It hardly seems five minutes since the season started and yet so much has been crammed into it so far. We've started the return fixtures already, so we won't see Ipswich till next season, with any luck Leicester will succeed in their plans to booter their way put of the First Division and we won't see them next season, while hopefully we'll never see Franchise FC again. Time for a half time report then....
Trying to judge how successful the first half of 2002/03 has been is no easy task. I think it depends on your expectations. If like me, you thought our squad's lack of depth would come home to roost and we'd be struggling, you can't help but be impressed with the resolve and attitude of Ray Lewington's side and to be abso-bloody-lutely delighted with ninth place as we go into the New Year. If you thought that our excellent form through September and October was going to see us figure more prominently in the promotion battle, you may be feeling disappointed that we've slipped away somewhat.
If the latter is the case, lower your sights a little and look at what has happened so far. In the light of the current climate, this season has seen real progress. This time last year a heavily disjointed Watford were given a richly deserved mauling by Millwall's Lions. Read the report of the game from the BSaD archives and see just what a mess we were in. Things got little better through the rest of that campaign and we started this campaign with a losing mentality. We are now almost unrecognisable from the shambles that finished last season and we no longer go to games expecting to be beaten. When the leading lights of the division come to town, we fancy our chances. We're more committed, better organised and far better off for it.
The most satisfying thing to happen so far is that we've become very difficult to beat at home, with only two league defeats at the time of writing. We've seen some particularly tenacious displays, not to mention some very good football played at times. Even though some of the games have seen us struggle to break sides down, the fact that we have eventually done so goes a long way to confirming that the spirit of the side remains good. A few players have stood out so far. Helguson, Ardley and Glass are all having good seasons and most of the other players have had their moments. If pressed to name a player of the season so far, no player has impressed me more than Neil Cox. He has led from the front throughout and is a true captain for this team, not to mention the added bonus of his six goals.
A lot of good work has been done, but it would be very wrong to feel that all in the Watford garden is golden. Away from home, the excellence of displays such as those at Nottingham Forest, Sheffield United and Stoke now seem to be little more than papering over the cracks as we still have problems whenever we go a goal behind on our travels. Apart from the win at Bramall Lane (a game in which Watford's sheer bloody-minded determination to win against the backdrop of the wage cuts saw us through) in each away game we've gone a goal down we've lost.
If we were looking for reasons for our form slipping away, I believe that the loan signing of Jermaine Pennant has affected the balance of the side. Pennant came in to replace the injured and much missed Danny Webber and Watford hoped he would add to the striking options. That seemed reasonable enough, but when it became clear the talented youngster could not do this, they would have been better off sending him back to Arsenal. It still seems odd that the successful right-sided partnership of Doyley and Ardley should be broken up. Many of our goals have come from the steady supply of quality crosses from Ardley, for me he is wasted at right back while Doyley has hardly put a foot wrong. Pennant is obviously a good player, but as with his last spell at Watford, he's not the answer for us.
We're also suffering a little from the lack of depth in the squad. While we wait for Gifton to achieve full fitness, we've had little choice but to persevere with an out-of-touch Tommy Smith to partner top scorer Helguson. In an ideal world, we could do with resting Tommy and giving him the chance to rediscover the thrilling skills he showed us two seasons ago. Dominic Foley can consider himself a little unlucky not to have had an extended run up front. When you add the injury to Sean Dyche, it's a little easier to see why we've been struggling. He's one of those players who you don't appreciate until he's not in the side. His sheer determination has been missed and while Marcus Gayle has deputised well, Dyche's return can't come quickly enough.
Whatever the reasons behind this mini-slump, it's hypercritical of anybody to point the finger. The bigger picture is that the season so far has been better than we could have expected. It's only natural that there are still things that need to be addressed, many of the problems we have are inherited and were never going to go away overnight. Ray Lewington and Terry Burton have more than shown that they are the men to address them. There are further tests to come and the real beauty is that we can look forward to them, now that the bond between supporters and team has been rebuilt. Wherever you think the season is going to end up, we're halfway there and it's been enjoyable and rewarding so far. Long may that continue.