Stepping on the brakes
By Matt Rowson
It's a tragic story. Picture the scene: a relatively small club spends several years flirting with the top half of the top flight, boasting an exciting team full of impudent verve. Things go wrong, however, and the club loses its talismanic manager and is bought out by a chairman with questionable motives. The club slips into Division One, an event far less mourned than it should have been, and treads water for a few years. Occasionally it threatens to sneak a play-off place but more frequently it's fighting off a second relegation and plays chicken with the Second Division trapdoor ever so recklessly on more than one occasion.
A particularly bad season inevitably rears its head...injuries to key players contribute to a chronic spiral in form and a dismal cloud of helplessness envelops the club from the chairman downwards. Starved of funds to invest in re-enforcements, the manager is forced into a desperate flurry of loan recruits, and each player that returns from injury is rushed back in the futile hope and expectation that this one individual will turn everything around. Like an articulated lorry plummeting down a mountainside, the club blunders ever more rapidly towards Division Two.
Sound familiar? It should do, whether you're a Watford fan grimacing at memories of our club around five years ago, or a Rangers fan wallowing in your club's current plight. The parallels are evident, but not limitless. The key difference, of course, is that our talismanic manager came back, jumped into the cab of the HGV and slammed his foot on the brakes, ensuring at the very least that we trundled gently into the Second Division and, after a season's laborious three-point-turn, headed back up whence we'd come.
In contrast, there seems little prospect of Rangers slowing themselves down before they shatter in the face of midweek ties with John Beck's Cambridge (Christ, there's a motive to stay up). Apart from anything else, Rangers' talisman has already had a go at turning the truck around, and having failed to do so has hired a lackey, Ian Holloway, to follow instructions to be issued from the back-seat position of "Director of Football". What this seems to translate as is a low-risk position from which to claim credit for any success without being directly associated with failure. With twenty contracts up at the end of this season, including those of an estimated fifteen of the playing staff, the situation looks bleak for Rangers.
With a new manager in Ian Holloway at the helm, at least nominally, by the time we travel to Loftus Road on Wednesday, it's not easy to predict what the starting eleven will be.
The two first-team keepers are the veteran Czech Ludek Miklosko and former Arsenal reserve Lee Harper, the latter having lost his place since our encounter at Vicarage Road earlier in the season.
The return of Danny Maddix to reserve team action after a year out will be good news for Holloway, who has to cope with the absence of one of the few diamonds in the side Clarke Carlisle, sidelined for the rest of the season. Mark Perry is a strong if injury-prone choice on the right, but the left-back position is a real problem with the experienced but slow Ian Baraclough or the defensively challenged Jermaine Darlington the two most likely contenders to fill it. In the centre, Welsh international Karl Ready provides most of the experience, alongside Chris Plummer and Matthew Rose, the latter one of a number of ex-Arsenal reserves acquired by Stewart Houston during his tenure.
In midfield, experienced George Kulcsar is a popular workhorse in the centre, whilst Stuart Wardley has retreated into a more defensive and involved role since his goalscoring exploits last year. His chief foil is the undroppable Gavin Peacock, but the talented Richard Langley is injured, whilst Paul Murray played his first reserve game after injury this week. Other options include the pointless Steve Morrow, a winger that can't cross in Tony Scully and summer recruit Christer Warren. One-time Watford junior Danny Grieves is knocking around in the reserves, whilst ex-Wrexham striker Karl Connolly, who invariably seems to score against the Hornets, tends to feature as a wide-man.
Up front, the unconventional appearance of Peter Crouch conceals a very decent footballer... he has been linked with the Hornets amongst others in recent weeks. The occasionally proficient Chris Kiwomya is his regular partner, whilst last season's Watford forward-line Michel Ngonge tends to explode from the bench. A reserve report of one goal scored and two clear chances wasted suggests Michel remains much the same as ever, but unlike at Watford, he's earned precious few brownie points to trade off. Sammy Koejoe, a summer recruit from Austria, is another option, but the positive side of the Rangers support hopes that Ian Holloway's track record with strikers at Bristol Rovers will be brought with him to Loftus Road.
I can't share many Hornets' sense of animosity towards Rangers, who for me are symbolised more by Les Ferdinand, Trevor Sinclair and the magnificent David Bardsley than by Terry Venables and the unpleasantness of local rivalries. Nonetheless, Rangers have shipped five goals on four occasions in less than three months. Writing before the Birmingham game, we won't get many better opportunities to get our season back on track.