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
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.