Saturday, 12 December 2020

The return

5.35pm
I’m sitting in front of my computer, seething with impatience. Our regular Tuesday afternoon all-company Teams call, which was supposed to end at 5.30, is overrunning – today, of all days. I’m already prepared for a rapid departure; in anticipation of a chilly evening I’m wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt, a denim shirt and a chunky sweater, and I’ve donned an extra pair of thick socks. My Watford scarf and woolly hat are sitting on the desk beside me. 

Finally the CEO wraps up the meeting. Without even bothering to shut down the computer, I grab my stuff, put on my warmest winter coat and head out to the car. Vicarage Road, here I come.

6.40pm
Given that we’re in the ninth month of a pandemic and everyone who can is supposed to be working from home, I had naively expected the evening rush hour to be less busy than usual. But after crossing the Uxbridge Road, I’ve joined a stationary queue of traffic heading north towards the A40. In 20 minutes I’ve only moved a couple of hundred metres, and I’m cursing my unthinking obedience to the club’s request that fans avoid travelling to the game by public transport. I could have been sitting on a train now, reading a book.

It’s time for that decision all drivers in a traffic jam have to make at some point: stick or twist? Several cars in front of me take the latter option, doing a U-turn and heading back down the road to find a different route to wherever they’re heading. But I don’t know this part of town very well, and several minutes spent on the Maps app on my phone don’t convince me that any of the possible alternatives would be any better. I decide to sit it out, and finally the traffic starts moving again. 

7.25pm
It’s taken me an hour and three-quarters to travel the 18 miles from my home in south-west London to Watford, but finally I’m here. Normally I need to reach the car park on Wiggenhall Road over an hour before kick-off to be sure of getting in: tonight there’s no queue, and only a few more cars inside than there are men in hi-vis jackets at the entrance.

Walking up Occupation Road in the dark is a surreal experience. Large mounds of earth loom behind the fences of what used to be the allotments, while ahead of me I can dimly make out just two figures. It doesn’t feel like 15 minutes before kick-off on a matchday.

7.35pm
Having got into the ground with minimal fuss, I finally make it to my seat in the Vicarage Road Stand. I haven’t sat here for 20 years, or whenever it was that the ‘new’ Rookery Stand was opened and we all moved over there. I’m just a few rows back from the pitch on the side by the Sensory Room, along with the other singletons, while groups of fans have been accommodated in the middle of the stand.

Because of the parking situation, I’m usually in the ground nearly an hour before kick-off. Tonight, I just have time to get my bearings before the Watford players emerge from the tunnel, to a raucous reception from the 2,000 of us in the ground. It feels good to be here.

8.00pm
It feels even better now, with the Hornets two up inside 15 minutes. Both goals have come at my end, too – the sort of scrappy close-range strikes that have been all too rare this season, as Watford generally seem determined to score only elegant, beautifully crafted goals. I rub my hands (physically, to ward off the cold, and metaphorically) in anticipation of a goalfest.

9.15pm
It’s midway through the second half and a goalfest is looking increasingly unlikely. It’s very generous of the Watford team to spend the majority of both halves at my end of the ground, but I’d really rather they ventured over the halfway line occasionally. The next time I have difficulty falling asleep, I’ll simply picture Foster rolling the ball out to Kabasele, who passes sideways to Troost-Ekong, who sends it out to Kiko on the wing, who gives it straight back to Kaba, who passes to Troost-Ekong, who sends it sideways to Ngakia on the other wing... Zzzzz.

This mindnumbing routine (regularly punctuated by frustrated cries of “Forwards!” from the crowd) is only interrupted when Rotherham decide to stop watching and start pressing, at which point they induce mistakes which, on another day, could easily have got them a point, or even all three. The most comical occurs when Ngakia, in his own penalty area and under pressure, tries to flick the ball over an opponent’s head. Unsurprisingly, he fails and the result is Rotherham’s only shot on target, well saved by Foster. None of this makes for enjoyable watching.

9.35pm
Somehow, Watford have made it to full-time without either conceding or scoring another goal, the latter mainly due to a flurry of offsides when one of our strikers looked to be clean through – impossible to tell from the far end of the pitch how close any of these decisions were.

Nevertheless, unlike on Saturday, the team are cheered off the pitch, and we only have to wait a couple of minutes before the stewards give us the sign that it’s okay to leave. Outside, a light drizzle is falling on Vicarage Road, which is busy enough to give the illusion of a normal matchday.

I head back to my car, knowing that at least I won’t have to queue to get out of the car park for once, and reflecting on the simple fact that Watford have won and I’ve been there to see it. All in all, despite the traffic, the cold, the rain and the frustrations of the second half, it’s been a good evening. I hope I’ll be back again soon.


Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Out of sight, out of mind

 It’s funny how quickly I’ve forgotten about the Premier League.

This thought occurred to me one Sunday evening a couple of weeks ago, when I realised that it was the end of the weekend and I only knew a handful of the Premier League scores.

That wouldn’t have happened last season. For the past five years, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say my weekends during the football season were structured around the Premier League, I was certainly aware of what was going on most of the time. As well as attending all of Watford’s home games and half a dozen away fixtures each season, I watched bits and pieces of various PL matches most weekends. Some of them had a direct bearing on our league position, others featured a team we were due to play in the near future. More generally, as a fan of an established PL team, it felt natural to take an interest in the division as a whole – the players, the coaches, the formations, the lot.

Even I’m a bit surprised how little of that interest has survived Watford’s relegation. I suspect much of it is down to the current circumstances – all professional football now has the whiff of a training session about it, however cleverly the broadcasters overlay fake crowd noises. That makes it that much harder to care about what’s going on when you haven’t got any skin in the game, even if that game involves the champions shipping seven goals against a team who only got one more point than Watford last season.

Probably for the same reason, I haven’t replaced my interest in the PL with an in-depth appreciation of the Championship. I’ve watched most of Watford’s games on Sky Sports or Hornets Hive, wishing I could be there, but I’m not much interested in the opposition. There’s been a lot of churn since we were last in this division, and most teams are full of players I’ve never heard of. Maybe that will change as the season progresses; if we build on our steady start and make a concerted push for promotion, I dare say I’ll be tuning into Sky Sports on a Friday night in the hope of watching our rivals drop points.

In the meantime, most of my non-Watford interest in football these days is being channelled into non-league football, where you can actually go and watch proper competitive matches. (Well, not this month, but hopefully normal service will resume in December.) Since the trip to Leatherhead I wrote about last time, I’ve made a couple of visits to the rather less leafy surrounds of King George Field in Tolworth, just off the A3, to watch Corinthian-Casuals in cup action. First up was an FA Cup qualifying tie against Dulwich Hamlet which ended 2-2; that meant a penalty shootout, carried out at the goal right in front of where we standing, which the visitors won. A few weeks later I went to an FA Trophy tie against Hendon, an end-to-end thriller where Casuals triumphed 5-4.

Both games were lots of fun, and apart from a few telltale signs of pandemic compliance (I particularly liked the carefully marked-out 2m intervals on the ground in front of the burger van, snaking around the forecourt like something you’d see in an infant school playground), it felt pretty much like a normal football-watching experience. And oddly enough, I didn’t feel any need to check on how Burnley or Brighton were getting on.






Sunday, 20 September 2020

Live from Leatherhead

On Thursday afternoon, for work, I ‘attended’ a virtual industry awards ceremony that opened with the unpromising announcement: “And now, live from our studio in Leatherhead...” Just two days later, having never given this particular town in Surrey a second thought, I was there myself, watching an actual live football match.

The last time I did that was on March 7th, when I was at Selhurst Park to watch Watford demonstrate that the 3-0 win against Liverpool the previous week was a flash in the pan. It was a depressing afternoon, but as the subsequent months showed, it was still better than not being able to go to football matches at all.

So when my Brentford-supporting friend Stuart suggested a trip to Leatherhead to watch them kick off their Isthmian League Premier Division season against Horsham, I immediately agreed. And it was brilliant.

It was about 2pm when we got off the bus just across the River Mole from the ground, so we had plenty of time to stroll to a nearby pub and enjoy a pint of bitter in the garden. Then it was a short walk to the bucolically named Fetcham Grove, where we installed ourselves behind the goal in the home end, shaded from the sun by a corrugated iron roof; a bit like the old Rookery, but much smaller. (Later I noticed that it was called the Bernard Edwards Stand – presumably not after the Chic bassist, though you never know. Maybe the legacy of 70s disco lives on in this part of the Surrey commuter belt.)

While Stuart went to the bar to get us another pint, I read the programme, keeping a wary eye out for errant footballs, as the Horsham players were practicing their shooting just a few yards in front of me. It turns out that Horsham were officially formed in 1881 and are nicknamed the Hornets as the result of a competition among the fans. Sound familiar? Mind you, Horsham’s traditional colours are yellow and green – not a combination I’ve ever seen on a winged insect of any kind.

Nevertheless, when visiting a ground as a neutral, I regard it as good manners to support the home team. That decision looked sensible when Leatherhead scored in the first minute through a superb volley that curled into the top corner of the goal right in front of us, close enough that I heard the sound of the net rippling. After that they had a few more good chances to score, with the right winger pinging over some excellent crosses. Meanwhile Horsham won a succession of corners at the other end, most of which ended with a header soaring over the bar and out of the ground.

At half-time, we joined the Leatherhead ultras (half a dozen mouthy teenagers and a prematurely wizened middle-aged bloke in a replica shirt – every non-league club seems to have one of these) and relocated to the far end, this time leaning against the pitch-side fence to the right of the goal. Inevitably, we spent a certain amount of time checking our phones for news from Hillsborough and the Brentford Community Stadium, where Stuart should have been sitting in his new seat for the very first time. But we also watched as Horsham played their way back into the game, and inevitably made Leatherhead pay for their profligacy by equalising in the 81st minute. The last 10 minutes were predictably hectic, but 1-1 was the final score.

That wasn’t really the point, though, at least for me. It was just so nice to be standing in the autumn sunshine in a tree-lined stadium watching a proper, competitive football match, listening to the banter and watching the players pretending they couldn’t hear the abuse being hurled at them from close range. (Particular vitriol was reserved for one Horsham player who’d previously turned out for Dorking, Leatherhead’s much-hated local rivals.) During one lull in play, I watched as an oak leaf floated gently to the ground, landing close to the corner flag, and thought: “This is the life.”

I haven’t given up on Watford, of course; next Saturday, I’ll be sat here in my back bedroom following the action from Vicarage Road on Hive Live, even though the mere thought of playing Luton makes me nervous. But, as Stuart pointed out, there are plenty of non-league grounds to explore in south-west London and its hinterlands, and for as long as we can’t watch our actual teams in the flesh, this is the best  available alternative. If you’re missing live football, I suggest you check your local fixtures and do the same. You won’t regret it.





Sunday, 2 August 2020

The relegation game

One of the benefits of having been a Watford fan for nearly half a century is that you can see patterns across the years and decades. It also lessens the pain of relegation, to a certain extent; I’ve seen it happen before, and doubtless I will again.

In fact, all but one of Watford’s relegations have happened since I started supporting them in 1970. I can’t tell you much about the club’s descent from Division 1 of the Southern League to Division 2 in 1902-03, and Oliver Phillips’ centenary history of the club doesn’t explain what went wrong. He does make it clear, though, that relegation had been coming, with the club finishing 14th out of 15, and then 13th out of 16, in the previous two seasons.

In that respect, it sounds similar to the first relegation I witnessed, from Division 2 in 1971-72. Having finally achieved the longed-for promotion to the second tier three seasons earlier, the Hornets had found the step up a struggle from the start, and didn’t have the money to invest in the quality of players they needed to be competitive. Successive finishes of 19th and 18th out of 22 were followed by last place in a dismal season.

Watford’s first two ventures into the Premier League both ended in similar fashion, albeit after a single season. In both 1999-2000 and 2006-07, we’d been promoted before we were really ready for it, couldn’t afford transformative signings, and injuries to key players sabotaged any hopes of survival.

Our other relegation from the top division, in 1987-88, is also easily explained. In just a few months, Dave Bassett managed to undo pretty much all the good work Graham Taylor had done over the previous decade, weakening the backroom staff and the playing squad and deploying an unappealing brand of football based on the long ball and the offside trap. Despite Bassett’s departure in January, replacement Steve Harrison couldn’t stop the ship sinking.

The reasons for the other two relegations are harder to pin down. In 1974-75, the Hornets followed a season when they’d finished 7th in Division 3 with relegation, and from Oliver Phillips’ account (I was only 12 at the time, and the nuances passed me by), it seems that they sleepwalked into it. Despite the presence of several players who would come back up under GT a few years later (including Jenkins, Garner, Downes and Joslyn), and despite only needing seven points from the last 11 games to be safe, they went down by a single point. (By the way, one of the teams that went down with us was Bournemouth. Like I say, patterns keep recurring.)

Likewise, in 1995-96, we went down from what was then called Division 1 (ie the second tier) after a 7th-place finish the year before. Injuries were certainly a factor here, as was a lack of investment from notoriously cautious Chairman Jack Petchey. Roeder was replaced with a returning GT with 17 games to go, giving us all hope. But Ian Grant catches the mood well in his piece in Tales From The Vicarage Volume II: “Had we conjured up any kind of form, any kind of running start for our dramatic late surge, we almost certainly would’ve escaped; instead, we seemed caught in a hopeless conundrum, as if imprisoned in a windowless room with only a trapdoor for escape.” It went down to a final home game against Leicester where we needed to win and hope other results went our way. We didn’t, and they didn’t anyway.

So how does 2019-20 stack up against these previous examples? We certainly can’t blame underinvestment, given the current value of the squad (though a bit more money spent on defenders last summer might have helped). Likewise, injuries haven’t been a major factor; we’ve had a few, but not nearly as many in previous Premier League seasons, recent and otherwise. We do have to mention the pandemic, though. Who knows how things would have turned out without a lengthy break just after our famous victory over Liverpool?

Overall, though, this year’s relegation most closely resembles 1975 and 1996. At the start of the season, as we did then, we seemed to be on an upward trajectory, with an 11th-place finish and an FA Cup final appearance. But whether through complacency, or lack of focus, that forward momentum not only stopped, but slammed into reverse at a speed that proved impossible to halt. The lesson seems to be that the time of greatest danger for a football club is when it appears to be on the rise. Let’s hope we learn that lesson if and when we get back to the Premier League.






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.