Life under Marco Silva had lost its shine and Nigeria international Isaac Success feared his Premier League dream was over before it had really began.
Frozen out, injured, alone, insecure, he was a £12.5million striker devoid of confidence, making poor decisions and ready to turn his back on English football.
‘I won’t lie, I was having difficulties and I thought English football wasn’t for me,’ Success told MailOnline, as he reflects on his lost season from a happier place ahead of Watford’s first reunion with Silva, at Everton on Monday.
‘The coach didn’t really believe in me. I wasn’t fit enough. I wasn’t ready, physically or mentally. Coming back from injury and all, I was frustrated. All the other players were really sharp and doing well.
‘It was difficult to get my chance and I wanted games to lose some weight and get back all I’d lost. My career stood still. Being alone, not feeling my future was safe, that worried me. Mentally I wasn’t OK. It was really tough, and not knowing about the lifestyle side of football in England, I didn’t get it right.’
Proposed loan deals to the Championship failed to materialise and injury struck, but few outside the club noticed with Watford in decent form and Brazilian striker Richarlison scoring goals in Silva’s team.
The lowest ebb for Success was a late-night disturbance in a Hertfordshire hotel which ended with the star in police handcuffs before he was released without charge.
A loan spell at Malaga ended in relegation but he returned to Vicarage Road with a fresh determination to prove his talent and move his career in the right direction.
Silva had gone and would take Richarlison with him, and new boss Javi Gracia seemed ready to show more faith in the Nigerian. Success spent his summer running, checked in with a personal trainer, shed weight, kicked some bad habits and even gave up his beloved jollof rice to adhere to Gracia’s new dietary regime.
The transformation has been impressive and his reward has been to feature in every Premier League game this season, starting six of the last seven, ending his long wait for another goal and signing a new five-year contract.
‘The main factor was that I wasn’t fit and wasn’t working,’ says Success. ‘I made mistakes because I wasn’t working hard and needed to concentrate more. I’ll always be the same person but I needed to reduce everything I was doing and I’ve reduced it.
‘I stuck to my plan. When you’re fit it’s more difficult to get injured, and if you’re injured you recover on time. So, this season is going well because physically I’m fine. I lost a couple of kilos and that made me faster and stronger. I feel sharper.
‘I have a coach who believes in me and he gives me confidence and freedom to do what I want on the pitch.
‘I was eating a lot of African food and it was a little bit heavy but I’ve cut that out and I’m on the team diet, eating with the team. Eating earlier at night, it’s really helped.
‘All of this has been a big change in my career and I say a big thank you to the Watford family for believing in me and for keeping me – and hoping I can get better. I am getting better. I am grateful for that.’
Isaac Success Ajayi (Success really is his middle name) idolised Didier Drogba as a boy and burst onto the scene with his explosive performances at the African U17 Championship in 2013, although he came close to missing the chance.
Douglas Idahosa, coach of the BJ Foundation youth team in his home town of Benin City, paid the equivalent of £6 each for four of his young players to make the seven-hour journey by bus to the national trials in Calabar but none were selected.
‘They’d seen enough and they weren’t interested,’ says Success. ‘We were going home.’ But as the friends left the stadium they met the team’s head coach returning from a course in Europe and he asked them to stay one more day.
They slept in the stands overnight and gave it one more shot and Success made the cut. ‘God made a plan for me,’ he smiles, as he considers where his life might otherwise have led.
At the African championship, up front with Kelechi Iheanacho, now at Leicester, Success scored four in the first game against Ghana, two more against Congo and another against Tunisia in the semi-final.
Nigeria lost to Ivory Coast in the final, but won the U17 World Cup, six months later.
Gino Pozzo persuaded Success to sign for Udinese, the family’s club in Italy, but they hit a snag with a work permit and the teenager moved instead to Granada, then the Pozzo club in Spain.
In 2016, he joined Watford for what was then a club record fee and, after flashes of talent in his first campaign and a disaster in his second, the signs of maturity and progress are clear.
‘It is like a father and son relationship between me and Gino,’ said Success. ‘Not all clubs show patience to players who don’t live up to expectations for a long time but he has always believed I could do something.
‘I paid him back by signing a five-year contract. I dedicate it to him and promise he will see the best of me in the next couple of years. I owe him a lot and I am going to keep focused and try to achieve what I came here to achieve.’