Wednesday, 16 December 2009

What the hell is going on?

Watford FC apparently stands on the brink of administration. Three key board members, including the chairman, have resigned, the club needs to find millions of pounds in a very short space of time in order to keep trading, the ground may have to be sold…

And at this critical juncture, it’s almost impossible to find out what’s going on. It’s become a cliché that the internet has made it possible to find out anything you want, at any time, but of course that isn’t true. You can only find out what someone wants to tell you.

I’ve just spent half an hour online trying to get an update on the situation. Normally I would rely on the WML, where you can normally get the inside track on events at club, or at least knowing hints about what’s going on. Not today – I haven’t had a digest for more than 24 hours. Whether it’s melted down under the weight of concerned messages (not to mention expressions of schadenfreude over the departure of Brendan Rodgers from Reading), or – conspiracy theory ahoy – it’s been shut down by the club somehow, I have no idea. I only know it’s not there when I need it.

Meanwhile, the national news outlets – the BBC, Reuters, the newspaper websites – haven’t updated their stories since around 11 o’clock this morning. The official club site is still carrying the statement that was posted after the AGM last night. The Watford Leisure site has the official announcements (including the suspension of trading of shares on the AIM), but nothing more.

So thank goodness for the Watford Observer, which has been updating the story throughout the day, as I just discovered. I’m not at all comforted by what I’ve read there – if Graham Taylor is worried, I’m terrified – but it is at least reassuring to know that the local paper is on the case if no one else is. If the worst does happen, I suspect we’ll hear it there first.

Monday, 7 December 2009

?@%&*!$ typical!

Over the years, I’ve very rarely missed a Watford home game through illness. Maybe once every five years, on average. But yesterday I came down with a rather unpleasant bug of some kind – I won’t go into the details, let’s just say I can’t stray too far from the bathroom – and although I’ve been a bit better today, I’m still not eating, and I didn’t feel up to the trip to Vicarage Road.

Oh well, I thought, at least it’s on TV. Little did I know that I would thus be condemned to witness the most astonishing event seen at the Vic in years on a small screen in my living room, rather than from my usual vantage point in the Rookery. Lloyd Doyley scored, and I wasn’t there to see it.

They loved it on Sky, of course. “They’ll be printing up T-shirts saying ‘I was there when Doyley scored’,” said one of the commentators. And all I could think was: if they do, I can’t buy one, because I wasn’t there, was I?

Life really sucks sometimes.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

An idiot writes

A common definition of intelligence is the ability to learn from one’s mistakes. By that measure, I’m an idiot. I’ve been to Selhurst Park before – seven or eight times over the years, at a guess – to watch Watford play Palace, Wimbledon and even Charlton, and the experience has invariably been a miserable one. A trip to Selhurst is like going back to the 1970s, only grimmer.

That’s partly due to the Arthur Wait Stand, surely the crappiest accommodation for away fans in the top two divisions. I would rather stand on an open terrace than sit in those uncomfortable wooden tip-up seats (wooden seats – in the 21st century!) with just enough leg-room for a sickly 10-year-old. Yesterday, to complete the experience, my allotted seat was in the back row of the centre section, so I had the lip of the roof and a couple of pillars blocking my view of the action.

Meanwhile, on the pitch, Watford did as they always do at this sorry excuse for a ground and capitulated meekly. It wasn’t quite as bad as the 5-0 defeat against Wimbledon here in our first Premiership season, but it was just as dispiriting – the chaotic defending, Danny Graham’s pathetic penalty, the half-hearted attempts at attacking… I actually left before the end, something I’ve only ever done a couple of times in nearly 40 years of watching Watford.

As the Hornets chorus put it, in one of the few moments to bring a smile to my face: “Gone Christmas shopping, we should have gone Christmas shopping…”

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Terry Challis RIP

I’ve been on holiday for the past 10 days, and it hasn’t been a good time to be a Watford fan. First we lose 4-0 at home to Cardiff (a good one to miss, from the sound of it), complete with a howler from Scott Loach; then Scott repeats the trick in the England under-21 international, helping to inspire a Macedonian fightback; and now, just to put the tin lid on it, Terry Challis has died.

For anyone who doesn’t know (though what you’re doing reading this if you don’t, I can’t imagine), Terry ’s topical cartoons about Watford adorned the sports pages of the Watford Observer for many years – he was already there when I started reading it as a child, and still going until a couple of years ago, I believe.

As a result, he’s one of those people who have always seemed to me to be part of the very fabric of Watford FC, along with the likes of Elton John, Graham Taylor and Oliver Phillips (whose heartfelt tribute to Terry is well worth reading). His affection for the club was obvious in every cartoon he drew, and his mischievous take on the previous week’s game was always the first thing I read in the paper.

A couple of years ago, the paper mentioned the possibility of reprinting Terry’s classic poster, first published in the early dawn of the Elton and GT era, depicting the road ahead for the Hornets in an allegorical manner. I put my name down for one, but nothing ever happened. I hope they reconsider now – I suspect it would sell out. And I hope the club finds a suitable way to commemorate him. He deserves it.

Monday, 21 September 2009

On the boos

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was rare for the Watford fans to boo the team off the pitch at half-time. It was a sanction that was reserved for those first-half performances where the team really didn’t look like they were trying, or where they just looked clueless.

There was more half-time booing last season than ever before, though – some of it justified, some of it arguably not. And when it happened again on Saturday, I did start to wonder what’s going on. Okay, it wasn’t our greatest ever first 45 minutes, but it was far from our worst. The formation wasn’t working, Henri Lansbury’s tricks and flicks were stubbornly refusing to come off, and we’d given away two soft goals against muscular, more than competent opposition. Not the end of the world, and – as the second half so gloriously proved – by no means irreversible. So why boo?

My only conclusion is that to some people in the Rookery, booing as the players go off at half-time is merely their way of saying they’re unhappy about the score, rather than a criticism directed at the players or manager.

Either that, or they’re morons.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

It’s good to be back

Finally, my first game of the season, and a corker too. A few miscellaneous observations from the 1-0 win over Barnsley:

- Henri Lansbury - wow! He must be a nightmare to play against, what with his incessant running and pressing, not to mention his skill on the ball. And the showboating must get on their nerves too.
- Was that really Dale Bennett’s first start for the first team? A fine example of a young player grasping his chance with both hands.
- And how satisfying that our first league clean sheet of the season came with a back four composed entirely of Academy products.
- That nurses’ home they’re building on the back of the Rookery is considerably larger than I was expecting. Still, it should be less drafty this winter now that both corners have been filled in.
- Cudos to Richard Walker for the new-look programme, and in particular for bringing back the section on the statistics page that shows each player’s total number of Watford appearances. It disappeared for the last two seasons, to my immense frustration. (I know. Humour me.) Just to confirm how new this squad is, we now have only four players with more than 100 Watford appearances - and one of those is Richard Lee, who’s unlikely to feature until we sell Scott Loach in the January transfer window.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The phoney war

For the second year in a row, the misalignment of my holiday dates and the fixture list (ie when Watford are at home, I’m away) means that I’m not going to see my first game of the season until mid-September. As a result, these early weeks have an unreal quality, as if the matches the team are playing, and the movements of players in and out of the club, don’t really apply to me as a Watford fan.

Thus the departure of Tamas Priskin to Ipswich last week, while I was eating cheese and drinking red wine in France, seems more like a dream than a news story. Not that it was all that unexpected. He joins the likes of Lee Cook and Hameur Bouazza in being promising, but largely underwhelming, for a couple of seasons, finally fulfilling that promise for six months, and promptly buggering off at the first sign of attention from a rival club. Mind you, the fates of Cook and Bouazza suggest that we’re likely to be seeing a lot of him at Championship level - and no higher - in the years to come.

One thing all three players mentioned above have in common is that they were signed at a relatively young age from elsewhere, and I like to believe that a player who’d come up through the Watford Academy wouldn’t treat us so shabbily. Which brings me, as ever at this time of the year, to the naming of my favourite player. Well, obviously it’s Lloyd Doyley again, the player who gets better with each passing year*. And this season he’s going to score a goal. No, really.

*You’d think this would be true of all footballers, given the amount of expensive coaching they receive, yet that’s manifestly not the case.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Are you ready for this?

The new season, that is. Because I’m not. I can’t believe it starts a week on Saturday. Apart from anything else, I haven’t been on my summer hols yet. By the time I get back, the first team will already have played five games. (Well, four actually, assuming that Malky upholds the tradition of giving the reserves a run-out in the 1st Round of the League Cup.)

In my mind, the football season should start on the third Saturday in August. (Pauses to consult the bible, aka Trefor Jones’s Watford Season By Season.) Hah! In 1977, when I was 15 and GT was our new manager, the first league game was on Saturday August 20th. That sounds about right. In fact, in the early 80s the season started even later – it was August 29th in 1981, and I see nothing wrong with that.

I suppose the early start is something to do with all those blank international weekends – that, or the megalomania of football administrators, who are seemingly determined to trample over every other sport. Personally, I’d like to enjoy the drama of the Ashes a bit longer before I start having to worry about the exact composition of the Watford defence, or who’s going to score our goals this season. But maybe that’s just me.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

To-do list

A bit late I know, but I just wanted to say well done - to Brendan, to the players, to the board, hell, even to the fans. To have got through the past 12 months and come away with a 13th-place finish in the Championship is quite an achievement, all things considered. And to finish with a smile on our faces is, if anything, even more of an achievement.

Last season (2007/08) was, as I kept saying at the time, a very strange season - and so was this season, albeit for different reasons. Above all, because, no matter what was happening in the boardroom or the dugout, the goals kept flowing (at both ends). Who’d have guessed, after the tedium of last season, that Vicarage Road would see more goals than any other Championship stadium? And that the last game of the season would see us so far ahead at half-time that the Rookery could spend the second half yelling ‘Shooooot!’ at Lloyd Doyley every time he got the ball in the opposition’s half? (Mind you, I was so confident that Lloydinho was finally going to break his duck that I put a tenner on him to score. Maybe next season...)

Others have reviewed the season gone by a lot more thoroughly than I can. So for what it’s worth, here are a few things I think Watford need to do to build on the progress made in 2008/09:

1) Sort the pitch out
A few years ago, the club boasted about some new technology they’d used whereby the grass was interwoven with plastic or something, making it stronger and more resilient. I can only assume the plastic melted, because for the last couple of seasons, the Vicarage Road pitch has been a disgrace. I’m sure the Saracens are partly to blame, but I can’t believe it’s entirely down to them that the pitch is bumpy and skiddy, often both at the same time. Bottom line: if we want to play proper passing football, we need to lay a new pitch and look after it properly.

2) Buy Gregor Rasiak
A tricky one, this: reports repeatedly stress that he wants a hefty sum in wages, the sort of sum we really can’t afford these days. Only this morning I read that Sheffield Wednesday have given up hope of signing him for precisely that reason. So I can only hope that he’s developed enough affection for Watford in his time here to take a pay cut, because he makes a real difference to our front line: strong in the air, skilful on the ground, able to hold the ball up and gobble up the slightest of half-chances, Old Greg is the kind of all-round striker we’ve seen all too rarely in recent years. Especially if Priskin buggers off elsewhere (as I suspect he will), we need Rasiak.

3) Give youth a chance
Our youth, I mean. Brendan keeps talking about his passion for developing young players, but so far he’s preferred to give match experience to other clubs’ young players. It’s hard to object to Jack Cork, who is clearly a star in the making and already out of our league. But Bridcutt, Hoyte, Rose - why did these players get game time ahead of the likes of Jordan Parkes and Lewis Young? And how many loans does Theo Robinson have to go on before the Watford hierarchy makes up its mind as to whether he’s worthy of a place in OUR team? I don’t pretend to know whether these youngsters are going to make it, but I do know that we’ll only find out by playing them in the Watford first team in serious competitive games.

4) Keep talking
An obvious point really, but after the secrecy and mistrust of the Simpson-Ashton regime, it’s essential for the new board to keep talking openly and honestly to the fans. We know that there are difficult decisions to made, and that we’re not out of the financial woods just yet. All we ask is that you tell it like it is.

Monday, 9 March 2009

The best trip I’ve ever been on?

As someone who generally only manages to get to two or three away matches a season, Saturday’s game at Charlton gave me the relatively rare experience of witnessing an away win, and an entertaining one at that. But when I got to thinking about my most memorable awaydays as a Watford fan, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that they all occurred in my youth...

5) Southampton, 26/8/80
A balmy August night on the south coast, and a comprehensive 4-0 defeat in the League Cup 2nd round, 1st leg. The main thing I remember is a defiant chant of ‘Elton John’s Taylor-made army’ that seemed to last for the entire second half, long after the game, and thus presumably the tie, was lost. That, and the fact that my friend and next-door neighbour Nigel, who drove me to most of the away games I attended in those days, couldn’t make the 2nd leg the following week – not that he was going to miss much...

4) Hillingdon Borough, 11/12/76
Coming a week after my 14th birthday, this FA Cup 2nd round tie at Yeading’s ground in west London must have been one of my first away games, if not the first. It was absolutely perishing, and where we stood behind the goal we had a perfect view of Andy Rankin letting a goal through his legs. For a time it looked as though the Hornets were going to go out to non-league opposition, but in the end they scraped home 3-2. Fat lot of good it did them - they lost by the same score to Northwich Victoria in the next round on an even colder day. I wasn’t in Cheshire to see it, but I remember sitting in my bedroom in Bushey Heath, huddled against the radiator, despairing as the final score came through on the radio.

3) Luton, some time in the early 80s
I don’t remember the date, or the score (though we probably lost – we usually did). I do remember being squashed onto a primitive terrace in a dump of a ground, and afterwards, standing trapped among hundreds of Watford fans as bottles and bricks started raining down on us... One of my more seasoned companions led us on a breakaway down a side street and then an alley that, miraculously, led us back to our car and the chance to escape back to the M1 without further drama. I’ve never been back.

2) Arsenal, 14/3/87
A rare example of an away game I actually remember for the football. This was Graham Taylor’s Watford in excelsis, beating one of the great teams on their own ground and deserving to do so. But mainly I remember that astonishing third goal, when the entire Arsenal team stopped playing in expectation of the referee’s whistle while Luther Blissett galloped towards us, the ball at his feet, and duly scored the goal that secured the win. What a moment.

1) Coventry, 9/12/80
Nigel and his mates picked me up straight from school for this Tuesday-night fixture, a League Cup 5th round replay following a 2-2 draw at the Vic the previous week. We had high hopes, but somehow it all went horribly wrong and we lost 5-0 - still the (joint) worst defeat I’ve seen the Hornets suffer. On the way home we stopped in a lay-by, where Nigel retrieved some cans of lager from the boot. We drank them as we made our way back down the motorway, listening to John Peel on the radio. John Lennon had been murdered the day before and Peel played nothing but Lennon and Beatles songs all night, which we sang along to, at first mournfully, and then with growing gusto. I was just 18 and I’d never felt so grown-up – so alive.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

A helluva week

There are some weeks you just want to get to the end of. On Monday my employer announced a programme of redundancies and financial cutbacks designed to steer the company through the choppy waters of the next year or so. My job is safe for the time being, but the atmosphere around the office has been a bit tense all week, as you can imagine. Meanwhile, a family member went into hospital for an operation on Wednesday, and that’s been the cause of plenty more stress, for reasons I won’t go into here.

So I really needed a trip to Vicarage Road yesterday – especially as a combination of postponements, family commitments and holidays meant I hadn’t seen a game for a month. The last game I saw was the FA Cup tie against Palace, but a lot has changed in the interim. The defence looks more solid with Williamson at its heart, Cowie was impressive on the left wing... but you know all that. The really big news is that we have a song! I’m sure ‘Hoist up the Watford flag’ (a nifty adaptation of ‘Sloop John B’) has been nicked from another set of supporters, but who cares – as chorus after chorus rang out from the Rookery, I felt my spirits lift.

In truth, it wasn’t a great game, thanks mainly to Palace’s constant niggling – charmless nerks, the lot of them, as Norman Stanley Fletcher would have said. But to me, it was one of those afternoons that epitomise the joy of supporting a football team. I got to celebrate two goals (one of them possibly offside, the other untidily bundled over the line), bite my fingernails as our defence indulging in some last-ditch clearances, abuse Neil Warnock (always a pleasure), sing a rousing new song... and, for 90 minutes, forget all about life outside the stadium. And that, for me at least, is a big part of what football is for.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

That was the month that was

The trouble with being an occasional blogger is that sometimes there’s simply too much going on. Over the past month, every time I’ve started to compose a new post in my head, it’s been superceded by some fresh event that seems worthy of comment before I’ve managed to crystallise my thoughts on the last one.

January 2009 brought big stuff for Watford fans - big, BIG stuff, like, ooh, I don’t know, the departure of the chairman and chief executive, the subsequent revelations (courtesy of the Watford oracle, Oliver Phillips) about what went on while they were in charge, and then the announcement of a new board featuring Graham Taylor. There was small stuff that seemed to deserve comment as well, like Brendan Rodgers’ ludicrous substitutions in the FA Cup tie against Palace, decisions that almost cost us the game. That had me spitting feathers, I can tell you. There was nerve-jangling stuff, like the agonising wait for the transfer window to shut before any important players could be lured away from Vicarage Road. There was even some football played, of gradually increasing quality as the month went on.

So for now, I’m just going to comment on one small story: the departure of Moses Ashikodi, released from his contract without another club to go to. His is a typical enough story: promising young player arrives, plays a couple of games, picks up an injury, recovers, goes out on loan and then leaves again, having barely made a mark on the club. Moses only started one game for the Hornets – the 4-1 win against Stockport in the FA Cup 3rd Round a couple of years ago, in which he scored – yet I was impressed enough by his performance to be hopeful that he’d be an integral part of the first-team squad this season.

The stats from his loan spells at Bradford, Swindon and Hereford since then suggest that was wishful thinking - a return of three goals in two years in the lower divisions doesn’t exactly make a powerful case. Injuries played a part in that, I gather, and who knows what else. I’ve watched enough football to understand that sometimes, talent and athleticism can be undermined by other factors, factors that are covered by words like ‘temperament’ and ‘personality’.

Maybe that was the case with Moses – I don’t know. Either way, he now joins the list of those who gave us the briefest glimpse of their potential while they were at Watford before fading from the scene again. And that always makes me a little sad.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Why do it the hard way?

One thing that really annoyed me at yesterday’s cup tie against Scunthorpe (even more than Jobi McAnuff’s continuing inability to deliver a cross when he has the ball in an attacking position) was something I overheard. “I hope we beat this lot today,” said someone in the row behind me, “and then draw Manchester United in the next round.”

This kind of witless statement really gets my goat. The point of entering a cup competition, surely, is to win it. To do so, you need to beat a series of teams. Therefore it follows that you want the opposition set in front of you to be as beatable as possible, yes? Not Manchester sodding United, who would doubtless field their junior team and wipe the floor with us.

I can just about understand this attitude from players (I heard it repeatedly on Five Live in the post-match interviews with plucky lower- and non-league victors on the way home from yesterday’s match), who recognise that a tie against a ‘glamour’ club is a rare opportunity to put themselves in the shop window. But from fans? I don’t get it.

And before you object that the value of a cup run is somehow proportional to the status of the teams you beat, answer me this: who did Watford beat on their way to the final in 1984? I had to look it up myself, even though I was at most of the ties: Luton, Charlton, Brighton, Birmingham and Plymouth. All decent enough clubs (well, with one notable exception, soon to be non-league no-hopers), but hardly the A list. But who remembers, and who cares? The record books say that we reached the final, and that’s all most of us know, or need to.

So if we get to the final this season by beating Scunthorpe, Leicester, Kettering, Crewe and Hartlepool, I for one won’t be thinking: “Isn’t it a shame we didn’t get to play Chelsea or Arsenal?” Cobblers to that. If Cardiff can get to the final, so can we. Bring it on!