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01/02: Review:
Polite applause
By Ian Grant

2001/02, then. God, where to start?

From the beginning, this had a sense of "make or break" about it, a feeling of urgent necessity that had never previously applied to a Watford campaign. While I have no reason to doubt the existence of a three year plan, oft-quoted by management and directors in recent weeks, there was notably less mention of such long-term strategy back in the summer, when season tickets were sold and sponsorship deals signed. True, the level of over-expectancy was fuelled by supporters, as so often...but it would have been hugely naive to expect it to be otherwise, given the arrival of a high profile manager and several high-ish profile players.

"Make or break"...and it broke. Sure, a lower-mid table finish does not represent a disaster, particularly as the latter six months of the previous campaign had seen a thoroughly demoralised, fragmented team in relegation form. But, once created, expectation is a merciless beast. A lower-mid table finish might not be a disaster, but it offered not even the slightest hint of success. To quote the football fan's favourite (and most tiresome) phrase, it was "not good enough".

Remarkably, there has yet to be a single casualty of any note. Three of Luca Vialli's least successful signings - Ramon Vega, Pierre Issa, and Marcus Gayle - may have been transfer-listed along with Graham Taylor's two most expensive purchases, yet they all remain on the pay-roll. Anyone capable of calculating a crude wages-to-results ratio (quite a popular pastime among Watford fans recently) on behalf of potential employers might suggest that they'll be on the pay-roll for a while yet, unless their contracts are settled by negotiation. And, despite repeated rumours to the contrary, the management team survived the end-of-season inquest.

No casualties, then, but it's an extremely uneasy peace. You wonder what the scenario might've been had football, and therefore Watford Football Club, entered the summer break with a rather more solid financial foundation. Would the directors have been quite so sure of their desire to retain Luca Vialli, given the possibility of terminating his contract amid relative calm elsewhere in football? A purely hypothetical question, of course....

Perhaps it's an unfair question too, for the reaction of the board, particularly Tim Shaw, to its first crisis of any note has been remarkably belligerent. Along with the emergence of Anthony McNamee and the brief resurgence inspired by Wayne Brown and Filippo Galli, the vehement clarity of Shaw's numerous statements is perhaps the most memorable aspect of the latter part of the season. For once, someone other than Graham Taylor has been able and willing to fulfil the crucial role of listening to other people's opinions, while also retaining and expressing forceful views of their own.

Why is this vital? Simple. All football clubs - excepting those in the Champions League - are about to be required to make some extremely difficult decisions. Fairly obviously, the collapse of ITV Digital and the attempts of Carlton and Granada to wash their hands of the mess that they created will have a serious effect on the Football League during the summer months. In many ways, however, this is merely an acceleration along a route that has already been mapped out. Previously, everyone has acknowledged that they must take action to control spiralling wages at some unspecified time in the future. The sudden loss of income from football makes this that unspecified time. It has to happen now.

It's easy to say...and, as we're quickly finding out, it's much, much harder to do. Ironically, it is actually made even harder by the previously prudent practice of signing players on long contracts to ensure both their continued service and their transfer value. Watford will not be alone in being required to continue to pay transfer-listed players, perhaps until the very end of their contracts. The idea of selling for profit, or even re-couping investment, now seems to belong to another era, replaced entirely by the urgent need to reduce expenditure.

Like others, although to a lesser degree (while losses cannot be dismissed, the lack of substantial external debt is a crucial factor here), Watford have got themselves into a particularly tangy pickle. If the future is to be more secure, strong leadership is required. The mistakes of last summer - when there was an apparent absence of strong leadership, as Luca Vialli cleared out and replaced players and staff - are well-documented, yet Tim Shaw has decisively filled the void since then. Obviously, that won't get fans' pulses racing, but it might be highly significant.

And, whatever the reason, the retention of the manager and his staff in the face of considerable pressure seems to me to be cause for some optimism. For a club like Watford, an endless procession of managers, each clearing out and replacing players and staff, is at least pointless and at most potentially disastrous. The nineties aren't that long ago. Perhaps choosing to retain your manager simply because he is your manager is a bland, grey way of entering next season. That doesn't make it wrong, especially at this time.

And especially as I fail to see that better alternatives are available. Experienced, talented First Division managers are not common, and it is inevitable that any replacement would have as much to learn about football in this curious, ludicrous league as Luca Vialli when he was appointed and would be confronted with equally impatient, frustrated fans after a short spell in charge. In which case, each sacking and new arrival simply sends us back to square one. It may well be that Vialli will not be the one to bring success to Vicarage Road. It would be utterly foolish to be left wondering, though.

This has the feel of an unfinished story. So far, it has been more complex than some simplistic readings have claimed. I remain entirely unconvinced, for example, that Graham Taylor would not have been ruthless with the existing squad in the summer, just as I consider it extremely unlikely that any other manager would have left much of the available transfer budget in the club's bank account. Unlike Dave Bassett, Luca Vialli did not inherit a side in great health, and could not avoid the obvious need for reconstruction.

The mistake, then, was not to get rid of players...nor was it necessarily to get rid of some extremely popular players. The mistake was to replace them with highly-paid, largely ineffective mercenaries. At the start of the season, much was made of the need to wait for the side to gel, yet the wait would surely have been much shorter if the incoming individuals had been of a type to gel easily. After all, it took no more than a couple of weeks for the defensive partnership of Wayne Brown and Filippo Galli to come together, after months of waiting for others to form a similarly robust defence. If you want something to gel, you buy jelly.

Every manager makes mistakes on the transfer market, of course. As Graham Taylor consistently proved, the key is to make affordable mistakes. The lesson for Luca Vialli is obvious. More recently, there are signs that it is a lesson well learnt, as the acquisitions have become both cheaper, better and more easily integrated. Whether that is down to the manager or others on the staff is entirely irrelevant. In many ways, a gigantic opportunity has been wasted, yet other opportunities, particularly for the younger players in the squad, present themselves. This is the First Division, and there are as many precedents for promotion on a relatively low-budget as there are for buying success.

That said, it is a fair assumption that further purchases will not be possible, and that the manager will begin the 2002/03 season with a smaller squad than finished this campaign. In which case, everything will depend on the ability to wring more committed, determined and plain worthy performances from the players, especially away from home.

So much has been limp and pathetic, a situation seemingly perpetuated by bland excuses in post-match press conferences. In particular, lack of luck has been much commented upon...but a side as frequently devoid of determination and resolve has no right to complain when it does not get the run of the ball. One thinks of Wayne Brown, a player who really did make his own luck. A bit more of that would've gone a very long way.

Although there were memorable moments - that fantastic match against Charlton, an oh-so-welcome win at Selhurst, among not very many others - they were a blob of jam on a bowl of gruel. The vast majority of the season, even the victorious bits, was remarkably lacking in drama. Goal celebrations are telling, in that respect - when it really matters, you don't recover your senses for minutes. Most of the time, I found myself on my feet, yes, but applauding politely.

Rarely intimidating, the atmosphere at Vicarage Road was particularly flat throughout. To an extent, that can be put down to the style of football...or, more precisely, the interpretation of the style of football, as passing at ground-level need not be coma-inducing. Yet it surely had more to do with the failure of the team, certain individuals excepted, to connect with the crowd, to become a Watford team rather than merely a collection of people playing for Watford.

Sure, there are many who will never be satisfied with a defeat or a draw, who will see any setback as good cause for sulks and insults. Whatever happens, there'll be complaints. But there are as many who just want to be fired and inspired, to feel excited and involved. There are many who'll accept honest mistakes, who'll look for and pounce upon a determined reaction to a setback, who want to spend Saturday afternoon loudly losing themselves in a football match.

More than anything, the failure of Watford in 2001/02 was felt in the lack of engagement and involvement. It was quite dull. And, quite often, it was very hard to care. That has to change.

Some things cost nothing.