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.