Sunday, 21 June 2020

The sound of the crowd

Before yesterday’s game against Leicester, I was trying to remember the last time I’d skipped a Watford home match and watched it at home on TV instead. Not that I have a perfect attendance record at Vicarage Road; there are invariably one or two games a season that clash with a family or work commitment I can’t plausibly get out of.

But on Monday December 7th, 2009, I just wasn’t feeling very well. I’d struggled into work and by five-thirty I felt like death warmed up. The thought of getting myself to Euston, catching the train to Watford Junction, walking across town to the ground, sitting in the freezing cold for a couple of hours and then schlepping back home to South-West London wasn’t very appealing – especially when the game was live on Sky Sports anyway.

So (and those of you with a keen knowledge of Hornets history will know what’s coming) I was lolling on my sofa drinking Lemsip when Lloyd Doyley powered a header past the QPR keeper to score his first goal in 269 Watford appearances. And I missed it. Joy mixed almost instantly with regret. I won’t pretend that I vowed never again to watch a Watford home game on TV, but it did take a global pandemic to force me into repeating the experience.

This time I was sitting in my desk chair watching the game on the BT Sport website on my desktop computer. This time there wasn’t a shock comparable to Lloydinho’s header, though a 93rd-minute overhead kick was a pretty extraordinary way for Craig Dawson to open his own Watford account (albeit after significantly fewer games).

I thought we were good value for the point, overall. Based on the table, this was the second-hardest of our nine remaining games, and with the lack of a crowd supposedly neutralising home advantage, a draw was a decent result. The team looked understandably rusty at the start, but grew into the game and had the chances to win it. Then again, you could say that about all too many matches this season. That’s why we’re in a relegation battle.

It’s impossible to say whether playing the game in front of a crowd would have made the difference. As for the viewing experience, having experimented with both options over the past few days, I definitely prefer watching games with the crowd noise overlaid, rather than having to listen to the shouts of the players and coaches echoing round an empty stadium.

For me, there were two bonuses to the soundtrack of the Leicester game. One was that it was a continuous swell of noise. For all the 1881’s efforts, there are still times in all but the most electrifying Watford games when the crowd falls silent. Not in this strange new world, though.

The second bonus is that the only songs that get played are the positive ones, the ones that celebrate our unswerving love of the Golden Boys. That means I don’t have to listen to any of the puerile playground-style baiting of the away fans that I’ve got increasingly bored with in recent years: “Your support is f*****g s**t”, “Shall we sing a song for you?” and all the rest.

Of course, I’d rather be there singing the songs myself. But it’s some small comfort to know that, for the remainder of the season, I’m only going to hear my favourites.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Glory days

With no new Watford games for us to watch for a while, it was nice of the BBC to show highlights of an old one last weekend: our 1987 FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal at Highbury. It’s still available on iPlayer if you haven’t seen it yet, and I heartily recommend it – not least for the lengthy opening montage tracing the Hornets’ rise under GT, cleverly soundtracked by Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’ (“I just know that something good is going to happen,” indeed).

For those of us who were there, jammed into the open terracing at the Clock End, it was a memorable day. Watching it again 33 years later, there were a few things that immediately struck me:
  • The shorts – good lord, how did they manage to run around in such short, tight shorts? The contrast with today, when some players’ shorts come down almost to their knees (and with tights under that on cold days), is stark.
  • The pitch – I don’t know if it had been a particularly wet winter, but the Highbury pitch is in a dreadful state, with both goalmouths and the centre circle mainly consisting of sand. There are a couple of occasions when Gary Porter gallops forward on the break, and you can see him struggling to control the ball as it bobbles around on the uneven surface. The sides of the pitch, on the other hand, are fully grassed…
  • The wingers – … which is fortunate, because Watford’s game plan is clearly built around getting down the wing and pinging crosses into the penalty area. John Barnes is on the left, while – with Nigel Callaghan having been sold to Derby the previous month – David Bardsley is on the right. I’d forgotten just how good he was, fast and skilful, and it was his crosses that led to both Watford’s first two goals. As for Barnesy, there’s one glorious moment when he tricks his way past Viv Anderson, leaving him flat on his backside, that has commentator John Motson purring: “That was a perfect piece of wing play.”
  • The Arsenal goal – we (rightly) remember the great players for their best qualities, but the Arsenal goal is proof that even the best can get it disastrously wrong. John McClelland tries to shepherd the ball back to Tony Coton, but when he doesn’t come for it quickly enough, Macca belatedly tries to clear it, succeeding only in knocking it to Ian Allinson, who pokes it in the net. It’s one of those goals that would have been the subject of endless recriminations if the result had been different.
  • Mark Falco – there are some players who are completely unmemorable, and for me, Falco is one of them. He only spent this one season at Watford, but he played 33 times and scored 14 goals, and I must have seen a fair few of them (having graduated the previous summer, I had become a regular again after four years of patchy attendance), yet I can’t remember a single thing about him. And in this game, he barely figures in the highlights.
My abiding memory of the game is of course that decisive third goal. Horror as the Arsenal players’ arms all go up, claiming a penalty, and the linesman flags; confusion as Watford play on, Porter hoiking the ball out to Luther Blissett; excitement as Luther steams towards us, past Arsenal defenders still expecting play to be stopped; despair as John Lukic gets a hand to his shot; ecstasy as Luther stabs in the rebound; tension as the Arsenal players surround the referee, demanding it be disallowed; and then overwhelming joy as the ref finally raises his arm to signal the goal.

It was a minute’s play that summed up the crazy exhilaration of being a football fan, and ultimately made the game a classic. It’s sometimes referred to as an upset, but it wasn’t really; yes, Arsenal were top of the table at the time (though they faded badly to end the season fourth, 16 points behind champions Everton), but Watford were a solid mid-table team and finished ninth – still the second-highest league placing in the club’s history.

What we couldn’t know at the time was that this would be the last great day of the Graham Taylor era (until he came back a decade later, but that’s another story). There’s a hint of it in Motty’s comment over the warm-up that Barnes’s contract is nearly up and Liverpool have made a bid (though Arsenal were apparently also interested – I wonder how that would have worked out?). The semi-final saw the Hornets thrashed 4-1 by Spurs with Gary Plumley in goal, and even though it was only the third time we’d reached that stage of the Cup, we didn’t sell all our allocation of tickets. GT noticed, and historians suggest it was a significant factor in his decision that he’d taken the club as far as he could. He left for Aston Villa a few days after the season ended, Barnes went to Anfield, and Dave Bassett duly arrived to ruin everything.

But thanks to the BBC, we can relive the last of the good times. I can’t stop watching. “Blissett’s away for Watford – controversy here looming. He’s onside, is Blissett – and Lukic has saved. Blissett again – a goal!”

Glory days.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Red letter days

It takes a lot to persuade me to put fingers to keyboard these days (to be honest, I still haven’t got over the shame induced by my idiotically complacent prediction of how this season was going to pan out), but I couldn’t let the incredible 3-0 win against Liverpool pass without comment.

As I’ve probably mentioned before, it was a victory against the Reds that started me on a Watford-supporting career that will reach the half-century mark later this year. I wasn’t at the 1-0 win in the FA Cup quarter-final in February 1970, but reading about it in the papers afterwards alerted the seven-year-old me to the fact that there was a professional football team just up the road, and my first visit followed early the following season.

There haven’t been many wins over Liverpool since then, but they’ve almost all been memorable ones. There was the 2-1 victory in the final game of 1982-83 that cemented second place in the First Division; the scrambled Tommy Mooney goal at Anfield in August 1999 to secure one of what turned out to be only six wins in our first visit to the Premier League; and the 3-0 victory in December 2015, with two goals by Odion Ighalo, that went a long way towards convincing the sceptics that this time, our stay in the top flight would last more than one season.

As Troy rightly pointed out after Saturday’s game, beating Liverpool won’t count for much if we get relegated. While the media have now unanimously decided that we will stay up (how could such a brilliant team not gather the necessary number of points in the remaining games?), I doubt I’m the only Hornets fan who isn’t quite so sanguine.

Unusually, we’ve got a decent record against the top teams this season (wins against Liverpool and Man U, draws against Arsenal and against Spurs, twice), but we’ve lost to all our relegation rivals apart from Bournemouth and Norwich. You can look at the fixture list and pinpoint the four games we ‘should’ win to secure our status: Southampton, Norwich and Newcastle at home, plus either Palace or West Ham away, is the most obvious escape route. But on the evidence of this season, we’re just as likely to drop points in some of those and beat Chelsea or Arsenal away.

That unpredictability is, ultimately, what we prize about football. There were plenty of Watford fans who gave Saturday’s game a miss, unwilling to put up with the disruption of a late kick-off time on a chilly day to watch what would inevitably be a dispiriting drubbing by the best team in the world. And besides, it was live on the telly. I’m just glad I wasn’t one of them.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Odds and sods

It’s been a while since I posted anything here – mainly because, in the midst of the turmoil of the autumn, I didn’t have anything startlingly original to say about what Watford could or should do to drag themselves out of the hole they’d got themselves into. Who knew that the answer would be something as simple as hiring an English head coach who knows the Premier League and how to stay in it? (Not that we’re actually out of the hole yet, of course, but we have at least started to build a ladder.)

I still haven’t got anything particularly original to contribute, but here are a few random thoughts occasioned by yesterday’s topsy-turvy FA Cup tie:
  • Isn’t it great to hear ‘Z-Cars’ all the way through for a change? It’s almost worth paying the £10 just for the sax solo in the middle.
  • For anyone who’s been trumpeting Watford’s strength in depth, the line-up Pearson sent out against Tranmere was a bit of a wake-up call. Giving the players who busted a gut for the team over those four magnificent Christmas games the day off was absolutely understandable, but when you also discount the long-term injured, what’s left looked very much like a collection of odds and sods. In happier circumstances, yesterday’s team would have included the likes of Prödl, Cleverly, Welbeck and Janmaat, a core of battle-hardened pros who would have been much less likely to crumble under pressure in the latter stages.
  • Talking of pressure, it can’t be much fun when you’re a fringe player and a handful of cup ties are the only chance you get to prove what you can do. Isaac Success and Domingos Quina in particular seemed to be self-consciously auditioning for the first team yesterday, showing off their tricks and flicks whenever they could. Quina is pure class and mostly got away with it, not least because he balances the showy stuff with a furious competitiveness. As for Success, much of what he tried didn’t come off, and his best moments were those when he opted for simplicity and direct running.
  • Personally, I will be very surprised if both Success and Andre Gray are in the Premier League squad of 25 the club names at the end of the month. Success has been here three and half years now, and while he’s got something, the refusal of successive head coaches to trust him with anything more than cameo appearances speaks volumes. He needs regular football, and he’s not going to get it at Watford. A loan or sale in this transfer window would be best for all concerned.
  • As for Gray, he’s unfortunate to be stuck at a club that doesn’t play in a formation that suits him. Playing him as the lone striker yesterday just highlighted his limitations, as he was completely neutralised by a bog-standard lower-division lunk of a centre-half. His best spells at the club have come playing alongside Troy Deeney – the two of them built up a decent understanding for a spell early last season – but unless Pearson is tempted to revert to 4-4-2, then Gray is going to be stuck on the subs’ bench for the forseeable future. He too might be better off leaving, but I suspect Watford won’t let both him and Success go unless they can bring in another striker.
  • One player I’d expected to see in the line-up yesterday was Dimitri Foulquier, but instead he was loaned to Granada for the rest of the season a couple of days ago. I feel sorry for Foulquier. I saw him in the League Cup tie against Coventry and thought he looked like a decent full-back, solid and tidy. The club obviously saw something they liked, too, or they wouldn’t have recalled him after two seasons of loans and put him in the first-team squad, and both Gracia and Flores regularly included him in the 17. But he had the misfortune to make his league debut in the 8-0 drubbing at Man City, and copped some of the blame for the scoreline. After that, some fans were never going to give him a chance.
  • One final thought about players who might have expected to get a game against Tranmere: what the hell has happened to Marvin Zeegelaar? As far as I know, he’s still at the club (I’ve occasionally spotted his name in under-23 line-ups), but he doesn’t even get his name listed on the back of the programme any more. I know he turned out not to be the long-term solution at left-back he was intended to be, but I’d be intrigued to know what he’s done to be sent to purgatory.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

The man himself

When I started this blog 12 years ago, I was looking for a name that would stand out from the herd. If you’re writing about Watford and you want to make sure you appear in a prominent spot on Google, you just need to include one of the more obvious words associated with the club in your title – yellow, Hornets, Vicarage. But I was looking for something that would signal to Watford fans of a certain vintage that I was one of them – and what better way to do it than by referring to a legendary, comic incident involving one of the more obscure players in the club’s history.

And so Albert McLenaghan’s Throw-In (And Other Stories) was born, giving a web presence to an Irish full-back who made precisely two appearances for the Hornets. Now, bizarrely, his full story has been told, in the form of a feature interview by Adam Leventhal in The Athletic. Adam goes to great lengths to establish the truth about that fateful throw-in (and, in the process, demolishes my vague memory that it involved Albert falling over backwards), but also tells the full story of Albert’s career. It’s a bittersweet read, but I’m not going to spoil it for you if you haven’t already seen it. (It’s behind a paywall, but as far as I can tell, the Watford content Adam has been posting there is of a high standard, so you may think it’s worth subscribing.)

In the spirit of transparency, I should mention that Adam contacted me while researching the article, and included a short quote from me in the final piece. One thing I said that isn’t included is that incidents like Albert’s catastrophic throw-in make up an important part of the texture of being a football fan. Much as the Sky marketing people would have us believe it’s all about spectacular goals, acrobatic saves and crunching tackles, football wouldn’t be half as much fun without the hilarious mistakes, the stupid incidents and the quirky details that often linger in the memory longer than the goals.

Now, when is Adam going to track down Pierre Issa and find out how it felt to be dropped from that stretcher?

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

About that last post...

There’s nothing like actual events to expose the blithe theorising of so-called experts. Nine games into the Premier League season and the complacency I expressed in my last post looks downright naive. In my defence, I’m not the only one; it’s obvious that the club hierarchy didn’t see the Hornets’ disastrous start to the season coming either, or they would have made different choices in the transfer market over the summer.

In retrospect, the Pozzo regime’s habit of changing Head Coach every summer starts to make more sense. If nothing else, it gave everyone at the club a chance to reset the clock – forget about the disappointing end to the previous season and start again with a clean slate. Whereas it seems that Javi’s team just carried the woeful end to last season on into the Brighton game and beyond.

Wiser heads than me have debated at great length what’s gone wrong. I’d just like to highlight one aspect of Watford’s current stint in the Premier League that continues to bother me, and that may be part of the problem; the inability to integrate young players into the team.

When Quique took the Hornets into that first PL season in 2015, he’d quite deliberately been provided with a squad packed with experienced, battle-hardened players; new signings included Capoue, Britos, Holebas, Nyom, Behrami and Prödl. It worked, too; we didn’t ship too many goals, Iggy and Troy banged in the goals and we stayed up fairly comfortably.

Since then, it’s been much the same story. Four years on, Capoue, Holebas and Prödl are still here, four years older and starting to slow down (visibly, in Jose’s case). More importantly, very few younger players have been integrated into the first team. This only really hit home to me when I was reading the programme before the FA Cup Final and looking at the ages of the Watford team; only Will Hughes (24) and Gerard Deulofeu (25) were under the age of 28.

We have tried to use younger players from time to time, but it hasn’t really worked. Take 23-year-old Isaac Success; three years after his debut, he still looks like a work in progress. But he’s a rare exception, in that he has at least been selected for Premier League games. More often, talented young players are restricted to cup games and/or sent out on loan, rather than being trusted to play a role in the first team. I’m sure I’m not the only Watford fan who was sorry to see Ben Wilmot sent to Swansea, and as for Domingos Quina, there can’t be many Premier League clubs where such an obviously talented player would struggle even to get on the bench. And don’t get me started on Pontus Dahlberg, a goalkeeper who is highly rated by everyone who comes into contact with him, yet doesn’t even get to take part in the pre-match warm-ups. I’d love to know the plan for his development.

The impression the club gives right now is of one that is simply too scared to give youth its chance. The rapid turnover of Head Coaches doesn’t help; why should they take a risk on untested players when they know they won’t be here long enough to enjoy the fruits of the experiment?

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should flood the first team with callow youngsters; merely that there’s no point signing talented young players if there’s no intention of giving them a chance to show what they can do – and that  an injection of youthful energy and ambition can be just what’s needed to buck up a struggling team. If any club’s history is proof of that, lord know it’s ours.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Stuck in the middle

As I prepare to embark on my 49th season as a Watford fan, it’s hard to remember a time when the stakes have been lower (which is ironic, given how high the financial rewards are).

In pretty much every one of the past 48 seasons, the Hornets’ goal was either to get promoted or to avoid getting relegated, and finishing in mid-table was thus a mark of either failure or success, respectively. This season, it’s simply what is expected.

Four years into our Premier League adventure, the outside world, from the media to the fans of opposing teams, finally seems to have accepted that Watford are doing something right; if anyone out there is predicting relegation for the Hornets, I’ve yet to see it. But looking in the other direction, last season showed how tough it is even to finish seventh, never mind break into the top six. In other words, it seems almost inevitable that Watford will finish somewhere between 8th and 16th in the Premier League table. Like I say, low stakes.

Of course, I’m fully aware that there’s plenty that can go wrong between now and May. Last season, the squad was blessedly injury-free, for the most part; this season may be different. Key players could be unsettled by interest from elsewhere and end up leaving in January. And what if Javi himself is tempted away by a bigger club and his replacement doesn’t work out?

Equally, there’s plenty that can go right. With a month of last season to go, it was within our power to grasp a European place, and I’m sure talk within the club is of what needs to happen to get over the line this time round. Will Gerard Delofeu turn into a 20-goals-a-season striker? Can Roberto Pereyra finally produce a consistent season rather than patches of brilliance? Will Adalberto Peñaranda turn out to be the world-beating football genius he was rumoured to be when we signed him? There are a lot of pieces that have to fall into place if we’re going to better last season, but we’ve never had a stronger squad, backed by a coaching and support team that has been carefully assembled to get the very best out of those players.

So yes, we’re probably going to finish in mid-table. But in the process, maybe we can take some points off the top six (three of whom look as if they could be vulnerable this year). Perhaps we can go on another cup run (and hope someone else manages to dispose of Man City and Liverpool before we have to play them). The stakes may be low, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Next steps

Given that, going into the last month of the 2018/19 season, Watford had two possible routes to European football, it’s tempting to view the denouement as a disappointment. In the cold light of day, though, reaching a cup final for only the second time in the club’s history, and finishing in the highest league position since 1987, has to be viewed as success. It’s also progress, and it was encouraging that the statement from Gino Pozzo and Scott Duxbury after the Cup final emphasised that this is just the beginning. Of course, there’s plenty that can go wrong, but I’m confident that I won’t have to wait another 35 years (by which time I’ll be 91, if I’m still here) to see the Hornets appear in another cup final.

So, what do Watford need to do to keep up the momentum and ensure that next season is even better? I have a few thoughts…

On the pitch
The most obvious thing that needs fixing is our defence. After three consecutive shutouts (against Brighton and Everton in the league and QPR in the cup), we didn’t register a single clean sheet after February 15th – that’s 15 games. Some of the defending was positively inept, and towards the end of the season we were routinely conceding the first goal, even when we were apparently on top.

It feels like we need an injection of youthful energy. At 28, Christian Kabasele and Kiko Femenía are the youngest members of the regular defence, and Kabasele has had a wobbly season, having previously looked like a nailed-on starter for years to come. We know Miguel Britos is leaving this summer, and it wouldn’t be a surprise in Sebastian Prödl joins him. That would create a couple of vacancies for fresh blood.

Maybe one of those vacancies will be filled by the promising Ben Wilmot, though it seems that the club views him more as a defensive midfielder. Either way, that leads on to my second point: it would be good to see the club’s talented youngsters being integrated into the Premier League squad next season. The team is starting to feel a bit old (only three of the 11 who started the Cup final were under 28: Hughes, Delofeu and Doucouré) and needs rejuvenating. Wilmot and Domingos Quina have made the strongest case, and then there’s Nathaniel Chalobah (if he still counts as young) and the enigma that is Adalberto Peñaranda. What with them and the many young players we have out on loan, the future looks bright – as long as they’re given a chance.

The other area where we’ve fallen down this season is in finishing. Obviously, no team converts all their chances (though Man City get close), but, as noted above, there were a significant number of games this season where we failed to turn dominance into goals and paid the price for sloppiness in front of goal. Given the competition in the transfer market for proven goalscorers, our best hope is probably that one of our overseas contingent will prove to be the answer in the medium to long term; for example, Cucho Hernandez has had rave reviews playing for Huesca in La Liga, and the Brazilian 17-year-old wunderkind João Pedro can apparently join us in January.

Off the pitch
The first one is easy: reinstate the Z-Cars theme as the music the team walk out to at Vicarage Road. Whatever the reasoning behind replacing it with ‘I’m still standing’, the resentment and outright anger caused by the move should be reason enough to reverse it. It’s part of our tradition and, let’s be honest, we don’t have a lot to boast about in that regard.

The second one is more of a challenge. We have the second smallest stadium in the Premier League, yet we struggle to fill it for all but the biggest games. Look around during a typical match and you’ll see swathes of empty seats in the Family and Sir Elton John stands in particular.  Given that the announced attendance figure is usually close to the ground capacity, this can only mean that season ticket holders are staying away. The suspicion is that they’re actually fans of another team and only attend when that team is playing.

I can vouch for this, having had two empty seats next to me in the Rookery (in prime position behind the goal, not too far back) all season after the previous occupants moved over to the Graham Taylor Stand. They were only occupied twice, and one of those was a cup game. Given that there is apparently a waiting list for season tickets, I can only assume that someone bought them and didn’t use them.

I know the club is trying to address this – and it needs to, because it’s not a good look. More generally, there is a job to be done in marketing the attractions of Premier League football at Vicarage Road across a wider catchment area – much as the club did in the 1980s, with some success. After all, if you ignore Greater London and look north, east and west, the nearest PL clubs are Leicester and Norwich. A club as successful as Watford ought be able to draw in neutrals from across Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, and from further afield too. Hopefully, reaching the FA Cup final will have helped spread the message that this is a club that’s going places.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Alternative end of the season awards 2018-19

To no one’s surprise, Etienne Capoue has been named Watford’s Player of the Season. No argument from me there. But there are a few other players who are worthy of an award of one kind of another. So, without further ado...

The Keith Pritchett award for most under-rated player
There are a few candidates for this title, but I’m giving it to Kiko Femenía. Equally adept as a wing-back or an out-or-out winger, his pace keeps things tight on the right-side in our half and terrifies opposing defenders in theirs, and his delivery is reliable. I can’t recall a significant error from him all season, and he even scored a rare goal. I think we rather take his excellence for granted – he hasn’t even got his own chant.

The ‘Heidar on the wing?’ award for best performance in the wrong position
Let’s face it, Will Hughes isn’t a winger. In an ideal world, he’d be playing a Paul Scholes-type role, dropping in behind a lone striker or forming the tip of a midfield diamond. Indeed, the goals he scores are very Scholesish (Scholesian? Scholesesque?). Instead, Javi’s preferred formation has led to a season stuck out on the right wing, where Will has got on with the job admirably, ferreting for the ball, executing all manner of nifty passes and generally annoying the opposition. I hope he gets to play a more central role one day, though.

The Roger Joslyn award for sustained aggression
It was in a meaningless home game at the end of last season that I first noticed Etienne Capoue’s metamorphosis from haughty midfield general to snarling bite-yer-legs merchant, as he snapped into tackle after tackle with gusto. That’s continued this season, to the point where his total of 13 yellow cards is just one short of Jose Holebas’s record of 14 in a season – which, lest we forget, is also a Premier League record. Amid all the plaudits for the way Capoue and Doucouré have bossed the midfield all season, let’s not forget that it’s founded on Etienne’s newfound willingness to get stuck in.

The Etienne Capoue award for fading away
Remember when Capoue used to score a few spectacular goals in the opening month of the season, guaranteeing that pundits were still lauding him long after his performances had plateaued? This season it’s been Roberto Pereyra’s turn. He scored both goals in the opening-day win against Brighton, and by the end of October he had five. There was one more against Chelsea on Boxing Day; since then, nothing. He’s not just in the team as a goalscorer, of course, but in the second half of the season there have been periods, and even whole games, where he’s been all but invisible. There’s so much potential there, but we haven’t seen Bobby P at his bewitching best very often since the autumn.

The Troy Deeney award for being Troy Deeney
This has been an archetypal Troy Deeney season. We’ve had goals, we’ve had a controversial sending off, we’ve had his usual frankness (occasionally tipping over into foolishness) in front of the media, and of course we’ve had the drama of that last-minute penalty in the FA Cup semi-final. If he somehow manages to score the winning goal against Man City in the final, this will be the most Troy Deeney season ever.

The Richard Flash award for failing to live up to his name
This hasn’t exactly been a bad season for Isaac Success. He’s scored a few goals, and when given the chance to start, he usually executes the role he’s been given well enough. But his decision-making is woeful: he shoots when he should pass and passes when he should shoot. There’s a player there, as they say, but there’s also a risk that he’ll follow Stefano Okaka in the line of ‘potential successors to Troy who ended up just being brought on at the end of the game to rough up the opposing defenders’.

The Sietes man of mystery award
I’ve been excited about Adalberto Peñaranda ever since we signed him in early 2016. A Venezuelan prodigy who had apparently set the Under-20 World Cup alight, he was going to be our very own Messi. At first he stayed in Europe, on loan at Granada, then Udinese, then Malaga. Well, fair enough, we needed to get the lad acclimatised to European football. Then there were problems getting him a work permit to play in England. Then we got him one and he arrived in the autumn – and nothing happened. This mythical creature finally proved to be a real person (albeit with very strange hair) when he played against Woking in the FA Cup 3rd round. He looked... okay, perhaps a bit over-eager to impress, which is understandable in the circumstances. A substitute appearance against Newcastle in the next round came and went, and that was that (apart from a season-ending injury sustained in training). If he doesn’t start appearing in the first team squad early next season, I’m going to start thinking I just imagined the whole thing.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

A sunny day at the Beveree

We Watford fans are spoiled these days. When we’re not making repeat visits to Wembley, we watch home games at a spruced-up Vicarage Road that would be all but unrecognisable to anyone who last saw a match there in the 20th century, and away games at a variety of equally smart stadiums (and Selhurst Park).

Listening to Hornet Heaven or reading The Watford Treasury gives a flavour of the no-frills experience that watching football used to be, but sometimes you just need to go back to basics. So yesterday afternoon, finding myself at a loose end on a sunny day and with a full programme of football outside the Premier League, I decided to pay a visit to my local non-league team, Hampton & Richmond Borough, who were hosting Truro City in the National League South. Call it a palate-cleanser ahead of tonight’s game at the Vic.

I say ‘local’; their ground, the oddly-named Beveree, is about eight miles away as the crow flies, but thanks to the random transport generator that is South West Trains it took me an hour and a quarter to get there (and even longer to get home). Arriving just after kickoff, I chose a vantage point in the shade, on the covered terracing that stretches halfway down one side of the ground, and surveyed the scene. The Beveree is a typically ramshackle non-league ground, with the pitch surrounded by a random assortment of structures; a couple of small stands with seats, some covered terracing, a two-storey clubhouse that holds the changing rooms, a bar and various other bits and pieces. I particularly liked the ‘Keith Hussey Stand’ that adorns the away end, consisting of little more than two rows of scaffolding poles with some corrugated iron laid over the top.

Among the fans I spotted a couple of Fulham shirts and a few Hampton ones, in their distinctive colours of red and dark blue stripes. Many were sipping pints, the Beveree being a rare stadium where alcohol is permitted on the terraces. What with the beer and the bank holiday sunshine, the vibe was laid-back, with no one getting too worked up about what was happening on the pitch. This may have been because Hampton had made themselves mathematically safe with a victory on Saturday.

As for Truro, still potentially in danger of relegation, they had decided to play a ridiculously high defensive line (just short of the centre circle), and after a few failed attempts at breaching the offside trap, Hampton finally succeeded and duly scored. A one-nil half-time lead soon became two with a penalty, and that seemed to be that. However, after a combination of the post, the Truro goalie and poor finishing had kept it at two-nil for most of the second half, some classic fannying about in the Hampton defence led to a goal back for Truro, who then piled everyone forward and scored a dramatic injury-time equaliser with a diving header from a deep cross. Cue some chuntering from the home fans, but nothing more. At least the coachload of Truro fans would have had something to celebrate on their 300-mile trip home (though as it turned out, the draw dropped them into the relegation zone).

Perusing the programme at half-time, I spotted a Watford link; among the Hampton squad is a certain Matty Whichelow, who you may remember as one of a number of homegrown youngsters who had a spell in the Hornets first team in the cash-strapped pre-Pozzo era. He hasn’t played much this season (nine starts and 14 appearances from the bench), and he wasn’t in the matchday squad yesterday, so maybe he’s injured.

I liked Matty, a lively winger with an eye for goal. I was convinced that this fertile crop of youth team graduates (Jordan Parkes, Dale Bennett, Piero Mingoia, Sean Murray and others), all of whom looked decent for a while in the Championship, would go on to form the heart of the team for years to come, in the way that an earlier generation (Terry, Gibbs, Jackett, Porter and co.) had done under GT. But clearly, none of them had the X factor that’s needed to become successful in professional football, and I think they’re all playing outside the Football League now.

Whichelow is still only 27, according to Wikipedia. I wonder if he watches Watford games on TV and thinks, that could’ve been me? Equally, you could turn it around and think, that could have been us – still reliant on raw, homegrown youngsters in the absence of the money to buy in experienced players from elsewhere. Like I say, we Watford fans are spoiled these days.