Saturday, 12 December 2015

Silence is golden

I’ve just realised that it’s over two months since I last posted on this blog. That’s just life; sometimes, work and other stuff gets in the way of my offhand musings about the past, present and future of my favourite football club.

But I wonder if, subconsciously, my recent silence has also been a reaction to the sheer amount of noise around Watford this season. I can’t be the only one to have noticed that, as the number of matches the team actually plays has diminished since promotion, so the amount of discussion of the club has increased.

Part of that is a natural consequence of being a Premier League team: match previews and reports as a matter of course in the national press, more attention from the BBC and Sky. Locally, too, coverage has increased exponentially, largely as a result of the launch of WD Sport, which has created a competition with the Watford Observer to see who can publish more flimsy stories a day, even when there’s nothing to say. (Seriously, I really don’t want to read another word about Emmanuel Adebayor, unless it’s to say that he’s signed or he’s turned us down.) The team at From The Rookery End have increased the number of podcasts they produce as well. They’re unfailingly interesting, but I do sometimes look at my iTunes page and wonder how I’m supposed to keep up.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a great time to be a Watford fan, in terms of what’s happening on the pitch and the coverage the club gets. But until I have something original to say, I don’t feel a burning need to add to the online chatter.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

‘Tales From The Vicarage: Volume 4’ by Lionel Birnie

Founded in 1960, the group of French-speaking writers who called themselves Oulipo devoted themselves to writing fiction under certain constraints. Most famously, George Perec set himself the challenge of writing an entire novel without using the letter ‘e’.

Perec died a long time ago, but if he was still alive, I reckon I could set him a tougher challenge than that: try writing about pre-Pozzo-era Watford without mentioning Graham Taylor. Judging by TFTV4, I don’t think even Oulipo’s finest could have managed it.

Entertaining and illuminating snapshots of GT crop up throughout the latest volume in the excellent TFTV series. Here he is in 1983, “donning a three-piece suit, bowler hat and stick-on moustache” for a nostalgic friendly against Corinthian Casuals (a game I often think I dreamt, so I’m grateful to have independent verification that it actually took place). Here he is the following year, sitting in a room in an airport hotel in Glasgow, waiting nervously for John McClelland – who has just agreed to join the Hornets – to return from a room down the corridor, where he knows that Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson is trying to gazump him. Here is again in 1996, on his first day back at the club, giving all the players a piece of paper and a pen and telling them to pick a team for the next game (Tommy Mooney not only picks himself, but names himself as captain). And yet again in 1998, persuading Allan Smart to sign on the dotted line in a series of conversations and messages that make him feel “like the best player in the world”.

The credits for the TFTV series have shrunk over time, from the varied cast of writers employed for the first two volumes (myself included on Volume 1) to the two-handed, interview-themed Volume 3.  Volume 4 is a Lionel Birnie solo album, but it’s none the worse for that. That’s largely because of the variety of material covered in the 10 chapters, where extended interviews are interspersed with both topical material (the first three chapters are broadly themed around Watford’s journey to the Premier League) and more nostalgic digressions.

To be honest, the latter were my favourite parts of the book. For instance, the chapter on the friendly games of the early 80s (many of which I attended) makes you realise just how much less seriously professional football as a whole – and Watford in particular – took itself in those days. Can you imagine a team today going abroad to play a friendly just three days before the final game of the season, and one that would determine whether or not they won promotion? That’s what Watford did in May 1979, and that’s not even the strangest part of the story (which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t read the book yet).

I could go on, but you get the point. TFTV4, like its predecessors, is full of wonderful stories and intriguing insights into the club we all love. And pretty much every chapter underscores how lucky those of us of my generation are to have been Watford fans in a period that has encompassed both GT in his pomp (twice!) and the Pozzos.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

What a life

I finally got round to trying out the My Premier League Life tool on the BBC Sport website the other day, and very illuminating it is too. I never knew that I share my birthday with Michael Essien and Christian Benteke.

More pertinently, I learnt that, of the nine ‘trophies or promotions’ Watford have achieved in their history, eight have occurred in my lifetime (the one I missed being a 4th-place finish to win promotion from Division 4 in 1959-60). Looking into the details, I was reminded that we’ve only ever actually won three trophies: the Division 3 title in 1969-69 and 1997-98, and the Division 4 title in 1977-78. In other words, we’re not bad at getting promoted, but we’ve rarely done it in style.

Here’s the thing, though: if we stay up this season, there’s a pretty high probability that we won’t win another trophy in my lifetime.

If we don’t stay up, then there’s always the Championship title to play for; with the Pozzos’ backing, we’d have a decent chance of going one better than last season. But if we do stay up, and we establish ourselves as a Premier League club, then it’s probably not worth investing in a trophy cabinet.

Look at the records of some of the mid-ranking Premier League clubs that we can realistically aspire to sit alongside in the years to come:
  • Newcastle United – last trophy: Fairs Cup, 1969 (apart from the Championship title or equivalent, which they won in 1993 and 2010)
  • West Bromwich Albion – last trophy: FA Cup, 1968 (apart from the Championship title, which they won in 2008)
  • Stoke City – last trophy: League Cup, 1972 (apart from the 2nd Division title, which they won in 1993)
  • West Ham United – last trophy: FA Cup, 1980 (and they won the 2nd Division title the following year)
  • Southampton – last trophy: FA Cup, 1976 (surprisingly, they’ve never actually won the Championship or equivalent)
You see the pattern: the only way for clubs like these – like us, potentially – to win silverware in the last 30-odd years has been to drop down a division and come back up as champions.

There are occasional exceptions, of course. Since the turn of the century, Swansea, Wigan, Birmingham and Portsmouth have all won one of the two cup competitions, though only one of those is still a Premier League club.

That’s our best bet, though. Unless something cataclysmic happens to English football, the Premier League title will remain out of Watford’s reach, as it is to all but a handful of clubs. The European competitions? I can see us qualifying for the Europa League in a few years’ time, if all goes according to plan, but winning it? Since it switched to the current format, the only English club to win the trophy are Chelsea.

Maybe we’ll win the FA Cup or League Cup one day, then. But that does rather depend on whether we actually take those competitions seriously, as Southampton, West Ham and the others listed above did in the 1970s and 80s. A cup run was something special in those days, the three-week gap between rounds filled with eager anticipation. Nowadays, the only thing we have to look forward to when the cups come around is the chance to see players in action who spend the rest of the season warming the bench if they’re lucky.

(I don’t blame Quique for selecting the team he did against Preston in the League Cup, by the way; in the circumstances, it was the only chance he had to see those players in competitive action. I do blame the players for being rubbish, though.)

So there you have it. If I’m lucky, I’ve maybe got another 30 or 40 years of supporting Watford ahead of me before I pop my clogs. But I doubt I’ll ever see them lift another trophy, unless we get relegated. Which is why I’ll never forgive them for chucking away the Championship title against Sheffield Wednesday in May.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Decision time

Regular readers of this blog (and judging by the statistics, there must be one or two of you who’ve been reading my ramblings for a while) will know that at this time every year, I observe a quaint little ritual. I open the debate over who will be my ‘official’ favourite Watford player – and then promptly close it again by declaring that it’s still Lloyd Doyley. Indeed, back in 2007, the third post I ever wrote did just that, and even then I said that he’d been my favourite “for a few years”.

But all good things come to an end. Lloyd is still at the club, of course, but suffering from a protracted absence due to injury. Even if he makes a full recovery, there’s a question mark over whether he’ll be offered a new contract. And even if he overcomes that hurdle, I can’t see him making many first-team appearances this season, unless we go on a decent run in one or both of the cups. I think it’s finally time to choose a new favourite.

If you’d asked me at the end of last season, I’d have said the choice was a fairly straightforward one, between the silk of Almen Abdi and the steel of Troy Deeney. But, having witnessed our new-look team in action for the first time on Saturday, there’s suddenly a raft of potential new candidates. Among those who caught my eye were the tireless running and dynamism of Allan Nyom at right back; the midfield mastery and dribbling skills of Etienne Capoue; the solidity of Sebastian Prödl at centre half; and the tricksiness of José Manuel Jurado in the attacking midfield role. I still have my misgivings about the sheer number of new players we’re trying to integrate into the team, but on the evidence of the West Brom game, there’s no reason to doubt the quality each individual brings.

Still, one swallow doesn’t make a summer and all that. I think I’ll wait till the transfer window closes and make my decision in early September, when I’ve had a bit more chance to assess the candidates. It’s a nice choice to have to make.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Living on an island

It may just be my age, but I sometimes think there’s too much Watford FC news and comment out there these days. There’s 24-hour sports news on TV, blanket coverage in the newspapers, numerous websites and blogs devoted to Watford on the internet, not to mention dozens (hundreds?) of Twitter feeds and all the other social media I don’t bother with – Snapchat, Instagram, Vine and the rest.  It was bad enough last season, without factoring in the absurd levels of hype associated with the Premier League. I occasionally find myself pining for the days when the Watford Observer accounted for approximately 80% of all the coverage of the Hornets in the media.

So I’m quite pleased that I spent the week leading up to the start of the new season on holiday on the tiny Channel Island of Sark. Internet connectivity varied from patchy to non-existent (often from one minute to the next) and the availability of newspapers depended on the time of arrival of the boat from Guernsey. True, I did have access to a TV and radio, but no Sky Sports News. In practice, I deliberately restricted myself to the occasional half-hour of BBC News 24, just to check I hadn’t missed news of an imminent apocalypse.

Thanks to this (only partially self-imposed) media blackout, I’ve missed any number of pre-season previews, 95% of which I can confidently assert, without having heard/seen/read them, were pitifully ill-informed. This can only be a good thing.

I thus arrived at the first day of the season feeling refreshed, both in general, and as a football fan, and actually looking forward to the whole thing damn starting all over again. (This is my 45th season as a Watford fan; you’ll excuse me if I can’t quite summon up the boundless enthusiasm of the teenage me any more.) Our plane was due to land at Gatwick at 3.20pm, so I reckoned that I’d be able to listen to the second half on 5 Live on the car radio on the way home – something to look forward to on the seemingly interminable journey back from an island that is, after all, in the English Channel.

True, by the time we finally reached the car in the long-stay car park, it was still half-time, and I’d gleaned that we were one-nil up. Said car then decided to overheat while I was circumnavigating the M25, necessitating a stop at Cobham Services and a lengthy diagnostic process that finally revealed that the car was out of coolant.

When we were finally moving again, I switched on the radio just in time to hear news of Everton’s second equaliser, and spent a nervous few minutes in fear of an even worse announcement. In the end, a draw felt... okay, I suppose. We’re up and running, and I’m looking forward to going in to work tomorrow and taunting my Arsenal- and Spurs-supporting colleagues that we’re above them in the table.

Football’s back, and goddammit, I’m excited again. I may not be a teenager, but it still gets me every time.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Enough is enough?

Am I the only Watford fan who is beginning to be concerned about how many players we’re signing this summer? This morning’s announcement of Jose Manuel Jurado brings the total to seven, and with the transfer window open for another six weeks, that number may well reach double figures before we’re finished.

I happily confess that some of my misgivings are founded purely on sentiment. Last season was very special, with head coach, players and fans forming a special bond as we strove for promotion – a unity that was strengthened after the horrific attack on Nick Cruwys. So it would be nice to see those players given a chance to show what they can do in the Premier League. And, given that we’ve repeatedly been told over the past couple of years that the Pozzos have been recruiting with the Premier League in mind, it seemed reasonable to expect that a fair number of those players would get that chance.

Yet as it stands, when the Hornets run out at Goodison Park in a few weeks’ time, it’s not unfeasible that Gomes and Deeney will be the only survivors from the promotion-winning team. And that would be a shame.

My other objection is more practical. While it was always obvious that some strengthening would be required to cope with the rigours of the Premier League, it seems rather reckless to start the campaign with a whole team’s worth of new players, even if they don’t all make the starting eleven – not to mention a new head coach as well. Yes, there’s continuity behind the scenes, and that’s great, but still, we seem to be gambling on the team gelling very quickly.

We’ve been here before, of course, when the Pozzos first arrived and presented Gianfranco Zola with a pick’n’mix selection of players from which to fashion a squad. And, to his immense credit, he did, after a slightly chaotic start, so maybe I’m worrying about nothing. But that was in the Championship; I dread to think what would have happened if Zola had had to find out whether Neuton and Jean-Alain Fanchone were up to scratch by fielding them against the likes of Everton and Manchester City.

Personally, to prepare for the Premier League, I would have strengthened the team with four or five new signings, used loans to fill in any gaps, and then reviewed the situation at Christmas and brought in additional players as needed in the next transfer window. But what do I know?

What I do know is that it’s reached the stage where, every time I read the phrase “Watford have confirmed the signing of...” my heart sinks.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Bye-bye Johnny

I’m probably late to the party with this one, but it was only on reading the latest issue of Mojo that I discovered that Johnny Keating has died. No, not a long-lost Watford midfielder from the 1970s, but a significant figure in Hornets history nevertheless; Keating was the man who composed the Z-Cars theme which the players run out to before games at Vicarage Road.

Although the club dates back to – what was the year again? Oh yes, 1881 – it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s that the modern Watford FC as we know and love it really took shape. That was when the club colours changed to yellow and black, when the ‘Hornets’ nickname was adopted, and when the Z-Cars theme was first played over the tannoy. The story goes that it was manager Bill McGarry’s favourite TV show, and from the day in 1963 the players first ran out it to it, they didn’t lose another home game all season. The tune was seen as lucky and has  welcomed the Hornets onto the pitch ever since.

Well, almost. Over the years, a series of club employees who understand a bit about marketing and  very little about football have looked down their nose at Z-Cars and replaced it with something more modern, in imitation of other clubs.

As a result, I’ve come to view the running-out music as a barometer for the spiritual health of the club: as long as Z-Cars is being played, we’re in good hands. In this regard (as in so many others), the Pozzo regime has shown itself to be trustworthy – though I didn’t like the way the music was quickly turned down last season once the players were on the pitch, depriving us of the glorious jazzy solo in the middle of the tune.

So RIP Johnny Keating, unwitting contributor of an essential component of the Watford Way. Oh, and if anyone can tell me what instrument it is that the jazzy solo is played on, I’d be very grateful. Is it an oboe? A treble saxophone? It’s been bothering me for years.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The greatest hits album

My last two posts have been read by unprecedented numbers of people. (Well, unprecedented for me, at least – I dare say those bloggers who can be bothered to write more than once a fortnight would regard my stats as rather puny.) So, since I presumably have some new readers, and since there’s nothing much to talk about until the fixtures are published on Wednesday, I thought I’d share some of my favourite posts from the past eight years. Good grief, have I really being doing this that long?

A quick introduction for those who are new to the blog; I tend to leave match reports and commentary on the latest goings-on at Vicarage Road to others, with the occasional exception when something has got my dander up, or when I think I’ve spotted something no one else has commented on. Instead, as the subheading suggests, I write about memories from my 45 years of following Watford, crackpot theories about the Hornets and the wider world of football, and anything else I feel like rambling on about.

Two of my personal favourites are memories from my childhood. Confessions of the world’s worst ballboy features my inglorious contribution to a long-forgotten pre-season friendly at the Vic, while Just once, oh lord… is a tale from my equally ignominious career in schoolboy rugby. At the time it was intended to encourage my favourite player, Lloyd Doyley, who had yet to score a goal for the Hornets, that he might one day manage the feat. Less than two years later, he did so. Coincidence?

The demolition of the old Main Stand the season before last sparked reminiscences (pithily entitled Main Stand memories) of my early days peering around its pillars to follow the action. The ironically named Confessions of a groundhopper is about an accidental visit to a reserve team fixture at a northern non-league ground in the depths of winter. I include it here chiefly to prove that I am capable of writing about something other than Watford.

Last but not least, The myth of home advantage is about just that; my conviction (undimmed over time) that the notion that the team playing at home has some sort of head start merely by virtue of that fact is complete baloney, a giant con trick perpetrated by the entire football world, and that said football world would be a better place if we stopped pretending home advantage existed.

So there you are: memories, ramblings and rants. Expect more of the same next season, with the occasional mention of the Premier League if you’re lucky.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Managing the transition

Given that this is supposedly the quietest period of the off-season, with the transfer window not officially open for another three weeks, it’s been a busy week at Vicarage Road. We’ve signed two new players, re-loaned Matty Vydra from Udinese for another two seasons, waved goodbye to the head coach and two assistant coaches and replaced them with a new trio.

The fact that these things happened in the order that I’ve listed them is significant, as it highlights that the changes on the coaching staff aren’t actually quite as important as the rest of the football world may think. In the traditional English football club model, it’s unlikely that new players would be signed while the manager was in the midst of negotiations about renewing his contract. At Watford, player recruitment isn’t part of the head coach’s remit, and he is expected to create a winning team from the squad assembled for him by Scott Duxbury and co.

Although I’m sad to see Slav go, and there are the inevitable fears that accompany the arrival of a new head coach (will he get the players on his side, will he get his tactics right, will he understand the ‘Watford way’?), in one way I welcome this week’s events precisely because they deemphasise the primacy of the man on the touchline. It’s a truism that we (by which I mean the whole football world, from the fans to the media) fetishise the role of the manager, making him the focus of way too much praise and blame. Not only is that not fair on the poor sod in charge, but it gives the rest of the club, from the players to the board, an easy get-out when things are going badly. “It’s not our fault, it’s the manager’s; sack him and get someone else in, and everything will be fine.”

In fact, professional football managed perfectly well without managers for half a century or so; the club secretary picked the team and the players got on with working out how to win matches. I sometimes wish we could go back to that system. After all, shouldn’t 11 grown men be able to work out how to beat the opposition without having to be told?

Ah, but it’s all about motivation, isn’t it? Really? So if a team goes in at half-time 2-0 down, they wouldn’t be bothered about trying to get back into the game in the second half if there wasn’t a man in a suit there to shout at them and chuck teacups about?

I should say that I’m writing this as someone who – apart from a few five-a-side games in my twenties with a team from work – hasn’t actually played organised football since junior school. And I acknowledge that the example of Graham Taylor does rather undermine my argument about the role a manager can play in a team’s success… But I stick by the point that it’s good for the game of football if the manager isn’t viewed as being solely responsible for the performance of the team. At Watford, Quique Flores (we don’t have to say ‘Sánchez’ every time, do we?) will have an important part to play, obviously; but only within the framework created by the executive team.

Of course, it could all go horribly wrong and we could be in a crisis by Christmas. But I don’t think we will. The point of the Pozzo model is to create continuity within the club that means it can survive the departure of a successful head coach. I can’t wait to see how Quique gets on.

Monday, 4 May 2015

We aren’t the champions

I was planning to mark the end of the season with a cosy article running through my memories of the celebrations I’ve been lucky enough to be part of as a Watford fan, from our Division 4 title in GT’s first season to the Play-Off Final against Leeds in Cardiff. But, like most Watford fans, I don’t feel like celebrating right now.

I think it was the play ‘An Evening with Gary Lineker’ that made the point that watching football, uniquely among leisure pursuits, has the ability to affect your mood for days after a match has finished. I’m not usually too bad on that score: by the time I get home on a Saturday night, I’m more or less over the triumph or despair that followed the final whistle of that afternoon’s game. But the outcome of the Sheffield Wednesday game has soured my mood for the entire Bank Holiday weekend, and it’s all the worse because (like most Hornets fans) I was expecting a repeat dose of the euphoria I experienced at five o’clock the previous Saturday.

I texted a friend before the game that all the clichés of an end-of-season celebration were present and correct: flags, balloons, beach balls and other inflatables, fancy dress costumes, even giant trophies made out of cardboard covered with tinfoil. By the end, we’d witnessed another set of clichés, representing the dark side of football celebrations; from the harmless but moronic Mexican wave (something that has no place at any serious sporting event) to the equally moronic, and definitely harmful, pitch invasions that scuppered our slim chances of grabbing a late winner. And don’t get me started on the flares.

So I found myself, once the final whistle had blown, standing watching the heaving mass of fans on the pitch, listening to the plaintive appeals for them to leave so that the lap of honour could begin, feeling as low as I’ve felt all season (well, perhaps with the exception of the kick in the guts that was Ipswich’s last-gasp winner six weeks ago). Which is absurd, of course, given that Watford have achieved their goal of reaching the Premier League, and this in the most competitive Championship season in living memory. But that’s football fans for you, our emotions always governed by our most recent experience.

To judge by that lap of honour, the players are no different. I have fond memories of the equivalent tours of the pitch at the end of those seasons under Rodgers, Mackay and Dyche when we’d finished somewhere in mid-table, and when the lap of honour celebrated a communal feeling of joy and optimism for the future. There was precious little of that in evidence on Saturday, for all the stadium announcer’s laudable efforts to raise the mood. The players knew they’d blown it, just like we did, and it was pointless trying to pretend none of us cared.

So, we aren’t the champions after all. But we have been promoted, and as the days pass, it’s that fact that will come to take precedence over all the bad memories from Saturday. As a wise man once wrote: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” We got what we needed from this season. Bring on the Premier League.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

10 reasons why it’s great to be a Hornet

I’m sure I’m not the only Watford fan who is still utterly incapable of calm, dispassionate analysis of our season or the implications of yesterday’s results for the club’s future. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I keep spontaneously breaking into a rendition of ‘Tommie Hoban’s having a party...’ and finding myself grinning stupidly at inappropriate moments.

Still, I had to mark the moment somehow, so here’s my list of 10 reasons why it’s great to be a Hornet right now:

1) The Pozzo family...
2) ... thanks to whom we finally have a proper four-sided ground again, complete with stands rightly named after the two people who did more than anything to establish the Watford FC we know and love today
3) We’ve got Lloydinho...
4) ... and, possibly more importantly for the outcome of this season, Troydeeneyo
5) The 1881, who’ve achieved the improbable feat of making Vicarage Road a cauldron of noise
6) The many and varied media channels that comment on and support the Hornets, all of them unfailingly classy and intelligent: the Watford Observer’s simultaneously passionate and objective reports, the brilliant From The Rookery End podcast, the always shrewd and witty BHappy blogs, the ever-growing archive of Watford lore that is the Tales From The Vicarage series of books, plus other bloggers and tweeters too numerous to mention
7) Goals galore. While Chelsea fans watch their team bore their way to the Premier League title, we’ve seen lots and lots and lots of fabulous goals this season. And I write as someone who missed the home win against Blackpool
8) Slav. A different kind of manager, and exactly what we needed this season. Focused, intelligent and fearless. Deserves a shot at the big time
9) We will hopefully never again have to play our supposed rivals from a horrible town in Bedfordshire that I can’t bring myself to name, who are currently, and deservedly, marooned in League Two
10 Last, but most certainly not least... We are going up, I said we are going up!

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Approaching the bell

Most track and field events are fairly easy for the casual viewer to appreciate. All the track races up to and including 1500m are over in less than four minutes, while each individual jump or throw is self-contained; even if you don’t see the whole competition, success and failure are usually easy to tell apart.

The 10,000m, though, is more of an acquired taste: 25 laps of the track in which nothing much seems to happen until the very end. Indeed, unless you attend an athletics meeting in the flesh, you’re unlikely to get the chance to watch an entire race from start to finish; TV producers tend to show the start and finish, filling in the dull middle laps by covering the field events. You can often see the 10,000m runners in the background, on their way to completing yet another circuit of the track.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. I reckon a 10,000m race has a lot in common with this season in the Championship. After a blanket start, a few runners soon drop off the back of the pack, clearly destined to be lapped (relegated). The rest trail round and round the track in a long line in which the exact order changes regularly. More are gradually dropped as the relentless pace takes its toll. Meanwhile, at the front, the big guns take it in turns to lead, focusing on being in the right position at the business end of the race.

And when the end is finally in sight, with 600m or so to go, the strongest runners slip into a higher gear and sprint the final lap, trusting that they’ve got enough in the tank to hold off the opposition. Mo Farah is the modern master of the sprint finish, of course, taking off as if turbocharged. In the big races in recent years, no one has been able to stay with him.

I won’t spell out all the parallels with the Championship season. The point is that the runners in this particular race are approaching the bell that signals the final lap. The pack is down to eight – though a couple of those are barely clinging on to their hopes of automatic promotion – and this weekend’s fixtures are the equivalent of one of those periodic surges when the leaders try to shape off the weaker runners. The question is, are we Mo Farah (or at least one of the Ethiopians and Kenyans who invariably win silver and bronze behind him)?

No one knows how this race is going to end. But if we’re still in the leading pack on Monday night, we’ll have given ourselves the best possible chance of going up automatically. C’mon you ’Orns!

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Nineties nostalgia, pt. 4 – It takes a small man to beat a small team

I really can’t cope with the tension of the Championship promotion battle any more, and the idea of having to wait nearly a fortnight for the next instalment of the story is agonising. So let’s go back in time to an altogether simpler age. An age when Watford sometimes got easy FA Cup draws – that’s how long ago it was.

It’s December 1996, and Watford’s reward for struggling past Northampton Town in the 1st Round of the FA Cup is a home tie against Ashford Town of the Dr Marten’s Premier League. Who of the what? You may well ask. Ashford went bust in 2010, though the town now has a new club (Ashford United) which plays in what is basically the Kent county league. As for the shoemakers, they were sponsoring the Southern League at the time. All in all, a fairly straightforward tie for Kenny Jackett’s team, then sitting 8th in Division Two (that’s League One in old money).

A cursory glance at the back page of the programme reinforces the impression. That day the Hornets had Miller in goal; Gibbs and Robinson at full-back; a classic central defence pairing of Millen and Page; Bazeley and Slater on the wings; and Mooney, Noel-Williams and Penrice forming what was presumably an attacking trio, with only Palmer left to hold down the centre of midfield. That’s pretty much a classic mid- to late 90s line-up, and not that different from the one GT would take all the way to the Premier League a couple of seasons later.

Appearances can be deceptive, though. It turns out this was only Robbo’s 6th first-team game and Gifton’s 11th, while Slater had only made his Watford debut the previous week. Still, there should have been enough skill and experience to see off Ashford. Yet at half-time it was 0-0 and the atmosphere was starting to get a bit twitchy.

Enter a new hero (or so it seemed at the time). Say what you like about David Connolly (and plenty have), he’s scored goals wherever he’s played: brought on for Mooney, he scored a second-half hat-trick. Two goals for Bazeley against the tiring non-leaguers made for a slightly flattering 5-0 scoreline.

The programme is in the same garish, PC-inspired style as the one from 1997 I looked at a while ago. On the cover is Gary Porter, currently sidelined with a broken leg, while Steve Palmer gets the centre spread interview, in which he talks positively about having to play in defence, despite being a midfielder by trade. How little he knew of what lay ahead.

Also in the future lay the extensive career of Ade Akinbiyi, highlighted for scoring the winner for Norwich against Watford’s reserves in a recent game. Altogether less extensive would be the career of Richard Flash, a player so elusive that many Watford fans still refuse to believe he actually existed. Yet he’s listed here in the reserve team line-ups, so at least a few must actually have got to see him play.

As for Watford’s FA Cup run, it was ended in the 4th Round by Manchester City. Some things never change.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Telling tales

I haven’t checked, but I imagine BBC Sport’s summation of yesterday’s game was along the lines of ‘Promotion-chasing Watford thrash depleted Reading’. Every football match is a story that can be reduced to a one-line summary, of course – triumph for one side, disaster for the other, etc – but there’s always more to it than that, and this one was particularly rich in sub-plots.

The most unusual story (and thank goodness for that) was the one that led to the emotional shows of support for Nic Cruwys before and during the game; the players’ T-shirts, a giant banner, a moving round of applause during the 44th minute, more during the half-time interview with Ollie Floyd. Little that occurred during the match roused the crowd to such levels of passion.

That’s because of another odd story that probably had more bearing on the final result than any of the others; the scheduling of Reading’s FA Cup replay with Bradford on Monday evening, giving them a fixture sequence of Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Monday. In the circumstances, it wasn’t much of a surprise that, with only a couple of exceptions, the Reading line-up elicited a reaction of “Who?” from all but the most knowledgeable Hornets fans. Nor that they were no match for a Watford team coming into the game on a run of 6 wins from the past 8 games.

In that team, the big story last weekend was Fernando Forestieri’s altercation with Bakary Sako – like many Hornets, I’ve spent the week fending off the jeers of fans of other teams. So, given a rare chance to play pretty much an entire game, the big question was whether he would take it. And boy, did he. After his two exquisite assists, it felt like the whole crowd was willing him to score one for himself, and when he did, the catharsis was there for all to see. Fessi is back, and that can only be a good thing.

There are more stories, of course. Troy Deeney’s relentless progress towards becoming the first Watford player to score 20 goals three seasons running. Matty Vydra’s unerring touch when put through on goal. Heurelho Gomes’s alarming distribution. Daniel Tozser’s irritating habit of hitting simple passes approximately three times as hard as they need to be, creating problems out of nothing.

But the biggest one of all is the one we don’t know the ending to yet. Are Watford writing the story of a promotion-winning season? I have to say, it feels increasingly like they are. Slav has built a machine for winning football matches by any means necessary, using different formations and styles, showboating or slogging it out toe-to-toe with the opposition, with the end results ranging from extravagant tonkings to slim victories. It’s a real page-turner, that’s for sure.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Refreshingly early

Amid the drama of the past week, I clean forgot to celebrate Championship Survival Day. Mind you, last year it slipped my mind altogether, so I’m getting better.

You could argue that the concept isn’t relevant any more – that we’re now one of the big hitters in this division, among the favourites to go up at the start of each season. We can take it for granted that we’re not going to be relegated, can’t we?

Well, yes and no. Football is a funny old game, as they say, and circumstances can change with remarkable speed. Look at Portsmouth and Coventry City, to name but two clubs whose fans probably thought they were guaranteed Championship football or better for the forseeable future.

Yes, we may well be promoted to the Premier League this year. But until that happens, I see no harm in celebrating the fact that we are at least guaranteed a crack at it next season if it doesn’t happen this time. And the fact that we can celebrate in early February is definitely a good sign.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Nineties nostalgia, pt. 3 – Ooh ahh

I’ll be honest, I struggled to find a programme worth saving from the 1991/92 season. In the end I plumped for the January 1992 fixture against Newcastle, purely because it was one of the few games from that season that sparked any kind of memory.

A couple of years earlier, I’d done a one-year postgraduate journalism course, and one of my friends there was a bloke called John Mulvey, whose sole ambition was to write for the NME. His admirable single-mindedness had paid off, and by 1992 he was firmly established at the country’s leading weekly music magazine. What’s more, for reasons now lost in the mists of time, he had decided to bring a band he was interviewing to Vicarage Road for the Newcastle game, to add a bit of colour to the piece I suppose. This would be a much better story if I could remember who the band was, but I can’t. Presumably they were Newcastle fans, or maybe they just happened to be in Watford for the weekend.

Either way, I remember meeting John and a couple of guys from the band (and I really wish I could say they turned out to be Blur or the Stone Roses or someone) on the Vicarage Road End terrace before the game and standing with them as the Hornets dashed into a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes. As you do, I was rubbing my hands in anticipation of a record scoreline, but the Watford team of the early ’90s wasn’t so obliging, and the game ended 2-2.

The programme is a thin thing of 32 pages, with a rather old-fashioned look and feel. For all the bright colours, it feels very parochial, and two items epitomise this. One is a paragraph on the supporters club page about unclaimed prizes from the Junior Hornets New Year Raffle, which include Scalextric, a bottle of sherry and a half-bottle of whisky. The other, on a page of miscellaneous news, is an apology for the directions to Cambridge United printed in the previous programme; apparently “they were in fact a good route to Cambridge City!” So near, and yet so far.

Dominating the programme, as indeed he did the era in some respects, is Andy Hessenthaler, who is pictured on the cover, on the centre spread (as part of an interview) and on the news pages. He’d only been at the club since the previous September, but had quickly made an impression. It’s no surprise to learn from the interview that he did a lot of cross-country running as a boy, though I wasn’t aware that he was a self-employed ceramic tiler before Watford gave him the opportunity to play football for a living.

What else is there to say of this underwhelming era, when we were expected to get excited about a team including Trevor Putney, Peter Nicholas, Keith Waugh and Jason Drysdale? Well, one thing that’s noticeable is the number of products of the youth system who featured that season. Apart from Drysdale, Nigel Gibbs, David Holdsworth, Gary Porter and Luther Blissett (in his third and final spell at the club) all started that day, while Darren Bazeley came on as a sub and David James was missing his first game of the season. Richard Johnson had just broken into the first-team squad, Jason Solomon and Barry Ashby had played a few games, and Robert Page was a fixture in the youth team. Whatever else happened during the dog days of the 1990s, we never stopped bringing young players through into the first team. I wonder if we’ll ever see that many Academy products in the starting line-up for a league game again?

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Five on five

I don’t usually comment on games I’ve just watched, and I’m risking trespassing on BHaPPY’s territory, but here are five random observations (definitely not properly thought-through thunks) on today’s tonking of a lacklustre Charlton:

1) It was good to see six former Academy players in the matchday squad, even if five of them started on the bench. It may have been largely down to an unusual set of circumstances – a number of injuries combined with Slav’s banishment of a group of assorted ne’er-do-wells from the first-team squad – but it was pleasingly reminiscent of the Mackay/Dyche era, when homegrown talent was given a chance to shine. Nice to see George Byers make his debut, too. Slav doesn’t strike me as the sentimental type, so presumably he feels the player is a serious contender for future appearances.

2) Still on the subject of homegrown players, what did Tommy Hoban do to annoy his teammates in training this week? He was the recipient of far more awkward passes today than any player has a right to receive in a month, let alone a single game.

3) When the teams were read out for the first time at about 2.15, and Juan Carlos Paredes’ name was called, there was an audible exclamation of  “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” from somewhere behind me in the Rookery. An understandable reaction, given the Ecuadorian’s recent performances. He looked better going forward today – more decisive – but still made errors that might have been more expensive against a better team; getting caught in possession or out of position. He still feels like a luxury player in this league, rather than an essential selection.

4) Odion Ighalo: what can you say? He’s been getting better with every game, and today was the best I’ve seen him play. He’s developing a fantastic understanding with Troy that was demonstrated in numerous nifty interchanges of passes, and his pace, strength and speed of reaction make him a constant danger. It’s just a shame he didn’t quite manage a hat-trick.

5) Nothing’s ever perfect, and the one thing that spoiled the game for me was that period during the second half when Harry the Hornet started a Mexican wave. I’ve always hated this inane ritual, with its implication that whatever you’re watching isn’t entertaining enough and needs pepping up with some audience participation. It’s a professional football match, not a *&$%ing pantomime, and there are 22 players out there sweating their guts out. Frankly, doing a Mexican wave is a bit insulting to them. It may be that this was a one-off to celebrate Miguel Layun’s (excellent) home debut, in which case I’ll let it slide. God forbid this becomes a regular occurence at the Vic.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

‘Tales From The Vicarage: The Interviews’ by Lionel Birnie & Adam Leventhal

When I heard that the third volume in the excellent Tales From The Vicarage series was going to consist solely of interviews, I can’t pretend I wasn’t a little disappointed. I’m obviously a little biased, having contributed a mini-memoir of my Watford-supporting life to the first volume, but I’ve also enjoyed the other personal pieces in both the previous books – not to mention Olly Wicken’s highly original short stories.

What’s more, I have my reservations about the whole concept of interviews with footballers and football managers, as I explained in my review of the recent TFTV live event. A whole book of them sounded as if it might risk being a bit, well, monotonous.

Lionel Birnie and Adam Leventhal were obviously aware of this risk, and have done their best to vary the style and pace of the 11 interviews in the book. Thus, the Sean Dyche interview is divided into themed segments (‘The Man’, ‘The Player’, etc); Adam’s encounter with Paul Furlong is interspersed with vignettes of his 14-year-old self and his hero-worship of the striker; the Ray Lewington chapter is presented entirely in the manager’s own words as he tells the stories behind the major milestones of his eventful reign.

In the days when albums were the yardstick by which musicians were judged, it was said that you should always lead with your strongest song, and Lionel and Adam have heeded that advice. The Sean Dyche interview kicks off the book and it’s a riot. Having seen Dyche at both the live TFTV events, I sort of knew what to expect, but he’s still full of surprises – I’m still struggling to reconcile what I know of the man with his newly-revealed passion for high-quality footwear. Adam’s interview reveals a great deal about a likeable, witty but also deeply serious man who, if there’s any justice, will manage England one day.

The other highlights for me were interviews with players I haven’t heard much from before: Micah Hyde, who – among other things – gives his perspective on the issues facing prospective black managers (of which he is one), and David and Dean Holdsworth, identical twins who prove to be anything but in person.

There are no duds, though I get the impression that Ronnie Rosenthal wasn’t quite as forthcoming as some of the others. Then again, his role in Hornet history is a fairly minor one, albeit important at the time. If I have a gripe (and it’s a trivial one), it’s that too many of those featured had overlapping careers at Vicarage Road. The introduction claims that these stories span 30 years, but the Holdsworths are the only ones featured who played in the 1980s (both making their debut in 1988), and then it was another few years before Furlong and Hyde appeared.

As a journalist myself, I know as well as anyone that arranging an interview isn’t quite as straightforward as picking up the phone and saying “fancy a chat?” But if there are to be future volumes of the TFTV series – and I hope there are – then I’d like to hear from a few personalities from the 70s, or even earlier. There’s one name in particular that crops up in every interview with a player who came through the youth system in the late 70s and early 80s (and the Holdsworths tell a hilarious anecdote about him here): it’s about time we heard from Tom Walley in his own words.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Alternate title

A bonus for New Year’s Day – 10 Smiths songs that could equally well have served as the title for that last entry:

I want the one I can’t have
I started something I couldn’t finish
What difference does it make?
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before
Nowhere fast
You just haven’t earned it yet, baby
These things take time
There is a light that never goes out

Please, please, please let me get what I want

Some girls are bigger than others

How soon is now?

A new year has begun, but the situation for Watford fans is pretty much the same as it has been ever since the Pozzos arrived. Essentially, we are the footballing equivalent of a lovesick teenager, desperate to win over the object of our affection – glamorous, certainly, but not completely unobtainable. In theory, at least.

Seen in this light, the play-off final against Palace was the school end-of-year dance where she arrived as our date, but left with someone else. Last season she wasn’t really interested, despite a few promising moments. And this year we’re back on the rollercoaster, hope alternating with despair.

So the Wolves game last week was that day you bump into her in the street in the rain, can’t think of anything to say, and end up looking wet and foolish. The Cardiff game a few days later was the school trip where, after a slow start, you remember how to be clever and charming and she laughs at your jokes (four times), and suddenly all is right with the world again.

(To extend this simile into the near future, the FA Cup tie against Chelsea on Sunday is the posh dance where you’ve somehow been paired with the richest and most beautiful girl in school, and which is almost certain to end in your complete humiliation.)

Like any lovelorn sixth-former, we spend our spare time agonising over the details that might make all the difference. Should we wear our snazziest shirt to the party on Saturday night, or the smart but understated one? 3-5-2 or 4-3-3? Go all out to impress her or play it cool? Vydra or Ighalo? Decisions, decisions.

Ultimately, all we can do is keep up the pursuit, hoping that the stars will align and we will achieve our heart’s desire. And, just to complicate matters, there’s a dark suspicion at the back of our minds that if we do succeed, the reality won’t live up to the anticipation – but let’s pursue that thought another day. New Year’s Day is nothing if not a time to be hopeful.