By Dave Messenger
Much water has passed under the First Division bridge since I last wrote. Fulham have stretched their lead and taken an iron grip on proceedings, Sheffield Wednesday have sunk to the foot of the table and, most importantly of all, Watford have stopped the rot. GT's "back to basics" did the trick and the team got down to grinding out results. Since then there would appear to have been a levelling out of fans' expectations. Fans now seem to have cottoned on to the fact that we are no longer going to run away with automatic promotion. We got our wake-up call during the much-vaunted 'Championship deciders' against Fulham as, Boa Morte escaping his red card not withstanding, the West Londoners showed us why they will win the division.
Enough about them, how are we looking? The last few games have highlighted our one real weakness. If we are honest, the crack was there all along; we just couldn't see it for the wallpaper of the long unbeaten run. The big problem is the back four. We always look like conceding goals at the moment. The first choice four is short on pace, Ward and Page are both good defenders, both seem to have put indifferent runs of form behind them, but are they a promotion-winning partnering? Neil Cox still isn't hitting his early season heights and Paul Robinson is working hard to overcome his tendency to dive in, at the expense of his earlier consistency. Behind them, Alec Chamberlain continues to keep Espen Baardsen out of the starting line-up. The answers don't appear to lie in the current squad, though James Panayi and Nigel Gibbs, when fit, provide good cover. We could use another option back there but pacy defenders don't grow on trees so patience is the order of the day.
Elsewhere in the squad, Heidar Helguson's debatable goal against Fulham seems to have rekindled his enthusiasm and confidence. Seeing his good friend Gudmundsson return to their native Iceland with homesickness can't have helped during his barren run but he now appears to be back on his game. Last week's win at Sheffield saw Watford return to a 4-4-2 formation in the second half and Allan Nielsen revelled in the wide right role. With The Smoker back to his best as a midfield anchor and Paolo Vernazza (he always wins the ball, he comes from Holloway) currently tearing up trees in the middle, this tactic would appear to be Watford's best way forward, if we are to catch Bolton. It also gave us a chance to see Helguson and Smith in tandem through the middle. I mentioned in my last column that young Tommy deserves a run in this, his best position and hopefully this will now happen. The switch made also does much to disprove the ridiculous opinions expressed by a minority of fans, which foolishly suggested that GT has lost his tactical prowess. He remains the right man to manage our club. He always has been and, frankly, he always will be.
Looking at the rest of our promotion rivals, Bolton are in pole position just now. Sam Allardyce's men are enjoying a good spell but you can't help wondering if they are going to start dropping points soon. For me, Blackburn continue to look ominous and the recent addition of Eyal Berkovic may prove to be the push they need. West Brom and Birmingham are keeping pace, much as we are. Credit must go to Gary Megson for keeping the Baggies in the race against many people's predictions, but do they have the depth in the squad to maintain their challenge over the closing months? Our old mate Tricky Trev has guided Brum to the Worthless Cup final - let's hope this distraction affects their league form, even though it will give the indomitable Francis another excuse to use. Of the chasing pack, Preston have the class to come back strongly. Forest, having signed David Johnson from Ipswich, are still in touch and I can't help feeling there's more to come from Wimbledon.
Whatever your thoughts about the season so far, we are hopefully set for an exciting end to the season. As I said earlier, the expectations are levelling out and the support is getting better, as evidenced at Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday. This time last year, relegation was a certainty, but we made our own entertainment, we Watford fans went on a magnificent run of our own and supported the boys through to the end of the season. We've got something to play for this time and more of the same is required from us. If we don't make it, we don't make it...but let's not turn into Wolves fans, let's roar the Golden Boys on again. Together, we may be on the verge of creating more magical memories. C'mon you 'Orns....