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02/03: Review:
Positive and aggressive
by Ian Grant

A brilliant season. Oh, come on....

At times like this, you're inevitably drawn to re-read previews and predictions from the previous summer, to contrast the mood now with the mood then, to re-visit the beginning of it all. If you go back to my thoughts in the days leading up to the start of the campaign - written, incidentally, before the full extent of the financial crisis had been revealed and confronted - you'll find this:

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.

Ah, yes. Positive and aggressive. Even without the considerable obstacles encountered along the way, that is why 2002/03 was a brilliant season. Not the best or the greatest, not destined to be the most memorable, the most famous, or the most celebrated. As I said back then, it didn't need to be. It needed to be something else. It just needed to be something, full stop.

At the start, we desperately needed something to pull the different, fragmented parts of the club together. It sounds daft, perhaps, but we needed to be on the players' side again. We needed to want, passionately and fervently, their endeavours to succeed. And if that does sound daft now, that's a measure of how far we've come since August...for I can still recall the lack of fire during Luca Vialli's tenure, the rarity with which events sent supporters to either extreme of the emotional scale. I can recall that lethargy, that indifference...but I can't feel it any longer, mercifully.

In short, we needed the team and the management to remind us of a few things, good and bad. We needed our Watford back, warts and all. And there were a few warts...but, bloody hell, it felt so damn good just to sit in the Rookery and be more than a spectator. To roar, groan and yell rather than merely sigh, shrug and clap politely. It needed to be something, and it was something. It was Watford. Nothing more, nothing less.

That's more important than statistics. League positions, points totals, goal differences, everything that'll end up in the record books...none of it matters nearly as much as spirit, commitment, enthusiasm, effort, fun. Hell, even the extraordinary achievement of reaching the FA Cup Semi-Final is, ultimately, less significant than the decisive return to the core values of the club, to the heart of the matter. Ray Lewington didn't set targets at the start of the season...but he did promise something else, a total change of approach and attitude. And he delivered that, completely.

You'd be quite right, of course, to suggest that all was not quite as wonderful as I've made out. That our away form was consistently dismal, in particular. That we scored too few and conceded too many. That we fell away badly just at the moment when we were starting to believe that a top six finish might not be total fantasy. That it all ended with a bit of an anticlimax. All of that is undeniable, and the interpretation depends on your outlook, I guess.

For me, the key failure - on the pitch, at least - of the previous season was in our reaction to adversity. When things go wrong, shoulders always slump, heads always drop, tempers always fray. That three-nil away defeat always looks absolutely irredeemable by the final whistle, even if it began with promise and expectation in the opening spells. The travelling fans always carry out the most severe, critical inquest. That's not the point. The point is that you have to bounce back, to attack the next game with renewed purpose. Particularly in the First Division, horrendous defeats are hardly uncommon for any side...and so the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful is in the response to those defeats. You can dwell on it, worry about it, let it sap your confidence. You can forget about it, ignore it, take comfort in complacency. Or you can examine it, work through it, use it to win the next game.

Much has been said about our performances on the road, understandably. What hasn't been said nearly often enough, however, is that our poor away form put enormous pressure onto results at Vicarage Road...and that, remarkably, the team withstood and even thrived on that pressure. Especially at the start of the season, when everything still hung in the balance, each home victory was absolutely critical...and the tension, the awareness that a home defeat to follow an away hammering might throw it all into disarray, contributed hugely to the feeling that it mattered again. The team might've been beaten and beaten often, but it bounced back repeatedly.

And that was typical. Pick most of the season's worst moments - being stuffed at Portsmouth, being stuffed at Norwich, losing that horrible local derby (and there was surely no moment worse than that, particularly at such an early and potentially pivotal stage), being forced to negotiate wage deferrals, being ambushed by Gillingham, being beaten heavily at Derby and Ipswich within seven days, letting ourselves down totally at Millwall, blowing our playoff hopes to an atrocious Preston side, stupidly dropping points against Stoke and Sheffield Wednesday, haplessly getting trounced by Brighton and Reading. Then check the next result. I've cheated a little bit, but you get the general idea. Whatever happened, we weren't too far from a revival. And whatever happened, we got on with it, with remarkably little complaint and argument.

Of all the qualities that Ray Lewington has brought to the job - and there have been more than a few, both expected and unexpected - his man management has been most outstanding. Naturally, it's impossible to know what goes on behind closed doors. But the impression that the players have known where they stand - whether in relation to roles and formations, team selections, or wider financial issues - has been inescapable. Criticism has been dished out when appropriate, praise has been awarded more generously and yet always with good reason. Ray Lewington has managed his charges with a refreshing mix of common sense, respect and authority...and it is not at all hard to see why the dressing room has appeared so much more content than before, nor why some players - with one outstanding example - have been completely transformed.

There is no better example than the treatment of the young players in the squad. For although Luca Vialli brought a number of youngsters into the first team, he did so without any clear long-term plan. They arrived randomly, they left just as randomly. In contrast, this season has seen youngsters treated with care and consideration, from the restriction of Anthony McNamee's appearances right through to the rewarding of Scott Fitzgerald's reserve performances. Take Lloyd Doyley, for instance...a defender of massive potential, allowed to work on his attacking game out of the first team spotlight. Or take Jason Norville...a striker who's still inconsistent and unpredictable, yet has been given patience and encouragement. That's proper management, that is.

Inevitably, there have been disagreements about team selections, substitutions, and so on. Fewer disagreements - the practical, sensible reasoning behind most decisions has been obvious, even if we've sometimes reached different conclusions ourselves - but they'll never disappear entirely. What is pretty much indisputable, I think, is that Ray Lewington has got it absolutely right whenever he's been presented with a potentially significant and pivotal choice.

His signings have been excellent, for a start. Sure, Sean Dyche has been much less influential in recent months...but that doesn't change the fact that his arrival set the tone, nor does it alter the fact that many of his early performances were strong and passionate. And my word, Neal Ardley has been a superb addition to the squad, steady and reliable from first to last. There have also been the loan signings, each succeeding in providing a temporary solution to our goalscoring problems without disrupting anything else. Perhaps the only disappointment has been Wayne Brown, but we can hardly criticise that particular bit of business...and, besides, there's plenty of time for it to turn out as we'd originally hoped.

There was one even more vital choice, however. The appointment of Terry Burton as coach and assistant was clearly a masterstroke right there and then, and hindsight does nothing to change that opinion. If you want a coach, you appoint a coach...and few have better reputations than Burton, who would've been a credible candidate for the manager's job itself back in the summer. The partnership - experienced, complementary and deeply likeable - has grown visibly through the season. We've done well there. Very well.

We've done well elsewhere too. Despite the well-documented and much-discussed problems, Watford Football Club has become stronger in many essential respects. The new attitude - pragmatic, honest, and fundamentally sensible - has spread from and been echoed by the first team, whether in the massive achievement of Nigel Gibbs' reserves, the visible energy of Graham Simpson, or the huge efforts of those involved with the Supporters Trust. Once again, there's been a sense of a common purpose, easily taken for granted and yet extremely difficult to cultivate artificially, and the club is far, far better equipped to deal with whatever lies ahead. A positive season, in so many different ways.

But, ultimately, it's about football. And so we spent a year challenging our limitations, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding. There were certainly low points, especially for the away regulars, and it does no-one any favours to pretend otherwise. This time, however, there's no shortage of highlights either. There are plenty of them, if you think about it...the spectacular, extraordinary annihilation of Coventry; the unexpected victories at Forest and Sheffield United, especially the latter, at the end of a week of pure crisis; the brutal battering of West Brom; the fortuitous, battling win at Sunderland; the fulfilment of all that expectation against Burnley; complete insanity at Turf Moor; the Semi-Final, regardless of the result....

I'll pick something else, though. For me, nothing was better than the second half against Wolves. Then, in the unexpected position of defending a place in the top six against one of the promotion favourites, we were as strong, powerful and potent as a Watford side has been for a very long time. And we crushed Wolves...we didn't out-play them, we just crushed them...and an absurd, deflected equaliser in the last minute took nothing away from the sheer magnificence of the performance. Ironically, although the point gained took us to third, it was a turning point in the wrong direction. But it was still an absolutely thrilling, invigorating afternoon.

And now, we can have a well-deserved rest. As the summer break begins, the current situation speaks volumes. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the contrast between now and then, between the almighty mess that Ray Lewington inherited and the stable, steady structure - not a single voluntary departure, with just one of the current squad still to decide their future - that he leaves behind as he heads off for his summer holidays. A two-fold success, for not only has he succeeded in reducing both the size and cost of the squad to an affordable level, but he has done so while also retaining its key components. Three-fold, actually, as he's managed to give us an enjoyable, surprising and occasionally unbelievable season on the pitch while all of that has been going on. It is a remarkable achievement, not to be under-estimated.

There's plenty that could still go wrong, obviously. Not least, the temptation to burden a smaller, younger squad with the expectation generated by this encouraging season must be resisted at all costs. But there's always plenty that could still go wrong. That's football, that's Watford. It doesn't mean that you can't look at the present with some satisfaction.

At some point in the future, you'll hear people under-sell this season for one reason or another. Perhaps they'll say that we only finished thirteenth, that the FA Cup run ended in disappointment, that the squad still had plenty of quality players. It'll happen. Don't stand for it.

It was a brilliant season. More, please.