jump to navigation

Déjà vu 30/05/2007

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
74 comments

I think we’ve been here before.

 Everyone has a position on this.  The Franchise thing isn’t really something that merits any more debate – either you find it utterly repulsive or you don’t.  But given that quite a lot of people do, enough to have provoked the cancellation of Watford’s last ill-advised attempt to arrange a friendly with Franchise a few summers back, quite why the club feel that the passage of time would make the idea any less repellent to those concerned is beyond me.  This isn’t something that’s done and dusted, something to move on from.  The MK Franchise’s cuckooing within the Football League structure hasn’t grown out of being an abomination.

In particular it strikes me as odd in the context of the club’s ongoing dispute with the Watford Observer, that they should choose to risk alienating yet another section of their support for the sake of a pre-season friendly.  This betrays a serious lack of judgment at best, and a peculiarly antagonistic decision at worst.

 Watford claims to be a club that values its role in its community.  The very existence of the Community Sports & Education Trust bears testimony to this.  As such it strikes me as odd that a pre-season friendly against  a club defined by a disregard for its original community should be deemed appropriate.

The Official Site’s announcement, trumpeting the fixture wholly inadvisedly, includes the assertion that “the club have forged links with the Dons over the last year” on the basis of two loan moves.  It’s a rather depressing reflection of the perspective of the club that this relationship is deemed more profound than the links formed with AFC Wimbledon supporters.  Five years ago many of us protested with fans of the old Wimbledon as their club was in the process of being wrenched to Milton Keynes.  This was before a match televised by the ill-fated ITV Digital, during which pundit Graham Taylor was more explicit in his distaste for the MK charade than his studio colleagues had perhaps anticipated.  More recently a coach was organised to carry Watford supporters to Kingsmeadow to watch AFC Wimbledon as Watford travelled to play the Dons.  Watford supporters are shareholders in AFC Wimbledon, and some have supported the fledgling club more explicitly still. 

 So I’m afraid that I can’t share the Official Site’s delight at the prospect of being amongst the first to visit the Franchise’s new stadium.  I won’t be doing so.  If you’re coming from a similar position to me, I’d suggest contacting the club with a view to the cancelling of the friendly as soon as possible.

Advertisements

Old Boys Network 27/05/2007

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
17 comments

We have witnessed what is popularly referred to as a “flurry” of transfer activity over the last week, with three coming in and five going out, plus confirmation of Alec’s retirement.

None of the departures are enormously surprising albeit, as previously documented, it’s a bit of a shame to see Dom Blizzard moving to Franchise.

Of the guys coming in, the two “proper” new signings in particular will add some experience – as the euphemism goes – to the squad.  Matt Jackson seems set to fulfil the Mackay role of shouting at people when they need shouting at;  if Mackay’s playing days are genuinely behind him then this is probably a necessary signing.  It’s worth noting that Jackson is actually a few months older than Malky, but nobody at Wigan seems to have had a bad word to say about him, and Betty’s most successful signings have been those he has previous knowledge of.  Jackson, like Mackay, first met his new manager at Norwich.

Mart Poom meanwhile arrives from Arsenal to fill the goalkeeping vacancy;  of a similar age to Jackson, although being 35 is generally seen as less of a handicap between the sticks.  Perhaps the greatest concern with Poom is that he’s barely played a competitive, domestic game for two-and- a-half years, but he was a terrific keeper with Derby and Sunderland – again, both clubs’ fans speak very highly of him in messageboard conversations discussing this move.  Those of us who can be bothered to watch will catch an early glimpse of our new stopper as England travel to Estonia in a couple of weeks’ time.  You might have heard about it.

Finally, Douglas Rinaldi has signed a permanent deal;  as previously scribbled, this surprises me a little bit but hopefully he’ll start imposing himself a little more on games.  And there’s undeniably something cool about having a Brazilian in your squad, even one called Douglas…

School Report 17/05/2007

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
21 comments

As the season ends, and to distract ourselves from other things by considering the details that we’d rather be concentrating on, a review of the playing squad…

To begin at the back; doesn’t the debate about the merits of the unknown from Stoke City via Manchester United that Betty had shoved into the first team seem a long time ago?  And just how much more uncomfortable could this season have been without Ben Foster, whose one or two high-profile mistakes shouldn’t detract from a quite extraordinary season.  A good shot-stopper, strong on crosses, ridiculously accurate, consistent distribution, it’s only his decision making that very occasionally lets him down.  Nonetheless, the smart money is on him being United’s first choice by the end of next season, particularly given Van der Sar’s late-season form.

And whither Richard Lee?  Obviously a decent keeper, but he never seemed likely to be the man to take on the mantle of first choice next season even before Betty’s recent citing of a new stopper as his top priority.  Much as his readmission to the fold as Foster’s regular back-up was unexpected following his unequivocal rejection at the start of last season, a complete about turn from his manager was never likely; Richard’s distribution just isn’t strong enough for Betty, one suspects, despite recent public assurances that Richard’s still “part of the plan”.  It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Richard finally move on in the summer, and good luck to him, with the still bigged-up but rarely seen Scott Loach waiting in the wings.

As for “the veteran”, Alec Chamberlain’s unexpected appearance against Newcastle was his last in a Watford shirt, more than a decade after he arrived as short-term backup for Kevin Miller.  What a tremendous bloke to have had in the squad for that long, firmly etched into Watford folklore and fortunately sticking around in a coaching capacity for a while yet.

Moving forward to the back four, and to right-back, where a number of contenders jostle for position, none of whom leave you totally convinced.  Adrian Mariappa has had as good a season as anybody and looks particularly comfortable coming forward, but you don’t need to be told that he’s played most of his football in the centre.  A good number of goals and chances have resulted from him drifting infield and leaving the left flank open… a great prospect, but I’m not convinced it’ll be at right back. 

Fundamental questions, meanwhile, surround the future of the other two contenders;  quite what does one do with Lloyd Doyley, for example?  Such a committed defender, an excellent man-marker, but his distribution continues to be haphazard at best and he’ll be disappointed with how this season has gone for him personally; I expected him to be one to nail down a position.  Instead, it’s not quite clear where he’s best accommodated… except perhaps in the emergency man-marking functional role that Martin Keown fulfilled in his final days at Arsenal.  Except Keown was in his late thirties, not 24. 

And then there’s James Chambers, one of the fittest members of the squad and probably good enough at the level we’re going back to and yet… defensively he’s not as strong as either of the other two, and one wonders if he might suffer from being a versatile player in a squad full of versatile players without being quite strong enough in any one position.  His performance on the right of midfield at Goodison Park on the opening day, where he reached the byline several times only to look for an alternative to putting a ball into the box, certainly seemed to put pay to his career as a winger.

Also, somewhere in the background, is Junior Osborne who suffered a knee ligament injury at the end of last season, made a brief return to the reserves in October and hasn’t been mentioned since…

At left back, on the other hand, there is surely no such dilemma.  You’d have got very long odds on this last summer, but Jordan Stewart looks to be one of very few names nailed on for next season’s first choice eleven.  His crossing could still be a little more dependable – although he’s probably as good as we’ve got in the squad in that respect, surely an area to address in the summer – but the lapses of concentration that seemed to crop up once a game or so in the play-off season were all but eradicated this time around, and he’s been one of the most dependable members of the team. 

Given which, Chris Powell’s future at Vicarage Road is probably questionable;  he came in probably expecting to be first choice at left back given that in his Premiership experience he had something which nobody else in the squad could really boast.  Whilst he’s done a sound enough job when called upon, he looked very rusty when coming back in for an injured Stewart early in 2007, and those knees aren’t going to get any younger – Powell turns 38 in September. 

In the background meanwhile is Jordan Parkes, whose debut against Accrington wasn’t flawless but contained plenty of positive pointers.  He was born in 1989 for Christ’s sake, by which time Powell was already two years into his first professional contract.

At centreback, three senior pros who are all plenty good enough for Div 2, but who have all been linked with moves away in the summer.  Perhaps the loudest such whisperings concern Danny Shittu, signed from QPR last summer when West Brom had offered him a place in what was probably a stronger squad, but a division lower.  Shittu’s physical attributes are incomparable – built like an articulated lorry and with a decent turn of pace to boot.  When it comes down to a physical battle, Dan’s going to see off anybody. Thing is, such is his superiority in this department, and such has been his professional experience prior to this season, he has never really had to learn how to defend, and he’s been caught out by clever movement this season more often than anyone would have liked.  Quite to what extent the reported interest of Celtic, West Ham, Man City and Fulham is in the imagination of his agent remains to be seen.

Jay DeMerit‘s season has been stronger, and the more so for the continued upward trajectory of the American’s performances.  It’s only a couple of years ago that DeMerit’s obvious determination, bravery and physical prowess were regularly let down by overenthusiasm, inexperience and regular rushes of blood.  This season he has looked as much a top-flight defender as anyone in our squad, even if his latter-season form has been a little less eye-catching.

Clarke Carlisle, meanwhile, came back into the side after a long injury absence against Pompey (via a loan spell with our friends from up the motorway) and immediately started shouting.  That on its own was reason to welcome him back, since our defence had missed a vocal leader for most of the season;  Carlisle, like Marlon King, will benefit from pre-season, he looked a little ropey on occasions and resorted to raw brutality to compensate more than once, but assuming that the injury is behind him Clarke is a guy you’d hope we’ll hang on to.

The leadership we’d had in the defence earlier in the season had largely come from Malky Mackay,who seemed to informally retire from the playing staff at roughly the same time as he took on a coaching role.  Great that he played in the Premiership, finally, it seems implausible that he was only in the first team for eighteen months.  We’ll miss his nous at the back next term – he was a nasty bastard, but he was our nasty bastard, for a short time at any rate.

Finally Cedric Avinel, who had a catastrophic debut at Reading where the Rs’ attack flowed through him like water through a crack in a dam.  How he recovers from that setback will be a test of his character, but he did enough in one-on-ones with Lita, including one mercilessly precise tackle that took the ball and left his opponent on his backside, to suggest that there’s something to work with there.

Moving forward into midfield, and in central positions we are certainly high on numbers. First choice incumbents for much of this season have been skipper Gavin Mahon and summer signing Damien Francis. Mahon’s season fluctuated as much as anyone’s; before Christmas he was arguably our most consistent and significant outfield player, afterwards his form dropped quite alarmingly. This invited attention from a larger than average body of critics in the stands who don’t seem to have gotten over Gav’s utility-man boo-boy period in 2003 and take any opportunity to have a pop, kind of ignoring both the fact that plenty of others were having a dodgy time of it also, and the rather large number of occasions, POTY awards and promotion winning captaincies notwithstanding, when Mahon has proven his value. His glorious strike against Pompey, surely a goal of the season had it come a week earlier before polls opened, was as close to “up yours” as he could probably have gotten away with. Amen to that.

That Francis has been a bit of a let-down is, one would suspect, a rather uncontroversial comment. Had he remained fit, it would have been interesting to see whether he stuck around – given Betty’s rather direct statements of disappointment , latter improvement or otherwise – and quite who would have signed him after two season’s of minimal impact at the foot of the Premiership. Francis did pick up the injury, however, and if he can overcome his ligament problem early enough in the season I fancy we might see the best of him – not just because of the drop in standard, but also because Marlon haring around in front of him and pulling defences about ought to give him the spaces to attack that our rather less mobile forward line really hasn’t manufactured this season.

Another on the injury list is Gareth Williams, who looked rather tidy on the odd occasion when he was used, and certainly offered something different to what we currently have in central positions. The ploy of Williams sitting in front of the defence at the back of a five-man diamond with Francis pushing up certainly merited further experimentation – not for a while though, alas.

Al Bangura meanwhile has been a bit of a disappointment this term after his colossal, charismatic impact in the promotion season as the cork to block up the midfield when such was required. He’s shown enough in the last few games to suggest that we’ll be persevering with him for the moment, but he hasn’t pushed on as one might have hoped. And he still jumps into tackles…

Amongst the new recruits Lee Williamson has also been used sparingly, and in both wide and central positions. He certainly doesn’t lack for tenacity and energy; the few who made the glum trip to Bramall Lane will certainly be sold on him as one of the good guys. As the list of midfielders grows, however, it’s a question of quite how we use him…

Other names still knocking around the squad may not be doing so for much longer. Toumani Diagouraga has never made the impact at first team level that his fabled performances for the youth team, allegedly alerting
Chelsea, once suggested, and had a low-profile loan at Rotherham United this season. Dominic Blizzard, meanwhile, whose aesthetically challenged but furiously effective contributions to the first half of last season split the support, has never threatened to re-establish himself after his illness and looks like rejoining his mentor David Hockaday at Franchise on a full-time basis. Which I’d say is a bit of a shame. Ben Gill, meanwhile, who never really looked like imposing himself on the senior squad, has already joined John Ward’s Cheltenham.

Two of the January recruits have been employed both in central and wide roles; Johan Cavalli has lots of some things and not very much of others… touch, tenacity and personality coming in the former list, height and pace in the latter. Whether or not the former sufficiently tip the balance remains to be seen, but we’re short of folk who can put a decent ball into the box as it stands; with Cavalli contracted until the end of next season, we are likely to see how the Corsican copes with the Championship at some point. Douglas Rinaldi, by contrast, is kinda good at most things without really being convincing enough at anything. Quite mobile, but not quick enough to be a winger. Can tackle, but not tenacious enough to be a destroyer. A good touch, but doesn’t impose himself enough to run the midfield. In an area high on numbers – and players without a clear role – Rinaldi might be on his way, one suspects.

We are far less well catered for in wide positions. Twice this season we gambled on players to fill a problem position as transfer deadlines drew in; with the return of right-winger Chris Eagles to Manchester United and the earlier departure of Paul Devlin, Tommy Smith was the one that worked and on impact to date, if one excludes the returning Foster, has arguably been the signing of the season. He took his time to get going, and to a certain extent still carries the burden of not obviously belonging anywhere (from a striker who can’t really shoot, he has become a winger who can’t really cross). Nonetheless his quick feet, heart and positiveness have been more effective than many must have predicted, and we’ve missed him when he’s been unavailable.

On the left, Hameur Bouazza is probably our senior left-winger – but like Smith, he’s much more comfortable cutting in towards goal than lobbing balls into the box.  His turnaround this season is eclipsed only by Jordan Stewart’s; this is a guy who started just three league games for us last season remember, albeit his campaign was curtailed by injury.  This campaign he has been aggressive, purposeful… and at his best, utterly irrepressible.  Kolo Touré is one apparently top defender who Hameur made look very silly indeed.

There are still rough edges to Hameur’s game – his decision making isn’t always the best, his shooting a bit hit-and-miss (but boy are you in trouble if he’s pointing the right way…) and he does have the odd very off game, but his runner-up spot in the POTY awards couldn’t have been predicted twelve months ago.  Bouazza is arguably the player we’ll have the biggest job holding onto over the summer.

But beyond those two, we’re kinda struggling.  The other two wingers in the squad both look to be on their way out – Anthony McNamee has never been able to impose involve himself sufficiently on a game on a regular basis, and much as Betty coaxed more assertive displays out of him it was never quite enough.  One suspects that he might benefit from a move – but his period at Crewe was hardly devastating.  Albert Jarrett meanwhile looked an odd one last summer – he did manage twenty minutes of Premiership football at Bolton, but his swift disappearance to Franchise confirmed whose idea he was.

Otherwise we’re looking at Alex Campana, unused this season after making his debut last term, or more naturally central midfielders (or fullbacks) to cover the wide roles.  Surely a recruitment priority.

Up front, as in central midfield, we’re not short on numbers but it’s not altogether clear who the first choice pairing will be.  Marlon King, one would hope, will still be around to lead the line;  whilst he has inevitably returned from injury not looking quite as trim and sprightly he nonetheless made an instant difference to our attacking threat.  Whilst it’s true that he hadn’t quite set the world alight before his injury, it’s undeniable that our attacking play was an awful lot more potent with him in the side.  Marlon in full flow, possibly due to his powerful shoulders, leaves one with the impression that we have a big cat, a lion or a tiger, up front… there’s a risk, of course, that someone will take a punt on him, but unless he decides he wants out I’d expect him to be around in August.  In our current state we’re going to need a massive offer to consider selling, and such is unlikely to be forthcoming until January at the earliest in the light of his injury problems this season.

Marlon’s strike partner of choice last term was Darius Henderson. Doris, self-evidently, didn’t make the same impact this season but this was to a large degree not his own doing.  Always quite a functional cog in the team, being deprived of aerial supply first by the loss of Chris Eagles, then by Marlon’s injury forcing Ashley Young centrally, then by Young being sold altogether was always going to limit his effectiveness.  Throughout all of it – and he’s had some painfully irrelevant games along the way – there’s been no faulting Doris’ endeavour, and his penalty at West Ham is up there alongside Hameur’s goal at Villa Park as “moment of the season”… but if we don’t sign someone who can cross the ball reliably then we might as well let Doris move on.  Which would be a shame…

Tamas Priskin meanwhile is the very definition of “enigmatic”.  So very good at some things, so very bad at others… but we’ve seen enough of the former to be curious, even excited at how this lad will develop.  The smart money might be on Tamas being Marlon’s first choice sidekick come the new campaign – but at any rate, for a teenage Hungarian not speaking English to come over here and improve at the rate he has does a lot to commend him.

Less impressive all round has been Steve Kabba; like Tommy Smith, signed as a bit of a gamble in a last-gasp attempt to fill a hole as a transfer window closed it didn’t look a bad punt at the time.  Kabba has scored goals, of course, and an injury or two had pulled him from United’s first team at inopportune moments.  You won’t need me to tell you that it hasn’t worked… Kabba hasn’t scored a league goal since 2005 and has only occasionally looked like doing so since his arrival.  He hasn’t been a complete waste of space, but a refusal to chase, harry, take a chance or take his chances was never going to work in this Watford team, whilst his lack of acknowledgement from his teammates after delicately setting Tamas Priskin up against Pompey spoke volumes.  His agent was trying to get him a summer move within a month of his arrival, and it would be better for all concerned if this were achieved quickly.

Will Hoskins meanwhile looked like a bit of a coup when we signed him in January, apparently in the face of no small competition.  He’s certainly got something about him but his rare outings have seen him flounder a little, not being quite sure of his role or of how to cope with the attentions of a Premiership defence.  He’s one of several who will benefit from being able to find their feet in a more forgiving environment.

Coming up on the rails, Moses Ashikodi looks a bit of a wild card in more ways than one and you’d like him on the bench at least just to liven up one of those many games when nothing’s really happening.  That he has talent is beyond dispute, as numerous impudent touches in his few outings for us and a quite ridiculous goal against Oldham when on loan at Bradford demonstrate… but six yellow cards in eleven games this season tells its own story.  A challenge for Mr.Boothroyd, one suspects.

Meanwhile it was good to see Theo Robinson back in the picture against Newcastle, even if he does have an awful lot to do to get a look in.  Of our other young striker, we can but wonder…  a Jamaican call-up and new contract last summer, but nothing has been heard of Joel Grant since his loan at Aldershot before Christmas, and tellingly his name has vanished from the roster on the Official Site.  Meanwhile, Fulham’s Official Site lists a “trialist” in Ray Lewington’s reserve side against Chelsea… who Chelsea’s site names as one Joel Grant…  another shame, I thought he had something, but he’d have a lot to do to get a look-in here at the moment particularly if Betty brings in another striker.

Looking at it from the top, Betty’s stated priorities seem about right; a keeper and a winger, and probably a fullback and maybe a striker if Kabba’s on his way.  We’re certainly stronger in terms of numbers than we were when we went up, but we don’t have anyone who can create a chance in the way that Young could – and nor is it possible to name more than maybe four of, injuries permitting, next season’s starting line-up.  Could be an interesting summer…

Watford 1 Newcastle United 1 (13/05/07) 14/05/2007

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
8 comments

The final one-word match report of the season is:

Cheerio.

Has it finished…? 12/05/2007

Posted by Ian Grant in Thoughts about things.
22 comments

So, that was that. It went on a bit.

There is a longer version, of course, and it contains a great deal more subtlety, contradiction and general befuddlement than history may record in relation to our second single-season visit to the top flight. Things weren’t quite as simple as our league position might suggest; they rarely are. Still, it’s nonetheless impossible to avoid the central truth of the matter: that this has been rather a chore, a gradual and dispiriting evaporation of last summer’s romantic dreams, and that it feels like something of a relief to find that it’s finally over. There is not much that we’ll remember. Not even as much as last time around, both good and bad.

Then, we had the extraordinary highs at Anfield and against Chelsea; those results stand alone, famous victories to be cherished outside of their context. And we had some catastrophic lows too, moments when it seemed as if the ninety minutes would never end. This time, just an endless greyness, a dreary and frustrating and pointless nearly.

Oh, it’s easy enough to say that it was always going to be thus…but I don’t believe that, not now and not in August. And you couldn’t believe that, watching the insane pace with which we took on West Ham in our first home fixture, seeing the desperate hunger in our eyes and the shock in theirs. We had a chance. Remote, perhaps, but a chance. We needed early points, swift confirmation that it was possible…and then, who knows?

You only have to look back at the results, remember some of the stories behind those scorelines, transport yourself back to those first couple of months when we were so nearly getting off to a very decent start indeed. Skip the Everton game – it’s been conveniently forgotten that we were slaughtered in the first half, whatever misfortune might’ve befallen us in the second – and look at the sequence that follows. West Ham. Bolton. Villa. Wigan. Christ, Fulham. Charlton. Spurs. Countless draws that might’ve been wins, defeats that might’ve been draws. By the time that Middlesbrough shambled into town in a flash suit with flies undone, it was far too late, the agenda had already been set.

None of this is to ignore our own failures, of course. So much of it was our own fault: little mistakes that cost us very dear, repeated over and over. Missed chances, defensive errors, tactical slips. The point is not to suggest that we were better than we really were, but merely to emphasise that we weren’t a lost cause from the off; while Europe might’ve been fanciful, being somewhere around mid-table as winter set in was far from impossible. It could have happened. In some ways, it doesn’t matter now. In others, it’s actually quite important: as the post-mortem begins, it’s all too easy to confuse a bad result with a bad plan…and to be tempted to do something foolish next time around as a consequence.

The stark reality is that for a club like Watford, survival in the Premiership will always be a long shot. On that basis, the plan that we put into action – one, spend prudently on (mainly) established names; two, design a playing style to maximise our strengths and minimise our weaknesses; three, hope for the best – was a perfectly good one. It might not have worked, sure…but there is no foolproof plan, no brilliant scheme that we overlooked. Were we to be given the opportunity to rewind and start again, I’d hope that we’d try much the same thing again…with a few tweaks here and there, naturally. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but not if it blinds you to the context in which reasonable, sensible and prudent decisions were made.

Of course, there’s no hindsight required when it comes to one of the key points: everyone knew that we needed another striker long before the August transfer deadline closed, before Marlon was injured, before Doris had started mis-firing. Hell, we’ve needed another striker since the previous August, never having filled the obvious gap left by Junior. Last season, we got lucky. To rely on the same luck again was plain irresponsible, rank poor planning; there were times when you could’ve wept for poor Darius Henderson, chasing lost causes for ninety minutes while we waited for January and a chance to repair the manager’s mistake. We let him down and we let ourselves down, and a manager who took the helm with inspiring talk of attacking football was reduced to putting out teams with all the scything penetration of a month-old aubergine.

Back in August, you could be sure of one thing: that whatever happened, there’d be no regrets. We’d give it our best shot, throw everything we had at it. It didn’t turn out quite like that, sadly. Too often, this was a stodgy and dour Watford side; without Marlon, the direct tactics descended into parody and the promise of open, exciting football was quickly rescinded. There was still the team spirit, and Adrian Boothroyd must take enormous credit for prolonging the imbalance between performances and results for as long as he did; it wasn’t until the visit of Sheffield United in late November that we put in a display worthy of our eventual league position. But we’d hoped for much more. Often, it just felt as if we didn’t have any guns to blaze.

(Then again, there is a savagely efficient two-word counter-argument to the oft-voiced suggestion that we should’ve just found ourselves an available striker in late August and taken a chance: Steve Kabba. Nobody pretends that a manager’s job is easy.)

Thing is, the margin between relative success and absolute failure is small. We didn’t need that many more points to be in contention with the other relegation strugglers. Even in mid-February, there was that tremendously dogged win at West Ham, the moment at which it suddenly opened up for you to see the path to safety…and then, sure enough, the light was snuffed out again by the woeful draw against Wigan and a comprehensive stuffing by an Everton side that we managed to make look lavish and elegant. That’s the story of the season: you could conjure up different endings in your imagination on so many occasions, feel that great rush of celebration almost as if it were real. But it never happened. It never came true.

In particular, I’m thinking of the twenty minutes in the semi-final when we’d raised the possibility of something other than the assumed inevitable, when we had Manchester United in a bit of a spin. A small victory in itself, I guess…but nothing compared to the mayhem that would’ve been unleashed if Hameur had buried that chance. We might still have lost, obviously. My God, I’d give so much to find out. Or the goal that we could never quite score in the home game against Chelsea, sitting there as tantalising as a word on the tip of your tongue, unspoken. So much of that. So much nearly.

Maybe we’ll be back to try again. Maybe. For some of us, it would be a bittersweet achievement: this season hasn’t felt like something that’d bear much repetition, even with better results. The Premiership is a deeply tiresome place, and it quickly starts to feel like you’re stuck in a lift with the worst kind of second-hand car salesman. So much bluster, so little substance: cushioned seats and vast legroom and a rubbish view at the Emirates; team handshakes and that preposterous faux-national anthem before kickoff, leaving the fans to wait until the bigwigs’ egos have been massaged sufficiently before they can greet ‘their’ team; forty-five quid to see a match with an inevitable outcome; endless video replays of daft handball appeals and theatrical tumbles. Too many personalities. Too much controversy. Too much drama. Not enough bloody football.

That, my friends, is the future. For those in charge of Watford Football Club, it will be our future: it seems that the intensity of the vision peddled by Graham Simpson, Mark Ashton and Adrian Boothroyd is undimmed; we will be a top ten club by 2010, somehow. Somehow. It isn’t a vision that I share…but then, we all know that ‘realism’ isn’t a popular word at Vicarage Road nowadays. In a way, I’m being unfair: there’s nowt wrong with a bit of ambition, with aiming for the sun; it’s what this club was built upon, in modern terms. And the fact that the manager has fallen at a hurdle for the first time neither takes away from his previous achievements nor excludes the possibility of more; next season will be a challenging one for Boothroyd and a revealing one for those who wonder where he’ll be in five years’ time, but you don’t doubt that he’ll attack it with typical gusto.You wouldn’t want to bet against him, still less to let him know about it.

But somewhere amid all of this, and amid the recent boardroom bitterness, is a football club that’s not terribly comfortable with itself. I make no apology for harking back: the cornerstone of Graham Taylor’s success was to create a club with a clear sense of its own identity, its difference and uniqueness. We took on the world with a firm knowledge of ourselves, of what we were and why we were. Now? We just want to be Blackburn. Or Middlesbrough. We did want to be Charlton, but everyone’s gone a bit quiet on that front. Adrian Boothroyd asks: “Do we want to go back to being little Watford? Or do we want to keep moving forwards?” and you can almost feel the intensity of the glare, the pressure to provide the correct answer.

But hand on heart, I’m not sure that I can. You?

Watermelons at Reading 09/05/2007

Posted by Matt Rowson in Five-a-day Awaydays.
11 comments

Despite a visible upping of security with a cordon of stewards guarding the away turnstiles, a number of idiots managed to beat the system with, um, some watermelons.

Oh, and we won.  Hurrah.

Melon Female

Nick Gibb leaves it late to make a stylish five-a-day debut.  Extra marks for smuggling TWO of the bloody things into the ground, only slightly tarnished by having his picture taken in an empty stadium.  Not empty enough for his idiocy to go completely unnoticed, mind, although not by stewards – Gibb sr’s rehearsed line concerning his son’s medical condition demanding regular intake of said fruit proved unnecessary.  Labels read “New Season”, which sounds about right.

Melon Kim

Five-a-day veterans Nick and Ed Corble.  “Hard negotiation” with steward required here.  Sign over Ed’s right shoulder warns of Flying Footballs.  No mention of large, unripe fruit.

Sparkling Watermelon

Jeff Bartrop, who also sent his previously unpublished backcatalogue featuring sprouts at Fulham, oranges at Anfield and chillies at Charlton amongst others, which might have been more useful at the time…

Watermelontight

Don Fraser, dreaming of pre-season matches in some field in Devon already.  The fruit was “disposed of” before departure… one of the odder stories of the campaign is probably the trail of cleaners at various prem grounds finding random fruit and veg discarded in the disabled facilities…

Watermeloned down

Frances Lynn, a reliable contributor all season, fails at the last with a Galia melon of all things.   It may be M&S Organic, but it ain’t a watermelon.  Why on earth would you want to bring a Galia melon to a football match?  Sheesh…

Meloncholy

Yours truly, at the end of a rather odd road.  Bit disappointed with this specimen, but it was the largest Sainsburys had…

Reading 0 Watford 2 (05/05/2007) 07/05/2007

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
3 comments

The one-word match report is:

fun.

Vote Fraser! 07/05/2007

Posted by Ian Grant in Five-a-day Awaydays.
8 comments

Those of you who know him should need no more urging; those of you who don’t should start by referring to the countless photos of a distant figure clutching a plastic bag of vegetables during yet another forlorn away trip, just a minor footnote in the endless list of the man’s contributions to our football club. For the sake of all humanity, vote Don Fraser in the 606 Barclays Fan of the Season Awards. Thank you.

Lemon Chiffons, Buttercup Fools, and other not quite Yellows 04/05/2007

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5 comments

With our season effectively over and another dead zone during which footballers and managers go on holiday and football writers have to amuse themselves by peddling gossip and agents’ feeds almost upon us, it seemed an idea to glance back at the names with which we were linked last summer and see how the ones that got away got on elsewhere.

Free as we are from the burden of having to negotiate contracts or transfer fees, or to persuade these guys to come, unhindered by worrying about whether these rumours had any foundation and yet blessed with the benefit of hindsight, I’ve also had a go at assessing whether we should have taken these guys, or whether we were best of out of it…

Even setting Marlon’s catastrophic injury aside, the need for attacking options was beyond dispute having largely ridden our luck with injuries in this department last season.  Cardiff City’s Michael Chopra was linked with the Hornets; his twenty-two goals have come in fits and bursts, and he has only one goal in ten at the time of writing having endured a similar spell earlier in the season.  Nonetheless, we won’t be the only club looking at the half-million that Cardiff paid Newcastle as a snip. 

Chopra is rumoured to be moving on in the summer; so too David Nugent of Preston who was a fanciful target last summer and the more so this on the back of another steady domestic season (17 goals) and an England call-up.

The other mooted names in attacking positions last summer must be listed, at best, as “open verdicts”. Few Hornets would have objected, for example, to Heidar Helguson returning from Fulham, but he’s had a poor season recording only four goals and almost three times as many bookings; his stock has fallen considerably amongst the Fulham support.  Nor, for all Betty’s keenness, is it possible to regard Collins John as a banker;  much as our manager has sorted out questionable attitudes in the past, you’ve got to worry about someone who is told by his manager that he’s not in his plans, and doesn’t even want to talk about a loan.  John has just one senior goal this season, and has been used sparingly.Other maybes include Giuseppe Rossi of Manchester United, whose pedigree is beyond dispute but who made little impact on loan at Newcastle earlier in the season. He has been on loan at Parma since January, who he has helped climb away from the Serie A relegation zone with an impressive strike rate.  So too Cameron Jerome, who made a slow start to his Birmingham career after signing from Cardiff but continues to be part of a promotion squad.  Nathan Ellington may also end up being part of a promoted side, but has plenty of doubters at the Hawthorns, having to live down an attempt to force a transfer back to Wigan, and an accusation of hiding when the going gets tough.  Like Jerome, he has nine to his credit so far.  Several other strikers made moves to Championship clubs, and their moderate impact must make it questionable whether they’d have made a big enough contribution to our top flight ambitions this season.  That said, former Manchester United man Sylvain Ebanks-Blake made a positive impression in the Cup Quarter-Final which suggested that he could add something to the squad, although he’s another with a moderate nine goals to his name.  Michael Mifsud, an impish Maltese forward, eventually moved from Lillestrom to Coventry where he has entertained but not always delivered.  Meanwhile Tamas Priskin’s compatriot Peter Rajczi was linked with a move from Ujpest Dosza.  He ended up on loan at Barnsley instead, where he has hit one goal since January. 

A couple of strikers have to remain listed largely as unknowns.  Spaniard Sergio Pardo Koke was an early name to be linked with the Hornets last summer;  instead, he moved from Marseilles to Aris Thessaloniki in Greece, where he has hit eight in fifteen in helping his new side to fourth in the Greek Super League.  Easier to judge perhaps is Senegalese Moussa N’Diaye; linked with the Hornets on Ajaccio’s relegation last season, N’Diaye instead joined Auxerre, for whom he has failed to score in eighteen starts. 

Others come firmly under the “best off out of it” heading.  Peterborough’s Danny Crow was a protégé of Betty’s at Norwich, but has slipped to third choice striker at London Road this season and has been transfer listed this week by manager Darren Ferguson.  Carl Cort, meanwhile, has had another injury hit season and hasn’t played for Wolves since a knee operation in November.  Fakenham Town’s prolific Daniel Wright was linked with a big jump up to the Prem; instead he made the more modest – but still not inconsiderable – move to the Conference South where he signed for eventual champions Histon, scoring a brace in their final game of the season at Farnborough.  Meanwhile Shabazz Baidoo’s most significant contribution this season was as a chief protagonist in the ruck with the Chinese national side; his potential remains unfulfilled, and he’s considered fortunate to have a year left on his contract at Loftus Road – a contract that may have been provoked by our mooted interest last summer.  Finally, last summer’s triallist Joseph Desiré Job is currently Sedan’s top scorer with 8 in 23, but his side look like slipping out of Ligue 1, currently sitting second from bottom.

Elsewhere in the side, three of our supposed targets ended up playing for Colin at Sheffield United; Matthew Kilgallon, of the three, is perhaps the most unfortunate for us to have missed out on.  He’s not had much of a look in at Bramall Lane as yet since arriving from Leeds, but has looked composed when called upon, and impressed hugely in the game last weekend.  Ex-PNE Claude Davis is another centre-half who we were allegedly chasing; he reportedly punctuates otherwise solid performances with catastrophic errors.  We have a few defenders in that category already, and probably did well missing out on an injury-prone one.  Finally utility man Mikele Leigertwood has failed to establish himself since arriving from Palace; again, one who doesn’t look like he could have changed the path of our season.

The quest for a right winger didn’t really end with Smudger’s return; we could still do with a conventional winger who could stick the ball in the box on a regular basis.  Of those linked twelve months ago Carlos Edwards has probably done the best for himself, bailing out of Luton to sign for promoted Sunderland.  Jobi McAnuff has done enough as Palace have re-established themselves in mid-table under the stupefyingly dull Peter Taylor to warrant them trying to tie him down to a new contract, which probably means that someone’s sniffing around, whilst Wayne Routledge’s future as a victim of Spurs’ policy of buying any young British midfielder who can kick straight is unclear;  his hit-and-miss loan season at Fulham may yet end in relegation.

In central midfield, a couple of nasty oiks were mentioned that might have given us an edge but at some cost to our integrity;  Lee Hendrie has seen more football this season than for a few years, albeit largely on loan at Stoke City.  At thirty, his potential is taking it’s time being fulfilled.  Lee Bowyer was another narrow escape;  he has played a bit part in West Ham’s embarrassing season. The only other midfielder we were linked with was Lillestrom’s Slovenian international Robert Koren, who has impressed since joining West Brom in January.

The number of left-backs we were linked with last summer bears testimony to how little was expected of Jordan Stewart;  Jordan has probably been the most positive surprise of the season, and is one of few with a first team place nailed down for next term.  Nonetheless nobody would have objected to the return of Paul Robinson from West Brom; after another strong season (peppered, as ever, by two red cards and another eleven yellows) he is being linked with a move to Newcastle United.  Everton’s Gary Naysmith has again been used sparingly by David Moyes, with Joleon Lescott establishing himself out of position at left back; he might have done a job, but doesn’t offer an obvious improvement on Stewart.  Much less so Des Byrne of Bohemians, one of the more leftfield rumours last summer.  Byrne has barely featured for Bohs this season, missing out a big chunk of the campaign, presumably through injury.

Two of the other left-backs linked were based in Scotland; Celtic’s Charlie Mulgrew ended up joining Wolves in part-exchange for Lee Naylor, and is another to have an injury-addled season.  Eddie Malone  was an early name mentioned;  the youngster eventually moved from Clyde to St.Mirren in the January window, and after a couple of appearances it’s fair to say that he wouldn’t have impacted our fortunes greatly, whatever his potential.  The final left back to be mentioned was Adam Drury; the Norwich captain has had a so-so season as the Canaries have fumbled along in the Championship, and eyebrows were raised as he was recently granted a four year contract.

In central positions, we were linked with a number of old codgers in search of a contract.  Stephane Henchoz managed to wangle one out of his old club Blackburn but hasn’t featured a great deal, and with the recruitment of Christopher Samba and Andre Ooijer due to return from injury his days at Ewood would seem to be numbered.  Nor did he endear himself with some disparaging remarks after our victory over Rovers in January.  Alain Goma, meanwhile, didn’t appear to find himself a new club on being released from Fulham.  Chris Perry has generally impressed when used at West Brom having left Charlton, but has been at the centre of a couple of dressing room bust-ups; accusations of a “big time charlie” attitude don’t exactly endear him.  Christian Dailly was another name mentioned, but age is beginning to catch up with him, and the stock of West Ham defenders has never been high – something that won’t have been improved by the January recruitment of Calum Davenport, linked in the sumemr as well as being tied into a possible Spurs deal for Ashley Young mid-season.  Davenport has struggled with his new side, and his quite pathetic booking for shouting at Doris before his penalty at Upton Park was one of several highlights of a rare good day this season.

Two more centre backs played most of their football on loan from their new clubs – Sam Sodje chose Reading over the Hornets on leaving Brentford, but has spent the second half of the season covering for Curtis Davies’ injury at West Brom., not always successfully.  Gabriel Zakuani, meanwhile, moved from Orient to Fulham, but has formed part of the loan army at Stoke City of late, who have lost only one in eight in which he has featured.

Former Arsenal comedy turn and unlikely Euro 2004 star Igor Stepanovs was also mentioned on being released by Grasshopper last summer;  he has since turned out for Jurmela in Finland, and is now with Esbjerg, struggling in the bottom half of the Danish League. More of a coup would have been Ghanaian John Mensah, who continues to impresse in Ligue 1 with Rennes – whom he had only joined from Cremonese in the January of last year – and is still being pursued by Reading.  Peter Ramage, too, might have been a good call although he hasn’t featured for Newcastle since January;  recent rumours link him with a season long loan to Wolves next season.

The two right backs linked have generally acquitted themselves well at their new clubs;  Wigan have had that “difficult second season” in the top flight, but Emmerson Boyce has generally acquitted himself well, something that will not have come as a surprise to those who watched him against us for Palace last season.  Meanwhile former Watford loanee Stephen Kelly has gradually established himself at repromoted Birmingham after a sticky start.

Finally the only goalkeeper, other than Ben Foster, to be linked last summer was Australian Croat Joey Didulica, who eventually signed for Dutch chancers AZ67 Alkmaar from Austria Vienna.  Didulica has had an injury-troubled season as AZ67 have had to field five different goalkeepers in the Eredivisie.

So overall… a few that got away who might have been out of our range anyway for one reason or another, a fair few that we were best off out of, and only one or two where a realistic punt might have strengthened our hand.  Who’d be a manager, I ask you?

Watermelons to Reading 01/05/2007

Posted by Matt Rowson in Five-a-day Awaydays.
4 comments

Correctly called by two punters late last week, “Watermelons to Reading” was always going to be the big finish.  My co-editor has, conveniently, wussed out again, but are you, unlike him, up to this largest of challenges?  Slices, as has been suggested, are a cop-out…

 (This is obviously a bit of a mission, but should provide some entertainment.  After all, you can’t be going for the bloody football…)