Sunday, 24 March 2019

Yes, but...

I mentioned in my last post that I’d been interviewed outside the ground before the FA Cup quarter-final for the Dream Team website, and the results were published during the week. You can read the article here and watch the video on their Twitter feed @dreamteamfc.

As a journalist, it’s always interesting to be on the other end of the microphone. The journalist, Sam, asked me a series of questions about Watford’s Premier League adventure to date, covering each of the head coaches but focusing particularly on Javi Gracia and his similarities to a certain famous former Watford manager whose statue I happened to be standing next to at the time. Sure enough, the only quotes of mine they used were about how great Javi is and how he has the human touch, just like GT did.

Now I can’t speak for the other two people interviewed for the piece (Andy Lewers of The Hornets’ Nest and Mike Parkin of From The Rookery End), but I couldn’t help feeling that this rather misrepresented what I tried to get across during the interview. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not that bothered – I know how these things work, and at the end of the day I was just blethering on about a football team. But it is annoying that, even when the mainstream media (Dream Team is an offshoot of The Sun, so I think they count) are being complimentary about Watford, then still don’t get us.

As the interview proceeded, it became clear from the way Sam pressed me on certain questions that there were two things they wanted me to say: (1) that Javi’s success meant that the ‘managerial merry-go-round’ at Vicarage Road has hopefully stopped, to be replaced by a period of long-overdue stability; and (2) that he is a modern version of GT. To both of which assertions my answer amounted to “Yes, but...”

On the first point, I certainly agreed that Javi is a highly talented coach, the best we’ve had since we arrived in the Premier League. But I pointed out that a lot of his success can be attributed to the structures Scott Duxbury and co. have put in place around him, which enable him to do his job to the best of his ability. I mentioned, for example, that Mazzarri and Silva were both hampered by the long injury lists during their time in charge, and that the club had addressed this by hiring a new Head of Injury Prevention & Rehabilitation, who has done his job so well that Javi had a completely fit squad to pick from for the Palace game.

I also pointed out that these structures (and the meticulous planning that underlies them) meant that if Javi leaves the club tomorrow, the club will almost certainly have a new head coach in place within days who will have a framework around him that will allow him to take over with minimum fuss. To talk of a managerial merry-go-round is to fundamentally misunderstand the Pozzo way of running a club, where the head coach isn’t the be-all and end-all and stability comes instead from that carefully constructed framework.

That’s also where the comparisons with GT are misguided. Yes, Javi does appear to be a likeable, warm, humane and thoughtful person, as GT was, and he’s certainly easier for the fans to relate to than either Mazzarri or Silva. But GT was a force of nature who (backed by Elton’s money) transformed our football club from top to bottom, leading Watford up the divisions not once, but twice. The days when the manager of a club was the beating heart of it are long gone, though. Even if Javi stays at Watford for 10 years (which is highly unlikely), he’ll still be just a cog in the Pozzos’ machine, albeit a very important one.

But like I say, most of the football media still don’t understand this. Maybe they don’t want to understand, since the way they talk about football is still based on the idea that everything good or bad that happens to a club is down to the manager. And maybe it is, in some places – but not at Watford.

It only occurred to me after the interview (as the best ideas often do) that there’s a very simple way to explain all this with reference to the Premier League club we’re most often compared with. When Eddie Howe leaves Bournemouth, it’s highly likely that they’ll be screwed: when Javi Gracia leaves Watford, it’s highly likely that we’ll simply carry on as before.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Quarter masters

The quarter-finals of the FA Cup have provided some of the most memorable moments of my Watford-supporting life. Indeed, it was the TV and press coverage of the unprecedented 1-0 victory over Liverpool in the 1970 quarter-final (the first in the club’s history) that first made me, aged eight, aware that there was a local football club I could actually go and watch in person. The rest, as they say, is history.

There have been six further quarter-finals since then, and I’ve been present at all but one (Plymouth in 2007 – family commitments). I was in the away end at St Andrews when John Barnes curled the first goal past a helpless Tony Coton in 1984. I watched with growing glee as Luther Blissett sprinted towards the Hornets fans jammed into the Clock End at Highbury in 1987 while the Arsenal defence stranded up the other end of the pitch belatedly realised that the referee wasn’t going to blow his whistle, and went crazy when Luther slotted the ball into the net (albeit at the second attempt) to make it 3-1. I was at Arsenal’s shiny new ground in 2016 when Adlène Guedioura scored his piledriver. And let’s not forget Stephen Glass’s gorgeous free kick against Burnley in 2003, as covered extensively in yesterday’s programme.

Brilliant goals and dramatic finishes have been the defining feature of Watford’s games at this stage of the competition, then. The game against Palace didn’t really have either of those, to be honest. True, the second goal was a very good one, and it was great to see Roberto Pereyra providing the decisive pass, after being a rather peripheral figure over the past couple of months. But one thing I’ve become increasingly aware of this season is that the majority of Premier League teams are so evenly matched, and so aware of what each other are going to do, that games tend towards the stalemate, decided either by a moment of extra quality or a defensive error. We witnessed both yesterday, and I’m just thankful that the extra quality came from players in yellow and black.

I was interviewed before the game by a couple of guys from the Dream Team website, who asked me about Watford’s Premier League years and where the club goes from here. I said I wanted us to win trophies, which realistically means domestic cups, and to qualify for Europe.

I think I concluded with something like this: “Some fans may turn up their noses at the Europa League, but I love the idea that I might be spending the autumn looking up the times of flights to obscure Eastern European cities.” Those of us who were too young and impoverished to travel to Kaiserslautern, Sofia and Prague in 1983 (I was a student, barely able to afford the coach fare home from college, never mind flights to the continent) have been waiting a long time for a second bite of the cherry. Now we’re just two wins away.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Celebrate good times, come on

After the bore-draw at Brighton a few weeks ago, I wrote that February’s games could define Watford’s season. Well, we’ve won all three games since, so I think it’s safe to say that, whatever happens from here on in, 2018-19 will go down as a good season.

Among other things, Friday’s rout at Cardiff means I can officially celebrate PLSD, and unprecedentedly early; in the past three seasons it’s taken Watford until at least mid-April to reach the magical 40-point mark, and last season it was early May. But this year, I doubt whether the idea of relegation has crossed anyone’s mind, with the possible exception of those journalists who doggedly refuse to pay attention to the way Watford have grown stronger each year, and who couldn’t see how we could possibly survive after selling Richarlison.

While I’m talking about previous posts, I should acknowledge that my stated opinion that Gerard Delofeu really isn’t a striker and would be far better off playing on the wing looks a bit silly after Cardiff. My fault for doubting the wisdom of Javi.

Anyway, moving swiftly on… One thing I did notice, looking at the league table in the paper yesterday, is that those 40 points are evenly split between home and away. In fact, we’ve lost more games at home than we have away. That’s skewed slightly by the fact that we played five of the top six teams at home in the first half of the season, and the next few weeks may well put a dent in our away record. But I do think it’s indicative of the fact that we’re at our best when we have space to play, and at our worst when teams come to Vicarage Road intent on stopping us playing – the home games against Newcastle and Burnley spring to mind.

The next few matches should be interesting rather than season-defining. Liverpool away on Wednesday is a free hit, Leicester next Sunday will be interesting (not least because I’ve just seen this moment that Puel has gone), and then we’ve got two difficult trips to Manchester either side of the FA Cup quarter-final. Frankly, even if we only pick up a few points from the league games, I don’t care as long as we beat Palace. Like I say, this is already a good season – but when it comes to the cup, we’re now just three wins away from making this the greatest season in the club’s history.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Bored in Brighton

At the risk of sounding like a pundit, the month of February feels like it could define Watford’s season. Win the next three games and we will be ‘officially’ assured of Premier League status for another season and through to the FA Cup quarter-finals.

On the other hand, if we turn in three more performances like yesterday’s at Brighton, we’ll be out of the Cup and reduced to our usual late winter/early spring occupation of painfully inching towards that magic 40-point mark.

The Brighton game did feel like a throwback to the past few winters. Someone near me loudly suggested of the players that “they’re on the beach already”, and while I don’t believe that for a second, it was a worryingly lacklustre performance. Yes, Doucouré was missing, but we’re not really a one-man team, are we? Or perhaps we are; without him there was no forward thrust, no urgency, no cohesion.

Worse still, we couldn’t hold on to the ball; again and again, a Watford player ran into a cul-de-sac and was easily dispossessed, and we repeatedly lost the ball from our own throw-ins. Brighton were stronger and more direct, and probably deserved to win. It was lucky for us that their shooting was entertainingly wayward. And when they did get it right, Ben Foster was there to dig us out of trouble.

Of course, in the cold light of day (and having finally thawed out), there’s no reason to panic. After all, we came away with a point again a team with a solid home record. (Not that there’s any such thing as home advantage, of course.) But what is starting to irritate me is Javi’s refusal to drop players or make any changes to the team that aren’t forced by injury. This is a team where, with few exceptions, once you’re in, your place is guaranteed.

This wasn’t so much the case early in the season, when Javi tinkered with the strikers in particular, trying different variations on a one- and two-man attack. But since he settled on Deeney and Delofeu as the front pair, that seems to be that – even though anyone with eyes to see can tell that Delofeu, bless him, isn’t a natural striker, as the numerous one-on-ones he’s missed this season have demonstrated.

We all think we know better than the manager – and I’m no exception, so here goes: why not move Delofeu out to the right wing (where he initially played when he joined us last year, with great success) and either (a) play Deeney on his own up front and move Will Hughes in behind him as an advanced midfielder, or (b) drop Hughes (who isn’t particularly convincing as a winger) and play Andre Gray alongside Deeney. Either of those options feels like it would produce a better balanced team that would be more likely to score goals.

But what do I know? Javi would doubtless point out that I don’t see the players in training, where Delofeu’s dummies actually work (you know, that thing where, when the ball’s played towards him, he runs past his marker in the hope that the latter will take his eye off it, rather than actually competing for the ball) and Ken Sema is a worldbeater (rather than an honest trier who hasn’t got to grips with Premier League football yet).

So, a big month. We still have two possible routes into Europe, just about. But we’ve only won a single Premier League game since Christmas, and the draws are becoming increasingly frustrating. Next week’s game again you-know-who’s Everton would be a good place to start winning again.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Forwards in reverse

It seems churlish to complain, given how well the ’orns have been playing for the past couple of months (even if the results don’t reflect that), but there is one fact that stands out as we approach the halfway point of the Premier League season: our strikers aren’t scoring.

It wasn’t until I checked that I realised quite how serious the goal drought is. Troy has scored two in 12 starts, Andre Gray scored three in the first six games, but has barely played since, and Isaac Success has just scored the one Premier League goal – albeit a corker, finishing off a sublime training ground routine for the third against Huddersfield. The dates of their most recent goals are, respectively, September 2nd, September 22nd and October 27th. (By the way, I’m not counting Gerard Delofeu as a striker here; he’s a winger who’s sometimes deployed in the middle of the pitch, which isn’t the same thing at all.)

It’s not as if they’re missing lots of chances, either. In the last couple of games, Troy had one against Everton where he got a toe to a tricky aerial pass (it was barely a half-chance), and against Cardiff there was that sliding attempt to reach a through ball that gave Neil Warnock a conniption fit. That’s about it.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems that Javi Gracia is building a successful football team that isn’t designed to create chances for its strikers. Which is a bit odd, isn’t it?

I may be prejudiced here, as I was brought up on GT’s teams where everything revolved around supplying the ammunition for the centre-forwards. In their early-80s pomp, Barnes and Callaghan were tasked with providing the crosses for Blissett and Jenkins to convert, and the service was so good that they filled their boots. The wingers scored a fair few themselves as well, but that wasn’t their primary function.

Now look at the current Watford team. The modern equivalents of Barnes and Callaghan are Delofeu and Pereyra (and Hughes, when fit), but you don’t often see them crossing to a striker. That’s partly because they’re hugely talented players who are more than capable of scoring themselves, as they’ve demonstrated. They’re also, let’s be honest, a bit selfish at times, trying to dribble round one more player, or curl the ball round the goalie from the edge of the area, rather than pass to a better-placed teammate.

Even when crosses do arrive in inviting areas, it’s rarely a striker who’s on the end of them. Unusually, both our goals against Everton came from crosses; the first found Bobby P, who was unlucky not to get the addition to the tally that his volley deserved, while the second was met by  Doucouré running in from deep.

So where does this leave Troy? It seems that his role in the team these days is mainly to keep opposing defenders occupied, thus creating more space for our creative midfielders. It’s a reasonable ploy; every Premier League manager knows that you can’t risk giving Troy too much space, so they’re going to allocate one of their stronger defenders to stick close to him. Still, it seems a shame that a player of Troy’s experience and expertise has been largely reduced to the role of a decoy, apart from his (admittedly important) role as the one who wins headers from goal kicks, or who holds up the ball and lays it off.

As a result of all this, most our goals this season have been spectacular efforts (narrowing down the shortlist for the goal of the season award is going to be a nightmare). But I can’t help wondering whether, if we could just create a few more chances for Troy (or Isaac, or Andre), we might have the opportunity to truly fulfil the potential of this remarkable squad of players.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

A crucial draw

You could argue (and I’m about to try) that tomorrow is the most important day of Watford’s season. If everything goes well at about 7.45pm, the team could be on the way to fulfilling its undoubted potential. If not (and lord knows we’ve had some disappointments in recent years), then 2018-19 will probably go down as the latest in a series of seasons that promised much but ultimately failed to deliver.

I’m talking, of course, about the FA Cup 3rd Round draw which takes place tomorrow evening. Thanks to our now traditional autumn slump, the chances of the Hornets ‘doing a Burnley’ and finishing as the best of the teams outside the so-called Big Six are looking distinctly remote. For all the talent in the squad, we seem to have lost the knack of putting the ball in the back of the net on a consistent basis (or, indeed, at all), and that is unfortunately a primary requirement for teams that aspire to finish high up the table.

No, I fear we’re destined for yet another season where we end up somewhere between 10th and 16th in the Premier League table. That wouldn’t necessarily represent failure, far from it – just a bit of an anticlimax after our excellent start.

The FA Cup, therefore, represents our only chance of glory. It’s a realistic one, too. We may not be playing consistently at the moment, but I don’t see any reason why we can’t win six one-off games between January and May. Do that and Troy will be lifting the cup at Wembley while we try to work out whether Brexit means we need visas for away ties in the Europa League. And after all, as a top-half Premier League team, we really should be aiming at the 5th Round (ie the last 16) as a minimum requirement; all but nine of the teams left in the competition are, statistically, worse than Watford.

But for all this to happen, we need the footballing gods to be kind. Ideally,we will draw the lowest-ranked team in each round, at home. Meanwhile the Big Six knock will each other out, or get punished for their hubris when they field third-string teams because they’re saving their star players for the all-important battle for fourth place.

And I reckon those gods owe us one. Since the turn of the century, we’ve drawn a Premier League team in the 3rd Round roughly every other year – and usually strong ones, too: Arsenal in 2002, Chelsea in 2004, 2010 and 2015, Manchester City in 2013. Where we have been given a kinder draw and gone through, we’ve invariably come up against one of the big boys sooner rather than later, and promptly lost.

Indeed, looking at our FA Cup record on Trevor Jones’s excellent site, it strikes me that the win over Arsenal in the 2016 quarter-final is the only time we’ve beaten one of the top teams in the competition this century. Our other two runs to the semis were achieved by beating a mixture of lower-division teams and middling-to-poor Premier League ones. In 2003 (when we were in the Championship) it was Macclesfield, West Brom, Sunderland and Burnley; in 2007 (a Premier League relegation season) we beat Stockport, Ipswich, West Ham and Plymouth.

I’d certainly take either of those runs again this season, given the chance. But really, we just want to be drawn against someone we can be confident of beating, even if Javi decides to rest the entire first team, as he will almost certainly do. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed, and I suggest you do the same. Our season could depend on it.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

That’s Mr Phillips to you

On Friday, Oliver Phillips’ final Watford Observer column was published, bringing down the curtain on 58 years of writing about Watford FC. It’s hard to think of another individual not actually employed by the club who has been so prominent in the lives of Hornets fans.

For the past week, many of those fans have taken to WML and Twitter to share their stories of how reading Oli’s in-depth coverage of the club in the Observer kept them in touch when they were unable to go to games. I was one of those fans; while I was studying in Germany during the 1984-85 season, my mother faithfully sent me the local paper every week, and I looked forward eagerly to the arrival of the baton-shaped package in my pigeonhole so that I could devour every word Oli had written about the latest matches I’d missed, together with all the other goings-on at the club that he covered in lovingly forensic detail.

We were so lucky to have him for so long, and I wish him a long and happy retirement. To mark the occasion, here’s a post I wrote a few years ago about the day when I interviewed the great man. Enjoy!

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Captain courageous

For all the excellence of the Tales from the Vicarage Live event last Sunday, on the theme of captains, it was frustrating that host Adam Leventhal never asked the fundamental question: what does the captain of a football team actually do? I’ve been watching the game for nearly half a century and I’m still no closer to a definitive answer.

In other sports, such as cricket, the captain clearly plays a pivotal role. When India go out to bat at The Oval this morning, Joe Root will be responsible for deciding who bowls, when and how, and what fields are set for each batsman. Of course, much of this will have been discussed beforehand with the coach, but the captain still has to react to events on the field and adjust the plans accordingly.

But in football, this is the manager’s role, even if the only ways in which he can influence the game while it is in motion are by (a) making substitutions and (b) shouting and waving a lot. As for the captain, his role often seems largely ceremonial: leading the team out, taking part in the toss for ends. Indeed, some years ago, when there was much agonising in the press about who should be England captain (I think the current incumbent had just disgraced himself), the manager of Germany or France was quoted as saying that they couldn’t see what all the fuss was about: they simply gave the armband to the most senior player as a kind of recognition for long service.

Anyway, back at the Palace Theatre, the interviewees didn’t give many clues. To be fair, Les Taylor only captained the team once – even if was in the biggest game in the club’s history – and by his own admission, he only did so because the obvious candidates were all suspended or injured. As for Wilf Rostron, he was so reticent that it was hard to imagine him leading a class of schoolchildren across a road, let alone inspiring a group of professional sportsmen.

Neil Cox was a more obvious leader, though the main example of this was his role in the famous wage deferral that helped save the club from administration in 2002. This was the captain as shop steward, and perhaps this is how many see their role.

But then, earlier in the day, we’d seen a very different interpretation from Troy Deeney. It’s too simplistic to say that he singlehandedly turned the game round against Spurs, but he certainly had a major influence on it; thundering forward, barging opponents off the ball, scoring a magnificent goal. Was it before the next corner (the one that Craig Cathcart scored from) that Troy picked up a bottle of water from behind the goal and emptied it over his head, like a boxer between rounds? He has a sense of the theatre of the game like no other Watford player I can remember, and the gesture may have helped distract the Spurs defence from the threat of Cathcart.

When he’s on this kind of form, Troy’s performance is the textbook definition of leading by example. Other captains may not see the role that way, or may not be capable of dragging a team over the line the way Troy does, but it’s the best answer I’ve found so far to the question of what a captain does.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Here we go again

I’ve just realised that I haven’t written anything on this blog since May, which is quite some gap, even for me. In truth, I found it hard to get too worked up about this season until it actually started. That’s partly because of the World Cup making a large dent in the summer, depriving me of my football detox; I find I need a couple of months away from the game before I can get excited about the new season.

Maybe another reason I haven’t felt the need to write anything over the summer is that all is relatively serene in the world of Watford. Hey, we’ve even got the same Head Coach as the last time I posted here. I know some people got their knickers in a twist about the lack of signings at centre back and centre forward in the transfer window, but I’m not too bothered. It’s good to see the club putting their faith in the players we have, and in Javi Gracia’s ability to get the most out of them.

There’s also welcome evidence of succession planning in the structure of the squad. It’s most obvious in the goalkeeping division, where Ben Foster has clearly been signed to finish his top-level career at Watford before handing over the gloves to the promising Pontus Dahlberg. Up front, too, it looks like the club is keen to groom Isaac Success (who’s hopefully learned from the Baileys and hookers incident) and Adalberto Peñaranda (can we just call him Bert?) for the day when Troy Deeney finally runs himself into the ground.

As for midfield, it doesn’t look as if Richarlison is going to be missed, for all that he’s set off like a steam train at Everton. Even without him, we’ve got Hughes, Delofeu, Capoue, Pereyra, Chalobah, Doucouré, Cleverley and Sema: when the injured players on that list are fit again, choosing just four from eight is going to be an unenviable task for Javi. I don’t think we’ve ever had such strength in depth.

So our near-perfect start to the season isn’t really that much of a surprise (okay, winning at Burnley is never a given, but I think we have the Europa League partly to thank for that), though the spectacular nature of the goals we’ve scored may be. Things are going to get a lot tougher, for sure, but there’s no reason to be frightened. Instead, I am now officially excited – excited to see what this squad can achieve this season.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

There’s always a but

A week after the end of the 2017-18 season and the sense of frustration I wrote about a few weeks ago still lingers. There were so many good things that were ultimately undermined by personalities and performances and circumstances and sheer bad luck. Here are five of my biggest buts (no sniggering at the back).

It’s great that we had 17 different scorers this season – it’s not a bad thing when there are multiple players who are capable of hitting the back of the net. But the fact that not one player managed double figures, and that our top scorer, with an underwhelming seven, was a midfielder (Doucouré) whose last goal came on January 13th, points to one of the key problems: neither Silva nor Gracia came up with a system or a formation that consistently created chances for our forwards. That’s the key issue that needs sorting out next season.

It’s great that Troy Deeney is still at our club and looks set to start his ninth season in August – a rare feat in modern football. His talismanic status is universally acknowledged, and I think he can still make an important contribution if Gracia can find a way to play to his strengths. But, let’s be honest, this wasn’t his greatest season, lack of goals aside. Missing seven games on bans for violent conduct didn’t help us, or him, given that he is, by his own admission, a player who needs a run of games to operate at his most effective.

It’s great that we signed a couple of hugely promising young English players, Nathaniel Chalobah and Will Hughes, who look set to have a big impact over the next couple of seasons if we can keep them fit. But the continuing lack of players coming through from our own Academy is disappointing. At least Mazzarri gave a few of them a runout, albeit mostly through necessity. This season, a handful of benchwarming stints by Michael Folivi, Carl Stewart and Joy Mokena – actually, they managed four between them, so not even a handful – is all we have to show for the club’s investment in youth. It’s rather depressing to think that Adrian Mariappa may turn out to be the last player we ever get to sing ‘He’s one of our own’ for.

It’s great that the 1881 have continued to improve the atmosphere at games this season with their banners and flags and confetti cannons (though a bit of warning might have been nice, lads – an old bloke near me nearly had a heart attack when they went off the first time). Sticking a drummer and a ‘conductor’ on the TV gantry outside the hospitality suite for a couple of games near the end of the season worked particularly well. But it’s disheartening to see so many empty seats at most games, suggesting that there a few thousand season ticket holders who aren’t actually that bothered about Watford, but can afford to spend hundreds of pounds a year to watch a handful of games that interest them. I know the club is looking into this, and it’s an emotive subject – you can’t force people to attend games. But all the talk of extending the ground seems a bit extraneous as long as we can’t fill it from week to week at the current capacity.

And finally, a personal bugbear. It’s great that the players still run out to ‘Z Cars’ – it’s part of the club’s heritage, something that is special and (almost) unique to us. But it’s bloody annoying that they cut it off once the teams have lined up and switch to some anonymous rubbish that is presumably the PL’s official anthem, or some such nonsense (I’m moderating my language here in case any minors are reading), thus depriving us of the chance to hear the tune in all its glory, complete with the bonkers clarinet (?) solo in the middle. I assume this is a PL rule – I noticed at the Bristol City FA Cup tie that ‘Z Cars’ got played in full – but that doesn’t make it any less irritating.