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.