Sunday, 20 May 2018

There’s always a but


A week after the end of the 2017-18 season and the sense of frustration I wrote about a few weeks ago still lingers. There were so many good things that were ultimately undermined by personalities and performances and circumstances and sheer bad luck. Here are five of my biggest buts (no sniggering at the back).

It’s great that we had 17 different scorers this season – it’s not a bad thing when there are multiple players who are capable of hitting the back of the net. But the fact that not one player managed double figures, and that our top scorer, with an underwhelming seven, was a midfielder (Doucouré) whose last goal came on January 13th, points to one of the key problems: neither Silva nor Gracia came up with a system or a formation that consistently created chances for our forwards. That’s the key issue that needs sorting out next season.

It’s great that Troy Deeney is still at our club and looks set to start his ninth season in August – a rare feat in modern football. His talismanic status is universally acknowledged, and I think he can still make an important contribution if Gracia can find a way to play to his strengths. But, let’s be honest, this wasn’t his greatest season, lack of goals aside. Missing seven games on bans for violent conduct didn’t help us, or him, given that he is, by his own admission, a player who needs a run of games to operate at his most effective.

It’s great that we signed a couple of hugely promising young English players, Nathaniel Chalobah and Will Hughes, who look set to have a big impact over the next couple of seasons if we can keep them fit. But the continuing lack of players coming through from our own Academy is disappointing. At least Mazzarri gave a few of them a runout, albeit mostly through necessity. This season, a handful of benchwarming stints by Michael Folivi, Carl Stewart and Joy Mokena – actually, they managed four between them, so not even a handful – is all we have to show for the club’s investment in youth. It’s rather depressing to think that Adrian Mariappa may turn out to be the last player we ever get to sing ‘He’s one of our own’ for.

It’s great that the 1881 have continued to improve the atmosphere at games this season with their banners and flags and confetti cannons (though a bit of warning might have been nice, lads – an old bloke near me nearly had a heart attack when they went off the first time). Sticking a drummer and a ‘conductor’ on the TV gantry outside the hospitality suite for a couple of games near the end of the season worked particularly well. But it’s disheartening to see so many empty seats at most games, suggesting that there a few thousand season ticket holders who aren’t actually that bothered about Watford, but can afford to spend hundreds of pounds a year to watch a handful of games that interest them. I know the club is looking into this, and it’s an emotive subject – you can’t force people to attend games. But all the talk of extending the ground seems a bit extraneous as long as we can’t fill it from week to week at the current capacity.

And finally, a personal bugbear. It’s great that the players still run out to ‘Z Cars’ – it’s part of the club’s heritage, something that is special and (almost) unique to us. But it’s bloody annoying that they cut it off once the teams have lined up and switch to some anonymous rubbish that is presumably the PL’s official anthem, or some such nonsense (I’m moderating my language here in case any minors are reading), thus depriving us of the chance to hear the tune in all its glory, complete with the bonkers clarinet (?) solo in the middle. I assume this is a PL rule – I noticed at the Bristol City FA Cup tie that ‘Z Cars’ got played in full – but that doesn’t make it any less irritating.


Sunday, 6 May 2018

Still on the up

Happy Premier League Survival Day, Hornets fans! Okay, it was actually yesterday, but I think we can safely extend the celebrations across the entire Bank Holiday weekend.

PLSD (as no one but me calls it) has come a bit later this year - we reached 40 points on the 16th and 17th of April in 2016 and 2017, respectively – and I’m sure I’m not the only Watford fan who spent most of the second half of the game yesterday wondering if it was going to come at all. As Newcastle battered our defence (aided by some decidedly odd substitutions by Javi Gracia), it was all too easy to anticipate a defeat, followed by results elsewhere going against us in midweek and leaving us needing to get something from the game at Old Trafford next Sunday.

In the end, we got the win we probably should have managed weeks ago. In truth, we haven’t been playing badly for the past month, but we’ve made critical errors at both ends of the pitch when it mattered. You may have seen that Watford came top of the Guardian’s ineptitude index for this season, and the reasons were on display again yesterday; countless misplaced passes, chances spurned (there were two breakaways late on that should have been converted), a missed penalty. And it was ironic that Abdoulaye Doucouré picked up the Players’ Player of the Season award at the end of probably his worst game of the campaign. A cynic might suggest that he played like someone whose signature on a big-money transfer has already been pencilled in.

Against that, Roberto Pereyra again showed the skills we’ve missed all that time he’s spent injured, Etienne Capoue continued his remarkable transformation into a latter-day Roger Joslyn, and Andre Gray demonstrated what we all knew – that he needs another striker to play alongside in order to be truly effective.

And so we can look forward to a fourth successive Premier League season, without ever having truly been in danger of relegation in the first three. We’re over halfway to matching what Elton and GT achieved in the 1980s, and that’s worth celebrating. I finally got round to reading Rocket Men recently, the Tales from the Vicarage book which focuses on that era. The unspoken implication of that title is that all space rockets eventually plummet back to Earth, but for all the frustrations and irritations of this odd season, it honestly doesn’t feel like the Pozzos’ rocket is anywhere near the peak of its trajectory yet.




Sunday, 29 April 2018

We’re going to Wem-ber-ley – again

I’m sure there are plenty of football fans – particularly those who follow unfashionable clubs in the provinces – for whom a trip to Wembley Stadium is a rare treat, maybe even a once-in-a-lifetime event. But for those of us who grew up less than 10 miles away, it’s really not that special.

My dad took me to Wembley for the first time, to watch England play East Germany in 1970. England won 3-1, but I mainly remember the night for the hour or more it took to get out of the car park afterwards. I honestly can’t recall if Dad took me to any more internationals, but I’m pretty sure that if he did, we didn’t drive .

After that, there were a couple of England schoolboy internationals in the early 70s. Presumably the FA offered bulk deals to schools; at any rate, Ashfield organised cheap class trips. Rediscovering the programmes years later, I found that I’d unwittingly had my first sight of a certain John Wilfred Rostron, as he was then listed.

I went to a few more full internationals over the next decade, culminating in Luther’s glorious full international debut against Luxembourg in 1982, when he scored a hat trick and could have had at least as many again. Then, two years later, I finally got to see Watford play at Wembley in the FA Cup Final – and it was one of the most anticlimactic days of my football-watching life.

For the rest of the 80s, I was more often at Wembley for rock concerts than football; U2, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones. (I missed Live Aid, though; I was on a year abroad, studying in Hamburg, where I watched the proceedings on TV.) I did go to the Football League v the Rest of the World match in 1987, where Hornets centre-back John McClelland had to contend with Maradona, Platini and Lineker and still kept a clean sheet, the League winning 3-0.

In the 90s there were more concerts, and also a rugby union international, for a change. While the Millennium Stadium was being rebuilt, Wales played their home Five Nations (as it then was) matches at Wembley. My friend Andy came up from Cardiff and we watched the Welsh get roundly thrashed by a skilful France team.

Towards the end of the decade, I was working for a running magazine, which involved reviewing local events. You did this by running in them, so one Sunday morning I found myself lining up on the running track inside Wembley Stadium for the inaugural Wembley 10K. After puffing round the streets for an hour, the finish on the same track at least allowed me to indulge in some Olympian fantasies, even if I was struggling to finish in the top 500.

And then there was the Play-Off Final against Bolton in 1999, one of my most emotional footballing memories – for the result and performance, of course, but also because my father had died two days earlier. That year, and again in 2000, I also went to the FA Trophy Final to watch Kingstonian, who my friend Stuart supported. In the first one, they beat a little team no one had heard of called Forest Green Rovers.

Coming into the present century, I can say that I was present at the first concert held in the rebuilt Wembley. Okay, it starred George Michael, who wouldn’t have been my choice, but I was married by then. There have been more Springsteen concerts, too, though it’s really not the best place to see him. And more recently, of course, I’ve doubled my tally of Watford games at the home of football with those two dismal defeats against Crystal Palace, first in the Play-Off Final and then in the FA Cup semi-final.

So when I rock up for the Spurs game tomorrow evening, you’ll excuse me if I don’t look too impressed. I’ll be a lot more impressed if we come away with three points, mind you.




Sunday, 8 April 2018

A game of frustration

Older readers may remember playing Frustration as a child. It was a fairly basic board game where you rolled a die and moved your pieces around a circuit; the first player to get all their pieces home was the winner. The twist was that, if another player landed on a spot that one of your pieces was occupying, yours got sent all the way back to the start, even if you were only one place from home. Hence the name of the game.

It’s as apt a metaphor as I can think of for Watford’s season, a season in which, again and again, a promising beginning has been undone and we’ve ended up back at square one. The games where we’ve played well, taken the lead and then ended up drawing or losing. The players who’ve lit up the pitch for a handful of matches and then picked up an injury that kept them out for months on end. And, of course, the head coach who looked like he might be the one to take Watford to the next level, only to have his head turned by a rival club and lose focus.

Yesterday’s opponents provided a timely reminder of how things could have been, like the ‘here’s what you could have won’ reveal on a TV gameshow. In a parallel universe, we could have been where Burnley are, sitting in 7th place, dreaming of winning a place in Europe.

Imagine for a moment that, throughout the season, we’d been able to field Chalobah, Cleverley and Doucouré in the centre of midfield, in front of a defence anchored by the strength and experience of Kaboul and Cathcart. Imagine we’d had access to the speed of Femenía and the skill of Hughes and Pereyra in every game. Imagine (and admittedly, this is a bit more of a stretch) that we’d managed to find a way to make a pairing of Deeney and Gray work up front. I know ‘what if’ is one of the most pointless phrases in the lexicon, but you can’t help wondering, can you?

The fact that, despite all these frustrations – all the leads chucked away and the absurdly lengthy absences through injury – we’re still sitting fairly comfortably in mid-table,almost makes it worse. So near, and yet so far.

Hopefully we’ll pick up a few more points before the season ends (although you can look at our remaining games and make a plausible case for us losing every one, given the form and/or desperation of the opposition), and then regroup in the summer, ready for the season we should have had this time round. But of course, somehow it never works out that way.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Diminishing returns

It occurred to me on the way home from the Olympic London Stadium on Saturday that I’ve been to five away games so far this season, and each has been a less enjoyable experience than the one before.

Southampton in September was certainly enjoyable: a 2-0 win, new signings starting to shine, Silva’s team finding its feet. Chelsea in October was, in retrospect, the high water mark of that progression. While we ultimately lost 4-2, I left Stamford Bridge feeling that, if we kept playing football of the quality we’d demonstrated in the first hour, we’d have nothing to worry about this season. Little did I know what lay ahead…

By the time I got to Selhurst Park on a cold, damp December evening, things had started to go wrong. We led for most of the match, missed good chances to make the game safe, and then threw it away in the final minutes, losing 2-1. The journey home seemed particularly long that night.

The return to St Mary’s last month for Javi Gracia’s first game in charge was worse still. A Watford team devoid of confidence looked totally incapable of turning around a 1-0 deficit, while in the away end, what started as black humour (essentially, responding to the Southampton fans’ taunts with a wry acknowledgement that, yes, we know we’re not very good) escalated into out-and-out barracking of our own team. Not a good day to be a travelling Watford fan.

And so to West Ham.

One thing about attending away games on your own is that you have no control over where you’ll be sitting or who you’ll be sitting next to. (The word ‘sitting’ should really be in inverted commas, since no ever sits at away games, for reasons that escape me.) On arrival at the London Stadium, I initially thought I’d done quite well; my seat was three rows from the front, near the corner flag, at the extreme left-hand edge of the Watford block.

As soon as the game started, I realised my error. Immediately on the other side of a tunnel entrance was a block of West Ham fans who have clearly chosen their seats so as to be as close as possible to the away fans, with a view to barracking them throughout the game. I’m sure you know the type. They spent more time looking at us than the pitch, and one bloke got so worked up that he was ejected midway through the first half.

Even that wouldn’t have been so bad if the seats immediately to my right hadn’t been occupied by Watford’s own species of this pond life; two twentysomethings who were more interested in responding in kind to the West Ham fans than in watching the game. Now I’ve got nothing against swearing (I do plenty myself), and I like to think I’m unshockable; nevertheless, being caught in a crossfire of c-words did make it hard to focus on – let alone enjoy – the game. Then there were the spittle-flecked threats – “Come over ’ere and I’ll batter yer”, and so on – that are so easy to make when there are a couple of dozen burly men in high-vis jackets between you and your adversaries.

Once West Ham scored, my neighbours’ focus soon switched to discussing how completely and utterly useless Watford were. “We haven’t had a shot!” complained one of them just before half-time. I reminded him of the two smart saves Adrian had made to keep out Mariappa’s header and Capoue’s shot, but I was wasting my breath. For some people, extremes are all that exist. Watford could only be brilliant or rubbish (I’m paraphrasing, obviously), and today they were rubbish.

This went on throughout the second half, to such an extent that I found myself doubting my own eyes. For it seemed to me that, while short of the standards we reached against Chelsea last week, we were still looking way more positive and confident than we had for most of the last two months of Silva’s time in charge. We were deservedly beaten by a team that was sharper in front of goal and tighter at the back, but it wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. By this time, though, I’d realised that trying to express any of this to my neighbours would be pointless.

By the final whistle, caught between the West Ham fans who were now singing highly abusive songs about some blameless female Watford fan and the angry complaints of my neighbours, I was thoroughly miserable. Isn’t going to football meant to be fun?

Look, I know this probably sounds like the whinging of a middle-aged, middle-class supporter who doesn’t ‘get’ football fan culture. I certainly don’t want to see the passion eradicated from the game, and I do accept that brain-dead morons have as much right to buy a ticket as anyone else. But I did find myself wistfully hankering for the hooligan-ridden days of the 80s, when the idiots on both sides of me could have met up for a ruck before the game, kicked seven bells out of each other and spent the afternoon in A&E, leaving the rest of us to watch the match and support our team.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Managing change

Reading the superb Graham Taylor In His Own Words over the Christmas holidays, at the same time as Marco Silva’s team was imploding, got me thinking about Watford managers and how that first golden era is connected to the current one – slightly less golden right now, it’s true, but still holding immense promise.

It’s simple enough, and I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out, but in the current climate, it’s a point worth reiterating. The link is that, for a club the size of Watford to punch above our weight, we need to find a new way of running a football club; one that gives us an edge that other clubs, more hidebound by tradition, can’t or won’t emulate.

Back in the late 70s, Elton John gave Graham Taylor unprecedented power (and, lest we forget, more money to spend than any of his predecessors had enjoyed), such that he was able to make decisions about pretty much every aspect of the club. Elton trusted GT’s vision, and the manager picked up that ball and ran with it, taking the club with him all the way up the league and into Europe. I don’t believe any of the other iconic managers of the era, not even Brian Clough, had such wide-ranging power over their club. Elton took a gamble and GT’s passion, judgement, inventiveness, charisma and will to succeed did the rest.

Fast-forward nearly 40 years and Gino Pozzo has achieved a comparable feat by doing almost precisely the opposite to Elton. Recognising how much football has changed in the 21st century, the Pozzo model works precisely by minimising the power of the manager, who isn’t even called that any more; the fact that Watford now have a head coach isn’t just a question of faddish terminology, it recognises that Javi Gracia isn’t expected, or indeed allowed, to manage the club. He is merely the most senior member of the coaching team, there to decide on tactics, pick the players to execute them and do what he can to ensure they do that on matchdays.

The fact that Watford are now in their third consecutive season in the Premier League, despite the turnover in head coaches, is proof that it works. Make no mistake, the reasons we achieved promotion from the Championship were, in order of importance:
1) The Pozzos’ money and player recruitment
2) The players
3) The head coach

That’s not to say Slav didn’t play a crucial role. After all, he succeeded where Zola and Sannino had failed. But he simply added the last 5% that pushed us over the line, and the fact that Gino was happy enough to proceed into the Premier League without him suggests that his assessment of the head coach’s importance roughly matches mine.

Of course, this system only works if the head coach recognises and accepts this role. It’s still an alien concept to most people in English football and the media, as the coverage of Silva’s departure this past week amply demonstrates, which is why Gino continues to recruit head coaches from Europe. Let’s hope Javi is on board with the Pozzo model in a way that Silva clearly wasn’t, from the moment way back in August when he complained about Nordin Amrabat being loaned out without him being consulted.

The mark of how much has changed between the two most successful eras in Watford’s history is this: while one is indelibly linked with a single manager, the other depends for its continuation on a series of head coaches who will have done their jobs if, in another 40 years’ time, we can’t quite remember their names.




































Monday, 1 January 2018

That was the year that was

On the face of it, 2017 was a reasonably successful year for Watford. Last season we retained our Premier League status, which was after all the object of the exercise, and the start of 2018 sees us sitting in 10th place. Another good year for the Pozzo project, then.

Well, up to a point. Your view of the club’s progress is inevitably coloured by the matches you attend, and this was a year in which I barely missed a home game, as well as making it to eight away fixtures. In all, I attended 30 Watford matches in 2017 (not counting the pre-season friendly against Real Sociedad), and saw just 10 victories; six in the latter half of last season, four so far in this campaign. And you know what? One win every three games doesn’t really feel like success to me. More like getting by.

There weren’t a lot of memorable moments, either. The two wins against Arsenal stand out, naturally, but I’m struggling to recall anything about the other wins I saw between January and April, apart from Jerome Sinclair’s solo goal against Burton in the FA Cup. Of the victories so far this season, away at Southampton was particularly enjoyable.

It’s not all about winning, of course, and there has been plenty of excitement and drama in games we drew or lost: the two games at Stamford Bridge where we threatened to pull off a shock, but ended up losing 4-3 and 4-2, and the three-all draw against Liverpool, spring to mind.

But there’s also been an awful lot of dross. You don’t need me to remind you how dreadful the football in the latter half of Mazzarri’s season was. More recently, our display against Swansea on Saturday was one of the dullest I’ve witnessed in a long time.

There’s always an excuse, though, and if there’s one word that seems to sum up Watford’s 2017, it’s injuries. There was that period at the start of the year when we lost Pereyra and then Zarate in rapid succession, and our ability to unlock opposing defences went with them. As for this season, our defence seems cursed, while any player who comes into the team and impresses is guaranteed to suffer an injury after a few games: Chalobah, Hughes, Femenia… At any one time, at least half a dozen important players have been unavailable for selection. In the circumstances, perhaps I should be grateful to have seen as many wins as I have.

Conspiracy theorists have linked the ongoing injury crisis to the departure of Head of Medical Richard Collinge at the start of last season, and maybe there’s something in that. What baffles and irritates me is the lack of clear communication about injuries. I appreciate that it’s not always possible to put a precise date on a player’s return to full fitness, but we get told so little, it’s not surprising the fans start to wonder what’s going on. When Nathaniel Chalobah was first injured, it was suggested he’d be out for about six weeks; more than twice that time has elapsed and there’s still no sign of him. Another example: a couple of weeks ago, Marco Silva suggested in a press conference that Will Hughes might be in contention to return against Brighton, yet he wasn’t named in the squad for that or the two subsequent games, with no explanation as to what’s going on.

At some point, it would be nice if someone from the club could give us their take on the ongoing injury crisis. Is it something to do with the way the players train (it was interesting to read in the programme the other day that Darryl Janmaat had barely had an injury in his career before he arrived at Vicarage Road), have we signed a lot of injury-prone players, or it really just down to bad luck?

In the meantime, Watford fans will continue to suffer more poor performances and results and keep reciting the mantra: things will pick up when our injured players are fit again. Except that day seems as far off as ever.




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?