Gordon Watson: Flash-back

Flash during his spell with Southampton

He remembers vividly the moment it happened: Saturday 1 February 1997 at 3.04pm.

“My leg hit the ground then a few moments later my shin and toes landed,” said Gordon Watson. “Imagine banging your elbow down and your wrist following. That’s what the bottom part of my leg was like.”

It had been completely shattered, but what caused a double fracture to Watson’s left leg was no accident. He was a professional footballer and the catastrophic injury had been the result of a tackle from an opponent.

Watson was at the height of his career. The 25-year-old striker had just become Bradford City’s record signing after completing a £550,000 move from Southampton.

But one tackle would change his life forever.

It was a cold but bright day at Valley Parade. Watson lined-up in just his third game in the Bantams’ claret and amber against West Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield Town.

However, a ferocious tackle by Huddersfield’s Kevin Gray left his career and, most penitently, his leg in pieces.

The man who had been an integral member of the Sheffield Wednesday squad that reached both the FA and League cup finals four years earlier was now facing a career outside the game he loved.

“I was never going to give up but I certainly had my dark moments,” he said. “I suffered from depression for a while, but most sportsmen have that because the thing you do all the time has been taken away.

“If you think about it the majority of footballers are like Peter Pan. They still want to do the same thing when they are 34 that they did as a four-year-old.”

The tackle almost cost Watson his livelihood but it cost his aggressor more. In fact, £959,143 more to be precise.

In a landmark court case, Watson successfully sued Gray for negligence. The High Court ruling in October 1998 compensated him for the loss of anticipated earnings, although that was not the hardest battle. Next he had to get his career back.

“It was hard getting back into playing football after so long out,” he said. “But because I had a little ‘un I thought ‘I have got to try and get back’ otherwise, later in life, when my son is tested and has to dig deep I wouldn’t be able to give him advice if I just quit.”

The horror tackle resulted in a double fracture, which required five operations and the insertion of a six-inch metal plate.

Despite Bradford’s support during his injury-ravaged spell at the club, he turned down the offer of a new contract following their promotion to the Premier League claiming he was not “fit enough or good enough” to do himself justice.

A short and unspectacular period at Bournemouth followed before Watson found himself at a crossroad.

“I was looking for a club whilst training with Portsmouth,” he said. “I was there for just under a year and in my mind I was ready to play for Portsmouth.

“The manager [Graham] Rix said he would like to offer me a contract but he just couldn’t as they had 40 odd players there already.”

But just as one door seemingly closed, another opened.

“My former team-mate at Sheffield Wednesday Chris Turner had just taken over at Hartlepool United and asked if I could go up so he could have a look at me. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

In just 43 starts Watson answered his doubters in incredible fashion. His goal haul of 23 helped Hartlepool off the foot of Division Three and into the play-offs.

Watson retired in 2003 after leaving Hartlepool but loved his time in the north-east – and the fans loved him too, with many describing him as the best striker in their history.

Despite playing in County Durham, he never moved from his Southampton home. Watson instead chose to make the 300-mile commute from his Southampton home to allow him to spend more time with his family.

A commitment rarely, if ever, seen in modern day football.

“I used to fly from Southampton to Newcastle on a Wednesday night,” he said. “I’d train on Thursday and Friday, play on the Saturday and then come home Sunday morning.

“I used to train down here, first at Portsmouth before I then went to Southampton. Trained here on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.”

Watson’s hard work and dedication was as evident on the field as it was off it.

The effervescent centre forward nicknamed Flash, after the comic book character, won over the fans wherever he played, although his most cherished times were at Sheffield Wednesday.

After two years at his boyhood club Charlton Athletic, the headstrong Londoner made the brave move to uproot and move to South Yorkshire.

“I went up for talks with them and never came home,” Watson explained. “I took my boots with me and the rest of my stuff was brought up for me by my girlfriend.

“It was brilliant, it was absolutely unbelievable. We got to three cup finals, played in Europe, finished third in the Premier League and there were 15 international players at Sheffield Wednesday when I was there.

“It was the best time in their history so I was very, very fortunate to be there.”

Although he never became a regular fixture in the starting line-up, Watson still counts scoring in the Steel City derby as his favourite moment in football.

But regardless of his previous footballing successes, Watson will always be remembered, and defined, by one mad and expensive moment.

Saturday 1 February 1997 at 3.04pm.

NB: Based on several of my interviews with Gordon Watson over the years.

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