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Just the Jobi 13/06/2007

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

This article’s not really about the tremendously positive recruitment of Jobi McAnuff; I just noted that the “open goal” headline above seemed to have gone untaken…

It’s significant, however, that his fee represents the most we’ve shelled out on a player since we were last in the position of floating down from the Premiership on parachute payments – in terms of a transfer fee, at any rate. And despite having tempted fate at the start of the season just gone by insisting that 1999-2000 would bear no resemblance to what was to come (ultimately it did, in one key detail in particular), it perhaps makes sense to reflect back on the following season when, as now, we had some justification for looking ahead with optimism.

Nestled in the middle of a somewhat eventful six-year spell it’s tempting to overlook GT’s final season. In the previous three campaigns we had first won the Division Three championship (or whatever it was called back then, I lose track), then the play-offs in theatrical style followed by immediate relegation. Post-Taylor, of course, came the Vialli catastrophe, and in the following season, Ray Lewington’s first, the financial fall-out with a Cup Semi Final to boot.

But 2000/01 contained its fair share of highs and lows. The start of the season saw us optimistic, as described by ig’s season preview which nonetheless contained ominous portents of what was to follow the next summer… the squad had been exposed in the Premiership, not only by two promotions in two seasons on the back of relatively modest investment but also by a calamitous run of injuries. The anticipation was that the injured players would return, and that the eye-catching recruitment of Allan Nielsen and Espen Baardsen would leave us with a squad more than capable of pushing for an instant return.

It didn’t quite work out like that. Nielsen probably goes down as a success, even at £2.25m, but the same can’t really be said of Baardsen whose occasional strong performances were too isolated. And as for the injuries… Johnno didn’t feature until the end of the season, Nicky Wright made one forlorn appearance in the Cup defeat to Birmingham, Peter Kennedy didn’t play until December and Ben Iroha never came back at all. Gifton did make a return, but never with the devastating effect that had been hoped for and anticipated, Allan Smart barely featured and Nordin Wooter’s frills-to-consequence ratio got worse, not better, in the face of less stiff competition. Even Heidar Helguson, encouragingly single-minded in his half-season in the top flight, betrayed a fragile self-confidence that took him a couple of years to get over.

It didn’t start badly though. We won twelve and drew three of our first fifteen league games, and whilst that astonishing record which kept us on the heels of runaway Fulham may have slightly flattered our performances there were some terrific moments in that run too. Sheffield United were one of several sides demolished at Vicarage Road, one of eight three-plus goal hauls by mid-October. Away from home an extraordinary 4-3 win at Blackburn will live long in the memory of those who braved the petrol blockades to witness it, whilst a 2-0 victory at Nottingham Forest ranks amongst the best team performances of Taylor’s second spell.

And then, just as dramatically, it all fell apart. Some might point towards the effortless canter with which a Manchester United reserve side featuring now familiar names like Greening, Brown and O’Shea knocked us out of the League Cup, but I think we might have ridden that. An ugly, joyless defeat at home to a struggling Sheffield Wednesday was the sucker punch we didn’t see coming. We had finally overhauled Fulham and were eight points clear of third-placed Birmingham with a game in hand. By the time we lost 5-0 to Fulham at an icy Craven Cottage on Boxing Day, eight games but only a single point later – a run that featured a defeat to an appalling Huddersfield side that ranks amongst the worst performances in living memory – we had slipped to eighth and never refound that momentum.

As for the rest of it… well we won a few games, mercifully, but lost a few too – the sorts of games , West Brom away, Grimsby away, that we always seem to lose but that you can’t really get away with if you’re really intent on getting promoted. Nonetheless we were still hovering on the edge of the play-offs when Taylor announced his end-of-season departure at the end of March, thanks in no small part to Tommy Mooney turning attacking the far post into an art form for much of the season. Somewhat inevitably we tailed off and finished ninth some five points off the play-offs. The final game of the season at Burnley was as miserable a trip as many have made, even by Turf Moor standards; we saw GT off as the locals gurned behind him post pitch-invasion but by that point we had witnessed not only our traditional Turf Moor defeat, but a side much more limited than our own leap-frogging us into seventh. As if to rub salt into the wound, the end-of-season silver lining Lee Cook was carried off having caught his studs, not to play again until the end of the following March.

We had a talented side that season, a side that ought to have made a much better fist of things really, even in retrospect. That the side capsized owed something to Taylor’s impending departure perhaps, his understandable and utterly forgivable lack of stomach for the rebuilding job that was to go so horrifically wrong under Vialli. But it owed an awful lot to the side suddenly, after three years of first irrepressible success, then success in spite of expectation, then a tiresome, galling, but not unpredictable failure, experiencing the weight of expectation for the first time in the face of a drop in form.

For the first time in years, certainly for the first time under Boothroyd and probably the first time since Vialli, Watford will be expected to win games next season. The signs are good – we’ve held on to most of our main men at the time of writing – Ben Foster’s inevitable departure notwithstanding. We’ve recruited well so far, with the suggestion of more to come. The spirit that defined the promotion season was admirably maintained throughout the Prem campaign – we were regularly outclassed, often beaten, but rarely before we stepped out onto the pitch. And yet here’s a new challenge, something Betty’s not had to face before.

A lot will depend on how well he meets it.