ABDI PUTS PAIN OF WEMBLEY IN THE PAST
SLUMPED on the Wembley turf, Almen Abdi surveyed the wreckage of Watford’s tilt at the Premier League and fought back tears.
Downed by an extra-time penalty from 40year-old Kevin Phillips, the Hornets had to watch as Crystal Palace lifted the play-off trophy and condemned them to another second-tier slog.
But it wasn’t the defeat that hurt. It was the fact that Watford hadn’t turned up for their biggest game of the season.
“We played so bad,” says the Swiss midfielder with a wistful shake of his head.“To get through the semi-final like we did and then do that...it was one of the lowest moments in my career for sure.”
Days earlier, they had thrilled the nation when, in the final seconds of the their semifinal second leg against Leicester, Manuel Almunia saved a penalty and then launched a break which saw Troy Deeney score to send Watford to Wembley.
“I will never forget that moment,” Abdi adds.“To win that way was amazing. But it will always be sad also because it didn’t count for anything.
“Palace were better in the final, I must say that. They deserved to win. But what hurts is that they weren’t great.We only needed to play a little bit better to win.
“We all had a very bad four weeks in June. Everyone was very down. But now everyone is ready to go again and make it right.”
Nobody is more ready than Abdi. One of ten loan players signed from parent club Udinese last summer, the Swiss international immediately distinguished himself as one of the best.
Intelligent on the ball and a classy technician, Watford couldn’t function without the 26-yearold, who beat 23-goal striker Matej Vydra to the player of the year award.
“I appreciated that a lot,” says Abdi, who hit 12 goals in 38 games.“To be voted the best by supporters is the best honour you can have.
“At first, it was hard. It was different from Italy and I needed some matches. It was very quick, very physical. But in the end I realised that this is the type of football I like. Now I will try to help our other Italian players so they can get used to it as well.”
Watford’s policy of loaning foreign players en masse caused much controversy last season, with Palace boss Ian Holloway branding the loophole that saw foreign loans treated as full transfers “ludicrous”.
As a result, the Football League have limited match-day squads to five loanees, with four from any one club – regardless of nationality.
That left Abdi with a choice – stay and fight for a place at Champions League hopefuls Udinese or join the Hornets on a permanent deal.
“It was an easy decision for me,” he says. “I’m feeling very well here. We have a great team and great lads. I love living in London. Compared to London, Udine is like a small town. I think Hampstead is bigger than Udine so there is definitely more to see and do!
“Of course, I had to think about it. Udinese are a big club in Serie A and have just qualified for the Europa League. And I know the Swiss national coach has said he will only pick players who are in the top leagues. It is my ambition to get back in that team and I think it will be difficult at Watford.
“But, for me, it is more important that I feel good. I love playing football here, I have a lot of friends. These are the best things in life.”
JOY AND MISERY: Almen Abdi celebrates a goal last season. Inset: Abdi with Watford manager Gianfranco Zola after losing in the play-off final