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03/04: Review:
April/May 2004:
Safe at last
By Mike Peter

So, Watford are safe at last. Another season of Division One security. In the bag. Nice.

Of course, to me, the eternal optimist, Watford have always been safe. Our dreadful start and a few injuries put us down in the relegation zone. But since we escaped there, I've never felt we've been in any particular danger. Because of our first eight games, we've been down the bottom all season, we would need play-off form not to be. Yes, there are plenty of worse clubs in this division. Three of them are going down. We weren't mathematically safe until after Norwich (provided Walsall didn't go on a forty-goal-a-game spree) but we've been safe a whole lot longer.

April started with something of a rarity, a goal from Micah Hyde! This was perhaps symbolic of Watford's grasp on the game, this being the first time this year Hyde's even tried a shot, yet alone scored. Watford were clearly in control, having let in a penalty, we were in the lead again a minute later when an excellent Mahon-Cook move resulted with a fantastic finish from the Crewe defence.

Watford then moved into three crucial away games. Not get a point from these and we could have been in a lot of trouble and I wouldn't be sitting here, writing cockily about an easy campaign, glass of champagne in hand*. But we were playing Burnley. Any concerns about lack of points sort of fade away. Bish! Bash! Boom! Devlin, Helguson, Cook. Oh, and some lax defending let them get two. Still, no worries....

Rotherham was a bit trickier, especially without a certain Mr Helguson, brutalised at Burnley. But cometh the hour, cometh the Dyer. Back in the side, Brucie equalised on twenty-four minutes after Butler gave Rotherham an early lead. Four points out of six away from home. Scary stuff....

And we were about to make it even scarier. I wasn't expecting anything from Millwall, seeing as our previous record there was hardly fruitful (thank you, Mr Styles). But Millwall have dropped like a stone since getting through to the Cup Final. Still, things didn't look good when they took the lead after sixteen minutes. Imagine my, and indeed most Watford fans', surprise when not only did Watford equalise, but also got a winner! Thank you, Messrs Dyer and Cook. That game basically confirmed our safety (unless there were major upsets). For both you die hard fans of this column, my Dad gave me the 1 that night, although I refused it, saying it was tempting fate.

Norwich arrived on the 24th in party mood. Admittedly, they had already achieved promotion, but this was the first game since that and they were in the mood to party. Cue lots of noise, flags, and other dodgy merchandise. And pangs of jealousy for the Watford faithful. But it was sunny so I was happy as well. Football is at its best in the sun. Norwich had a good defence, but seemed to consist in attack of just hurling Darren Huckerby at anyone or anything. Actually, that's a bit unfair - they scored two decent goals. Watford got a consolation from lanky unknown Dominic Blizzard, who came off the bench to divert a Devlin drive into the net off his head.

Watford went to all-star West Ham without our first choice centre backs, Dyche and Gayle, hugely impressive in previous games. Several other players Baird, Mayo, Devlin and Mahon all passed fitness tests. In central defence, Watford played Neil Cox, just about back from injury, and Dominic Blizzard, who plays there for the reserves. Still, it was rather inevitable. We got tonked 4-0.

In between this was the end of season awards "bash". As expected, Gavin Mahon was voted "Player of the Season". Mahon has been a colossus this season, truly proving his critics wrong in many, many brave, battling, skilful performances. Not for a long time has a player been more deserving of the award. The other winners were Heidar for his mighty lone striker's display of the season against Chelsea. This season's top scorer (with eleven), Scott Fitzgerald, picked up the "Goal of the Season" award for a drive against West Brom. Huzzah! Etc.

Also, before I go on I'd like to mention the performances of three players this month. Alec Chamberlain has once again made himself number one (and probably will be doing so well into his eighties) and has performed extremely well since coming into the side. Lee Cook, having learnt defensive responsibilities, has been given a regular place in the side and shone on the left wing. Hopefully he'll continue to do so next season. And finally, Bruce Dyer. It's been a hard season for Brucie, an excellent pre-season stifled by an injury he attempted to hide, which sort of stopped his season altogether. Mind you, he's only been out of the sixteen once in the whole campaign. His run in the side since the Rotherham game has shown off the talent he still has and he's scored a few too. Again, bodes well for next season.

And so the final game of the season. It was a strange one. I expect end of season games to be bathed in sunshine, this one was grey and damp. It also didn't seem like the last game for me, as this season has just gone by in a blur. This, combined with the shorter tour of the pitch and the added uncertain future of members of the squad, made for a weird end of season. Still, Reading only highlighted how close this division is. They were crap, we weren't. I think this is the most chances I've seen us generate all year and if we can only learn to put them away, we'll be sitting pretty next season. The goal came from bag-of-bones Ashley Young, on for the injured Lee Cook, a ridiculous farce of a goal that somehow struggled into the far corner. Special mention also goes to Lloyd Doyley, who gave a fantastic performance in the centre of defence and Bruce Dyer and Heidar Helguson, formidable up front.

Other news, then.... Of course, as it is the end of the season, we have had the inevitable "Who-stays? Who goes?" contract renewal saga. As per usual, the youngsters were the first to go. Steven Graham was brought in from non-league in the summer as cover for Lee and Chamberlain. The injury to Lee, Pidgeley's arrival and Lee's subsequent return meant that Graham's involvement in the reserves was limited to six appearances. The one time when he could have been put on the bench, Bristol City, Kevin Hitchcock was chosen instead.

Elliot Godfrey was a favourite of mine. He possesses a decent football brain and an extremely good first touch. However, he didn't score that many for a forward and is a bit on the short side. Sam Swonell was captain of the reserve side that won the championship last year. Although he made one appearance towards the end of last season, he never made the impression needed to gain a new contract. Both Swonell and Godfrey have had a trial at Gary Johnson's Yeovil. I always think it's horrible when young players drop straight out the league, so here's wishing them the very best of luck.

More recently, Simon Patterson and Nathan Boothe have been told they can go. Two summers ago, Matt described Patterson's appearance in a pre-season game, as "enormous fun. For one thing, challenges seem to bounce off him in a way that will remind people of Devon White's notorious Watford career. Unlike White, Patterson has control, grace and wit." But he has been dogged by injury pretty much since then, apart from a fruitless spell at relegated Wycombe early in the season. Football has never been sentimental. I saw Boothe once at a reserve game and thought he'd make the grade, simply because he was the tallest central defender I have ever seen. He's been playing for Franchise's reserve side, which is a bit of a puzzle, as according to my reckoning Franchise only have about two players left.

Hameur Bouazza and Dominic Blizzard, however, seem to be staying having been offered contracts (they haven't signed them yet, but there can't be much doubt). The former is no surprise; we look forward to seeing more of him next season. The latter, I presumed was going, having hung around the reserves for a couple of years doing nothing, that is, until he popped up against Norwich.

Jack Smith and Lee Cook have also both been offered new contracts. Two highlights of the campaign, one hopes both will sign. However, both have the same agent as Smith Snr.(reputedly Gary Porter which puts him down in my estimation) and thus they've both turned down the club's initial offers. There is little doubt about Smith signing, but there have been rumours aplenty about Cook, whose impressive end to the season has got people interested. The most regular rumour has been QPR, who Cook apparently supports and was on loan to last season. As Cook is under twenty-three, we can demand a fee should any transfer take place.

On the day of writing Neal Ardley, Alec Chamberlain and Sean Dyche have all been offered contracts. This pleases me greatly. The latter two are testament to good old-fashioned commitment. Both told they could speak to other clubs earlier in the season, they have gone on to replace others, then establish themselves in the team in the latter part of the season. Neal Ardley meanwhile has been the boo-boy this season for some reason, yet still shows enthusiasm and skill that others have failed to muster. Here's hoping they all sign.

Which means we are saying goodbye to Paulo Vernazza and Micah Hyde. Vernazza is no surprise, being a high earner and an occasional starter. A dazzling talent when he first arrived, he has never really recreated that form since when he was stabbed in his home in September 2001. Since then he's been in and out of the team, only really getting a regular run in October. We have seen from Gifton and Johnno (both doing well at Stoke and QPR respectively) that a move can kick start a career. I hope that's what'll happen for Paulo.

Hyde meanwhile has been a regular since 1997. A player of undoubted talent, Hyde was a star performer in the promotion run and the Premiership. Since then he has been increasingly inconsistent, doing his job, only occasionally showing flashes of the brilliance he has. After the Reading game, Hyde made a very clear goodbye, handing his shirt to a member of the crowd, waving instead of clapping. We now know why. A Division One club, unnamed so far, is to offer Hyde a contract, worth far more than Watford can offer so Ray Lewington didn't bother. Of course, if the negations don't work out, Ray has said he'd be willing to talk to Hyde. Still, I say "Cheerio and good luck" to Micah now.

Looking forward, we welcome Plymouth and QPR to the division, both very nice clubs and the Division Two play-offs contains some decent teams too (and I was so disappointed to see that Luton didn't make it, chortle, chortle). Coming down are Leeds (blah, blah big club etc.), Leicester (ouch) and Wolves (ready for their next long stay...although, unfortunately, they're probably more bigheaded than they were before). Oh well. We say goodbye to Norwich (good for those who travel away and those who dislike the new away kit) and West Brom (Robbo in the Premiership - raaaargh!). At the other end, bogey club Bradford and disgusting Franchise won't be missed. Walsall will though, considering there were far more detestable clubs (hello, Burnley!) that could have gone down.

In the other promotion/relegation stakes, it's sad to see Carlisle finally go down, they always escaped so magnificently. And the situation at York looks worrying. Nice club Torquay have gone up, other fishy club Grimsby have gone down (again). And I'm rooting for Aldershot in the Conference play-offs.

So that's it, then. For me, this season has been extremely unmemorable. A season that started with a tragedy, which cast a terrible shadow over the first eight games. Since then, a season where, although never mathematically far from the bottom three, one feels we have never been in a huge amount of danger. A virtual equal number of wins, draws and losses. A season of average performances, neither golden days nor bore-into-the-mind dreadfulness. A season that you will forget, and indeed, probably can't remember much of now.

Still, there's no reason to be despondent. Yes, we're losing players once more. Yes, finances are tight. But this Division is a tight one. Due to our awful start this season, we've been down there all season. But next year who knows? The Russos say play-offs. That's a little ambitious, but hell, Palace made it!

I've enjoyed this season. I'll most likely forget most of it. But still, we have played badly and that's all right for me. Enjoy the pre-season. I will. Now, what am I going to do now?**

* That's a lie. But hey, you scrolled down just to look at a footnote how sad are you?

** Oooh, I know, I'll get my 1!