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03/04: Preview: Watford
BSaD opinion
by Ian Grant

There is, as you may have noticed by now, something of a difference of opinion at BSaD Towers over the merits, or otherwise, of summer. That is, Matt thinks it's rubbish, while I welcome it with open arms (and windows). Fortunately, since BSaD Towers is plural rather than singular, this difference of opinion is no more than an annual amusement, a way of passing time. Otherwise, Matt's bad vibes might somehow be transferred to my tomato plants, and that would never do.

True, summer brings hay fever, sunburn and golf on television, none of which do it any favours at all. And this particular summer has also brought redundancy, wet rot and a steadily increasing sense that there must be a bit more to life than is currently on show. Even so, I find it hard to hold anything against a season that also brings "Big Brother", Test cricket, extensive gardening possibilities, bumble bees, reading in early evening sunshine, ice cold beer, and so forth. Delightful things. And being able to go to the beach without having to pitch yourself head-first into a force ten gale is very pleasant too.

Of course, it's the lack of meaningful football that so often counts against summer. Which, given that one of every two are filled almost entirely with a World Cup or a European Championship, seems more than a little unfair. Still, I can't deny that part of the season's appeal is in the very absence of a fixture list, and the resulting reduction in early mornings, late nights, train travel, expensive tickets, match reports, and all that. For all that we sneer at people-who-don't-like-football, I find it hard to deny that their weekends are often considerably more restful than mine. Which isn't to say that I'd swap places with them for the whole year, obviously. Hell, no.

Nevertheless, it usually takes me a while to get a feel for the new football season when it eventually comes along. For a start, pre-season friendlies continue to strike me as a dreadful load of nonsense - I might like the band, but I don't really want to watch them rehearse in their garage, if you know what I mean. And then, well, the real thing arrives and it takes some time to get in the right frame of mind, that excited-shouty-comeon! football frame of mind rather than the chilled-reflective-pottering-zzzz summer mood that sunshine and free time cultivate.

How long does it take? Well, that very much depends. I spent almost the entirety of Luca Vialli's first and only campaign attempting to fight off the lethargic disinterest that always gathers during the close season, and my sense of outrage was undoubtedly diluted as a consequence. Thank heavens for Paul Robinson, Filippo Galli and Wayne Brown, for eventually shaking me out of that particular stupor. Last time, in complete contrast, it took little more than a couple of games for the urgency to return, and the laziness of summer gave way to the passion and emotion of the football season with Allan Nielsen's winner against Franchise FC in only the third match.

This time...well, it feels much the same as ever, really. Do I feel excited? No, not especially - I don't crave football during the break, so I don't clutch onto its return as fervently as many appear to. Nevertheless, there's a slight anticipatory edge that's rather unusual for late July, as if genuine excitement might be about to arrive at any moment. As if it managed to catch an earlier train, then phoned ahead to ask for a lift from the station. As if it might not take very long to get into the swing of things at the start of August.

We have, obviously, already documented the position at the end of last season, one of amicable departures, reduced contracts, and remarkable stability. An extraordinary position, given the depth and extent of the crisis at the club just months earlier. Nothing's happened since then to upset that close season upheaval, no last minute drama. Thank heavens. And so we begin where we'd planned to begin, more or less...which, in itself, is both deeply comforting and, somehow, rather thrilling. Things have a certainty, something that we haven't been able to enjoy for a considerable time.

That certainty extends to the new signings, in many ways. So often, additions to the squad have changed its character, even split it apart. Supporters see that squad presented in ninety minute episodes every week, yet so much of what determines its success happens elsewhere, on the training pitch and in the dressing room, where a load of young blokes have to work together closely for a year. In that light, is talent really all that matters? And how good are this summer's signings?

In Bruce Dyer and Danny Webber, we've added two known quantities...albeit that one of them has enormous potential that's yet to be fully measured. Known, respected, right. As positive and decisive, albeit in an entirely different way, as Graham Taylor's attempt to shake up the dressing room by letting Carlton Palmer loose on it. Ray Lewington has succeeded in adding to the side, as he promised to do...but he's managed to do it without putting last season's sense of common purpose and unity at any risk, without disturbing things that don't need to be disturbed. Meanwhile, Millwall were trying to sign Paul Gascoigne. Compare, contrast, discuss.

Predictably, and with good reason, the unexpected signing of Danny Webber has attracted most attention. But, in the short term at least, the planned arrival of Bruce Dyer may prove to be more significant, in my view. You could reasonably argue that the lack of an all-round centre forward - capable of holding the ball up, of attacking defenders and of scoring a respectable number of goals - goes back almost to Dyer's first spell at the club, to the sale of Paul Furlong to Chelsea. Gifton Noel-Williams was getting mighty close before his injury; others - Devon White, Jason Lee, Allan Smart, Tommy Mooney - have supplied parts of the package but not the whole; still others - Michel Ngonge and Heidar Helguson, most admirably - have tried incredibly hard to fill the vacancy, and with some success. But the lack has remained. Until now, with a bit of luck.

So, while Danny Webber adds some craft and class and elegance into the equation, there is something elemental and exhilarating about the idea of a Helguson-Dyer partnership. The former's heroic lunacy is something that we're thoroughly familiar with by now...and while the latter might have only come up against us a few times, all of those occasions have involved strength, pace, directness, elbows, and ice-packs for defenders. Combined, it has the potential for enormous mischief-making, for tremendous fun. For a bit of the old Watford, if you like.

That's only one option, of course. And, as has already been noted by the manager, options are what we've really added over the break. The forward line, assuming that its components can remain fit, is now home to a plethora of possibilities, solutions to any number of problems. It is hard to believe that we'll give up so easily after conceding the first goal, unable to see where an equaliser might come from...and that, in turn, will hopefully have a galvanising effect on the rest of the side.

Which brings us to the defence. And the hope is that we'll see more of the determination that saw us edge ahead and stay ahead in a number of close contests last season, and rather less of the heads-down moping that saw us getting hammered on a regular basis. For our defensive record was rather distorted by the tendency, almost exclusively on our travels, to allow one goal to turn into two, three and four as thoughts turned to the difficulty of scoring at the other end. It shouldn't have happened, granted. But it did, and too often. I wonder - and hope, naturally - whether a more potent attacking threat might change that mindset for the better.

So far, so formidable. And so realistic as well. It's that very realism which has brought us to this point, and that very realism which'll kick us in the teeth if we abandon it now. The First Division isn't kind to dreamers, and rising expectations are the black clouds on the horizon of this preview's sun-drenched landscape. Hard things to control, expectations. Particularly when anyone can see what this squad - more balanced, varied and seemingly content than for several years - might possibly be capable of. Might. Possibly.

As always, there are so many variables. But in particular, the potential importance of young and relatively inexperienced players ought to be considered before you rush down to the bookies. True, there are old heads in many key areas, but much of the cover is provided by youngsters...and that, clearly, is an enormously positive thing, as long as they're not expected to deliver everything at once, at the drop of a teamsheet. Lee Cook, Jimmy Davis, Richard Lee, Lloyd Doyley, Jason Norville, Scott Fitzgerald, Anthony McNamee, Sam Swonnell, Jack Smith...all, and possibly more, may well find themselves under the spotlight at some point during the campaign. Patience, patience, patience.

So much of what we've done recently appears to have justified itself, to have had a value of its own. A few seasons ago, ambition was measured in pounds spent and points gained and promotions achieved. Now, it seems that the measures are more reasonable, more attainable. What do I really want from this coming season? Promotion? A play-off place? A top half finish? I find it difficult to think in those terms, somehow. What I want is more basic, less to do with the rest of the division and more to do with this particular club. Having achieved survival, assuming that we continue to manage our situation effectively and intelligently, I want the existence of Watford Football Club to be comfortable, content, enjoyable.

So...I want to see that new forward line rip up some opposition defences. I want to see the team dig in to protect a few narrow leads. I want to see some of the younger players come through, to progress and grow and excite everyone with their potential. I want to see some matches that make me leave with an extra spring in my stride. I want all of that from the next nine months, but I neither need nor expect anything more. That'll do just fine, thank you. Just fine.

Which means that the slight anticipatory edge mentioned earlier isn't generated by a feeling that we might be about to go somewhere. Rather, it comes from the sense that we might be able to have some fun right where we are. That weekends might be something to look forward to, that a season ticket might be something worth owning, that this team might be something to cherish. That these might be happy times.

Might. We'll know soon enough.