Central defender Darren made his debut as a 17 year old in a relegation derby game against Luton Town. Despite a serious injury in 1997, he regained fitness to become a regular in the 1999 Premier League team and back in Division One the following season. He was sold by Gianluca Vialli in 2001 to Millwall, and has gone on to have a 20+ year career including a brief loan spell back at Watford.
Now playing for Hemel Hempstead, Darren spoke to Watford Legends in 2018.
Hi Darren, thanks for talking to Watford Legends. You came through the youth ranks at Watford, how did you first become a Hornet?
I was originally playing for my Sunday team called Parkfield, about the age of thirteen or fourteen. We had a very good side, I think there were possibly about four or five pros out of it, not necessarily at Watford, but at different clubs.
The scouts started to come. Roger Broadhead, my scout back in the day, came down with Stuart Murdoch, I think they watched me a couple of times.
I think they went through quite a detailed process, because the team I came through with, we were together for years before we signed youth forms and then went on to be pros. They were very protective of that age group, the history books have shown that our year group and perhaps the year above and below were one of the best in the history of Watford in terms of producing professionals
You made your debut against Luton. That’s quite a place to start!
Yeah, tell me about it!
It was a bit surreal to be honest. I’d just rolled out of school the year before.
I’d done ok in my first year of YTS. I wasn’t even in the starting XI when we got together in the youth team, I was on the bench in preseason. I managed to squeeze on in a friendly against Luton funnily enough. I performed, then started the next game against Oxford away, don’t ask me how I remember these things! I did really well and then started the season for the youth team against Arsenal away and we won 1-0 I think.
The improvement levels just clicked. I’d had a few injuries, more growing pains, those settled down. I then got thrust into the Reserves very quickly. Graham Taylor come along when Glenn Roeder and Kenny Sansom left and he liked what he saw. He watched me quite a lot, we had a few chats, I was training with the first team very early and then the chance came. It was close a little before that, I think Colin Foster got injured. I was playing well, age wasn’t an issue. I was marking a lot of the guys out of the game and they were looking round thinking who’s this tall, skinny kid who’s come through?
It was an amazing experience for myself and my family and the occasion. If we lost we were going down so the pressure was kind of on for me to perform, which I did.
You then got a pretty nasty injury. What happened?
Yeah, the season after I managed to play about twelve games in the first team as a second year YTS. I was involved in the squads most weeks and I still hadn’t signed professional. Kenny and Graham were keeping my feet on the floor and not letting it get to my head. I’d been chosen to go and play for England, with Gifton, in a Malaysian kind of World Cup for the u20s, so there was a lot going on for me.
Then in my first year as an actual professional, I started well, I was playing really well, I had a little ankle injury leading up to the broken leg. For Ronnie Rosenthal we had an arranged game at Northwood against Norwich.
To be honest, and I’ve said this many times, it was my fault I broke my leg. I’m not going to start blaming anyone else. I was quite fiery when I was young alongside Paul Robinson, Colin Pluck, the Johnson twins, we had a real fiery group! It was a bit of immaturity there to be honest, trying to tackle someone too hard, and I snapped my shin in two places, which is incredibly painful. I knew it as soon as I done it. I actually got booked for the tackle! It wasn’t wrong, it was a foul, it was a poor challenge from me.
It really hit home to be honest. Literally!
Before you became more of a regular in the first team, you had a spell at QPR on loan. Is it fair to say that was an important move for you, to get you going again?
Yeah I’d agree.
Especially after the break of my shin, it was a really difficult time. I was still young, still a kid, still learning. The football industry is ruthless. I’d just moved out and bought my own house, I had a broken leg. I was by myself a lot, rehab twice a day, in the gym locking myself away.
The work I did for that, I don’t think I’ve ever done again in my career, to get back. I wanted to be a professional footballer and I wanted to get back to the top level. I’d had England call-ups and scouts watching me because of all the fuss of who’s this new guy coming through.
Going out on loan was the best thing for me at the time. I’d always been at Watford, I needed to get away, I needed to have that different environment. I had an amazing coach and manager in Gerry Francis, amazing group at the time, young players coming through at the time, Richard Langley, Stuart Wardley, some really good players. I loved the experience. It was near home, my Dad played for QPR as a youngster, the whole package really did fit with me and I ended up playing 15 games in the Championship.
When you came back you got a regular spot in the team in the Premier League, and then back in Division 1 you seemed to establish yourself in the First Team.
It’s funny, because that was probably the fourth or fifth year of me playing first team football, but for Watford I hadn’t reached 20 or 30 games. I remember Graham Taylor always saying to all of us youngsters, because he knew how good we were, and he made it loud and clear as Graham did(!), you’re not a professional until you’ve had about 100 league games. End of story.
We’ve kind of looked at each other, me and Robbo had played a few, Colin Pluck was kind of on the periphery, Wayne Andrews, Mark Rooney, you had a lot of players who were in and around it on a regular basis. Also Gifton, Tommy Smith, Dave Perpetuini, Clint Easton. We kind of knew that you had to listen to Graham. As much as we loved a laugh and a joke, we certainly listened to what he said. We knew we were very fortunate in what we had there in terms of the coaching. It was very unique. Normally players of this quality were at the Arsenals, Tottenhams and West Hams who we used to beat on a regular basis.
That’s where I felt I was at, I had a lot to learn. We started the season like a house on fire, unbeaten in fifteen I think it was. Then it started to fall away a little bit. That was my first full season, Graham took me out of the team near the end to have a look from a different angle, which I thought was correct. I didn’t necessarily think it was right at the time, but I certainly do now looking back. That was a good season for me, but still knowing I had so much to learn.
How did you find Graham Taylor to work for?
He was fantastic.
He’s one of those managers that until you don’t have him, looking further down my career, how much of an impact he had on myself, not just as a player but as a person. So structured. He was so good at dealing with a multitude of different situations. He had that red mist that used to come across at times, but always controlled with it.
It was a true inspiration and I can’t thank him enough for what he did for me. The opportunity he gave me at such an early age, those first team games. When do you see that nowadays? First year academy now, playing first-team centre-half. It’s very rare. I’m forever grateful to Graham.
Obviously sad to see his passing and it showed with the amount of attention and how much respect people had for him with how many people turned up (to the funeral).
When Vialli took over, you were sold to Millwall. I remember quite a few fans being upset at your departure. Was it a move you wanted to make?
It was a funny one because I’d not long signed a four and a half year deal.
Gianluca had his own vision, his own story he wanted to tell. He knew the team very early, wasn’t interested in a lot of players. He released many and certainly caused a few upsets, including Robert Page who’d been Player of the Season the previous year or maybe the year before that. There were a lot of good professionals there which personally, I think if he’d maybe have tweaked what we had from the previous season, we were contenders to win the league as far as I was concerned.
He had a big pot of money for that period and he wanted to spend it, he wanted to bring these players in, none of which I think went on and done overly well.
I was kind of cast aside. I played in a cup game, we got our first clean sheet. Still wasn’t good enough, and there were many clubs I think that were interested in me. I was disappointed I didn’t get a chance, because again, I think if he’d have tweaked things we’d have been in a much better position than if he’d have had a clearout which he did.
So I took that move looking at my future, wanting to play first team games, seeing what a club like Millwall were doing with a lot of youngsters, which is what I was used to having around me. I was disappointed it happened but at the same time really happy to have got a move, and nice to be wanted, which is what every player wants.
You got to play in the 2004 FA Cup Final. That must have been a career highlight.
Yes, it was well up there.
It was again a kind of chain of events which happened. Mark McGhee got sacked and Dennis Wise came into the equation and he embraced the whole Millwall way of life, we had fun in training, we worked hard but we had a lot of fun as well, so together as a team. We had some incredible young talent coming through, the likes of Tim Cahill, Steven Reid, Richard Sadlier, David Livermore, Paul Ifil, you can just go on and on.
We had an amazing season, we had 32 clean sheets in 55 games, that’s got to be a club record. We were just in that momentum. League form dropped a little bit, because we were certainly a play-off contender without a doubt. But you know, the FA Cup Final! You see it every year, a lot teams who get there even with a smaller squad which we had with not a massive budget. It was an incredible year, a total career highlight. A lot of players in their career at the top level don’t reach the cup final, and I found myself playing against Manchester United at the Millenium Stadium.
You played against Watford for Crystal Palace in the play-offs in 2006. Did you expect to beat Watford and did they catch Palace by surprise?
We did. But to honest, I’m not surprised we lost.
On paper, player for player we had the best squad by a country mile, got in the play-offs comfortably. But we didn’t have that momentum, which I think is crucial when you go into the play-offs.
I think we’d beaten Watford twice leading up to that, the squad was fit, but the manager had changed the team two or three weeks leading up to that. Going into the game, Watford had incredible momentum, you could see it when they turned up. It was 0-0 at half time and then we conceded fairly early in the second half, and that’s where I think it went wrong. Changes were made and Iain Dowie brought myself off, looking for a more attacking formation, but I look back and question that. I think it was a bit of a panic move, because ten minutes after that we were 3-0 down, and that’s game, set and match as far as I’m concerned.
You had another loan spell at Watford in 2008. How did the move come about?
I found myself at Wolves after Palace. Palace needed the money and wanted players out. I’d done well in my two seasons there, got Player of the Season in my first year at Palace.
I was wanted by a Premiership side and a number of Championship sides. I moved to Wolves which is another big club looking to get promoted, but it didn’t quite work out how I would have liked it to. First season I played thirty odd games, done well, I think things just didn’t work out for whatever reason, so I wanted to get games in closer to home, and along came Watford.
You’ve played for a few clubs over a long career – what has been your favourite period?
Two periods stick out for me.
When I got back fit from my leg, played for Watford in the Premiership. I can’t explain how hard I worked, people didn’t see what I did behind the scenes, you couldn’t have found a more dedicated young pro if you tried. I think a lot of people had written me off. The self-achievement, I was very proud of myself, to play at the top level after a double break of my shin, against Manchester United on TV at Vicarage Road. I remember just standing there before the game, just looking and thinking, this is just incredible, I’m just so thankful that things went my way and I’ve managed to get fit. A great time in my career.
Then the second period was my time at Millwall. We went on a run and played in the FA Cup Final, and also played against my brother at West Ham, you know West Ham v Millwall at Upton Park, which is a bit of a corker!
That must have been interesting!
Yeah it was! A very proud moment for the family, two out of four sons were playing against each other for rival teams. It was incredible, a very proud moment.
You’re now at Hemel Hempstead. How’s that going?
Yeah I’m really enjoying it. I’ve got another year. I’ve had a bit of a knee injury over the previous two years which has restricted my playing time. I’ve always managed to play games every year in my career, which is, wow, my 22nd year as a professional, 24 years since my first game.
I love it, it’s a good standard, there’s a lot of ex-pros, Lloyd Doyley’s there, Will Hoskins, Matt Spring. It’s fun, it’s competitive, they want to get to the league. I still feel I’m league level, without a shadow of a doubt, but at 39 years of age after a knee injury, there’s not going to be many people knocking at your door. I accept that and it’s up to me to perform and play still, and we’ll see where it takes me.
I’m very relaxed about it, I’ve had an incredible career no matter what happens. I’m very thankful for it.
You’re known for keeping yourself busy away from football. What else are you up to?
Yes, I’m studying. I’m studying hard. I’ve done a number of course and qualifications, as well as having our own business, the cattery, which people know about now! I do a number of things with view to the future, possibly coaching and management.
Quick Fire Round
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