It's 2032. Gianluca Vialli is expected to announce his retirement from club management at the end of another
successful season, in which Watford reached the semi-final of the FA Inter-Galactic Cup (sponsored by Nwergonstretcher)
and were unfortunate to lose on the newly-introduced "zero gravity thrust-off" to FC Zdddderngn, a team
of bad-tempered, brutal gurdlesnurks created by innovative kroodrg-breeding the Birmingham squad with large granite rocks.
On the Watford Mailing List, now populated almost entirely by incomprehensible aliens (insert witticism here), discussions are dominated
by the search for Vialli's successor. Someone old and wise mentions that the club once had a similar problem, back
when Graham Taylor decided to retire in 2001. "I remember that season," pipes up list veteran and planetary governor
Lord Fincham of Nurdlesszznik. "We were promotion certainties for about three months, then managed to bugger it
up. What was that all about, then?"
Well, people of the future, I'm here to help....
Really, what was it all about? In many ways, this most curious of seasons showcased the best and the worst aspects
of having the costliest team in the club's history. The best, because there were occasions when we played attacking football
of an extraordinarily high quality. The worst, because there were rather more occasions when we lacked the
cohesion and courage to turn supposedly inferior opponents into actually inferior opponents.
In other words, we spent quite a lot of money to assemble a team that turned out not to be as good as the one that'd mapped
out the territory two years previously. Oh, it had better players than last time. Your Nielsens, your Baardsens, your Helgusons,
Wooters, and Vernazzas. All fine players. But, as a whole, it lacked that inner strength, that firm resolve, that fierce
spirit. More than anything, it had nothing to compare to the unbreakable partnerships upon which its predecessor was built -
Page and Palmer, Hyde and Johnson. Foundation stones. As a consequence, the final months of The Graham Taylor Era were used to explore the parallel universe in which
that legendary Tranmere game ended with eleven men on each side and another squalid defeat.
The sense that the players were waiting for the turning point, for their Tranmere, was the most frustrating
aspect of it all. It was almost as if they didn't have to do anything, merely supply forty-five minutes of adrenaline-fuelled
thrills to kick-start an inevitable run of wins. That's missing the point, of course. There was no lack of a
Tranmere. Think back to games against Barnsley, Sheffield Wednesday, Blackburn, QPR, Norwich, all of
which were potentially pivotal.
Rather, the problem was that there was no follow-up. After all, what really set us on the road to the playoffs two years ago? Was it the scrappy, fortunate win
amid anger and chaos against Rovers? Or was it the way that the team grasped the opportunity when it came
along, responding with that magnificently resilient, determined performance at St Andrews two days later? Contrary
to the cliché, you can't make your own luck. You can, however, take full advantage of whatever luck comes
For a while, we were able to ignore our good fortune as it mingled pleasantly with excellent form. We could forget
about the dubious victory at Huddersfield, the last gasp winner against Barnsley, the questionable penalty awarded
against Bolton, the failure to break down a determined Gillingham side, and so on. That isn't to say that we weren't
brilliant sometimes - the first half at the City Ground, fluent and powerful and completely dominant, will live long
in the memory. But you don't win promotion without being tested along the way.
In the end, we were like the bright student who breezes through the mock exams, doesn't bother to do any
revision for the real thing, and disappoints everybody. While ninth place is far from disastrous, it represents
a huge underachievement for a side of very visible potential. To say that we should have finished in the
top six is unfair to the players. Throughout the season, expectations were too high, as if having had a
season in the top flight and spending a few quid on players made us exceptional. But to say that we could have done it is not unreasonable at all. It was
the attempt itself that gave cause for criticism.
Put simply, when you drop points at home against Gillingham, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield, Portsmouth, Stockport, Crystal
Palace and Tranmere, you should probably be grateful that you've done enough elsewhere to avoid a relegation battle. Sometimes,
yer struggling clubs put on spectacular performances to gain results at illustrious opponents - one thinks of Crewe's
jaw-dropping win at Ipswich not so very long ago. But on most of these occasions, our opponents were, frankly, absolute
shite. Really, how bad were bloody Huddersfield? And how much worse were we?
Of course, much attention will be focused on the defence. From the moment when Sheffield Wednesday
beat us with unmarked headers from set pieces, we were conceding rubbish goals against rubbish opponents. The
cock-ups were frequently farcical, the lack of imagination required to score against us was always worrying. Yet the
problems went deeper than that, as far as a midfield with a tendency to disappear when the rough stuff started and
an attack that hit the net regularly but often became isolated. Under stress, the team became a set of
Sometimes, those individuals were commendable. One immediately thinks of Messrs. Mooney and Smith, who can both
hold their heads very high. Yet virtually every member of the side shone at some point, including finest hours
for the much-maligned Foley and Easton. It was that kind of season. To get out of the First Division, as we know after
sitting on the other side of the fence, you need to more than sporadic personal brilliance. You need collective
strength. When we looked for it, it wasn't there.
Somewhere between that sensational first half against Forest and that rancid dungheap of a performance against Huddersfield lies
the middle ground. We were sometimes that good, we were sometimes that bad. For all the ups and downs of a ridiculous
season, the league position probably has it about right.
Painfully, the team just didn't make the grade.