The weight of history
By Matt Rowson
There are certain fixtures in Watford's Division One calendar that have become entirely predictable.
Sheffield United, at Bramall Lane. A win, or at least an unheralded draw. Heidar will score, and the locals will get quite agitated. We'll also have too many beers in the Howard.
Gillingham. Anywhere. A muddy scrap in the central third of the pitch, possibly punctuated by a single Gillingham shot and goal, traditionally by Paul Shaw. And Hessie will sprint for ninety minutes.
Crystal Palace at Selhurst. It will be grey, wet and windy.
Walsall. Anywhere. You won't be able to remember a single detail of the game. Hell, it was only last Saturday...
Bradford at Valley Parade. It will be unbelievably cold. We will drag out our worst performance of the season, kicking and screaming. Salvation will be sought in pie consumption, with the visiting Hornets collectively managing to forget that this was the place where roofs were taken off mouths by implausibly hot filling last season. And we'll lose, pitifully. Obviously.
This last one has always been a banker, the trip undertaken with little or no expectation. We've never actually won here, of course, and it's more than twenty-five years since we last got a point...
In the face of such crushing tradition and weight of history, the last thing you'd presumably want to do as the victors-in-waiting is to shake the thing up, to do anything that might break the pattern and render the encounter in any way unusual or remarkable. Wrong. As you'll know.
The logic in offering all-comers free admission to this game is based in the knowledge that, firstly, the however many thousand pounds being foregone by Bradford are far preferable to relegation should such a choice be available and secondly that this is a game that Bradford really need to win if escape is going to be a realistic possibility. (Incidentally, the undertone on Bradford messageboards over recent seasons has tended to suggest that Bradford are really better than Watford, that any suggestion otherwise by league tables or other objective nonsense is somehow inaccurate. Based on our showings at Valley Parade that's a reasonable enough conclusion to draw, however some of these guys really ought to try an away trip or two... City have consistently been amongst the feeblest visitors to the Vic, where they've also never won, for the last few seasons).
In truth, the size of the crowd is not in itself an issue... we've won in front of bigger crowds (Sunderland) and when our support has been outnumbered to a greater degree (Norwich) in the last year or so. The difference here is that City are likely to be buoyed by an attendance that should be in excess of double their season's average (around eleven thousand). In particular, the atmosphere might not be typical of that at Valley Parade this season where the home support has reputedly been unforgiving of the side's failings, particularly in the case of more experienced players whose lapses seem to have been seen as fair game. Former manager Nicky Law was quoted as complaining that Bradford's fans boost the opposition with their cynicism; we can't guarantee that such an unusual crowd will turn on their team as readily.
Recent weeks at Valley Parade have been dominated by off-the-field activities, specifically a bun-fight between erstwhile chairman and 49% shareholder Gordon Gibb and the Rhodes family, who have effectively subsidised City for several years. An impasse seemed to have resulted into an inevitable charge back into administration, and with City eight points from safety having played more games than their rivals at the time of writing the future looked anything but secure.
In the last week, however, some chinks of light have begun to suggest themselves. First, a rare win at home to Crewe - City's first in six games. There'll need to be a fair few more of them if City are to avoid the drop, of course, and even the most optimistic of fists aren't being waved just yet but City will see it as a start. Then, unexpectedly, a deal is struck with an apparently co-operative West Brom to allow Ronnie Wallwork to stay on loan for another two months. Finally, on Thursday, an unofficial site reported that Gibb has agreed to sell his shares to the Rhodes family, thus apparently safeguarding the future of the club.
New manager Bryan Robson, a rather surprising choice to replace Nicky Law, has fiddled with different formations since his arrival but last Saturday's victory was achieved with a 4-3-3 formation which therefore seems a reasonable bet for Tuesday night.
Nico Vaesen will probably be in goal for the Bantams, having been loaned to Robson by his mate Steve Bruce despite a late transfer bid from West Brom. The Belgian will probably want to forget the last time he faced the Hornets in West Yorkshire, when he made rather a hash of a Neil Cox free kick at the McAlpine Stadium four years ago. The other possibility is regular first choice keeper Alan Combe; the Scot will complete a three game ban for a recent red card on Saturday against Nottingham Forest, but the rather characteristically aggressive nature of his dismissal sees him up in front of an FA disciplinary hearing, and the risk of a further ban, on Friday. With New Zealander Mark Paston still not quite back from a stomach operation, another ex-Birmingham keeper Clint Davies should be on the bench if Combe remains unavailable.
Right-back will probably be Simon Francis, who has been a regular for the best part of two seasons despite only having turned nineteen a fortnight ago. The alternative is veteran Peter Atherton, although Robson seems to prefer him in a holding midfield role. On the left, former Norwich man Paul Heckingbottom is holding sway over Lewis Emanuel and long-serving Wayne Jacobs, who celebrates a testimonial season next year.
In the centre, former Leeds man David Wetherall should be partnered with Jason Gavin, who played under Robson previously at Boro. Alternatives include Mark Bower and highly rated youngster Peter Folkes.
The midfield looks like comprising Atherton, the newly re-installed Ronnie Wallwork and possibly another loanee, Bolton's Gareth Farrelly. I say possibly because by my sums Farrelly's twelve-week loan expires at the weekend, but the City official site makes no mention of his imminent return to Lancashire and it's possible that Robson was successful in postponing the weeks of his loan spell that were rendered redundant by injury.
Other midfield options, dependent on formation, include the hard-working Paul Evans, linked on one website with a move to Blackpool this week, winger Ben Muirhead, who seems to have graduated from the Worrell Sterling school of blind alley exploration, and the much-travelled Nicky Summerbee, traditionally a pain in the arse to Watford sides whoever's colours he's wearing, but not a popular figure amongst the support at Bradford. Former Everton man Tom Kearney is missing presumed injured... I can find no mention of it but it seems the only explanation for his absence from the squad, whilst Gareth Edds and Paul Reid were among four players discarded from the squad and made available on frees by Robson on his arrival. One messageboard rumour also suggested a loan arrival of former Watford schoolboy Chris Eagles from Manchester United.
The much-maligned forward line seems to have been rejuvenated in part by a rare break between injuries for the pacy Danny Cadamarteri, who thrived in a freeish role against Crewe. Gnarled old boot Dean Windass, who has also come in for a bit of stick recently, is another Robbo Middlesbrough old-boy and can be expected to feature. Last season's top scorer Andy Gray, a converted winger, was the third striker against Crewe, but the Scottish international's contract expires at the end of the season; Sunderland were sniffing around earlier in the week, but at the time of writing he appeared to be about to join Sheffield United and leave the Bradford crowd that has been persecuting him all season, behind.
Assuming that he departs, his most likely replacement is Alun Armstrong, yet another Boro old boy who has extended his loan spell from Ipswich. He is currently injured, however, and is rated only 50:50 to make Saturday's game with Forest. Alternatives include the never-quite-made-it Michael Branch, and youngsters Danny Forrest and Kevin Sanasy.
Bradford's apparent assessment that escaping relegation means finishing above us may not be as clear-cut as it was when they made their ticketing decision; less disputable is the fact that if City do end up catching us, we're really screwed. By abandoning the tradition which had this as a merely mundane, awkward away trip (defeat) to be endured and turning it into something remarkable, City may have levelled the playing field. It's Devon White's fortieth birthday too; whatever that implies is hardly likely to be predictable. Oh, and Heidar's back.
The rest is up to us.