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Millwall 0 Watford 2 (11/04/2015) 12/04/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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1. “So, what are you reading at the moment, Ian?”

Well, it’s kind of you to ask, I must say. As it happens, I’m reading “The Nowhere Men” by Michael Calvin. It’s a book about football scouts and, as such, it spends much of its time deep in slightly impenetrable conversations with middle-aged blokes whose cars are probably full of empty pasty wrappers, who won’t get home until 4am after checking out a teenage left back at the other end of the country in exchange for an hourly rate far south of the minimum wage, and whose encyclopaedic knowledge and instinctive insight are no insurance against finding themselves out on their ear if the manager gets fired. Who, in essence, should be doing something else but can’t let it go.

It’s a tremendously rich and engrossing book. A book about people, fundamentally. I’ve often struggled to put it down. It’s fair to say that Calvin’s rather overwrought writing style can be hard work – yes, glass houses, yes – but the reward for some patience-testing descriptive passages comes in the form of vivid, memorable and sometimes affectionate portraits of many of the book’s subjects. Their opinions are often voiced candidly and relayed by Calvin with no small amount of respect and deference; they raise many complex issues in the process, and a few good stories too. Among them are several names of various vintages familiar to Watford fans: Jimmy Gilligan, Gary Penrice, Dean Austin; others with links to the club briefly flit into view and then disappear, testament to the ever-shifting landscape of modern football, and its accompanying lack of job security.

There’s another, more direct connection with today’s game, of course. Calvin was once a Watford fan but is no longer, having found himself drawn towards Kenny Jackett’s Millwall in the process of writing a fly-on-the-wall account of their 2009-10 campaign. In his words, “The club I grew up with at Watford has changed. It has lost the family spirit Graham Taylor did so much to nurture.” There are more holes in that argument than words in those two sentences, clearly, but I have some sympathy with it nevertheless: who among us hasn’t, at some point, looked at our club and wondered what the hell happened to Graham Taylor’s singular vision? Who could’ve made it through the Petchey years without a certain amount of soul-searching, for example, or continued to clap happily along as Nigel Gibbs was shoved out of the emergency exit without a parachute?

And now…? Well, I wonder. The club has undeniably changed – every club in orbit of the Premier League has, irrevocably – but much as Calvin justifiably decries the ruthless clear-out of an established scouting network, the Pozzo takeover strikes me as being a watershed of an altogether different kind. The team might be unrecognisable, the infrastructure entirely re-built, but the club feels stable and secure and, crucially, is being allowed to breathe and evolve. It isn’t the club that I grew up with either. Neither, however, has it become the soulless shell that its owners’ strongest critics had predicted; in simple terms, this is the most Watford-y Watford I’ve known without GT at the helm, the most in touch with a sense of community and history. Perhaps Millwall is indeed closer to the Watford of yesteryear, but if so, I fear those days are numbered: as Charlton fans have discovered, you need either to be further outside the top flight or further outside the M25 to avoid becoming someone’s pet project. Millwall are working on the first bit, I suppose.

2. That’s a bit of a shame, really. There’s no danger of me switching allegiance, but I’m fond of Millwall, in the kind of patronising, rose-tinted way that’s rarely welcomed by the objects of such affection. Today’s experience does nothing to change that: I like coming here. It’d be pushing the point to say that the New Den sparkles in the spring sunshine, but it feels like a much more comfortable, lived-in place than it did twenty years ago. The sparsely populated home stands are less than it deserves, but, perhaps, an accurate reflection of a team with neither confidence from which to build momentum nor quality with which to conjure up undeserved miracles. I bet this place must absolutely hum when it’s full. It barely murmurs today.

3. There’s a tension as we squint into the light. The unmistakeable tension of a season drawing to an end, of decisive moments to come. Suddenly, defeat seems unthinkable; a draw scarcely less of a setback. Suddenly, it really matters. Mistakes matter, goals matter; mistakes seem to matter more, somehow. We could be forgiven for being a bit tight and apprehensive, a bit lost in our thoughts; it certainly feels that way in the stands. We’re nothing of the sort, mercifully: the afternoon may have been considerably easier had Troy Deeney netted when clean through in the first minute but even so, we quickly banished any sense of being overwhelmed by the importance of the occasion.

4. Indeed, that was the first of a number of moments in which the game might’ve tipped decisively one way or another. Had we made more ruthless use of any number of breakaway opportunities, the scoreline might’ve properly reflected our technical superiority. Equally, had Millwall taken advantage of an ever-increasing number of half-chances, particularly once they’d gone two behind and taken a more direct approach, you sensed there might still have been something for them, even if a point was as little use to them as us. Neither of these things happened. Instead, the result feels like something of a compromise, a bit of a cop-out.

We’ve no reason to care about that, of course. As before, we back ourselves to make our quality count, to be more clinical than our opponents, to stick the ball in the net often enough to win. It makes for frustrating viewing sometimes: this particular ninety minutes was full to overflowing with moments where you felt that we might’ve done more, where we didn’t quite nail it, where we could’ve put the game beyond doubt and had some fun. We were sloppy and careless at potentially key moments too, most notably switching off at a free-kick just before half-time and relying on the first of an uncomfortable number of comfortable stops from Gomes. Were it not such an important fixture, you’d say that being punished for those lapses might teach us a valuable lesson. As it is, we’ll have ample opportunity for learning next term, if all goes well.

5. So it didn’t entirely satisfy, even if complaint seems churlish. And complaint seems particularly churlish given the two goals scored, each a pixel-perfect pass-and-move breakaway, each a superb example of the growing gulf in class between the top and bottom of this division. Such riches. Just look at that substitutes’ bench, for pity’s sake.

We were celebrating the first almost before it had connected with Matej Vydra’s boot: the ball from Iketchi Anya was just so, Vydra’s body shape left nothing to accident, the keeper was beaten already. Wallop. The second was a pure joy, a moment where it all slots together into place, just like it does on the training ground. Here to there, inside, across, and there we go. Both goals where you don’t even see the opposition shirts, rendered irrelevant by the precision of it all. You don’t have to be that good very often to win games at this level; once or twice will do it, provided you don’t self-destruct at the other end. We could’ve had more, probably should’ve had more, but the margin of victory seems about right. There isn’t a lot else to say.

6. For me, it’s telling that the assists for both goals came from Anya. I’ve commented before on Slav’s pragmatism, on his willingness to sacrifice style and entertainment for the hard currency of results. This, on the other hand, demonstrated his flexibility – an overtly positive selection in a game where he could’ve been forgiven for being a little more guarded – and he was rewarded with an ever-present and twice-realised threat on that flank.

But look deeper, look at the space Anya leaves behind him on his forward sorties, space that opponents have often exploited in the past. There, you find a thoroughly Doyley-esque performance from Tommie Hoban, refusing to yield to persistent Millwall pressure, targeted as a weak point throughout, spoiling and scrapping for all he’s worth, clouting the ball into the stands without ceremony; untidy and awkward and highly effective. He becomes a left-back when Anya makes way, and continues to make life difficult for his opponents until the last kick. We’ve been a silky, fluent attacking side before, one that missed out on promotion by not-very-much-but-enough. I wonder whether this silky, fluent attacking side has a bit more courage, a bit more fight in it. A bit more under the bonnet.

7. A job done, then. All the grown-up satisfaction of having tidied the shed without treading on a rake. A big fat tick in red marker pen next to the fixture list. A ten-second entry in the end-of-season highlights. A few curses uttered as Norwich score a late winner. And then thoughts turn to Wednesday already….

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Comments»

1. Goldenboy60 - 12/04/2015

I know Michael Calvin quite well. I think the views he publicly stated after the Pozzo takeover were ones that many Watford fans felt at the time. Of course we should be suspicious and caring at the time, especially after the Bassinni episode. So don’t be too critical of Michael. He is a Watford lad through and through. He spent a wonderful time with Kenny at Millwall, and that book is a very good read. But you may find another view from him now, and how many Watford fans could say that too.

I do agree with you about Millwall. I coached there with Tom Walley for a number of years in the 90’s. They were great people who care passionately about their club. Their warmth and hospitality to me was first class, and though a complete Watford fan even through those years, I always have a ‘soft’ spot for the club. A more homely club you could not wish for. I personally wish them well in their battle to stay up, but I do fear for them.

We clearly were not at our best but Neil Harris was right in his interview when he suggested we are class up top. I, or any of us of course know that. But we battled hard when it was needed, kept another clean sheet, and produced moments of Premier class to win the game, and it could have been a couple more. I was delighted to see Ikechi get a start, and even more so to see him set up the 2 goals with great vision and quality. He doesn’t always get it right, but he works tirelessly and unselfishly for the team, and his pace as we all know frightens the opponents.

We have a very tricky game on Wednesday of course. So a deep breath and belief is needed from everyone. But all of the final games are going to be tricky and we will need a very strong mentality on the pitch and in the stands.

Ian Grant - 13/04/2015

I hope I’ve been fair to Michael Calvin; that was certainly my intention. I’d be interested to know if his views have changed at all. Unfortunately, the nature of the discussion tends to mean that it gets rather polarised quite quickly, so the nuances of the arguments get lost.

Goldenboy60 - 13/04/2015

Yes you have been fair, but Michael is a very engaging man who holds high principles in all walks of life. He has given me personally great support, and I know he had such a great time with Kenny. In my chats with his Brother, he indicates that he is still a Watford lad through and through. Bought up on the Holywell estate with Watford FC right next door, he is still very closely knit with his family even though he has gone onto great things in Journalism. He is very politically minded and believes in fairness for all people.

Michael is very much a man who cares about his community and is very much a traditionalist when it comes to football. But then I think we all are at heart. Let’s be honest most of us were very sceptical when the Pozzo family took control of our club. In my opinion they haven’t got everything right, but have shown a diligence and professional belief in how a football club of our size should be run, and lets face it they haven’t done a bad job. In fact a ‘bloody’ brilliant one. I think Michael is one of us in that aspect, though he very much cares about the development of our own players.

That is not about Watford, but about the bigger clubs who determine the practices through firstly the Premier League and then the FA. Chelsea have roughly 30 players out on loan who they have paid millions for. They buy them in at 16, send them out on loan, and after 3 years because they have been registered with an English club for 3 years, they become ‘home grown’ and ‘English’ when registered in the squad of 25.

But the FA and the Premier League cannot change it as the money men at the big 5 clubs dictate the rules, which of course are always set in their favour. And I have had chats with an MP on this. He has admitted that there is very little they can do after the Speaker ordered a debate on it in the House of Commons later last year.

So the Pozzo way for a small club like ours is the only way we could possibly compete, but then never to the level of the top 5 or 6 consistently. I guess Michael’s time at the Den game him an inkling about what Watford FC was about when he grew up less than a mile from the Vic. I believe that is where he is coming from.

Ian Grant - 13/04/2015

Very well put. Thank you.

One of the things that really interests me – in terms both of the motivation behind it and how it’ll play out in practice – is the recent application to upgrade to Category 2 of EPPP. Because, like Michael, I want to see my club find and develop its own talent: for a lot of reasons, but chief among them the simple fact that I just find it so much more satisfying to watch as a supporter, and I know I’m not alone in that. And that’s the bit which is still an unknown about the Pozzo takeover, still much too early to judge.

It’s undeniable that the influx of players has reduced options for our Academy graduates, even if we have rewarded three with long contracts; it’s equally undeniable, I think, that we wouldn’t be where we are in the league without that influx, that it was an upgrade in quality as much as a change in philosophy. The Academy change really surprised and intrigued me, I must admit. I can live with the way we’re currently doing things, but I wonder whether there’s a chance that we might get that sense of the homegrown back in the future…

2. Paul - 13/04/2015

I hope there are plans to encase these years of rewarding, overwrought writing style in a fine leather bound volume!

Ian Grant - 13/04/2015

God, I hope not. The rain forests have suffered enough.

3. SteveG - 13/04/2015

The Nowhere Men has been sitting by the side of my bed being one of the candidates for ‘the next book I’m going to read when I’ve finished this one’ for a little while now. The above comments have convinced me to move it to the top of that list. I’ll look forward to a good read. Thank you, gents, for prodding me into a decision.

In the meantime, we continue to do what is necessary on the pitch. Onwards and upwards…

4. The Great Big O - 13/04/2015

Ian, your thunk seven contains the two words that summed up the football: job done. Afterwards, as I stood in the queue for the train with all the other Watford fans, it was silent. No singing, no chanting, no celebration at all. Job done.

One of my teenage sons said to me that watching Arsenal or Chelsea must feel like this. You just have to get the points from a worse team – and that’s it. Astute, I thought.

But Arsenal or Chelsea don’t get to play against teams whose goalkeeper crashes the ball into the head of his centre back from a drop kick. They don’t play in stadia where there’s plenty of room for angry fans to rush to the barriers to abuse an opponent who’s gone down too easily. If we do go up and stay up, I hope my sons remember non-Premier League football fondly. I know I’ll always be secretly hankering for us to return.

Ian Grant - 14/04/2015

Yes, I think that’s a very accurate reflection: the resources available to the two clubs are so vastly different and while the Championship still has that element of unpredictability about it, I wonder whether that’ll still be the case in five or ten years’ time. I’d forgotten about the goal-kick; that was brilliant!

5. Goldenboy60 - 13/04/2015

Yes some very interesting points you have made Ian regarding development of our own players.

Football in my opinion has become a world game in the truest sense of the word. The money which Sky has bought into the game, has also bought top foreign players in because of that. I suspect that if Italy, Germany or Spain had that measure of income then those players wouldn’t be coming to the Premier League.

Th Pozzo family as we all know have a fantastic scouting network around the world. Sanchez is just one of those that they picked up, developed and sold on. I believe they see Watford as perhaps another Udinese, but play within a League that has the biggest income in World Football. A club they can nurture and perhaps take them into Europe, by using some of that money to bring in some of the best talent. With that in mind, the bar raises hugely for a club the size of Watford.

The fact of the matter with our Academy lads is that given the above, it makes it harder for some of those players to come through. Tom Walley was prolific in developing players and I have been honoured to work with Tom. The number of players he bought into the first team was absolutely phenomenal, but perhaps some of those wouldn’t make it now, at least certainly not at the top level?

In truth, if a club gets 1 or 2 pros from it’s own Academy and into the 1st team, then that’s all they need. Having worked at the Academy for 7 years from 2000 to 2007, we bought a lot of players through. But are they good enough to now compete in a World stage such as the Premier League?

Last season the club signed 4 apprentices as pro’s. Byers, Doherty, Johnson and Jakubiac. I worked with Alex Jakubiac before he came in, and helped him to join the club, because he is one I have always thought could go all the way. But we will see if he has the mentality to do that. I have a lot of time for him and so does Tom, but we shall see if he can step up to the plate for Premier League football if we get promoted?

So taking all of this in, and given the rules of the Premier League previously mentioned, we are now seeing top quality lads coming into our Academy from around the world. We may not hold on to all of them, but we will still get top quality.

So I believe the bar has risen massively for our local lads now.

Is that good or bad? I think everyone may have a different opinion, but the train that is the Premier League I don’t believe will change because again it’s the big clubs that dictate the rules. I believe the Pozzo family are now joining that band. Is that good or bad for our club. My opinion is that it is a bit of both, but I don’t believe we have a choice if we want to compete finally for a sustained presence in the Premier League.

If we can make it this season life at the Vic could change enormously, and for good. Who would have thought that after watching my first game in 1960/61 season at 6 years old? My word Football has changed. On a brighter note perhaps Luton will never be able to catch us up now?

6. Ady - 14/04/2015

Thanks Ian for another great report. Being exiled in Cornwall (and with Argyle’s demise meaning I don’t even have an annual trip to the Theatre of Greens to check out the latest iteration – oh how I remember the Boothroyd / Devlin / Young inspired turn round in 2005) BHappy is always my first port of call for reports that genuinely capture the essence of the game and what its like to be there.
Your comment about Hoban putting in a Doyley-esque performance highlighted for me one big question. What is the position of Lloyd? He seems to have slipped so far down the pecking order that he isn’t even on the bench. What is the vibe from those closer to it? I can’t imagine him ploughing his furrow away from the Vic but is there a place for him, especially if we gain promotion?

Ian Grant - 14/04/2015

I don’t have an answer to that, I must confess, apart from to note that I was wondering much the same thing myself only the other day…

Matt Rowson - 14/04/2015

I asked Lloyd about this at the sports quiz at the club a few weeks ago. He was utterly sanguine about it. He was also wearing a ludicrous coat.

7. straightnochaser - 14/04/2015

There have been recent rumours of his impending retirement (he has only had a 1-year deal for each of the last couple of seasons I believe) but they are just that: rumours.


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