Young rises to become Watford's goldmine

Speed and versatility make the young midfielder a top transfer target, Glenn Moore writes
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The Independent Football

If Ashley Young leaves Watford it will not be for the first time: as a boy he was released by the club's academy as he did not look as if he would make the grade. Young went away, worked on his game and earned a second chance. As West Ham's £9m bid illustrates, his perseverance, and Watford's willingness to offer him a second chance, has paid off spectacularly.

"He can score goals, and gets them from different areas of the box, he can make goals, he can play with his left and with his right foot, and in four different positions," said the Watford manager Aidy Boothroyd. "He's athletic, extremely quick, he's a dead-ball specialist and he'll do exactly what you tell him to do. Players like him are at an absolute premium. Outside of the top four clubs, he's possibly the best prospect out there."

It is a glowing testimony and, while Boothroyd is obviously biased, few would disagree with the thrust of it, even if the mooted fee looks staggeringly high for a player with five months' Premiership experience.

But Young is one of those players who appears able to handle upward steps. After persuading Watford he had the talent, his next task was to convince them he had the physical tools. Ray Lewington, who gave Young his debut in March 2003, recalled: "Ash was always the jewel in the crown at the club's academy and we couldn't wait for him to be ready for the first team. He is a genuinely two-footed player with great awareness, which set him apart from all the other kids. But we worried about his slight build because he did not have an ounce of meat on his bones."

Such fears were swiftly banished as Young breezed into the senior team. He came off the bench to score in his first match, finishing the season with three goals from six appearances. "We needn't have worried," added Lewington, who is now on Fulham's coaching staff, "because he is never fazed by anything, including big defenders trying to kick him. He scored on his debut and never looked back. He started out as a central striker but can play on either wing because he has two great feet. I'm not surprised so many top clubs are after him."

Young was born in Stevenage, to a Spurs-supporting father, Luther, but grew up an Arsenal fan. His association with Watford began at the age of 10 and it will continue even if he leaves because both his brothers, Lewis and Kyle, are at Vicarage Road.

"Lewis is playing for the Under-18s, he's a wide midfielder, and Kyle, who's a forward, plays for the Under-11s," Young said recently. "Some people say there are similarities between us but we're different in the way we play."

The following campaign he won the club's Young Player of the Season award but it was in 2005-06 that he came to wider prominence. Used in both wide and central attacking roles he scored 15 times as Watford were promoted through the play-offs. He also won representative honours, being chosen by Peter Taylor for the Football League's Under-21 team, which met a select XI from Italy's Serie B. Taylor has since capped him four times for England Under-21s and Young will be in the Netherlands this summer competing in the Under-21 European Championship.

This season Young has shown his talent even in a struggling side whose long-ball game, at this level, neither suits him nor succeeds. But his relationship with Boothroyd, and his bond with Watford, means he has not been angling for a transfer.

"He is not the sort of lad to be demanding a move," added Lewington. "He's a level-headed kid with great parents. When he signed pro terms, his mum and dad were there, no agent was involved, and they just wanted what was best for him."

What is best for Young now? One respected former England striker suggested at the weekend that it was time to move on as Young had outgrown Watford. The only question seems to be who to move to? Tottenham, with their proximity to his family, and their secure Premiership status, appear the logical choice, but footballers do not always do the logical thing.