William Troost-Ekong rates Watford promotion as better than Olympics, World Cup

Wild scenes as Watford promoted to Premier League (1:45)

Huge celebrations ensue after Watford's 1-0 win vs. Millwall, which confirms the Hornets' return to the Premier League. (1:45)

Nigeria defender William Troost-Ekong has described Watford's promotion to the Premier League as one of the highlights of his career, saying it vindicates his decision to leave Serie A for the English second tier.

The Hornets confirmed their place in the Premier League last weekend, after a hard-fought 1-0 win over Millwall, but, in truth, that game was the culmination of a long season of difficult fixtures in a very tough league, one that encapsulated the fighting spirit of the team.

Troost-Ekong, who headed the ball away from danger just before the referee blew the final whistle at Vicarage Road on Saturday, joined the delirious posse of Watford players and officials who stormed the field in celebration.

He told ESPN that moment ranked among the proudest of his career: "Playing for the Super Eagles was one of the biggest achievements in my young career.

"I have had other moments in time that meant a lot to me, like the promotion with FC Dordrecht [in the Netherlands] when I was 20 or 21 and also playing consistently in Turkey.

"Playing in the Serie A, playing at the World Cup, Olympics, there are so many different moments.

"But I feel like this one means a lot more now, because it's been a real long-term goal [to play in the Premier League]... to achieve that, by achieving all these smaller goals along the way, that's why this one means even more."

Promotion to the Premier League brings the 27-year-old full circle in a career that started in London with Fulham Youth and progressed to Tottenham Hotspur Under-18s and the under-21 side alongside Harry Kane.

Troost-Ekong's journey has taken him to FC Groningen and Dordrecht in the Netherlands, KAA Gent in Belgium, Haugesund in Norway, and Bursaspor in Turkey, before finding his way to Udinese in Italy. Through all of that, his one ambition was to play in the Premier League. To accomplish that, he had to take a step down to the English League Championship and gain promotion.

"I was a young kid growing up in the Netherlands and just had a dream of playing professional football at the highest level, which was the Premier League at the time," Troost-Ekong said.

"So I feel very privileged to have had this journey, and to make a full circle. But it's something that I've worked for a long time."

The ambition, of course, will be for the Hornets to remain in the top flight for as long as possible. But Troost-Ekong says the team will enjoy the moment first.

He said: "To give the club and to give the fans that joy of being able to get back to the Premier League, and to do it the first time after getting relegated in a relatively short time, is a massive achievement and it kind of makes you forget that Watford was ever out of the Premier League in the first place.

"It is massive for the community because the fans are really looking forward to coming back to the stadium. We had two or three games in November, December, when they trialed having some fans back in, which was great experience, even though it might have been 10 or 20% capacity.

"Yes, it's a big thing to look forward to not just for the players but also for the fans and community to have Watford Football Club playing again and back in a premier league. So, it means a lot to the people and to be part of that joy and to be able to deliver that together with the team. It's amazing.

"There will come a moment in time where we're going to think about next season and, of course, the club is going to talk about its ambitions. But I think the ground level that we're going to have next year, of course, is being in the Premier League."

Troost-Ekong's decision to leave Serie A for the Championship led to a slew of criticism from Nigeria fans, wondering why an international would choose to make a move downwards, especially as he had just extended his contract with a club in one of Europe's top five leagues.

Troost-Ekong says he made the decision because it felt right for him and his family, and he had no hesitation when he was asked.

"I think this is probably another thing that I'm very proud of," he said.

"When I made the decision to come to Watford, of course, that was something that I thought about very carefully and discussed with Gino Pozzo, who is the owner of Watford, and my family, too.

"Because this is the kind of decision where you have to kind of swallow your pride, because, of course, there's the prestige of playing in Serie A. And that was one of the biggest leagues in the world.

"I was really enjoying myself there, and my family was at home as well. But to come back to England and to the Championship, where there's the prospect of living my dream of being able to get to the Premier League, was a chance I felt I had to take.

"But there were no guarantees. I think anyone knows how difficult the Championship is, and how relentless this league is. So, yeah, that was a real big decision for me. And one that I'm very happy turned out the way it did.

"And to all the people [who] had their questions when I made that move, here is their answer. So, I don't have to explain myself any more for that. But I think that's kind of been the story of my life.

"I'm just very proud that I've managed to demonstrate to myself and to anyone that if you really want to do something, set your mind to it and be ready to take on a challenge because that's the only way you're going to get better in life."

Udinese and Watford are both owned by the Pozzo family in Italy, and players have sometimes moved between the clubs, but Troost-Ekong said the decision to join the Hornets was his alone.

"They did very well to paint a picture to me, which showed there was a possibility for me to excel and also to get where I wanted to go," he continued.

"And in the end, I made that decision. I'm sure as everybody knew, four or five months before I decided to come to Watford, I had just renewed my contract with Udinese after my first year, which was quite a big deal already.

"They saw the quality in me to play in England and what I could bring to the team, and they said they were looking for a defender who could help the team move forward and be a leader and have experience.

"I wanted to live up to all those expectations. They offered me the chance and I made the decision to go. I think there can be a misconception that I had to come here by force. I mean, that was definitely not the case. This was my decision, and I'm really proud that I did that."

Super Eagles fans were right to be concerned about Nigeria's vice-captain voluntarily dropping down a division. Fewer than 30% of relegated clubs bounce back immediately to the Premier League; in fact, the average return time is 2.5 years.

The defender acknowledged the concerns, and said he was prepared to make the sacrifice to get where he wanted to be: "I'm very proud because for me and my family, it means the world that I can play for the Super Eagles, and also have the pleasure of managing to captain the team, countless times, I think in the last few years, whenever Ahmed Musa hasn't played with us.

"Then again, that's not one thing that I wanted to allow to get to my head. I don't feel like I'm any better than anyone else because I have the privilege to do that.

"But for me to improve, and to get where I wanted to get, I had to take this step. And if that was going to be at the cost of me not being the captain of the national team then so be it.

"I knew that if I just wanted to sit back and try to enjoy that responsibility, I wouldn't get any progress in my career. So, yeah, I think you always have to respect people that want to do things to better themselves.

"And if it wouldn't have worked out this season, for Watford, then at least I would be able to look myself in the mirror and say that I did everything I could and I'm sure there would have been options to make different moves again.

"But I think once you do something that you're proud of and you stand behind, you have to do it wholeheartedly. When it does pay off then you know you have all the right to then enjoy that moment."