cup final against United in which, like every other Seagull present, he felt that "Smith must score" in stoppage time. If he takes belated revenge tonight, that well known Lancashire Red M A Atherton will just have to forgive him.

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