Vernazza rises from the trauma to dream of an Arsenal reunion

The Watford midfielder Paolo Vernazza is praised by his manager, Ray Lewington, as "a good box-to-box player". But the 23-year-old from Islington is more than that. He has learnt how to scale mountains, too, having overcome the trauma of being stabbed by an intruder at the family home, turning his back on the club he still loves and recovering from a double operation on his right knee.

Vernazza has become something of a mascot for Watford. His return to the first team two and a half months ago has coincided with a good run, especially in the FA Cup, where the club have got through three rounds without conceding a goal and will be hoping to extend that sequence when they take on Burnley in the quarter-finals at Vicarage Road next Sunday.

Lewington, an understanding boss as well as an able one, is well aware that Vernazza needed to heal mental as well as physical scars after what the manager refers to as "the incident" and is complimentary about the way the former Gunner has tackled adversity as uncompromisingly as he tackles opponents.

"The incident" happened 16 months ago, as Vernazza returned to his parents' Islington home after a night out with another former Arsenal youth prospect, Andrew Douglas. They disturbed a burglar, who stabbed Douglas in the chest and Vernazza in the thigh before fleeing. "Football went out of the window for a time because Andrew was close to dying and my focus was on helping a good friend get better," he said.

Now Douglas is back playing for Grays Athletic, while Vernazza's gashed thigh kept him away from the game for just over a month. Since then he has moved from the parental home to Barnet, closer to Watford's training ground, and he is also attempting to put distance between that horrific night and his career prospects.

"It's a stage of my life that's over with now," Vernazza explained in the wake of a training session. "I don't even like to bring it up because of the bad memories. I have a scar to show for it and it left a mental scar at the time. But there's no point worrying about it." What Vernazza has also put behind him is the dream of making it at Arsenal, the club who snapped him up at the age of nine. Though, in all, Paolo played only a dozen games for Arsenal, he was capped for England at Under-18 and Under-21 levels where he was a contemporary of such as Joe Cole, Wes Brown, Alan Smith and Jonathan Woodgate.

His attempts to be realistic about it barely mask the disappointment. "Our house was five minutes' walk from Highbury and I used to go with my dad as a kid and stand on the North Bank. It is one of the world's biggest clubs, so I knew my chances would be limited. Nowadays Arsenal demand immediate success and it is easier for them to go and buy a world-class player rather than bring one through. But you can't argue about the players Mr Wenger brought in, it has paid off. I have a lot of respect for him."

But, following loan spells at Ipswich and Portsmouth, Vernazza decided to follow that increasingly well-worn path taken by home-bred youngsters who see no future at Highbury. "Obviously, I didn't want to leave but I had to take a decision. What was more important, being at a club I loved or playing first-team football? So I left and I have no regrets. I am happy here at Watford, but I left Arsenal on good terms. My friends there still get me tickets if I want to watch them."

Those warm feelings may not endure should Watford and Arsenal go on to meet in the Cup. "I would like that. I'd love to meet them in the final. Things wouldn't be quite so friendly then, but that's football – you put away your friendships on the day of the game."

It was while playing against Arsenal in the Cup last season, the only occasion he has faced them since signing for Watford in December 2000, that Vernazza damaged his knee. "The operation didn't go too well, so I had to have another one." In the end, this son of an immigrant from Parma was out for eight months and had to rebuild once more. "I knew I had to get my head down, work hard," he said. And he has done that in style. As Lewington explained: "Paolo was doing well in the reserves, so I put him in the first team and he has taken his opportunity."

That success might just be a problem, though. Signed by Graham Taylor for £350,000, Vernazza has a clause which could see the fee escalate to £650,000 if he makes enough appearances. Which presents a cash-strapped club like Watford with a mountain of their own.

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