Stoke City manager Michael O’Neill has revealed his former Northern Ireland player Craig Cathcart was instrumental in bringing Watford centre-back Ben Wilmot to the bet365 Stadium, in an interview with the Stoke Sentinel.
Cathcart, 32, and O’Neill worked together in the Northern Ireland set-up between 2011 and 2019 before the latter’s departure to Stoke. That spell included the 2016 European Championships with the nation reaching the round of 16 in remarkable fashion before losing to Wales.
With Nathan Collins heading to Burnley for a £12m fee late last month, the Stoke manager already had a replacement for the 20-year-old and brought in Wilmot on the same day, with the latter unlikely to have secured a regular amount of game time in the Premier League now the Hornets have been promoted.
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The 21-year-old did record 25 appearances for the Hertfordshire side last season, though, with these performances, and Cathcart, playing a big role in this signing.
Cathcart has been at the Hornets since 2014 and saw Wilmot arrive four years later from Stevenage.
Over the past three seasons, barring Wilmot’s loan spells at Udinese and Swansea City, the Northern Irish international has seen the young defender both in training and in live action – and had a long phone call with O’Neill before the Stoke boss pressed ahead with this deal.
Speaking about his new arrival and Cathcart’s influence, O’Neill said: “Ben’s been part of a dressing room that won promotion last season, he’s been around that dressing room in the Premier League, and he’s had the experience of an overseas loan – at Udinese for half-a-season.
“He’s had a lot of experience for a young player, and he’s also come from a lower league club up to Watford. There is a lot in young players who do that, as opposed to possibly being at a Premier League club as a very young player and coming away from that club.
“I think Ben will be fine. The most important thing when we met Ben and spoke to him was his enthusiasm for coming here was fantastic. He really wanted the opportunity.
“I had a long conversation with Craig Cathcart at Watford, who was a big part of my Northern Ireland team, and he said he thought he was a fantastic young player and his best years are certainly ahead of him.”
At 21, the Northern Irish defender is definitely right in saying Wilmot has his best years ahead of him and, after playing a bit-part role at Vicarage Road for the past few years, now is the time for him to settle and show what he can do in a 46-game season.
He will have huge boots to fill with Collins’ departure but after playing alongside the likes of Cathcart, William Troost-Ekong, Christian Kabasele and Francisco Sierralta, he will be well prepared to start in the Championship every week and will now get a proper chance to unleash his potential.
The Potters have been stuck in mid-table for the past three seasons, though, after their relegation from the Premier League – and it will be down to Wilmot and other signings to lift them from mediocrity moving forward.