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Nationwide Division One, 13/3/01
By Nick Grundy

Well, at least we played okay.

This wasn't a bad performance. In fact, it was about as far from being genuinely bad as it was from brushing inspirational, which is not as reassuring as it might sound. But we played okay - the defence, so ramshackle in recent weeks, has improved immeasurably as a unit recently, although the form of both full-backs is still only slightly above "atrocious". The midfield looked - well, lopsided, but in some sort of form, with Vernazza and the much-maligned-by-me-Easton both in good form, and the attack looked - okay.

"Okay" is not much fun. In fact, I enjoyed this game much less than some of the really dreadful performances we've put in recently in spite of the fact that this was not dreadful, simply because - like every other Watford fan in the ground - I wanted this to be a continuation of the Norwich performance. I wanted steel at the heart of the team, and I wanted players who were willing to go after the opposition in attack or defence, players who wanted to make things happen, who were willing to fight for every ball and then try and do something startling with it, players who wanted to win so much it hurt, players who wanted to accept their individual failings, and then overcome them in the team. Players who believe, not just in themselves, but in us, in Watford Football Club, in the team and the fans and the staff all conspiring to generate something more impressive, really, than it's any right to be.

Instead, we had a group of players who don't even seem to believe in themselves. We played like we did during the barren spell two years ago, when ig described our play in the first half of that game against Tranmere like this:

We approached the opposition goal like a mountaineer climbing Everest - carefully, safely, and without any real confidence that we were going to make it to the top. It was watchable enough by recent standards...but the days of cheering on a defence-shredding Watford attack seem depressingly distant. We've become too aware of ourselves, too nervously self-conscious, we need some way of forgetting the pressure.
Which would be fine if (a) we'd turned it around with a massive second half performance and (b) we were still talking about the same players.

We're not. Very few of the current team have, as those playoff winners had, come from nothing - from Notts County or Sunderland reserves, or Cambridge, or Carlisle, or from the youth scheme of a mediocre Second Division outfit. The players that have - I'm thinking chiefly here of Darren Ward and James Panayi (who've come from the youth scheme of the worst Premiership side in recent memory) and Clint Easton (who's come from a rejected move to Luton) - were our better performers on the day. So what? Some of the others don't look hungry. They don't look like they want it. More than anything, they don't understand this club, and they don't understand our history. Nor, for that matter, do a lot of the fans at the moment. Christ - were some of you people here in the Second Division? There were bits of our performance last night which reminded me slightly of the duller moments of the Kenny Jackett's reign, sure, but not really. There's an enormous difference between looking mediocre in the middle of the Second Division and looking mediocre around the playoffs in the first - for Watford Football Club, any finish in this division which avoids relegation is a success.

So keep that in mind, people. Keep it in mind Espen, and Allan, and Nordin, and even Paolo and Heidar and Tommy and every other one of you - because I personally couldn't give a damn if any of you believe that you have some god-given right to play in the Premiership. You are paid by my bloody football team to do well for that team, and some of you have been giving the impression that your recent performances have been flagging because you can see your chances of Premiership football next year slipping away. And, rather than attempting to arrest the slide, some of you are just rolling with it.

Put it this way - I don't think it's a coincidence that the three players who've been brought into the team recently after long spells out of it are the ones who've impressed. Wooter is an obvious one. Easton and Panayi I've already mentioned. The three of them, now, look hungry, they want the ball and they want to keep it and do things with it - look at Wooter's infectiously enthusiastic running, which, on Saturday, suffused the whole team with belief, reminded them what it's like to love football rather than just get through it. Or look at Easton's careful, measured passing, interspersed with the occasional attempt at the sublime: whereas a few years ago he slipped into trying to do something special every time he got the ball when he wasn't and probably isn't the player to, now he's picked up on the idea of keeping the ball, denying it to the opposition and wearing them down. He looks more like the player he was in his very first forays into the first team, when I was upset he wasn't in the side for games like Peterborough away (not that I'm being defensive, mind you). Or look at Panayi, who deservedly got man of the match last night in a side with a couple of million-pound-plus players in, and who is trying to change the way our defence uses the ball.

It's these players - the ones who recognise that we should all set out to prove ourselves every day, to other people, to ourselves, and that greatness in whatever walk of life is not something you reach or attain, it's something that you struggle to get and then struggle even more to retain. It's not enough - stand up, David Connolly - to score a hatful of goals in a Second Division side (no, come on, David, stand up) - and then piss off to Feyenoord for the money (oh - I see you now) with a cast-iron guarantee of international football. Or it's not enough to come into a Watford side in poor form and let yourself get dragged down to their level. You've got to go out and do the simple things well yourself, and get everyone else doing them too, and then you can do the spectacular things and gradually the whole team starts to play better.

Alternatively, if any of you do feel that Watford isn't a suitable showcase for your talents, and that you are fit to grace the greatest stage in the country, there are clubs in this division who share your belief in your personal godgiven rights. They normally finish seventh for a few seasons, then seventeenth for a few, and then seventh again. If you do feel that way, then please go househunting in Wolverhampton as soon as possible, because you are no use to us.

To my mind, for instance, it's totally unacceptable when, at 1-0 down late in the second half, we win a throw on the left hand side and no one moves for the thrower. It's unacceptable, more generally, when people play passes and then sit back to watch them or to applaud themselves on what a good pass they've put in. (As an aside, I don't really believe Norwich did "let us play" - or at least, I don't believe that's why we won. We won because our movement - for all apart from Nordin's goals - had created space for our players). Pass and move is schoolboy stuff. It doesn't require skill, just determination and a basic level of fitness. Teams score goals from it, you know.

Defensively, just think. Use your brains - and this applies as much to the midfield as the defence per se, because even in the first half there were times when a lack of any midfield cover left Robbo or Cox marking three players. Denis Irwin would look crap in that situation, and it's obviously unacceptable. Or, if the fullback gets beaten and a cross comes over, it's best not to have three players just standing around watching the ball while the lone Burnley player in the penalty area taps it home. Or in attack, make sure the player making a pass to you knows where you're going when you make a run, or when you're crossing, think about it (but as a general rule, "pacy" and "flighted" are better adjectives than "floaty" and "aimless"), or if you're shooting have the courage of your convictions and f***ing give it some. Contrary to popular opinion, you can hit as many sweetly struck shots as you like straight at the keeper without turning a draw into a win, whereas ten aimless shots into the crowd and one which rockets into the top corner will win it for you.

This has turned into a rather unfailingly negative report on a game in which we were a little unlucky - we could have had a second half penalty, for instance, when Helguson was bundled over by two players as he picked up on a perceptive pass just inside the area. But I look at the players we have on the pitch at the moment and, with honourable exceptions, I find myself questioning their desire. I ask myself just how much they want it, whether they've achieved too much too soon and feel that that's it, as far as they can go and they've been there, or have been there for so long without achieving that they've had to take a step down and don't like it. Most of all, I remind myself of the team who went up the only way left to us last time, and about whom I wrote at the time, "this Watford team and more than ever this Watford manager have courage, and they have pride, and they have belief, and they care".

And I want to feel like that about them again.