Monday, 12 February 2018

Diminishing returns

It occurred to me on the way home from the Olympic London Stadium on Saturday that I’ve been to five away games so far this season, and each has been a less enjoyable experience than the one before.

Southampton in September was certainly enjoyable: a 2-0 win, new signings starting to shine, Silva’s team finding its feet. Chelsea in October was, in retrospect, the high water mark of that progression. While we ultimately lost 4-2, I left Stamford Bridge feeling that, if we kept playing football of the quality we’d demonstrated in the first hour, we’d have nothing to worry about this season. Little did I know what lay ahead…

By the time I got to Selhurst Park on a cold, damp December evening, things had started to go wrong. We led for most of the match, missed good chances to make the game safe, and then threw it away in the final minutes, losing 2-1. The journey home seemed particularly long that night.

The return to St Mary’s last month for Javi Gracia’s first game in charge was worse still. A Watford team devoid of confidence looked totally incapable of turning around a 1-0 deficit, while in the away end, what started as black humour (essentially, responding to the Southampton fans’ taunts with a wry acknowledgement that, yes, we know we’re not very good) escalated into out-and-out barracking of our own team. Not a good day to be a travelling Watford fan.

And so to West Ham.

One thing about attending away games on your own is that you have no control over where you’ll be sitting or who you’ll be sitting next to. (The word ‘sitting’ should really be in inverted commas, since no ever sits at away games, for reasons that escape me.) On arrival at the London Stadium, I initially thought I’d done quite well; my seat was three rows from the front, near the corner flag, at the extreme left-hand edge of the Watford block.

As soon as the game started, I realised my error. Immediately on the other side of a tunnel entrance was a block of West Ham fans who have clearly chosen their seats so as to be as close as possible to the away fans, with a view to barracking them throughout the game. I’m sure you know the type. They spent more time looking at us than the pitch, and one bloke got so worked up that he was ejected midway through the first half.

Even that wouldn’t have been so bad if the seats immediately to my right hadn’t been occupied by Watford’s own species of this pond life; two twentysomethings who were more interested in responding in kind to the West Ham fans than in watching the game. Now I’ve got nothing against swearing (I do plenty myself), and I like to think I’m unshockable; nevertheless, being caught in a crossfire of c-words did make it hard to focus on – let alone enjoy – the game. Then there were the spittle-flecked threats – “Come over ’ere and I’ll batter yer”, and so on – that are so easy to make when there are a couple of dozen burly men in high-vis jackets between you and your adversaries.

Once West Ham scored, my neighbours’ focus soon switched to discussing how completely and utterly useless Watford were. “We haven’t had a shot!” complained one of them just before half-time. I reminded him of the two smart saves Adrian had made to keep out Mariappa’s header and Capoue’s shot, but I was wasting my breath. For some people, extremes are all that exist. Watford could only be brilliant or rubbish (I’m paraphrasing, obviously), and today they were rubbish.

This went on throughout the second half, to such an extent that I found myself doubting my own eyes. For it seemed to me that, while short of the standards we reached against Chelsea last week, we were still looking way more positive and confident than we had for most of the last two months of Silva’s time in charge. We were deservedly beaten by a team that was sharper in front of goal and tighter at the back, but it wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. By this time, though, I’d realised that trying to express any of this to my neighbours would be pointless.

By the final whistle, caught between the West Ham fans who were now singing highly abusive songs about some blameless female Watford fan and the angry complaints of my neighbours, I was thoroughly miserable. Isn’t going to football meant to be fun?

Look, I know this probably sounds like the whinging of a middle-aged, middle-class supporter who doesn’t ‘get’ football fan culture. I certainly don’t want to see the passion eradicated from the game, and I do accept that brain-dead morons have as much right to buy a ticket as anyone else. But I did find myself wistfully hankering for the hooligan-ridden days of the 80s, when the idiots on both sides of me could have met up for a ruck before the game, kicked seven bells out of each other and spent the afternoon in A&E, leaving the rest of us to watch the match and support our team.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Managing change

Reading the superb Graham Taylor In His Own Words over the Christmas holidays, at the same time as Marco Silva’s team was imploding, got me thinking about Watford managers and how that first golden era is connected to the current one – slightly less golden right now, it’s true, but still holding immense promise.

It’s simple enough, and I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out, but in the current climate, it’s a point worth reiterating. The link is that, for a club the size of Watford to punch above our weight, we need to find a new way of running a football club; one that gives us an edge that other clubs, more hidebound by tradition, can’t or won’t emulate.

Back in the late 70s, Elton John gave Graham Taylor unprecedented power (and, lest we forget, more money to spend than any of his predecessors had enjoyed), such that he was able to make decisions about pretty much every aspect of the club. Elton trusted GT’s vision, and the manager picked up that ball and ran with it, taking the club with him all the way up the league and into Europe. I don’t believe any of the other iconic managers of the era, not even Brian Clough, had such wide-ranging power over their club. Elton took a gamble and GT’s passion, judgement, inventiveness, charisma and will to succeed did the rest.

Fast-forward nearly 40 years and Gino Pozzo has achieved a comparable feat by doing almost precisely the opposite to Elton. Recognising how much football has changed in the 21st century, the Pozzo model works precisely by minimising the power of the manager, who isn’t even called that any more; the fact that Watford now have a head coach isn’t just a question of faddish terminology, it recognises that Javi Gracia isn’t expected, or indeed allowed, to manage the club. He is merely the most senior member of the coaching team, there to decide on tactics, pick the players to execute them and do what he can to ensure they do that on matchdays.

The fact that Watford are now in their third consecutive season in the Premier League, despite the turnover in head coaches, is proof that it works. Make no mistake, the reasons we achieved promotion from the Championship were, in order of importance:
1) The Pozzos’ money and player recruitment
2) The players
3) The head coach

That’s not to say Slav didn’t play a crucial role. After all, he succeeded where Zola and Sannino had failed. But he simply added the last 5% that pushed us over the line, and the fact that Gino was happy enough to proceed into the Premier League without him suggests that his assessment of the head coach’s importance roughly matches mine.

Of course, this system only works if the head coach recognises and accepts this role. It’s still an alien concept to most people in English football and the media, as the coverage of Silva’s departure this past week amply demonstrates, which is why Gino continues to recruit head coaches from Europe. Let’s hope Javi is on board with the Pozzo model in a way that Silva clearly wasn’t, from the moment way back in August when he complained about Nordin Amrabat being loaned out without him being consulted.

The mark of how much has changed between the two most successful eras in Watford’s history is this: while one is indelibly linked with a single manager, the other depends for its continuation on a series of head coaches who will have done their jobs if, in another 40 years’ time, we can’t quite remember their names.

Monday, 1 January 2018

That was the year that was

On the face of it, 2017 was a reasonably successful year for Watford. Last season we retained our Premier League status, which was after all the object of the exercise, and the start of 2018 sees us sitting in 10th place. Another good year for the Pozzo project, then.

Well, up to a point. Your view of the club’s progress is inevitably coloured by the matches you attend, and this was a year in which I barely missed a home game, as well as making it to eight away fixtures. In all, I attended 30 Watford matches in 2017 (not counting the pre-season friendly against Real Sociedad), and saw just 10 victories; six in the latter half of last season, four so far in this campaign. And you know what? One win every three games doesn’t really feel like success to me. More like getting by.

There weren’t a lot of memorable moments, either. The two wins against Arsenal stand out, naturally, but I’m struggling to recall anything about the other wins I saw between January and April, apart from Jerome Sinclair’s solo goal against Burton in the FA Cup. Of the victories so far this season, away at Southampton was particularly enjoyable.

It’s not all about winning, of course, and there has been plenty of excitement and drama in games we drew or lost: the two games at Stamford Bridge where we threatened to pull off a shock, but ended up losing 4-3 and 4-2, and the three-all draw against Liverpool, spring to mind.

But there’s also been an awful lot of dross. You don’t need me to remind you how dreadful the football in the latter half of Mazzarri’s season was. More recently, our display against Swansea on Saturday was one of the dullest I’ve witnessed in a long time.

There’s always an excuse, though, and if there’s one word that seems to sum up Watford’s 2017, it’s injuries. There was that period at the start of the year when we lost Pereyra and then Zarate in rapid succession, and our ability to unlock opposing defences went with them. As for this season, our defence seems cursed, while any player who comes into the team and impresses is guaranteed to suffer an injury after a few games: Chalobah, Hughes, Femenia… At any one time, at least half a dozen important players have been unavailable for selection. In the circumstances, perhaps I should be grateful to have seen as many wins as I have.

Conspiracy theorists have linked the ongoing injury crisis to the departure of Head of Medical Richard Collinge at the start of last season, and maybe there’s something in that. What baffles and irritates me is the lack of clear communication about injuries. I appreciate that it’s not always possible to put a precise date on a player’s return to full fitness, but we get told so little, it’s not surprising the fans start to wonder what’s going on. When Nathaniel Chalobah was first injured, it was suggested he’d be out for about six weeks; more than twice that time has elapsed and there’s still no sign of him. Another example: a couple of weeks ago, Marco Silva suggested in a press conference that Will Hughes might be in contention to return against Brighton, yet he wasn’t named in the squad for that or the two subsequent games, with no explanation as to what’s going on.

At some point, it would be nice if someone from the club could give us their take on the ongoing injury crisis. Is it something to do with the way the players train (it was interesting to read in the programme the other day that Darryl Janmaat had barely had an injury in his career before he arrived at Vicarage Road), have we signed a lot of injury-prone players, or it really just down to bad luck?

In the meantime, Watford fans will continue to suffer more poor performances and results and keep reciting the mantra: things will pick up when our injured players are fit again. Except that day seems as far off as ever.