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.