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


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.