Monday, 29 May 2017

Glad it’s all over

Due to a change in personal circumstances, I missed fewer home games this season, and made it to more away games, than for many a year. In total, I attended 26 of Watford’s 41 competitive fixtures, including all three cup ties. Add to that another four or five away games I was able to watch live on TV, and that only leaves 10 afternoons or evenings when I was stuck in front of Soccer Saturday or the midweek equivalent, willing Jeff Stelling to yell “And it’s good news for Watford fans!”

So I was at the cavernous, atmosphere-free London Stadium to watch us come back from 2-0 down to beat West Ham 4-2, and at the Emirates for a second season running to watch us beat an Arsenal team which (as they showed in the FA Cup final) had more than enough talent to blow us away if they could only have roused themselves to do so. I was at the Vic to see us beat Mourinho’s Manchester United before they learnt the art of the bore-draw, and I witnessed fine victories against the reigning champions (enlivened by Pereyra’s magnificent curler) and against Everton (ditto by Okaka’s supremely confident flick). There were fine goals by Holebas at Middlesbrough, Sinclair (remember him?) in the FA Cup against Burton and Niang at home to West Brom, a game where an admirably resolute 10-man rearguard action took us most of the way to Premier League safety.

It’s worth dwelling on the high points of the season, just as a reminder that there were some. Because it’s undeniable that there were an awful lot of lows. It’s not just the high volume of goals conceded – six at Liverpool, five at home to Man City, four in each game against Spurs, four away to Chelsea, another four at home to Southampton. Those, in part, can be explained away by the persistent injuries that rarely gave Walter Mazzarri the chance to field his first-choice back three or four. Central defenders need to develop an understanding, and there was barely a chance for that to happen before they started dropping like flies. The black comedy of the Man City home game, when not one of our six centre-backs was available, was the logical conclusion to a disrupted season.

No, worse than the occasional tonkings was the sheer tedium of the football Watford produced for much of the season, frequently against our mid-table peers in games where we should have been capable of bagging the points – the Burnley and Palace away games spring to mind in particular. (And let’s not even mention the FA Cup tie at Millwall. It’s still too painful.) While this season’s Watford team was undoubtedly full of talented players, as a collective they were all too often sluggish and unimaginative. Many a time a player would receive the ball in the centre of the pitch, look up to see not one of his teammates making a move forwards, and turn and pass back to a defender or to Gomes. With a few exceptions, Walter’s team lacked snap, élan, joie de vivre – call it what you will. They lacked the ability (and sometimes, it seemed, the will) to grab a game by the scruff of the neck. It was tough to watch.

I’m sorry to see Walter go; I always want Watford coaches to succeed, and I do think bad luck with injuries had a lot to do with how the season panned out (Pereyra’s in particular). Anyone looking at the final league table in years to come, seeing Watford in 17th, will conclude that it was a stressful, anxious season, but it wasn’t really. Just a frustrating one. I can’t deny that I’m glad it’s over.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Oops, we did it again

Ho ho ho and a very happy PLSD to all Watford fans!

That’s Premiership League Survival Day, for the uninitiated, which has come precisely one day earlier than it did last season. For two seasons in a row we’ve never so much as flirted with relegation, and that’s an achievement worth celebrating for little old Watford.

Of course, there are still question marks, not least over whether the Head Coach will still be here in August. For what it’s worth, I think he’s done enough to deserve another season. Injuries (primarily to Pereyra and then Zarate) put paid to his plans to play more incisive attacking football, and integrating some of the younger players into the team next season – Success, Niang if he signs, Doucouré, maybe even Berghuis – might help to make us a more exciting prospect to watch.

But whoever is picking the team, we’ll be there in the Premier League when next season starts, alongside other small, well-run clubs like Bournemouth and Burnley, while supposedly bigger clubs who think they have a divine right to play in the top division continue to flounder a level or two lower down.  Forest, Wolves, Birmingham, Villa, Leeds (let’s face it, they’re bound to make a pig’s ear of the playoffs), Cardiff, Blackburn, Derby... The list goes on. We are very lucky to have the Pozzos.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Decruitment drive

Quick quiz question: in what way is Allan Nyom unique this season? (Apart from in his ability to antagonise Watford fans who previously had nothing against him, obviously.)

The answer is that he’s the only player to have been contracted to Watford in the Pozzo era who is part of another Premier League team’s squad for 2016-17. Indeed, if it weren’t for Ashley Young, still clinging on at Manchester United, he’d be the only former Hornet full stop – though of course there are several one-time loanees playing their trade at the top level, including Jack Cork, Hector Bellerin, Ben Foster and Danny Rose.

Over the past couple of years, Watford have got rid of a number of popular players who many of us thought were more than capable of doing a job in the Premier League. It turns out that other Premier League clubs disagreed, and few have even made much of an impression in the Championship. At Derby, Ikechi Anya has only started 11 games this season (out of 41) and Matej Vydra 18, though he is currently on one of his occasional goal-scoring runs. Up at Sheffield Wednesday, Fernando Forestieri is more established, having started 32 games (and the ones he’s missed are partly down to a series of red cards for diving – some things never change). At the same club, Daniel Pudil has started 22 and Almen Abdi just 11.

You get the point; most of our former heroes are now bit-part players a division below Watford’s current status. What that says to me is that the club offloaded them at the right time, when form and fitness were on a downward curve, and they deserve credit for that. In my last post I was critical of their recruitment, but in terms of decruitment (not a word, but it should be), they’ve got it spot on.

In this respect, it’s reminiscent of GT’s golden decade, when it was almost unheard-of for a player to leave Watford and go on to better things. The shining exception was John Barnes, of course, who we simply couldn’t hold on to. But in most cases, we used them up and wore them out, and they were never the same again. My Brentford-supporting friend Stuart still hasn’t forgiven Watford for offloading a knackered Ian Bolton on them in 1983; by the end of that season he was playing for Kingsbury Town. There are plenty of other examples, albeit mostly not so extreme.

So credit where it’s due. As fans, we get terribly sentimental about our favourite players. The club can’t afford to be, though, and much as I would love to still have Anya, Vydra and (above all) Abdi in our squad now, the evidence suggests that they wouldn’t have a lot to contribute.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Hit squad

Tempting as it is to launch into an ill-tempered rant about yesterday’s performance (last time I did that, after the Millwall game, we beat Arsenal), I want to take the focus away from Walter Mazzarri and look at the squad he’s been given to work with. Because I don’t think the people at the club responsible for player recruitment have done him any favours.

One thing that struck me as I was reading the Watford player profiles in the Palace programme was the ages of our key players. It’s generally accepted that outfield players (goalkeepers are, as in so many ways, different) are at their peak between the ages of 26 and 28, by which time they’ve got the experience they need to play to their full potential, but their fitness hasn’t yet started to become an issue. Equally, it doesn’t hurt to have a few wise old heads to give the team a stable foundation, and a few younger players who are trying that little bit harder because they need to establish themselves.

The team Walter sent out yesterday, though, was decidedly on the older side. Seven of the ten outfield players who started are 28 or older, and Cleverley and Janmaat are both 27. Only Niang, at 22, comes into the ‘keen youngster’ category. It’s not like our subs’ bench was packed with youthful promise, either. Yes, Success is only 21, and the walking definition of a work in progress, but the other subs were aged 25, 27, 29, 31 and 32.

Does this matter? When we reached the Premier League, the club made it clear that they were going to give Quique a core of older players who were experienced at this level, to ensure that we survived that crucial first season. And it worked, too. But that strategy feels a bit redundant now, and I can’t help feeling that some of the older players are just going through the motions. They’ve been there, done that and got the T-shirt, and Watford is just another payday. That’s probably monstrously unfair on some, but it might help to account for the listless, shapeless nature of our recent performances.

The other aspect of recruitment that annoys me is the failure to fill the squad. To recap, twice a season (at the end of the transfer windows), every Premier League team has to name a squad of up to 25 players over the age of 21, of whom no more than 17 can be ‘foreign’. (I’m not going to go into the definition of ‘foreign’ right now, or we’ll be here all day.) Only players from that squad, or who are under 21, can be selected for PL fixtures.

The squad Watford named on February 2nd had only 23 players, though, including no fewer than four goalkeepers. That means Mazzarri has only 19 outfield players from which to select 16 for each matchday. It doesn’t give him a lot of leeway when injuries start to bite, especially since Success is clearly the only under-21 player at the club who the manager thinks is worth a place in the team. As we saw at Christmas, it takes a full-blown crisis to persuade him to give our homegrown youngsters a chance to show what they can do.

The reason we named an incomplete squad, of course, is that Watford couldn’t find eight ‘homegrown’ players to name. As it is, we’ve got six: Deeney, Cleveley and Cathcart, who all play regularly, and Watson, Mariappa and Gilmartin, who only make the bench, let alone get on the pitch, in the direst of emergencies.

Those two spare places could have been filled with players who would give Walter more options to choose from, like – oh, I don’t know, maybe a proper, experienced defensive full-back, so that he doesn’t have to shoehorn Britos and Cathcart into that role when he wants to play 4-4-2.

I know the PL’s rules have made decent British players disproportionately expensive, and I know the Pozzo regime is very conscious of balancing the books. But in this case, I believe it would have been worth loosening the purse strings to give Walter a full 25-man squad to choose from, with a range of players that would at least give him the option of more tactical flexibility without putting square pegs into round holes.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The fourth wheel

In the old days, football clubs only employed two senior goalkeepers; in the case of an emergency, it was assumed that the junior team’s keeper would step up. (We all know what happened when Graham Taylor ignored this convention in the 1987 FA Cup semi-final.) The first time I can remember Watford employing a third keeper was our first season in the Premier League, 1999-2000, when the Austrian Herwig Walker was brought in as back-up for Alec Chamberlain and Chris Day. He was never used and was released at the end of the season, to be remembered only as an answer to a trivia question.

More recently, Irishman Rene Gilmartin has taken on this thankless role. In response to a tweet from Sky Sports’ Adam Leventhal in the run-up to transfer deadline day, I bemoaned Gilmartin’s lot, expressing the view that he had purely been included in the Premier League squad to fill a homegrown slot, and that the club had no intention of ever playing him. In response, I received a few dismissive replies. “I wouldn’t feel too sorry,” said one. “Premier League salary, great lifestyle and all that. Sounds perfect to me.” Another suggested that “He gets the benefit of being a pro without any stress.”

This may all be true, and I’m sure that Rene doesn’t want or need my pity. He’s a grown man who’s made his own career choices. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering how he felt on the day of the FA Cup 3rd Round tie against Burton when, with Heurelho Gomes given a day off, Costel Pantilimon started in goal and Giedrius Arlauskis (not even included in the Premier League squad for the first half of the season) was on the bench rather than Rene. It seemed to prove my point. You get the feeling that, if a freak illness struck down the aforementioned trio of keepers, Walter Mazzarri would rather summon a wine-waiter from South Wales than entrust Rene with the gloves.

After the transfer window closed, Watford named their revised 25-man squad – which now includes Arlauskis as well as Gilmartin, effectively making the Irishman Watford’s first ever fourth-choice goalkeeper, and presumably meaning that he won’t even get to take part in the pre-match warmups any more.

I’ve been trying to think of another profession where this can happen: where a person can be handsomely paid, yet have no prospect of doing what they’re trained to do. The closest equivalent I can think of is an actor hired as an understudy to a star who never misses a performance. Then again, most understudies take minor roles in the production, so they still get to act.

But Rene Gilmartin never gets to play a competitive game of football (apart from rare run-outs for the Under-23s), despite the fact that this is presumably the one thing in life that he is really good at, the thing he dreamed of doing when he was a boy. I just looked up his statistics: in 12 years as a professional, he’s made fewer than 80 appearances.

You’ve got to admit that it’s an odd situation. It’s rather like me being paid to turn up at work five days a week, spend the day sitting round in reception and then going home again. I don’t think I’d find that very fulfilling, salary or no salary.

I hope Rene enjoys the training, and the cameraderie of being part of a squad, and hopefully he gets to pass on the benefits of what little experience he has to the younger goalkeepers at the club. But I would like to see him get the opportunity to play for Watford one day. The fact that this seems unlikely is just one facet of the increasing strangeness of modern football.




Sunday, 29 January 2017

I’m not disappointed, just angry

Regular readers will know that I don’t often react to individual matches, but sometimes you’ve got to make an exception. I’m just so angry about Watford’s performance against Millwall today that I need to get it off my chest.

First off, I’m angry that the club showed such disrespect to the world’s oldest and most famous cup competition by fielding an understrength team. (It’s easy to spot when Watford are fielding an understrength team, by the way: Guedioura is in it.) The FA Cup has provided many of the finest moments in the club’s history – arguably more than league football ever has – and to leave out so many of our best players for a tie that offered a great chance of reaching the 5th Round is unforgivable.

The argument will doubtless be that the first-choice players were being rested so that they’re fresh to face Arsenal on Tuesday night. But you’ll struggle to find a single Watford fan who thinks we’ve got the slightest chance of winning at the Emirates – not based on today’s performance, but based on a long string of poor performances stretching back to October, particularly those against the teams challenging for the league title.

No, the most likely scenario is that we’ll come away with a four- or five-nil defeat to add to today’s capitulation, so that the players go into next Saturday’s home game against Burnley (one we really need to win) even more demoralised than they are right now. That’s another reason a win today would have been so valuable – just to remind the players what it feels like.

I haven’t even got on to the tactics yet. It was bad enough when we played the same way against Burton (a game where Pantilimon touched the ball more than any outfield player), but to think that we could just amble around, passing the ball around the back four again and again, against a muscular Millwall team that had already seen off Bournemouth’s second string, was either naive or just plain stupid. We were weak, we were slow, we were completely lacking in imagination. Worst of all, we were completely unable to cope with Millwall’s tactical masterstroke, ie repeatedly lumping the ball up to a nippy striker. It was only a surprise it took them so long to score.

It seems a bit unfair to criticise a team where only three of the starting eleven (Britos, Kaboul and Guedioura) have played more than half a dozen games this season. Watson, Dja DjéDjé and Mariappa in particular have every excuse to be a bit rusty. But nothing excuses the technical inepititude on display today; from Guedioura wasting a free kick just outside the box by kicking it straight into touch, to Watson repeatedly mishitting passes, to Okaka’s many and varied failed attempts to cushion the ball and lay it off to a teammate, there was a constant stream of unforced errors. Indeed, it was an error (a lazily-hit backpass) that led directly to Pantilimon’s game-ending injury.

Last, but not least, I’m angry with Walter Mazzarri. At the start of the season we were told that playing with wing-backs was a sign of attacking intent, yet for much of today’s match Watford seemed so uninterested in attacking at all, I was beginning to wonder if the Pozzos had told them we needed the money from a replay. In the first half in particular, Dja DjéDjé and Mason repeatedly reached the halfway line when a teammate had the ball, only to stop abruptly, wasting the opportunity for them to receive the ball on the wing deep into Millwall’s half. You can only assume that was down to instructions they’d received.

It’s not just today, either. For weeks now, Watford have repeatedly approached games against supposedly weaker opposition (Middlesbrough, Palace, Burton, Millwall) with an almost complete lack of aggression and attacking intent. Whatever the opposite of an ‘up and at ’em’ approach is, we’ve perfected it. It’s painful to watch – and worse still, it’s not winning us matches (Burton excepted, and that’s now irrelevant).

So, either Walter is telling them to play that way, or he’s not getting his message across properly. Either way, it doesn’t reflect well on him. I’m not one to demand the manager’s head on a platter, and I don’t think it would help right now – not at this stage of the season. But he needs to show that he understands how to field a winning team pretty quickly, or the tentative chants of “Walter out!” in the away end today are going to get a hell of a lot louder.


Sunday, 22 January 2017

GT RIP

When I studied to be a journalist, you had to choose between two different courses: newspaper or periodical journalism. The newspaper course was all about rapid turnaround; find the story, write it up as succinctly as possible, publish it, move on to the next one. Periodical journalism was altogether more relaxed; find something interesting to write about, research it for a while, write a few thousand carefully chosen words. I studied periodical journalism.

That’s my excuse, anyway, for having failed to write anything apart from a couple of tweets since the news of Graham Taylor’s death broke 10 days ago. I’m not good at instant reactions; I need time to digest the news, to work out what I really want to say.

By now, there’s no point in me writing a heartfelt tribute to GT and what he meant to Watford FC, and to the town of Watford. Better writers than me have already done that, and done it beautifully. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Watford fan and you know where to find those tributes.

I’ve just caught up with the full 90-minute programme that BBC Radio 5 Live broadcast on the evening of his death, though, and I’m feeling another emotion now: anger. Not at the BBC, who did a fine job of remembering GT and his contribution to the world of football. Not even at Daily Mirror hack Harry Harris, who did his best to weasel out of accepting any responsibility for the vilification of GT during his stint as England manager.

No,  I’m angry that it takes the death of a man for his many strengths to be recognised and his few weaknesses to be properly analysed and understood. Not among Watford supporters, obviously. But if you’d asked fans of other clubs a month ago what they thought of when they heard the name Graham Taylor, there are plenty who’d have started with the word ‘turnip’ and gone on from there. I certainly know a few; you probably do too.

In his lifetime, fans of the clubs he’d managed, and the many people in football and the media who’d come into contact with him, knew what a kind, generous, witty and thoughtful man he was (not to mention a brilliant coach and man-manager). But for the mass of the English football-supporting public, he was simply the hapless buffoon who’d failed to get England to the World Cup and been filmed making an idiot of himself in the process. I’m angry that no one in a position of influence ever managed to correct that impression, and that it took his untimely death for that to happen.

There’s something else that’s bothering me, too. One of the anecdotes related on the BBC radio tribute was from an England game when GT was in the dugout. Some England fans were abusing John Barnes, and GT turned around and said to one of them: “That’s a human being you’re talking about.” I’ve been thinking about that, and about all the players and managers I’ve abused from the safety of my seat 20 rows back from the goal line – and I’m fairly mild-mannered, compared to many fans.

It’s all part of football, of course, the theatre of the game, the gladiatorial combat – booing the bad guys is as important as cheering the good guys. But I used to work with someone whose seat in the old Main Stand was in the row in front of Lee Nogan’s family, and she told me how upset they got when the Watford fans gave him stick (and fans of a certain age will remember that he got plenty). That’s always stayed with me. That’s a human being you’re talking about – and his parents may well be listening to you abuse him.

This is all getting a bit dark, so I’ll end these ramblings with an equally rambling list of just some of the memories GT gave me, days and nights that lit up my late teens and early 20s, and then my mid-30s. In no particular order: Luther’s two headers at Old Trafford in the League Cup (witnessed in a highlights package on Sportsnight after I’d managed to avoid learning the result); 7-1 against Southampton in the same competition; 4-0 against Hull to win promotion from Division 3 on a balmy summer’s evening; 2-0 against Wrexham to do the same from Division 2, the only time I ever ran on the pitch; 8-0 against Sunderland; the Corinthian Casuals game where the players wore vintage kit and GT dressed as a Victorian-era manager; the UEFA Cup home games; FA Cup away trips at Wolves (3-0), Birmingham (3-1) and Arsenal (ditto); Villa Park and Wembley, 1984; the goalfests in the failed attempt to avoid relegation when he came back, led by the unlikely strikeforce of Devon White and David Connolly; Ronnie Rosenthal’s perfect half-season; winning the title at Fulham; the overwhelming emotions of the play-off final against Bolton, two days after my father died.

I could go on forever. Thanks GT. RIP.