Monday, 29 May 2017

Glad it’s all over

Due to a change in personal circumstances, I missed fewer home games this season, and made it to more away games, than for many a year. In total, I attended 26 of Watford’s 41 competitive fixtures, including all three cup ties. Add to that another four or five away games I was able to watch live on TV, and that only leaves 10 afternoons or evenings when I was stuck in front of Soccer Saturday or the midweek equivalent, willing Jeff Stelling to yell “And it’s good news for Watford fans!”

So I was at the cavernous, atmosphere-free London Stadium to watch us come back from 2-0 down to beat West Ham 4-2, and at the Emirates for a second season running to watch us beat an Arsenal team which (as they showed in the FA Cup final) had more than enough talent to blow us away if they could only have roused themselves to do so. I was at the Vic to see us beat Mourinho’s Manchester United before they learnt the art of the bore-draw, and I witnessed fine victories against the reigning champions (enlivened by Pereyra’s magnificent curler) and against Everton (ditto by Okaka’s supremely confident flick). There were fine goals by Holebas at Middlesbrough, Sinclair (remember him?) in the FA Cup against Burton and Niang at home to West Brom, a game where an admirably resolute 10-man rearguard action took us most of the way to Premier League safety.

It’s worth dwelling on the high points of the season, just as a reminder that there were some. Because it’s undeniable that there were an awful lot of lows. It’s not just the high volume of goals conceded – six at Liverpool, five at home to Man City, four in each game against Spurs, four away to Chelsea, another four at home to Southampton. Those, in part, can be explained away by the persistent injuries that rarely gave Walter Mazzarri the chance to field his first-choice back three or four. Central defenders need to develop an understanding, and there was barely a chance for that to happen before they started dropping like flies. The black comedy of the Man City home game, when not one of our six centre-backs was available, was the logical conclusion to a disrupted season.

No, worse than the occasional tonkings was the sheer tedium of the football Watford produced for much of the season, frequently against our mid-table peers in games where we should have been capable of bagging the points – the Burnley and Palace away games spring to mind in particular. (And let’s not even mention the FA Cup tie at Millwall. It’s still too painful.) While this season’s Watford team was undoubtedly full of talented players, as a collective they were all too often sluggish and unimaginative. Many a time a player would receive the ball in the centre of the pitch, look up to see not one of his teammates making a move forwards, and turn and pass back to a defender or to Gomes. With a few exceptions, Walter’s team lacked snap, élan, joie de vivre – call it what you will. They lacked the ability (and sometimes, it seemed, the will) to grab a game by the scruff of the neck. It was tough to watch.

I’m sorry to see Walter go; I always want Watford coaches to succeed, and I do think bad luck with injuries had a lot to do with how the season panned out (Pereyra’s in particular). Anyone looking at the final league table in years to come, seeing Watford in 17th, will conclude that it was a stressful, anxious season, but it wasn’t really. Just a frustrating one. I can’t deny that I’m glad it’s over.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Oops, we did it again

Ho ho ho and a very happy PLSD to all Watford fans!

That’s Premiership League Survival Day, for the uninitiated, which has come precisely one day earlier than it did last season. For two seasons in a row we’ve never so much as flirted with relegation, and that’s an achievement worth celebrating for little old Watford.

Of course, there are still question marks, not least over whether the Head Coach will still be here in August. For what it’s worth, I think he’s done enough to deserve another season. Injuries (primarily to Pereyra and then Zarate) put paid to his plans to play more incisive attacking football, and integrating some of the younger players into the team next season – Success, Niang if he signs, Doucouré, maybe even Berghuis – might help to make us a more exciting prospect to watch.

But whoever is picking the team, we’ll be there in the Premier League when next season starts, alongside other small, well-run clubs like Bournemouth and Burnley, while supposedly bigger clubs who think they have a divine right to play in the top division continue to flounder a level or two lower down.  Forest, Wolves, Birmingham, Villa, Leeds (let’s face it, they’re bound to make a pig’s ear of the playoffs), Cardiff, Blackburn, Derby... The list goes on. We are very lucky to have the Pozzos.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Decruitment drive

Quick quiz question: in what way is Allan Nyom unique this season? (Apart from in his ability to antagonise Watford fans who previously had nothing against him, obviously.)

The answer is that he’s the only player to have been contracted to Watford in the Pozzo era who is part of another Premier League team’s squad for 2016-17. Indeed, if it weren’t for Ashley Young, still clinging on at Manchester United, he’d be the only former Hornet full stop – though of course there are several one-time loanees playing their trade at the top level, including Jack Cork, Hector Bellerin, Ben Foster and Danny Rose.

Over the past couple of years, Watford have got rid of a number of popular players who many of us thought were more than capable of doing a job in the Premier League. It turns out that other Premier League clubs disagreed, and few have even made much of an impression in the Championship. At Derby, Ikechi Anya has only started 11 games this season (out of 41) and Matej Vydra 18, though he is currently on one of his occasional goal-scoring runs. Up at Sheffield Wednesday, Fernando Forestieri is more established, having started 32 games (and the ones he’s missed are partly down to a series of red cards for diving – some things never change). At the same club, Daniel Pudil has started 22 and Almen Abdi just 11.

You get the point; most of our former heroes are now bit-part players a division below Watford’s current status. What that says to me is that the club offloaded them at the right time, when form and fitness were on a downward curve, and they deserve credit for that. In my last post I was critical of their recruitment, but in terms of decruitment (not a word, but it should be), they’ve got it spot on.

In this respect, it’s reminiscent of GT’s golden decade, when it was almost unheard-of for a player to leave Watford and go on to better things. The shining exception was John Barnes, of course, who we simply couldn’t hold on to. But in most cases, we used them up and wore them out, and they were never the same again. My Brentford-supporting friend Stuart still hasn’t forgiven Watford for offloading a knackered Ian Bolton on them in 1983; by the end of that season he was playing for Kingsbury Town. There are plenty of other examples, albeit mostly not so extreme.

So credit where it’s due. As fans, we get terribly sentimental about our favourite players. The club can’t afford to be, though, and much as I would love to still have Anya, Vydra and (above all) Abdi in our squad now, the evidence suggests that they wouldn’t have a lot to contribute.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Hit squad

Tempting as it is to launch into an ill-tempered rant about yesterday’s performance (last time I did that, after the Millwall game, we beat Arsenal), I want to take the focus away from Walter Mazzarri and look at the squad he’s been given to work with. Because I don’t think the people at the club responsible for player recruitment have done him any favours.

One thing that struck me as I was reading the Watford player profiles in the Palace programme was the ages of our key players. It’s generally accepted that outfield players (goalkeepers are, as in so many ways, different) are at their peak between the ages of 26 and 28, by which time they’ve got the experience they need to play to their full potential, but their fitness hasn’t yet started to become an issue. Equally, it doesn’t hurt to have a few wise old heads to give the team a stable foundation, and a few younger players who are trying that little bit harder because they need to establish themselves.

The team Walter sent out yesterday, though, was decidedly on the older side. Seven of the ten outfield players who started are 28 or older, and Cleverley and Janmaat are both 27. Only Niang, at 22, comes into the ‘keen youngster’ category. It’s not like our subs’ bench was packed with youthful promise, either. Yes, Success is only 21, and the walking definition of a work in progress, but the other subs were aged 25, 27, 29, 31 and 32.

Does this matter? When we reached the Premier League, the club made it clear that they were going to give Quique a core of older players who were experienced at this level, to ensure that we survived that crucial first season. And it worked, too. But that strategy feels a bit redundant now, and I can’t help feeling that some of the older players are just going through the motions. They’ve been there, done that and got the T-shirt, and Watford is just another payday. That’s probably monstrously unfair on some, but it might help to account for the listless, shapeless nature of our recent performances.

The other aspect of recruitment that annoys me is the failure to fill the squad. To recap, twice a season (at the end of the transfer windows), every Premier League team has to name a squad of up to 25 players over the age of 21, of whom no more than 17 can be ‘foreign’. (I’m not going to go into the definition of ‘foreign’ right now, or we’ll be here all day.) Only players from that squad, or who are under 21, can be selected for PL fixtures.

The squad Watford named on February 2nd had only 23 players, though, including no fewer than four goalkeepers. That means Mazzarri has only 19 outfield players from which to select 16 for each matchday. It doesn’t give him a lot of leeway when injuries start to bite, especially since Success is clearly the only under-21 player at the club who the manager thinks is worth a place in the team. As we saw at Christmas, it takes a full-blown crisis to persuade him to give our homegrown youngsters a chance to show what they can do.

The reason we named an incomplete squad, of course, is that Watford couldn’t find eight ‘homegrown’ players to name. As it is, we’ve got six: Deeney, Cleveley and Cathcart, who all play regularly, and Watson, Mariappa and Gilmartin, who only make the bench, let alone get on the pitch, in the direst of emergencies.

Those two spare places could have been filled with players who would give Walter more options to choose from, like – oh, I don’t know, maybe a proper, experienced defensive full-back, so that he doesn’t have to shoehorn Britos and Cathcart into that role when he wants to play 4-4-2.

I know the PL’s rules have made decent British players disproportionately expensive, and I know the Pozzo regime is very conscious of balancing the books. But in this case, I believe it would have been worth loosening the purse strings to give Walter a full 25-man squad to choose from, with a range of players that would at least give him the option of more tactical flexibility without putting square pegs into round holes.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The fourth wheel

In the old days, football clubs only employed two senior goalkeepers; in the case of an emergency, it was assumed that the junior team’s keeper would step up. (We all know what happened when Graham Taylor ignored this convention in the 1987 FA Cup semi-final.) The first time I can remember Watford employing a third keeper was our first season in the Premier League, 1999-2000, when the Austrian Herwig Walker was brought in as back-up for Alec Chamberlain and Chris Day. He was never used and was released at the end of the season, to be remembered only as an answer to a trivia question.

More recently, Irishman Rene Gilmartin has taken on this thankless role. In response to a tweet from Sky Sports’ Adam Leventhal in the run-up to transfer deadline day, I bemoaned Gilmartin’s lot, expressing the view that he had purely been included in the Premier League squad to fill a homegrown slot, and that the club had no intention of ever playing him. In response, I received a few dismissive replies. “I wouldn’t feel too sorry,” said one. “Premier League salary, great lifestyle and all that. Sounds perfect to me.” Another suggested that “He gets the benefit of being a pro without any stress.”

This may all be true, and I’m sure that Rene doesn’t want or need my pity. He’s a grown man who’s made his own career choices. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering how he felt on the day of the FA Cup 3rd Round tie against Burton when, with Heurelho Gomes given a day off, Costel Pantilimon started in goal and Giedrius Arlauskis (not even included in the Premier League squad for the first half of the season) was on the bench rather than Rene. It seemed to prove my point. You get the feeling that, if a freak illness struck down the aforementioned trio of keepers, Walter Mazzarri would rather summon a wine-waiter from South Wales than entrust Rene with the gloves.

After the transfer window closed, Watford named their revised 25-man squad – which now includes Arlauskis as well as Gilmartin, effectively making the Irishman Watford’s first ever fourth-choice goalkeeper, and presumably meaning that he won’t even get to take part in the pre-match warmups any more.

I’ve been trying to think of another profession where this can happen: where a person can be handsomely paid, yet have no prospect of doing what they’re trained to do. The closest equivalent I can think of is an actor hired as an understudy to a star who never misses a performance. Then again, most understudies take minor roles in the production, so they still get to act.

But Rene Gilmartin never gets to play a competitive game of football (apart from rare run-outs for the Under-23s), despite the fact that this is presumably the one thing in life that he is really good at, the thing he dreamed of doing when he was a boy. I just looked up his statistics: in 12 years as a professional, he’s made fewer than 80 appearances.

You’ve got to admit that it’s an odd situation. It’s rather like me being paid to turn up at work five days a week, spend the day sitting round in reception and then going home again. I don’t think I’d find that very fulfilling, salary or no salary.

I hope Rene enjoys the training, and the cameraderie of being part of a squad, and hopefully he gets to pass on the benefits of what little experience he has to the younger goalkeepers at the club. But I would like to see him get the opportunity to play for Watford one day. The fact that this seems unlikely is just one facet of the increasing strangeness of modern football.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

I’m not disappointed, just angry

Regular readers will know that I don’t often react to individual matches, but sometimes you’ve got to make an exception. I’m just so angry about Watford’s performance against Millwall today that I need to get it off my chest.

First off, I’m angry that the club showed such disrespect to the world’s oldest and most famous cup competition by fielding an understrength team. (It’s easy to spot when Watford are fielding an understrength team, by the way: Guedioura is in it.) The FA Cup has provided many of the finest moments in the club’s history – arguably more than league football ever has – and to leave out so many of our best players for a tie that offered a great chance of reaching the 5th Round is unforgivable.

The argument will doubtless be that the first-choice players were being rested so that they’re fresh to face Arsenal on Tuesday night. But you’ll struggle to find a single Watford fan who thinks we’ve got the slightest chance of winning at the Emirates – not based on today’s performance, but based on a long string of poor performances stretching back to October, particularly those against the teams challenging for the league title.

No, the most likely scenario is that we’ll come away with a four- or five-nil defeat to add to today’s capitulation, so that the players go into next Saturday’s home game against Burnley (one we really need to win) even more demoralised than they are right now. That’s another reason a win today would have been so valuable – just to remind the players what it feels like.

I haven’t even got on to the tactics yet. It was bad enough when we played the same way against Burton (a game where Pantilimon touched the ball more than any outfield player), but to think that we could just amble around, passing the ball around the back four again and again, against a muscular Millwall team that had already seen off Bournemouth’s second string, was either naive or just plain stupid. We were weak, we were slow, we were completely lacking in imagination. Worst of all, we were completely unable to cope with Millwall’s tactical masterstroke, ie repeatedly lumping the ball up to a nippy striker. It was only a surprise it took them so long to score.

It seems a bit unfair to criticise a team where only three of the starting eleven (Britos, Kaboul and Guedioura) have played more than half a dozen games this season. Watson, Dja DjéDjé and Mariappa in particular have every excuse to be a bit rusty. But nothing excuses the technical inepititude on display today; from Guedioura wasting a free kick just outside the box by kicking it straight into touch, to Watson repeatedly mishitting passes, to Okaka’s many and varied failed attempts to cushion the ball and lay it off to a teammate, there was a constant stream of unforced errors. Indeed, it was an error (a lazily-hit backpass) that led directly to Pantilimon’s game-ending injury.

Last, but not least, I’m angry with Walter Mazzarri. At the start of the season we were told that playing with wing-backs was a sign of attacking intent, yet for much of today’s match Watford seemed so uninterested in attacking at all, I was beginning to wonder if the Pozzos had told them we needed the money from a replay. In the first half in particular, Dja DjéDjé and Mason repeatedly reached the halfway line when a teammate had the ball, only to stop abruptly, wasting the opportunity for them to receive the ball on the wing deep into Millwall’s half. You can only assume that was down to instructions they’d received.

It’s not just today, either. For weeks now, Watford have repeatedly approached games against supposedly weaker opposition (Middlesbrough, Palace, Burton, Millwall) with an almost complete lack of aggression and attacking intent. Whatever the opposite of an ‘up and at ’em’ approach is, we’ve perfected it. It’s painful to watch – and worse still, it’s not winning us matches (Burton excepted, and that’s now irrelevant).

So, either Walter is telling them to play that way, or he’s not getting his message across properly. Either way, it doesn’t reflect well on him. I’m not one to demand the manager’s head on a platter, and I don’t think it would help right now – not at this stage of the season. But he needs to show that he understands how to field a winning team pretty quickly, or the tentative chants of “Walter out!” in the away end today are going to get a hell of a lot louder.

Sunday, 22 January 2017


When I studied to be a journalist, you had to choose between two different courses: newspaper or periodical journalism. The newspaper course was all about rapid turnaround; find the story, write it up as succinctly as possible, publish it, move on to the next one. Periodical journalism was altogether more relaxed; find something interesting to write about, research it for a while, write a few thousand carefully chosen words. I studied periodical journalism.

That’s my excuse, anyway, for having failed to write anything apart from a couple of tweets since the news of Graham Taylor’s death broke 10 days ago. I’m not good at instant reactions; I need time to digest the news, to work out what I really want to say.

By now, there’s no point in me writing a heartfelt tribute to GT and what he meant to Watford FC, and to the town of Watford. Better writers than me have already done that, and done it beautifully. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Watford fan and you know where to find those tributes.

I’ve just caught up with the full 90-minute programme that BBC Radio 5 Live broadcast on the evening of his death, though, and I’m feeling another emotion now: anger. Not at the BBC, who did a fine job of remembering GT and his contribution to the world of football. Not even at Daily Mirror hack Harry Harris, who did his best to weasel out of accepting any responsibility for the vilification of GT during his stint as England manager.

No,  I’m angry that it takes the death of a man for his many strengths to be recognised and his few weaknesses to be properly analysed and understood. Not among Watford supporters, obviously. But if you’d asked fans of other clubs a month ago what they thought of when they heard the name Graham Taylor, there are plenty who’d have started with the word ‘turnip’ and gone on from there. I certainly know a few; you probably do too.

In his lifetime, fans of the clubs he’d managed, and the many people in football and the media who’d come into contact with him, knew what a kind, generous, witty and thoughtful man he was (not to mention a brilliant coach and man-manager). But for the mass of the English football-supporting public, he was simply the hapless buffoon who’d failed to get England to the World Cup and been filmed making an idiot of himself in the process. I’m angry that no one in a position of influence ever managed to correct that impression, and that it took his untimely death for that to happen.

There’s something else that’s bothering me, too. One of the anecdotes related on the BBC radio tribute was from an England game when GT was in the dugout. Some England fans were abusing John Barnes, and GT turned around and said to one of them: “That’s a human being you’re talking about.” I’ve been thinking about that, and about all the players and managers I’ve abused from the safety of my seat 20 rows back from the goal line – and I’m fairly mild-mannered, compared to many fans.

It’s all part of football, of course, the theatre of the game, the gladiatorial combat – booing the bad guys is as important as cheering the good guys. But I used to work with someone whose seat in the old Main Stand was in the row in front of Lee Nogan’s family, and she told me how upset they got when the Watford fans gave him stick (and fans of a certain age will remember that he got plenty). That’s always stayed with me. That’s a human being you’re talking about – and his parents may well be listening to you abuse him.

This is all getting a bit dark, so I’ll end these ramblings with an equally rambling list of just some of the memories GT gave me, days and nights that lit up my late teens and early 20s, and then my mid-30s. In no particular order: Luther’s two headers at Old Trafford in the League Cup (witnessed in a highlights package on Sportsnight after I’d managed to avoid learning the result); 7-1 against Southampton in the same competition; 4-0 against Hull to win promotion from Division 3 on a balmy summer’s evening; 2-0 against Wrexham to do the same from Division 2, the only time I ever ran on the pitch; 8-0 against Sunderland; the Corinthian Casuals game where the players wore vintage kit and GT dressed as a Victorian-era manager; the UEFA Cup home games; FA Cup away trips at Wolves (3-0), Birmingham (3-1) and Arsenal (ditto); Villa Park and Wembley, 1984; the goalfests in the failed attempt to avoid relegation when he came back, led by the unlikely strikeforce of Devon White and David Connolly; Ronnie Rosenthal’s perfect half-season; winning the title at Fulham; the overwhelming emotions of the play-off final against Bolton, two days after my father died.

I could go on forever. Thanks GT. RIP.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Choice remarks

Back in July, I wrote an excitable post about the number and range of striking options available to Walter Mazzarri as he took charge of his new team. Given that Stefano Okaka’s brace against Everton are the only goals scored by a Watford striker since Troy notched up his 99th goal against Bournemouth on October 1st, it seems like a good time to revisit that list. Where did it all go wrong?

Troy Deeney
He will deny it, of course, but it’s hard not to conclude that the pressure of being on 99 Watford goals is getting to Troy. In every game since Bournemouth he’s had chances to reach 100, but he’s muffed them all. It’s a shame, because that cultured lob at West Ham was the goal of a striker at the peak of his powers. If we ever get awarded a penalty (I don’t think we’ve had one yet this season), that may be his best chance to get the monkey off his back.

Odion Ighalo
A shadow of his former self, and now fourth choice when all the forwards are fit. As I’ve written before, I can’t help thinking the illness and subsequent death of his father had something to do with his drastic loss of form. All strikers go through dry spells, but we’re beyond that now. I would send him on loan to a Championship club in January in the hope that he can rediscover his mojo against weaker defences. If that doesn’t work, or if he refuses to go, then sell him.

Obbi Oularé
Currently on a season-long loan to Zulte Waregem in Belgium, where he’s scored one goal in nine appearances. It’s anyone’s guess whether we’ll ever see him in a Watford shirt again, but I don’t think we’ll be negotiating an emergency recall just yet.

Matej Vydra
I said in July that if we received a decent offer for Matty, he’d be off, and Derby duly obliged. Two goals in 17 appearances to date suggests that he’s not finding Championship defences as obliging as he used to, and that we made the right decision.

Mathias Ranegie
Here’s a thing: the big Swede is still a Watford player. He’s been on loan at Djurgaardens in Sweden, where the season ended in November (he scored six goals in 25 appearances), so he should theoretically be back at London Colney now, training with the rest of the Watford squad. I say ‘theoretically’, as I doubt that’s the case, somehow.

Adalberto Peñaranda
The teenage prodigy (he’s still only 19) is on loan at Udinese, where he’s only made five appearances (four off the bench) and has had injury problems. Jon Sinclair’s invaluable player listing at says he’s due to join Watford properly next season. We’ll see. Another one for the future.

Isaac Success
A handful of exciting substitute appearances and an all-action performance at Middlesbrough have been enough to saddle Isaac with the burden of the fans’ expectations, and with Troy and Iggy faltering, it would be great if he could step up over the Christmas period. But the fact that Walter is so reluctant to give him a start suggests that he still hasn’t put his injury problems behind him.

Jerome Sinclair
Another who Walter has used sparingly, until his surprise selection in midweek, suggesting it’s taken him a while to get up to speed. I haven’t seen him play yet, so I can’t really comment. But at the rate the injuries are piling up, he may get his chance soon.

Alex Jakubiak
Last year’s under-21 goal machine is currently warming the bench at League One Fleetwood, where he’s only made it onto the pitch three times. Given that he’s the same age as Sinclair and Success, and a year older that Peñaranda, I don’t rate his chances of making it at Vicarage Road, sadly.

Stefano Okaka
Not included in my original list, as he hadn’t signed at that point, but I’m very glad he did. Like Success, injury has limited him to a handful of promising cameo performances so far. If he could get properly fit, he could be a key player in the second half of the season.

So there you go. We still have nine strikers on the books, and yet they’ve only scored seven league goals between them so far. It’s not good enough, is it?

Personally, I’d like to see us line up with a front three of Deeney, Okaka and Success, or Deeney and Okaka supported by Success and Amrabat on the wings. There’s enough muscle and talent there to frighten any Premier League defence. Whether we’ll ever get the chance to see that, though, is the big question.

Friday, 9 December 2016

The family way

There are three main ways in which people choose which football team to support: they follow the example of a parent or sibling; support their local club; or jump on the bandwagon of whichever club is the most popular or successful at the time. (There is also a fourth way, which you could call random selection – as exercised by my younger brother, who suddenly announced on the morning of the 1975 FA Cup final that he was going to support whichever team won. He’s been a West Ham fan ever since.)

I took the second route. Growing up in Bushey Heath, and having discovered (via the publicity given to the Hornets’ 1970 FA Cup run) that there was a football club in the town where we did our family shopping, I persuaded my dad to take me to Vicarage Road, and a lifelong love affair began. But I could just as easily have become a Lincoln City fan.

That’s because my father grew up in Lincoln and used to go and watch his local club. (This being in the 1930s, you could apparently go to the game, buy a programme, get some chips on the way home and still have change from a farthing.) To be honest, I don’t think he was really a fan. When it came to sport, he’d rather play than watch, and by the time I was interested in football he showed no sign of taking any special interest in Lincoln City’s fortunes. Hence I was free to follow my own path.

But recently I spent a few days in Lincolnshire researching my family history, and I got to wondering how it would have been if I had decided to follow my father’s team, albeit from afar. I’d never have got to see my favourites play in the top division or Europe, that’s for sure; Lincoln hold the record for the most seasons in the Football League (104) without ever reaching the top tier. The pinnacle of their achievement is fifth place in the Second Division, way back in 1902.

In contrast, they’ve been relegated from the League more times (five) than any other club, and are currently in their sixth consecutive season in the National League. They’re having a good season, as it happens; they’re currently in second place and have made the FA Cup 3rd Round. Then again, to put it into perpective, they’re only seven places ahead of another local team I could have picked as a boy – the mighty Boreham Wood.

In a way, none of this matters. I know people (not least my brother) who’ve followed a team from a distance for years, rarely seeing them play in the flesh, and they’re no less supporters for that. If I’d followed in my father’s footsteps, I would doubtless now be able to reel off statistics about the club and compile lists of favourite players, just like any other long-time Lincoln fan.

But I wouldn’t have seen them play getting on for 1,000 times, and I wouldn’t have experienced that satisfying sense of the fortnightly home game being an established part of my life’s routine, as it has been for the past 40-odd years. So all in all, I’m glad Dad never tried to persuade me to follow his boyhood team.

And of course, there is one particular link between the Hornets and the Imps that changed the course of footballing history: I’ve always been obscurely proud that, of all the places where Graham Taylor could have served his managerial apprenticeship, it happened to be Lincoln.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Not angry, just... irritated

Yesterday’s game against Hull was hugely irritating; for Watford to be so dominant and yet fail to get a shot on target is the kind of performance that drives fans mad. Most irritating of all is the thought of how good this Watford team could be, if the many obvious talents it contains could just knit together a bit better. And yet we’re seventh in the table, having kept three clean sheets in a row. I realise that it looks churlish to complain.

We’ve been here before, of course. Last December, Quique’s team were riding on the crest of a wave, scoring goals and winning matches they weren’t expected to, and it looked like the only way was up. We all know what happened next, so I’m reserving judgement for now.

In the meantime, to give vent to my frustration, here are five more things about Watford that I find irritating at the moment:

1) Lack of fixture congestion
One of the wonderful things about being in the Premier League, we’re told, is the chance to play all these exciting games against great teams. Except it isn’t, is it? Yesterday’s match was our first at Vicarage Road for 28 days, and it’s another 21 till the next one. So that’s a 49-day period with just 90 minutes of football for home fans to enjoy – 90 minutes against an opponent that packed the midfield and showed minimal attacking intent.

2) Woke up one morning, almost missed the game
It’s not exclusive to the Premier League, but the moving of kick-off times is a major irritant. Midday on a Sunday for a home game against Stoke next month? And then the away game in January against the same team moved from a bank holiday afternoon to the following evening? Others have complained far more eloquently than I can about this issue, so let’s just register it and move on.

3) The lost boys
I really miss the days when any Watford team that took the pitch included at least a couple of homegrown players, and it would be nice to think that we can roll out the “he’s one of our own” chant again one day.

I get it, of course. At the level we’re now playing at, we need greater skill and experience than any youngster produced by our Academy is likely to possess. In summer 2015, the transfer policy deliberately prioritised older players with the nous to keep us up for that first crucial season in the Premier League, and this year we’ve apparently got the oldest team in the division.

It doesn’t help that, judging by what I read about Harry Kewell’s under-23 ‘development’ squad, they would struggle to beat Wealdstone at the moment. If the aim of that set-up is for young players to learn lots of different ways of losing to clubs with inferior resources, they’re doing a great job. But it’s hard to see any of those youngsters bridging the gap to the first-team squad any time soon.

4) What’s the score?
Why don’t we get a full set of half-time scores from all four divisions (plus Scotland) any more? The other Premier League scores are read out, and maybe the Championship if we’re lucky, and that’s it. I used to hate that when it happened at away grounds (usually at clubs that considered themselves too grand to look downwards – Leeds springs to mind), and now we’re showing the same arrogance.

English football consists of four professional divisions, and Watford should celebrate that heritage, which we’ve been part of at every level in the not so distant past. The examples of clubs like Portsmouth, Bolton and Coventry show that it would be foolish to assume we’ll never find ourselves back in the lower leagues again.

Besides, I miss the chance to cheer when it’s announced that Luton are losing at half-time.

5) Z-Ca-
One tradition the club has, thankfully, maintained is the playing of the Z-Cars theme when the teams run out. Well, sort of. We get the first verse or so as the players make their way from the tunnel to the silly branded arch they have to line up in front of, and then the music abruptly switches to something modern and pompous, destroying the mood. I miss that bonkers solo in the middle (is it a clarinet?) more than I can express.

You can see the thinking. Playing Z-Cars is a sop to the fans (especially old gits like me), but it’s the sort of thing the club would prefer to keep to a minimum in the shiny modern world of the Premier League.