Sunday, 30 November 2014

Match report

“Showing that he’d learned the lessons from the previous week, Jokanovic switched to a 3-5-2 formation which gave Paredes and Anya more licence to get forward without having to worry so much about their defensive duties. The inclusion of Vydra and Munari – controversially left out against Derby – and the return from injury of Abdi and Angella gave the Hornets a much stronger spine.

“The changes took effect from the start, with Watford tearing forward at every opportunity. Throughout the game, Anya in particular was regularly found with diagonal passes, giving him the opportunity to get the ball in the area. Paredes too repeatedly made probing runs, while the interplay between Deeney, Vydra and Adbi was, at times, reminiscent of the best moments of Zola’s season in charge. 

“As for Cardiff, they were on the back foot for most of the match, and restricted to just a handful of attempts on goal…”

Of course, this imaginary match report on yesterday’s proceedings omits two crucial details: that Cardiff scored in the first quarter of an hour, and that Watford failed to score at all. But my intention (apart from to confuse future readers of this blog) is to demonstrate that, in most respects, this was a dominant Watford performance that, on another day, might well have resulted in a comfortable victory.

It is, of course, the fact that this is the fourth defeat in a row that is causing all the angst on social media, websites, local radio and all the other channels where the only reaction that is valued is a knee-jerk one. If this had been the game after the 3-1 win over Millwall, no one would be complaining too much. Sure, we should have won, but these things happen: a silly defensive error gives the opposition the chance to shut up shop, and when they’ve got one of the best goalkeepers in the country, there’s always a chance they’ll get away with it.

So, a bit of perspective. Jokanovic played what many Watford fans would regard as the best team available to him (though I can’t help feeling sorry for Fernando Forestieri, a rare light in the darkness against Derby and then dropped to the bench against Cardiff), they played pretty well overall and lost 1-0. It happens. It’s not a sacking offence – particularly for a man who’s been in charge for about five minutes. So let’s all take a deep breath and look forward to Craven Cottage on Friday (the only Championship fixture I can walk to from my house).

Friday, 7 November 2014

Nineties nostalgia, pt. 2 – 100 and out

The second programme I’m keeping from my Nineties hoard is from January 1999, and the visit of Sunderland. That may immediately ring a bell with you, but I must admit that it wasn’t until I looked at my annotations on the back cover that I remembered why this particular game was significant. In my usual barely legible scrawl I’ve recorded that Watford won 2-1, with one of the goals coming from Gifton Noel-Williams, who was making his 100th appearance that day. There’s also an asterisk against his name, denoting that he was substituted.

The reason, as most Watford fans will remember, was a horrible challenge by Paul Butler that knackered Gifton’s knee and ruined his career. True, he carried on playing for another decade, but he was never the same player after the injury. It was especially tragic because he had a fantastic game against Sunderland, who were leading Division One at the time (not least thanks to the deadly striking duo of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips). Still only 19, he was showing signs of becoming a truly great striker, but it was not to be.

The cover of the programme triggers another sad memory. It shows a group of colourfully dressed African dancers performing on the Vicarage Road pitch before the previous week’s home game to welcome fellow Igbo tribesman Ben Iroha to the club. The Sunderland game was his seventh for Watford, but he would only manage another three before problems with bunions stopped him playing, forcing him into retirement little over a year later. When you consider that the team against Sunderland also included Nick Wright, this was, in retrospect, a particularly unlucky XI.

Inside the programme, there’s a big feature on the newly laid Desso pitch, which stopped Vicarage Road becoming a mudbath in the winter – at least until the board of the day neglected to replace it once it had worn out, a fault that was finally rectified last year. There’s also a massive foldout poster of goalie Alec Chamberlain, accompanying an interview which speculates (accurately, as it turned out) that if Watford were to make it to the play-off final, Alec would get “an opportunity to finally play on the hallowed turf after three near misses”.

The other current Watford employee to feature in the programme is – who else? – Lloyd Doyley, in the line-up for the Under-17s in their recent 4-0 win over Peterborough. The fact that the next most memorable name in that line-up is that of Gary Fisken is a reminder of how the odds are stacked against young players when it comes to forging a lasting career in the game.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Difficult second album syndrome

There are only a few standard scenarios where fans get to hear footballers and managers speak, none of them particularly inspiring. There’s the cliché-ridden post-match quickie, of course (“Well, the ball’s come across, and I’ve just headed it in, to be fair”); the set-piece interview where every question, and answer, has clearly been pre-approved by the player’s agent and the club’s PR; and the post-dinner turn, where a long-retired legend trots out a series of tired anecdotes about George Best and Brian Clough.

With the Tales From The Vicarage series of shows, Lionel Birnie and Adam Leventhal are trying to do something a bit different; presenting live interviews with Watford players and managers on the stage of the Palace Theatre in front of an audience of Hornets fans. The first event, in March, was a triumph: would tonight’s follow-up suffer from the phenomenon known to music fans as ‘difficult second album syndrome’?

From the fact that I’m even posing the question, you may suspect that I have some reservations. But first, let me stress that it was a hugely enjoyable evening. As with the first event, the chance to witness key players (and managers) from Watford’s recent history in conversation in a relaxed setting was priceless, and there were many standout moments. Nick Wright was visibly emotional as he relived that goal at Wembley, and the story of how, and how quickly, his career unravelled after that was moving (and new to me); David Holdsworth told a hilarious anecdote about the terrifying consequences for a young player of disobeying Tom Walley’s orders; Tommy Smith was frank about his feelings on being left out of the FA Cup semi-final against Southampton; and Malky Mackay and Ray Lewington both gave fascinating insights into the boardroom turmoil that provided the backdrop against which they were expected to produce winning teams. Funniest of all, though, was Sean Dyche’s response on being asked whether, despite the difficulty Burnley were having winning games, he was enjoying the experience of being a Premiership manager: a vehement, and disarmingly honest, “Am I f**k!”

You’ll notice a lot of names there. Wright, Lewington, Craig Ramage, Holdsworth, Smith and Mackay were all interviewed on stage; Nigel Gibbs spoke from a box on the balcony; Jay DeMerit appeared on a big screen, having dialled in via Skype; and Dyche had apparently been Facetimed, judging by the shaky picture. That’s nine contributors in a little over two hours. By comparison, the first TFTV event featured just three (Dyche, Aidy Boothroyd and Luther Blissett) over a similar time period, and as a result, Adam was able to have an in-depth conversation with each of them.

Inevitably, each contributor to tonight’s event got less time to talk, and at times the conversation dwindled into a series of anecdotes – funny and fascinating anecdotes, it’s true, but that’s not the same as insight. Personally, I’d have been happy to hear more from Lewington, Smith and Gibbs in particular, all of whom are articulate and have, I’m sure, plenty more to say than we heard tonight.

The sheer number of interviewees was probably the reason for the rather self-congratulatory tone of much of the evening, too. I lost count of the number of times someone said “That’s what makes Watford such a special club”, or some such platitude, followed by rousing applause from the audience. We get it, we’re all Watford fans, we all love the club, we love you too… At one point I found myself mentally assembling the cast of an alternative, ‘dark’ TFTV that would guarantee less schmaltz and more bite. How about Dave Bassett, Ramon Vega, Kerry Dixon and David Connolly?

One last thing. I’m happy to applaud Malky Mackay for his achievements as a player, a coach and a manager, and he seems like a lovely bloke, witty and intelligent. I also understand why Adam wasn’t about to ask him any questions about the end of his tenure at Cardiff. But are we all supposed to pretend that the notorious text messages never happened? Or that they did, but it’s okay because he’s a Watford legend? There’s a wider debate here about the difficulty of separating out someone’s achievements and their misdeeds, and this isn’t the place for it. But on balance, if I was in charge, I think I’d have waited another year or two before inviting Malky on stage.

None of this means that I won’t be at the next event, and I’ll be fascinated to see who they can entice on stage. (My wish list would include Tom Walley, Heidar Helguson, Kenny Jackett and Gary Porter.) But I do think that, with events like this, less is more.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Nineties nostalgia, pt. 1 – Silky skills

Clearing out a cupboard recently, I found a box containing what appears to be my entire collection of Watford programmes from the 1990s. Following my ruthless rule, I’m going to chuck most of them out (if you’d like them, by all means get in touch, though I suspect the 90s aren’t long enough ago for programmes from this misfit decade in Watford’s history to be collectable), keeping just one from each season as a representative example.

I do like leafing through old programmes, though, so I plan to share highlights from the ‘keepers’ over the coming weeks. We start with Tuesday’s opponents, Brentford, and a programme from August 23rd, 1997. It’s a colourful publication with a computer desktop theme; titles in tabs at the top of the page and  other design details I vaguely remember from the PCs of the period.

Among the standard fare, one unusual feature is ‘Herts of sport’, a page devoted to sporting news from around the county. The headline story is the performance of Danielle Sanderson in the marathon at the World Athletics Championship, where she finished 35th, and there’s also news from the worlds of swimming, bowls, cricket, umm, karting, and a story simply headed ‘Watford Royals’, who I think must have been a basketball team, given the reference to the signing of a 6ft 8in forward.

The Watford manager is a certain Mr Taylor, freshly reinstalled in the hot seat after Kenny Jackett’s unsuccessful attempt to get the Hornets out of Division Two at the first attempt, and he’s not happy about fans chanting “Taylor, Taylor, give us a wave.” As he complains in his notes, “I thought we were on first-name terms!”

In the news section, GT is pictured shaking hands with new signing Ronnie Rosenthal, and the Brentford game saw his first start in yellow, after coming on as a sub in the previous two games. It’s a curious line-up, comprising a mixture of bona fide club legends – Alec Chamberlain, Richard Johnson, Tommy Mooney, Steve Palmer – and bit-part players such as Dai Thomas and Lars Melvang. More remarkably still, the Danish full-back was one of the scorers in a 3-1 win, along with Jonno and Keith Millen, netting against his former team.

The other picture that caught my eye was on the ‘21 and under’ page, where an almost unrecognisable Tommy Smith, with a truly awful hairstyle, is praised for his ‘silky skills’ in a youth team game against Millwall. Funny to think that, 17 years later, he could potentially play against us on Tuesday night.

The Brentford line-up for the game is unremarkable, with only Marcus Bent ringing any bells; a former Bees trainee, he would go on to play for another 13 clubs. And that result is also unremarkable. As my long-suffering best friend Stuart, a Bees fan, ruefully reminded me recently, Brentford haven’t beaten Watford in a competitive fixture since 1977. Here’s hoping the run continues on Tuesday.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The least worst option

As I mentioned a couple of years ago, in middle age I’ve adopted a ruthless policy with regard to matchday programmes. At the end of each season, I select one specimen to add to the archives, and the rest go in the recycling. That specimen is generally the programme from a particularly memorable match, or one that is significant for some reason.

So, a few weeks ago I finally got around to clearing out the box where I’d stored last season’s programmes. Which one to keep? It turned out that it wasn’t an easy decision. I should explain that assorted commitments meant that I missed our biggest home wins of the season: the 6-1 against Bournemouth in August, the 4-0 against Millwall on Boxing Day and the defeat of Blackpool by the same margin in March.

Instead, most of the programmes I leafed through commemorated the increasingly desperate series of autumnal defeats that led to Gianfranco Zola’s resignation, or the limp conclusion to the season. In the end, I was left with a meagre shortlist: the Capital One Cup 3rd round game against Norwich, where our second string came so close to beating a Premier League side and Javier Acuna briefly looked like a top-class striker; the FA Cup 3rd round tie at Manchester City, where we once again went 2-0 up against a top-flight team, only to have our hopes cruelly dashed; the 3-0 home win against Leeds in April (because, let’s be honest, beating Leeds never gets old); and the league game away at Reading in August.

I finally plumped for the Reading programme; partly as a silent protest against the meagre quality of the football I saw at Vicarage Road for most of last season, and partly because it represented the honeymoon period of the season where it seemed our hopes might actually be realised. Okay, we didn’t actually win the game, but in coming back from 2-0 down, and then 3-2, to draw 3-3, we showed a spirit that boded well for the rest of the season. Diego Fabbrini came on as a substitute and changed the game, and Davide Faraoni scored as well. I also remember that afternoon for the superb support from the Watford end (complete with flares), an early example of the 1881 in action.

I remember walking back to my car on a high, thinking that if we could come back like that against one of the leading clubs in the division, at a time when our team was still getting into its stride, the future looked bright. Which only goes to prove, once again, that football fans know nothing.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Overtaken by events

Over the past couple of months, life has got in the way of my writing nonsense about Watford. My job has taken up an indecently large proportion of my time (as ever), and when I’ve come home from work, I’ve been helping my better half with some academic work (an 8,000-word dissertation, to be precise). During the summer, that wasn’t particularly an issue, but once the season started, I kept having a vague idea about writing something about the Hornets, only for my half-formed notion to be superceded by events.

And then it all went completely nuts. In the space of barely a week, we had the dispiriting League Cup defeat to Doncaster; Troy Deeney’s new contract; the astonishing end to the Huddersfield game; Beppe Sannino’s resignation; the appointment of Oscar Garcia; and the departure of Technical Director Gian Luca Nani. I’d barely formed an opinion about one event when the next one came along.

You’ll have worked out by now that I’m not one to rush to judgement. Years ago, I did a postgraduate journalism course where you could choose to specialise in ‘newspaper’ or ‘magazine’ journalism. Those who took the first option would quite literally chase an ambulance or fire engine up the street to see where it ended up and try to get a story out of it; those who took the second were sat in the pub watching them dash past, airily discussing the 3,000-word features they were going to write some time soon. I was, naturally, in the second group.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that if you’re looking for up-to-the-minute commentary on the latest goings-on at Vicarage Road, you’re better off going to Vital Watford, say. I’ll chip in when the mood takes me, but otherwise I’ll be going off on tangents, as per usual.

Since we’ve got this far, though some quick bullet points to bring us up to date:

  • Troy’s new contract is a Very Good Thing in every way
  • I feel sorry for Beppe, but if the stories I’ve read about the rifts between him and the players are true, then his departure is also (probably) a Good Thing
  • Oscar Garcia seems like a decent appointment
  • Lloyd Doyley is still my official Favourite Player, and the sooner he is reinstated in Watford’s defence, the more secure it will be

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

A question of expectation

So it’s that time of year again, and I find myself entering my 45th season as a Watford fan. That’s 45 years of hope and despair, elation and desolation, anticipation and disappointment – and, let’s be honest about this, an awful lot of middle-of-the-road mediocrity. I’m sure most football fans would say the same, whoever they support.

Of the 44 seasons I’ve lived through, just six ended in Watford gaining promotion, and two of those were through the playoffs. What’s more, I don’t remember many of those promotions being greeted with a nonchalent shrug by Hornets fans, as being no more than they expected. For all the growing sense of confidence and ambition around the club in the late 70s, the three promotions under Graham Taylor the first time round all seemed to come more quickly than anticipated, while the play-off wins under GT mark two and Aidy Boothroyd came out of left field (and catapulted us into a Premier League we weren’t remotely ready for – but that’s another story). Arguably, only the Division Two title in 1997/98 was expected, after GT had ridden back into town like the heroic sheriff in a Western.

But, significantly, that sense of expectation had been equally great the previous season, when Kenny Jackett had taken the reins after relegation from Division 1 – and when we’d ended up 13th. Indeed, the following season apart, the only seasons when I can honestly say I expected Watford to gain promotion were those immediately following a relegation. Again, that’s par for the course for football fans everywhere. According to their (our) warped logic, if we were in a higher division last season, it stands to reason that we’ll get back there as quickly as possible.

Since the arrival of the Pozzos, though, Watford fans’ expectation levels have risen. Not immediately, not across the board – but then Gianfranco Zola’s achievement in reaching the playoff final in his first season stoked the fires. I was certainly swept up by the tidal wave, even going so far as to put cold hard cash on our winning the Championship title last season. This time, expectation was rewarded with 12th place. There’s £40 I’ll never see again.

And now we’re at that point again, and I’m sure plenty of Watford fans think this has got to be the season when we finally crack it. A decent squad, strengthened by significant arrivals over the summer; not the strongest set of rivals we’ve ever faced (though in the Championship, who knows?); a solid core of players who know now what this league is all about – Deeney, Doyley, Abdi, Anya, Pudil, Ekstrand, Forestieri, Battochio.

Me, I’m not so sure. I worry that we’ve signed too many players: how long is it going take Beppe Sannino to find his best starting eleven, his best formation? How long will it take the likes of Paredes, Tamas and Ighalo to adjust to Championship football, if indeed they ever do? Who’s going to score the goals if Deeney leaves and Vydra turns out to be the player we had in the second half of the season before last, not the first half?

I’m not saying we can’t do it, I’m just saying that I’m going to reserve judgement until I’ve seen a few games. And I’m certainly not putting money on it this time. If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that there are no sure things in football.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Those weren’t the days

For the past couple of years I’ve been training my 11-year-old niece, Susie, to be an apprentice Hornet. She gamely froze her little backside off at the Vic last season during the 4-0 win against Huddersfield (featuring that goal), and on Saturday she enjoyed the Ipswich game – I think it helped that we were sitting directly behind the 1881, so the atmosphere was good. Anyway, she’s keen to go again.

Her parents have no interest in football, but they do live a stone’s throw from Stamford Bridge, so they keep an eye on Chelsea’s affairs. The other week, when I was round there for dinner, my sister-in-law anxiously brought up a story she’d read about Chelsea fans going on the rampage in Paris en route to their Champions League game with PSG. So Susie naturally asked why anyone would do that, and soon we were trying to explain the concept of hooliganism to her.

Inevitably, she eventually asked how much football-related violence I’d actually seen. For those of us of a certain age, this is the equivalent of ‘What did you do in the war, Grandad?’ I automatically played it down, but afterwards I found myself trying to remember what I had actually witnessed. This is what I remember:

  • Standing on the Vicarage Road End terrace once when everyone suddenly started moving away from the central section, because the away fans had apparently ‘taken’ it
  • The home game against West Ham early in our first season back in Division Two, when the Hammers fans invaded the pitch and police horses were used to clear them off
  • My one and only trip to Kenilworth Road, when we emerged after the game to find bricks and bottles raining down on us and had to leg it back to the car

And that’s pretty much it, to be honest.

Much more prevalent, though was the sense of threat that accompanied football matches in the 70s and 80s – especially away from home. It meant that, on visits to grounds like Upton Park and Highbury, we tied our scarves around our waists, under our coats, and didn’t get them out until safely inside the home end; that, on trips to the Midlands, we didn’t dare talk too loudly on the way to the ground, for fear that our accents would betray us to the local psychos; and that we spent a lot of time being escorted to and from grounds by files of grim-faced policemen.

It all seems a long time ago now, in this age of Champions League pomp and circumstance and Sky’s relentless promotion of football as fun for all the family. But the habits acquired in those years have never really worn off. When I went to see the Hornets play at the New Den a couple of weeks ago (travelling on public transport), I didn’t dare wear my Watford shirt or scarf – just in case...

Meanwhile, in the past couple of years, I’ve had a couple of nerve-wracking train journeys in carriages packed with Palace fans where the sense of menace has been palpable, and it felt as if certain individuals just needed the slightest provocation to turn nasty.

And now I read that Watford fans visiting Loftus Road on Monday were subjected to 80s-style police escorts and searches. I was going to say that I hope that, if Susie does go on to become a football fan, her experience of matchdays is free from even the threat of violence. But, even after all these years, I’m not that optimistic.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Telling tales

Back in the late 80s, I regularly attended meetings of the London branch of the (now defunct) Football Supporters’ Association. It was a forum for debating the issues of the day and featured guest speakers from the football world.

At some point in the proceedings, one particular member would invariably stick his hand up and ask a question pertaining to Dulwich Hamlet, who he supported with a rare passion. (I seem to remember that he wore a club scarf, rosette and badges to these meetings.) Indeed, he didn’t seem to be interested in any footballing issue except insofar as if affected Dulwich Hamlet.

Most memorably, he angrily inquired of a senior executive from the BBC why the classified results on Grandstand (readers under 40, ask your parents) didn’t include the Isthmian League Division 1 South, or wherever Dulwich were plying their trade at the time. The chap from the BBC gave a perfectly reasonable answer, but Mr Dulwich wasn’t to be pacified, and it took some time to get the meeting back on track.

He was an extreme example, but I’ve come to realise over the years that most of us football fans have our hobby horse – the issue that we care so passionately about that we lose all sense of proportion when talking about it. For some, it may be the lack of attention given to their club; for others, a particular player, manager or referee. Mine, as you can tell by looking at the Labels column to the right, is Lloyd Doyley: specifically, the persistent failure of the world in general, and successive Watford managers in particular, to recognise the supreme quality of his defensive play.

Bearing this tendency in mind, anyone organising an event where football fans come into contact with real people from the football world runs the risk of it being hijacked by one or more of these single-issue obsessives. On my way to Tales From The Vicarage Live at the Watford Palace Theatre a couple of weeks ago, I was a little nervous as it how it might pan out. I had no concerns about Luther Blissett, a gold-plated club legend, and Sean Dyche is generally well thought of. Aidy Boothroyd was another matter entirely, though. Would he be booed as soon as he walked on stage? Heckled, even? (“Where’s your Plan B, Boothroyd?”)

I needn’t have worried on that score; Aidy got as warm an ovation as his fellow panellists, and there was no heckling. But some of the questions directed at him in the second half of the evening had a definite edge to them, and threatened to cast a chill over the benevolent warmth that characterised the show as a whole. It’s a tribute to his self-deprecating charm that the atmosphere remained light and good-humoured, even when discussing the catastrophic signing of Nathan Ellington. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking that he still talks a better game than he plays – a theory that his career at Watford, and his subsequent downward spiral through the divisions, would appear to support. It’s a shame that Adam Leventhal never got round to asking him, as promised, about his new job in charge of England’s Under-20s.

Adam’s role as MC was central to the success of the evening. I’d previously only seen him sat behind a desk on Sky Sports News, trying to look excited about the latest half-arsed football transfer rumours, but here he was the perfect chat show host, funny and inclusive and acting as a sympathetic bridge between the fans in the stalls and the club legends on the stage.

Others will have made extensive notes on the content of the evening, and a fortnight later, I can’t recall many details of the conversations on stage. A few things stick in the memory, though. For instance, Luther’s obvious, and ongoing, obsession with scoring goals, as revealed in a series of anecdotes. (And I never knew that he won the Golden Boot as the top scorer in the whole of Europe in our first season in the First Division. In my defence, it was my first year at university, and in those pre-internet days it was easier to miss such items of incidental football news.)

Aidy, as mentioned, was funny and charming throughout. But the star of the show was Sean Dyche, who should seriously consider a career in entertainment if football management doesn’t work out for him. (Though I’m pretty sure it will.) Drily witty and quietly serious by turns, he was an enthralling presence on stage, and I doubt there was a single person in the audience that night who didn’t leave thinking more highly of him than they had done before.

I arrived at the Palace not sure what to expect, but TFTV Live turned out to be a joy from start to finish.   Who knew that a live football chat show could be such fun?

Saturday, 22 March 2014

You can prove anything with statistics

The excellent news was announced this week that Lloyd Doyley’s contract has been extended by another year. The only puzzling thing is why the club has kept offering him one-year contracts for the past few seasons, rather than tying him down to a longer deal. Maybe they just take him for granted.

They, and we, shouldn’t. Recently I came across a section of the club website that I hadn’t looked at properly before, the Stats page, and the figures for central defenders make interesting reading:

Angella - 35 games, 42 fouls, 6 yellow cards, 1 red card
Cassetti - 32 games, 35 fouls, 8 yellow, 0 red
Ekstrand - 30 games, 27 fouls, 10 yellow, 0 red
Doyley - 23 games, 6 fouls, 1 yellow, 0 red

I’d say that fouls and yellow cards are a pretty good yardstick by which to measure a defender’s skill: after all, if they get their positioning right and time their tackles correctly, they don’t commit fouls and don’t get booked. Now I rate all four of these players highly, but the stats clearly show who the best defender is. Angella commits an average of 1.2 fouls a game and gets booked once every six games: Cassetti has a similar fouls/game average, 1.1, but gets booked once every four matches: and Ekstrand is on 0.9 fouls a game, but one booking every three (which isn’t going to make him popular with the manager – sorry, Head Coach).

Now look at Lloyd: 0.2 fouls a game (or, to put it another way, one every five games) and just one yellow all season. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why he is indisputably the best defender at the club (and has been for years). Angella may score more goals, Cassetti may have a better beard, Ekstrand may speak better Swedish (okay, I’m struggling here), but if you want someone to actually stop the opposition scoring goals, Lloyd’s should be the first name on the teamsheet every week.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Confused? You will be

Yesterday afternoon, as I watched that most paradoxical of footballing events, a dull thrashing (one bloke near me actually nodded off towards the end of the first half), it occurred to me that this has been a highly contradictory and confusing season for Watford fans. Consider the following:

  • We’ve scored six goals once, five once, four twice and three four times, and yet there have been long stretches when it was hard to see where the next score was going to come from.
  • Conversely, we’ve conceded three or more goals eight times, yet the defence features some of our strongest players. (Angella, Cassetti, Doyley and Pudil will surely all feature strongly in the Player of the Season awards.)
  • We’re not a remotely nasty or violent team, yet we’ve had four players sent off, and I read a couple of weeks ago that we’d been awarded more yellow cards than any other team in the Championship.
  • In the autumn, we were invincible away, but couldn’t buy a win at home. Now the opposite is the case.
Obviously, some of these patterns can be attributed to the change of manager halfway through the season. The high turnover of players can’t help, either. Yesterday’s two debuts took the total number of players used this season up to 35 – that’s three whole teams worth, plus change. Poor Troy Deeney has had to try to forge a working partnership with Forestieri, Acuna, Fabbrini, Ranegie, Park and Anya, and life’s too short to try to list all the combinations of players who’ve been used in midfield.

Even here, there’s a contradiction: despite the riches of our squad, the 18 players who featured on the pitch and the bench against Barnsley actually picked themselves – thanks to injuries, suspensions and loans, the only other member of the first-team squad who was available for selection was third-choice goalie Gary Woods. Hence the naming of a bench featuring two midfielders and four central defenders. Against more demanding opposition, we could easily have come unstuck.

Perversely, it reminded me of the days when Sean Dyche was in charge – when money was so tight that the team more or less picked itself, and when promising youngsters got a chance to show what they could do in the first team, gaining valuable experience in the process. (In the current squad, Ross Jenkins still ranks third in the list of first-team appearances, even if he has been effectively declared a non-person by being denied a squad number.) Compare and contrast the fate of Uche Ikpeazu, so short of opportunities to play football that he’s been sent on loan to Crewe, who then complained that he’s not fit enough.

Where am I going with all this? I’m not entirely sure. Like I say, I’m confused. If there was an end to the relentless shuffling of the pack in sight, the emergence of a settled first team which then, carefully augmented in the close season, could make a decent challenge for promotion next year, then I’d be happy. But, as Matt Rowson pointed out recently over on BHaPPY, an equally likely scenario is that a large tranche of the current squad will disappear in the summer, to be replaced by a fresh batch of undoubtedly talented players who won’t necessarily adjust immediately to the championship. And then the whole confusing merry-go-round will start again.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

How the other half live

When it was confirmed that Watford would be playing Manchester City in the FA Cup 4th Round, I didn’t even consider going to the game. It’s a long way to go to get tonked, as I told friends who asked if I was going to make the trip.

Then a client at work, whose firm is one of City’s sponsors, invited me to attend and partake of the full corporate hospitality experience. (She didn’t actually know I was a Watford fan – she just invited the team she works with.) Suddenly travelling to Manchester didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.

I know, I know. But it’s amazing what the offer of free booze and a comfy seat does to your scruples.

So at about one o’clock yesterday afternoon, I found myself walking into the executive entrance of the Etihad, past ranks of plebs (as I temporarily thought of them) who were standing in the rain, cordoned off by crash barriers, watching a bloke perform ball tricks.

Lunch in the Mancunian Suite was very pleasant; good company, fantastic food courtesy of one of Jamie Oliver’s franchises, a few glasses of Rioja. As kick-off approached and I settled into my padded seat, I was convinced that the pineapple parfait would prove to be the highlight of the day.

That’s the thing about football: you never know when it’s going to catch you unawares. As the drama of the first half unfolded, my main concern was to keep my mouth shut. I just about managed to keep my goal celebrations down to a private fist pump, but I would have loved to be with the rest of the Hornets fans way off to my right, singing and chanting in glee. But in case I needed an incentive to keep quiet, City fanatic and former world champion boxer Ricky Hatton was sitting three seats away, and I sensed it wouldn’t be a good idea to irritate him.

Half-time brought more booze and food (a small portion of chicken curry and rice served in a mug – very odd), and the chance to observe the perplexity of a room full of wealthy City fans who clearly weren’t used to their side being 2-0 down – to anyone, let alone a no-mark Championship team. Then it was back outside for the inevitable denouement, for I was sure our lead couldn’t last another 45 minutes. (Mind you, to show that the fatalism of the football fan is all-pervasive, someone asked Hatton if City were going to get back into the game: “There’s more chance of me making a comeback,” he said.)

As the game entered its final 10 minutes, I was beginning to dare to dream. It’s the hope that kills you... Well, we all know what happened. I managed to applaud politely as those around me roared in relief as City’s third and fourth goals went in (it was around this time that someone, presumably a fellow Hornet, was hauled out of the executive seating near us and firmly ejected, gesticulating wildly as he went), and then it was back inside for a final drink and a dainty little cake, before we finally left our luxury accommodation to queue in the rain for a taxi back to the station.

Befuddled with booze and brooding on shattered dreams, I didn’t enjoy the journey back to Euston. At least I wasn’t in the same carriage as my colleagues, who had to spend two hours in the company of some boisterous Brighton fans determined to celebrate their win at Port Vale as noisily as possible.

I’m glad I went, and I hope it will prove to be the case that I witnessed the turning point of Watford’s season. The corporate hospitality experience is fun, but only as an occasional treat. (I’ve done it a few times before, at grounds as diverse as White Hart Lane and Griffin Park.) If you can’t shout and sing in support of your team, watching football isn’t half as much fun.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

‘Tales From The Vicarage, Volume II’, edited by Lionel Birnie

I never got around to reviewing the first volume of Tales From The Vicarage, mainly because I was a contributor, and thus somewhat lacking in objectivity. Such scruples are unnecessary this time, as I’m not in Volume II, so I’m free to give it both barrels.

Only kidding. Like its predecessor, Volume II is a joyous read for any Watford fan; 13 pieces that cover a range of topics related to our beloved club, all long enough to engage without overstaying their welcome.

Although it’s a miscellany, a couple of themes emerge. One, unsurprisingly, is Watford’s links with Italy. Paolo Tomaselli’s guide to the Pozzos, including interviews with key figures in the regime, is essential reading, and worth the price of the book on its own for its insights into the way the club is likely to develop over the next few years. Someone should send a copy to every journalist and pundit who’s lazily expressed the view that “the Pozzos were Everything That Was Wrong With English Football”.

That’s a quote from the second Italian-themed article, editor Lionel Birnie’s account of Gianfranco Zola’s season in charge of Watford. It’s impassioned and well crafted, though for me it’s too soon after the event to need recapping. The true significance of 2012/13 will take a few years to become clear.

Maybe that time lag explains the proliferation of pieces on the 1990s, the other main theme of the anthology. My favourite of these is Ian Grant’s characteristically droll survey of the ‘doldrums’ of the mid-90s, embroidered with his trademark gift for metaphor. Take this one:

“Games against Luton in the nineties had a private, depressing darkness about them, utterly incomprehensible to the outside world, like a squabble over half a can of cheap lager between two street drinkers descending into squalid, disgraceful wrestling in a suspiciously-coloured puddle.”

I wish I’d written that.

He bookends his story with an impressionistic account of the day we came out of the darkness, the 1999 Play-Off Final victory against Bolton, and his BHaPPY co-editor Matt Rowson provides a complementary piece on the night that made it possible, the semi-final second leg at St Andrew’s. He evokes the tension of the penalty shoot-out beautifully – it took me right back to the pub in Central London where I watched the game with 100-odd Hornets fans, and ended up hugging total strangers.

Also on the 90s theme, Nigel Gibbs picks his Watford ‘dream team’ from those he played with or coached at Vicarage Road. There are no surprises in his selections, but his insights and stories are interesting. One of his selections, Kevin Phillips, gets a whole chapter to himself as Lionel Birnie  interviews the striker who ended our Premiership dreams in May. All these years (and clubs) on, it’s salutory to be reminded of the strength of character that took him from part-time football for Baldock to Watford, and eventually the England team.

Away from the 90s, Mike Walters’ memories of his trip to Sofia in 1983 to watch Watford in the UEFA Cup inspired me to watch the grainy footage of the goals on YouTube, though I didn’t really need the extended quotes from Graham Taylor and Neil Price that bulk out the story.

I’m not going to go through every piece, but I can’t end without mentioning Olly Wicken. As in Volume I, he provides the only piece of fiction. His tale of a deceased Watford supporter who ends up in a conflicted Hornet Heaven is surprisingly thought-provoking, asking difficult questions about what we, as fans, take from our club’s past and want for its future. It’s also both touching and extremely funny, with gags that creep up on you unawares. I particularly enjoyed this one:

“He had to make do with thinking the word ‘bugger’ time and time again in the surrounding silence. It felt like sitting in the Upper Rous.”

If that made you smile, buy this book. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Questions, questions

Don’t worry, I’m not going to share any profound thoughts on being a Watford fan as 2014 dawns damp and dreary, mainly because I haven’t got any.

Instead, here are five rhetorical questions based around issues that bother me slightly, none of which is worth a whole blog entry in its own right. If you have an actual answer to any of them, please let me know, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

1) Why doesn’t Richard Short just ask the Watford players how to pronounce their surnames? I don’t have a problem with his performance as matchday announcer in general, though I know a lot of fans do. However, given that one of the main requirements of the job is to read out the teams before kickoff, I’d say the least he could do is to make an effort to pronounce them correctly.

The Pozzos have given him a lot of easy ones (Abdi, Anya, Cassetti, Ekstrand), but if there is a way of getting a name wrong, he generally does so – repeatedly. For example, I know enough Spanish to be fairly confident that our Spanish goalkeeper is not called ‘Al-moon-ee-ay’, and I’m pretty sure our Italian-Argentinian striker isn’t ‘Forest-airy’.

It’s not just the foreign players, either. On Sunday he managed to sidestep the tricky question of whether our Chelsea loanee is ‘Mac-keck-ran’ or ‘Mac-eek-ran’ by adding a superfluous ‘r’, making him ‘Mac-reck-ran’.

2) Does Lloyd Doyley ever get tired of having to introduce himself to yet another new manager? Mind you, at least Sannino hasn’t started by dropping him, like most of his predecessors, so maybe the message is finally getting through.

3) What is the point of that enormous car park at the bottom of Occupation Road? On most Saturday afternoons, there are two or three cars parked there and hundreds of empty spaces. Why can’t it be used for matchday parking?

4) What’s happened to poor Ross Jenkins? As far as I can tell, he’s still employed by the club (his contract runs out at the end of the season, according to, but he hasn’t got a squad number. Does he still train with the other players, even though he apparently has no hope of getting a game (even in the friendlies they organise for the reserves), or is he left to do laps of the training ground on his own, like a kid who’s annoyed his PE teacher?

I understand that Zola didn’t rate him, but he looked a decent enough player under the previous regimes, so I don’t understand what he’s done to deserve being sent to Coventry.

5) Will Watford ever again have a manager who manages to stay in the job for three full years? Given the way football is going, you could ask the question about pretty much any club, but since Boothroyd (who managed three and half years), we’ve had a succession of one-season managers, and I don’t like that – I prefer stability and certainty.

Of course, in Pozzoworld the stability comes from the regime as a whole, not the head coach, or so we’re told. And from what I’ve read (particularly in the excellent chapter on the subject in Tales From The Vicarage Volume II, of which more soon), they’re prone to changing head coaches at frequent intervals. I’m not expecting Sannino to rival Arsène Wenger for longevity, put it that way. But I’d love to be proved wrong.