A year on...
By Matt Rowson
Another summer, another pre-season friendly. One day short of a year ago we were at Aylesbury, and the talk was of revolution, a press pack awaiting the appearance of our suave Italian manager in his white suit. A year on, Vialli is gone, there is a single photographer perched lazily along the touchline from the home side's goal and most of those in attendance at Clarence Park wouldn't recognise our new manager if he paid his money at the turnstiles and slouched onto the terraces with the rest of us.
The management is not all that's changed from twelve months ago; the portents elsewhere, for what they are worth, are generally positive. Whilst at Aylesbury the sun was halfhearted and unconvincing as the watching support were persecuted by swarms of insects, today the sun beat down in a far more contented manner on the equally relaxed crowd. At Aylesbury, the indolent catering staff were on a go-slow... here, the almost military organisation in the burger vans made short work of the steady queues. (It's worth noting also that the three, albeit long-term injured and uninvolved, players queuing for a pre-meal greasy burger probably wouldn't have been on that sort of diet a year ago either.)
The team emerge. In black shorts and socks, which I guess some of us will just have to get used to. Alec is in goal, apparently, although I have only the tannoy announcer's word for this, as we follow non-league etiquette by filing around the edge of the pitch to stand behind our opponents' goal in each half. Do fans of non-league clubs ever get to recognise their goalkeepers, I wonder?
The back four I can more comfortably vouch for, as all four play the entire ninety and all, to varying degrees, seem keen to come forward. Doyley at right-back and Robinson on the opposite flank both certainly seem to be part of the attacking plan under the new regime, seeing much of the ball in the opponents' half early on as Watford enjoy much of the possession. Their attacking inclinations leave spaces behind them, which St.Albans try to exploit on their occasional breaks. Robbo doesn't like being caught out, however, as one opponent soon learns. Some things don't change.
In the centre, alongside Captain Cox, is new signing Sean Dyche. Many of those who needed a little reassurance after Thursday's managerial announcement will have found it in the identity of Friday's arrival, who in reputation at least encapsulates as much of what Watford needs as could have been hoped for in a single player. A centre-back, a leader, a fighter. It's worth comparing his debut with that of Gianluca Vialli's first signing a year ago...whilst Vega courted attention, passed the ball fastidiously but got turned by Dwight Marshall during a forty-five minute run a year ago, Dyche's ninety minutes were competent and unflustered, encapsulating some strong challenges and at least one goalline clearance. As far as it is possible to tell from the other end of the pitch.
A notable feature of Watford's play was the number of times crosses were delivered into dangerous positions - three of the four goals resulting from right-wing crosses. In the first half, the wide berths were generally taken by Jamie Hand on the right and Tommy Smith on the left. Hand has looked competitive and aggressive in his early first team outings, but here the teenager displayed a highly encouraging and profitable supply line. Smith, on the left flank, was effervescent during the opening half, tormenting his markers and regularly squaring the ball into the box from the byline.
Which is where it went wrong really. A regular criticism last year was reluctance to score anything but the perfect goal... here there was no short of good supply, but the movement in the box wasn't what it might have been. I like Marcus Gayle, there's something very earnest about him and certainly his touches when in possession were almost immaculate. He wasn't in possession nearly enough though, too often misreading the intentions of the person supplying the ball, too often slightly too far forward, slightly too far back, mistiming his jumps...
There's time, though. This is pre-season after all, a little rustiness is to be expected and Gayle's failings on this occasion can't be put down to lack of effort. Back to those touches... a gorgeous cushion down for Smith on the edge of the area which saw Gayle almost wrap his head around Doyley's high-velocity delivery and take the speed out of it. Then an elegant through ball (he isn't an out-and-out striker) to release Norville, who slightly nervously swiped a quick left-foot at the chance to send it wide.
Our hosts' opening goal was largely unexpected and unheralded, arriving from virtually their first attack, just as I was relaying to the Worldnet crew in Leeds that everything was under control. A ball in from the left, a high ball lost by Chamberlain under a challenge that might have attracted more of our attention had it been by Iwan Roberts or Iffy Onuora in a league tie rather than Simon Martin in a pre-season friendly.
Watford's reaction was to up-the-tempo... not in panic or nervousness, more in an urgency that was too often lacking last season. The pattern of the play didn't really change, there was just more of it. Norville looks an interesting option... very mobile, tidy and with good control but not nearly enough resilience in those spindly legs yet, nor the pace to make that matter. When Hand sent in another vicious cross whistling from the right and the keeper completely misjudged it, Norville suddenly looked confident and capable, belting a header in at the far post.
Half-time entertainment is provided by Helguson junior in Watford kit with his uninvolved father at the halfway line. His tendency to miss the ball completely, despite it being almost as big as him, will probably restrict his involvement at this stage, although it would have been nice to see Helguson Snr. throwing himself at some of those crosses.
Another echo from last year, as Pete Fincham again rings from Worldnet to make disparaging comments at the state of the scoreline. "Lewington Out!" is the tongue-in-cheek judgment on this occasion.
The second-half, post end-switching on behalf of spectators and players, and not the anticipated glut of substitutions, just Lee Cook on for Norville as Watford switch to a more conventional 4-4-2. Watford continue to dominate possession and look increasingly like doing something with it. Stephen Hughes, playing with a heavily bandaged hand in his first outing since November, is one player growing into the game rather than, like Smith in particular, drifting out of it. Appropriately, he gives Watford the lead for the first time... Doyley's perceptive ball into space towards the right corner flag releases Hand, who spins on the ball and belts a cross into the area in a single movement. The increasingly hapless Richard Wilmot again misses completely and Hughes has made the run to the far post where he volleys in tidily.
Jamie Hand, meanwhile, appears to have hurt himself making the impossicross, and signals for a change... Ray Lewington's assertion that no injuries have been picked up remove the only real shadow to the afternoon later in the evening. Enter Anthony McNamee, and the first of several cameo roles that dominate the second half... you have to feel sorry for Lee Cook, whose year out looks increasingly expensive, once again shunted to his unnatural right flank. McNamee does his thing, just as you'd hope, and the right-side of City's defence, having been run ragged in the first half by Smith, has more to think about. Following behind McNamee is a replacement for the tiring Smith introduced to us as Simon Patterson. Not having been introduced to Patterson before and not immediately recognising Dom Foley beneath his newly bleached coiffure, we see no reason to doubt the announcer until he confesses to his error some minutes later as an afterthought to the introduction of Swonnell for the busy Hyde.
Entering the fray with Foley is a slight, ginger-haired midfielder. His arrival is cause for great celebration amongst the yellow bits of terrace, for although he is by some distance the least effective yellow shirt on the pitch, just having Nicky Wright around again feels good. At half-time, as he warmed up, he was asked whether he was to be introduced. "I can't get a game" he said, before turning on his heels quickly and trotting off with his eyes to the floor. And his performance shows the same lack of sparkle... on one occasion, a strong shot is badly fluffed by the home keeper. The ball is spilled towards Wright, and based on his memorable two-thirds of a season in the first team three years ago, you'd expect to see the livewire first onto these mistakes. Instead he has his back to play and is running away from the ball.
At least he's there, though, rather than being cheaply discarded as other favourites have been. He clearly has a chance, the rest is up to him. It's also worth bearing in mind, as ig later points out, that even before his injury, his occasional troughs in form were particularly deep.
Dom Foley has had a number of false starts in his Watford career, and one suspects that he's running out of chances. The half-hour he gets here however will have done him no harm whatsoever, the elegance and touch which many have recognised being combined with an unfamiliar steel. The third goal is his creation, his perfect through ball meeting Hughes' run, the midfielder sliding the ball past the advancing keeper and precisely inside the left-hand post.
Three-one. Finally we do get to see the heralded Simon Patterson, and both the reason for and the irony in the earlier error become apparent. Patterson is wearing the same shirt number as Foley, an unusual feature shared also by Cook and Swonnell, but there the similarity ends. Patterson is a giant of a man, with the build and gait of a basketball player rather than a footballer. Perhaps losing themselves for a moment, St.Albans begin to adopt basketball regulations by occasionally reintroducing previously extracted players for the remainder of the game.
And Patterson, it is immediately evident, is enormous fun. For one thing, challenges seem to bounce off him in a way that will remind people of Devon White's notorious Watford career. Unlike White, Patterson has control, grace and wit. With his long lanky frame he is able to stretch and cover half the penalty area without moving his upper torso. A succession of sways and feints fool three defenders on the edge of the box, winning an improbable corner (and the crowd).
The fourth goal is utterly pleasing both in its delivery and execution, a belted cross from the right by Cook flying across the face of goal until met by the head of Foley, diving at the feet of the surprised defender who ends up on top of him as the ball bombs into the roof of the net. The Irishman's disciples are grinning particularly widely as the game trundles to a conclusion.
At the end of the game St.Albans score again; I can't comment because I wasn't watching, and from our vantage point at barely pitch level I doubt that a useful account would have been forthcoming anyway. Here's another thought... if non-league fans can't see their team defend, do they by default enjoy their football more ?
I haven't mentioned our hosts much in this account... without wishing to belittle their performance, the one player who stood out (in the absence of a pen with which to keep track of shirt numbers) did not distinguish himself. And in any event, this one was solely about Watford.
We turn to leave the ground and begin conversations and reflections as we make our way towards the exit into Clarence Park. And then we stop and turn, because unprompted and despite the rapid emptying of the ground, Watford's team is trotting around the pitch in a group applauding the support.
Welcome to the job, Mr.Lewington. So far, so good.