Sunday, 1 December 2013

North v South

I haven’t got all the answers for Watford’s current malaise (who has? Certainly not the manager), but there is one thing that strikes me as pertinent, and it’s to do with the origin of our loanees.

In general terms, European football can be divided into two styles of play. In northern and central Europe, the emphasis is on strength and speed, while in the south they favour style and skill. A massive over-simplification, of course, but I think it’s basically valid. Look at it this way: I doubt there’s ever been a Swedish team that played like the recent vintage Barcelona, or an Italian one that imitated Dave Bassett’s Wimbledon.

Since the Pozzos took over at Watford, the loanees from our sister clubs who have been most successful have largely been those originally from north or central Europe: Anya (Scotland), Ekstrand (Sweden), Vydra and Pudil (Czech Republic), Abdi (Switzerland).

In contrast, few of those from Mediterranean countries (or Latin American ones, for that matter) have established themselves as first-choice selections. Angella has, but as a central defender, the Latin mentality is perhaps less important to his game (though his error late in the game at Middlesbrough shows what can happen when defenders forget to keep it simple). Ditto Cassetti, though he’s only first-choice at the moment because of injury. Then there’s Forestieri, though he’s still very much a work in progress. I’m not convinced he’s the right foil for Deeney, but he’s done okay this season.

The other southern Europeans (Battochio, Fabbrini, Faraoni, plus Geijo last season) and Latin Americans (Iriney and Acuna) have all struggled to turn their undoubted talent into effectiveness on the pitch. That’s not surprising: the Championship is a northern European league where strength and speed tend to win out over style and skill.

None of this is to say that they won’t eventually come good. We’ve got most of these players on long-term contracts that will (hopefully) give them time to adjust their game to English football. Feel free to remind me of this post in a few years’ time, when Fabbrini is scoring 20 a season and Battochio is running the midfield. But in the meantime, the next time the Pozzos are looking to send us a batch of players, maybe they should focus on the Udinese and Granada players who were originally signed from colder climes.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Bright ideas: the unsackable manager

I read on WML recently that Gianfranco Zola is now the sixth longest-serving manager in the Championship, having been at Watford just 16 months. That speaks volumes about the ludicrous pressures managers work under these days, and it got me thinking about ways of redressing the balance between managers and players.

So here’s my bright – and completely unworkable, before anyone points it out – idea, based on the oft-stated principle that the manager of a football club should be given three seasons to prove themself: one to ship out the players they inherited but don’t want, one to bring in players they think will improve the team, and one to blend them together into a winning unit.

It’s a simple enough concept. On June 1st 2014, every club in the Premier League and Football League gives its manager (the incumbent or a new arrival – their choice) a three-year contract containing a clause that makes it unbreakable. That is, the club can’t sack the manager, and the manager can’t leave for another club. Three years later, the clubs have the opportunity to make the managers an offer of another three-year term if they want, and the managers have the chance to switch clubs. Then the three-year cycle starts again.

There are several benefits to this scheme. For one thing, it defuses player power. Dressing-room rebellions are futile if the players know they can’t force the manager out, so they just have to get on with the job of playing football. If they don’t like it, they can leave. The manager’s authority is decisive.

For another, it forces clubs to think a bit more carefully about who they appoint. No more hiring an ex-pro everyone on the board has heard of who’s been moderately successful somewhere else (yes, I’m talking about you, Messrs Hughes, Bruce and co.), and who they can jettison after 15 months if they haven’t brought success by then. They need to find someone with a genuine vision and the skill and charisma to make it a reality.

By taking the pressure off managers, it should also improve their performance. No one is at their best when they’re constantly looking over their shoulder. A relaxed manager can focus all his energy on improving his team, without having to field idiotic post-match questions from Garth Crooks about whether they’re expecting a call from the chairman this evening.

Of course, not everyone will be happy. The media will lose a key source of stories, and fans will have to learn that they can wave all the homemade banners they want, go on endless protest marches and sing countless rude songs about the manager – he isn’t going anywhere until the three years are up. But think of it this way: it’s no different to politics. Many of us aren’t happy with the people running our country, but we know there’s no point getting too worked up about it right now. Another lot will be along come the next election, and hopefully they’ll do a better job.

Obviously, some checks and balances would have to be built into the system. There would be the capacity for a club to sack a manager who was convicted of a crime, for instance, and equally, he could be released from his contract in the case of severe illness or other mitigating personal circumstances. But apart from that, a contract would be a contract, and everybody’s blood pressure would be reduced as a result. And that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Not up for the cup

On Saturday, with Watford not playing, nothing that I urgently needed to do, and the FPO* otherwise occupied, I thought it might be a good opportunity to go and watch a football match as a neutral.

My first choice was Brentford v Shrewsbury. I live in Fulham, so it’s a local ground, and my best friend is a season ticket holder. But it turned out that they had some special promotion on and the home end was sold out, so that wasn’t an option. “Why don’t you go and watch an FA Cup tie?” he said.

I’d already had the same idea. A quick scan of the fixtures revealed that my best bet was Barnet v Concord Rangers. Okay, that sounded promising. I went onto the Barnet website to find out more about their new ground. Then I saw the ticket prices: £24 for a seat, £16 for the terraces.

Are you kidding me? I watched the superb Watford-Norwich League Cup tie for 15 quid a few weeks ago. Why would I pay more than that for an FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round tie between two non-league teams? I thought about it a bit longer: it was going to take me a minimum of an hour to get there, whether I drove or took public transport, and the weather was looking iffy. In the end, I just couldn’t be bothered. If it had been a tenner to get in, I probably would have.

So, after a couple of hours spent working in the garden, I sat down to watch the end of Sky Soccer Saturday. Even though I’d turned down the chance to go, I was still curious to know how the Barnet game had turned out. Sky Sports had featured a few of the FA Cup ties on their vidiprinter (or whatever the digital equivalent is called), but not that one. I waited until the classified scores were in, but no mention of the FA Cup, so I switched over to BBC1, who are usually a few minutes behind. No classified FA Cup scores there either, but the presenter made a point of saying that they could be found on the BBC Sport website.

So I checked the BBC Sport app on my iPhone: the fixtures were there all right, but no scores. This was at 5.10 or so. Okay, I thought, it’s probably just that they don’t update the app as a priority. An hour or so later, I looked on my computer - with the same result. Well after 6 o’clock, it was still impossible to find out a single result from the FA Cup 4th qualifying round from the BBC. (For the record, the Real FA Cup website was no better.)

So here’s the thing: I’m a Watford fan through and through, and 95% of all the football matches I’ve ever watched have featured the Golden Boys. But every now and then I fancy a change of scene, and I’m open to watching non-league football. (I’ve seen plenty of non-league games, mostly at Kingstonian with a friend who used to support them.) But if it’s going to cost the same as a league game, I’m not going to bother. And if the media can’t be arsed to update the scores from the biggest competition non-league teams feature in, it’s hardly going to encourage other neutrals to take an interest, either. I’m not impressed, frankly.

*Fun Prevention Officer, aka wife

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Marathon men

Sporting metaphors and phrases are so common nowadays that they often get used without much thought as to whether they the situation being described – especially when it comes to talking about other sports. ‘Step up to the plate’, ‘off his own bat’, ‘move the goalposts’, ‘on the ropes’ – there are dozens of them.

The one I’ve seen applied to Watford a lot recently is the idea that a football league season is ‘a marathon, not a sprint’. And in fact, this is the exception to the rule set out about above, because it is an entirely apt metaphor. I should know: I used to be a marathon runner.

Actually, that’s a lie. But I did used to work for a running magazine, and in that capacity I was occasionally assigned to report on a marathon, so I’ve seen them at close quarters.

These things usually work in one of two ways. At the big, prestigious marathons, like London, the journalists are hosted in a cosy press room near the finish line, with banks of TV screens showing the race from every angle and all the statistics you could possibly want. There are plentiful supplies of hot drinks and snacks, and it’s a wrench when you have to tear yourself away and go out in the cold to watch the winner cross the finish line.

But at the less well-funded events, reporters don’t get such a cosy time of it. In Prague and Belgrade I found myself in the back of an open truck with half a dozen fellow writers, driving round the course a few yards ahead of the lead runner – sometimes so close that I wondered if they might be tempted to jump in with us. A functionary with a walkie talkie updated us on the leaders’ split times and other useful snippets of information, but otherwise we only knew what was happening in front of (or rather, behind) us.

It strikes me that this is the perspective adopted by most casual football fans, and indeed those journalists who can’t be bothered to study the situation in depth, when it comes to assessing the football season as it goes along. They take the foreshortened view from the head of the field and assume that whoever is leading at a given time is a shoo-in for victory.

This nonsense wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t infectious. Some Hornets fans are already worrying that we’re being left behind by Burnley and QPR, and that’s just dumb. As in a marathon, what matters is to be part of the leading group. The fascination in watching these races lies in seeing how the best runners pace themselves, injecting little bursts of extra speed from time to time that shake off the weaker ones. It’s all about timing your effort to maximum effect – like a football team going on an unbeaten run in the early spring, just when their competitors are suffering from injuries and fatigue.

The other thing I’ve learned from watching marathons is that, while a runner who hasn’t been part of the leading group may come back up the field strongly, overtaking others who’ve run out of steam, they never win. It just doesn’t happen; third or fourth place is the best you can hope for if you haven’t been part of the leading pack throughout.

That applies to football too, of course – just remember the Mooney-inspired run that took Watford from mid-table to the playoffs in 1999. So if you look at the Championship table now, the chances are that the two automatically promoted teams will come from the pack of seven currently setting the pace. A Bolton or a Brighton might surge through the field from the bottom half of the table and into the playoffs, but that’s probably the best they can hope for.

So, it’s nearly a quarter of the way through the season and Watford are jogging along nicely in the middle of the leading group. I believe that we have the skill, and the strength, both on and off the pitch, to make the decisive burst when it counts. Have faith. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Main Stand memories

So the old Main Stand (no Watford fan who started going in the 60s or 70s has ever called it the East Stand) is finally going to bite the dust. Not before time, to be honest, but it will still be a sad day for those of us who spent our formative years at Vicarage Road missing large chunks of the action because a pillar was in the way.

When I started going to Watford games with my dad, the Main Stand Extension (that’s the bit nearest the Rookery, for younger readers) was where we sat. Just getting to your seat was an adventure. Once through the turnstiles on Occupation Road, you unexpectedly went down a flight of steps, over a bridge that spanned what seemed to be a dry moat (but was probably just a path running along the outside of the lower level of the stand) and up a few more steps. Straight ahead, there was a room under the stand which was used as a makeshift snack bar, where you could buy Mars Bars and cans of Fanta from a trestle table. Thus equipped, you then made your way up yet more steps into the stand itself, resplendent with its orange seats.

My abiding sensory memory of those early years is of Dad’s pipe smoke. Over a decade before the Bradford fire, smoking was freely allowed at football grounds, and Dad (who didn’t really like watching football, and was just humouring me) would alleviate the boredom by lighting his pipe. Invariably, the breeze would blow the acrid smoke into my eyes. Sometimes I’d complain, and we’d swap seats – at which point the wind would change direction and I’d get another eyeful of smoke.

Luckily, I wasn’t missing much excitement on the pitch. This was the early 70s, when the Hornets struggled to stay in the old Second Division – in my first season, I didn’t see us win a league game until the end of February. When we finally went down, the misery continued, and before you knew it we were in the Fourth Division, where we won a few more games, but still not enough.

Of course, that was the point at which Graham Taylor arrived and everything changed. Suddenly there were goals galore, from Alan Mayes and Keith Mercer (my hero) and the previously rubbish Ross Jenkins, and the novelty of Watford actually topping the league.

The last game of that season was a 3-2 home win against Southport, after which the Fourth Division trophy was going to be presented. Unfortunately, despite my protests (and possibly, I’m ashamed to say, tears), Dad insisted on leaving before the final whistle, “to beat the traffic”, and it was many more years before I finally got to see a Watford team lift a trophy.

That was when I decided it was time to go to games on my own, and from the following season until it was demolished I called the Vicarage Road End terrace my home. I can’t say I ever missed sitting in the Main Stand, and it has become a bit of an eyesore in recent years. But we football fans are nothing if not misty-eyed nostalgics, and its demolition will represent the demise of an important part of my childhood – the place where I discovered one of my life’s abiding passions.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Is that it?

So I finally got to go to my first home game of the season yesterday. Just like every season since 1970, my excitement mounted as I traced the familiar route over the railway bridge, along Cardiff Road and up Occupation Road, past the allotments.

Inside the ground, nothing much seems to have changed. There’s a big banner at the back of the Vicarage Road stand, and the half-finished block in the south-west corner has been blocked up in such a way as to suggest it might actually get finished at some point. That’s about it.

There was certainly a bigger crowd than you’d expect for a regular league game against Charlton (I’ve rarely seen the Rous so full), and I was expecting more atmosphere, what with the much-heralded founding of The 1881. I thought there were going to be giant flags, constant noise, new songs? True, a persistent drumbeat and attempts to keep the singing going wafted over from the south-west corner of the Rookery, but it hardly turned the Vic into a cauldron of noise. Early days, I suppose.

To be fair, the action on the pitch was hardly conducive to a great atmosphere. It’s early days for the team as well; it still has the look of a group of players who are getting to know each other, with occasional flashes of genius punctuating long passages of ponderous passing. It was the same at this stage last season, of course, and we know how that turned out, so I’m not overly concerned yet. At least we didn’t lose.

Just to put the tin lid on a rather disappointing day, my Official Favourite Player (for the 23rd season running, or something of the sort), Lloyd Doyley, wasn’t even playing – presumably rested after his international exertions, rather than dropped, which would be madness. One day I’m going to have to pick a new favourite player, but let’s not hope it’s for a few more seasons yet. On the evidence of yesterday, we still need his speed and nous at the back.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

First impressions

It’s been a feature of recent years that I don’t get to see much of Watford’s start to the season. Having a wife whose birthday (which is invariably celebrated lavishly with family and friends) is on August 4th doesn’t help, and the Bank Holiday weekend is another regular occasion for family gatherings a long way from Hertfordshire. The fixture computer is rarely helpful, and I can’t remember the last time I actually got to see the Hornets’ first home game.

This year it’s been spectacularly unhelpful, to the extent that my first home game will be against Charlton on September 14th. So I made a point of marking yesterday’s game at Reading on the calendar early and ringing it in red pen. I wanted to see this latest Watford team for myself.

My first impressions weren’t great. Just as in the early months of last season, the Hornets looked a bit lost. There was clearly an ambition to play a silky passing game based on a combination of patient possession and rapier-like penetration, but it simply wasn’t working. Giving away a goal in the first five minutes didn’t help, of course.

But after the break (and especially after Fabbrini’s introduction) it was a different story. I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow account; you can read plenty of those elsewhere. I just wanted to say that as we built up attacking momentum, it was absolutely thrilling to watch. You could sense the Reading players thinking “Holy sh*t, where did that come from?” The draw was absolutely deserved, and given another 10 minutes, I’m sure we’d have won.

As Gianfranco Zola has been at pains to point out, this team is still very much a work in progress, with a number of players who are new to English football, let alone Watford. If that’s what they can do (against, let’s not forget, what’s likely to be one of the stronger teams in this year’s Championship) when they’re still getting to know each other, god help the rest of the division once they really get into gear. I haven’t felt so excited about a Watford team since John Barnes was thin.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Wanna bet?

This week, at the age of 50, I did something I’ve never done before: I went into a bookmaker’s and placed a bet.

I’ve done plenty of betting in the past (I wrote about it here), mainly on football, but always online. I didn’t have anything against the idea of going into a betting shop; it was just easier, particularly with the kind of small bets I was putting on matches, to do it at my desk at work on a Friday lunchtime.

This week, though, I decided it was time to step it up a notch. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a growing conviction that Watford really are going to be the dominant force in the Championship this season, and I decided to back that conviction with some cold hard cash. A savvy colleague at work pointed me towards the Oddschecker site so that I could find the best odds on Watford to win the Championship, and then directed me towards the nearest branch of Coral. (It turned out to be 100 yards from the office – I’d walked past it hundreds of times without ever noticing it.)

In case you’re interested, I got 12-1, and you can still get those odds at Coral and one or two other places. According to Oddschecker, over 20% of online bets placed on the Championship winner have gone on the Hornets, and we’re as low as 9-1 with some betting sites, and falling.

It’s that, as much as the strength of our squad, the skill of our manager and the acumen of our owners, that gives me such confidence about the coming season. If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that the bookies will do anything to avoid losing money.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Time out

When it comes to the summer (what used to be called the ‘close season’, though the phrase seems to have slipped out of currency), football fans fall into two camps.

There are some who just can’t do without their fix, and latch on to any football they can find with the urgency of the true addict. You can see them on Twitter, desperately swapping news of televised games. During June they fed their habit with the European Under-21 Championships, the Confederations Cup and the early rounds of qualifying for next season’s European club competitions. Now that July’s here there are pre-season friendlies and those daft competitions that tend to get screened on Channel 5, and those will see them through to August and the resumption of proper football.

I fall into the other camp. Much as I love football, I cherish the two months’ break between seasons when I can forget all about it.* I enjoy watching most top-level sport (pretty much anything not involving cars or horses – that’s not sport, it’s transport), and I love the traditional landmarks of an English summer; Wimbledon, the Open, Test cricket, a major athletics championship (it’s the Worlds this year).

I’ve happily ignored the football listed above, and while I will take a passing interest in Watford’s friendlies, there’s no point investing too much emotion in them. Last year, I seem to remember that Piero Mingoia played a prominent role in pre-season, and that didn’t exactly turn out to be a significant indicator of things to come, did it? I’ve never been to a pre-season friendly, however glamorous (didn’t we play Milan or Juventus, or someone like that, a few years ago?), and I doubt I ever will.

Yes, yes, there are new signings, loanees coming on board full-time, a promising squad taking shape… It’s all important, of course, but I’m not going to let the news from Vicarage Road (or northern Italy) take over my life. I’ll start getting excited some time around August 1st, when there’s a proper competitive fixture in the offing and the team news actually means something.

Until then, I’m on a break.

*This is more complicated in those summers when there’s a World Cup or European Championship, but that’s a subject for another day.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Return post

Having examined how the Pozzos fared against the criteria I decided to judge them against at the start of last season, it seems only fair to do the same for the manager they appointed. In a post entitled ‘Dear Mr Zola’ I laid out five points I was hoping Gianfranco might ponder…

1) Do your homework
I was keen for the new boss to learn a bit about Watford’s history and traditions, as an extra bulwark against the possibility of the club losing its identity under the new regime. To be honest, it’s hard to tell whether he did or didn’t. All managers use interviews and programme notes to emphasis how much they appreciate the history of the club they’re lucky enough to be in charge of, and Zola was no exception. But in his case, I tend to believe him. He just seems like that kind of guy.

2) Give (our) youth a chance
I wasn’t the only one who was worried that opportunities for graduates of the Watford Academy might disappear, given the size our new squad. It’s true that the ‘lost generation’ of Academy graduates – Bennett, Mingoia, Hodson, Jenkins – found opportunities few and far between, and even though the latter two still have a year left on their contracts, I doubt we’ll see much of them next season.

But Zola skipped a generation to give game time to younger players whose talents were deemed more suitable to the new model Watford. Tommy Hoban and Jonathan Bond grasped theirs with both hands, Sean Murray less so, and Connor Smith had limited chances to shine. The only worrying thing is that they all suffered from injuries, with Bond’s arguably having a decisive effect on the outcome of our season. But with all four signed up for the next few years, they have a real chance to push on with Watford.

3) Find a decent penalty-taker
Missed penalties have been a miserable fact of life for Watford fans for longer than I can remember, but this season brought a big improvement. Abdi, Deeney and Vydra all scored two each, and if we did miss any, I can’t remember them. Another tick in the box.

(Oh, and the fact that we finally found a goalkeeper capable of keeping penalties out at the other end also came in handy.)

4) Keep us up
It’s hard to remember now, but for a couple of months there was genuine fear among Hornets fans that Zola wouldn’t manage this fundamental part of his job, as he struggled to shape a consistent and effective team from his enormous squad. But once he settled on a formation that suited his best players, he never looked back.

5) Don’t drop Doyley
Talking of his best players… Of course, Zola ignored my advice initially, just like every other Watford manager for the past decade. Lloyd didn’t feature much until late October, when the Italian saw the error of his ways. Then a rare injury kept him out of the team from mid-November until the New Year – but after that, playing on the right-hand side of a back three gave him the opportunity to show his defensive skills time and time again, and he was the standout player in our play-off campaign.

All in all, it’s hard to find much to complain about. I’m looking forward to seeing how Zola tackles next season, when his team will start as one of the favourites for promotion. That’s assuming we sign a few players, of course.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

So, how was the pudding?

It’s been two months since my last post – two months in which a hell of a lot has happened. If I haven’t said anything about it, it was partly because I didn’t have anything new to add to the deluge of reaction and opinion to the astonishing climax to Watford’s season, and partly because I was simply too damn busy. Sometimes life gets in the way, and you just have to let others get on with the important task of spouting opinionated nonsense about the goings-on at Vicarage Road.

Talking of opinionated nonsense… Back in July, when the Pozzos took over, I wrote this post about the measures they would be judged against by Watford fans (well, by me at any rate). So I thought it might be interesting to revisit it (I haven’t read it since I wrote it) and see how they did.

These were the five key areas I listed:

1) The ground
Improving the embarrassment that is Vicarage Road should be a priority, I said, and as for the shell of the South-West Corner, “I would now expect work to start before Christmas and for it to be finished in time for next season.”

Well, that clearly didn't happen, and even if they started work now, it wouldn't be done by August. On this issue (and this alone, I hasten to add), the Pozzos have done no better than Bassini. Let’s be charitable and say that it’s obviously not as straightforward as it might appear. I now read that the original plans will have to be rethought anyway, as a result of new Premiership regulations which Watford are hoping they’ll need to comply with sooner or later. In the meantime, at least there's still a handy railing for fans to hang flags from.

2) The traditions
No complaints here. ‘Z Cars’ has remained in its rightful place, and there hasn’t been any hint of any Cardiff-type plans to change the club’s colours or identity. I’m not a fan of the new home kit, mind you. Where’s the red?

3) The fans
If the Pozzos want to gain the trust of the fans, they should organise a couple of Fans’ Forums fairly early on, and make sure that key personnel attend.”

They did that, and by all accounts it was well worth the effort. All those who’ve met the people now running the club speak warmly of them (which certainly wasn’t the case with Bassini), and that’s reassuring.

4) The players
“I just want to see evidence of some thinking before the dressing room starts filling up with random foreigners,” I said in July.

Some hope. Soon we had a squad of 40+ professionals, and poor Gianfranco was clearly struggling to work out what to do with them all. The stage was set for a chaotic and disappointing season.

That it didn’t turn out that way is a tribute to Zola’s managerial skills. The management have since more or less admitted that, given the timeframe, their best option was to chuck a bunch of players at him and hope he’d be able to fashion a coherent team from them. And it won’t happen again (not least because of the Football League’s peevish change of the rule on foreign loans). So I’ll let them off.

5) The Watford way
The ultimate litmus test (or "Would GT have done that?” as I put it) – and I reckon the new owners have passed it. If the 2012-13 vintage Watford didn’t feel entirely like the club we know and love, it didn’t feel wrong either. It certainly felt strange watching fluid passing movements leading to spectacular goals, week after week, but that’s something I’m happy to get used to. Above all, it felt as if someone had looked at Watford and thought to themselves, “We can improve on that, without losing the essence of the club.”

Sunday, 14 April 2013

A damp day out in the Fens

My first away game this season was the 6-1 demolition of Leeds in November. The second was today’s defeat at Peterborough, making it 12 goals I’ve seen in just two away matches. But apart from the high scorelines, the two games had little in common.

Whereas the game at Elland Road was one of those where almost everything seemed to go right for Watford (to the point where, every time a player tried a speculative shot from outside the area, it fizzed into the net), today’s was the opposite. I lost count of the number of times that a Watford player blocked  a pass or shot, only for it to rebound straight into the path of an opponent. We suffered from the bobbly pitch, too, and don’t get me started on the referee.

But beyond all that, the team today was almost unrecognisable from the one that was so effective against Leeds, and throughout the winter. Lord knows they’re trying their damnedest, but they’re collectively around 20% less effective than they were in their pomp, and that’s the difference between winning and losing games.

Put simply, some of them just look knackered. It’s not that surprising; Udinese weren’t going to loan us players who’d been first-team regulars, so we got the guys who’d spent most of last season warming the bench and playing the occasional reserve match. Vydra is a shadow of his former self, and looks like he could do with a rest until August, and it’s a while since Abdi produced one of those laser-guided through passes to unlock an opposition defence. His dead ball striking was poor today, too.

Age plays a part, too. It’s easy to forget that Vydra, Forestieri, Battochio and others are still young and relatively lacking experience of first-team football. Chalobah in particular is starting to look his age, a cocky boy who can’t understand why he can’t dribble round anyone he likes, in any part of the pitch, the way he could in the under-18 team. He’s another who could do with a rest.

Meanwhile, the defence is down to the bare bones; if I’d had to guess at the start of the season who’d end the match in the centre of defence at London Road, Doyley and Thompson would have been a long way down the list. Frankly, they’re looking creaky, and it’s not going to get much better, even if Fitz Hall does get fit again.

Finally, there’s a tentativeness in attack that wasn’t there when we were scoring for fun. Some of the sequences of passing around the edge of the Peterborough area today, with player after player shunning the chance to shoot in favour of a safe pass, reminded me of the days of Lewington and beyond, when no one would ever take a chance. More and more in recent games, promising attacks break down as the man on the ball hesitates, checks back and plays the easy pass. The elan and confidence of the winter have long gone.

I never bet against my own team, but if I did, I’d be prepared to wager that Watford will be playing in the Championship again next season. Automatic promotion is looking like a very long shot after today’s results, and unless Zola works a miracle, I can’t see us going into the playoffs as anything but a tired, disillusioned shadow of the team we were in the winter. As in Aidy Boothroyd’s last season, I suspect that, if we come up against a team that ends the regular season in form (Bolton, say), we’ll get taken apart in the way Aidy’s side were by Hull.

None of this is intended as a criticism. Zola’s team have exceeded expectations this season (I thought somewhere around 8th would be a good finishing position), and provided plenty of entertainment in the process. Next season, given some judicious strengthening in the summer, we should have a good chance of doing what Cardiff have done this year and leading from the front. And, if and when we do go up, maybe we’ll have a better chance of staying in the Premiership. After all, can you honestly say that you’d relish the prospect of seeing the defence that shipped three goals against Peterborough today taking on Arsenal or Manchester United?

Thursday, 4 April 2013

’cause he flicked to kick and I didn’t know

The run-in to the season is so tense that I can’t find anything rational to say about it right now. Instead, here’s something I wrote for the guys at From The Rookery End for their ‘Watford in 100 objects’ project. It’s been featured on the podcast, but not the website, so I thought I’d share this insight into my teenage years – and just this once, you get actual photographic evidence…

Those of us growing up in the 70s and 80s didn’t have the likes of Football Manager to play, but we did have our own football simulation game: Subbuteo.

Once you’d got the basic set (a pitch, two goals, two teams and a ball), you could buy all sorts of extras, from stands and floodlights to miniature fans. But the first thing you did was buy your own team. Subbuteo helpfully published a catalogue listing all the differently painted teams they sold and which clubs the colours applied to. So the team in yellow-gold shirts and black shorts, for example, was not just Watford, but also Wolverhampton Wanderers, Hull City and (I seem to remember) Newport County.

That was all very well in the early 70s, but as kits became showier, my Subbuteo Hornets began to look out of date. No problem. As a prolific builder of Airfix kits, I was already a dab hand with a fine paintbrush and a tin of Humbrol. I decided to pimp my team.

Having recently found the box containing my Subbuteo Watford team in my mum’s attic, I’m astonished at how good a job I did. How on earth did I manage to paint those fine red and black stripes down the arms? The precise shape of the collars? The moustaches?

Moustaches? Oh yes. I didn’t stop at updating the kit: I wanted my Subbuteo team to look like the real thing, so I made sure they had the right colour hair (there seems to have been a choice between black and brown), and moustaches where appropriate – and there were plenty of those, this being the era of Dennis Booth, Ian Bolton and co.

I also brought the racial balance of the team in line with reality. In Subbuteo’s world, all footballers were fair-skinned – well, pink – but Watford had a couple of black players by this time, so my miniature Hornets did too.

Rediscovering the box, I was surprised to find that there were actually two teams in it: one with red shorts and matching bases, and one with black shorts and bases. (Clearly, even then, I couldn’t decide which side of the great debate to come down on.) The work on the red team is more accomplished, but there are only nine of them, so either I never finished them, or a couple got trodden on or chewed by the dog – a constant risk if you played on the floor. Mind you, looking back now, I have a feeling that I spent a lot longer painting my Watford team than actually playing with it.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

How to feed the minnows

(NB: this isn’t strictly speaking a blog about Watford – but I’m also an England fan, and Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley were playing on Friday, so there is a connection to the Hornets. That’s my excuse, anyway.)

Watching England stick eight goals past San Marino on Friday night, it occurred to me that there is a simple way to deal with the issue of weaker teams playing the role of cannon fodder in World Cup and European Championships qualifying tournaments. Football pundits occasionally mention such things, but I’ve never seen a serious proposal spelled out, so here’s mine.

First, you identify the six weakest nations in European football: you’d probably select them according to their world ranking, but at a guess, we’re talking about San Marino, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, the Faroe Islands and Andorra. Then, when the draw is made for the next qualifying tournament, you leave them out and put them in a group of their own. They play the same number of games as everyone else, but the difference is that the group winner doesn’t qualify for the tournament, but to take part in the main draw for the next qualifying tournament. Meanwhile, the country with the poorest record in the main qualifying groups is ‘relegated’ to the minnows’ group for the next set of qualifiers.

The main benefit for the minnows is that they get to play a series of games they have a realistic chance of winning. Rather than playing in a 4-5-1 formation, as San Marino did against England, they can set out to attack without having to be afraid of shipping a hatful of goals. And hopefully, the team that comes out on top can set about the next qualifying tournament with some of the same spirit, and not simply become whipping boys again.

As for the rest of Europe, such a pre-qualifying group removes the danger of important issues being decided by who tonked their group’s weakest team by the largest margin. It also makes games between teams at the bottom of the group more significant. Scotland, currently sitting bottom of Group A, have nothing but pride to play for in their remaining games, but imagine if they faced the prospect of relegation if they failed to pick up any further points – surely it would add a bit of spice to those last few games.

What about the down side? I assume the minnows would complain about the lost revenue from high-profile games against the likes of England, Germany and Spain. But they have such small national grounds that most of their opponents will fill the away seats anyway, and the prospect of seeing competitive games ought to ensure a good home crowd.

Of course, my plan wouldn’t yield instant results. Whoever won the pre-qualifying group for the 2016 European Championships would probably still struggle in the qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup. But if they managed to avoid going straight back down, they would gradually build in quality over time, just as, say, Stoke have in the Premiership over the past few years. I believe my plan would lead to a modest levelling up of standards in European international football within a decade or so, and far fewer supposedly competitive internationals ending 8-0. That might be a bad thing for England players looking to bump up their international goal tally, but I think most football fans would welcome it.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Half a world away

Late last year, I turned 50, and my friend Stuart gave me a special present: the programme from the closest Watford home game to the day I was born. It was a Division 3 (or ‘Division III’, as the programme has it) fixture against Bristol Rovers on Saturday December 8th, 1962, which we apparently lost 1-0 on the way to finishing 17th in the table.

Not a particularly remarkable game, or season, then. But to modern eyes, the programme itself is a strange artefact. For starters, there are hardly any articles. The 16 pages include an editorial (matily entitled ‘Welcome Back, Lads’), a spread with pen portraits of the opposition and Odd Spots (‘A Soccer Believe It Or Not’), and a page of Supporters’ Club Notes. As for photographs, the only one is the aerial shot of the ground on the cover. The rest is statistics, fixtures, team line-ups and, above all, advertisements. I count 41 ads in total, ranging from national brands (Double Diamond beer, Senior Service cigarettes) to resolutely local ones, some for businesses that I remember fondly from my youth; Peter Spivey’s sports shop, Kirby’s coaches, Thirteens bike shop.

I could spend hours listing the delights contained in this slim volume, but I’ll limit myself to five things I find particularly interesting:

1) The supporters’ club notes are worth an essay in themselves, but what comes across above all is the key role the club played in fundraising for the football club in those days – it’s financial support we’re talking about here. The page lists key contacts for services ranging from away travel to membership to the purchase of “a Club diary or golliwog favour”, complete with their full addresses, and warns against bothering the club’s sole administrative employee, the legendary Ron Rollitt: “Please do not write to the Football Club for any of the following items. It only causes delay, and Mr Rollitt has enough to contend to with his own work.”

2) The list of ball donors (when did that stop?) for the season to date includes, among various gentlemen, The Brian Fredericks Dance Orchestra, and, for the Football Combination game against Portsmouth, an anonymous ‘Pools winner’.

3) In the days before football was a megabucks profession, players often bought local businesses when they retired. Among the ads, I spotted the names of Watford legends Ken Nicholas, who had a sports equipment and shoe shop in Harwoods Road, and Arthur Grimsdell, proprietor of a newsagent’s in Vicarage Road.

4) The ‘Odd spots’ include the fact that Newcastle’s team against Portsmouth in October 1951 included internationals of five countries (England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Chile). Nowadays, in the Premiership at least, it would be more noteworthy if a club fielded internationals of fewer than that number of countries.

5) I know it’s childish to laugh at people’s names, but who could resist Bristol Rovers’ Esmond Million, “a goalkeeper of considerable merit and courage, who adopts complete command of his area”. As the programme lists the players’ vital statistics, I can also tell you that Mr Million weighed exactly 11st 8 1/2lb.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Onwards - and upwards?

It’s a mark of how extraordinary this season has been that I completely forgot to mark Championship Survival Day. For the last few years, passing the 52-point mark has been a crucial milestone – the point where Watford fans can finally exhale and look forward to another season in the second tier of English football. But this season, it has become an irrelevance.

I’ve consistently argued that Watford’s aim should be to spend at least 10 years in this division. My thinking was that we should allow other clubs of a similar size and status to crash and burn in the foolish pursuit of Premiership riches, and then simply step into the gaps they leave, using our carefully-honed resources (chiefly from our Academy) to achieve the quality necessary to reach the top level.

But that argument was based on the assumption that we would be constantly short of money and dependent on canny managers like Malky Mackay and Sean Dyche to keep us in the Championship at all. It seemed unlikely that we would be in a position to challenge at the top end of the table for some years.

Now, though, we have the resources (human rather than financial, but invaluable all the same) to make that challenge, and like many Hornets, I don’t quite know what to think. Part of me still shudders at the mere thought of another season in the Premiership: the bold start, the narrow defeats gradually giving way to solid beatings and then thrashings, the unlucky incidents that turn games against us, the unfortunate injuries to key players, relegation sealed well before Easter… Even amid the excitement of our current run, that still seems like an entirely likely outcome if we do get promoted this season. We’re good, but we’re not that good. Not yet. Give it another season or so, and then let’s see.

But of course, this season’s Watford team won’t necessarily bear much resemblance to next season’s. If we get promoted, the Pozzos can ship in a dozen fresh players from Italy and Spain to bolster the squad. Maybe this time they’ll be more seasoned performers, not the ones whose careers have stalled or who haven’t managed to get enough game time in Serie A or La Liga. (Yes, I know the Football League is looking to close the loophole we’ve exploited so successfully, but I’m sure we’ll find another. What’s to stop us signing players from Udinese on ‘permanent’, one-season contracts at a knockdown price, for example?) Maybe we’ll be able to compete in the Premiership after all.

Then again, is that ethical? At least when Watford have risen to prominence in the past, it’s been by using our native smarts – a combination of intelligent player recruitment, ingenious tactics and good old-fashioned team spirit. Others may have carped, but they couldn’t say it was unfair. (Well, some did, but that’s another story altogether.) Now they can, and I can’t entirely say I disagree with them.

These arguments have all been rehearsed at greater length, and with greater insight that I can manage at 11.30 on a Sunday evening, elsewhere. (This post on the From The Rookery End blog is a good place to start.) For now, all I can say is that I don’t want Watford to stop winning – and I definitely don’t want us to stop playing the dazzling counter-attacking football that has embarrassed so many opponents already this season – but if we don’t get promoted this season, I won’t be heartbroken. But ask me again on the day we lose in the play-offs, and you may get a different answer.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Kids are spoilt nowadays

My 10-year-old niece was staying with us at the weekend, and I took her to the Huddersfield game – her first football match.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those ‘cute things kids say’ pieces: Susie sat silent throughout, to such an extent that I occasionally worried she might have frozen to death without me noticing. Nor am I about to expound on the insights gained from seeing the game from the perspective of a newcomer. Like I say, she barely spoke a word, so I’m none the wiser as to what Championship football looks like through a child’s eyes.

No, the main thing I wanted to say is that I simultaneously envy and pity her. Envy, because she witnessed a far higher standard of football at her first game than I did back in 1970, when I somehow managed to fall in love with a Watford team scuffling around at the bottom of the old Second Division. And as for that goal, I hope I managed to convey to Susie just how lucky she was to be there to witness it. She could watch football for the next 10 years and not see anything half as good.

But that may also be a reason to pity her a little. In football, as in life in general, good things are more enjoyable when you’ve had to go through some dross to get to them. For me, the Golden Era of Watford was all the more special because I’d watched us spiral downwards through the divisions. A fan who came on board in 1977 will have had a very different experience of watching the Hornets (though they got their payback in the late 80s and early 90s).

For the record, Susie assured me afterwards that she really enjoyed the match. (And she took the bitter cold in her stride; my teeth were chattering by the start of the second half, while she never even bothered zipping her coat up properly.) Maybe she’ll become a regular at the Vic, maybe she’ll never go again. Either way, I’m glad she got to see something a bit special.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Work in progress

Having missed all three December home matches due to family commitments, I enjoyed reacquainting myself with the Pozzos’ Watford on New Year’s Day, despite the result. 

Actually, even the result wasn’t so bad. Nice (and novel) as it is to be sitting in the playoff positions at the turn of the year, I really hope we don’t go up this year. Our last two visits to the Premiership were so brief and ghastly precisely because we went up too quickly, borne on a momentum that we didn’t have the resources to maintain once we reached the so-called promised land. If we are going to make another trip there, I’d like to think we might be able to stay up this time, and for that we need more time to prepare. It takes two years, as per the Pozzo masterplan, or three or four for that matter, so be it. By that point, we might have some financial stability – and maybe even a four-sided ground.

As for the team, my initial reservations haven’t entirely dissipated. True, I can now tell my Abdis from my Anyas, though I’m still a little hazy on the qualities of some of the less-featured loanees like Fanchone and Battochio. My knowledge of basic stuff like backgrounds and ages could be better, too. For instance, it’s only in the last few days that I’ve grasped that Vydra is a mere stripling of 20 (thank you Sky Sports), while Geijo is a surprisingly mature 30 (thank you the Watford programme). Maybe this will all sink in eventually, but I suspect there’s a part of my brain that is simply unwilling to devote any space to Geoffrey Mujangi Bia’s CV, given that he’s probably destined to be a very minor footnote in the history of the club.

There’s also the unwieldly size of the squad, which may start to be addressed during the transfer window. Sadly, that will probably mean players who have previously done a decent job for the club being palmed off on anyone who’ll have them: Chris Iwelumo, Carl Dickinson, Joe Garner (all right, I won’t miss him), Matt Whichelow, Ross Jenkins, Dale Bennett and Lee Hodson are all some way off making the matchday squad and may welcome the chance to start again somewhere new. And I wonder if we’ll ever see Stephen McGinn in a Watford shirt again? Without regular reserve fixtures, there’s no easy way for a long-term injury absentee like him to regain the match fitness he needs to get back in the thick of the action.

Sorry, this is all sounding a bit churlish. Of course I’m enjoying the unaccustomed sight of a Watford team playing brilliant, incisive attacking football, and long may it continue. But the Pozzo project is still a work in progress, and the fact that we’re currently sitting pretty in sixth place doesn’t alter that.