Former Watford defender Jerel Ifil has revealed Gianluca Vialli intended on “building his defence” around him at Vicarage Road.
Ifil was promoted into the first team by Graham Taylor and was integrated into the senior set-up by Vialli and his assistant Ray Wilkins.
He was also sent out on-loan to Huddersfield Town to gain further experience and praised the support network between Vialli and Wilkins during his early development.
“They showed a lot of belief in me,” Ifil recalled. “Vialli was a consummate professional. The professionalism that he showed is what you wanted to emulate.
“Ray Wilkins was more the nurturing type. He used to talk to us about the game and give us the grounding and belief to say we can succeed at a high level.
“So that was a time when I felt a lot of people believed in me and it showed in the way I played.”
Vialli was dismissed ahead of the 2002/03 campaign after refusing to reduce the club’s £4m wage bill.
The collapse of ITV Digital forced the owners to cut costs immediately and Vialli paid the ultimate cost for his unwillingness to follow the board’s instructions.
“It was unfortunate that they left at the time they did because that could’ve possible took my career in a different direction,” Ifil said.
He continued: “Vialli took me and another few youngsters on tour to Italy. I had just made my debut the season before. He pulled me aside and said we’re looking to build a defence around you before he got sacked.”
Watford replaced Vialli with reserve team manager Ray Lewington, who previously managed Fulham, Crystal Palace (as caretaker) and Brentford respectively.
Lewington was appointed as manager to steady a sinking ship. He had minimal finances at his disposal but managed to inspire Watford to a 13th place finish despite the chaos taking place behind the scenes.
Despite his relative success considering the circumstances, Ifil believed that Lewington failed to acknowledge the younger players due to the pressure of surviving relegation.
Ifil said: “It’s slightly different when you come into a job under the guide of helping the team to survive.
“He always use to say to me that I should be playing in the first team and then when he got the job he didn’t want to take the risk.
“The older players didn’t help the younger players enough, they were just trying to survive and look after their own jobs.
“So when things went wrong, the easy thing to do is to look at the youngsters.”
Ifil spent three separate loan spells at Swindon Town before signing for the Robins on a permanent basis in 2004.
He made 212 appearances in all competitions for Swindon and played an instrumental role in guiding them to promotion into League One in 2007.
The 38-year-old also went onto play for Aberdeen, Bristol Rovers, Kettering Town, Sutton United, Boreham Wood, Staines Town and Swindon Supermarine respectively.