Premier League relegation battle wrong place for Watford star Emmanuel Dennis

Imagine the furore if Chelsea had refused to allow Mason Mount to play in the Euros last summer on the grounds that the FA had been tardy with the release paperwork.

While stopping a player representing his country in a huge tournament on a technicality might have been sanctioned by the smallprint, morally it would have been indefensible.

There would, quite rightly, have been hell on.

On Saturday Emmanuel Dennis is set to return to the Watford side to face Newcastle at St James’ Park. This is excellent news for a Watford side on a run of seven successive defeats but Dennis should be playing for Nigeria against Sudan in the Africa Cup of Nations.

By rule X, sub-section Y, paragraph Z of the FIFA lawbook, Watford were within their rights in holding onto their top scorer after Nigeria missed a deadline to inform them of his impending selection in their squad but they were still wrong to do so.

International tournament football is the pinnacle of a player’s career.  Despite its eccentricities, like the early full-time whistle in Mali’s win over Tunisia, the Africa Cup of Nations is no tinpot kickabout. It is every bit as important to a Nigerian footballer as the Euros is to an Englishman.

The tournament’s timing is a pain in the proverbial for Premier League clubs, 16 of whom have lost players to it. On top of injuries and omicron, more absentees are the last thing they need.

But clubs sign top African players with eyes wide open, knowing they could lose them for a month mid-season. The delayed AFCON has been in the calendar for 18 months. 

It would be preferable, from a European club point of view, if the tournament was staged in the northern hemisphere summer like the Copa America. The next scheduled AFCON in the Ivory Coast is in fact slated for June 2023.

But that is Africa’s call, not Europe’s. The money in club football may be much bigger here but there is no global hierarchy in terms of the pride a player feels in pulling on his country’s jersey.

The Africa Cup of Nations and the countries that play in it should be treated with due respect.

The Nigerians accused Watford of “baring fangs” to keep hold of Dennis after their administrative slip. 

The player has kept his counsel since but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine his thoughts as Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho fired Nigeria to victory over Mo Salah’s Egypt in their opening game.

It was a victory met with glee across a nation of 200 million and the wider Nigerian diaspora and one which promises much for the Super Eagles for the rest of a tournament.

Dennis though will not be involved in the show – a situation he is unlikely to forget when it comes to signing his next contract.

Maybe Watford thought they had done enough for the tournament. They have lost four players to it – of the Premier League clubs only Arsenal, with five, have supplied more – with Nigeria captain William Troost-Eking, Senegal’s Ismaila Sarr and Moroccan pair Imran Louza and Adam Masina all away.

Watford have a crucial week ahead with Burnley – Covid permitting – and Norwich to follow Newcastle. They have not been in the relegation zone yet this season but if results continue to go against them they could be by next weekend.

With the stakes so high the ends clearly justify the means for Watford but in handcuffing Dennis the bigger picture has been vandalised.

The money involved in staying in the Premier League is eye-watering and can cloud a club’s judgement. In this case it undoubtedly has.


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