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Etienne Capoue rediscovers his joie de vivre at Watford

Etienne Capoue is too cool for school.

He swaggered into yesterday’s meeting with the media wearing a black pointy hat, a long asymmetrical jumper and Ugg boots. It was a brave move given the stick Troy Deeney apparently dished out to Alessandro Diamanti at the fans’ forum, claiming the Italian wears women’s clothes. But like most things he’s done on the pitch in his short time as a Watford player, Capoue pulled it off with effortless ease.

Picture by Sean Hinks
Picture by Sean Hinks

On and off the field, Capoue has made quite the impression since joining from Tottenham for a club record fee, doing more in 11 games than the club’s previous most expensive player, Nathan Ellington, did in 57 games over a four-year period. On the field, Quique Sanchez Flores talks about Capoue in the same breath as Tiago, the smooth-passing Portuguese who he built his midfield around at Atletico Madrid, and Ruben Baraja, the technician who played more than 250 times in a golden period for Valencia and nearly 50 times for Spain.

“He has this kind of level,” said Sanchez Flores. “He could play in the best teams in Europe. He’s a top player and when we sign him we know we are bringing one of the best midfielders in the Premier League to Watford.”

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Off the field, Capoue helped knit the newly-formed squad, some of whom barely knew each other’s name, with a team-bonding game in Germany as they were winding down from double sessions.  The effect has been lasting and is evidenced in the team spirit you see on the pitch and as soon as you walk into the canteen at the training ground. The game? It’s called ‘Wolf’, apparently. It is based around gamesmanship and trying to keep a straight face.

“You can play at home,” joked Capoue. “It’s very good. You need to speak and argue. I am loud, I like to speak a lot. My friends and family play it a lot of times.”

Tommie Hoban was a willing participant in the game at their Klosterpforte Hotel base in Marienfeld, Germany.

“It’s a French game,” Hoban told us in July. “It’s difficult to explain and you have to play it to get it, really. It’s a bit like Wink Murder but a bit more complicated than that. Apparently in France everyone plays it. It’s a bit of a lying, bluffing-type game. He [Etienne] is pretty good at it as he’s been playing it a long time. I wasn’t so good at it but it was my first time.”

Another of the young, home-grown pros picked it up much quicker.

“Connor Smith is very, very good,” said Capoue. “He’s a good liar. I’m very happy I bring a new game to the team. I wasn’t sure if they would like it or not but they love it. It is difficult to speak straight away to everyone when there are a lot of new players so this put a very good relationship between teammates.”

Picture (plus main) by Franziska Empl.
Picture (plus main) by Franziska Empl.

Capoue won the respect of his peers as soon as he walked in the door at UCL in London Colney. Showing scant trace of someone who had spent the last two seasons at Spurs and been capped by France, the midfielder blew away some of the existing members of the squad with some of his feats in training. One player even remarked to us if Capoue was “too good for Watford”. He looked a cut above in games against West Bromwich Albion, Arsenal and West Ham United, that’s for sure. Many seasoned observers left Vicarage Road on Saturday scratching their heads to recall if they had seen a better midfield performance in a yellow shirt.

He did the dirty work in the first half which earned him the right to show off his party pieces in the second, culminating in nutmegs on James Tomkins and Enner Valencia before he really riled Tomkins with another showboating flick.

“It depends on the area of the pitch,” said Sanchez Flores when asked about Capoue’s touches of flair. “If he is close to the goal of the opponent, it is OK. he can risk. If it is close to our goal, I don’t like.”

Picture by Paul Dawson
Picture by Paul Dawson

Sanchez Flores has made Capoue feel loved, infused him with confidence and made him the centrepiece of his midfield.

“I play more free than at Tottenham,” he said. “I love my job, and I try to do everything on the pitch to give confidence to the coach and the players. [Quique] said to me take the ball, give it to your friends and manage the game. I hope I will carry on like that. I can improve more.”

So there is more to come? Wow.

He is looking a snip at £6million and showing just why Gino Pozzo was so keen to get him through the door so early on in the window to act as a magnet for other targets, a signal of the club’s ambition. With Watford not having the financial muscle to lure Capoue with an inflated salary, it says much about the selling job Pozzo did on Capoue that he was able to lure him two junctions round the M25 when virtually everybody else outside of Vicarage Road and UCL saw anything but a season of struggle for the Hornets.

Picture by Paul Dawson
Picture by Paul Dawson

“I trust Gino straight away,” said Capoue. “My agent (Mino Raiola) knows him well I also spoke to my friend Heurelho and he said, ‘Come on, come here’. I am very happy to be on this team. I want to prove to myself that I can be very good in the Premier League.”

Capoue said he was “very, very close” to being joined at Watford by Benjamin Stambouli before the lure of Paris St-Germain proved too strong. A major tournament in his home country next summer would, you suspect, also be a big pull for Capoue and a dream chance to resurrect his international career.

He has not played for Les Bleus since scoring the opener against Belarus in a World Cup qualifier three years ago. France must have some damn good midfielders if Capoue does not receive a call-up. Yet Capoue, 27, is not sitting around waiting for a call from Didier Deschamps. He wasn’t even sure when exactly England are hosting France later month.

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“My first goal is to play,” said Capoue. “I’ve had two difficult years and I want to enjoy this first year. If the national team comes, great but I’m focussed on my club.”

Capoue is not a football geek. He loves his trade (you only have to see him train to see that) but you will not find him poring over highlights or swatting up by reading papers and websites. He loves his basketball, particularly the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has the spring in his step of a basketball player.

“From my dad,” said Capoue when asked where his laid back, jovial nature comes from. “We are lazy people so maybe from that. I enjoy my life. Life is good. I play football, I have a wife and kids and I can enjoy friends. I do not worry about small problems.”

He is, though, giving the opposition a headache or two.