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.