The day Marley Watkins went toe-to-toe with Virgil van Dijk still lives long in Caley Thistle fans’ memories.
Any time van Dijk, the world’s most-expensive defender and arguably its best, has a particularly stand-out game for Liverpool, Inverness supporters will retort with something akin to “van Dijk still has nightmares about Marley Watkins and Eddie Ofere.”
The game in question was the 2015 Scottish Cup semi-final, in which Caley Thistle beat Celtic 3-2 and Watkins, under instruction from his then-manager John Hughes, made life difficult for van Dijk.
Had it not been for Josh Meekings’ handball – missed by the match officials – Watkins’ performance might have gained more attention.
The Wales international made a loan move to Aberdeen at the weekend, filling their striking void after numerous key injuries. Greg Tansey, a former Don and a team-mate of Watkins at Inverness, believes they have landed a steal.
“If you go back to the game against Celtic in the 2014-15 season when we won it (Scottish Cup), Marley occupied van Dijk and (Jason) Denayer,” said Tansey. “Van Dijk is the best defender in the world now. That’s how good he (Watkins) is.
“He’s someone that can occupy a four-man defence and I’ve seen him do it before. Physically, in the nicest possible way, he’s a freak. His power, speed, stamina; the only thing I had with him is if he could tidy up his finishing a bit.
“He’s a threat in behind for 90 minutes and has got a goal in him. There’s no reason, if he stays for the full season, why he can’t get to 20 goals. I don’t want to put pressure on him but that’s how highly I rate him.”
Watkins arrived in the Highlands under Terry Butcher in 2013 as a little-known winger from Hereford United.
His biggest transformation, however, came under Hughes, who saw his combination of pace and power as something that could be used as a foil for the pressing and finishing capabilities of Billy Mckay.
When the latter left in the January of 2015 for Wigan Athletic, his replacement was Ofere, a more muscular, target-man prototype, which meant Watkins would take on more of the team’s pressing duties.
“Even if their strikers start to come back in, what he gives them is not something I believe the other strikers give,” said Tansey, who left Aberdeen at the start of last year and was forced to retire from football due to injury. “I think he can take Aberdeen on to the next level, which they’ve been waiting on for a number of years now.
“He’s a really humble lad and does things on his own after training as well. I think Aberdeen should feel very lucky to have him and if he gets back to his level, there’ll be a wide range of suitors after him.”
After scoring one and setting up another in the Scottish Cup final against Falkirk, Watkins caught the eye of several suitors. One of them was believed to be Aberdeen, however it was Lee Johnson and Barnsley who won the race for his signature.
Watkins had two successful trips to Wembley in his first season in Yorkshire, winning the Football League Trophy and the League One play-offs. Ten goals in 42 games during the 2016-17 Championship campaign earned him a move to Norwich City, an experiment which was cut short after a frustrating 27-game, one-goal season.
Reuniting with Johnson at Bristol City has not worked out, with just nine games in the 19-20 campaign. Hence why a move to the Dons, shy of Sam Cosgrove (knee) and Ryan Edmondson (ankle), might be a blessing.
He started in a front three against Livingston on Sunday but the Dons may get the best out of the Wales international pairing him with another forward, as proved by his second season with Inverness.
“I think it’s a great signing for Aberdeen,” added Tansey. “He’s got everything Aberdeen need and have been lacking for a few years.
“It’s a bit of a coup for Aberdeen to get him. He’s played in the Championship for the last few seasons so they’ve done well to get him. For his sake, I hope he does well.”