Friday, 29 December 2017

Alternative views

Apologies for the lack of posts in the last three months. While it might be understandable if Watford’s recent run of poor performances had put me off football altogether (and believe me, some very dark thoughts crossed my mind on the walk back to Norwood Junction in the rain after the Palace game), the banal truth is that I moved house in October, and when I haven’t been working or watching football, I’ve been too busy to write about it. But I did have two contrasting football experiences in that period that I wanted to write about.

First, for the West Ham game in November, I treated my brother and four of my closest friends to the full-on Watford hospitality experience; partly to celebrate my birthday, and partly as a thank you for their support during what’s been a difficult couple of years for me. We dined in The View – that’s the restaurant on the middle floor of the block in the corner between the Rookery and the Graham Taylor Stand – and a very good time was had by all.

I’m not going to review the experience, other than to say that the service was excellent, the food good but not exceptional, and the atmosphere buzzing. We also got a couple of exclusive interviews staged for our benefit (the whole room, I mean, not just our party); one with Richard Johnson, a version of the pre-match preview he does out on the pitch, and one after the game with Odion Ighalo, who was one of Sky’s match summarisers.

What you miss out, though, is all the stuff that happens outside the 90 minutes of football. You’re only ushered out of the hermetically sealed room a few minutes before kick-off, and with allocated seats on the halfway line that take an age to get to, you don’t see much of the pre-match build-up. At half-time, we’d barely managed to return to the restaurant and have a swig of our drinks before it was time to head back out. Afterwards, enjoyable as the experience had been, I found I missed watching the players warm up, the first reading of the teams, the half-time penalty shoot-out and all the other familiar parts of the matchday routine.

Bottom line: it’s an expensive day out for what you get (especially as drinks weren’t included in my package), but if you get a chance to try it, you should, if only to see how the other half live.

By way of complete contrast, a couple of weeks later I was in Dorchester, down in Dorset, and with nothing better to do with my Saturday afternoon, I went to watch Dorchester Town play Hitchin Town in the Evostik Premier League.

Dorchester’s ground, The Avenue, is about a mile from the town centre. It’s a modern stadium, clearly built as part of a deal with Tesco, whose giant superstore is part of the same complex. It’s a neat and tidy little stadium. With no obvious hard core of home fans to join, I picked a crush barrier beside the goal at one end and watched as the struggling home team shipped three goals before half-time. The standard of football was okay, though not helped by a muddy pitch, and I enjoyed being so close to the action. There’s something about hearing a tackle or a shot, rather than just seeing it, that brings a game to life.

In the second half, the noisy Hitchin fans (all 20 of them – I counted) having occupied the end where I’d been standing, I moved round to the side opposite the main stand. Once the sun went down it got properly cold, and without a team to root for, I seriously considered leaving long before the final whistle. As a Hertfordshire lad, I was secretly pleased with the result – 4-1 to Hitchin – and only annoyed that they didn’t score more. About 10 minutes from time, one of their strikers had a free run on goal, only to divert towards the corner flag and do the old ‘shielding the ball’ routine. I wondered if that was on the manager’s instructions, or whether it was just something they’d seen the pros do on TV and thought they should copy.

So, two very different football experiences, both enjoyable in their own way. If I had to choose one to repeat week in, week out, I’d like to think I’d pick the non-league option. But knowing myself as I do, I’m not sure I wouldn’t plump for the luxury of hospitality. Especially if someone else was paying.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Away daze

As we enter the second international break of the season, Watford are (as I’m sure you’ve noticed) still unbeaten away – as, indeed, are five other Premier League teams. So it seems like a good time to reprise an old post from 2010, in which I explain why no one should be particularly surprised by this. Enjoy…

There’s no such thing as home advantage.

There, I’ve said it, and now I feel like that kid in the fairy story who notices that the emperor is parading around in his birthday suit. But can I really be the only person to have questioned the assumption that it’s somehow easier for the home team to win a game of football than it is for the away team?

Let’s run through the factors generally viewed as contributing to the phenomenon of home advantage:

The pitch
I’m sure there are plenty of park pitches where there’s a genuine advantage to be gained by knowing, say, that there’s a large pothole over by the corner flag that’s never been properly filled in, or that one side of the pitch is liable to turn into the Somme after five minutes of light drizzle.

But at the professional level, pitches are much of a muchness, generally well tended and flat. Even where there are local variations, it’s hard to see how this gives an advantage to the home team. If you have to play on a boggy quagmire once a fortnight during the winter months, does that really help you?

The facilities
We’ve all heard about the dastardly ruses teams employ to cause their visitors maximum discomfort: ‘forgetting’ to turn the hot water on in the away dressing room, neglecting to mend the wonky leg on the massage table and so on.

Maybe this really does have an effect. But you’d have to hope that professional sportsmen, with all the expensive training and psychological conditioning they receive, can rise above the trauma of having to wait a bit longer than usual for their pre-match massage.

The travelling
On the face of it, this is more plausible. We all know what it’s like sitting on a coach for three hours, and it’s easy to imagine that by the time you get off, the last thing you feel like doing is playing a game of football against a bunch of players who’ve just strolled over to the ground from their nearby homes.

But that’s not how it works, is it? For one thing, players don’t live locally any more. To give just one example, during his playing days, Alec Chamberlain lived in Northampton – so when we played Luton at Vicarage Road, he had to travel further to get there than they did. Did he therefore forfeit home advantage on an individual basis? It’s nonsense.

The idea that travelling in itself puts you at a disadvantage would be more acceptable if it wasn’t assumed to apply equally across the board. When Liverpool play Everton, they can get there by ambling across Stanley Park if they want. Dundee and Dundee United are famously sited on the same street, and it’s not that long. So why is the away team at a disadvantage in that fixture?

The crowd
Ah yes, the famous ‘12th man’, the passionate home crowd that can spur on a team to great heights. And I don’t doubt that this is true, sometimes at least.

But shouldn’t that logically mean that the clubs with the loudest, most fanatical supporters ought to win everything? Clubs like Newcastle, Portsmouth, Sunderland, Wolves... By the same token, the grounds where the singing is occasional and tentative ought to offer easy points to the visitors – grounds like the Emirates and Old Trafford, for example. You see my point.

Above all, it’s hard to take the concept of home advantage seriously when it’s applied so indiscriminately. If someone came up with a formula that took into account the distance the away team had to travel, the average decibel level generated by the home crowd and other factors, and then calculated the home advantage as a percentage, say, then I might be prepared to accept it.

I know what you’re going to say: if there’s no such thing as home advantage, why are there more home wins than away wins most weeks? The answer brings us to the crux of the problem, and the reason that it matters: tactics.

The myth of home advantage relieves managers of the stress of having to think too much. If you’re at home, you know you’re expected to win, so you line up in an attacking formation and batter the opposition until they concede. If you’re away, you play defensively, avoid taking risks and hope you might snatch a goal on the break. The reason there are more home wins is that most away teams’ defences simply aren’t good enough to withstand the pressure they’re put under.

In an ideal world, I’d take one of those memory-wiping devices Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith had in Men In Black and use it on every footballer and every manager to rid them of the notion that there is any such thing as home advantage. Then they’d be forced to approach every match on its own merits – work out how to neutralise the opposition’s best players and devise a system that allowed their own to shine.

For proof of how this can work in practice, think back to the 2006 Championship Play-Off Final. On neutral territory in Cardiff, Aidy Boothroyd went toe-to-toe with Kevin Blackwell, and only one of them got their tactics right. Imagine how much more fun football would be if you could turn up every week and have no idea how each team was going to play.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Before we get carried away...

It was a classic case of getting over-excited. A little under a year ago, on this very blog, I wrote: “This already looks like being a lot more fun than last season was.”

In my defence, this was after we’d come back from conceding two early goals to wallop West Ham 4-2, and then thrillingly beaten Mourinho’s Man U 3-1 the following week. But it does illustrate the folly of counting any chickens so early in the season. By May, of course, ‘fun’ was the last word anyone would have used to describe watching Mazzarri’s Watford.

So, in that spirit, I’m going to ignore the many positives from yesterday’s hugely enjoyable trip to Southampton and focus on the negatives:

Our defence is made of porcelain
Successful teams are usually founded on a stable defence who play together regularly enough to form a tight unit. Meanwhile, in four league games, we’ve already fielded five different centre-backs, with a further two out with long-term injuries. I hope Molla Wagué is match-fit, because the odds are that he’ll be needed before the end of the month.

And that’s before I’ve even mentioned Darryl Janmaat, a 21st-century Frank Spencer (kids, ask your parents) who should probably be kept in bubblewrap between fixtures, and Britos and Holebas, who are liable to miss games every season for other reasons.

Our strikers aren’t scoring
Of the eight goals we’ve scored so far (including the League Cup tie against Bristol City), only one has come from a striker – and that was Stefano Okaka, who didn’t even make the bench yesterday. While it’s nice to see goals coming from all areas of the pitch, a team needs its strikers to be scoring – and the strikers need to score, to keep their confidence high.

Our creative players make bad decisions
We really should have scored five or six goals yesterday. Particularly late in the game, when Southampton were chasing the game, we had several breaks that should have ended with the ball in the back of the net, if Richarlison or Carillo in particular had had the sense to pick out a teammate rather than going for glory.

It’s a tricky one, of course. You buy creative players like that for their ability – but they also need enough of a footballing brain to know when a quick pass or cross is more likely to result in a goal than trying to dribble round the entire defence, or shoot from 30 yards out.

Our Head Coach won’t wave to the fans
Seriously, Marco, what’s your problem?

Sunday, 3 September 2017

You’re my favourite

Any regular readers of this increasingly irregular blog will know that I’ve always had a favourite Watford player, chosen on purely subjective grounds at the start of each season. For most of the life of this blog, it was Lloyd Doyley, who I finally, reluctantly, replaced with Troy Deeney a couple of seasons ago (though I can’t actually find the post where I formally announced this – an unforgivable oversight on my part).

This season, the decision has been particularly tricky. For one thing, there was some doubt as to whether Troy would still be at the club when the transfer window closed, particularly after the arrival of Andre Gray. Indeed, on Thursday evening a tweet appeared in my timeline announcing that ‘Sky sources’ had learned that Troy was off to Newcastle for £32.5 million. Fortunately, like most such rumours, it turned out to be untrue, and Troy is still a Hornet.

But will he play? In Marco Silva’s preferred formation there’s only room for one centre-forward, and Gray is the man in possession. There’s a possibility that Troy could play in the centre of the three-man attacking midfield, but Tom Cleverly is doing well in that position, and Pereyra and Zarate will be in contention soon, too. I suspect that Troy may have to be content with appearances as an impact substitute for the time being.

So who are the alternatives? There are a few in this increasingly likeable Watford team: Cleverly, Chalobah, Pereyra if he can stay fit long enough to show us what he’s really capable of. But the standout for me is Abdoulaye Doucouré, who since the turn of the year has become the rock at the heart of Watford’s midfield. A wholehearted player and a true box-to-box midfielder, he was one of the few bright spots in the dismal second half of last season. Now that we’ve got Chalobah to play alongside him, complementing him perfectly, he’s becoming one of the key players in the team. The fact that the 1881 have devised a (magnificent) chant for him suggests that I’m far from alone in my admiration.

So, Troy or Abdoulaye? In the end, I’m sticking with Troy. He’s overcome a few obstacles in his career (to put it mildly), and every time he’s come out stronger and proved the doubters wrong. If Gray gets injured, or fails to find the scoresheet for a few games and shows signs of losing confidence, Troy could soon be back in the team, and you wouldn’t bet against him making the centre-forward spot his own again.

Friday, 11 August 2017

More of the same?

Since I belatedly realised that I simply don’t have the space to store the programme from every Watford game I’ve attended since 1970, I’ve developed a new ritual. On the eve of each season, I throw away the previous season’s programmes – all except one, which I keep as a reminder of a particularly notable or memorable match.

When it came to last season, the process didn’t take long. West Ham and Arsenal away were notable wins, as were Leicester and Everton at home. Then there was the commemorative wrap-around cover from the game after GT died – but it was a lousy game, and besides, I’ve now got the admirably classy programme from last week’s celebration.

So in the end, it was an easy enough decision; the programme from the 3-1 win against Manchester United in September will have to represent Walter Mazzarri’s sole season in charge at Vicarage Road in my collection. And it was arguably the best result, and one of the best performances, with Zuniga’s well-taken goal just minutes after coming off the bench particularly memorable.

Looking at the line-up on the back page of the programme, I notice that of the starting line-up that day 11 months ago, there’s only one player – Odion Ighalo – who is no longer at the club. Craig Cathcart is injured (again) and Valon Behrami is on his way out, but otherwise we could theoretically field a very similar eleven tomorrow.

Then again, we’ve since added Cleverley, Chalobah, Hughes, Gray, Richarlison and Femenia – and it’s also worth mentioning Abdoulaye Doucouré, who cemented his place as an integral part of the team in the second half of last season. So, to a team that was capable of beating Jose Mourinho’s all-stars a year ago, we’ve added half a team’s worth of young, skilful, ambitious players. Oh, and a head coach who’s already shown he can build effective teams.

All of which makes the numerous pre-season predictions showing Watford finishing in the bottom three all the more baffling. Of course it won’t be easy, but this is the Premier League – it never is. But we’ve got the quality to take on anyone in this division, starting with Liverpool tomorrow. Bring it on.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Standing orders

I was going to follow last week’s post about the issues surrounding standing at Premier League grounds with a more specific moan about standing in away ends, and a suggestion.

But I’m delighted to say that Watford have beaten me to it. Hidden away at the bottom of an article on the official site explaining the new priority groups for buying tickets is this:

New for 2017/18, Supporter Liaison & Disability Officer Dave Messenger will be seeking to further assist supporters who’d like to attend away fixtures but cannot stand for the duration of the 90 minutes.

Watford FC is aware of the growing trend for fans in away sections to indulge in much longer periods of continual standing than occurs among home fans’ areas of grounds.

In this respect, Dave will work with the Ticket Office team to identify appropriate seats at other Premier League stadia and the Hornets reserve the right to keep back such seats as it sees fit to ensure all Hornets’ fans who are eligible to purchase and wish to travel can enjoy the fixture without the need to stand.

I can only applaud the club for this. I was talking to a fellow Hornet a couple of weeks ago who told me that, at the age of 74, he can’t stand for 90 minutes, so he wouldn’t be going to any away games this season. I’ve certainly witnessed this a number of times over the past few years; older fans (who have as much right to go to away games as anyone else) missing much of the action because they need to sit down, and the people in front of them won’t.

So I’ll stop moaning. If this new plan works, it should satisfy everyone: the 1881 and their ilk (who, I assume, are ideologically wedded to the concept of standing) at one end, the older and more infirm fans at the other, and in the middle, the rest of us who quite like sitting but don’t mind standing for a bit if we have to. Well done, Watford.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

I ain’t gonna stand for it

A few weeks ago, I went to see The Wedding Present play at the Roundhouse in Camden. Musically-inclined readers of a certain age may remember them as a popular indie guitar band in the mid-80s, known for their furiously strummed guitars and pithy lyrics about student love affairs. They’re now playing the nostalgia circuit, performing their classic George Best album in full, and during that part of the show, middle-aged men could repeatedly be seen trying to crowdsurf. It was very entertaining.

I’ve been reading a lot about the campaign to introduce ‘safe standing’ at football grounds recently, and I’ve come to the conclusion that a similar impulse must be behind it. After all, compulsory all-seater stadiums were introduced for the top two divisions in the early 90s, so anyone who stood regularly as a teenager at a ground in those divisions must now be pushing 40. Like the crowdsurfers at the Roundhouse, I can only assume that the safe standing campaign is being led by people with a hankering to relive their younger days. I can’t see another reason for it.

As it happens, the editorial in this month’s When Saturday Comes (a magazine which invariably has its heart in the right place) gives two main reasons for introducing safe standing: restoring some atmosphere to sterile all-seater stadiums, and reducing ticket prices.

I’ve heard the argument before that standing up encourages singing – some even maintain that it is physically harder to sing while sitting down – and it’s nonsense. It may make a difference if you’re part of a chorale performing a Bach cantata, but not when belting out the ‘Deeney is a legend’ song. I’ve happily sat and sang for 20 years, as have thousands of others.

As for reducing ticket prices, it’s a noble ambition. But Premier League clubs in particular have had ample opportunity to do so in recent years as Sky have showered them with money, and few have done anything to make matchdays cheaper for fan; it all goes on escalating transfer fees and player wages instead. That may change if safe standing is ever introduced, but I’m not holding my breath.

There is a third argument; that fans stand anyway, particularly in away ends, so we need to ensure they can do so safely. I have some sympathy with this line, but I think football supporters have actually become a lot more sensible in the past 30 years. The bundles and crushes that made life on the old terraces so hazardous simply don’t happen when everyone is standing on a narrow strip of concrete with the back of a chair at their feet. It’s not that dangerous any more.

For what it’s worth, I’m not against standing at football matches. I just don’t see the point of spending money on installing rail seating (which the safe standing brigade are pinning their hopes on) when there are other ways of arranging things. Watford’s Operations Director made this point perfectly at an At Your Place event I attended last season. As he pointed out, the club have an arrangement with the 1881 that they can have a block where everyone can stand throughout the match if they want; those who want to stand can join that group, and everyone else sits down. It doesn’t cost anything, and everyone’s happy. We can’t be the only club where this common-sense approach is taken.

As further proof, he also mentioned standing in the away end, but I’ll come back to that another time...

Monday, 29 May 2017

Glad it’s all over

Due to a change in personal circumstances, I missed fewer home games this season, and made it to more away games, than for many a year. In total, I attended 26 of Watford’s 41 competitive fixtures, including all three cup ties. Add to that another four or five away games I was able to watch live on TV, and that only leaves 10 afternoons or evenings when I was stuck in front of Soccer Saturday or the midweek equivalent, willing Jeff Stelling to yell “And it’s good news for Watford fans!”

So I was at the cavernous, atmosphere-free London Stadium to watch us come back from 2-0 down to beat West Ham 4-2, and at the Emirates for a second season running to watch us beat an Arsenal team which (as they showed in the FA Cup final) had more than enough talent to blow us away if they could only have roused themselves to do so. I was at the Vic to see us beat Mourinho’s Manchester United before they learnt the art of the bore-draw, and I witnessed fine victories against the reigning champions (enlivened by Pereyra’s magnificent curler) and against Everton (ditto by Okaka’s supremely confident flick). There were fine goals by Holebas at Middlesbrough, Sinclair (remember him?) in the FA Cup against Burton and Niang at home to West Brom, a game where an admirably resolute 10-man rearguard action took us most of the way to Premier League safety.

It’s worth dwelling on the high points of the season, just as a reminder that there were some. Because it’s undeniable that there were an awful lot of lows. It’s not just the high volume of goals conceded – six at Liverpool, five at home to Man City, four in each game against Spurs, four away to Chelsea, another four at home to Southampton. Those, in part, can be explained away by the persistent injuries that rarely gave Walter Mazzarri the chance to field his first-choice back three or four. Central defenders need to develop an understanding, and there was barely a chance for that to happen before they started dropping like flies. The black comedy of the Man City home game, when not one of our six centre-backs was available, was the logical conclusion to a disrupted season.

No, worse than the occasional tonkings was the sheer tedium of the football Watford produced for much of the season, frequently against our mid-table peers in games where we should have been capable of bagging the points – the Burnley and Palace away games spring to mind in particular. (And let’s not even mention the FA Cup tie at Millwall. It’s still too painful.) While this season’s Watford team was undoubtedly full of talented players, as a collective they were all too often sluggish and unimaginative. Many a time a player would receive the ball in the centre of the pitch, look up to see not one of his teammates making a move forwards, and turn and pass back to a defender or to Gomes. With a few exceptions, Walter’s team lacked snap, élan, joie de vivre – call it what you will. They lacked the ability (and sometimes, it seemed, the will) to grab a game by the scruff of the neck. It was tough to watch.

I’m sorry to see Walter go; I always want Watford coaches to succeed, and I do think bad luck with injuries had a lot to do with how the season panned out (Pereyra’s in particular). Anyone looking at the final league table in years to come, seeing Watford in 17th, will conclude that it was a stressful, anxious season, but it wasn’t really. Just a frustrating one. I can’t deny that I’m glad it’s over.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Oops, we did it again

Ho ho ho and a very happy PLSD to all Watford fans!

That’s Premiership League Survival Day, for the uninitiated, which has come precisely one day earlier than it did last season. For two seasons in a row we’ve never so much as flirted with relegation, and that’s an achievement worth celebrating for little old Watford.

Of course, there are still question marks, not least over whether the Head Coach will still be here in August. For what it’s worth, I think he’s done enough to deserve another season. Injuries (primarily to Pereyra and then Zarate) put paid to his plans to play more incisive attacking football, and integrating some of the younger players into the team next season – Success, Niang if he signs, Doucouré, maybe even Berghuis – might help to make us a more exciting prospect to watch.

But whoever is picking the team, we’ll be there in the Premier League when next season starts, alongside other small, well-run clubs like Bournemouth and Burnley, while supposedly bigger clubs who think they have a divine right to play in the top division continue to flounder a level or two lower down.  Forest, Wolves, Birmingham, Villa, Leeds (let’s face it, they’re bound to make a pig’s ear of the playoffs), Cardiff, Blackburn, Derby... The list goes on. We are very lucky to have the Pozzos.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Decruitment drive

Quick quiz question: in what way is Allan Nyom unique this season? (Apart from in his ability to antagonise Watford fans who previously had nothing against him, obviously.)

The answer is that he’s the only player to have been contracted to Watford in the Pozzo era who is part of another Premier League team’s squad for 2016-17. Indeed, if it weren’t for Ashley Young, still clinging on at Manchester United, he’d be the only former Hornet full stop – though of course there are several one-time loanees playing their trade at the top level, including Jack Cork, Hector Bellerin, Ben Foster and Danny Rose.

Over the past couple of years, Watford have got rid of a number of popular players who many of us thought were more than capable of doing a job in the Premier League. It turns out that other Premier League clubs disagreed, and few have even made much of an impression in the Championship. At Derby, Ikechi Anya has only started 11 games this season (out of 41) and Matej Vydra 18, though he is currently on one of his occasional goal-scoring runs. Up at Sheffield Wednesday, Fernando Forestieri is more established, having started 32 games (and the ones he’s missed are partly down to a series of red cards for diving – some things never change). At the same club, Daniel Pudil has started 22 and Almen Abdi just 11.

You get the point; most of our former heroes are now bit-part players a division below Watford’s current status. What that says to me is that the club offloaded them at the right time, when form and fitness were on a downward curve, and they deserve credit for that. In my last post I was critical of their recruitment, but in terms of decruitment (not a word, but it should be), they’ve got it spot on.

In this respect, it’s reminiscent of GT’s golden decade, when it was almost unheard-of for a player to leave Watford and go on to better things. The shining exception was John Barnes, of course, who we simply couldn’t hold on to. But in most cases, we used them up and wore them out, and they were never the same again. My Brentford-supporting friend Stuart still hasn’t forgiven Watford for offloading a knackered Ian Bolton on them in 1983; by the end of that season he was playing for Kingsbury Town. There are plenty of other examples, albeit mostly not so extreme.

So credit where it’s due. As fans, we get terribly sentimental about our favourite players. The club can’t afford to be, though, and much as I would love to still have Anya, Vydra and (above all) Abdi in our squad now, the evidence suggests that they wouldn’t have a lot to contribute.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Hit squad

Tempting as it is to launch into an ill-tempered rant about yesterday’s performance (last time I did that, after the Millwall game, we beat Arsenal), I want to take the focus away from Walter Mazzarri and look at the squad he’s been given to work with. Because I don’t think the people at the club responsible for player recruitment have done him any favours.

One thing that struck me as I was reading the Watford player profiles in the Palace programme was the ages of our key players. It’s generally accepted that outfield players (goalkeepers are, as in so many ways, different) are at their peak between the ages of 26 and 28, by which time they’ve got the experience they need to play to their full potential, but their fitness hasn’t yet started to become an issue. Equally, it doesn’t hurt to have a few wise old heads to give the team a stable foundation, and a few younger players who are trying that little bit harder because they need to establish themselves.

The team Walter sent out yesterday, though, was decidedly on the older side. Seven of the ten outfield players who started are 28 or older, and Cleverley and Janmaat are both 27. Only Niang, at 22, comes into the ‘keen youngster’ category. It’s not like our subs’ bench was packed with youthful promise, either. Yes, Success is only 21, and the walking definition of a work in progress, but the other subs were aged 25, 27, 29, 31 and 32.

Does this matter? When we reached the Premier League, the club made it clear that they were going to give Quique a core of older players who were experienced at this level, to ensure that we survived that crucial first season. And it worked, too. But that strategy feels a bit redundant now, and I can’t help feeling that some of the older players are just going through the motions. They’ve been there, done that and got the T-shirt, and Watford is just another payday. That’s probably monstrously unfair on some, but it might help to account for the listless, shapeless nature of our recent performances.

The other aspect of recruitment that annoys me is the failure to fill the squad. To recap, twice a season (at the end of the transfer windows), every Premier League team has to name a squad of up to 25 players over the age of 21, of whom no more than 17 can be ‘foreign’. (I’m not going to go into the definition of ‘foreign’ right now, or we’ll be here all day.) Only players from that squad, or who are under 21, can be selected for PL fixtures.

The squad Watford named on February 2nd had only 23 players, though, including no fewer than four goalkeepers. That means Mazzarri has only 19 outfield players from which to select 16 for each matchday. It doesn’t give him a lot of leeway when injuries start to bite, especially since Success is clearly the only under-21 player at the club who the manager thinks is worth a place in the team. As we saw at Christmas, it takes a full-blown crisis to persuade him to give our homegrown youngsters a chance to show what they can do.

The reason we named an incomplete squad, of course, is that Watford couldn’t find eight ‘homegrown’ players to name. As it is, we’ve got six: Deeney, Cleveley and Cathcart, who all play regularly, and Watson, Mariappa and Gilmartin, who only make the bench, let alone get on the pitch, in the direst of emergencies.

Those two spare places could have been filled with players who would give Walter more options to choose from, like – oh, I don’t know, maybe a proper, experienced defensive full-back, so that he doesn’t have to shoehorn Britos and Cathcart into that role when he wants to play 4-4-2.

I know the PL’s rules have made decent British players disproportionately expensive, and I know the Pozzo regime is very conscious of balancing the books. But in this case, I believe it would have been worth loosening the purse strings to give Walter a full 25-man squad to choose from, with a range of players that would at least give him the option of more tactical flexibility without putting square pegs into round holes.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The fourth wheel

In the old days, football clubs only employed two senior goalkeepers; in the case of an emergency, it was assumed that the junior team’s keeper would step up. (We all know what happened when Graham Taylor ignored this convention in the 1987 FA Cup semi-final.) The first time I can remember Watford employing a third keeper was our first season in the Premier League, 1999-2000, when the Austrian Herwig Walker was brought in as back-up for Alec Chamberlain and Chris Day. He was never used and was released at the end of the season, to be remembered only as an answer to a trivia question.

More recently, Irishman Rene Gilmartin has taken on this thankless role. In response to a tweet from Sky Sports’ Adam Leventhal in the run-up to transfer deadline day, I bemoaned Gilmartin’s lot, expressing the view that he had purely been included in the Premier League squad to fill a homegrown slot, and that the club had no intention of ever playing him. In response, I received a few dismissive replies. “I wouldn’t feel too sorry,” said one. “Premier League salary, great lifestyle and all that. Sounds perfect to me.” Another suggested that “He gets the benefit of being a pro without any stress.”

This may all be true, and I’m sure that Rene doesn’t want or need my pity. He’s a grown man who’s made his own career choices. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering how he felt on the day of the FA Cup 3rd Round tie against Burton when, with Heurelho Gomes given a day off, Costel Pantilimon started in goal and Giedrius Arlauskis (not even included in the Premier League squad for the first half of the season) was on the bench rather than Rene. It seemed to prove my point. You get the feeling that, if a freak illness struck down the aforementioned trio of keepers, Walter Mazzarri would rather summon a wine-waiter from South Wales than entrust Rene with the gloves.

After the transfer window closed, Watford named their revised 25-man squad – which now includes Arlauskis as well as Gilmartin, effectively making the Irishman Watford’s first ever fourth-choice goalkeeper, and presumably meaning that he won’t even get to take part in the pre-match warmups any more.

I’ve been trying to think of another profession where this can happen: where a person can be handsomely paid, yet have no prospect of doing what they’re trained to do. The closest equivalent I can think of is an actor hired as an understudy to a star who never misses a performance. Then again, most understudies take minor roles in the production, so they still get to act.

But Rene Gilmartin never gets to play a competitive game of football (apart from rare run-outs for the Under-23s), despite the fact that this is presumably the one thing in life that he is really good at, the thing he dreamed of doing when he was a boy. I just looked up his statistics: in 12 years as a professional, he’s made fewer than 80 appearances.

You’ve got to admit that it’s an odd situation. It’s rather like me being paid to turn up at work five days a week, spend the day sitting round in reception and then going home again. I don’t think I’d find that very fulfilling, salary or no salary.

I hope Rene enjoys the training, and the cameraderie of being part of a squad, and hopefully he gets to pass on the benefits of what little experience he has to the younger goalkeepers at the club. But I would like to see him get the opportunity to play for Watford one day. The fact that this seems unlikely is just one facet of the increasing strangeness of modern football.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

I’m not disappointed, just angry

Regular readers will know that I don’t often react to individual matches, but sometimes you’ve got to make an exception. I’m just so angry about Watford’s performance against Millwall today that I need to get it off my chest.

First off, I’m angry that the club showed such disrespect to the world’s oldest and most famous cup competition by fielding an understrength team. (It’s easy to spot when Watford are fielding an understrength team, by the way: Guedioura is in it.) The FA Cup has provided many of the finest moments in the club’s history – arguably more than league football ever has – and to leave out so many of our best players for a tie that offered a great chance of reaching the 5th Round is unforgivable.

The argument will doubtless be that the first-choice players were being rested so that they’re fresh to face Arsenal on Tuesday night. But you’ll struggle to find a single Watford fan who thinks we’ve got the slightest chance of winning at the Emirates – not based on today’s performance, but based on a long string of poor performances stretching back to October, particularly those against the teams challenging for the league title.

No, the most likely scenario is that we’ll come away with a four- or five-nil defeat to add to today’s capitulation, so that the players go into next Saturday’s home game against Burnley (one we really need to win) even more demoralised than they are right now. That’s another reason a win today would have been so valuable – just to remind the players what it feels like.

I haven’t even got on to the tactics yet. It was bad enough when we played the same way against Burton (a game where Pantilimon touched the ball more than any outfield player), but to think that we could just amble around, passing the ball around the back four again and again, against a muscular Millwall team that had already seen off Bournemouth’s second string, was either naive or just plain stupid. We were weak, we were slow, we were completely lacking in imagination. Worst of all, we were completely unable to cope with Millwall’s tactical masterstroke, ie repeatedly lumping the ball up to a nippy striker. It was only a surprise it took them so long to score.

It seems a bit unfair to criticise a team where only three of the starting eleven (Britos, Kaboul and Guedioura) have played more than half a dozen games this season. Watson, Dja DjéDjé and Mariappa in particular have every excuse to be a bit rusty. But nothing excuses the technical inepititude on display today; from Guedioura wasting a free kick just outside the box by kicking it straight into touch, to Watson repeatedly mishitting passes, to Okaka’s many and varied failed attempts to cushion the ball and lay it off to a teammate, there was a constant stream of unforced errors. Indeed, it was an error (a lazily-hit backpass) that led directly to Pantilimon’s game-ending injury.

Last, but not least, I’m angry with Walter Mazzarri. At the start of the season we were told that playing with wing-backs was a sign of attacking intent, yet for much of today’s match Watford seemed so uninterested in attacking at all, I was beginning to wonder if the Pozzos had told them we needed the money from a replay. In the first half in particular, Dja DjéDjé and Mason repeatedly reached the halfway line when a teammate had the ball, only to stop abruptly, wasting the opportunity for them to receive the ball on the wing deep into Millwall’s half. You can only assume that was down to instructions they’d received.

It’s not just today, either. For weeks now, Watford have repeatedly approached games against supposedly weaker opposition (Middlesbrough, Palace, Burton, Millwall) with an almost complete lack of aggression and attacking intent. Whatever the opposite of an ‘up and at ’em’ approach is, we’ve perfected it. It’s painful to watch – and worse still, it’s not winning us matches (Burton excepted, and that’s now irrelevant).

So, either Walter is telling them to play that way, or he’s not getting his message across properly. Either way, it doesn’t reflect well on him. I’m not one to demand the manager’s head on a platter, and I don’t think it would help right now – not at this stage of the season. But he needs to show that he understands how to field a winning team pretty quickly, or the tentative chants of “Walter out!” in the away end today are going to get a hell of a lot louder.

Sunday, 22 January 2017


When I studied to be a journalist, you had to choose between two different courses: newspaper or periodical journalism. The newspaper course was all about rapid turnaround; find the story, write it up as succinctly as possible, publish it, move on to the next one. Periodical journalism was altogether more relaxed; find something interesting to write about, research it for a while, write a few thousand carefully chosen words. I studied periodical journalism.

That’s my excuse, anyway, for having failed to write anything apart from a couple of tweets since the news of Graham Taylor’s death broke 10 days ago. I’m not good at instant reactions; I need time to digest the news, to work out what I really want to say.

By now, there’s no point in me writing a heartfelt tribute to GT and what he meant to Watford FC, and to the town of Watford. Better writers than me have already done that, and done it beautifully. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Watford fan and you know where to find those tributes.

I’ve just caught up with the full 90-minute programme that BBC Radio 5 Live broadcast on the evening of his death, though, and I’m feeling another emotion now: anger. Not at the BBC, who did a fine job of remembering GT and his contribution to the world of football. Not even at Daily Mirror hack Harry Harris, who did his best to weasel out of accepting any responsibility for the vilification of GT during his stint as England manager.

No,  I’m angry that it takes the death of a man for his many strengths to be recognised and his few weaknesses to be properly analysed and understood. Not among Watford supporters, obviously. But if you’d asked fans of other clubs a month ago what they thought of when they heard the name Graham Taylor, there are plenty who’d have started with the word ‘turnip’ and gone on from there. I certainly know a few; you probably do too.

In his lifetime, fans of the clubs he’d managed, and the many people in football and the media who’d come into contact with him, knew what a kind, generous, witty and thoughtful man he was (not to mention a brilliant coach and man-manager). But for the mass of the English football-supporting public, he was simply the hapless buffoon who’d failed to get England to the World Cup and been filmed making an idiot of himself in the process. I’m angry that no one in a position of influence ever managed to correct that impression, and that it took his untimely death for that to happen.

There’s something else that’s bothering me, too. One of the anecdotes related on the BBC radio tribute was from an England game when GT was in the dugout. Some England fans were abusing John Barnes, and GT turned around and said to one of them: “That’s a human being you’re talking about.” I’ve been thinking about that, and about all the players and managers I’ve abused from the safety of my seat 20 rows back from the goal line – and I’m fairly mild-mannered, compared to many fans.

It’s all part of football, of course, the theatre of the game, the gladiatorial combat – booing the bad guys is as important as cheering the good guys. But I used to work with someone whose seat in the old Main Stand was in the row in front of Lee Nogan’s family, and she told me how upset they got when the Watford fans gave him stick (and fans of a certain age will remember that he got plenty). That’s always stayed with me. That’s a human being you’re talking about – and his parents may well be listening to you abuse him.

This is all getting a bit dark, so I’ll end these ramblings with an equally rambling list of just some of the memories GT gave me, days and nights that lit up my late teens and early 20s, and then my mid-30s. In no particular order: Luther’s two headers at Old Trafford in the League Cup (witnessed in a highlights package on Sportsnight after I’d managed to avoid learning the result); 7-1 against Southampton in the same competition; 4-0 against Hull to win promotion from Division 3 on a balmy summer’s evening; 2-0 against Wrexham to do the same from Division 2, the only time I ever ran on the pitch; 8-0 against Sunderland; the Corinthian Casuals game where the players wore vintage kit and GT dressed as a Victorian-era manager; the UEFA Cup home games; FA Cup away trips at Wolves (3-0), Birmingham (3-1) and Arsenal (ditto); Villa Park and Wembley, 1984; the goalfests in the failed attempt to avoid relegation when he came back, led by the unlikely strikeforce of Devon White and David Connolly; Ronnie Rosenthal’s perfect half-season; winning the title at Fulham; the overwhelming emotions of the play-off final against Bolton, two days after my father died.

I could go on forever. Thanks GT. RIP.