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.