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.

Suggested Topics
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home