Menelik Watson will be hoping even more fervently than usual that he can steer clear of injury when he lines up for the Oakland Raiders away to the New England Patriots today.
At stake is the chance for the Manchester-born City fan, who wears their shirt to practices, to follow in the footsteps of his heroes Yaya Touré and Vincent Kompany by playing at Wembley.
The Raiders take on the Miami Dolphins in the first of this autumn’s three NFL regular-season games in London next Sunday, and the 26-year-old offensive lineman can expect a week as the centre of UK media attention. Watson became the highest-drafted British player ever when Oakland took him in the second round of the college draft in 2013, and his story is a remarkable one.
Brought up in the Longsight area that also produced Wes Brown and Danny Welbeck, Watson was once reportedly so hungry that he ate ketchup from sachets at the office canteens where his mother worked as a cleaner. He trained with City as a boy and went to college with Micah Richards but had his soccer career ended by an ankle injury in a kickabout. He turned to basketball, moving to Spain and then the United States, where he gave Gridiron a try and found that his power and athleticism overcame any ignorance of the game’s finer points. “He has no idea what he’s doing, folks, but he is as gifted as all get out,” one TV analyst said.
His 2013 debut season in Oakland was ruined by a torn muscle after a strong pre-season had won him the key left tackle position, protecting the blind side of the quarterback.
Now he hopes to show why the Raiders took a chance on a player with only three seasons’ experience in the sport. “I don’t think anyone could have got as high as me, and to have it all come crashing down ... I don’t wish that on anybody,” he said, his Manchester accent still strong. “But it’s a whole new year for me. I grew up a lot last year.”
Watson’s first visit to Wembley was a promotional trip in July. “It’s huge, man,” he said. “It should be amazing.” But more amazing would be a Raiders victory. Sadly for Watson, Oakland are less like the present-day City powerhouse than the serial losers of his youth. “Very similar to City,” he admitted.