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.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Still on the up

Happy Premier League Survival Day, Hornets fans! Okay, it was actually yesterday, but I think we can safely extend the celebrations across the entire Bank Holiday weekend.

PLSD (as no one but me calls it) has come a bit later this year - we reached 40 points on the 16th and 17th of April in 2016 and 2017, respectively – and I’m sure I’m not the only Watford fan who spent most of the second half of the game yesterday wondering if it was going to come at all. As Newcastle battered our defence (aided by some decidedly odd substitutions by Javi Gracia), it was all too easy to anticipate a defeat, followed by results elsewhere going against us in midweek and leaving us needing to get something from the game at Old Trafford next Sunday.

In the end, we got the win we probably should have managed weeks ago. In truth, we haven’t been playing badly for the past month, but we’ve made critical errors at both ends of the pitch when it mattered. You may have seen that Watford came top of the Guardian’s ineptitude index for this season, and the reasons were on display again yesterday; countless misplaced passes, chances spurned (there were two breakaways late on that should have been converted), a missed penalty. And it was ironic that Abdoulaye Doucouré picked up the Players’ Player of the Season award at the end of probably his worst game of the campaign. A cynic might suggest that he played like someone whose signature on a big-money transfer has already been pencilled in.

Against that, Roberto Pereyra again showed the skills we’ve missed all that time he’s spent injured, Etienne Capoue continued his remarkable transformation into a latter-day Roger Joslyn, and Andre Gray demonstrated what we all knew – that he needs another striker to play alongside in order to be truly effective.

And so we can look forward to a fourth successive Premier League season, without ever having truly been in danger of relegation in the first three. We’re over halfway to matching what Elton and GT achieved in the 1980s, and that’s worth celebrating. I finally got round to reading Rocket Men recently, the Tales from the Vicarage book which focuses on that era. The unspoken implication of that title is that all space rockets eventually plummet back to Earth, but for all the frustrations and irritations of this odd season, it honestly doesn’t feel like the Pozzos’ rocket is anywhere near the peak of its trajectory yet.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

We’re going to Wem-ber-ley – again

I’m sure there are plenty of football fans – particularly those who follow unfashionable clubs in the provinces – for whom a trip to Wembley Stadium is a rare treat, maybe even a once-in-a-lifetime event. But for those of us who grew up less than 10 miles away, it’s really not that special.

My dad took me to Wembley for the first time, to watch England play East Germany in 1970. England won 3-1, but I mainly remember the night for the hour or more it took to get out of the car park afterwards. I honestly can’t recall if Dad took me to any more internationals, but I’m pretty sure that if he did, we didn’t drive .

After that, there were a couple of England schoolboy internationals in the early 70s. Presumably the FA offered bulk deals to schools; at any rate, Ashfield organised cheap class trips. Rediscovering the programmes years later, I found that I’d unwittingly had my first sight of a certain John Wilfred Rostron, as he was then listed.

I went to a few more full internationals over the next decade, culminating in Luther’s glorious full international debut against Luxembourg in 1982, when he scored a hat trick and could have had at least as many again. Then, two years later, I finally got to see Watford play at Wembley in the FA Cup Final – and it was one of the most anticlimactic days of my football-watching life.

For the rest of the 80s, I was more often at Wembley for rock concerts than football; U2, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones. (I missed Live Aid, though; I was on a year abroad, studying in Hamburg, where I watched the proceedings on TV.) I did go to the Football League v the Rest of the World match in 1987, where Hornets centre-back John McClelland had to contend with Maradona, Platini and Lineker and still kept a clean sheet, the League winning 3-0.

In the 90s there were more concerts, and also a rugby union international, for a change. While the Millennium Stadium was being rebuilt, Wales played their home Five Nations (as it then was) matches at Wembley. My friend Andy came up from Cardiff and we watched the Welsh get roundly thrashed by a skilful France team.

Towards the end of the decade, I was working for a running magazine, which involved reviewing local events. You did this by running in them, so one Sunday morning I found myself lining up on the running track inside Wembley Stadium for the inaugural Wembley 10K. After puffing round the streets for an hour, the finish on the same track at least allowed me to indulge in some Olympian fantasies, even if I was struggling to finish in the top 500.

And then there was the Play-Off Final against Bolton in 1999, one of my most emotional footballing memories – for the result and performance, of course, but also because my father had died two days earlier. That year, and again in 2000, I also went to the FA Trophy Final to watch Kingstonian, who my friend Stuart supported. In the first one, they beat a little team no one had heard of called Forest Green Rovers.

Coming into the present century, I can say that I was present at the first concert held in the rebuilt Wembley. Okay, it starred George Michael, who wouldn’t have been my choice, but I was married by then. There have been more Springsteen concerts, too, though it’s really not the best place to see him. And more recently, of course, I’ve doubled my tally of Watford games at the home of football with those two dismal defeats against Crystal Palace, first in the Play-Off Final and then in the FA Cup semi-final.

So when I rock up for the Spurs game tomorrow evening, you’ll excuse me if I don’t look too impressed. I’ll be a lot more impressed if we come away with three points, mind you.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

A game of frustration

Older readers may remember playing Frustration as a child. It was a fairly basic board game where you rolled a die and moved your pieces around a circuit; the first player to get all their pieces home was the winner. The twist was that, if another player landed on a spot that one of your pieces was occupying, yours got sent all the way back to the start, even if you were only one place from home. Hence the name of the game.

It’s as apt a metaphor as I can think of for Watford’s season, a season in which, again and again, a promising beginning has been undone and we’ve ended up back at square one. The games where we’ve played well, taken the lead and then ended up drawing or losing. The players who’ve lit up the pitch for a handful of matches and then picked up an injury that kept them out for months on end. And, of course, the head coach who looked like he might be the one to take Watford to the next level, only to have his head turned by a rival club and lose focus.

Yesterday’s opponents provided a timely reminder of how things could have been, like the ‘here’s what you could have won’ reveal on a TV gameshow. In a parallel universe, we could have been where Burnley are, sitting in 7th place, dreaming of winning a place in Europe.

Imagine for a moment that, throughout the season, we’d been able to field Chalobah, Cleverley and Doucouré in the centre of midfield, in front of a defence anchored by the strength and experience of Kaboul and Cathcart. Imagine we’d had access to the speed of Femenía and the skill of Hughes and Pereyra in every game. Imagine (and admittedly, this is a bit more of a stretch) that we’d managed to find a way to make a pairing of Deeney and Gray work up front. I know ‘what if’ is one of the most pointless phrases in the lexicon, but you can’t help wondering, can you?

The fact that, despite all these frustrations – all the leads chucked away and the absurdly lengthy absences through injury – we’re still sitting fairly comfortably in mid-table,almost makes it worse. So near, and yet so far.

Hopefully we’ll pick up a few more points before the season ends (although you can look at our remaining games and make a plausible case for us losing every one, given the form and/or desperation of the opposition), and then regroup in the summer, ready for the season we should have had this time round. But of course, somehow it never works out that way.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Diminishing returns

It occurred to me on the way home from the Olympic London Stadium on Saturday that I’ve been to five away games so far this season, and each has been a less enjoyable experience than the one before.

Southampton in September was certainly enjoyable: a 2-0 win, new signings starting to shine, Silva’s team finding its feet. Chelsea in October was, in retrospect, the high water mark of that progression. While we ultimately lost 4-2, I left Stamford Bridge feeling that, if we kept playing football of the quality we’d demonstrated in the first hour, we’d have nothing to worry about this season. Little did I know what lay ahead…

By the time I got to Selhurst Park on a cold, damp December evening, things had started to go wrong. We led for most of the match, missed good chances to make the game safe, and then threw it away in the final minutes, losing 2-1. The journey home seemed particularly long that night.

The return to St Mary’s last month for Javi Gracia’s first game in charge was worse still. A Watford team devoid of confidence looked totally incapable of turning around a 1-0 deficit, while in the away end, what started as black humour (essentially, responding to the Southampton fans’ taunts with a wry acknowledgement that, yes, we know we’re not very good) escalated into out-and-out barracking of our own team. Not a good day to be a travelling Watford fan.

And so to West Ham.

One thing about attending away games on your own is that you have no control over where you’ll be sitting or who you’ll be sitting next to. (The word ‘sitting’ should really be in inverted commas, since no ever sits at away games, for reasons that escape me.) On arrival at the London Stadium, I initially thought I’d done quite well; my seat was three rows from the front, near the corner flag, at the extreme left-hand edge of the Watford block.

As soon as the game started, I realised my error. Immediately on the other side of a tunnel entrance was a block of West Ham fans who have clearly chosen their seats so as to be as close as possible to the away fans, with a view to barracking them throughout the game. I’m sure you know the type. They spent more time looking at us than the pitch, and one bloke got so worked up that he was ejected midway through the first half.

Even that wouldn’t have been so bad if the seats immediately to my right hadn’t been occupied by Watford’s own species of this pond life; two twentysomethings who were more interested in responding in kind to the West Ham fans than in watching the game. Now I’ve got nothing against swearing (I do plenty myself), and I like to think I’m unshockable; nevertheless, being caught in a crossfire of c-words did make it hard to focus on – let alone enjoy – the game. Then there were the spittle-flecked threats – “Come over ’ere and I’ll batter yer”, and so on – that are so easy to make when there are a couple of dozen burly men in high-vis jackets between you and your adversaries.

Once West Ham scored, my neighbours’ focus soon switched to discussing how completely and utterly useless Watford were. “We haven’t had a shot!” complained one of them just before half-time. I reminded him of the two smart saves Adrian had made to keep out Mariappa’s header and Capoue’s shot, but I was wasting my breath. For some people, extremes are all that exist. Watford could only be brilliant or rubbish (I’m paraphrasing, obviously), and today they were rubbish.

This went on throughout the second half, to such an extent that I found myself doubting my own eyes. For it seemed to me that, while short of the standards we reached against Chelsea last week, we were still looking way more positive and confident than we had for most of the last two months of Silva’s time in charge. We were deservedly beaten by a team that was sharper in front of goal and tighter at the back, but it wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. By this time, though, I’d realised that trying to express any of this to my neighbours would be pointless.

By the final whistle, caught between the West Ham fans who were now singing highly abusive songs about some blameless female Watford fan and the angry complaints of my neighbours, I was thoroughly miserable. Isn’t going to football meant to be fun?

Look, I know this probably sounds like the whinging of a middle-aged, middle-class supporter who doesn’t ‘get’ football fan culture. I certainly don’t want to see the passion eradicated from the game, and I do accept that brain-dead morons have as much right to buy a ticket as anyone else. But I did find myself wistfully hankering for the hooligan-ridden days of the 80s, when the idiots on both sides of me could have met up for a ruck before the game, kicked seven bells out of each other and spent the afternoon in A&E, leaving the rest of us to watch the match and support our team.