Sunday, 30 November 2008

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time...

I can’t bring myself to write anything about yesterday’s farrago. I’m just going to keep reminding myself that Brendan Rodgers has been waiting to manage a football club for 15 years, so maybe it’s understandable if he’s behaving like a kid with the key to a sweetshop right now. With a bit of luck he’ll calm down soon.

Instead I’m just going to post the link to a wonderful YouTube video that takes me right back to my teenage years. Enjoy!

Monday, 3 November 2008

You’ve had your fun

Well, so much for that. Forget everything I’ve written in the past couple of weeks. With Aidy gone, so is the fun – and the hope of greater things for Watford. I’d love to be proved wrong, but common sense says that with money as tight as a gnat’s chuff, our chances of hiring a half-decent manager are on a par with Russell Brand’s chances of taking over Jonathan Ross’s chat show.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

The benefits of amputation

When I drive to Watford games, I always park in the same place: a school playground in Watford Fields. For as long as I’ve been parking there, the bloke who takes the money at the entrance has had something wrong with his left foot. It’s invariably been in bandages or plaster, and sometimes he’s needed a stick to help him walk.

When I arrived yesterday, he didn’t have a stick – he had a wheelchair, and a bandaged stump where the bottom half of his left leg used to be. As I wound down the car window, he greeted me as he always does: “How are you today?”

“Oh, I’m all right,” I replied. (Actually I’ve got a touch of ’flu at the moment, but it didn’t seem appropriate to mention it.) “You don’t look so good, though.”

"No, no – I feel better than I have done for years,” he assured me. “Don’t worry about me. I’m still alive and kicking – well, maybe not kicking,” he added with a smile, nodding down at his stump.

As I was walking up Occupation Road a few minutes later, it occurred to me that this wasn’t such a bad metaphor for what’s happened to Watford in the last few months. The limb that we initially thought was indispensible was the piles of filthy lucre we were promised when we won the play-off final. But as it turned out, it was diseased from the start, riddled with raised expectations and pressure to succeed at all costs. The ultimate result was the creeping ossification that was last season [apologies if I’m muddling my medical terminology here; I’m a writer, not a doctor].

Then, over the summer, came the amputation, as signalled by the sales of Darius Henderson and Danny Shittu and the admission that we needed the money more than we needed decent players. For a few weeks we all fretted and wrung our hands and wondered where all the money had gone.

Then the season began, and what do you know? It’s the most fun we’ve had in years, with entertaining, incident-packed games, a committed squad full of spirit, and a general sense that anything could happen at any time. Unfortunately, you get the feeling that Aidy won’t be happy until we grind out a succession of efficient but dull 1-0 wins, but I doubt he’ll get his wish any time soon.

Of course, this feeling of joyous unpredictability will probably only last until the transfer window opens in January and the asset-strippers move in. I doubt we could survive a second amputation quite so cheerfully. So let’s enjoy it while we can. I know I am.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

The pantomime season

That’s surely how we’re going to remember 2008/09 if it goes on the way it’s begun. Bizarre injuries, the goal that wasn’t, Watford conceding ridiculous numbers of penalties, a Watford keeper actually saving a penalty (never mind three in a row), sendings-off, deflected goals, unlikely comebacks – it’s not even November and there’s already been enough incident for two or three seasons.

And I’ll tell you what – it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than last season. Aidy might be tearing his hair out, but for me at least, Watford matches have become something to look forward to again.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

A question of balance

If a footballer is lucky enough to have a full career, they’re probably looking at about 18 years of first-team football, divided into three phases:

Promising – from around 18, when a player is likely to break into the first team, to 23, they’re still developing and learning their trade. But if they haven’t become a first-team regular by 23, they’re probably never going to be one
Prime time – most footballers (apart from goalkeepers, who mature later) are be at their peak between the ages of 24 and 29
Past it – anyone over 30 is liable to be referred to as ‘grandad’ by teammates and fans alike. In fact, modern fitness regimes mean that plenty of players are capable of delivering the goods well into their 30s if they don’t get injured

I’ve always thought that as a manager, you probably want a squad that’s composed of roughly equal numbers from these three categories: a group of eager youngsters to give the team energy; a core of players in their prime who can be relied on to perform week in, week out; and a few wise old heads who can slot in when experience is required.

So how does this year’s Watford squad measure up? Here’s a breakdown by age on the first day of the season (August 9th):

19 – O’Toole, Robinson
20 – Loach, Ainsworth, Bangura
21 – Mariappa, Ashikodi, Avinel
22 – Hoskins, Priskin
23 – Sadler

25 – Doyley, Lee
26 – McAnuff, Williamson, Williams
28 – Bromby, Demerit, Eustace, Harley, Smith
29 – Francis, Rasiak

36 – Poom

I’ve only included players who’ve already appeared in the first team in the league or FA Cup – obviously, if you take into account the likes of Lewis Young, Liam Henderson and Jordan Parkes, all of them regulars in the League Cup squad, the picture becomes even more skewed towards the younger end of the scale.

But even without them, you can see the problem: plenty of raw young talent, a solid bunch of players in their prime – but not a single outfield player over 30, someone Aidy could put on the pitch to shore up a hole or calm down a tricky situation, not to mention using their experience to mentor younger players. I’m thinking of the role played by Chris Powell, for example, when he was at the club.

Then again, it’s good to know that most of the first team are at their professional peak, or should be. And looking at the squad listed by age helps to make sense of Aidy’s transfer policy since the turn of the year, with Bromby, Eustace, Harley and Rasiak all helping to bulk out the experienced end of the squad, and only Sadler and Collins John under 24.

The other thing that becomes painfully obvious is something we already knew: the lack of experience up front. Last year we had King, Henderson, Ellington and Kabba, all of them in the prime of their careers: this year we’ve got Rasiak (currently injured) and then a selection of promising strikers with very little pedigree. A pessimist would wonder where the goals are going to come from: an optimist would say the opportunity is there for one or more of the youngsters to make a name for themselves…

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Thank the Lloyd

It was a great relief to return from my summer hols and discover that Lloyd Doyley is not only still at the club, but was first-choice right back for the opening game of the season. What’s more, he was even captain for the League Cup tie last night. You just can’t keep a good man down, and thank god for that.

So I don’t have to worry about choosing a new favourite player this season: Lloyd has held the title for a few years now, and maybe this will be the season when he finally scores that goal.

Hey, we can all dream...

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

A few good men

I’m old enough to remember when foreign players were a novelty, and having one in your team was a sign of daring. In 1981, when Graham Taylor signed Dutchman Jan Lohman from Belgian club Sporting Lokeren (which was confusing as well as exciting), it was only three years since the arrival of Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa at Spurs had alerted English clubs to the fact that it was actually legal to sign players who weren’t natives of the British Isles.

Still, it’s only in the past decade or so that buying foreign players has become commonplace, at Vicarage Road as elsewhere. And you have to say, Watford managers haven’t generally made the best choices. There have been a few foreign imports who’ve started well and then faded away, either through injury (Ronnie Rosenthal, ‘Bunion’ Ben Iroha), a drop in form (Espen Baardsen, Johann Cavalli) or general lunacy (Xavier Gravelaine). There have been plenty who have been, well, not very good in the first place, such as Johann Gudmundsson, Pierre Issa, Paul Okon, Ramon Vega and my all-time least favourite Watford player, Patrick Blondeau. And there have been far too many who have been all but invisible to all but the most dedicated followers of the reserve team - award yourself a point if you ever saw Lars Melvang, Sietes, Herwig Walker, Adam Griffiths, Adrian Bakalli or Tony Meola in action.

So choosing my all-time favourite foreign Watford players wasn’t actually all that difficult when it came down to it. Here they are, in reverse order. (NB: For the purposes of this list I’ve ignored anyone from the British Isles - sorry, Dominic Foley - and anyone whose international selection was achieved using the Jack Charlton “You like Guinness, you must be Irish” principle – sorry Micah, sorry Marlon):

5) Nordin Wooter (Netherlands, 1999-2002, 70 games, 3 goals)
Look in the dictionary under ‘flattering to deceive’ and you’ll find a picture of Wooter – but by God, it was fun watching him deceive us. For much of his time at Vicarage Road he seemed on the verge of becoming the best winger in the world, handicapped only by a mystifying unwillingness to actually cross the ball or shoot at the goal. Just once, it all came together: a home game against Norwich on a sunny spring day when he picked up the ball around the halfway line, dribbled around the entire Canaries defence (or so it seemed at the time) and thumped the ball into the net with the aplomb of a man who knew he was capable of it all the time. For that goal alone, he makes my top five.

4) Allan Nielsen (Denmark, 2000-03, 113 games, 19 goals)
One of those midfielders you only really appreciate when they’re no longer there (from Les Taylor to Gavin Mahon, Watford has a history of them), Nielsen ran his socks off for Watford during some tough times, providing unparalleled commitment and a handy knack of appearing in the six-yard box in time to get on the end of a cross. But what I really remember is his final game, and the moving farewell the Rookery gave him when Ray Lewington substituted him a few minutes from the end. Not many players get that kind of send-off.

3) Filippo Galli (Italy, 2001-02, 29 games, 1 goal)
Vialli signed a lot of rubbish, but Galli was his one undisputed gem, a central defender of true class and grace, capable of snuffing out an attack and redistributing the ball with the minimum of fuss. Not for him the clumsy foul or the hurried booting of the ball into the back of the stand. Seeing Galli play in the heart of Watford’s defence was like turning up at the pub to watch your local blues band and finding that the guitarist has been replaced by Eric Clapton. In that miserable season, he was one of the few players I truly admired.

2) Richard Johnson (Australia, 1991-2003, 278 games, 22 goals)
It’s the goals I remember most – above all, a last-minute screamer to beat Wolves in a midweek game when GT was in charge of the opposition. Looking at the stats, I’m surprised to find he only scored 22, or around 2 for each season he was at the club. I suppose the fact that those he scored were mostly spectacular long-range efforts that left goalkeepers looking foolish tricks the memory. As for his midfield skills, I don’t have the appreciation of tactics necessary to do justice to them. I only know that his enforced absence due to injury for the majority of that first season in the Premiership was one of the main reasons we went down. If only...

1) Heidar Helguson (Iceland, 2000-2005, 199 games, 64 goals)
What can you say about Heidar? There have been better strikers at Watford - you wouldn’t bet on him in a one-on-one with the keeper, for instance – but few who were more whole-hearted. His heading ability still astounds me when I recall it, the way he could outjump defenders who were a foot taller than him. He never stopped running, never stopped trying, even when he was inexplicably stuck out on the wing by Vialli. I’d take him back in a flash, even now. You want strikers in your team who look like all they want to do is score goals, and that is Heidar Helguson.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Au revoir to the French connection

As far as I can tell, the sale of Toumani Diagouraga to Hereford a couple of weeks ago puts an end to the much-vaunted ‘French connection’ that saw talented young players plucked from the Parisian suburbs and whisked off to Vicarage Road (or London Colney, at any rate). There were articles in the Watford Observer and on the club website, and a general sense that we’d stolen a march on bigger clubs by scouting players they hadn’t spotted.

But what did it all amount to in the end? Diagouraga, touted a year or two back as ‘the new Vieira’, only managed six first-team appearances – and three of those were in the League Cup. Now he seems to have found his level a couple of divisions lower down the league.

Then there were Marvin Homand and Gauthier Diafutua, neither of whom got within a sniff of the first-team squad, disappearing quietly out of the back door after a season or two in the reserves. A quick Google reveals that Diafutua is now with AFC Tubize, newly promoted to the Belgian 1st Division, while Homand is nowhere to be found.

The exception, of course, is Hameur Bouazza, who we got one half-decent season out of before he decided he was destined for bigger things and buggered off to Fulham. (I noticed the other day that they’re thinking of lending him to Charlton this year - so much for bigger things...)

Maybe the money we got for Hameur paid for the whole operation, and a one in four success rate – however briefly we got to enjoy that success – isn’t so bad. But I can’t help feeling sad that what was talked up as a potential injection of gallic flair into the Hornets squad ended up producing about as much invigoration as a couple of cans of Red Bull.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Thank God it’s all over

I’ve had a week to digest it, and I haven’t changed my opinion that 2007/08 was one of the most unpleasant, and strangest, seasons I can remember in thirtysomething years of supporting the Hornets. Unpleasant because of the combination of hopeless football on the pitch and seething rancour in the stands – how many times were the team booed off the pitch at half- and/or full-time? And strange because for much of this time, in the midst of the mindless hoofing and the angry jeering, we sat at the top of the table and dared to dream of promotion. Even despite the painful end-of-season slump, I make this the 13th most successful season in Watford’s history (behind eight years in the top flight, three promotion seasons and one previous failed attempt at the play-offs).

It was also strange for being so utterly joyless. We football fans, hardened cynics as we are, can usually find something to laugh about, even in the pit of despair. Take the Vialli season: it was absolute pants, but I still have fond memories of the uselessness of Blondeau, Vega and Hughes (you had to laugh or else you’d cry), Pierre Issa falling off the stretcher, the inability of Paul Okon to make any impression whatsoever on a match...

Yet the hardened cynic and the incurable optimist live side by side, often in the same person, and the spirit Watford displayed in those two play-off games has given us a reason to dream again, and to utter that deathless phrase: there’s always next season. Even while acknowledging that the standard of the Championship is unlikely to be so low again for a while (well, at least until this season’s three promoted teams come back down in a year’s time), there are grounds for optimism.

For me, the main one is Aidy’s public acknowledgement that he needs to give the younger players in the squad a chance to show what they can do. He’s said this before, of course, without necessarily keeping his promise. This year only John-Joe O’Toole broke into the first team, though it seems likely that Jordan Parkes would have done the same if it weren’t for an untimely injury that ultimately forced Aidy to buy a replacement for Jordan Stewart rather than using the player he’d been grooming for the role.

Next year I hope to see, at the very least, Parkes and Theo Robinson making the matchday squad regularly. Moses Ashikodi ought to get a chance, too, and there’s been much talk of Scott Loach taking over the goalie’s jersey (though it’s a brave manager who pitches a 20-year-old with half a season of 4th division football behind him straight into the maelstrom of the Championship). Then there’s Tamas Priskin, who’s still only 21 – his status as an international makes it easy to forget that he’s still learning his trade.

Add to them a fit Gareth Williams, and maybe an experienced striker and centre-half, and you’ve got the makings of a decent squad. We’ll see. And we’ll also see if Aidy can keep another of his promises - to freshen up the playing style. God knows he needs to.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Must we throw this filth at our kids?

On my way to the game yesterday, I found myself walking along Liverpool Road and up Occupation Road behind a man and his young son. From the questions the boy was asking, it was clear that this was his very first football match. For instance, he asked if there would be commentary, like on the telly, and his dad had to explain that no, there wouldn’t, but they would announce the names of goalscorers and substitutes.

Mind you, dad was clearly far from an expert himself: when his son asked what time the match kicked off, he answered with a rather hesitant “Three o’clock – at least, I think so.” Apparently he’d only been to two football matches before: a Bristol derby when he was a student in that city, and a Liverpool v Everton FA Cup final at Wembley which ended in a draw, which must therefore have been the 1989 final.

The main question going through my head at this stage was: why now? Why break an 18-year gap between matches with Watford v Scunthorpe? Dad wasn’t dressed smartly enough for one of the corporate hospitality areas, so they were presumably attending as paying punters. And it seemed unlikely they were armchair Hornets who’d finally decided to see a match in person, especially as dad reeled off a list of all the replica shirts the boy owned, which included those of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea.

In contrast, after the match, the main question that occurred to me was: would either of them ever return to Vicarage Road? Why would anyone want to sit through another 90 minutes of the tentative, unimaginative football currently served up by Aidy’s team, unless (like me) they had years of emotional investment in the club?

Then again, my first game at Vicarage Road was in 1970, a season when we only won six games and scored 18 goals at home. From there it got steadily worse, with two relegations in the next four seasons - but somehow it didn’t matter to me, and I was still there when GT arrived to make everything better.

So maybe that innocent little six-year-old won’t have been put off by the shower of shite he witnessed yesterday. As for me, I just want the season to be over now.

Monday, 7 April 2008

The joy of bets

The HornetsBet link is one of the better features of the official site – which, let’s face it, no one would bother with if it wasn’t for the occasional snippet of genuine news lurking among the marketing messages.

I usually have a few punts before each home game, betting a maximum of five quid on various items, at anything between one pound and two pounds fifty a time. First goalscorer is one of my more successful categories, as the odds are so crudely calculated (not surprisingly, since the Bet365 site as a whole carries odds for a bewildering variety of sporting possibilities). Strikers get the shortest odds, then wingers, central midfielders, centre-backs and finally full-backs – okay, it’s slightly more complicated than that, but not a lot. So if your side has a regular penalty taker who doesn’t play up front, for instance, the odds on him getting the first goal will be longer than they should be.

In Watford’s case, this means that Danny Shittu is usually a decent 16-1 to score the first goal in a game, despite his record this year; ditto John-Joe O’Toole, who looks to have more goals in him than most Hornets midfielders of recent years.

Since I’m putting on such small amounts, it’s barely worth betting on anything where the odds are shorter than 10-1. I often have a punt on a slightly unlikely score - usually 3-1 (NB: I never, ever bet against Watford), since we’ve won a few games by that score this season - and sometimes I try one of the ‘Match specials’, things like ‘Watford to score a penalty’ (actually, I don’t think I’ve ever put money on that) or ‘Watford to win from behind’.

And finally, just for fun, I usually do a ‘Scorecast’, where you have to predict not only the first goalscorer, but also the final score. It’s a bit like a horse racing accumulator, and just as unlikely to come off. So if I could work out why, when I sat down to place my bets on Saturday morning, I selected ‘Nathan Ellington’ and ‘Watford win 2-1’ from the dropdown menus - what mystical force was influencing my mouse hand, what powerful visions of the future I was subconsciously channelling – I’d gladly tell you. The truth is, it seemed as likely as any other eventuality in this topsy-turvy season, and as a result I’m now £35 richer.

PS: Well, you didn’t expect me to write about the actual match, did you?

Sunday, 17 February 2008

No one likes us...

Having seen two of the three games in what may turn out to be a defining week in Watford’s season (one of the oddest I can remember in my 38 years of supporting the ’orns), I’d like to make two observations about Aidy Boothroyd’s team.

The first is that we are *not* one of the two best teams in the Championship this season. West Brom made mincemeat of us at the Vic in the autumn, and in both games against Charlton, they’ve managed to make us look very pedestrian at times. Indeed, though it pains me to say it, numerous visitors to Vicarage Road – some of them nowhere near the promotion places – have shown far more attacking flair than the Golden Boys.

The second is that it doesn’t matter, because this Watford team has a quality of sheer cussedness that makes it more than capable of overcoming its limited ability. Defending a one-goal lead with 10 men for an entire half; coming back from the dead to steal two points from a promotion rival – these are feats not to be underestimated, feats that not many teams are capable of.

What’s also clear is that it irritates the hell out of opposing fans and managers, who – in the past week alone – have variously accused us of being boring, lucky and favoured by the referee. But who cares? We’ve already beaten 13 of the other 23 teams in this division, and we’ve got a second crack at eight of the remaining 10.

I still don’t feel qualified to predict where Watford will finish this season, but I’m pretty sure it will be somewhere between first and sixth. I just can’t see this dogged, bloody-minded (and occasionally brilliant, let’s not forget that) team letting even a play-off place slip out of its grasp.

Oh, and the two teams who’ve definitely escaped a beating this season? QPR and Charlton. And guess which two away games I’ve been to...

Thursday, 7 February 2008

The pecking order

One thing we can’t complain about this season is a lack of strikers. Even with Marlon gone, the hefty Hornets squad still contains eight of them by my reckoning (and that’s not counting young Liam Henderson, who made the bench for the Southend League Cup tie in August). What’s so fascinating is the constant ebb and flow in the pecking order among our would-be goal aces. Here’s my take on the current placings:

1) Darius Henderson
The top scorer in the squad since Marlon’s departure, Doris is the closest we’ve got to an automatic pick up front. I’m not his biggest fan (shouldn’t someone that tall score more headed goals?), but there’s no denying his workrate, his tenacity and his valuable ability to be in the right spot to knock them in from inside the penalty area.

2) Nathan Ellington
Finally getting the run in the first team he so obviously needed. Let’s hope his two goals to date are just the start, and that he goes on to make a key contribution in the run-in. He’s certainly got the pedigree to do so.

3) Steve Kabba
I know, I know. Who’d have guessed it? He’s never been so high in this list before, and he may never be so high again, but right now Steve is making a serious bid for a starting berth. As the commentator on Sky pointed out during last Saturday’s game, all that running rarely results in any worthwhile end product (and let’s face it, that far-post header isn’t going to win Goal of the Season) – but still, Watford fans love a trier, and Steve is trying with all his might right now.

4) Collins John
He hasn’t even made the squad yet, so he’s there purely on reputation and potential. And because he’s got to be better than...

5) Tamas Priskin
I'm sorry, Tamas. I've given you the benefit of the doubt for a year now, excusing your ineffectual performances on the basis that it’s hard to show what you can offer when all you get is the odd 10 minutes here and there at the end of a game. Aidy said earlier this season that of all his strikers, you had the potential to be the very best, and I usually believe what Aidy says. But this time I’m going to have to take issue with him. After watching that gutless performance against Wolves in the Cup, I just don’t think you’ve got what it takes.

6) Theo Robinson
I suspect (and hope) that if I compile this list in a year’s time, Theo will be several places higher. Aidy recognised the skinny youngster’s potential by giving him a debut at Loftus Road two seasons ago, and he didn’t look out of his depth then. A season on loan at Hereford has given him the chance to show he’s a genuine goalscorer (he’s got 10 so far), and I reckon he’ll come back next year and make a strong case for a place in the matchday squad.

7) Moses Ashikodi
I almost put Moses ahead of Theo, but in the end, his injury-plagued time at Vicarage Road counts against him. Put simply, he’s hardly played, though when he has (notably the FA Cup tie against Stockport, where he scored a classic poacher's goal) he’s looked pacy and hungry. If his current loan spell at Swindon works out well, he should be challenging Theo for that spot on the bench next year.

8) Will Hoskins
Would have been higher, but this week’s loan move to Forest (with an option to buy in the summer) signals that Will’s time at Vicarage Road is pretty much up. He was unlucky in that Aidy pitched him straight into a hopeless battle against relegation last year, and he never really got a chance to show the skills in front of goal that we’d signed him for. If he’d only had to step up one division instead of two, it might have been a different story.