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The player who was once ‘the most valuable striker in England’ now facing Cardiff City crunch

Since Neil Warnock left Cardiff City, the club have only spent more on Kieffer Moore than Max Watters. It highlights just how much Cardiff invested in the promising youngster when he joined from Crawley Town 14 months ago.

At that time, Crawley chief Erdem Konyar said Watters was the “most valuable striker in England” during a spell which would see him net 16 goals in 19 games for the League Two outfit before earning a move to the Welsh capital.

“I got a call from a club from a higher league last week and they asked how much. I said £1mllion. He laughed me off. He’s got a hat-trick since then. If he rings me today I will say £2m,” Konyar said the month before Watters’ Bluebirds move.

READ MORE: Cardiff City’s confirmed 2022/23 squad status points to huge transfer task ahead

“For me he’s the most valuable striker in England. The fact he is 21 years old and he won’t matter for the squad registration and the salary cap makes him more valuable. But there is strong interest and from abroad as well. He is a fantastic kid and full credit to the gaffer [John Yems] for spotting him.”

Cardiff fought off a number of rivals to secure the young forward’s signature, not least their arch enemies down the road, Swansea City. It is thought they got him for a fee which could reach £1m if certain add-on criteria are met.

The Bluebirds needed firepower at the time, Moore needed help and they thought they had snapped up one of the hottest prospects in the country. But he played just one game under his new manager, Neil Harris, before the axe was wielded and the gaffer was gone. While the less said about his time under Mick McCarthy, the better.

McCarthy opted to convert Sheyi Ojo and Josh Murphy into strikers to partner Moore rather than play Watters and Cardiff’s shiny new signing soon saw his glow fade while perching on the substitutes bench. McCarthy subsequently didn’t see him playing a role this season and shipped him off to MK Dons in League One for some experience and much-needed game-time.

To his credit, Watters awoke from his slumber and posted some solid numbers for the Dons. Six goals and an assist in his 13 games prompted Steve Morison to enact the recall clause in his loan deal and, with a run of form behind him, Cardiff fans were suitably excited to have him back in the building.

Despite announcing himself with his maiden Bluebirds goal in the miserable defeat at Ashton Gate against Bristol City, though, Watters flattered to deceive. He looked out of sync with the rest of the side and struggled to show enough physicality to be that sort of striker and was not as pacy as Isaak Davies or Mark Harris, so couldn’t stretch defences.

That all came to a head when Morison rightly hooked him after just 37 minutes of the clash with Coventry City on February 15. One supporter sitting in front of the press box before that game made a beeline to this reporter to vent his disappointment over Watters’ output since his return, a sentiment which prompted nodding from around them.

“He just wasn’t good enough,” Morison said of the decision to substitute the 22-year-old in the first half of that Coventry game. “Is he upset? Yes. Do I want him to be upset? Yes. Does he need to realise what it takes to be a Championship striker? Yes. Will we go through it with him and talk about it again? Yes.

“You can’t play up front in this team, any team in the Championship, and not have a physical edge to your game. The ball can’t keep coming back.”

Just a few days later he collided in the air with Oliver Denham in training and rolled his ankle during his landing. He has been out of action since and is still working his way back to fitness. It was frustrating for Morison, who insisted he had held positive clear-the-air talks with the striker and was looking forward to seeing him bouncing back, which you can read more about here .

The thing is, he has proven elsewhere that he has a knack of scoring goals, both in League Two and League One, and he certainly does pop up in useful areas and create chances for himself. Indeed, even in that 37 minutes against Coventry last month he should have scored two goals, despite a sub-par personal performance.

Cardiff showed a lot of faith and ploughed a lot of money — money which they don’t have — into the signing of Watters last year and they will want to start seeing a return on their investment at some point. It must be said that he is still only young and most certainly has time on his side, but with funds thin on the ground there can be no passengers in the squad when Cardiff set about assembling their group for next term in the summer. You can read more about every player’s transfer status here.

Do they sit tight and hope he kicks on at the tail end of this season and in the summer before hitting the ground running next season? With Jordan Hugill and Uche Ikpeazu heading back to Norwich City and Middlesbrough respectively, Morison needs to restock his striker stable in the upcoming window, but it is up to Watters to show the manager he can fill one of those sizeable voids.

Alternatively, if his time at Crawley and stint with the Dons in League One are enough to prompt any tentative bids, would Cardiff entertain them? It’s difficult to see that being the case, unless the offer is particularly attractive, of course, given he has been at the club just over a year and has still played only seven times for the Bluebirds.

But he does have to show more when he comes back from this ankle injury. It’s no secret that both Isaak Davies and Mark Harris are preferred options at the minute and they have both earned that right. While Hugill has nailed down his starting position and Ikpeazu has produced more than a couple of useful cameos off the bench in the last six weeks.

It was the right decision by Morison to recall Watters in the January window. He couldn’t simply let someone who had been scoring so freely in the division below not be part of his squad as they attempted to fight tooth and nail to get out of the relegation scrap. But the truth is, they are out of danger and Watters contributed very little.

Given the performances of Harris and Davies, combined with the immediate impact of both Hugill and Ikpeazu, Watters and James Collins have become almost forgotten men.

Should Max Watters be given a first-team chance next season? Join the debate in our comments section now

On a more positive note, Watters is a natural goalscorer. Put him in a decent position and he tends to find the back of the net. He did it with Crawley, MK Dons and was prolific for the club’s under-23s last year while out of favour under McCarthy. But playing for Cardiff in the Championship is the toughest test of his young career so far and it’s only right he is afforded time to adapt.

If he was an academy graduate, for example, like Davies or Harris, he might be afforded more latitude. Having a relatively lofty price tag on your head always adds an unwanted edge of expectation, but that is the name of the game.

Watters does have something about him, though, and he might just take a little longer to meld into the system than some supporters would like, but his output over the coming months will be interesting to track. He has stuck his hand up while on loan and also while playing in the youth team, but Cardiff need him to recapture that form on the first-team stage and that should be his personal aim in the coming months before the transfer window opens.

He can be a big asset for this football club and he should be someone who is anticipating a major role in the club’s bid to get back to the top end of the division next season. From what we’ve seen elsewhere, he has got the talent to play a key part, too.

He does not want another loan spell away or months of filling up space on the bench. He will want to make a meaningful contribution in a Cardiff shirt next season and City will want to save a few quid by having someone already in their ranks step up to the plate.

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