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Exclusive: Steven Berghuis on his struggle to make an impression at Watford

There will not be many at the training ground falling over themselves at the prospect of playing a Premier League fixture against West Ham United as few as three days before an FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace.

Results have shown how Watford perform at their best after arch-planner Quique Sanchez Flores has had a full week to fine tune his gameplan and drum it into his refreshed and receptive players. Trips to the Hawthorns and Upton Park in the space of four days is less than ideal preparation for Watford’s big day out at Wembley. However, the fixture congestion and the likely prioritising of the cup over the league could see opportunity finally knock for Steven Berghuis. If the Dutchman doesn’t get the nod against West Ham on the Wednesday before cup semi-final weekend then you wonder when he will play.

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Right now, he’s having to be content with playing under-21 matches, turning out against Ipswich’s group of teenagers last week and against Palace’s array of scholars, young pros and trialists on a freezing evening at Clarence Park last night. If things had worked out differently he could have been strutting his stuff at the Vicente Calderon this evening, playing for PSV against Atletico Madrid.

“I was really hopeful of playing in the Premier League,” Berghuis told WD Sport after Palace routed the under-21s 5-0.

We’ll be honest, we like Berghuis as a person. We’ve interviewed him three times and he’s a very mild-mannered, polite, engaging young man. He’s perhaps too nice, if anything. Part of you wants to break with press etiquette and put your arm round him. Instead, Watford’s under-21 coach is doing that right now.

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“To play a game is nice, especially with Harry [Kewell],” said Berghuis of the man who carved out quite a career as a left-winger in England. “He’s great and he wants me to get my confidence up, use my skill and play from the wing. He keeps giving me confidence, he wants to play on the ground and see nice little one-twos, although on this pitch [at St Albans FC] it is almost impossible. This style fits me more. I like to play with Harry. He’s a top guy.”

Sadly for Berghuis, Kewell is only in charge of the under-21s; Sanchez Flores calls the shots with some conviction for the first team and it’s been some while since Berghuis went onto what Sanchez Flores calls “the list”.

Berghuis suffered from being one of the later summer arrivals and missing the pre-season trip to Germany where Sanchez Flores set out his blueprint and laid the foundations for this remarkable season. The former AZ Alkmaar wide player was then sick for the game on the opening day at Everton and has struggled since to make any sort of lasting impression. Things may have been different had he scored late on against Swansea in the fifth game of the season. Instead, he’s not played a Premier League minute since the 3-0 defeat to Arsenal in October and has not been in a Premier League squad since Boxing Day. He got just over an hour in the FA Cup third-round tie with Newcastle United but has not been seen since.

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“Of course it’s not good at the moment,” he conceded. “I’m not in the squad since January and not playing [in the league] since Arsenal at home. At the beginning I was in a bit of a hurry [to play]. I wanted to play and wasn’t playing. I trained not good at that moment and my attitude was also not good. After the winter, when I decide to stay and not go on loan somewhere, I had a good attitude and trained well and I was not involved in the squad still.”

Sanchez Flores set out to play with wingers this season but he failed to land Joaquin to play on the right, Victor Ibarbo never quite cut it and even if Berghuis had been at the required level, Sanchez Flores did not have a second winger to provide balance so he opted for a more compact formation, designed to make Watford difficult to beat. Even flair players like Jose Manuel Jurado, Almen Abdi and Etienne Capoue have had to curb their creative instincts and focus on their role in the defensive shape.

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“I’m a little bit unlucky with the style of play,” said Berghuis. “You see our team every week – we play a bit of a different style. We have two strong strikers and we get the ball to them quick so it’s difficult for me, this type of style. The style we play, without wingers, [means] it’s difficult for me to get in the team.”

Isn’t it just. We understand there have been clubs willing to take Berghuis on loan but he favoured a loan move back to AZ Alkmaar, the club Watford signed him from for £4.5m. However, as was the case with Obbi Oulare, Sanchez Flores does not want to loan players back to the leagues where they came from after investing time and energy in trying to acclimatise them to life in the helter-skelter, physical world of the Premier League.

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“The last few months I trained hard and hopefully next season it will be better,” said Berghuis. “Maybe [going on loan to a club in] Holland is difficult. We have to speak, as another season like this is no option.”

The 24-year-old is big mates with Ola John, the winger who he came through with at FC Twente. Berghuis seeks solace from the fact that John was in and out at Benfica and Reading but is now, belatedly, starting to shine at the Madejski Stadium.

“He’s doing well,” said Berghuis. “I watched the games when he is playing and he’s a top player, a very skilful winger. At Benfica he had the same as I had here. It’s about confidence and what the coach wants.”