Sunday, 30 November 2014

Match report

“Showing that he’d learned the lessons from the previous week, Jokanovic switched to a 3-5-2 formation which gave Paredes and Anya more licence to get forward without having to worry so much about their defensive duties. The inclusion of Vydra and Munari – controversially left out against Derby – and the return from injury of Abdi and Angella gave the Hornets a much stronger spine.

“The changes took effect from the start, with Watford tearing forward at every opportunity. Throughout the game, Anya in particular was regularly found with diagonal passes, giving him the opportunity to get the ball in the area. Paredes too repeatedly made probing runs, while the interplay between Deeney, Vydra and Adbi was, at times, reminiscent of the best moments of Zola’s season in charge. 

“As for Cardiff, they were on the back foot for most of the match, and restricted to just a handful of attempts on goal…”

Of course, this imaginary match report on yesterday’s proceedings omits two crucial details: that Cardiff scored in the first quarter of an hour, and that Watford failed to score at all. But my intention (apart from to confuse future readers of this blog) is to demonstrate that, in most respects, this was a dominant Watford performance that, on another day, might well have resulted in a comfortable victory.

It is, of course, the fact that this is the fourth defeat in a row that is causing all the angst on social media, websites, local radio and all the other channels where the only reaction that is valued is a knee-jerk one. If this had been the game after the 3-1 win over Millwall, no one would be complaining too much. Sure, we should have won, but these things happen: a silly defensive error gives the opposition the chance to shut up shop, and when they’ve got one of the best goalkeepers in the country, there’s always a chance they’ll get away with it.

So, a bit of perspective. Jokanovic played what many Watford fans would regard as the best team available to him (though I can’t help feeling sorry for Fernando Forestieri, a rare light in the darkness against Derby and then dropped to the bench against Cardiff), they played pretty well overall and lost 1-0. It happens. It’s not a sacking offence – particularly for a man who’s been in charge for about five minutes. So let’s all take a deep breath and look forward to Craven Cottage on Friday (the only Championship fixture I can walk to from my house).

Friday, 7 November 2014

Nineties nostalgia, pt. 2 – 100 and out

The second programme I’m keeping from my Nineties hoard is from January 1999, and the visit of Sunderland. That may immediately ring a bell with you, but I must admit that it wasn’t until I looked at my annotations on the back cover that I remembered why this particular game was significant. In my usual barely legible scrawl I’ve recorded that Watford won 2-1, with one of the goals coming from Gifton Noel-Williams, who was making his 100th appearance that day. There’s also an asterisk against his name, denoting that he was substituted.

The reason, as most Watford fans will remember, was a horrible challenge by Paul Butler that knackered Gifton’s knee and ruined his career. True, he carried on playing for another decade, but he was never the same player after the injury. It was especially tragic because he had a fantastic game against Sunderland, who were leading Division One at the time (not least thanks to the deadly striking duo of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips). Still only 19, he was showing signs of becoming a truly great striker, but it was not to be.

The cover of the programme triggers another sad memory. It shows a group of colourfully dressed African dancers performing on the Vicarage Road pitch before the previous week’s home game to welcome fellow Igbo tribesman Ben Iroha to the club. The Sunderland game was his seventh for Watford, but he would only manage another three before problems with bunions stopped him playing, forcing him into retirement little over a year later. When you consider that the team against Sunderland also included Nick Wright, this was, in retrospect, a particularly unlucky XI.

Inside the programme, there’s a big feature on the newly laid Desso pitch, which stopped Vicarage Road becoming a mudbath in the winter – at least until the board of the day neglected to replace it once it had worn out, a fault that was finally rectified last year. There’s also a massive foldout poster of goalie Alec Chamberlain, accompanying an interview which speculates (accurately, as it turned out) that if Watford were to make it to the play-off final, Alec would get “an opportunity to finally play on the hallowed turf after three near misses”.

The other current Watford employee to feature in the programme is – who else? – Lloyd Doyley, in the line-up for the Under-17s in their recent 4-0 win over Peterborough. The fact that the next most memorable name in that line-up is that of Gary Fisken is a reminder of how the odds are stacked against young players when it comes to forging a lasting career in the game.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Difficult second album syndrome

There are only a few standard scenarios where fans get to hear footballers and managers speak, none of them particularly inspiring. There’s the cliché-ridden post-match quickie, of course (“Well, the ball’s come across, and I’ve just headed it in, to be fair”); the set-piece interview where every question, and answer, has clearly been pre-approved by the player’s agent and the club’s PR; and the post-dinner turn, where a long-retired legend trots out a series of tired anecdotes about George Best and Brian Clough.

With the Tales From The Vicarage series of shows, Lionel Birnie and Adam Leventhal are trying to do something a bit different; presenting live interviews with Watford players and managers on the stage of the Palace Theatre in front of an audience of Hornets fans. The first event, in March, was a triumph: would tonight’s follow-up suffer from the phenomenon known to music fans as ‘difficult second album syndrome’?

From the fact that I’m even posing the question, you may suspect that I have some reservations. But first, let me stress that it was a hugely enjoyable evening. As with the first event, the chance to witness key players (and managers) from Watford’s recent history in conversation in a relaxed setting was priceless, and there were many standout moments. Nick Wright was visibly emotional as he relived that goal at Wembley, and the story of how, and how quickly, his career unravelled after that was moving (and new to me); David Holdsworth told a hilarious anecdote about the terrifying consequences for a young player of disobeying Tom Walley’s orders; Tommy Smith was frank about his feelings on being left out of the FA Cup semi-final against Southampton; and Malky Mackay and Ray Lewington both gave fascinating insights into the boardroom turmoil that provided the backdrop against which they were expected to produce winning teams. Funniest of all, though, was Sean Dyche’s response on being asked whether, despite the difficulty Burnley were having winning games, he was enjoying the experience of being a Premiership manager: a vehement, and disarmingly honest, “Am I f**k!”

You’ll notice a lot of names there. Wright, Lewington, Craig Ramage, Holdsworth, Smith and Mackay were all interviewed on stage; Nigel Gibbs spoke from a box on the balcony; Jay DeMerit appeared on a big screen, having dialled in via Skype; and Dyche had apparently been Facetimed, judging by the shaky picture. That’s nine contributors in a little over two hours. By comparison, the first TFTV event featured just three (Dyche, Aidy Boothroyd and Luther Blissett) over a similar time period, and as a result, Adam was able to have an in-depth conversation with each of them.

Inevitably, each contributor to tonight’s event got less time to talk, and at times the conversation dwindled into a series of anecdotes – funny and fascinating anecdotes, it’s true, but that’s not the same as insight. Personally, I’d have been happy to hear more from Lewington, Smith and Gibbs in particular, all of whom are articulate and have, I’m sure, plenty more to say than we heard tonight.

The sheer number of interviewees was probably the reason for the rather self-congratulatory tone of much of the evening, too. I lost count of the number of times someone said “That’s what makes Watford such a special club”, or some such platitude, followed by rousing applause from the audience. We get it, we’re all Watford fans, we all love the club, we love you too… At one point I found myself mentally assembling the cast of an alternative, ‘dark’ TFTV that would guarantee less schmaltz and more bite. How about Dave Bassett, Ramon Vega, Kerry Dixon and David Connolly?

One last thing. I’m happy to applaud Malky Mackay for his achievements as a player, a coach and a manager, and he seems like a lovely bloke, witty and intelligent. I also understand why Adam wasn’t about to ask him any questions about the end of his tenure at Cardiff. But are we all supposed to pretend that the notorious text messages never happened? Or that they did, but it’s okay because he’s a Watford legend? There’s a wider debate here about the difficulty of separating out someone’s achievements and their misdeeds, and this isn’t the place for it. But on balance, if I was in charge, I think I’d have waited another year or two before inviting Malky on stage.

None of this means that I won’t be at the next event, and I’ll be fascinated to see who they can entice on stage. (My wish list would include Tom Walley, Heidar Helguson, Kenny Jackett and Gary Porter.) But I do think that, with events like this, less is more.