By Richard Murphy
There really was only one Craig Ramage. From the moment that he made his effortless first touch in his debut at Charlton, there was incredulous excitement that Glenn Roeder had unearthed such a veritable gem. And all for just £90,000? This footballing god was priceless!
Probably Watford's most naturally gifted player in the barren years between GT's two reigns, he had the touch, vision and, most importantly, the nonchalant swagger to mark himself down in WFC folklore. His middle name should have been 'Showboater' rather than just 'Darren', and, as a result, he inevitably polarised opinion amongst fans. Perhaps, off the pitch, he did fall in love with the idea of the playboy footballer lifestyle, and, on the pitch, he was frustratingly wasteful at times. But, whilst some disliked him for being a casual poser, many more loved him for virtually the same reason, as he really was 'worth the entry money alone'. Suddenly, after years of huffing and hoofing, the unlikely source of Derby had delivered the Vic a saviour who would show us a glimpse of the beautiful game.
In his first full season, 94/95, Ramage inspired a seemingly relegation-threatened side to within a whisker of the play-offs, proving that, for all his sumptuous style, he still provided the substance of an end product as well. Employed through his career as a striker or in midfield, he really sparkled at the top of Roeder's diamond formation that season. Despite the dodgy cloth of which the Hummel shirt was cut, he made the Glory Horns look good playing football again. As Britain rode the political and cultural wave of the mid-nineties to the resounding chorus of 'Live Forever', Craig Ramage's right boot crystallised this creativity for the Endsleigh Insurance League Division One: like Le Tissier without the comedy conk, he found time and space for fun, and then, with the ball at his feet, anything was possible. He ghosted past players with the shimmy of Gazza, threaded through impossible passes with the vision of Cantona, and curled free kicks into the top corner with the impudence of Zola. Even the Derek Payne five-yard pass was made to look incisive when it ended up on the end of Craig's twinkling toes. He scored eleven goals that season and had many more assists, guiding Watford to finish in an unforeseen seventh place.
With such a mercurial talent, there were those who said it would not last. And they were sort of right. After a well-deserved holiday, he came back into the 95/96 season a little unfit and overweight. But with 'tracking back' not part of his Derbyshire dialect, what did it matter? Still, he was dropped for the whole of August. Rumours that he took a swing at Glenn Roeder but couldn't get his arm past his stomach didn't help. But, he made the perfect riposte to Roeder in his first home game of the season against Stoke City: in a virtuoso performance, he bagged a brace, with a signature freekick in front of the Vic Road End to whom he rubbed his bulging belly with glee. However, without a proven goalscorer to feed, Ramage could not prevent Watford sliding to the bottom of the table in a difficult season. GT's arrival brought a Ramage-led renaissance for the team, including a classic hatrick in a 6-3 pulverising of Grimsby, and in this season of struggle, Ramage still ended up with more goals than the previous season. But even Craig couldn't pull off the miracle and Watford were relegated on the last day of the season at home to Leicester City.
The Second Division arenas of the Recreation Ground and Gigg Lane were not appropriate stages for such a performer and Ramage never really looked happy in his new environment. But injury blighted his season anyway before a petulant sending off in his penultimate game brought an ill-fitting end to his Watford career. He went off to Bradford but a spell of his best form was again curtailed by injury, denying him a chance to play in the Premiership where his talent truly belonged. Ultimately, his playing days were cut short by more injury problems at Notts County, leaving his three and half years at Watford as perhaps his finest spell.
But the appeal of Ramage's footballing wizardry was supplemented by his unique relationship with the fans. That belly rub to the Vic Road End against Stoke or his cheeky little thumbs up to the travelling fans against Wimbledon turned him into the impudent legend he was, leading to the fanzine's popular 'As Cool As Craig' T-shirts. His persona was perfectly encapsulated in the image of him mockingly smoking a cigar in front of the delirious Watford fans after slotting home the fourth in the rout away to Southend. When that sort of imperious swagger was matched by his artistry on the pitch, you had to love him. As he said, "Nothing compares to the rapport with the fans. Something a bit special, that."
Underneath all his on-field strutting, he seemed like a really decent bloke as well. He always had time for the fans away from the pitch, and never forgot the relationship he had built up, exemplified when he sent one of my friends a twenty-first birthday card years after he had left the club. Even Glenn Roeder, who had a notoriously rocky relationship with him, received a letter of goodwill from Ramage following Roeder's brain tumour scare.
With the natural talent he had, perhaps Craig Ramage should have had a career in the Premiership. But, whilst the player himself admits he could have knuckled down some more in his early days where he got caught up with being a young footballer, ill-timed injuries as much as attitude meant he never played at the highest level, leaving his England U-21 appearances as his greatest honour. But Watford fans should be grateful that is the way fate conspired or else we may never have seen Ramage don the golden shirt to provide those golden moments of the mid-nineties that will live forever for those who appreciated him most.
Like the great man himself says, "It was great three-and-a-half years, I don't regret any of it". Me neither, Craig, me neither.