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Will Pozzo gold bring about Bassini’s end-of-reign bow? 24/06/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Not a clue, is the honest answer… and this article is more a snapshot of  sentiment at this point in time as the sands shift beneath our feet on a daily basis than any kind of prediction as to how it will end up.  Good headline though, isn’t it…?

It’s always awkward when people employed to talk about football are forced out of their (often rather lazy) comfort zone and into discussing the business side instead.  Quite what qualifies Lawro or Hansen to comment on any behind-the-scenes machinations isn’t clear, though that doesn’t prohibit such questions being posed on occasions with predictably grotesque consequences.

Here, nobody pays us to talk about football and the beauty of blogging is that pretty much any idiot can do it; we do so because we enjoy it.  This blog is the viewpoint of two supporters; we support a football team because we enjoy watching football, primarily, and being part of something.  Not because the business of trading in football clubs, which at times is often murky, disheartening and pathetic, holds any great fascination in itself.  What follows has to be read with that caveat in mind…

Laurence Bassini then.  Well, where to start?  Where to finish is easier, frankly, given the club owner’s apparently litigious frame of mind.  About now ought to be pretty safe.

What’s beyond dispute is that if it’s been possible, whilst squinting furiously, to overlook Bassini’s appalling PR, less-than-crystal-clear background and (generously) questionable personnel decisions for much of this season whilst Sean Dyche’s team has overachieved pretty spectacularly, that moment has passed.

The paucity of reliable information has made following proceedings somewhat challenging;  Kevin Affleck’s well-circulated tweets from somewhere in the middle-east may be well-informed (if soured somewhat by the suspicion of an axe that needs grinding) but tend to suggest and insinuate more than they explain – a tiresome trend duplicated as ever by several who see themselves as “in the know”.  The Watford Observer is reporting facts where it can but seems reluctant to speculate or expose itself.  As for Bassini, nothing that comes directly from the owner has felt terribly reliable at any stage;  nonetheless it’s been bizarre to those of us on the outside looking in to see things emerging from the club in recent days that are in direct contradiction to Bassini’s contributions, as if the club itself had tired of the lack of clarity and started to issue press releases of its own accord.

Using the word “choice” in this context is not appropriate.  We don’t even have a handle of what’s happening, let alone any means to influence it, let alone any clear alternatives.  But it would be a pretty grim reality that wasn’t preferable to the status quo, with stories of members of staff having the police called on them for refusing to pass on the keys to the club safe, wages not being paid and the club apparently as stable as a house of cards.  (He can’t sue me for saying that, can he?  Can he sue me for saying that?).

What to make of Pozzo and the takeover, then?  Not being Bassini is probably a start in itself, but not a be-all and end-all.  There were those that delighted at the Russos taking over chairmanship from Graham Simpson, if anyone needs reminding about difficulties inherent in distinguishing frying pans and fires.

The mooted appendage to a group of Pozzo-owned clubs covers  a wide range of outcomes, from the beneficial to the downright depressing.  At risk, of course, is the club’s very identity.  None of us signed up to support a nursery club for one thing, and its not difficult to envisage that the priorities of a community club (the work undertaken by the Community Trust for example) wouldn’t necessarily be shared by an overseas owner.

On the other hand, this article seemed pretty encouraging when taken at face value.  Youth development, check.  Tight business model, check.  Mutually beneficial?  Looks that way. Selling your best players?  Well that would hardly be a radical change of tack, nor is it anything but sensible for a club that needs to continue to attract – and thus not obstruct – young talent. One reservation is the source of the article; a single piece from a hitherto unknown (to us) journalist does not constitute evidence of objectivity.  Nonetheless – and not least given Pozzo’s unquestionably strong record in, you know, running football clubs… reasons to be optimistic, before one even considers the devil we know.

The other issue of great concern, however, is the mooted change in management.  Indeed, several of a group associated with a less than glorious period in West Ham’s recent history – Gianluca Nani, Scott Duxbury and Gianfranco Zola – have had their names linked with recent developments.

It’s the name of Zola that stands out.  A likeable public persona and allowances for the challenges he faced as manager at Upton Park don’t outweigh limited experience – at any level.  And, of course, the fact that the present incumbent has done a rather good job in these or any circumstances, thank you very much.  As an indicator of Pozzo’s familiarity with the club that he’s buying, this isn’t great… the connotations of a high-profile former Chelsea striker and Italian international being installed as manager shouldn’t have been lost on Pozzo, it’s a concern that his name was leaked so early.

Commenting as airily as this is low risk, of course.  We can’t affect anything very much, and the likelihood is that everything will have changed by the time you finish reading this article.  For the moment, we’re cautiously optimistic.

But ask us again tomorrow.


End of Term Report Part 8 07/06/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Must… keep… going…

32- Jonathan Hogg

I must confess to having been a little apprehensive about the signing of Jonathan Hogg.  For one thing, coming on the back of the recruitment of Carl Dickinson the significance of Ian Woan’s testimony was clearly prominent – he had overseen the training sessions of both during loan spells at Pompey.  Not that Woan is necessarily a bad judge of a player, but it always concerns me when a new manager moves in with a vanguard of former charges, as if there’s only one trick he knows how to pull… for every Aidy Boothroyd, who pulled this off successfully, there are five Gordon Strachans.   Another concern, much as Hogg’s quality was immediately apparent, was that he seemed like a solution to a problem that didn’t really need solving, John Eustace and Ross Jenkins more than adequately covering destructive responsibilities in central midfield.  Any lingering reservations were dispelled by the time Eustace and Hogg switched roles, with the new boy able to revel in the defensive sitting position.  Quickly you were left with the feeling that we were playing a computer game on too easy a level, or had somehow obtained a “cheat”, a ball-seeking missile that could be launched from the back of midfield at will, decimating everything in its path.  The magnificent story, recounted at one of the excellent “At Your Place” evenings (that OK, Rich?), of Hogg persuading Alex McLeish to sell him to us at an affordable price by kicking lumps out of his soon to be ex-Villa team-mates in a training session was very believable.  Not that his role was purely destructive… miserly with possession, he almost seemed to enjoy the challenge all the more, the narrower the spot he found himself in.  If there’s a criticism it’s that he faded a little in the second half of the campaign… had the first and second halves of the season been reversed, he’d surely have been a shoo-in for a top three spot in Player of the Season.  Nonetheless, the one cast-iron beyond-discussion success of Sean Dyche’s summer spending.

Next Season:  More of the same.  A goal would be nice mind, although he was never terribly close to becoming the first to score in 32 since 1999.

33- Nyron Nosworthy

Another one, if I’m honest, that I wasn’t sure about.  It’s not that, with four defeats and eleven goals conceded in four games since Martin Taylor’s injury something didn’t need to happen.  It’s just that it wasn’t obvious that Nosworthy was it… many of us will have remembered his most recent opposing visits to the Vic as part of a hapless Sheffield United back four.  Nonetheless, Sunderland fans spoke highly of him, even eulogising his contribution to their time in the second tier. So it proved.  Scarcely credible that we could lose Martin Taylor for so long and barely notice (except, perhaps, in his value as an attacking threat although Nos chipped in there too).  Sunderland fans had also betrayed the confusing hankering for the simpler pleasures of the second tier that I certainly recall from both our seasons in the top flight… his Cruyff turns on the edge of his own penalty box, the sort that you really wouldn’t get away with against a Rooney or a Van Persie, were wistfully referred to.  And there are certainly echoes of Keith Dublin or Ben Iroha… but only up to a point.  Cavalier defenders are far more fun in retrospect.  Nos is first and foremost a tough, solid, and largely reliable defender… not exempt from the odd wobbly performance.  But if he was flawless, he’d still be playing in the top flight.

Next Season: First choice alongside Martin Taylor.

35- Tomasz Kuszczak

We’ve discussed the whys and was-it-appropriate’s under Scott Loach in Part 1. Putting that to one side, there is little doubt that Kuszczak’s contribution during his time at Vicarage Road was hugely positive for Watford.  Hopefully for Kuszczak too, even if he didn’t achieve his stated ambition of making Poland’s Euro 2012 squad.  A wobbly debut at home to Southampton had folk briefly worried, but he soon played himself out of the rustiness borne of nine months without a competitive fixture and became a commanding, reassuring presence.  Without wishing to knock Loach, the difference in composure not just of the goalkeeper, but of the entire defence, was palpable, and as much a part of our strong late run (Kuszczak only played in one defeat after his debut) as Sean Murray’s devil at the other end of the pitch.

Next Season: Hopefully first choice somewhere for the Pole in goal.  Would be nice to see him back, but on the assumption that he’ll get significantly more money elsewhere, żegnaj i powodzenia Tomasz.  Just not Ipswich, eh?

37- Craig Beattie

Watford have done well out of loan deals over the years.  I know I bang on about giving our kids a run, but a good loan can invigorate a squad, and I wouldn’t have wanted to see us without Cleverley, Lansbury, Helguson, Mutch over the past couple of years.  2011/12 has been a good a season as any in this respect, with a number of temporary signings (including Nosworthy, whose signing was made permanent having joined on loan) making a significant contribution.  However Craig Beattie wasn’t one of them.  He joined from Swansea shortly after Nosworthy arrived from Sunderland, but started one game in two months.  He didn’t look terrible by any means, but it wasn’t altogether clear what he was supposed to bring to an attack that wasn’t short of tough strikers who didn’t run very fast.  His performances didn’t suggest any great urgency either, perhaps because his eye was already on a return to Scotland.

Next Season: Released from his Swansea deal at the end of January he joined Hearts within the month as a free agent and scored the late penalty that saw off Celtic in the Scottish FA Cup semi final.  It seems unlikely that he or Watford will give each other a second thought.

Sean Dyche

We’ve seen players come through tough periods before, win the crowd over.  You can think of individuals as easily as I can name them.  Difference is, a player normally has the occasion to recover his poise, recover his confidence, be it through a spell out of the side, on loan, or just hitting form or fitness.  A manager doesn’t have that luxury… yes, he’s as susceptible to the vagaries of fate as anyone, but he doesn’t get to hide anywhere, doesn’t get to let any team mates take the strain.  It’s very rare that a manager wins supporters over; a man under pressure invariably looks as if he’s clawing helplessly at a slippery slope, fighting something inevitable.  Just a matter of time. So for Sean Dyche to recover from the early fans’ forum, during which he was face to face with any number of supporters who preceded their comment with expression of disappointment at the way the team was going, to ending a season, his first season, top half with an improvement on the previous year despite having lost, effectively, a four-man attack in Cowie, Graham, Sordell and Buckley during his tenure was truly remarkable.

I’m not knocking those who posed those questions, we were most of us feeling that anxiety.  I’d been delighted by Dyche’s appointment, but largely because I expected him to continue in the vein of the management team he’d been a part of with Malky Mackay.  I was hugely disappointed when he took a different path, but the very positive take from that is that here’s a man who knows his own mind and can deliver on it.  Much harder than just carrying on using a pre-existing model, even given the player movements that in part forced his hand.

To bring the elephant in the room into view, I still utterly disagree with his approach to managing young players.  To qualify that a little, I think he made a lot of mistakes last summer, when we signed Forsyth, Yeates, Mirfin, Buaben, Iwelumo, Dickinson, Garner and Hogg.  Forsyth, perhaps, an inherited deal.  But of those, much as the jury is still out on some and there’s scope for development in others, Hogg is the only unqualified success.  And the cost of bulking the squad out with some rather average players, ultimately, in combination with the drop from seven to five subs, is that our kids got far less game time.

Since then, it’s fair to say, there’s very little that you’d quibble with.  I’d have had Murray in the team earlier.  I’m baffled at the treatment of Whichelow, but don’t get to see what goes on off the pitch.  But there aren’t many individual selection decisions you’d query based on available personnel, Dyche played the loan market well and of course the results, ultimately, were pretty extraordinary.

But the strategy is flawed, and doesn’t fit our club in the longer term.  It ultimately doesn’t matter whether the players we bought were adequate or not… year on year, unless something changes radically, we are competing with rivals within our division with bigger budgets.  Much bigger, some of them.  You’re talking about needing to turn up diamonds that others have missed, selling a vision too perhaps.  Everyone else is trying that too, with a bigger budget.  You might do well one year, get good value, find decent players, we all enjoy turning up an Andy Hessenthaler or a Mike Williamson from a lower division.  But we won’t get away with that every season, we’re playing that game with a fundamentally weaker hand.

On the other hand, our record in youth development has few rivals, certainly not at this level.  Harefield is something that nobody else has – although they will eventually.  We’re ahead of the game there, and it’s something to be hugely proud of.  Following the previous model – I won’t call it Mackay’s approach, since it surely wasn’t just down to him – these kids were getting time on the pitch.  And sure, they weren’t all going to be ready.  And sure, our form wobbled a bit at the end of 2010/11 (although not as badly as results or some rather inaccurate reflections would suggest).  But ultimately the kids are better equipped as a result.  You’re not telling me that Lee Hodson isn’t a tougher, more resilient, more experienced player based on coming through his experiences last season?

Most of all, we weren’t just talking the talk.  Lots of clubs at our level claim – and intend – to base their team on youth development.  We were actually doing it, demonstrably.  We had loads of kids in the team… you know the stats as well as I do, and you’ll also be aware that in stark contrast only Bond and Assombalonga had debuts last season, whilst many of those that had been involved were marginalised.  The route to the first team for those talented enough is a real competitive advantage for a club like Watford, and this is a battle we’re much better equipped to win than the bunfight for second tier players in the transfer market.  If you’re Sean Murray, comparing a place with a Prem club several years and loans away from the first team to regular involvement and development and Watford, you have a decision to make.  If what’s on offer at Watford is a more “careful” approach, you don’t.

I would have preferred to have seen more quality and less quantity last summer, and it will be interesting to see what this summer’s dealing brings.  There’s no doubt that we have a hugely talented, likeable, honest and single-minded manager who has built a tough, robust side in his own image.  Improving on this season’s performance will be a challenge, but with a strong base and Murray’s box of tricks up front, it’s not beyond us.

Enjoy the summer. (Oh, you are…)

End of Term Report Part 7 04/06/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

26- Britt Assombalonga

Unusually, but not uniquely, amongst home-bred youngsters, a season of dramatic progress for Britt.  Having made the bench for the QPR pitch-invasion game, Britt appeared on the fringes of first team involvement with Massey and Whichelow just two young attacking players apparently higher up the pecking order.  Two prolific loan spells, at Wealdstone and Braintree, thrust him into the spotlight and Sean recalled him from Braintree to involve him in the first team.  In all honesty, he doesn’t look ready yet; quick and powerful, he’s also extremely raw. Bullied out of his debut against Coventry by experienced defenders, he struggled to make an impact in three subsequent outings.  His non-league exploits suggest more to come, however, and in becoming the landmark 50th Academy graduate to debut in the first team (albeit definitions and qualifications rather blur around the edges) he drew attention to the club’s proud record of development.

Next Season: Rumours have already surfaced of an extended loan to the lower divisions, which sounds eminently sensible.

27- Gavin Massey

With Gavin Massey having been in or around the squad for three seasons now, it’s easy to forget that’s he’s still a teenager.  Ross Jenkins suffered and suffers from similar assumptions that a boat had somehow been missed simply because he’s been involved for a while without ever quite establishing himself, overlooking his very young age at his earliest involvement.  Nonetheless, we’re still waiting to be wowed by Massey at some point, expectation heightened by earlier rumours of Liverpool’s interest, and it hasn’t quite happened yet.  Quick, nimble and tidy without being razor-sharp or prolific, it feels as if he still needs to establish what sort of player he’s going to be.  This season saw most of his action come on loan, first with Yeovil and then in an interrupted spell at Colchester under John Ward; his recall, in the wake of Troy Deeney’s hamstring injury, saw him provide by all accounts the silver lining of another tedious afternoon at Selhurst Park before heading back to Essex.

Next Season:  Out of contract next summer, the return of the seven-sub bench should benefit Gavin as much as anyone; hopefully this will be the season that he establishes himself.

29- Adam Thompson

This is the test case, really.  We’ll get on to the season-long and rather exhausted debate about use of kids in general terms in the final section of this review… but if Sean’s argument, that young players were being brought on too quickly and needed to be developed more carefully, is to hold any water then there has to come a point where you say “OK, he’s done that, ticked every box, looked excellent wherever and whenever he’s played.  Now let’s get him in the team”.  After a hugely impressive first season, or half-season, of involvement last term Thompson spent much of this campaign on loan at Brentford over two spells.  In between he made the bench for the Bradford cup tie, but not onto the pitch.  Thoroughly convincing at Griffin Park by all accounts, there are obviously no shortage of obstacles to a slot either at right-back (where his League action has been so far) or centre back (where he has played for Northern Ireland and where he’s surely destined to establish himself).  But now he needs that opportunity.  He can’t do a lot more with what he’s had, journeymen squad-fillers are only defensible if they’re not blocking the path of someone who’s ready.

Next Season:  We’ll hopefully see a lot more of Adam in the coming campaign.

30- Jonathan Bond

Based on one-and-a-bit appearances, and allowing that I missed the “bit”, there’s not a whole lot to say.  Bond looked positive and confident against Bradford, one mighty punch setting up the break from which Craig Forsyth scored the game’s most memorable goal.  But, you know, one game.  It’s stuff off the pitch that says more about Bond’s prospects.  Because Bond started sixteen games for four different sides last season… not half bad for an eighteen year old goalkeeper (he turned 19 in mid-May).  It’s one thing taking a teenage winger or striker on loan, quite another to take, and trust, a goalkeeper.  Scott Loach went out on loan regularly as a youngster of course, but he was an exception rather than the norm, and a very decent young keeper himself.  Bond was trusted by three different clubs at sequentially increasing levels, which should be hugely encouraging.

Next Season:  The goalkeeping situation seems to be in a state of flux at the moment;  Gilmartin out, Kuszczak gone and (one assumes) not returning, Loach’s tenure far from secure.  Bond should expect to be backup at least, but perversely would probably be playing less football as a result.

31- Tom James

Just odd, really.  Odd and incongruous.  We’ve again not much to base a judgement on of course… five competent enough minutes (plus added time) on the left of midfield in that Bradford game, one can only assume that he didn’t quite do enough.  But to take the bold step of giving a young lad from a much lower level a contract… I’m not knocking it, not at all.  But it seems rather out of character for Sean to be taking such risks (albeit James didn’t end up getting much action).  There are many adjectives – positive ones – that one could (and I will) use to describe the manager’s first season in charge, but “cavalier” and “romantic” probably wouldn’t be near the top of anyone’s list.  Giving James a contract was both.

Next Season:  We’ll gain an insight into quite how optimistic a punt James was by the level that he drops back to.