Sunday, 11 November 2012

Best. Awayday. Ever.

One of the benefits of being married to a Yorkshire lass is that I get to lord it over Leeds fans. My other half comes from Ossett, a few miles south of Leeds, and many of her male relatives and her friends’ husbands support United – and fortuitously, for much of the 10 years that we’ve been together, Watford have outperformed Leeds for what is probably the only prolonged such period in football history. The Championship Play-off Final in Cardiff was a particular highlight, obviously, but opportunities for smugness keep on coming.

For the last three seasons I’ve made the trip to Elland Road in the company of Richard, the husband of one of my wife’s oldest friends and a long-suffering Leeds fan. Having watched his first game in 1967, he’s witnessed plenty of glory in his time, but has nothing but contempt for the current regime, and refuses to put money in Ken Bates’s pocket by going to games – other than my annual visit, bless him. Two years ago we saw a 2-2 draw (with the Hornets only minutes away from an unlikely win), and last season we won 2-0.

But nothing could have prepared me (or Richard) for yesterday’s match, one of the most extraordinarily action-packed games I’ve ever seen. You’ll have seen the match reports, so I won’t run through the litany of incidents here. The point I want to make it is that the identity of the opposition made it exquisitely enjoyable – it just wouldn’t have been so much fun if that had happened to Derby, say, or Ipswich. Now I’m looking forward to dropping the result into the conversation at forthcoming family parties. Winning 6-1 is all very well – but it’s the opportunity to gloat that makes it special.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Sorry seems to be the easiest word

Before the game yesterday, I popped into the Red Lion to have a chat with Lionel Birnie about Tales from the Vicarage, which he was selling there. The place was rammed with Hornets fans watching the Man U-Arsenal game on TV, and when I went to get us a couple of drinks, I found the queue at the bar was three deep.

After a few minutes, I spotted a precious couple of feet of space at the bar opening up, and used the technique (known to all Englishmen) of angling my shoulder into a narrow gap in order to ease the rest of my body through and claim the space.

Then a voice came from behind me: “If you don’t mind, I think I was in front of you.” The man didn’t sound aggressive, more irritated, but in any case I quickly stepped back and made way for him, apologising as I did so.

A moment or two later, he turned round. “I’m sorry mate, I didn’t mean to have a go at you,” he said. I assured him that it was okay, and that he was quite within his rights to say what he did. These things happened in busy pubs.

But that wasn’t the end of it. After a couple more minutes (I told you they were busy), he turned round again. “Look, you go in front of me. I shouldn’t have said that.” I told him again that it was fine, but he insisted, so I took advantage of the offer, assuring him that I’d be quick, as I was only getting two pints.

I dare say similar scenes were being enacted in pre-match pubs elsewhere in the country at the same time, but it struck me later that this trivial incident tells you a lot about Watford fans. We are, essentially, nice people who want to get on with everyone and don’t like upsetting others. It might mean that Vicarage Road is anything but a scary place for opposing teams, but, on the whole, I think it’s a good thing.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The big man

It’s entirely consistent with the theme of my contribution to Tales from the Vicarage that I don’t know any of my fellow contributors personally. But I have met one of them, many years ago.

In autumn 1989, I’d just started a journalism course. We each had to choose a specialism, and I picked sport – not because I had any ambition to be the next Brian Glanville (if I’d become a football reporter, I wouldn’t have been able to watch Watford every week), but just because it sounded like fun.

For our first assignment we were told to interview a sports writer we admired. I didn’t have to think about it for very long. For as long as I could remember, I’d spent every Friday poring over the three or four pages of the Watford Observer devoted to the Hornets, most of it written by Oliver Phillips. So I wrote to him at the paper, explaining my request, and was granted an audience.

On the big day, I turned up at the Observer offices on the Rickmansworth Road and was shown into a meeting room, where my nerves had time to simmer nicely (this was one of the first interviews I’d ever done) while I waited for the great man to arrive.

If there’s one thing everyone knows about Oliver Phillips, from the days when he would come out onto the pitch before the last game of the season to present the awards, it’s that he’s exceedingly tall. When you’re in a small room with him, that effect is magnified, and I can’t pretend I wasn’t intimidated.

It didn’t help that he wasn’t the friendliest of interviewees. He wasn’t unfriendly either, just… ‘stern’ is the closest I can get to describing his manner. The interview got off to a shaky start when he noticed that I wasn’t taking notes in shorthand. Why not? I explained apologetically that I’d only been learning shorthand for a couple of weeks. Then I told him a bit about the course, and sensed further disapproval when I explained that, because I was studying magazine journalism, I wouldn’t be taking the NCTJ exam that you needed to pass in those days if you wanted to work in newspapers. As a newspaper man of the old school, he didn’t seem to have much sympathy with magazines and the frivolous people who worked for them.

Undeterred, I asked him my prepared questions about how he’d got into journalism and his experiences following, and writing about, Watford, and in the process of answering them he mellowed a little. (I’ve occasionally thought about digging out the interview and posting it on this blog – but it was strictly off the record, and even after all these years, I have a residual fear that me might come after me with a writ if I did.) The story that always stuck with me was the one about the day in the early 60s when he got married in the morning and went to Vicarage Road to report on a match in the afternoon. Respect, as they say.

And respect for the man was what I ultimately came away from the interview with. I’d naively expected to meet a fellow enthusiast who I could chat to about the great players and matches he’d seen. He was an enthusiast, no doubt about it, but he was also deadly serious about his work, a professional journalist to his fingertips, and his duty to his readers came first. That's what made him – despite what various managers, directors and chairmen over the years may have thought – one of the finest and most loyal servants the club ever had. We were lucky to have him working on our behalf for so long.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

On the other hand

… later in the evening I came across a repeat of the first episode of another sitcom, Gavin and Stacey, and watched that. The writers’ world view here is essentially different from that of The Thick of It. Yes, the world is messy and chaotic, but people are essentially good and things will work themselves out for the best over time, for the most part.

Warmed by this alternative way of looking at things, I found myself looking at Watford’s performance in a different light...

So we’re not getting the results at the moment: they’ll come. The foreign players are still new to this division, and to each other, and it’s unrealistic to expect the team to play like a well-oiled machine straight away. Moreover, Zola is intelligent enough to realise when something isn’t working: the fact that his substitutions yesterday involved three experienced Championship hands replacing foreign imports suggests that he understands the limitations of his squad. He’ll find a way to get them firing on all cylinders soon – and when he does, we’ll start moving up the table.

Two ways of looking at the same situation, then. In the cold light of day, on a rainy Sunday morning, I still find myself leaning towards the Mannion view, but I’m open to persuasion otherwise. If Zola started the next match with Doyley, Hall and Deeney in place of Cassetti, Neuton and Forestieri, that would be a start.

Peter Mannion writes

I’m loving the new series of The Thick of It on BBC2 on Saturday evenings. For those who don’t know, it’s a no-punches-pulled satire that starts from the principle that politics is full of self-serving idiots blundering from one disaster to another. At the centre of this series is a lowly government Minister, Peter Mannion, an old-fashioned, well-meaning politician permanently enraged by the chaos that surrounds him.

Later, I found myself appraising Watford’s performance against Bristol City in Mannion’s exasperated tones...

Where do I start? Okay, Neuton is a disaster waiting to happen: whatever the opposite of an effective Championship defender is, he’s it. Cassetti has the speed of an arthritic turtle – every left winger in the division must be ringing the date in the diary when they get the chance to skin him. How he’s keeping Lloydinho out of the team, god only knows. Forestieri is the world champion at turning in a tight space, beating the same man three times and then either (a) giving the ball away, or (b) blasting it 10 feet wide of the goal. Vydra is too lightweight to play up front on his own. And the whole bloody of lot of them spent half the match standing still – where’s the movement, the urgency? Is it because they’re all so unfit that the only way they can make it to 90 minutes without collapsing is to conserve energy by running around less? And is that also why they tend to huddle together in small groups, so they can spend a couple of minutes passing the ball in neat triangles over a small space before losing it? I despair.

Then again…

Saturday, 8 September 2012

A brief commercial break

Surprisingly, I seem to have neglected to mention that I’m one of the select band who have contributed to an anthology of new writing about Watford FC, edited by Lionel Birnie and called Tales from the Vicarage. It’s out later this month, but it’s available to pre-order now. You can read full details here, including a list of the contributors and a summary of each chapter.

My piece is more personal than most of the opinionated nonsense I write on this blog, and it was challenging, but fun, to write. (Lionel asked me for around 5,000 words, which is about 4,000 more than the longest piece I’ve ever written about Watford before.) It’ll be the first – and almost certainly the last – time I’ve ever appeared in print alongside an England international, and I’m really looking forward to reading DJ’s and the other contributions. If you’re a Watford fan – and I’d be surprised if you’re not, since you’re reading this – it’s going to be essential reading.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

A motley crew

Is that it now? Do we have enough players to get us through the season? Or maybe we should get a few more in on loan, just to be on the safe side.

All right, enough sarcasm. But I can’t be the only Watford fan to find the steady stream of players arriving at Vicarage Road over the past few weeks (so many that the ‘Team’ section of the club website makes no mention of half of them) more dispiriting than exciting. Yes, Vydra, Abdi and Pudil look promising, and have added quality to positions where we needed it. But such a huge influx of new personnel can only be destabilising, surely?

Here are the questions that are uppermost in my mind at the moment:

1) Does Zola have any say in this?
A manager’s priority at the start of a season is to build a coherent, stable team as quickly as possible: it’s hard to do that when your squad is changing on a daily basis. Also, we’re often told that the challenge for managers with large squads is keeping those who aren’t playing regularly happy. I’d have thought that’s a challenge Zola, new to the club as he is, would rather not have to deal with right now.

2) Do we have to play them all?
If I’ve understood the Pozzos’ business model correctly, the point of us taking all these players on loan from Udinese and Granada is to put them in the shop window. That’s not going to happen if the only action they see is the occasional friendly against Wycombe or Stevenage reserves, though, so we should expect to see all the newcomers in first-team action at some stage. How Zola manages that without disrupting the team is anyone’s guess.

3) How do our homegrown players feel about this?
I’ve written before about the dispiriting effect of Sean Dyche’s transfer and selection policy on players like Lee Hodson, Dale Bennett and Ross Jenkins. Now, I would imagine, they must be thoroughly depressed, all chance of a run in the first team extinguished. If I were them, I’d move in the next transfer window, to a club where they’ve got a realistic chance of developing their career. A club like Watford used to be.

4) Why should I care about any of them?
The fact that a player is on loan doesn’t mean that, as a fan, you don’t regard them as one of yours. I still feel quite proprietorial towards the likes of Ben Foster and Tom Cleverley, for example. But when half the squad consists of players who are unlikely to have a second season at the club, you can’t help but wonder why you should get to know them. By the time you’ve worked out who they all are and who plays where, they’ll be gone again.

5) Are there enough lockers at the training ground?
Seriously, it must be chaos at London Colney, like at school when all the foreign exchange kids arrive and none of them knows where they’re supposed to go and what they’re supposed to do. Still, if you’re a translator based in South-West Herts with a good knowledge of a few key languages (Italian, Spanish, French), you must be quids in right now.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

One out of three ain’t bad

For all the many uncertainties of professional football, some things never change, and the first three fixtures of this season threw up three of the most reliable of eternal verities where the Hornets are concerned:

1) In the 1st Round of the League Cup, Watford are always drawn at home against a lower-division side who we struggle to beat in a horribly dull game
2) When we play at Selhurst Park, it is always cold and wet and we get tonked
3) We never lose to Ipswich

All right, so some things do change after all (though at least we can rely on the League Cup). I can just about accept winning at Selhurst: Watford have occasionally won there – just not when I’ve been in attendance, and I couldn’t make it on Saturday, so I can practically take credit for the late winner.

But losing to Ipswich is against the natural order of things. I really thought we were going to get away with it last night, having been outplayed for most of the match – as if our status as Ipwich’s bogey team would somehow keep the ball out of our net. Still, if the Pozzos and Zola are going to revolutionise our club, they might as well start by destroying everything we know for sure. Yay.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Dear Mr Zola

Having suggested what I’d like to see Watford’s new owners do, I’ve been thinking about how Gianfranco Zola might best keep me happy (which will, obviously, be one of his priorities). Here are five points he might like to ponder:

1) Do your homework
No, not on the opposition – on Watford FC, its history and traditions. Reading Oliver Phillips’ centenary history of the club would be a good start, and Lionel Birnie’s books paint a good picture of the high points of the modern era. I don’t expect the manager to be able to answer trivia questions on Watford, but equally, I’d like to think his knowledge extends beyond the reductive ‘Elton John’s money + long-ball game = success in the 80s’ view of the club.

2) Give (our) youth a chance
This ought to be a no-brainer, given the Pozzos’ stated business model, but the huge influx of exotically named loanees from our new ‘sister clubs’ is a little concerning, and rather reminiscent of Sean Dyche’s scatter-gun approach to squad building. The reinstatement of the seven subs rule ought to help, but I hope that our Academy graduates are given a proper chance to show what they can do this season – not just the occasional five-minute cameo.

3) Find a decent penalty-taker
This is one way in which Zola could distinguish himself from every one of his predecessors over the past decade or more. Watford must have one of the poorest penalty conversion rates in the league, to the point where I barely bother celebrating any more when we’re awarded one, knowing that it will be wasted. It shouldn’t be that difficult: identify a couple of players who are good at taking penalties and make sure they practice at every training session, until they can score with their eyes shut.

4) Keep us up
I suppose that should have been the first point, really, as it’s the minimum requirement for any Watford manager. The last few have done a good job in this regard, probably because (despite public pronouncements to the contrary) this was their main focus for the season. Now talk has shifted to the possibility of moving up the league rather than down it, and though there’s no immediate reason to worry, plenty of clubs in this division have found that ambition can be a prelude to relegation.

5) Don’t drop Doyley
Really, don’t even think about it. Most Watford managers over the past 10 years have dropped Lloyd at some point, only to see the error of their ways. So what if he’s not a marauding wing-back? He’s the best defender at the club, and one of the best in the division, and we’re a better team with him than without.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The proof of the pudding

Following on from my previous post, I’ve been thinking about what it will take for me to be reassured that Watford is in safe hands after the latest takeover. These, for me, are the five key areas:

1) The ground
The Pozzos’ press release acknowledged the need to improve the ground, and I would expect that to be a priority, because at the moment it’s an embarrassment. Bassini kept saying that work to complete the new media centre/changing rooms complex between the Rookery and Rous stands was imminent: I would now expect work to start before Christmas and for it to be finished in time for next season.

2) The traditions
The Pozzos say they understand and respect Watford’s heritage and traditions. If the players don’t run out to ‘Z Cars’ before the first home game of the season, that statement will be shown to be so much hot air. 

3) The fans
If there’s one thing Bassini’s brief spell in charge proved, it’s the importance of communication. Even though LB himself never turned up at a Fans’ Forum, others from the club did, to positive effect. If the Pozzos want to gain the trust of the fans, they should organise a couple of Fans’ Forums fairly early on, and make sure that key personnel attend.

4) The players
Zola started work, and the players returned after their summer break, just yesterday. I’d like to think that the new manager wants to spend some time assessing the players he’s inherited before rushing into the transfer and loan markets. We saw last season how disruptive it can be when you sign practically an entire team’s worth of new players at the start of the season. I’m not saying the current squad can’t be improved - I just want to see evidence of some thinking before the dressing room starts filling up with random foreigners.

5) The Watford Way
There’s been much discussion of what this phrase means on the WML over the past few days, and I’m no more certain of the definition than anyone else. If in doubt, though, I think the phrase “Would Graham Taylor have done that?” pretty much covers it. I haven’t got a recommendation for our new owners here: it’s more a case that we’ll know if they do something that is counter to the Watford Way.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Here we go again

I never felt particularly strongly about Lawrence Bassini. For all that many Watford fans tended to regard him as the devil incarnate, I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt until presented with factual evidence to persuade me otherwise. Maybe the full story will emerge in time and those of us who tolerated Bassini will be exposed as naive fools, as some on the WML insist.

Personally, I was upset that he forced me to sell my Watford shares – even if they were almost worthless by that point – and suspicious of the mystery surrounding his background and the source of his funds, but encouraged by the steady progress the club made during his tenure, both on and off the pitch. I suspect many Watford fans feel the same.

As for the Pozzos, there is no mystery about the source of their funds, which is a big plus point. Equally encouraging is the general perception (presumably being encouraged by the Italians themselves) that they’re not going to throw money at Watford in an attempt to gain instant promotion to the Premiership. That approach rarely works, as we’ve seen all too often.

Set against that is the worry that the new regime will change too much, too soon, and throw the baby out with the bathwater. The mooted replacement of Sean Dyche with Gianfranco Zola is not a good sign, and the scenario that sees Watford effectively becoming a nursery club for Udinese, with a team packed with cheap European and Latin American imports, is not an appealing one.

Then again... Since I started following Watford in 1970, the club has been owned (whatever that word means in a football context) by Jack Bonsor, Elton John, Jack Petchey, Rumi Verjee, Graham Simpson, the Russos, Lawrence Bassini and now the Pozzos. (That’s from memory – I may have missed one or two.) As with managers, it’s noticeable that the turnover of owners has become more rapid over the years.

Curiously, the only one on that list the fans actively protested against was Bonsor. Maybe that’s because we’ve become resigned to the fact that we don’t actually have much say in the matter (particularly now that the club is once again privately owned), but also because we know that if we don’t like this owner, another one will be along soon.

If the Pozzos are still in charge in 10 years’ time, I’ll be surprised (indeed, judging by recent history, they’ll be lucky to last five).  If they are, that will presumably mean that they’ve been successful. If not, Watford will still be around in some form – football clubs are hard things to kill off, as the examples of Wimbledon, Aldershot, Newport, Accrington and others show. That’s because we, the fans, are the club, when it comes down to it. We may not have a bit of paper to say that we’re the legal owners, but that doesn’t stop it being ours.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The local policeman’s lament

I live in Fulham, half a mile or so from Stamford Bridge. So, as you can imagine, things have been fairly lively around here for the last couple of days.

Personally, I wasn’t too bothered about the victory parade yesterday. We’d been warned it was going to happen if Chelsea won the Champions League, and I made sure that I didn’t need to travel anywhere by car. As it happened, thanks to all the road closures (which lasted from early in the morning until the evening), it was blessedly peaceful around Sands End – though it’s true that the helicopters monitoring and filming the parade itself in the afternoon did disturb that peace somewhat.

The warning about the parade came from my local neighbourhood police liaison officer. I feel quite sorry for the poor man, as the police clearly took the brunt of the blame from locals who weren’t as relaxed as I was about the disruption to their weekend. In an email sent this morning, he says:

“As I stated previously the road closures were authorised by the council after an application by Chelsea FC, not the police. The police's job on the day is to prevent crime, disorder and also to assist in the safety of all those present.”

It’s the bit that comes next that caught my attention, though:

“I am not anti celebration, and if it was my team that had won I would also have wanted to see a parade, very unlikely however as I support Crystal Palace and we don't have a billionaire owner.”

After a few more paragraphs lamenting the fact that the police get it in the neck for any road closures that inconvenience the public, and urging his readers to take their grievances up with the council, gas board and so on, he signs off with a heartfelt plea:

“Finally, if anyone knows of a billionaire who is looking to buy a football club, please let me know, as I’m sure that I'll be able to put them in touch with the current owners of Crystal Palace.”

I suspect all of us who are occasionally confronted with the success of bigger, richer clubs know how he feels.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

You’ll be back again next year

In some ways, I feel sorry for the Middlesbrough fans who made the journey to Vicarage Road yesterday. It’s a hell of a long way to come to see your team fall at the final hurdle, even if, as it turned out, the result was ultimately irrelevant. And they probably didn’t expect the last game of the season to be played on a pitch like a ploughed field, in strong winds and driving rain.

They might also reasonably have expected their opponents to have one eye on the beach, with a mid-table position already secured and nothing much to play for. But Watford’s performance yesterday was their season in microcosm. Outplayed for most of the match, they showed strength, tenacity and intelligence, and took their chances when they came. They also benefited from some outstanding individual performances, especially from Scott Loach, Jonathan Hogg (before his injury) and Troy Deeney.

Aidy Mariappa may have won the Player of the Season award (and deservedly so), but for me, it’s Deeney who best represents this Watford team; young, raw, energetic, occasionally erratic but always willing to get up and try again. In a game where he mostly fed off scraps, he still managed to create one goal and score another, and no one deserved it more.

I dare say Troy will still be with us next season (like Lloyd Doyley, he strikes me as one of those players who has just enough flaws to make him an unappealing prospect for other clubs), but I wonder how many of those in yesterday’s squad will be off in the summer. There seems to be a general assumption that Mariappa already has his bags packed for a Premiership club, and Martin Taylor is out of contract and may be looking for one last payday. That would leave us light on centre-backs, unless David Mirfin makes a surprise return from exile in Scunthorpe.

The goalkeeping situation is also murky. I suspect we’d like to offer Tomasz Kuszczak a contract, but can’t afford him. Rene Gilmartin is out of contract soon and might be well advised to look elsewhere. That would leave Loach, Bond and Bonham, and I wouldn’t be too unhappy about that.

I do worry about some of our younger players, though. If I were Ross Jenkins, Matt Whichelow, Lee Hodson or Dale Bennett, I suspect I’d be wondering how much longer I’ve got to wait to become a first-team regular. Bennett may get his chance next season if Mariappa and Taylor leave, but the others are all stuck in a queue. Hodson (who looked distinctly downhearted during the squad’s lap of honour yesterday) has to wait for Lloyd Doyley to cease to be Mr Reliable, and that could be another two or three seasons yet. Whichelow (who also looked cheesed off) has at least fought his way back into the squad, but has been overtaken by Sean Murray. And Jenkins (who appears to have been sidelined for injury for much of this season) has to hope that John Eustace runs out of steam, which he’s showing no sign of doing yet. I suspect at least two of those four will move down a division or two this summer in search of regular football.

But, to return to the title of this post, Boro will be back at the Vic again next year, and so will I. I’m already looking forward to seeing how this raw but plucky squad will manage to defy the odds once again.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

We’ve done it again

Done what? Well, beaten Ipswich, for one thing, though that’s hardly news. Today’s victory stretched our unbeaten run against them to 15 matches, of which we’ve won 12. Fair play to the large number of Ipswich fans who filled the away end, but did they really expect things to turn out any differently? Maybe it’s become a much-anticipated badge of honour, to be able to say “I was there when we beat Watford”, much as Hornets fans treasure the memory of being present on the occasion of Lloyd Doyley’s goal.

We’ve also passed the 52-point mark, which makes this officially Championship Survival Day (and no, I haven’t thought of a better name in the past 12 months). I know some have had us down as safe for a while – Jeff Stelling said as much a month ago on Soccer Saturday – but I’m not prepared to relax until those 52 points are in the bag. Seasons can have a funny way of spiralling out of control.

Amid the celebrations, I can’t help reflecting that Watford really haven’t played very well for most of this season. The last few home games in particular have made for painful viewing, with the wins against Burnley and Ipswich achieved by grit and determination rather than skill and guile, as if the players need the challenge of being a goal or two down before they’re prepared to really give it a go.

In this respect, Troy Deeney has become the emblematic Watford player of the season; not necessarily the best (though his technique is improving, as his goal today illustrated), but the one whose never stops running and harrying the opposition. It’s just a shame it seems to take his teammates until the middle of the second half most weeks before they follow his example.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Throwaway comments

A couple of weeks ago, I did something I’d never done before: I threw away some football programmes. Well, actually I took them down to the local recycling centre, but dumping them in the skip there felt like throwing them away. And it felt odd.

Programmes are funny things. I’ll go into WH Smith’s sometimes, browse the shelves for a magazine to read, and then see the cover price (£4.50, say) and decide to give it a miss – and yet I will unthinkingly hand over £3 at Vicarage Road for a ‘matchday magazine’ that I will read before kick-off, and again for a few minutes at half-time, before taking it home and filing it away. Chances are I’ll never look at it again. Earlier today, I was up in the attic at my Mum’s, where there are boxes of Watford programmes from the 70s and 80s, just sitting there, unmissed and unloved.

Of course, I tell myself I will look at them one day. One mythical day, when I have lots of time on my hands and no distractions, I will gather these historic artefacts and peruse them at my leisure, wallowing in the nostalgia and the period details (much as the features in this season’s programme allow you to do, in fact). I did actually do this a couple of years ago, on a very small scale; you can read about what I found here.

The programmes I recycled, though, were much more recent, covering the past 12 seasons; thick, glossy publications, not old enough to stir the blood. (Mind you, there was one whose cover, featuring the messianic-looking trio of Boothroyd, Ashton and Simpson, shook me for a moment.) They were taking up a lot of shelf space that I could ill afford, so I decided they had to go. After I’d established that there was no market for them on ebay, and offered them in vain to the good folk of the WML, the tip was my last resort.

I did save one programme from each season, though, as an exemplar of that year’s design, and to preserve a memory of a significant match (though there were seasons where I had to stretch the definition of ‘significant’ somewhat). Long-term, the plan is to do the same with the older programmes, though I fear it will be harder to part with them. And I’ve got to get them down from Mum’s attic first.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A Hammer in the family

With tomorrow night’s fixture in mind, it’s an appropriate time to make an admission: my younger brother is a West Ham fan.

So why would an eight-year-old boy (as he was when he embarked on this reckless course) growing up in Bushey Heath want to support West Ham? It certainly wasn’t in his genes: Dad had grown up in Lincoln and occasionally mentioned fond memories of standing on the terraces at Sincil Bank, but that was as far as it went. As for me, I’d already been going to games at Vicarage Road for five years by that time, and was firmly hooked. Chris had come along with me and Dad a few times, but watching the Hornets obviously didn’t have the same effect on him.

And then, on the day of the 1975 FA Cup Final, he suddenly announced that he intended to support whichever team won that match. History records that West Ham United beat Fulham 2-0 that day, and so Chris became a West Ham fan. (He recently reminded me that he’d fallen off his bike that morning and had been ordered to rest, so I suspect some kind of traumatic brain damage may be at the root of all this.)

To his credit, he followed through on his promise and has been a West Ham fan ever since that day. Mind you, he’s what you’d call an armchair fan; I’m pretty sure he could count the number of Hammers games he’s attended on the fingers of one hand. And that’s probably why, whatever the result tomorrow night, there won’t be any brotherly gloating or goading going on.

In football supporting terms, we simply don’t meet on equal terms. I’m a fanatic, whereas he’s just a follower. In the tribal world we football fans inhabit, I’ve earned the right to respect by attending somewhere in the region of a thousand games over the course of 40-odd years, while he’s just watched some footy on the telly. Which means that, when our teams meet, I may not always support the winning team (hardly ever, if I’m honest), but at least I have the moral high ground.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Now you see him…

So farewell then, Marvin Sordell (that ‘Scoredell’ nickname never really took off, did it?). He was here, and now he’s gone. Mind you, we may well see him again next season, the way Bolton are going.

The sale of Marvin is further proof that the Watford Academy system is working, if any were needed. That’s what it’s there for, after all; to produce players who can perform in the shop window of the first team and earn a big-money move to a club a bit higher up the pecking order. I just wish they’d spend a bit longer at Watford first. We got a season and a half out of Marvin, basically, and I can’t help feeling short-changed, whatever the harsh economic realities of the situation.

At least Marvin performed fairly consistently during that time, for all that his talent is still raw. All too often with attacking players in particular, we have to endure a couple of seasons of frustrating performances before they start to approach their potential – at which point another club makes them an offer they can’t refuse. Take Lee Cook, Hameur Bouazza and Tamas Priskin; all of them tormented us with glimpses of talent interspersed with longer periods of being a bit rubbish, and we never got to see them fulfil their potential. Mind you, nor has anyone else, which is some consolation.

Ultimately, we all know that really good players aren’t going to scrabble around in the bottom half of the Championship indefinitely. I think three years is a reasonable time to expect to be able to watch a decent footballer at Vicarage Road, though – long enough for anyone who’s had their name printed on the back of a replica shirt to get some wear out of it. On that basis, Marvin has left at least a season too early – and that’s without going into the argument that his long-term career might benefit from spending a bit longer away from the spotlight of the Premiership.

Still, at least the promising Sean Murray is finally getting his chance in the first team. Let’s enjoy it while we can. On current form, I wouldn’t bet on him still being a Watford player in three years’ time.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Is it sad to care about stats?

One of the odder sights during last Saturday’s game against Doncaster was that of Lloyd Doyley warming up on the touchline, instead of occupying his usual spot at right-back. He was a regular on the subs’ bench early in his career, of course, but for the past few seasons he’s been a fixture in the first team – one of the first names inked in on the team sheet, I’ve always assumed.

I’m sad for Lloyd (my favourite Watford player, as regular readers will know) that he’s lost his place purely because he had the misfortune to get injured – but also, I have to admit, because it leaves him marooned on 349 appearances, one short of a significant landmark.

I’m one of those people who spends half-times at Vicarage Road scanning the page in the programme that shows the players’ all-time stats. (Come to think of it, maybe I’m the only one.) I’m no statistician, but I am fascinated by statistical landmarks. A player who has made 100 first-team appearances is somehow infinitely superior to one who has made 99, in my eyes.

(There is a logical justification for all this, in that long-serving players help to strengthen the bond between the team and the fans. A team that has at least three or four players with over 100 appearances each to their name has a degree of stability and continuity that I value, whereas I instinctively distrust a first eleven where most of the players have an appearance figure that’s lower than their age.) 

In Lloyd’s case, I’ve been eagerly tracking his progress up the all-time appearance list since he entered the top 20 a year or so ago. He’s currently 12th, having just overtaken Stewart Scullion. Assuming he continued in his rightful position, he was due to break into the top 10 next season, and after that, who knows? After all, he’s only 28, and plenty of defenders go on playing at a high level into their mid-30s.

For the time being, though, his statistical progression is on hold, and I find that obscurely distressing. Still, good luck to Lee Hodson, who is a fine young player (though not as good a defender as Lloyd) and deserves a chance. And with 77 starts to his name, he could make it to a century early next season. Maybe he’ll eventually join fellow right-backs Nigel Gibbs, Duncan Welbourne and Lloyd himself in the all-time top 20…

Addendum, 9/1/12:
I needn’t have worried: 350 it is, then. Not Lloyd’s finest game, but let’s be charitable and put it down to rustiness after his injury.