Seven-thirty train out of Brighton station on Saturday morning for the first game at
Huddersfield. Erm, yeah...hurrah. But, hey, it's still football. It doesn't have
to be convenient or sensible, the normal rules just don't apply.
So, what do you want out of this season? Champions, top two, playoffs? Well, ladies and gents, that is
the subject of this particular bit of tedious sermonising.
When I wrote the BSaD preview of 1998/99 season, looking ahead to our (upward) return to Division One, I
had the following to say:
"To aspire is one thing, to expect is another. We should aspire to promotion, of
course, but to build a club around those Premiership aspirations would be utter
madness, the equivalent of throwing yourself from a cliff top and hoping someone's
left a bouncy castle at the bottom. History also tells us that being "too good for
the First Division" provides no guarantee of escape."
You'll have guessed that I'm not about to change my tune. Now more than ever, the difference between
expectation and aspiration is critical. What we've built - or, more precisely, what Graham Taylor's built -
is too damn precious to be thrown away in vain pursuit of a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
Perhaps it's worth reminding ourselves what we've got right now, putting it on record for reference
when times get tough. Well, we've got a team that's young and vibrant...and it's young and vibrant
precisely because it's based on the strong foundations of home-grown talent, decent scouting and common
goals. It's a team that's worth supporting - not perfect, but thoroughly human. In addition, we've
got a club that is increasingly purposeful in its attempts to become the centre of a community, that is
not only listening but actively communicating. And is not going to go bust.
Aided by the Premiership windfall, Graham Taylor's spending his final professional years building a club
that will survive in the modern football world. Let him do it, and we'll all enjoy the benefits in
years to come. Get impatient about short-term results and throw it all away, and we might as well never have
bothered to invite him back in the first place.
Football is not solely about what happens in the top flight. I'm not just talking
about the Nationwide, either. The cruel reality of the Premiership is that as those below frantically scramble
to get into it to play with the rich kids, so the rich kids frantically scramble to get out of it to play with their
new, even richer chums. First the League Cup, then the FA Cup, now the whole league...all rapidly becoming
means to a very lucrative end, qualifying tournaments for the European competitions.
That's a different debate, of course. The point is that treating the Premiership as something static and
permanent is laughable. In time, it will either become of negligible importance compared to international club
competitions (we're well on the way already) or it will reduce its membership to satisfy the top clubs' complaints about fixture congestion.
Neither scenario promises much for a club like Watford...unless that club gets on with building its
own future on its own terms.
Put simply, gate-crashing the party is fantastic fun...but you can only do it so many times before you get
Besides, there's only ever been one Watford manager capable of keeping the club in the top flight and he's
a couple of years away from retirement. And, while it's certainly not impossible to find someone who could achieve
such miracles, you really wouldn't want to bet your football club on it, would you?
So, we have an opportunity here. As GT has already pointed out, his vast popularity gives him the chance to change
things that other managers have to leave alone. As I see it, it's an opportunity that's far more significant and
potentially valuable than promotion to the Premiership. It's an opportunity to shape Watford into something that will
not only survive but also prosper. We won't do that by fretting about how much Ade bloody Akinbiyi costs this week.
Okay, lecture over. You get the point, I hope. So, now what do you want out of next season? Champions, top two,
playoffs? Good. Let's go for it, then.
We're pretty well equipped, as it happens. The squad is unarguably better than the one that was promoted. With
the addition of Nielsen and Baardsen and (touch wood) the gradual return of key players from injury, it's also
rather better than the one that tried and failed last season. It has quality - throughout, we've had
more quality than anyone's given us credit for...which, you suspect, is just how GT likes it - and it still has
that spirit about it too. They say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger - well, despite feeling like
it on occasions, the Premiership didn't kill us.
If we do it, it'll be through resilience, teamwork, organisation, all those boring things. The first person
to suggest that beating Division One teams ought to be easy gets a clip round the ear. Football's not like that -
if it was, we'd all have become bored with it long ago. After last season, we should be the last ones to
patronise and belittle others - we've seen what arrogance looks like, and it ain't pretty.
So, whatever happens, let's be Watford. Not Wolves, condemned to an eternity of finishing seventh despite (or perhaps
because of) being "too big for the First Division". Not Fulham, mesmerised by glamour and unknowingly looking utterly ridiculous.
Not Blackburn, ex-Premiership nobodies. Not Palace, teetering on the brink of financial ruin after trying
that old "speculate to accumulate" trick. Not even Wimbledon.
We managed it last season...but, since there was little expectation, it was easier then. It'll be tougher
now. Yet, as ever, competing on our own terms represents our best chance of success.
Let's be ourselves. After all, it's our future.