Watford have two goalkeepers in their academy who are such talented sportsmen that they could end up having a choice of whether to pursue professional careers in football or cricket.
Andrew Thomas played in goal for the Under-18s at the weekend and is only behind current third-choice Nathan Gartside in the club pecking order. Due to begin his two-year scholarship with Watford in the summer, Thomas is also a hugely promising cricketer who has signed an academy contract at Middlesex.
The wicketkeeper-bastman played for the England Development Programme side in three one-day 50-over matches and a one-off three-day match against Pakistan in the UAE earlier this year.
Thomas, who attends Merchant Taylors’ School, was the leading run-scorer at last year’s Bunbury Festival, the annual, five-day tournament that has become a conveyor belt for uncovering and showcasing talent in English cricket, like Watford’s Steven Finn, Joe Root, Jos Buttler and Adil Rashid.
Thomas, pictured below, trained with the Australia team in the summer when they used his school’s facilities ahead of the Ashes. He stood at first slip alongside Brad Haddin.
“They’re so focused on every single ball,” said Thomas in an interview with Sky News. “Sometimes when I play, I drift in and out but they’re with it the entire time. Plus their technique is flawless as you’d expect.”
Following Thomas through the ranks at Merchant Taylors’ and Watford FC is David Burnell.
The Hornets’ U14 keeper was at St George’s Park this week for England U15 trials. He has also been selected in the Independent Schools Football Association squad for matches against Leicester City, MK Dons and Birmingham City at the national football centre next week.
Like Thomas, Burnell is not only a talented goalkeeper, but he’s also a highly-rated cricketer. The Kings Langley resident captains the Hertfordshire U14 team, bats in the top order for Kings Langley’s first XI and has been signed by Warwickshire to join their Emerging Player Programme. His selection is a feather in the cap of his former school Westbrook Hay, who count Luke O’Nien among its alumni.
Burnell is not the only dual purpose young sportsman from the villages. Teenager Josh Roe has opened the batting for Langleybury Cricket Club’s first XI and also plays in the centre of midfield for Watford’s U18 side.
Thomas and Burnell, in particular, could be posed with the same difficult decision as Phil Neville was in the early 90s: whether to choose football or cricket. The Valencia assistant coach was a precious batsman in his teens, breaking records set by England captain Mike Atherton, captaining England at U15 level and becoming the youngest to play for the Lancashire 2nd XI at the age of 15. Gary Neville was also handy with the willow. He scored 110 not out out of a stand of 236 with Matthew Hayden in a Bolton League game. Two months later he made his debut for Manchester United.
Alec Chamberlain, Watford’s academy goalkeeping coach, is also more than a handy cricketer. He had trials at Middlesex and was offered the chance to join the Lord’s groundstaff before opting for a career in football.
The cricketing success of Thomas and Burnell cements Merchant Taylors’ reputation as a breeding ground for talent. Ravi Patel, the Middlesex left-arm spinner, is a former pupil at the school in Northwood which will play host to the LV= County Championship Division One match between Middlesex and Hampshire and the NatWest T20 Blast match against Gloucestershire next summer.
Thomas is set to play in goal tomorrow night when Watford host AFC Wimbledon in the FA Youth Cup