Amid all the comings and goings and ups and downs at Watford these past few years – the greatest upheaval materialising since the Pozzo family bought the club last June – one player has remained a constant, reassuring presence. Lloyd Doyley expects to take his place in defence at Wembley tomorrow for the 408th time since Gianluca Vialli summoned him into the first team in September 2001.
The amiable Londoner, recently capped by Jamaica for the first time as a 30-year-old, can describe in some detail every one of his goals – there have been two of them, or one every six years – but is unable to recall how many managers he has served under, from Vialli to the Italian's compatriot Gianfranco Zola ("seven or eight"); and it would test a club historian to compute the number of team-mates. "Hundreds," Doyley suggests, adding: "There's always dramas at Watford."
Last summer's was as notable as any. In coming under the ownership of the Pozzos, some Watford supporters feared they would become a feeder club for the family's other fiefdoms, at Udinese in Italy and Granada in Spain. In fact, the opposite has happened. Right at the end of the transfer window, the newly installed Zola was presented with a whole crop of players loaned by the other two clubs and told to get on with forging them into a side playing stylish, entertaining football.
Eight months later, by far the highest scorers in the Championship (85 goals), they finished in third place, blew a chance to win automatic promotion on the final day and somehow overcame Leicester City in the play-off semi-finals. Manuel Almunia, late of Arsenal, saved a penalty in the last minute before Troy Deeney, who had begun the season in prison for affray, went straight to the other end and scored the winner.
"You need a bit of luck and we certainly had it," Doyley admitted at Vicarage Road on Friday. "But we felt we deserved the win."
In that period of long service he already has a Championship play-off victory to his name. In 2006 Watford met tomorrow's opponents, Crystal Palace, in the semi-finals and effectively wrapped up the tie in the first leg, a team including Ben Foster in goal and Ashley Young in attack winning 3-0 at Selhurst Park. In the final at Cardiff they romped home by the same score against Leeds.
Self-belief, he believes, is the key to approaching tomorrow's Championship play-off final at Wembley, a match being billed as carrying a £135 million first prize on the basis of extra commercial and match-day revenue, a minimum £60m Premier League broadcast income, plus the same amount in parachute payments even if Watford or Palace again last no longer than one season in the top flight.
"We all thought we were going to beat Leeds," Doyley said of 2006. "We had a completely different team, playing a completely different way, but we went into the final very confident. We had that belief, and it's the same this time. We finished third, so it showed we were the third most consistent team in the League, and we need to go out there and show everyone we were."
That belief extends to knowing how to stop Palace's Wilfried Zaha, who failed to score in the clubs' two eventful League meetings this season, from which Watford took four points. "We've done it twice," Doyley said. "Put me on him!"
The defender is full of praise for Zola and his man-management, while the Italian is justifiably delighted to have shaped a team of promotion contenders ahead of schedule who have also played what the captain, Almunia, calls "lovely football for people to watch".
In his first managerial appointment, at West Ham, Zola felt he occasionally strayed from his beliefs in positive football because of the stifling pressure to produce results. Here there has been time to build and room to breathe.
"It's a completely different type of work when you go for performance, working on improving the team day by day," he said. "I really like it here, it's perfect for me at the moment for my improvement as a manager.
"The project is to be in the Premier League. They [the owners] didn't say they wanted it this year.
"I said that this is a long-term project and if we don't make it this year we will try to make it next year. We're certainly going to make a better team next year, so if it doesn't work this year we will try again next year."