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?

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.