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02/03: Review...:
A Ray of light
By Dave Messenger

Eleven games. Five wins. Three defeats. One huge scare for us all. Nobody can say it's been a dull start to the season!

The financial debacles have been covered in great detail elsewhere, suffice to say that the errors that caused our current problems are all water under the bridge. The board has admitted its mistakes and now the really important battles are happening off the pitch. The last few weeks have seen the formation of the Supporters Trust, a new Chairman at the helm and a new spirit seems to have been born. It would seem that everyone is starting to pull in the same direction again and for me, Ray Lewington, along with his backroom staff and the current crop of players, have been the catalyst for it all. Despite all of the limitations the money worries have caused, the way they have approached the season so far has been first class.

August was always going to be about exorcising the ghost of the Vialli era. As we came away from Leicester on the opening day, discussions centred on the way we had folded under the pressure put on us by the Foxes. Much the same conversation was had on the way back from Fratton Park two weeks later. Between those games, an unconvincing win against the Wimblefreaks and a nil-all with Millwall hardly hinted at what was to come. Even though it was followed by a sound thrashing from Norwich, the Coventry game felt like a turning point at the time and looks it now. It was a truly epic display and the watching Ray "Grimly Fiendish" Wilkins can only have wondered how mostly the same set of players were never able to produce that sort of display during the Italian's tenure.

If August saw fluctuating fortunes, September has seen Ray Lewington and Terry Burton take hold of the team and really start to stamp their mark across it. All power to them as they have taken us on an unbeaten run. We've racked up seven points from three away games, a win and a draw in two home games and there's been a real change in emphasis and attitude from the Watford squad. Taking their lead from the impressively honest way in which Lewington has gone about his business, they've played some good football and some effective football and are starting to look like a solid and decent side. We can compete in this division and the pre-season talk of a relegation battle should prove to be unfounded. Even taking into account the defeat by you know who, it's been a good month in anybody's book and was capped by the comeback at Bramall Lane.

Before the game, Lewington led the players, who had taken a 12% pay cut to help ease the concerns about going into administration, to the travelling fans. At the end, they came of their own accord and celebrated a fine victory WITH us. If one good thing came out of the whole traumatic week that preceded the game, it was the rebuilding of the bond between players and supporters. The bond had been well and truly broken during Luca Vialli's spell in charge. The apathy that was created last term still lingered and was shown to the team during the first weeks of this season. Even on the day of that storming demolition of Coventry, the support was very muted and this was threatening to further undermine the club. Now we're all pulling in the same direction again and it's great to see. As the players punched the air in front of us after the game, you could feel the bubble that Luca had placed around the team bursting, they became our team again and have given us the lift we needed too.

So what of this team? It's much the same players of course. The only new boys, Sean Dyche and Neal Ardley, have both slotted in well and are starting to show what they are capable of. Paul Robinson has continued with the improvements shown last year and has started to get forward more and more, without neglecting his defensive duties. Neil Cox, now installed as club captain, has also picked up where he left off and is revelling in his favoured central defensive berth, while young Lloyd Doyley, though still looking a little green at times, is improving with every game. The star at the back has undoubtedly been Marcus Gayle. Lewington's bold move to play Gayle at centre half is paying dividends. He looked good in the early games as one of three centre halves and any worries that he would struggle in the centre in a 4-4-2 formation were banished within minutes at Sheffield, as he won some towering early headers. Behind the defence, Alec is still Alec, though he has looked a little less confident than we expect at times this season, he is still the undisputed choice between the sticks.

In midfield, Richard Johnson and Gavin Mahon are almost back in contention, which will make for some interesting team selections in the near future. Star of the show has been Micah Hyde, who has been in imperious form through September. The mouth waters at the prospect of him renewing his partnership with Johnno. Allan Nielsen has had some good games and his industry for the team has been admirable, but I'm still not convinced that he should play wide, as he tends to struggle with the nippier wingers. Stephen Glass has done well when called upon and Jamie Hand appears to have seen off Paolo Vernazza and has kept his place on merit. Though the return to fitness of Johnson and Mahon may see him return to the reserves, Hand has hinted that he could become a very good player indeed, given a couple of seasons of steady development. As for Vernazza, he and Stephen Hughes may well struggle to get into the side once everyone is fit. That of course assumes that Hughes will ever be fit himself.

As for the forward players, the talismanic Anthony McNamee certainly proved his worth as a super-sub in the Walsall game, when he almost single handedly turned a bore draw into a comfortable 2-0 win. It's too soon for Macca to be a first team regular, his asthma sees to that, but he's a good card to have up the sleeve. Danny Webber's second loan spell has been more productive than the first. Always a willing outlet and always a handful for defenders, the hope is that Sir Fergie can be persuaded to allow Webber to stop for the season. Tommy Smith's form and confidence has been low for much of 2002, but his well-taken goals against Coventry and Walsall prove he can still produce the goods. The rejuvenated Heidar Helguson has come back with a bang with two goals in two starts. After Vialli's lunacy saw Heidar play everywhere but his best position, it's good to see him back to his best, unsettling defenders and scoring goals. With Helgsuon and Webber on form, Smithy may need to wait for his chance to come again, which could be exactly what he needs to get firing on all cylinders. The same should be said of Dominic Foley. It seems a shame that he finally produced useful displays against Walsall and Luton, then promptly started a suspension. Another spell of waiting for a chance seems to be Foley's lot.

This squad of players is not the greatest we've ever had by any stretch of the imagination. It is still unbalanced and has a distinct lack of depth. It is a committed squad though, as proved by the 12% pay cut and the attitude and commitment they are showing on the pitch. The mind cannot help but think back four years to the team of 1998/99. Their hallmarks were hard work, professionalism and commitment and we all know what they achieved. I'm not suggesting a charge to the play-offs is imminent, but these players can do something that may well prove just as important in the long run. As the club and supporters work hard behind the scenes, these players can keep spirits high and keep a smile on our faces by continuing to put in the effort and winning as many games as they can. In our position, it will be half the battle and Ray Lewington, his staff and players deserve our backing right to the hilt. I see no reason to think they won't get it.

The dark storm clouds may still be gathered over Vicarage Road, but there is a bright Ray of sunlight poking through....