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

GT RIP

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.


Sunday, 18 December 2016

Choice remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







Friday, 9 December 2016

The family way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Not angry, just... irritated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The story so far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Saturday, 9 July 2016

Spoiled for choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Irk the traditionalists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 May 2016

2015/16: highs and lows

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

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

HIGH
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...

LOW
... 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.

HIGH
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...

LOW
... 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.

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

LOW
... 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.

HIGH
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...

LOW
... 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.