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02/03: Preview: Watford
BSaD opinion
by Chris Lawton

Sunny, or should that be wet, August is upon us and that can only mean one thing - England will lose at cricket. Putting aside the whites and the sound of leather on willow, it is also the start of the football season. Hoorah!

Of course, the close season has been greatly shortened this year with all the excitement of the World Cup. Couple that to the ongoing financial crisis that is sweeping through all ranks of football in this country, and the fact that there are serious matches to be played on Saturday has gone somewhat unnoticed. Of course, for most supposed football fans the season doesn't really start until next week when the overpaid primadonas take to the stage once more.

So after a dismal season last year, Watford once again a faced with the challenge of battling their way out of the paper bag that is Division One. Unlike last season, I don't believe there are any clear favourites - because of the financial restrictions that many clubs are now under. This could make the season exciting - it could also lead to a lot of mediocrity.

As always, one has to look at the three relegated clubs and out of Ipswich, Derby and Leicester, I think Ipswich have the best chance of going straight back up. They have a good squad; a good manager and they know what it takes to get out of the division. Their finances are also in better shape than most. Derby might also go straight back up, but I think their off-field problems could cause them a few problems. If they don't start the season well, then I think they may have to sell players to balance the books - and that will make it even harder for them. Leicester have big problems. The squad is poor, they have financial problems and they have the burden of being in a new stadium. Leicester could make the playoffs, but it won't be automatic promotion.

Last season Norwich, it is fair to say, overachieved. I don't think they will do so well this season. Again the financial pressures off the pitch will start to impact events on it. They might squeeze into the playoffs - then again, they might not.

Other clubs in contention for the playoffs would be Millwall and, as always, Wolves. Although I think for Wolves a good start is essential after the dramatic drop in form over the later stages of last season. Throw in Preston, Forest, Coventry and possibly Stoke as potentials and the upper echelons of the league are sorted out.

At the foot of the table, it is much harder to call. There are no obvious candidates for relegation and if recent seasons are anything to go by the unexpected can happen.

If I had to pick three teams I would go for Walsall, Grimsby and Bradford. Yes, Bradford. Why? Because they, seemingly more than any other club, have massive problems off the pitch. Although their future has been assured in the short term they are not going to have money to spend and a poor run of form, coupled with key injuries, could see morale drop. Other possibles are Gillingham, Rotherham and the two Sheffield clubs.

Of the promoted clubs, I have already suggested that Stoke could be a good outside bet to cause a few surprises. Brighton will be happy, I think, to stay in the division after to successive promotions. For them, the leap to challenge at the upper end of the table is too much this season. Reading will probably fare slightly better, but they will be overly dependent on their strikers and if defences shut them out I can see them struggling to score goals.

Four clubs plus Watford to go. Burnley and Palace are easy. Mid-table obscurity beckons for both.

So we come to Portsmouth. They could be a surprise package this season. Redknapp is a good manager and he is certain to have organised his players well. The only problem is that the pretty passing football in the tradition of West Ham is not going to be enough to get out of the division. However, their recent acquisiton of Paul Merson could give them the edge that propels them into the playoffs. It is hard to tell, but I think they will be one of those teams that on their day can beat anybody. It is just down to how often they can have their day.

Wimbledon. Another enigma. Could be brilliant, could be awful. It is impossible to tell. The saga of moving to Milton Keynes could see some astonishingly low attendances at some of their fixtures. It all depends on how they start. If they manage to get off to a good start, then fans will start drifting back and that could be enough of a boost to propel them high up the table. Similarly if they get off to a bad start morale could go into free fall and the club end up going down.

So to Watford. A year ago, I said the early matches under Vialli would be the key - especially that opening fixture against Man City. Well, Man City won the battle and the war that day and the pattern for the season for both clubs could be seen in that one fixture.

The aim for Watford this year must be to consolidate. We have three of four tubulent seasons and changes both on and off pitch. The aim this year must be to build for the future and to blood some more of the excellent youngsters coming through the academy.

Once again the opening day fixture has not been especially kind. Leicester away at a new stadium is not going to be easy. In fact, it is going to be difficult. Watford could get turned over big time - one of those freak results that happen from time to time. Or, they could pull off a pleasant surprise and come away with a 2-1 win. Like some many things with Watford at the moment, it is hard to tell.

The defining moment of the season, however, will take place about a month into the season when we take on Luton in the Worthington Cup. Important for several resaons. One because it is Luton and who wants to lose a local derby? Secondly the approach and the manner in which the team plays will dictate strongly how the new management regime is accepted by the fans. Anything other than a win will cause dissent in the ranks, I'm sure. The other reason is that Watford need a good cup run. Last year they blew it at Sheffield. I'm hoping for a better effort this year.

So, the burning question - where will we end up? Like many teams in the division, it is difficult to tell. We certainly have the players to challenge at the top of the division and, without wishing to sound over-confident, we are too good to go down! The question is how long will it take for Ray's Regime to have an effect. It might be a slow start, but if we are in touch by Christmas than a late surge could see us make the playoffs. As always, only time will tell.