I’ve had a week to digest it, and I haven’t changed my opinion that 2007/08 was one of the most unpleasant, and strangest, seasons I can remember in thirtysomething years of supporting the Hornets. Unpleasant because of the combination of hopeless football on the pitch and seething rancour in the stands – how many times were the team booed off the pitch at half- and/or full-time? And strange because for much of this time, in the midst of the mindless hoofing and the angry jeering, we sat at the top of the table and dared to dream of promotion. Even despite the painful end-of-season slump, I make this the 13th most successful season in Watford’s history (behind eight years in the top flight, three promotion seasons and one previous failed attempt at the play-offs).
It was also strange for being so utterly joyless. We football fans, hardened cynics as we are, can usually find something to laugh about, even in the pit of despair. Take the Vialli season: it was absolute pants, but I still have fond memories of the uselessness of Blondeau, Vega and Hughes (you had to laugh or else you’d cry), Pierre Issa falling off the stretcher, the inability of Paul Okon to make any impression whatsoever on a match...
Yet the hardened cynic and the incurable optimist live side by side, often in the same person, and the spirit Watford displayed in those two play-off games has given us a reason to dream again, and to utter that deathless phrase: there’s always next season. Even while acknowledging that the standard of the Championship is unlikely to be so low again for a while (well, at least until this season’s three promoted teams come back down in a year’s time), there are grounds for optimism.
For me, the main one is Aidy’s public acknowledgement that he needs to give the younger players in the squad a chance to show what they can do. He’s said this before, of course, without necessarily keeping his promise. This year only John-Joe O’Toole broke into the first team, though it seems likely that Jordan Parkes would have done the same if it weren’t for an untimely injury that ultimately forced Aidy to buy a replacement for Jordan Stewart rather than using the player he’d been grooming for the role.
Next year I hope to see, at the very least, Parkes and Theo Robinson making the matchday squad regularly. Moses Ashikodi ought to get a chance, too, and there’s been much talk of Scott Loach taking over the goalie’s jersey (though it’s a brave manager who pitches a 20-year-old with half a season of 4th division football behind him straight into the maelstrom of the Championship). Then there’s Tamas Priskin, who’s still only 21 – his status as an international makes it easy to forget that he’s still learning his trade.
Add to them a fit Gareth Williams, and maybe an experienced striker and centre-half, and you’ve got the makings of a decent squad. We’ll see. And we’ll also see if Aidy can keep another of his promises - to freshen up the playing style. God knows he needs to.