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.

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.