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DVD Review: Watford Season Review 2010/11 26/06/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

Watford Season Review DVDIt’s an odd thing, a Season Review DVD. A no-brainer for Watford or any football club, selling a compendium of clips that you have the rights to to the only audience likely to be interested in purchasing such a thing. And yet the concept feels increasingly passé with the advent of BBC’s weekly highlights show and instantly available clips on the internet; the more so when, by this point in the summer, we’re all more interested in looking forward than back whatever the close-season comings and goings.

Which is a bit of a shame really; it’s not as if as football fans we don’t wallow in nostalgia, even when the going’s good. I should know. Last season, lest we forget, was one of the most enjoyable for some time; on the basis that the majority of us will only purchase a product such as this after a season that’s worth remembering it shouldn’t be written off lightly.

This is particularly true given the nature of last season’s side. A stout defensive outlook has its place, but a Season Highlights DVD isn’t one of them; instead, last season’s 50 league and cup games yielded 160 goals; 85 for us, 75 against. All are here, and the DVD’s no-bullshit format, rattling from game to game with next to no padding exacerbates the impression of avalanche. (Incidentally, I’m not a fan of watching people talking about football if the alternative is, you know, watching football, not even those with something interesting to input or context to provide – and these are precious few in number. No better way to watch Match of the Day than starting half-an-hour behind, forwarding through the guff between games to finish at the same time).

The highlights are briskly presented, with some inevitable inconsistency of detail; matches that were covered live on TV tend to be afforded more than just the goals, and the need to not omit the season’s two goalless draws entirely (no I’m not going to remind you) means that a lower interest threshold is set in these cases. It may also be true that some of the inconsistencies result from the fact that the team selecting the clips isn’t reviewing the games through my mind’s eye. This is suggested by the inclusion of Danny Graham’s spurned penalty in the opening minutes at home to Cardiff (which I must have slept through), but also the omission of relevant-feeling extra bits… the (clearly) offside goal in the closing minutes at home to Swansea when we briefly thought that we’d pulled back a three-goal deficit as we went very direct in the second half, Dean Leacock not being penalised for a fould on Graham at Derby, a game-turning moment.

But all in all it’s a decent addition to the shelf, and one that will be revisited. The action is snappy, overall the stuff you want is there and the stuff you don’t is not. Plus, this new fangled DVD nonsense (all my other season reviews are VHS…) means its painfully easy to flick between, say, Danny Graham’s mental winner against Leicester, John Eustace’s scissor kick against Coventry and (my personal fave) Andrew Taylor’s bomb against Pompey. I’m sure that my 1997/98 review, for example, will still be wound to the point on the tape just after Tommy Mooney’s winner against Bristol Rovers.

So… if you’re a nostalgia freak at all, this is one to consider, available from the club shop, Amazon and Play.com amongst others. Now, if you’re all going to Boreham Wood clap your hands…

 

The Laird is dead… 18/06/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
69 comments

In the end, his departure was anything but a surprise. As discussed earlier in the summer, there were reasons to believe that Mackay might see this as the right time to go irrespective of other recent developments. The failure to deliver the new pitch, the re-engagement with Saracens and particularly the departure of Julian Winter won’t have encouraged him to hang around but probably weren’t decisive.

In the end the only surprise is perhaps the destination, heralded by a fortnight’s worth of rumour and reports linking him to the job at Cardiff City. The Bluebirds’ failure to gain promotion saw several senior players leave at the end of their contracts, and the suggestion that this would be the point where season after season of putting money into chasing the dream came back to haunt them. Hell, we first thought that six years ago, when City signed Neal Ardley off us having had trouble paying their own players earlier in that campaign.

All of which doesn’t leave our own financial situation looking too rosy if Cardiff’s a better option… but perhaps part of the attraction is that there’s a rebuilding job to do at Cardiff, a clean slate of sorts. No such requirement at Vicarage Road, of which more later.

After a brief defiance of Cardiff’s request to formally approach Mackay, Bassini and Watford relented – perhaps realising that there was more to be lost than gained in obstructing a manager that wanted out. The details of our financial settlement aren’t known, but Bassini has publicly sent him on his way with the club’s best wishes.

And heaven knows, those best wishes have been well earned. Mackay joined the Hornets from West Ham, one of the many recruits from Aidy Boothroyd’s little black book in the late summer of 2005. A key man, a leader, in the promotion side in his first season, Mackay continued to play a role in the Premiership campaign before gradually easing into coaching duties the following season.

On Boothroyd’s dismissal in 2008, Mackay had his first spell at the reins before Brendan Rodgers appointment. A slightly revisionist reflection on that period had Malky as unlucky not to be appointed to the hot seat full-time; I don’t remember him being a strong candidate at the time, the assistant is rarely a leading contender when the main man has been sacked.

Either way, Brendan Rodgers upping sticks to Reading at the end of that campaign meant that Malky didn’t have to wait long for his opportunity. Novice managers don’t tend to get given cushy jobs, it’s true, but few will have had to deal with quite as challenging a first six months of management. The unsettled situation that he inherited was exacerbated by the departure of senior players in the August, three of which in the final week of the transfer window. Some of these will have been planned, the forced sale of the graceless Mike Williamson certainly wasn’t.

That December, Watford’s unstable boardroom situation came to a head; however uncomfortable Jimmy Russo’s antics were from our distance, they would have been far more destabilising inside the club. Through it all, Malky remained utterly professional, presenting a calm demeanour with an attitude in interviews that was simultaneously engaging, pleasant, and utterly guarded and uninformative, in contrast with the styles of his two predecessors.

On the pitch, iffy away form couldn’t disguise the fact that we were vastly exceeding expectations with a new side built around the re-engaged Eustace, newly signed Graham and loans Cleverley and Lansbury playing some occasionally devastating stuff. The season ended with a brush with relegation that was closer than form earlier in the season had suggested, a situation not helped by a build up of postponed fixtures on that pitch.

Last summer saw more departures, significantly Jay Demerit on top of the loan signings. With an even shallower squad to work with, hopes for this campaign weren’t high… and yet Mackay delivered even more vibrant football, making a mockery of our previous problems away from home with eye-catching wins at both the sides destined for automatic promotion, as well as an awesome 6-1 triumph at a Millwall side previously unbeaten at the New Den in ten months.

Still it wasn’t plain sailing, as two loan players made a big enough impact in the first half of the campaign to be retained by their clubs unexpectedly in the January to the detriment of the side. If the results dipped in the second half of the campaign, fourteenth still constitutes well above par. Frankly, when one considers the bloodied noses, the emerging army of youngsters and the scorned expectations I’ve not enjoyed a season as much since we were promoted in 1999.

Most of all, Mackay, a rookie manager, was confident enough to trust those around him and the system that was being built at Watford, in part by the also recently departed head of recruitment John Stephenson. A system so utterly sensible, so demonstrably, extraordinarily successful that one is left praying that the dramatic changes at the club over the last days, weeks, months don’t lead to its abandonment as much as one rues the loss of an excellent manager.

Because none of the multitude of factors that have lead to us sitting here with a new owner and head of recruitment but minus chief executive, manager and centre-forward reflect any inadequacy of that system. This thing ain’t broke and doesn’t need fixing… so the last thing the club needs now is a headstrong manager with a broom.

Such continuity as is available should be clung to without hesitation; Sean Dyche, a strong personality, a leader, with management aspirations, should surely be first, second and third choice for the newly vacant role at the top. No surprise that Mackay is already making noises about taking his assitant with him to Cardiff. To offer Dyche the job, an unspectacular option with no grandstanding or grand gestures, would do a great deal to restore confidence in the club and its new leadership after this most unsettling of weeks.

Glorious Summer? 09/06/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
19 comments

It’s unrealistic to expect football supporters of any club to take a newcomer on trust.

Supporting a football club is such a peculiar, irrational thing. More like being part of a family than being a “customer”, certainly few bodies of customers in other industries are simultaneously as loyal and demanding.

And suspicious. The status quo at board level at Watford was clearly untenable prior to Laurence Bassini’s takeover. Much as Lord Ashcroft appeared to support the business responsibly, a club where all three major shareholders want out is not one destined for epic progress, whatever the achievements of others. So someone had to come in, and that someone, whoever they were, would be parachuting themselves into a position as the head of the family. Of course there was going to be apprehension.

Large amounts of cash can sugar the pill, admittedly, but I’m not sure how many Manchester City fans would consider that they trusted that club’s wealthy benefactors. Another story. Certainly, in Bassini’s case, a history that involved bankruptcy, failed businesses, and no obvious basis or motivation for taking on Watford didn’t help his cause.

“Judge me by my actions,” was an early plea, and a wholly reasonable one. Certainly, one can only support Bassini’s stated intentions: sustainability, in particular. No starry-eyed fool this one, chasing the Premiership dream whither so many have floundered before leaving twitching corpses of football clubs in their wake. The development of the ground, the East Stand, the South West corner. Tick, tick. The Red Lion, the pitch. All good.

And we’ll continue to hold him to his request, to judge him on his actions. With Bassini having been in place such a short time, this would be an unreasonable point to draw any final conclusions. All we have at the moment is the earliest progress report.

Let’s tackle the player sales first, simultaneously the easiest and the hardest to assess. Easiest, because the issues involved are familiar and clear cut. Hardest, because the same assessment is particularly based on subjective judgment, there’s no right answer to gravitate to.

In the case of Danny Graham, who we’ve already discussed since his departure, any controversy can surely only stem from the transfer fee achieved rather than the inevitability of his leaving. For me… not a fantastic fee, but the mini-auction that might have had a little more legs clearly wasn’t progressing at a great pace. As for Buckley… well, if many Hornets forced their heads to rule their hearts in the Graham sale, the departure of Buckley (inevitable later, albeit the deal was completed first) allowed many to vent the frustration that being rational had kept contained. A good deal for me, this one, nonetheless. It hinges essentially on whether you see young Will improving or not; as previously discussed, I’ve got my doubts on that score and it appears that Malky had too. Another season like the last and nobody would have been offering seven figures for an inconsistent, if occasionally brilliant, winger in a year’s time.

So… certainly no worse than par for the player sales. Less positive all round was the decision to re-accommodate Saracens. There’s no argument that we need to consider all income streams of course, but a deal that was scarcely profitable financially smacks of a short-term prioritisation of cashflow. It also, indisputably, represents a quite dramatic change of tack from the hardball being played earlier in the negotiations.

This would be a mere irritant were it not for the apparent coincidence of the delay to the relaying of the pitch. Bassini’s explanation was that the levelling of the surface was a complex job requiring more time than was available this summer. If this is true, it places a question mark over the commitments made on arrival, the immediate relaying of the pitch being high on that list. Little value in such commitments if the ability to meet them hasn’t been verified. Nor does it bode well for the more expensive, complicated ground development projects. In delivering against his objectives, Bassini appears to have at least stumbled at the first hurdle by opting for decisions with shorter-term benefits. If we regard holding onto another major asset, Malky Mackay, as a priority, the ability to play the way he wants to play needs to be a priority too; one suspects he’d have taken a new pitch over a new player.

Most concerning of all, this week’s departure of erstwhile CEO Julian Winter. Nothing beyond the base facts are available; the least negative possibility is that Winter’s good work has been recognised elsewhere and he’s simply been made a much better offer to move on. We still lose out of course, but that wouldn’t really reflect upon Bassini and the new regime.

This doesn’t seem likely though. If he’s going to pastures greener, why not say so? What do the club have to lose by saying “Julian moves to Club X to take on role Y”? So… two plausible options. Winter has walked, which probably means that he thinks Bassini is an idiot. Or he’s been sacked, in which case Bassini is definitely an idiot… for there can be no doubt over Julian Winter’s value to Watford; his has been the hand at the tiller of the business whilst Malky has been reshaping the team from kids and scraps and his right to consequent acclaim is as great. Our club has been stable; it had no right to be.

Those who have had contact with him – and that there are many such people speaks volumes – talk of his candour, his persuasiveness, his honesty. Scarcely can an administrator have had a better profile at a football club. And as Bassini surely appreciated, Winter’s continued presence was apparent testimony to the integrity and soundness of his own plans, too. A reason to trust and believe in a situation where, as we discussed at the outset, trust is naturally outweighed by suspicion.

Too early to judge Bassini, certainly. But he’s already got significant ground to make up. We might learn a little more from tomorrow’s Q&A in the Watford Observer, which would itself constitute welcome progress as far as communication is concerned. Nature abhors a vaccuum, and some of the rumours to prosper in Bassini’s lack of candour so far are too ghastly to contemplate.

The doubts compete with the knowledge that we need Bassini to be a success. We’ll keep watching.

Golden Graham 08/06/2011

Posted by Ian Grant in Thoughts about things.
30 comments

It may seem like a daft premise for a farewell to the club’s and the division’s top scorer…but let’s forget about the goals for one moment. It was always about so much more than that, after all. The times when casual observers and fans of other clubs would comment on Danny Graham’s scoring record always made you feel a little bit smug, knowing that they’d missed the reason why you’d have his name on the back of your shirt if you weren’t too grown up for such things. Anyone can score a few goals; Scott Fitzgerald managed it, for pity’s sake. Not anyone can be Danny Graham.

From the very start, he had an apparently natural awareness of his surroundings that set him apart in the frantic bustley hustle of the Championship. Watching it all from high up in the stands, you don’t get many players who can see things long before you do, who can pick out runs that you haven’t spotted and anticipate events before they’ve unfolded; it’s just not that easy when you’ve got some ugly bruiser about to take your ankles away. The first month was barely out before we were describing Graham as “the fulcrum of it all”, the player with the ability to link together the ideas of Don Cowie, Tom Cleverley and, briefly, Tommy Smith in the final third.

That raw ability has since been welded to genuine authority. A lengthy dry spell put his place in jeopardy, echoing the increasing danger of relegation as the 2009/2010 season neared its close. The reaction from key players was emphatic, nigh-on revolutionary; with Jay Demerit heading for the exit, John Eustace became the captain elect, and others took up their places in the new order. For the first time in years, you looked at the dressing room and saw a structure that made sense: a proper, shouty captain with senior players unafraid of responsibility. A team of few egos but plenty of stars. Danny Graham wasn’t just the centre forward any more. He led the attack.

From then on, until he nigh on collapsed from exhaustion a few weeks ago, he was the best player in the division. End of. Adel Taarabt, my backside. Find me another striker with such technical accomplishment, then see whether they have Danny Graham’s genuine selflessness, his apparent love of doing it for the team and his relish for getting on with stuff that he could’ve left to others. Find someone with that uncanny vision, then see whether they can match his almost suicidal workrate, whether they’ll muck in and take the throw-ins too. Find a forward with goals against their name, then check whether they’re as dangerous as yer man when drifting out wide and firing in ferocious crosses, whether they can drop deep to get the ball if it isn’t coming to them. A complete footballer, quite simply…and one who genuinely seemed never to take anything for granted. Somewhere in virtually everything positive that we did, there was a bit of Danny Graham, even if it was only chasing a lost cause to win a corner or making a run to create space for others.

And goals, of course. Goals from a couple of inches to thirty yards, from simple tap-ins to booming long-range volleys followed by whirly-shirted runs to the corner flag. With head, feet, knees, whatever. Lucky, clinical, opportunistic, routine, spectacular. The ability to sniff out an opening seemed to desert him for spells in that first season…but my word, he had it back over the last nine months, great clusters of pick-that-out goals that made you wonder whether he wasn’t about to turn into some kind of comic strip hero before our eyes.

You’ll have your own favourites, I’m sure. Mine, for what it’s worth, is a bit of an obscure one. A goal down away at Scunthorpe; a pure poacher’s goal, getting in front of the keeper to flick in a stray back-header. But watch it again if you get the chance…and the more you see it, the more it seems as if someone’s shown him the video the day before. “Ah, yes, this is the bit where…if I stand just here…and flick it over like this…” The kind of goal you can only score if you’re really tuned into the game, if you’ve truly found its pulse; the kind of goal that’s dismissed too quickly. That was Danny Graham, in a nutshell. He made some of it look easy, but don’t let that fool you…

And he ended his Watford career exhausted and spent, having given us his absolute all. If he were less talented, you’d call him a folk hero…but his story has more chapters in it than we can write, and the chance to play for a top flight side with a vacancy for a line-leader is something we shouldn’t even momentarily begrudge.

For my money – and it’s not my money, obviously – the oft-voiced line about him being a good Championship striker sells him considerably short: that sixth sense isn’t something we see every season, that combination of talent, dedication and enthusiasm isn’t easy to find. It’s not about satisfying an abstract concept – “good enough” – but about continuing to make those positive contributions; I find it hard to believe that that’s beyond someone as irrepressible as Danny Graham. He’s grown immeasurably over the last two years, a tribute to our coaching staff, his team-mates…but most of all, to his hard work and high standards. He can continue to grow.

We’ll be watching and, I think it’s fair to say, we’ll be hoping too. Good luck, Danny. Enjoy it.

Note: Obviously, there’s much to discuss at the present time, but there are countless places for speculation, discussion and hysterical breakdowns about selling all of our players for tuppence; let’s leave that aside here. If you want to comment on Danny Graham’s Watford career, and perhaps share some of your favourite bits, please do so. Ta.

End of Term Report Part 6 04/06/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
17 comments

This was supposed to take me the whole summer. Well what a bummer…

29- Adam Thompson

Sometimes, kids come into the team and look nervous. Particularly in defensive positions… a nervous striker or midfielder can hide, I guess, and then they don’t look much at all. A nervous defender can’t hide. He looks tentative, hesitant, a little bit too deliberate. You can see the panic on the face when a striker gains an advantage, where an experienced defender would merely strive to rectify the situation, win the next battle. It’s fair to say that Adam Thompson isn’t one of those kids. The eighteen year old made his league debut – having already won his first cap for Northern Ireland – coming on at half time against Burnley, replacing a Dale Bennett whose confidence had been shot by his unfortunate own goal. The contrast was dramatic. Thompson attacked the game with relish, bounding forward like an excited puppy, crashing into challenges unlike an excited puppy, even getting up and on the end of a cross. The following Tuesday he was on at half-time again, scoring an equaliser against Preston. He’s not the finished article yet… an uncomfortable afternoon at the Riverside exposed some inexperience as a full back. You don’t get made captain of the U18s if the need to work on your positioning is perceived as a major issue, though.

Next Season: We’ll see more of Adam very quickly, one suspects. The only question is how quickly Thompson makes the Mariappa move to his natural centre-back position.

31- Andros Townsend

It would be fair to say that Malky Mackay doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to suffer fools gladly. Well here’s one fool who wasn’t suffered for very long at all. On his recruitment, a quick peek at Ipswich’s messageboards revealed a split in opinion; half thought that Roy Keane hadn’t given the Spurs winger a decent run in his earlier loan spell. The other half pointed out that he’d flattered to deceive in the chances he’d had, hardly demanding a greater role. His brief on-pitch experiences at Vicarage Road didn’t do much to prove a case either way… twisty, turny, mostly but not exclusively inconsequential wing play with a vague promise of more to come, like a “we must meet up for a drink some time” that may or may not come to fruition. Before we’d had much of an opportunity to formulate an opinion he was gone, despite what was looking like an alarming paucity of options in wide positions. And you have to kind of fill the gaps yourself.

Next Season: Little doubt over his ability, the question appears to be one of application and attitude. A further loan spell at Millwall saw Townsend hold down a place and win friends, so perhaps he’s buckled down a bit. Not pushing for a first team place at White Hart Lane just yet, at any rate, Millwall fans certainly seem to want him back.

32- Danny Drinkwater

There’s a certain pressure, it has to be said, that comes with being borrowed from Old Trafford. Not just because you’re a United player, but particularly because of the quality we’ve managed to add to our side in the not too distant past in borrowing kids from Sir Alex. It’s fair to say that Danny Drinkwater didn’t meet those standards. Signed to add numbers to a midfield that had suffered the loss of Jordon Mutch, the subsequent injury to Stephen McGinn should have given Drinkwater the platform to start regularly. Instead he managed just five sub appearances after McGinn’s season came to a premature end, often being overlooked in favour of younger alternatives, or players out of position. Rarely terrible, he was never more than adequate casting a light on his early departure from Cardiff City earlier in the campaign.

Next Season: Drinkwater took a long time to settle in at Huddersfield two seasons ago before impressing hugely from Christmas onwards. There’s a footballer in there somewhere; he needs to go some to make it at higher than Div 3 level though. With Darren Ferguson back in the Championship next season, don’t rule out Fergie Jr’s favoured transfer strategy, borrowing players from Dad, including Drinkwater as part of a job lot in August.

Manager- Malky Mackay

To state that Malky has done well feels rather redundant, an inadequate summary. It speaks volumes that a very poor end to the season in terms of results, leading to the slide slipping below halfway for the first time on the final day, didn’t provoke a groundswell of dissent, even from those corners predisposed to such things. Everyone knows the score, the number of big earners we’ve lost, the number of kids who we’ve had to blood and who came through with flying colours when there was little alternative for us but for them to work out. There was the potentially destabilising Burnley vacancy mid-season to get past too, and through all of it, as Malky has been quick to point out, we have been competitive and utterly watchable for the most part, even when the results haven’t been coming. We were even talking about the play-offs, not totally unrealistically, late on in the season, which should have been laughable. Thank heavens for context, so easily overlooked. An achievement of this magnitude at a club with resources and Malky would have been long gone.

Next Season: When Brendan Rodgers left, I commented that he had made a decision that gave him much less slack. At Watford, given the financial constraints and being a new manager, anything he achieved would have been a bonus, any failure would be unlikely to tarnish his reputation going forward. At Reading, bigger expectations, less accommodation for being a newbie, perhaps less trust afterwards given the nature of his departure from Watford. So it proved, and what Rodgers has achieved subsequently hinged as much on his slightly surprising ability to secure another job at this level so quickly as on his ability. He’s paid Swansea back in spades, in all fairness. But if Rodgers had everything to lose by leaving Watford, one wonders with a heavy heart quite how much more Mackay can achieve by staying, assuming that he has offers. He has already issued dark portents about the risks inherent in running again with such a tight – or tighter – playing budget. Risks for the club, to be sure. Risks for Mackay too. As already discussed, a track record isn’t always assessed in context… two seasons of successfully defying gravity playing exciting football with young players doesn’t read vastly worse than three years doing the same, but significantly worse than two good years followed by a third where we didn’t get the breaks with injuries and where the strategy of running with a low playing budget finally caught up with us. Malky is a huge asset, far bigger than any of the individual players for my money. He’s made it clear that he believes in seeing things through. We’ll learn a lot about Mr Bassini from whether Mackay’s still in position in August. Mackay will be learning about Bassini by the day. Let’s hope he likes what he sees.

That’s it. Limited scope for commenting meaningfully on departees Ellington, Henderson and Sadler, all of whom spent much of the season on loan and made their final appearances for the Orns over a season ago. Hopefully next season the likes of Assombalonga, Isaac, Bond and Connor Smith have progressed further further than the bench and we’ll be able to comment.

That’s it from me for the review, although my co-editor may choose to add his own thoughts in due course…