The future's bright for Watford's Golden Boys
Last season was a somewhat testing time for Watford fans. Memories of their brief stint in the Premier League in 2006-07 were fading, Brendan Rogers had left the club for Reading and the club's financial health was deteriorating rapidly.
The multi-million pound sale of top players Tamas Priskin, Mike Williamson, Tommy Smith and Jobi McAnuff, coupled with a last-minute intervention from majority shareholder Lord Ashcroft, was just about enough to stave off administration last December, and young boss Malky Mackay superbly battled through the drama to guide the Hornets to mid-table obscurity.
But with MackayÃ¢ÂÂs budget and squad shrinking again in the summer, the Golden Boys featured in most expert predictions as relegation candidates, and the mood among the clubÃ¢ÂÂs fans was far from optimistic.
Fast forward to a cold Friday night in December. A Danny Graham brace, one either side of Jordan MutchÃ¢ÂÂs cross-shot, hands MackayÃ¢ÂÂs side an extraordinary 3-1 win at QPR, in the process inflicting the league leadersÃ¢ÂÂ first defeat of the season. Watford's fifth away win left them just three points off the play-offs.
A quick browse of the squad from that televised win explains exactly why things are very much on the up at Vicarage Road Ã¢ÂÂ and it's nothing to do with injections of cash.
Seven of that 18-man matchday squad had progressed through the ranks at the club, ranging from fansÃ¢ÂÂ favourite Lloyd Doyley, who has made over 280 appearances for the side and is approaching his testimonial season, to new kid on the block Gavin Massey, a striker who has just turned 18.
Massey made his debut for the first team on the final day of last season, and the occasion marked a significant moment for the club and its revolutionary youth academy as he was the first graduate from WatfordÃ¢ÂÂs Harefield Academy to go on and play for the first team.
Is seven-goal Marvin Sordell (centre) destined for the top?
Watford have previous when it comes to developing top young players. During their remarkable rise between 1977 and 1984 from a run-of-the-mill Fourth Division outfit to League and FA Cup runners-up, manager Graham Taylor nurtured some of the best players of the time, including Luther Blissett and John Barnes.
More recently, their last spell in the top flight was punctuated by the record sale of future England winger Ashley Young to Aston Villa for just shy of ÃÂ£10 million.
The current side is littered with promising young players too. Goalkeeper Scott Loach moved to the club at 18 and is now reportedly being chased by a whole host of Premier League sides following a call-up to Fabio CapelloÃ¢ÂÂs England squad, while striker Marvin Sordell bagged five goals in the first eight games of the current campaign.
But it is the next clutch of youngsters that HornetsÃ¢ÂÂ fans should really be looking forward to, thanks to the Harefield Academy. The centre has become the envy of clubs across England and Europe, with even the masters of youth development, Dutch side Ajax, paying an inquisitive visit to Hertfordshire.
Watford now boast that their young players receive up to three times the amount of contact time that they would at some of the countryÃ¢ÂÂs more illustrious academies. Maximising the amount of time players between the ages of 11 and 16 spend with their coaches is the one major hurdle every academy must find a way of overcoming. The recognised target is a rather ambitious 20 hours a week but, even after striking deals with schools, most Premier League sides struggle to get anywhere near that.
But WatfordÃ¢ÂÂs revolutionary approach is hitting the spot. By enrolling the young players at the Harefield Academy, a local secondary school that is fully focused on excellence in sport, the club has managed to combine first-rate education with maximum contact time, while ensuring the young boysÃ¢ÂÂ lives are as normal as possible, avoiding any residential programmes or hectic schedules.
And the approach is already paying off. For the past two season the junior Hornets have reached the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup, the national competition for Under-18s. Last term they beat Liverpool at Anfield before losing to a multi-national Chelsea side Ã¢ÂÂ a considerable achievement when one considers that at under-18 level most top Premier League sides boast players from across Europe, while WatfordÃ¢ÂÂs players grew up on average 12 miles away from the clubÃ¢ÂÂs home.
A couple of years ago the future seemed rather dim at Vicarage Road, with the club struggling massively at the bank and therefore on the pitch.
But their prolific production and development of top young players, alongside a promising young manager, looks to have solved the problem on the pitch, and will also financially secure the club going forward.
And now the Hornets' future looks Golden.