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03/04: Review:
Tomorrow's heroes
By Ian Grant

On the cover of the Watford Observer's sport section from 30th April 2004, a quite extraordinary and compelling photograph by Jane Parr. In it, we see a moment from the late stages of our home match with Norwich City. We see Bruce Dyer sliding in on the edge of the six yard box, Robert Green sprawling at his feet, everyone in the front rows of the Rookery on their feet in expectation of celebration.

And the ball?

The ball is hitting the post. Actually hitting the post, for the camera and its owner have managed to grab that split second when leather has smacked against wood, and they've frozen it forever. So perfect is the image, it appears as if someone's glued a football to the upright as some kind of ornament, as if it'd still be there if you went to have a look now. And you can examine the minute margin of error at your leisure - an inch or two to the left and the ball flicks the post on its way into the crowd; an inch or two to the right, and we'd have finished the season on fifty-eight points.

In the great scheme of things, it wouldn't have mattered much. A creditable draw, another point, a bit of a boost to Bruce Dyer's confidence. But it illustrates just how many variables there are, how many different things contribute to the overall picture, how little has to change...and that's particularly relevant to this past season, a difficult and troubled campaign that we're all very glad to see finished.

You see, I don't really subscribe to the theory that our struggle was inevitable, although I certainly accept that there were events and circumstances, especially the tragic death of Jimmy Davis, that pushed it in that general direction early on. It's not quite that simple, to my mind. Of course, it's not as simple as an oft-repeated opposing view suggests either, for accusations of "under-achievement" merely ignore the same countless, unpredictable variables for the benefit of a different agenda.

But this is the First Division. And, unless you've decided to move your club a hundred miles for the benefit of a supermarket development and off-loaded your entire first team to keep afloat, the First Division doesn't do inevitable. If it did, then Forest wouldn't have been rattling around the relegation zone for much of the time, and sacking one of the country's most highly-rated managers in a desperate bid to right a sinking ship. That wasn't supposed to happen. And Ipswich, squad shredded by administration, wouldn't have been in the playoffs. And Palace wouldn't have struggled badly enough to have wanted to sack their manager, nor have risen so swiftly afterwards. And Wigan, the most impressive visitors to the Vic, wouldn't have missed out at the last moment. And we would've seen rather more of Crewe, whose company can generally be relied upon by those in and around the bottom three. And so on, and so on. Remove the two clubs at the bottom and (perhaps, but only perhaps) the two clubs at the top, then shake the rest up into some new random order...and the chances are that the results won't look especially implausible. That includes Watford in the top half.

Because you don't need to change many of those variables to have a dramatic, out-of-proportion impact on everything else. The difference between a catastrophic season, a poor season, an average season, an encouraging season, and a blinding season are not so vast, when you look closely. Our last blinding season - 1998/99 - had key moments at which it could easily have turned into an average season or worse, and this last poor season might just as conceivably have turned into an encouraging season. Or, indeed, a catastrophic season, for relegation would surely have been - and would still be - exactly that.

Money plays its part, of course, and you can't ignore the patterns that have emerged within the league table over the last few seasons - it's no coincidence that, despite their much-vaunted financial problems, the previous year's relegated Premiership clubs all finished in the top six. We have now reached the point where a bit - just a bit - of cash can buy you sufficient strength in depth to cover for injuries and poor form to some extent, and to carry out emergency repairs during the campaign...and thereby to gain a crucial advantage. It does make a difference.

As yet, though, it's still not the be-all and end-all. It's not everything. There are so many other factors, so many things that, if changed, could very plausibly have edged us towards a much more positive nine months, even with the severe financial constraints. One of those events has a significance far beyond football, and I have no right at all to use it as part of any case that I might want to make. But others can be considered more dispassionately. So let's do it, briefly.

To begin with, the signing and subsequent failure (only temporary, hopefully) of Bruce Dyer strikes me as being especially pivotal, for I still firmly believe that it was an astute, smart piece of business and, therefore, that a season's worth of decent form from our new forward would've made more than a slight difference. With Danny Webber understandably losing his way too, it's hardly surprising that we've often appeared to lack goalscoring potential. As will become the theme, it's hardly beyond the realms of possibility that we might've enjoyed bright, potent seasons from one or both of those players, and that the whole affair might've been lifted as a consequence.

It's been that kind of campaign, puzzling and frustrating. Indeed, even Scott Fitzgerald, who made an entirely unexpected, very welcome and rather crucial contribution, has sometimes posed a new and difficult set of questions, for his play beyond the six yard box has not yet caught up with his instinct close in. There have been plenty of occasions when we've had to try to balance the need to get the ball into the danger area with the need to have someone there to get on the end of it, when eleven players haven't been enough to provide all of the attributes that we require. In essence, even the solutions have presented fresh problems.

And elsewhere too. With hindsight - that is, with the benefit of having seen his performances in the latter part of the season - it was hardly impossible that the penny might've dropped rather sooner for Lee Cook with regard to all-round involvement and awareness, which would've saved his manager from considerable grief, spared the rest of us from repetitive, tedious arguments about whether he was worth his place or not, and sharpened our cutting edge dramatically. It's a depressing thought that his apparently imminent departure will mean that we only saw his potential fulfilled for a handful of games, and that so much hard work will have been for someone else's benefit.

Lee Cook is still learning, of course, but others should know it all by now...and we could've expected, even demanded, more effective, assertive, dependable input from senior midfielders like Micah Hyde and Paolo Vernazza. Again, the apparently endless cycle of minor peaks and major slumps in form meant that we were only rarely able to settle on a formation and selection. While the three-man midfield of Ardley, Mahon and Hyde had its moments, it was only when the spread of four became a viable option - when the wingers unblocked their ears, opened their eyes and switched on their brains, in other words - that we started to look like a solid, capable unit. If only....

And, naturally, the same applies to the defence, where neither full-back position had a regular occupant and where neither Neil Cox nor Marcus Gayle had seasons that they'll particularly want to remember in the centre, especially in comparison to last time. Then, although we conceded roughly the same number of goals, we were capable of being strong and resilient when we needed to be...and we were equally capable of letting our heads drop, particularly away from home, and causing narrow defeats to be exaggerated somewhat. Now, the additions to the goals against column became a constant, tiresome dribble, points continually dropped due to very avoidable mistakes by experienced players (and, sometimes, by inexperienced players too). That, more than anything, prevented us from building up any kind of momentum, and from cancelling out an understandably poor start. Much has been made of our habit of conceding late goals, yet that was only derived from the even more annoying, damaging and regular habit of conceding rubbish goals. Hell, Palace scored five without having the ball....

Really, none of this was inevitable. At no point during the last year have you had to look very hard to find problems...and nor, if you go beyond the absolute basics, has it been terribly easy to find practicable solutions. But at the same time, you haven't had to stretch your imagination too far to see how those problems could simply have disappeared in better circumstances, how the whole thing might've looked entirely different with the addition of in-form, confident performances from, say, Marcus Gayle, Micah Hyde and Bruce Dyer. Pick your own three, but you get the idea. Hardly surprising, then, that it's been such a painfully frustrating time for all concerned, and that we ended up so close to the brink.

There's no secret here, in truth. No magic. Of the senior players in the squad, only one - Gavin Mahon - has ended 2003/04 with his stock higher than at the start. There are one or two other exceptions to the rule that are worth noting too, such as Paul Devlin (if I'm bowing to democracy) and Neal Ardley (if I'm flicking a v-sign at democracy). The rest - for a wide variety of reasons, from inexperience through injury to good old having-a-bloody-nightmare loss of form - have contributed only fitfully, if at all. That pattern is the basis for nothing but struggle. That much is inevitable.

All of the above will sound like an excuse to some, I know. Fair enough. But it's undeniable, I think, that the manager has spent most of the campaign attempting to find a winning team from a squad comprised primarily of the chronically out-of-form or the vastly inexperienced. Along with the other coaching staff, he must certainly take a fair share of the responsibility for that state of affairs - and at no point have I seen him shirking that responsibility - but it is very easy to over-state the measure of control that he has had. And that any replacement would've had.

It hasn't been about tactics, about 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 4-5-1. It hasn't been about one or two team selections, about whether Lee Cook starts or Neal Ardley doesn't. For the most part, those have been peripheral issues...and, in that sense, the manager's influence on events has also been marginalised. There are plenty to choose from, but no starker example presents itself than the visit to Ipswich, when the post-match debate revolved around a line-up that had been made entirely irrelevant by the fact that we'd effectively kicked the ball into our own net twice, starting in the fifth minute. Would Lenny have hit the halfway line if Lee Cook had been playing, then? And would a different eleven really have stood a better chance of recovering from that early set-back?

Quite rightly, the management's decisions come under close scrutiny in these circumstances, whereas we quickly forget about dubious decisions when there's a victory to celebrate. That's the game, that's the job. But that's the essential point, though. That is the job...and a significant, neglected part of successful management is continuing to make clear-headed, rational decisions when the pressure builds, when morale collapses, when everyone else is starting to panic. When it's going well, anyone can be a manager...and when it begins to go badly, anyone can fall apart, get the sack, turn up somewhere else. To stick with it, to keep doing the right things, and to pull the team through is a far harder task.

To probable derision, then, I'll suggest that Ray Lewington and Terry Burton have done a bloody good job over the last twelve months. It hasn't been much fun to watch, but their performance can only be judged against what was possible...and Watford Football Club might easily have left the rails entirely during this difficult year. Did you always think that we'd avoid relegation? Really? Then I applaud your optimism, for there were times when I really couldn't see a route to safety. It was always there, of course. But I'm not at all convinced that it was inevitable that we'd find it.

Throughout, though, these have been the right men for the job. Same reasons, every week. Because their attempts to solve our numerous problems have consistently been intelligent, sensible and feasible, even when they've met with failure. Because they've understood and dealt with the situation that they've found themselves in, rather than wasting time with regrets, complaints or debates. Because footballers aren't easily fooled, and these footballers clearly saw some sense in what they were being asked to do...even if they promptly forgot and did something else instead. And because so much of the criticism was, frankly, just fatuous, childish and fantastically simplistic, no matter how often it claimed to offer tactical sophistication to counter the manager's supposed "naivety".

What we've had, throughout, has been a vacancy for a genuine leader-by-example. For a player - no manager can fill the role - capable of affecting the course of the game by deed, but also by sheer force of personality. An individual, yes, but an individual who'll drag the team with him. So often, it's seemed to me that we've crossed the white line with the right plan, the right ideas, the right attitude...and then we've lost sight of that agenda amid the frantic pace of the game, especially when it's started to go a bit pear-shaped. Much of the time, positive performances from particular players can hide that absence, but it becomes apparent when confidence is low, mistakes are frequent, and optimism is difficult. And it's been very apparent this season, I think.

It's not easy to find those players. They're rare, and I can think of only a few names from all the years that I've been watching Watford. But if you want a reason to like Neal Ardley again, you can find it in his brave, perceptive attempt to fill the void before and during the crucial match against Derby. To my mind, that took real guts...and if it had come from a Robbo or a Mooney, it would've entered legend. And if you want an explanation of our sudden, vital resilience towards the business end of the season, when we repeatedly fought back from early setbacks, it is surely to be found in the presence of Sean Dyche. That force of personality, that firm resolve, that vacancy filled...for a while. You could see the difference.

Whatever else, though, there has been no managerial vacancy. Despite everything, it's been remarkably easy to retain confidence in the coaching staff...and, indeed, their performance has been the most consistent, reliable part of the club over the last year. We came too close, far too close, but those who insisted that only a change of personnel, no matter how unaffordable, could save us from the inevitability of relegation were proved wrong. Of course, they'll just claim that it'll happen next season instead, that Terry 'n' Ray will send us to oblivion eventually. For better or for worse, there's always next season, and it'll come much quicker than you think.

In the end, those people will have their way. They will see themselves vindicated, until they lose faith in the next poor sod too. But for me, they'll never be right, not about this manager. This has been a troubled, troubling campaign, certainly. The further reduction of the wage bill over the summer hardly promises that the next one will be easier to endure. But, Christ, we ought to value the people who've brought us through it so far, safe and intact and still in some sort of order. We ought to, for they will not grab many headlines, they will not be rewarded with trophies, vast salaries, or much in the way of thanks. But if they can see it through, they will be heroes in hindsight.

Stick with it.