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01/02: Preview: Watford
BSaD opinion
by Ian Grant

Hey, you. I can read your mind. At this moment, you're thinking, "So, it's the BSaD preview of the season, by that Grant chap. What does he think about it all, I wonder?".

Fortunately, you can't read my mind. If you could, you'd find a kind of mental attic, a mess of stuff from everyday life shoved into a small space in no apparent order. Here, the awareness that the pot of tea I've just made must be nearly ready by now. Just over there, a tune from the last Kylie album. There, memories from enjoyable conversations earlier in the day. At the front, annoyance at the house-painters who managed to trash and trample my lovely front garden today. Covering it all, a layer of stuffy grot from an absurd pollen count.

Not a lot about Watford, though.

Somehow, there is both too much and too little to think about at the moment. On one hand, this insane bombardment of important events - signings, departures, flotations. On the other, the thumb-twiddling wait for it all to start, for there to be something real to base judgements upon. July is always like this, of course. But this has been the most bizarre July, even in comparison to the build-up to our Premiership debut.

During vast upheavals, the mind plays tricks. Really, I half-expect to arrive at my seat in the Rookery for the Rotherham game to find that it's been sold to a curious and wealthy Juventus fan. Which is absurd and entirely groundless, clearly. But the constants that I've grown up with at Watford - Graham Taylor, Luther Blissett, Kenny Jackett, Tommy Mooney, Steve Palmer - have moved on, and there's a natural tendency to wonder whether my sense of belonging will follow them.

That "Watford 'til I die" mentality is perhaps the most difficult thing to explain to people with no love of the game and the culture that surrounds it. After all, what really lies at the heart of a football club to make it unique? Its sense of place and its community of fans, obviously. But, more than anything, its legends, its idols. The names I mentioned in the previous paragraph have done more than been successful. Even now that their achievements at Watford are in the past, they stand for something.

Inevitably, it feels like something fundamental is missing from Watford. That's no reflection on Gianluca Vialli or any of the incoming players. It's just a natural reaction. At the press conference that began this whole escapade, the new manager commented that football is about people. So he'll understand how I feel right now.

Perhaps I have slightly different priorities, then. With everybody's sights set so clearly on promotion, it seems to me that what we really need is an assertion of distinctive character. The club needs to be seen to have values, to have a long-term plan that involves more than scrambling aboard the Premiership gravy train. Which isn't to say that we must forever adhere to Graham Taylor's philosophies, although I'd be entirely happy to do so. It means that we mustn't become the kind of club that has no philosophy, that is so concentrated on footballing success that it doesn't stop to think about anything else.

In all but one respect, I trust those involved - board, management, players, fans - to do what's required. That one reservation is that I fear next season might be so overwhelming that other stuff, important stuff, gets neglected. Looking at the squad, you tend to think that anything less than automatic promotion isn't going to be acceptable (or financially viable). In those circumstances, it's easy to get distracted, whether things are going well or badly.

That said, there are indications that the improvements made by Vialli are significant, and that things will go well as a consequence. In particular, intensive work on the defence has given it a far more resilient look. At first glance, perhaps Messrs. Blondeau, Galli and Vega are not the most exciting of the new arrivals...yet they are not only experienced and demonstrably capable, they have the appearance and self-confidence of natural leaders. That's something we've missed badly. Next season, you don't expect that we'll buckle under pressure quite so often.

In a curious mirror-image-of-last-season type-thing, the problems appear to be further forward. Already, attention has been focused upon an attack that, without the departed and injured Tommys, apparently has little to terrify opposition defences. In the circumstances, keeping Allan Smart - not a goal machine, perhaps, but someone who can make the ball stick in the final third - on the transfer list seems particularly questionable. Whatever, it seems that the well-established cliché of the moment - "whatever happens, it won't be dull" - might not turn out to be totally accurate.

Maybe, however, the midfield needs to establish itself first. For, although there's talent by the barrowload in there, you wonder whether that's enough in itself. The combinations of Micah Hyde, Paolo Vernazza and Stephen Hughes that have been tried in the centre during the pre-season friendlies are unquestionably pleasing to the eye, yet there will surely be times when heavier artillery is required.

In particular, one thinks of Richard Johnson, perhaps the only member of that midfield squad who can dominate a football match rather than merely participate in it. To return to an earlier theme, it seems to me that a Watford side without Johnno is missing something unique, something vital. Sentiment plays a part in that, but there's more to it - as we saw too often last season, a Watford side without Johnno lacks a spine, in every sense. On current evidence, his return to fitness cannot come too soon.

That's it, then. Before Gianluca Vialli's team has played a competitive match, it's to be expected that it has an unfinished appearance about it. Indeed, there's something in that to be applauded. Throughout the pre-season period, we've seen youngsters given chances in the team...and, while you wouldn't expect to see them in the starting line-up at Maine Road, it represents a clear and encouraging statement of intent for the future.

So, this summer has produced many things. A few fascinating signings to prove the pulling power of the new manager and to strengthen the defence. A team that still seems to be lacking certain key components, in midfield and attack. You knew all that.

Then there's a lot of excitement and expectation. And an uneasy feeling, a sense that wonderful things are now in the past and that the future brings many challenges for the club. These emotions are perhaps more telling than the obvious facts, in that they point to something fundamental about next season....

Which is that it's a pivotal time in the club's history. No matter how often you say something like that, it's still more true than you think. Sure, we've done a lot of star-gazing in our time, courtesy of the previous occupant of the manager's office. But this is something different. For the first time, little ol' Watford not only has ideas above its station, but a manager, players, and financial commitment to go with those ideas.

Whatever happens, when I'm writing this preview piece in twelve months, things will have changed forever. Wherever we finish in May, consolidation isn't really an option. From here, there's no going back. And the stock market will chart our progress along with everyone else.

Here goes....