Sunday, 18 December 2016

Choice remarks

Back in July, I wrote an excitable post about the number and range of striking options available to Walter Mazzarri as he took charge of his new team. Given that Stefano Okaka’s brace against Everton are the only goals scored by a Watford striker since Troy notched up his 99th goal against Bournemouth on October 1st, it seems like a good time to revisit that list. Where did it all go wrong?

Troy Deeney
He will deny it, of course, but it’s hard not to conclude that the pressure of being on 99 Watford goals is getting to Troy. In every game since Bournemouth he’s had chances to reach 100, but he’s muffed them all. It’s a shame, because that cultured lob at West Ham was the goal of a striker at the peak of his powers. If we ever get awarded a penalty (I don’t think we’ve had one yet this season), that may be his best chance to get the monkey off his back.

Odion Ighalo
A shadow of his former self, and now fourth choice when all the forwards are fit. As I’ve written before, I can’t help thinking the illness and subsequent death of his father had something to do with his drastic loss of form. All strikers go through dry spells, but we’re beyond that now. I would send him on loan to a Championship club in January in the hope that he can rediscover his mojo against weaker defences. If that doesn’t work, or if he refuses to go, then sell him.

Obbi Oularé
Currently on a season-long loan to Zulte Waregem in Belgium, where he’s scored one goal in nine appearances. It’s anyone’s guess whether we’ll ever see him in a Watford shirt again, but I don’t think we’ll be negotiating an emergency recall just yet.

Matej Vydra
I said in July that if we received a decent offer for Matty, he’d be off, and Derby duly obliged. Two goals in 17 appearances to date suggests that he’s not finding Championship defences as obliging as he used to, and that we made the right decision.

Mathias Ranegie
Here’s a thing: the big Swede is still a Watford player. He’s been on loan at Djurgaardens in Sweden, where the season ended in November (he scored six goals in 25 appearances), so he should theoretically be back at London Colney now, training with the rest of the Watford squad. I say ‘theoretically’, as I doubt that’s the case, somehow.

Adalberto Peñaranda
The teenage prodigy (he’s still only 19) is on loan at Udinese, where he’s only made five appearances (four off the bench) and has had injury problems. Jon Sinclair’s invaluable player listing at says he’s due to join Watford properly next season. We’ll see. Another one for the future.

Isaac Success
A handful of exciting substitute appearances and an all-action performance at Middlesbrough have been enough to saddle Isaac with the burden of the fans’ expectations, and with Troy and Iggy faltering, it would be great if he could step up over the Christmas period. But the fact that Walter is so reluctant to give him a start suggests that he still hasn’t put his injury problems behind him.

Jerome Sinclair
Another who Walter has used sparingly, until his surprise selection in midweek, suggesting it’s taken him a while to get up to speed. I haven’t seen him play yet, so I can’t really comment. But at the rate the injuries are piling up, he may get his chance soon.

Alex Jakubiak
Last year’s under-21 goal machine is currently warming the bench at League One Fleetwood, where he’s only made it onto the pitch three times. Given that he’s the same age as Sinclair and Success, and a year older that Peñaranda, I don’t rate his chances of making it at Vicarage Road, sadly.

Stefano Okaka
Not included in my original list, as he hadn’t signed at that point, but I’m very glad he did. Like Success, injury has limited him to a handful of promising cameo performances so far. If he could get properly fit, he could be a key player in the second half of the season.

So there you go. We still have nine strikers on the books, and yet they’ve only scored seven league goals between them so far. It’s not good enough, is it?

Personally, I’d like to see us line up with a front three of Deeney, Okaka and Success, or Deeney and Okaka supported by Success and Amrabat on the wings. There’s enough muscle and talent there to frighten any Premier League defence. Whether we’ll ever get the chance to see that, though, is the big question.

Friday, 9 December 2016

The family way

There are three main ways in which people choose which football team to support: they follow the example of a parent or sibling; support their local club; or jump on the bandwagon of whichever club is the most popular or successful at the time. (There is also a fourth way, which you could call random selection – as exercised by my younger brother, who suddenly announced on the morning of the 1975 FA Cup final that he was going to support whichever team won. He’s been a West Ham fan ever since.)

I took the second route. Growing up in Bushey Heath, and having discovered (via the publicity given to the Hornets’ 1970 FA Cup run) that there was a football club in the town where we did our family shopping, I persuaded my dad to take me to Vicarage Road, and a lifelong love affair began. But I could just as easily have become a Lincoln City fan.

That’s because my father grew up in Lincoln and used to go and watch his local club. (This being in the 1930s, you could apparently go to the game, buy a programme, get some chips on the way home and still have change from a farthing.) To be honest, I don’t think he was really a fan. When it came to sport, he’d rather play than watch, and by the time I was interested in football he showed no sign of taking any special interest in Lincoln City’s fortunes. Hence I was free to follow my own path.

But recently I spent a few days in Lincolnshire researching my family history, and I got to wondering how it would have been if I had decided to follow my father’s team, albeit from afar. I’d never have got to see my favourites play in the top division or Europe, that’s for sure; Lincoln hold the record for the most seasons in the Football League (104) without ever reaching the top tier. The pinnacle of their achievement is fifth place in the Second Division, way back in 1902.

In contrast, they’ve been relegated from the League more times (five) than any other club, and are currently in their sixth consecutive season in the National League. They’re having a good season, as it happens; they’re currently in second place and have made the FA Cup 3rd Round. Then again, to put it into perpective, they’re only seven places ahead of another local team I could have picked as a boy – the mighty Boreham Wood.

In a way, none of this matters. I know people (not least my brother) who’ve followed a team from a distance for years, rarely seeing them play in the flesh, and they’re no less supporters for that. If I’d followed in my father’s footsteps, I would doubtless now be able to reel off statistics about the club and compile lists of favourite players, just like any other long-time Lincoln fan.

But I wouldn’t have seen them play getting on for 1,000 times, and I wouldn’t have experienced that satisfying sense of the fortnightly home game being an established part of my life’s routine, as it has been for the past 40-odd years. So all in all, I’m glad Dad never tried to persuade me to follow his boyhood team.

And of course, there is one particular link between the Hornets and the Imps that changed the course of footballing history: I’ve always been obscurely proud that, of all the places where Graham Taylor could have served his managerial apprenticeship, it happened to be Lincoln.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Not angry, just... irritated

Yesterday’s game against Hull was hugely irritating; for Watford to be so dominant and yet fail to get a shot on target is the kind of performance that drives fans mad. Most irritating of all is the thought of how good this Watford team could be, if the many obvious talents it contains could just knit together a bit better. And yet we’re seventh in the table, having kept three clean sheets in a row. I realise that it looks churlish to complain.

We’ve been here before, of course. Last December, Quique’s team were riding on the crest of a wave, scoring goals and winning matches they weren’t expected to, and it looked like the only way was up. We all know what happened next, so I’m reserving judgement for now.

In the meantime, to give vent to my frustration, here are five more things about Watford that I find irritating at the moment:

1) Lack of fixture congestion
One of the wonderful things about being in the Premier League, we’re told, is the chance to play all these exciting games against great teams. Except it isn’t, is it? Yesterday’s match was our first at Vicarage Road for 28 days, and it’s another 21 till the next one. So that’s a 49-day period with just 90 minutes of football for home fans to enjoy – 90 minutes against an opponent that packed the midfield and showed minimal attacking intent.

2) Woke up one morning, almost missed the game
It’s not exclusive to the Premier League, but the moving of kick-off times is a major irritant. Midday on a Sunday for a home game against Stoke next month? And then the away game in January against the same team moved from a bank holiday afternoon to the following evening? Others have complained far more eloquently than I can about this issue, so let’s just register it and move on.

3) The lost boys
I really miss the days when any Watford team that took the pitch included at least a couple of homegrown players, and it would be nice to think that we can roll out the “he’s one of our own” chant again one day.

I get it, of course. At the level we’re now playing at, we need greater skill and experience than any youngster produced by our Academy is likely to possess. In summer 2015, the transfer policy deliberately prioritised older players with the nous to keep us up for that first crucial season in the Premier League, and this year we’ve apparently got the oldest team in the division.

It doesn’t help that, judging by what I read about Harry Kewell’s under-23 ‘development’ squad, they would struggle to beat Wealdstone at the moment. If the aim of that set-up is for young players to learn lots of different ways of losing to clubs with inferior resources, they’re doing a great job. But it’s hard to see any of those youngsters bridging the gap to the first-team squad any time soon.

4) What’s the score?
Why don’t we get a full set of half-time scores from all four divisions (plus Scotland) any more? The other Premier League scores are read out, and maybe the Championship if we’re lucky, and that’s it. I used to hate that when it happened at away grounds (usually at clubs that considered themselves too grand to look downwards – Leeds springs to mind), and now we’re showing the same arrogance.

English football consists of four professional divisions, and Watford should celebrate that heritage, which we’ve been part of at every level in the not so distant past. The examples of clubs like Portsmouth, Bolton and Coventry show that it would be foolish to assume we’ll never find ourselves back in the lower leagues again.

Besides, I miss the chance to cheer when it’s announced that Luton are losing at half-time.

5) Z-Ca-
One tradition the club has, thankfully, maintained is the playing of the Z-Cars theme when the teams run out. Well, sort of. We get the first verse or so as the players make their way from the tunnel to the silly branded arch they have to line up in front of, and then the music abruptly switches to something modern and pompous, destroying the mood. I miss that bonkers solo in the middle (is it a clarinet?) more than I can express.

You can see the thinking. Playing Z-Cars is a sop to the fans (especially old gits like me), but it’s the sort of thing the club would prefer to keep to a minimum in the shiny modern world of the Premier League.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The story so far

Uniquely in my 46 years of supporting Watford, I’ve seen all eight games so far this season live – seven of them in person, while I watched Burnley on Sky Sports (and boy, I wish I hadn’t). So I feel as qualified as anyone to make a few observations on our season so far, as we head into the second international break.

Walter Mazzarri doesn’t like making team changes...
He really doesn’t. As far as I can work out, every single change he’s made to the starting line-up (omitting the League Cup game against Gillingham, obviously) has been enforced by an injury or a suspension, apart from those he made at West Ham. That was the first match after the transfer window closed, and he immediately selected his marquee signings; Janmaat came in for Amrabat and Pereyra for Guedioura. That aside, once you’re in the starting XI, it appears that you’re there for good.

... which is bad news for Isaac Success...
After a series of steadily longer and more impressive cameos, Success scored a fabulous first goal against Bournemouth. The clamour for him to be given the chance to show what he can do for the full 90 minutes is growing, but I suspect we may have to wait a while longer. Mazzarri has been making noises about Success needing to add defensive capabilities to his game, and what with that and the injury that’s caused him to pull out of the Nigeria squad this week, I wouldn’t put any money on him starting against Middlesbrough.

... but good news for Odion Ighalo
For what it’s worth, if he’s fit, I think Success should come in for Ighalo for the next match. We can all see that Iggy isn’t right, and hasn’t been for six months now. It’s not that he’s not trying his best, but there’s something missing, that crucial 10% that made him such a lethal striker for the first half of last season. His hold-up play is poor, every shot he takes is scuffed or misdirected (the goal at West Ham needed a deflection to go in), and he continues to fail to pass to better-placed teammates far too often.

You don’t have to be an amateur psychologist to hypothesise that this is all linked to the illness, and subsequent death, of his father. Grief affects people in different ways; in Iggy’s case, it seems to have robbed him of his spark. I’d suggest it would be better for all concerned if someone else led the line for a while, and he could try to rediscover that spark as an impact substitute.

Swings and roundabouts
This time last year, we were all worrying about how Watford were going to score enough goals to win matches, while congratulating Quique Flores on the defensive discipline he’d so quickly instilled. Then, when we did start scoring, we fretted about the fact that almost every goal was being scored by Deeney or Ighalo.

No worries on that front any more; eight games in and we’ve already had seven different scorers. We’ve scored in all but one of those games, too. What we haven’t managed is a clean sheet. In particular, our propensity to concede goals from crosses is worrying; I liked the line in the Guardian on Friday, to the effect that our wing-backs clearly haven’t got to grips with the ‘back’ part of their job description. Maybe Brice Dja Djédjé will help to remedy that, if we ever get to see him in action.

If nothing else, the gulf in approach between Flores and Mazzarri proves that the Pozzos don’t have a ‘type’ when it comes to Head Coaches. Given a choice, though, I’d opt for the Mazzarri way, as I suspect most Watford fans would. This already looks like being a lot more fun than last season was.

Whatever happened to nippy little strikers?
When it comes to signing forwards, one thing is clear: the Pozzos like ’em big. Since winning promotion we’ve signed Oularé, Success and Okaka, all of them huge, strapping blokes. (Watching Okaka’s entertaining cameo at West Ham, I was unavoidably reminded of Devon White.) The not particularly small Ighalo looks puny by comparison, and I suspect Jerome Sinclair won’t get near the first team until he beefs up a bit.

This all promises further entertainment for Watford fans, and I would love to see us field a three-man front line of Deeney, Success and Okaka, just for the looks on the opposition’s faces. Is there still a place for the small, speedy striker in the modern game? Not at Watford, on the face of it.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Spoiled for choice

Throughout 2015-16, Watford effectively managed (and managed very well, it has to be said) with just three strikers: Troy Deeney, Odion Ighalo and Obbi Oularé. Given that the latter was only trusted to play in the early rounds of the FA Cup, it’s a good thing neither of our two star strikers picked up an injury.

We got away it with it last season, but the signs are that the club aren’t prepared to take a similar risk for 2016-17. As of today, we have no fewer than nine strikers signed to full-time contracts: the three named above, returning loanees Matej Vydra and Mathias Ranegie, new signings Adalberto Peñaranda (that accent is going to get very irritating), Isaac Success and Jerome Sinclair, and under-21 goal machine Alex Jakubiak. Moreover, the club has publicly stated that it has no plans to sell any of its strikers.

Okay, we can take that last statement with a pinch of salt (I’d imagine that if anyone came in with a decent bid for Vydra or Ranegie, Watford would bite their hand off). Nevertheless, Walter Mazzarri has an embarrassment of riches up front, and you’d hope this might make for a more entertaining style of football than Quique served up.

Much will doubtless change between now and the first game of the season, but it’s fun to speculate about how Walter will deploy his strikers. My best guess is that Deeney and Ighalo will start, with Success and Peñaranda on the bench and ready to take over if either of last season’s stars falters. Oularé, Vydra and Ranegie will all be sent out on loan (and it would be a major surprise if either of the latter two is ever seen in a Watford shirt again), while Sinclair and Jakubiak will be forced to scuffle around in the under-21 team, waiting for a call-up to the big time (or a decent run in the League Cup).

But who knows. Maybe Mazzarri will be so impressed by Matty Vydra in pre-season training that he’ll build a team around him. Maybe Success will play as a winger (as far as I can make out, he’s a forward in the broader sense), giving Sinclair a shot at the first team (or at least the bench).

Whatever happens, if Steven Berghuis can carry on where he left off at the end of last season, and Walter restores Almen Abdi to a more forward-looking role, we ought to have the capability to pose a serious threat to opposing defences. I can’t wait.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Irk the traditionalists

There’s a great Half Man Half Biscuit song called ‘Irk the purists’ - but when it comes to football, I prefer to irk the traditionalists.

By traditionalists, I mean those people who hold that football is all about ‘big’ clubs, and that the game is somehow poorer if those clubs aren’t competing for honours. Many of those people are, naturally, fans of those clubs, but the media is also full of traditionalists, and they can be heard every weekend on football programmes and phone-ins. Rarely an edition of 606 goes by without Robbie Savage responding sympathetically to a listener’s whinges with something along the lines of: “Yes, [name of club] are a big, big club, and you really should be in the Premier League.”

Except they shouldn’t, because (thankfully) the only way to get into the Premier League is by winning enough matches to gain promotion, and a significant number of ‘big, big’ clubs have singularly failed to do that in recent years. Starting next season in the Championship will be Nottingham Forest, Leeds, Derby, Birmingham and Wolves, not to mention new joiners Newcastle and Aston Villa. Then there are the clubs that have enjoyed recent stints in the Premier League, and whose fans doubtless believe they belong there: QPR, Blackburn, Norwich, Cardiff, Fulham, Wigan, plus Hull if they don’t win the play-off final. There are more ‘big’ clubs lower down the league: Bolton and Sheffield United in League One, Portsmouth in League Two.

Conversely, you could make a case for around a third of next season’s Premier League line-up consisting of clubs that the traditionalists would dismiss as somehow not worthy of the status. There’s Watford of course, but also Bournemouth, Swansea, Southampton, Burnley, West Brom, Palace – and not forgetting the champions, Leicester. (I’ll come back to them in a minute.)

What these two lists make clear is that, in modern football, there aren’t big and small clubs: there are just well-run and badly-run ones. The big clubs that have fallen on hard times have mostly done so because their owners have made calamitous decisions, spent their money unwisely (or too sparingly), hired bad managers and fired good ones. Ask a fan of any of the formerly big clubs for the primary cause of their downfall and the odds are that they will either name the current owner, or a former one. Conversely, the smaller clubs that are enjoying the limelight are those that have sensible owners who do what is best for the club, and I’m proud (not to mention relieved, given previous experiences) to be able to include the Pozzos in that list.

The traditionalists have mostly been magnimous on the subject of Leicester’s triumph (albeit most of those in the media were confidently predicting their fall from grace till well into 2016 – traditionalists are notable for their inability to conceive of something happening that hasn’t happened before). That’s because they’re sure it’s a one-off.

They may be in for a nasty surprise, though. Thanks to the new Sky TV deal that kicks in next season, the Premier League playing field is going to be more level than ever before. Even the smallest clubs will be able to attract game-changing players from around the world, and while the really big names will doubtless still plump for the prestige of an Arsenal or a Man United, given the choice, there’s no guarantee that the usual suspects will reassert their dominance next season, or in the foreseeable future. It may not be Leicester next season, but there’s every chance that another relatively unfancied club will be challenging for the title.

Meanwhile, the growing wealth gap will make it ever harder for clubs that haven’t been in the Premier League for a while to get back there. Big clubs are usually from big towns and cities, and their strength on the pitch was traditionally based on their ability to fill a large stadium once a fortnight, and the revenue that resulted. Not any more. Newcastle can fill St. James’s Park with baying, bare-chested Geordies as often as they like, but it’s Watford’s 20,000 fans who’ll be watching Premier League football next year. And if that irks the traditionalists, all the better. Time to start a new tradition.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

2015/16: highs and lows

So that’s that, then: 2015/16 is done and dusted, with a match that was the polar opposite of the first home game back in August, when Watford and West Brom looked as if they could play till Christmas without troubling the scorers. The baffling thing about today’s game is that it didn’t finish 5-5.

‘Baffling’ is a word that’s been used a lot in a Hornets context recently, whether to describe Quique’s selections and substitutions, or the decision to let him go. I’m not going to get into that now, though. In an attempt to make some sort of sense of an up-and-down season, this is my take on some of the highs and lows, both the big issues and (mainly, to be honest) the small stuff.

We scored some great goals. The video rundown of the contenders for goal of the season before the Villa home game reminded me of just how good some of Iggy’s haul before Christmas were, and of course Guedioura’s thunderbolt in the FA Cup quarter-final has already gone down as one of the all-time great Watford goals...

... but a lot of players didn’t pull their weight when it came to goalscoring. Over the years, we’ve usually had at least one midfielder who could be relied on to chip in with 5-10 goals a season. Almen Abdi has fulfilled that role in recent seasons, and he did at least score two this year, making him our joint fourth highest goalscorer. That’s two more than Capoue, or Jurado, or Behrami, or Suarez – and frankly, that’s not good enough. Okay, the formation Quique settled on militated against midfielders finding themselves in the opposing penalty area too often, but even so, the standard of finishing we’ve seen from our midfield this season has been shockingly poor. Today’s game was a fine example, with around a dozen shots flying wide or over the bar. With a bit more precise execution of what should be a basic skill for a Premier League footballer, we could have won that game at a canter.

We’ve got Troy Deeney, and that’s been absolutely central to our success this season. If you’re reading this blog, you don’t need me to explain any further. Suffice to say, he is the one player I dread being sold this summer...

... but, sadly, we no longer have Lloyd Doyley. Okay, I promise this is the last time I’ll go on about him, and realistically, he was on borrowed time once he picked up the neck injury that caused him to miss the end of last season and the start of this one. But seriously, given some of the Keystone Cops defending we’ve seen from Nyom, Parades and Cathcart at right back in the last couple of months, I can’t believe Lloyd would have performed any worse.

We’ll still be a Premier League club next season, and that was the goal. So, job done…

... but we’ve taken on some of the unpleasant pretensions of the Premier League. I’m not talking about the silly pre-match rigmarole; the referee picking the ball up off a plinth, the hasty line-up under the sponsor’s banner and so on is all mandated by the PL, and we don’t have a say in the matter. But as far as I’m aware, no one stipulates that we have to deny the existence of other divisions by only reading out the half-time scores in the PL. This is something that often irks me at away grounds, and until comparatively recently, you could rely on hearing the scores from all four divisions of the English league, plus the Scottish Premier League, and occasionally even local non-league scores. Not this season, though. It smacks of arrogance to me – not to mention depriving us of the pleasure of cheering when Luton are behind.

The Watford fans, led by the 1881, have been brilliant most of the season, and the flags and foil displays have been magnificent. (Well, so I’m told. I’m usually underneath them, so I only get to see blurry pictures on Twitter later on.) I’m genuinely proud of the send-off we gave Quique today...

... but there are always exceptions, not least the thousands who failed dismally to get behind the team at Wembley. But I was particularly baffled (that word again) by a twentysomething couple who were sat/stood in front of me at the league game at the Emirates. After about half an hour (at which stage we were only 1-0 down and not out of it by any means), I noticed them leaving their seats. A few minutes later I had to nip to the loo, and on my way I spotted the couple perched at a table in the concourse, pints of beer in front of them, watching Soccer Saturday on the TV. And this was in the middle of the match. Words fail me.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Some thoughts about singing at football matches

1) Singing at football matches is fun
That feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself, part of an ecstatic, bellowing mass of humanity all hell-bent on encouraging your team to greater heights – you can’t beat that, can you?

I haven’t read much football history, but I suspect this may have been one of the key factors in football’s first upswing in popularity in the late 19th century: the chance for factory workers, miners, steelworkers and whoever else to get away from the monotony of their jobs for one afternoon a week and sing “Come on you [insert team name here]!”, knowing that this was a passion they’d chosen for themselves, and one that they shared with thousands of their fellow supporters.

2) Singing at football matches is hard to get going
It’s like starting a fire, essentially. The first spark catches, the fire spreads through the tinder around it, and then onto the kindling around that. But if the kindling is damp, the fire will stop spreading and soon burn itself out.

That’s what happened in the Watford end at Wembley last week. From where I was sitting, diagonally up from the right corner flag on the lower tier, I could clearly see the 1881 jumping up and down, singing and waving. But I couldn’t actually hear them, because between them and me there were hundreds of people standing silently, the damp kindling that stopped the fire from spreading. We did our best in our section, but there’s only so much noise you can make if the people around you won’t join in.

3) Singing at football matches should be spontaneous
I can’t have been the only person at Wembley who found the Palace fans’ scarily well-coordinated celebrations after their first goal (which encompassed the entire lower tier from one corner flag to the other, around 6,000 people, all singing and waving flags in time) reminiscent of a Nuremburg rally. How did they do that? Did they have mass practice sessions in Crystal Palace Park the week before? Or was some kind of coercion involved? (“You vill sing ‘Glad all over’ or you vill not see your children again.”)

For me, the best moments in a football crowd are the spontaneous ones. At Upton Park, a few days before the semi-final, someone behind me started up the Valon Behrami chant to the tune of ‘La Bamba’. Okay, it may have been practised in the pub before the game, but the singers still took a while to master the tricky rhythm, and it needed a hoarse-voiced MC to yell “three-four-five-six-seven-eight” between verses to keep it going in time. But keep it going he did, for quite long sections of the game, and it was fantastic. I can honestly say I enjoyed singing that more than I enjoyed Sebastian Prödl’s bizarre consolation goal.

4) Singing at football matches doesn’t make any difference to the result
I wrote about this recently, so I won’t rehearse the argument again. Suffice it to say that if having passionate fans made any real difference, Sunderland and Newcastle wouldn’t be staring down the barrel of relegation right now.

Of course, the fact that it doesn’t make a difference is no reason not to sing. (See point 1, above.)

5) Singing at football matches is not compulsory
I love singing, lots of us do, but it’s not a condition of entry to the ground. Quite frankly, I don’t want to see 10-year-olds joining in with a rendition of “You’re f***ing sh*t”, and I wouldn’t expect to see OAPs doing so either.

Moreover, Watford’s support is (and probably always will be) more middle-class and reserved than that of many of our rivals, what with South-West Hertfordshire being one of the wealthier and more comfortable parts of the country, and there are always going to be plenty of fans, even in the Rookery Stand, who are not natural singers. That doesn’t make them bad people, or bad supporters for that matter. It just means the rest of us have to sing a bit louder.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

A good tradition

Having spent the past few seasons banging on about the importance of Championship Survival Day – the point at which our continued participation in English football’s second tier was assured – it’s only fair that I inaugurate what I trust will be a long-standing tradition and celebrate last Saturday, April 16th, as Premier League Survival Day.

I know that, mathematically, we’re not guaranteed Premier League football next season. But passing the 40-point barrier has equated to safety in the vast majority of PL seasons, and quite frankly, I can’t see Norwich, Sunderland and Newcastle collectively stirring themselves to get anywhere close to giving us sleepless nights.

No, we’re safe, and that’s cause for celebration. As we’ve learned twice before, the euphoria of promotion can quickly dissipate and the following season turn into a dispiriting procession of defeats. Not this year, though, and for that we must give huge credit to all involved with the club. Yes, the league performances haven’t been great since the turn of the year, but this could still turn out to be one of the greatest seasons in Watford’s history.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Nineties nostalgia, pt. 5 – End of an era

The programme for the last game of the 1992-93 season, at home to Oxford, is unusual in that it doesn’t show any footballers. Instead, a photo of the Vicarage Road End terraces is juxtaposed with an artist’s impression (it actually looks as if it’s been drawn by a teenager as part of an art project) of the new, all-seater stand that will replace it. So I’m pretty sure that May 8th, 1993 is the last time I stood at a Watford home match.

The season had been the very definition of mediocrity, with Watford sitting 15th in the table at kick-off, one place ahead of their opponents. They’d gone out at the first stage of the Anglo-Italian Cup and the FA Cup, and after beating reigning League champions Leeds 2-1 in the 3rd round of the League Cup (the highlight of the season by some distance), they’d crashed out 6-1 at Blackburn in the following round.

The programme, a flimsy 26 pages, reflects this with a lacklustre tone throughout, as if the club really didn’t feel it was worth looking back on such an average season. Manager Steve Perryman’s notes (uninspiringly headed ‘Some bright spots, but it’s been a season of inconsistencies’) are brief and consist mainly of paying tribute to the scouting and coaching staff. Everything is bitty, with most pages divided into panels of varying sizes, and nothing gets more than two pages. The nearest we get to a player profile is a centre spread featuring Nigel Gibbs – who, in keeping with the downbeat vibe, had actually missed most of his testimonial season with an injury.

It’s hard to find anything at all to inspire, though Kenny Jackett’s notes on the youth team do mention the six young players who’ve been taken on as professionals, who include Bruce Dyer and Robert Page. Dyer has already been featuring regularly in the reserves, captained by Luther Blissett, no less, who could no longer get into the first team – yet another reason to admire the great man, if any were needed. The reserves were looking forward to playing Barnet in the final of the Herts Senior Cup, but they went on to lose 4-2. Of course they did. It was that kind of season.

As for the first team, and the Vicarage Road End’s last hurrah, we lost 1-0 to Oxford, who leapfrogged us in the table and pushed us down to 16th. I can’t tell you if it rained, but if it did, it would have been entirely in keeping with the mood of the programme, and the season.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Get with the programme special: the young ones

With England playing Germany tomorrow night, it seemed like a good time to write about a programme that’s been sitting on my desk for a while now, waiting to be filed. It dates all the way back to May 20th, 1972, when England took on West Germany in a schools’ international at Wembley Stadium.

If I remember rightly, this trip and a couple of similar ones were organised by my junior school, Ashfield in Bushey, and we witnessed a packed programme of pre-match entertainment with a notably military theme. First up were the Band of the Corps of Royal Engineers, followed by a gymnastic display by the Junior Leaders’ Regiment of the RE and the Royal Air Force Police Dog Team, before the band returned for ‘Community Singing’ conducted by the inevitable Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart. (He used to lead the singalongs that preceded the FA Cup Final, too.) The programme helpfully includes the lyrics to a decidedly mixed bag of songs, including ‘Back home’ (the 1970 England World Cup theme), ‘Consider yourself’ from Oliver, Cliff’s classic ‘Congratulations’ and, um, ‘The happy wanderer’.

Of course, the main fun of such matches in retrospect is discovering which future giants of the game you saw in their formative years. In this case, it’s not a bad haul, with a strong Watford connection: future skipper John Wilfred Rostron of St Thomas Aquinas RC School, and future Assistant Manager Raymond Colin Wilkins of Townfield Secondary Modern. Other names I recognise include John Sparrow and Clive Walker (both Chelsea), John Trewick (West Brom, Newcastle, Oxford) and Trevor Ross (Arsenal and Everton).

The pen portraits of the players are a joy, as you’d expect. Almost every one includes a variation on the phrase “hopes to become a professional footballer”, apart from Terence Pashley, who “plans to train for the catering industry”. (I just Googled him, and it turns it he had a long career at Burnley, Blackpool and Bury; I hope he wasn’t too disappointed.)

Judging by my dad’s notes on the team sheet, England won 4-0, with Wilf Rostron (wearing no. 11, and thus presumably playing as a winger*) scoring one of them. The programme also includes photos from the schoolboys’ previous outing, when England had tonked Holland 5-1. In my 10-year-old innocence, I assumed that glorious days lay ahead for the senior England team once this gilded generation grew up. Sadly, as we know, they didn’t even qualify for the next two World Cups – one of which was won by West Germany, while Holland featured in both finals. If nothing else, it shows that England’s failure to turn youthful promise into adult achievement is by no means a new phenomenon.

*If this sentence makes no logical sense to you, ask someone over 40

Sunday, 6 March 2016

You’re not singing any sense

After Watford played Brentford at home last season, I asked my friend Stuart how on Earth he and his fellow Bees fans could justify singing things like “Is this a library?” when the Rookery End, inspired by the 1881, had been making a racket for pretty much the entire 90 minutes.

He replied that in the Vicarage Road End, they couldn’t hear anything of the sort – and maybe it’s the acoustic peculiarities of the ground that are to blame for my current irritation. Because I’m getting a bit fed up of away fans reeling out the same old tired chants about the Watford fans not singing when we clearly are. The Leicester fans were at it again yesterday.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like my football songs to make sense. I admit that when Watford fans, buoyed by a particularly fine performance, sing “We’re by far the greatest team/The world has ever seen”, it’s not a claim that would pass unchallenged in any court in the land, but we can be forgiven the occasional excess of exuberance. On the other hand, singing “Sh*t ground, no fans” at the newly spruced-up Vicarage Road when there’s scarcely an empty seat to be seen is just stupid.

The more fundamental problem I have with this is simply this: who cares? If you go to a football ground and the home fans don’t sing or chant, what does it matter?

Don’t get me wrong – I love singing, and I think the 1881 have done an incredible job in coaxing the historically reticent Watford fans into creating something that can occasionally, genuinely, be called a cauldron of noise.

On the other hand, no one ever won a trophy because their fans sang louder than the other team’s. Let’s look at the English clubs with the most famously passionate fans: clubs like Wolves, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Manchester City, Sunderland. How many trophies have any of that lot won in the past 20 years or so? Okay, City have won a couple, but it was Abu Dhabi oil dollars that made the difference, not mouthy Mancs.

No, it’s the infamously silent prawn sandwich munchers of Old Trafford and the team that used to play at a ground known as the ‘Highbury library’ that have carried off most of the silverware in modern times. (Chelsea fans aren’t particularly vocal either, unless the caterers have run out of smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels.) In other words, there’s no correlation between the noisiness of a team’s fans and their propensity to win football matches.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sing our hearts out, of course. It makes us feel good, for one thing. Moreover, the players always say they appreciate it, and I have no reason to doubt them when they say it matters to them.

But at the same time, I secretly long for the day when an entire home crowd stays pointedly silent for 90 minutes while their team wipes the floor with the opposition, just to prove that all the playground yah-boo-sucks ‘we make more noise than you’ nonsense actually makes no difference whatsoever.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

End of an era

The news last week that Lloyd Doyley has signed for Rotherham came us a blow to all of us who’d secretly hoped he’d somehow manage to play out his career at Vicarage Road and then stay on in some kind of coaching role. It just seems wrong to see him wearing a different club’s kit.

It’s only a loan deal until the end of the season, but even the most deluded of Lloydinho fans (among whom I count myself) don’t really believe we’ll see him in a Watford shirt again, barring a freak accident involving the entire defensive portion of the first-team squad. At least Rotherham have given him a chance to prolong his career and display the defensive skills and discipline that made him, for several years, the best right back in the Championship bar none. At 33, and assuming his customary levels of fitness and dedication, he should have another three or four seasons in him yet.

I’ve wittered on about my admiration of Lloyd enough on this blog in the past, and about his status as one of a dying breed of full-backs who earned their place on defensive ability alone. Sure, he’s never been able to perform tricks like the sublime one Juan Carlos Paredes performed to skin his marker against Bournemouth yesterday – but if I wanted a winger shepherded away from the penalty area and closed down before he could get a cross in, it’s Lloyd I’d call on every day of the week.

Lloyd’s departure symbolises the end of another era, too: that of the homegrown player as fixture in the Watford first team. Looking at how the club has changed in the past few years, you do wonder when (if ever) we will see another player come through the Academy and establish himself in the team. There’s Tommie Hoban, who may have a chance when he gets over his long-term injury problems, but after that? You can’t really see George Byers or Josh Doherty displacing any of the existing squad members from the bench, let alone actually getting onto the pitch.

Of course, the gulf between the Academy and the first team is largely the result of the club’s success, but it also reflects a shift in policy. These days, we’re officially targeting older players with the nous and experience to ensure we can maintain our Premier League status – very few of our signings since the end of last season have been under 28 – and the younger players who do make the fringes of the first team tend to be high-profile foreigners like Obbi Oulare, who’d already played in the Champions League before coming here. It’s a policy that’s been spectacularly successful, so it’s hard to criticise.

In the meantime, until the Harefield Academy can start to turn out players of that calibre, the brightest and best Watford youngsters will continue to sign professional contracts, spend a couple of years playing Under-21 football and then drift off to other clubs (if they’re lucky). We’re not unique in that respect, of course, but at a time when other Premier League clubs have shown the ability to nurture talented young footballers and bring them through into the first team (Southampton and Spurs are two that spring to mind), it seems a shame that Watford is now possibly the club in the top division where you’re least likely to see an Academy graduate make an appearance.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

The wait is over

Sadly, the title of this post doesn’t refer to the awful Arthur Wait Stand, surely the worst away accommodation in the Premier League, with its view-obstructing pillars and overhanging gantry, and leg room that only a pygmy would find adequate. I did read somewhere that Palace are finally planning to replace it with something more modern, and it can’t come a day too soon.

No, I’m referring to my long wait to witness a Watford victory at Selhurst Park. True, I haven’t made every away game over the years, but if I tell you that the last time I saw us win there, the home team was Charlton Athletic, you’ll get an idea of the timescale. (For younger readers, Charlton ground-shared with Palace from 1985-1992, as The Valley didn’t meet the league’s safety standards.) Since then, I’ve seen us defeated, often heavily, by both Wimbledon (another of Palace’s tenants) and Palace themselves, on a number of occasions. Probably the worst was a 5-0 defeat in December 1999 to a Wimbledon team that was already one of our rivals in the bid to scramble out of the relegation zone.

A common factor in all these defeats was miserably cold, wet weather (one reason why I’ve missed a few chances to visit – there’s only so much suffering a man can take), so when I saw the conditions yesterday, my hopes of breaking my losing streak were dented.

Then there’s the Zaha factor. I don’t know if something bad happened to Wilf in Watford at some stage – maybe he got cut up while driving round the ring road, or a girl he fancied dumped him in whatever the nightclub at the top of the High Street is called these days – but he seems to reserve his best performances for games against the Hornets. Let’s face it, if he played like that every week, he’d be starting for England (and probably playing for a bigger club).

Sure enough, he did well enough yesterday to turn Allan Nyom into a gibbering wreck who looked like he didn’t know which was up any more, and there was a period in the second half, as Palace tore into us with pace and verve, when yet another Selhurst Park defeat looked inevitable.

Yet it didn’t come, and for that you have to give credit to the grittiness of this Watford team. By any objective standard, we didn’t play particularly well yesterday. The midfield rarely looked in control of the ball, the forwards saw very little of it, and the defence were hanging on by the skin of their teeth at times. And yet we won, thanks to a superb, instinctive finish by Troy Deeney and a tenacious rearguard action for the last 10 minutes.

If any player exemplified that grittiness it was Valon Behrami, my man of the match for the way he stayed in the Palace players’ faces throughout, challenging for the ball aggressively while skilfully staying just on the right side of the rules.

So, win against Bournemouth in a fortnight’s time and we can start to relax. Quique has promised to play a bit more expansively once safety is ensured, which will be fun to see. In the meantime, my personal Selhurst Park hoodoo is broken. Maybe next season, the sun will even shine in South Norwood. I wouldn’t put any money on it, though.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Matters arising

It’s been so long since I wrote anything on this blog that I feel a need to state my position on various burning topics related to Watford FC – mainly to remind myself what my position is.

The summer signings
Back in July, I expressed serious misgivings about the sheer number of new players arriving at the club. I wasn’t the only one, but that’s no excuse; clearly, I was wrong to be concerned. In my defence, I was assuming that the players who got us to the promised land would all be pushed out by these upstart newcomers, and that soon proved not to be the case. Deeney, Ighalo, Gomes, Cathcart, Watson, Abdi and Anya have all played most games, and that’s created a stable base for the likes of Britos, Aké, Capoue, Jurado and Nyom to establish themselves. So far, at least, it’s worked.

You could still argue that the transfer policy was flawed, since so many of the new signings have barely featured. Oularé and Berghuis are clearly works in progress, and Prödl and Behrami are useful squad members; but Arlauskis appears to have been merely a stopgap, judging by the recent recruitment of Pantilimon, while Holebas never wanted to be here, Diamanti doesn’t like being on the bench, and Ibarbo and Guedioura seem to have been signed purely to fill slots in the squad.

Of course, we’ve been lucky with injuries so far. In an alternative universe, some of the above-named would have played more of a role and their presence would have been amply justified.

The ones who were let go
I know this argument has long since died down, but for the record, I (reluctantly) acknowledge that the decisions to send various beloved squad members out on loan were largely correct. Most of them are currently doing the job you’d expect – but in the Championship, and without suggesting they could replicate it a level higher.

The one I really regret seeing go is Fernando Forestieri. I’d love to see him coming off the bench with 15 minutes of a game to go and confusing the hell out of Premier League defenders. We don’t have a player who can do that at the moment, and I wish we did. But the fact that Fernando is averaging a goal every two games at Sheffield Wednesday (11 in 21 starts so far) is probably the result of him being a regular starter, and that was never going to happen at Vicarage Road.

Yes, he’s an impressively talented player, great with the ball at his feet and a skillful passer of the ball. He showed all this and more against Newcastle yesterday, and he’s getting better all the time. BUT his failure to score a single goal to date irks me. Someone playing the role he does really ought to be chipping in with five or six goals a season.

Perhaps the answer is simply that if he combined an eye for goal with his other talents, he’d be at a bigger club than Watford.

My favourite player
And finally... Regular readers have doubtless been on tenterhooks since August, when I announced it was time for me to choose a new favourite Watford player to replace Lloyd Doyley.

In the end, it won’t come as a surprise to anyone to learn that it’s got to be Troy Deeney. Almen Abdi has a special place in my heart (and I think there’s more to come from him), and Odion Ighalo is one of the most instinctive goalscorers we’ve ever seen in a yellow shirt. But Troy is the beating heart of this team, the one player whose absence would really worry me. He’s been central to the Pozzo project almost from day one (well, apart from that unfortunate incident and its consequences), and I fervently hope that he’ll stay and see it through to the next stage. Right now, it’s hard to imagine a Watford team without him.