And finally, before the World Cup wipes our memories completely, some thunks on the season just passed….
1. “He’ll get us relegated!” shrieked a depressing number of messages to Three Counties Radio as a heavy defeat at Leicester made our situation still more precarious. Which makes you wonder whether some people have been paying attention at all: the idea that it would’ve been Malky Mackay who “got us relegated” is akin to blaming the king’s men for Humpty Dumpty’s unfortunate demise.
Already in desperate financial trouble, Watford Football Club was deserted by its manager last summer; key players followed in varying circumstances – some predictable, others much less so – before the transfer window closed. Other players didn’t, much as we’d have liked them to. Boardroom squabbling – you’ll have your own view, no doubt – in mid-season very nearly tipped the ship over. The financial trouble didn’t get any better; it just became a fact of life, a steady and persistent drizzle that never went away.
In those circumstances, to end the season more or less intact is nothing other than a miracle. The same will apply if we’re still here in twelve months’ time.
2. Much was made of the manager’s relentless conservatism: in the main, any changes beyond those forced by suspensions and injuries appeared to be the subject of many hours of deliberation, brows furrowed as arguments and counter-arguments were weighed and compared. That was undeniably frustrating, particularly when the changes required were during a game. “Cautious” would be rather an understatement.
But there is a flip-side to that. The faith kept with the core of the squad, with a line-up that you can recite from memory in a way that’s rarely true in an era of substantial squads and media-led knee-jerk reactions…well, that faith was eventually justified by a spirit that seemed to hold even when things got very tough indeed and by performances from key players that ultimately saw us through.
You can, of course, suggest that earlier changes might’ve avoided the end-of-season crisis altogether…although you do so at the risk of using Will Hoskins as potential saviour for the umpteenth, and mercifully last, time. Me, I tend to think that the manager might’ve been right – and not a little brave – to stick with it.
3. Although we surely could’ve done something when it came to the away games. Like driving as fast as possible in the opposite direction.
In many ways, the course of the season changed as much from what didn’t happen as what did: a club so completely dependent on its home form can’t afford to lose vital fixtures. By the time the winter freeze relented and home games became a possibility once more, albeit on an unplayable pitch, continual setbacks on our travels meant that we were under tremendous pressure. Games in hand are all very well, but you could see the sudden, stricken terror in that wretched defeat to Peterborough.
4. Which is a shame, really, because it’s not what the season should be remembered for. Nor does it accurately represent the performance of players and management across the whole season, the credit or debit to be carried forward. Of course, someone who barely saw an away game will have a skewed perspective…but that in itself makes for a welcome change, for it’s been a little while since Vicarage Road regulars have seen the very best of a Watford team.
And that very best was simply dazzling. A side cobbled together from bits and pieces played football that was fluent, mobile and, crucially, viciously direct; where we’d expected to sit through months of grinding struggle, we were treated to something extravagant and expansive, a skiffle band striking up a symphony. A Watford team that played with hearts on sleeves provided some wonderful, enduring moments: Tom Cleverley skirting round the Sheffield Wednesday defence to cross for Henri Lansbury to seal victory; Heidar Helguson flying in at the far post to level against Leicester; Danny Graham belting in that volley for the ten men desperately holding West Brom; Jon Marks’ commentary (“Doyley! LLOOOYD DOYLEEEY!”).
We weren’t always that great, of course. But this is Watford we’re talking about…and we really were buoyantly, brilliantly great on more occasions than you could reasonably expect, more than enough occasions to make it seem vitally important that it didn’t all end unhappily in May.
5. It didn’t, so we start again in August. Nothing’s changed: it’s every bit as hard to look forward to the coming season as it was a year ago. Except that it was possible once and it must be possible again.
In many ways, football is the least of our worries; it will be for some time to come, you suspect. The reality of the Championship is that the financial equation no longer adds up. It probably never did…but the pull of Premiership multi-millions has ensured that the sums involved even at our level are sufficiently ludicrous that clubs are fated to search endlessly for someone rich and foolhardy enough to take a punt. Or, more likely, someone with not altogether benign motives. The truth of football’s love affair with “Big Business” is that it’s created a whole load of utterly failed businesses, marooned far from anyone who cares enough to rescue them.
For now, Lord Ashcroft continues to prop the whole thing up until someone comes along to buy us; the appointment of an independent board does at least end the unseemly mid-season squabbling and provide some long-term, hearts-in-the-right-place planning. The Russos continue to pop up every now and again, their motives mysterious and their finances somewhat thin. The new football business model is to buy it up and sell it on, much in the style of “Homes Under the Hammer”, only with Craig Bellamy instead of a new fitted kitchen. It all worked out brilliantly for Portsmouth, clearly.
Who? Why? What? Frankly, I have no idea whatsoever where we’ll be in five years’ time…except that I’m not all that eager to find out. You know, these might still turn out to be the good ol’ days…
End of Term Report Part 6 12/06/2010Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
Right. One new monitor later the PC is sorted. Meanwhile, the World Cup appears to have started so I’m going to rattle this lot off…
27- Mat Sadler
Another without a first-team game for eighteen months, Sadler played twenty games on loan for a Stockport side that sank from Division 3 without trace – messageboard accounts unanimously underwhelmed. One does wonder what’s gone on here, since Sadler never looked quite bad enough to fall that low. It’s quite conceivable (though not confirmed, to my knowledge) that further appearances in yellow will trigger an extra payment to Birmingham. If so, we have a player on a high salary who won’t be doing much to earn it for another season.
Next Season: One imagines that a settlement might be discussed. It would seem unlikely that Sadler’s going to be walking into a similar contract when his current one expires.
28- John Eustace
Few comebacks have been as comprehensive or compelling as John Eustace’s resurgence last season. After a reasonably convincing first half-season at the Vic, Eustace fell out of form and favour under Brendan Rodgers. Popular consensus was that “his legs had gone”, and many of us mentally consigned him to the same “on his way” bin as so many of his contemporaries – including, significantly, Leigh Bromby and Mat Sadler, all three having been signed to plug the gaps in the doomed 2008 promotion push. Eustace departed on loan to Derby and returned on the final day of the season with his temporary employers. The nauseating memory of the Russos and Rodgers parading around the pitch – nauseating in hindsight, merely uncomfortable at the time – is the standout memory from that day. But we also saw a lithe, mobile, very-far-from-knackered Eustace getting Derby’s consolation and looking the part. As this campaign started he was expected to be peripheral, but once news broke that he had volunteered to renegotiate his contract to make pitch time more viable Eustace was definitively back in the fold. He went on to provide drive, aggression and, yes, leadership from the centre of the pitch. His penchant for dinked through balls might still demand a little patience, but you won’t find many complaining that of all those on high, expiring salaries John was the one we tried to keep.
Next Season: Having turned down Leeds to sign a new contract, John’s elevation to cult status is all but guaranteed. Good job, we’ll be relying on him heavily.
29- Michael Bryan
The vast majority of Michael’s cameos having come away from home (five minutes at home to Scunny the extent of his Vicarage Road career to date), I must confess that my infant-restricted away attendance leaves me judging Bryan largely on hearsay and reputation. Being a regular on the bench all season even when he went a long time without getting any action marked him out as one we had hopes for; he isn’t the first young winger to have looked tricky and impish and encouraging, many of his predecessors failed to become any more than that. A new contract and an international cap of all things (albeit for an injury-ravaged Northern Ireland) suggest that he could be one to watch though.
Next Season: Minus Cleverley and Harley, Bryan’s involvement is likely to be upped still further.
31- Marvin Sordell
Having emerged with a promising youth team reputation into the first team picture at the start of the campaign only to be packed off on loan to Tranmere (and a disappointing one goal in six starts), it seemed that Sordell might be going the way of Theo Robinson… a striker whose limitations had been noted internally, quashing our baseless expectations before we’d had a chance to judge for ourselves. Instead, Sordell was afforded a couple of games at the end of the season and, whilst still raw, did more than enough to suggest that there’s something to work with. Fast, awkward and aggressive are all things we could do with more of.
Next Season: Sordell would appear to be very close to a first choice pick given the current squad. One assumes it won’t stay that way, but either way Marvin’s another who one suspects we’ll be seeing more of.
33- Lee Hodson
Yeah, sure, there are limitations. Like getting exposed in the air at the far post, like occasionally being caught out defensively, like not quite being up to a 46+ game season just yet perhaps. Big deal. He’s eighteen, he started 31 games last season and on that basis he looks bloody ace. Quick, positive, one of the best crossers of the ball in the squad. Hodson might end up playing a very large number of games for Watford.
Next Season: At eighteen, already an established member of the squad.
Right. With due respect to the likes of Rob Kiernan, Eddie Oshodi and Gavin Massey, not to mention the almost mythical Ryan Noble, that’s yer lot. Now where’s my remote control…
End of Term Report Part 5 05/06/2010Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
OK, so the study situation is that the study’s looking grand but the PC is knackered. Or at least the monitor is playing silly buggers, the power light flicking on and off. Any advice welcome. Meanwhile, this is written on my wife’s laptop, and I’ve only got a half hour while she watches a recording of “Doctors”, so…
21- Lewis Young
It was always a bit unfair. Had Lewis not had a famous older brother, he wouldn’t even merit an entry here… it’s been eighteen months since he had a sniff of the first team, and longer since he looked like having a career at Watford. And yet… big brother exploded into a Premiership star and so we looked hopefully on, watching, waiting. And Lewis went to Hereford on loan, where he was Ashley Young’s little brother again. He needs a run somewhere to get over that… and he’s got something, a bit of pace, a bit of cleverness, but – based on the memory of eighteen months ago – still the frailty that Ashley grew out of. See, there I go again.
Next Season: Will get a pro contract somewhere, Division Four probably, and hopefully out of Ashley’s shadow.
22- Craig Cathcart
I have a ten month old daughter, Sofia. She’s lovely. Bouncy, cheerful, placid. She’s sitting up, babbling, trying to explore. She’ll be crawling before long, and hopefully she’ll have teeth too, goodness knows she’s been chewing her fingers for long enough.
She hasn’t always been at this stage. She was a tiny tot once, 3lb 10oz when she was born. Really, really small. Thing is, I can’t remember her being that small at all. I don’t need convincing that it happened. Babies are born, they are small they get bigger, I get it. Her little red book documents that she was once really very small indeed. I just don’t remember…
Similarly, Craig Cathcart played twelve games on loan from Manchester United at the start of the season. I know that it happened, the match programme says so. But I struggle to remember anything much about it, beyond a sense of being slightly underwhelmed…. Soccerbase tells me that he disappeared injured from Vicarage Road a couple of minutes after that goal against QPR. Okay.
Next Season: Sofia will be walkig by the end of the year. Cathcart will be on loan somewhere. Preston, maybe.
23- Jordan Parkes
Another who we’d not seen in first team action for getting on for two years, Parkes’ failure to secure a loan this season when made available was all the confirmation required that the full back who caught the eye as the youngest member of the team that got to the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup in 2005 wasn’t likely to earn a contract extension. His few first team outings were high on exuberance but low on defensive discipline; that wasn’t seen as an insurmountable problem since young players, particularly talented young players, can learn. Jordan evidently didn’t.
Next Season: Like Young, you’d back him to get a contract somewhere. Stevenage again maybe. Or Cambridge.
24 #1- Mike Williamson
Not a lot to say here really, beyond what is blindingly obvious. One, Williamson is a terrific defender who immediately sorted out our back line on his arrival at the start of 2009 and whose dramatic removal from it all but reversed the effect seven months later. Two, a player unprofessional enough to sulk out of an away trip to Swansea because we’re playing hardball over a potential Premiership move for a recently signed, contracted individual isn’t someone we should shed too many tears about whatever the cost to the side on the pitch. I want Watford to do well, and Williamson was certainly an asset, but I want to want Watford to do well far more; I want to like the guys in yellow. Mackay claimed to have made his peace when an unlikely return to the Vic in the wake of Fratton Park chaos was mooted in January, but better offers were always going to be on the table.
Next Season: Good enough to be a solid option for Newcastle in the top flight. Our defence still needs him, or someone like him. Never mind.
24 #2- Martin Taylor
Ultimately Williamson’s replacement both in the middle of defence and in the no 24 shirt, Taylor provided some painfully needed height in the side even if the leadership that his pedigree suggested hasn’t really been evident. In truth, Taylor has looked rusty and fallible at times, although after scarcely 100 games in six seasons at Birmingham (and none prior to joining us at the end of January) perhaps we should reserve judgment until a proper pre-season has been undertaken. Only occasionally rusty however… on his better days Taylor has been commanding and authoritative, and to refer back to the last entry I’ll take honest but fallible over the reverse.
Next Season: One of few experienced players in the squad, we need Taylor to be a fixture in the middle of defence.
25- Nathan Ellington
Good God. I mean, really. Greece. And a team sponsored by Skoda; I know that being bought up by Volkswagen means that the old jokes don’t really carry any traction any more. But really. What a bloody disgrace of a career. This is a man, remember, who Manchester United wanted to sign from Wigan until he got injured. Who somehow became a guy who completely failed to make an impact at, if we’re honest, a fair-to-middling-on-a-good-day second division side and then got packed off on loan to the only buggers who’d have him. One telling contribution to this season was a late, late equaliser at Ipswich. Not nearly enough.
Next Season: Accounts differ as to whether Skoda Xanthi signed him for the calendar year or for the season. Either way, he’s a year left on his contract and I can’t imagine that a mid-table Greek side is stumping up his full salary. Ironic really; the manager who signed him was very keen on encouraging us to “move on” on his arrival. Eighteen months and two managers after his departure, his legacy prevents us from doing so.
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End of Term Report Part 4 02/06/2010Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
One third of the “actual” summer break (as defined by WFC fixtures, natch) pretty much gone. Half of what’s left is the World Cup (splendid). I think I might survive another summer.
Speaking of the World Cup, it’s galloping in fast, so I’d better get a shifty on…
16- Richard Lee
Had I been a bit quicker off the mark in getting to Part 4 of this series, this entry might have read a little differently. As it is… one of the mainstays of the Watford squad (if not the first team) suddenly isn’t there any more and it feels rather odd. As if someone had come into your living room and switched a couple of pictures around, or slightly shifted the furniture. Something’s different… but the analogy tells it’s own story. Because the thing that’s different, much as Richard Lee comes across as a splendid bloke, a very decent backup keeper and not a bad first choice keeper actually, well, the thing that’s different hasn’t been playing that big a role for a year or two and his departure won’t have a seismic affect on the team. Two Carling Cup outings this season constitute his only active playing time since before Brendan Rodgers was appointed in November 2008; a long forgotten trip to Barnsley (other than by those for whom it was an increasingly rare and rather chaotic venture onto the away circuit, sniff) the last League appearance of 92 for the Hornets. In reality, he should probably have moved on earlier; Scott Loach’s decision to sign a new contract in January probably the push that Richard needed. Had he hung around his chance as first choice might have come again but Lee, like the similarly aged Ben Foster at Old Trafford, evidently decided that he’d had enoug of waiting.
Next Season: A fine recruit for Brentford, you’ll struggle to find a Watford fan that doesn’t wish him well.
17- Dale Bennett
One of the season’s most exciting developments was the emergence of Dale Bennett as more than just a promising youngster. Jay Demerit’s departure was perhaps inevitable, but the effect will be cushioned to a point by Bennett now being a genuine, regular option in the centre of defence on the back of some quite terrific performances at the tail end of the season.
It wasn’t all plain sailing; a run of games in September concluded with a chaotic evening’s defending all round against Coventry after which Dale was quietly withdrawn back to the subs’ bench. He reappeared in the starting eleven at Preston at the beginning of April and didn’t look back, his performances showing off his pace, bravery, and a fine defensive instinct that too many of his defensive colleagues don’t appear to share. A real find.
Next Season: Am I the only one slightly anxious at Dale not having penned a new contract yet? If he hasn’t been being watched then certain scouts aren’t doing their jobs… but if our policy is to invest in potential, we should be moving heaven and earth to get him tied down.
18- Will Hoskins
It’s kind of a relief, in a way. Much as Hoskins represents wasted talent (wasted to this point) and a misspent investment (on our part), the lingering hope remained that the suggestions of ability that we occasionally saw glimpses of would crystallise into something more material and worthwhile. A little bit of application would have gone a long way, but it says a lot that none of his three very different managers at Vicarage Road kept patience with Hoskins for very long. Those that bemoaned his limited opportunities rather glossed over the fact that he’d never really demanded more sustained involvement… one of those players who perpetually looked like a decent striker having an off day. In the end, his limited involvement despite our lack of options, and despite Mackay’s encouraging noises about his improved attitude to training, left the announcement of his departure as less than surprising.
Next Season: League One beckons, probably to a larger club and a manager who thinks he can make something of the talent. Aidy Boothroyd would be a candidate, if he hadn’t been there already. Sheffield Wednesday feels like a decent bet.
19- Liam Henderson
There’s the obvious thing to say, and there’s the perhaps not-quite-so-obvious thing to say. The former, of course, is that Liam hasn’t really done it yet, or really looked like doing it, or really looked much like a professional footballer. It’s been said on these pages before – and not just by me – but if you really have no pace at all then you need the rest of your game to be tight as hell. Liam’s isn’t,not yet; 21 appearances off the bench without a start for the Hornets must be a record (no, I don’t know…), and there’s not been a goal or much of a sniff of one, either for us or in 2+6 for Hartlepool in 2008/09. And yet… and here’s the not so obvious thing, maybe… Malky’s persisting for a reason. A quite extraordinary goal return (against admittedly more limited opposition) for the stiffs suggests that there’s more there than we’ve seen, and there have been occasional glimpses of something to work with during his first team outings, glimpses that startle simply due to looking so out of place. With the ball at his feet Henderson has something. The rest needs working on.
Next Season: A new contract means that Malky is backing his man. There’s a lot of improvement required, but not one to write off just yet.
20- Tom Cleverley
It doesn’t feel quite right giving “Player of the Year” to
a loanee someone on loan. I thought the same when Ben Foster won it… I’m not sure why really. Perhaps it’s because the award puts a player on a pedestal, officially rubber stamps the guy as a Watford hero, perhaps even a legend. And yet this is someone that we’re saying goodbye to.
Anyway. Emotional confusion aside, there is absolutely no denying that Tom Cleverley was our most important, significant, creative, dynamic player last season and completely deserved the award. Whilst his level of performance didn’t quite survive the full season without a wobble (as Malky has pointed out, that’s a bit ask of a youngster, any youngster), he nonetheless brought back memories of Kevin Phillips; someone so obviously belonging to a level above the one he was playing at, destined to be devastatingly effective when surrounded by better players. A fine, fine signing it will be interesting to chart his future proress; you wouldn’t rule out a first team career for him at Old Trafford, but his future will be in the top flight one way or another. Will be interesting to see if Sir Alex loans us a similarly prodigious talent next season; I guess we could do without sending his fledgling stars back injured, although this one was inoccuous enough and, unlike Foster, we didn’t pointlessly play him with the injury, so fingers crossed…
Next Season: Rumours are of Newcastle sniffing around. If I were him I’d take a top flight loan, but he’s got the ability to make it at United.