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02/03: Preview: Watford
BSaD opinion
by Ian Grant

You know what? Quietly, I'm rather looking forward to this.

No, really. Honestly.

You might feel differently, I guess.

I mean, you might feel that there's been a dramatic lowering of expectations, a total collapse of ambition. Twelve months ago, during a most extraordinary July, I suggested that "you tend to think that anything less than automatic promotion isn't going to be acceptable (or financially viable)". And so it proved...albeit with a little help from ITV. And now? If promotion remains on the agenda at all, it's under "Any Other Business".

From one extreme to the other. From glamourous manager to well-meaning nobody. From fabulous wealth to change-counting poverty. From promotion favourites to hopeful outsiders. Everything's changed. No middle ground.

Well, fair enough. Except that there's nothing wrong with treating promotion as an aspiration rather than an expectation, a bonus rather than a requirement. The whole point of ambition is that its worth is only realised upon fulfilment. Standing at the foot of Everest and boasting of how much you're going to spend on high quality climbing equipment to reach the summit is all very well...but it doesn't get you any nearer to the top. Back then, we were heralded (by our own manager and virtually no-one else) as the Manchester United of the division. It seems ridiculous now. Hell, it seemed ridiculous then.

Now, we're just...well, Watford. Personally, it's no great surprise to find that it feels quite pleasant.

In due course, it'll need to be more than that. In due course. Because, circumstances being what they are, it's conceivable that Ray Lewington could get away with another mid-table finish. Which isn't to say that we should be happy or satisfied with that, merely that it might not be cause to throw the manager to the proverbial lions. But, to earn that patience, Ray Lewington must deliver in other areas. And he must deliver quickly. We play Luton within a month, after all.

So, in a sense, expectations haven't been lowered at all, merely shifted. For the new boss, who seems to have judged the mood rather shrewdly, needs to fulfil his promises on increased commitment, work-rate, discipline, tactical awareness, passion, unity. Above all, unity. He needs to do what Luca Vialli almost entirely failed to do with more or less the same set of players - that is, create a team that the supporters can identify with, that represents the club in a more meaningful way than simply pulling on a yellow shirt and picking up a wage cheque. He needs to win people over.

It's no trivial task...and, initially, the rewards might be in brownie points rather than yer actual league points. Nevertheless, it's an established fact that consistency of method and commitment will enable a club to fulfil its potential within the First Division. There are dozens of examples, no need to list them. And, while we may no longer think of running away with the championship, there is no reason whatsoever why an organised, dedicated side picked from the current squad should not challenge for the playoffs...and, perhaps more importantly, there is no reason for it not to be fun to watch and rewarding to follow in the process.

This, quite clearly, is the plan. No secret formula, no magic wand. It is, in many ways, very much a Graham Taylor plan, a recipe using familiar ingredients...and, again, it feels quite pleasant to be able to say so. As with the appointment of the manager a few weeks ago, the risk always remains that the plan might fail...but that doesn't stop it from being an entirely sensible and pleasing plan. It rings true. Hindsight had much to say about Luca Vialli. Whatever happens, it won't have as much to crow over this time.

The concern, naturally, is that the squad is absurdly weighted towards the midfield, to the extent that it would be possible to put out a team comprised entirely of midfielders, each with first team experience (something like...Mahon; Glass, Hand, Fisken, Nielsen; Vernazza, Hughes, Hyde, Johnson; Wright, Cook). At the same time, cover in some other positions is barely one player deep. Really, the squad is deceptive, for the considerable (pre-ITV, at least) value of its parts is rather greater than the whole, and Ray Lewington will have to work hard to fill the gaps. Heidar Helguson may yet complete his tour of the starting eleven.

And, yes, you suspect that we will be exposed on occasions, either in defence, where only a couple of knocks will lead to the appearance of young debutants, or in attack, where Tommy Smith is noticeably less threatening without a target man alongside. But, if the mentality is right, it doesn't matter nearly so much. It might be a bizarre, daft and sometimes punishing division...but it rewards those who refuse to let their heads drop.

So, I've no idea where we'll finish next season. But my expectations are high nonetheless. A bit of welly, a bit of oomph, some fire and some finesse, some young blood and some old heads, and I'll be quite happy. Despite the headline-grabbing financial crisis, it seems to me that the club, with its board very much at the helm, is moving decisively in the right direction at the moment. The atmosphere is honest, constructive...and altogether more grounded in reality. All that is nothing without performances on the pitch, however.

Really, it doesn't need to be the greatest season in the history of Watford Football Club. It does, however, need to be a positive, aggressive season.

No more excuses.