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03/04: Review:
January 2004:
Big Game Charlies
By Mike Peter

A thought occurs to me, and the thought is this: If Watford can play as well as, or even outplay, the mighty Chelsea, how can we lose to crappy Crystal Palace? It's a puzzler, certainly....

Let's take a look at the facts: We get a draw against a team who've spent 121,250,000 this season (that's not including Scott Parker, who hadn't signed for them at that point.) We lose 5-1 to a team who hadn't actually spent anything (not including Mikele Leigertwood, who hadn't signed at that point). We show passion, tireless work effort and technical ability against Chelsea; we show indifference, complete and utter lack of effort and general ineptitude against Palace. The question has to be asked - since when have Watford become such big game Charlies?

Well, we'll address that question later (maybe). First let's review THE MONTH as the scary guy from the Times ad would call it....

I'm sure we all know that January started off with the inevitable drubbing against Chelsea. Except it didn't.... It would seem wholly unbelievable if 21,121 people hadn't seen it before their very eyes (not counting the many more that saw it on TV). Of course, the media coverage of the game was disgraceful. Much was focused on Helguson's goal, which oh-so-nearly-crossed-the-line-but-didn't-really and sent the Hornets fans wild in the fifth minute. So much so that another big out-cry for TV replays was instigated. You'll notice that TV replays were not called for when Jesper Gronkjaer pushed the ball past Pidgeley and then hurled himself over him, nor when Mahon was felled in the penalty area (I suppose they had the courtesy to mention it though). Seriously, what's the difference? All three are mistakes by the referee. True, one led to a goal but Chelsea got a goal out of a dive and Watford would have had a large chance of scoring a penalty. The media blinded by the Premier League's so called brilliance? Now there's a surprise....

Much was made of how the pitch hampered Chelsea's play, forgetting that it just might have damaged Watford's too. Little was made of the huge deflection on Lampard's "brilliant strike." "Woeful Chelsea" were well publicised in the press, seemingly forgetting that another team had actually played bloody brilliantly. Special credit to Heidar Helguson for winning the Watford Observer Display of the Season Award. We had secured a lucrative trip to Stamford Bridge! Well, at least the team had....

Because with that poor joke I'll talk about the ticket fiasco. For anyone who wasn't attempting to get tickets (i.e. none of you, but I'll explain anyway), Watford only chose to purchase 3,000 tickets instead of 6,600 on the basis that if we didn't sell all of our tickets the club would have to pay for them anyway. Based on previous Premiership away attendances, Watford chose not to take the risk and chose the safer option. At 1:42pm on Tuesday 6th January (the first day of sale), Mr James Hannaford reported to WML that tickets were all sold out.

Cue much hysteria and anger from the fans. Some bought tickets in the Chelsea end, others raged angrily at the club for making such a cock up. A small minority argued that it made financial sense not to risk having to buy all the tickets we couldn't sell (which for all we knew could have been a lot), being a club that can't afford to lose any money. They also pointed out that the blame should be laid at Chelsea's feet for adding such a clause.

Now we're looking at in retrospect, let's look at this in a bit more detail:

Argument for 6,600 tickets - If Watford didn't sell all of these they'd would still have made a profit from the replay. Although there was a probability for a large amount of tickets to go unsold, it was quite a small one.
Problem - Watford need as much money as they can get
Argument for 3,000 tickets - Watford sell out all 3,000 they're offered, thus not risking the chance of losing money
Problem - You make a lot of fans angry.

Whatever your position was on this, I wonder at this point whether there was anyone who got tickets in that first batch - by browsing the various forms of Watford related media, there doesn't seem to be anyone. By January 7th the Supporters Trust had issued a statement and a beamback to the Vic (funded by Total) had been announced. Graham Simpson announced he'd be at the Vic, as an apology to the fans in his e-mail on the 8th. But on the 9th our dreams came true as Chelsea backed down and gave us the extra 3,300.

I think a major thank you to Mr Graham Simpson - firstly, for having the grace to send an apology; secondly, for being prepared to give up his ticket at Stamford Bridge; thirdly, for (probably) having a hand in getting us the extra tickets.

Anyway, before Chelsea there was the minor issue of Coventry to get through. Worryingly, Helguson was out injured and Dyer and Webber came into the team as Ray reverted back to 4-4-2. Neil Cox came in for Dyche, somewhat unfairly some might argue, as Dyche had an excellent game against Chelsea, the runner-up for man of the match in my opinion. Watford drew 0-0, which as I said is slightly puzzling when you can put two past Chelsea. But more on that later....

So we all went to Chelsea on the 14th. The game first: well, as we feared Helguson wasn't playing, he was replaced by Dyer who, although he did okay as the lone striker was in no way as influential as Heidar. Jamie Hand came in for Paulo Vernazza to give the midfield extra bite. Watford started the game extremely well, forcing several corners. However before we knew it Chelsea scored, a goal originally ruled offside which led to an embarrassing situation where we started gleefully chanting "Who are ya?" at the Chelsea fans only for the goal to stand and them reverse the chant on us (the only time, apart from their response to "Vialli is a wanker", that they sang at all). Jamie Hand and Bruce Dyer went close for Watford but Chelsea scored again on thirty-four minutes. Although Watford held on for the majority of the second half, they never really threatened and both Mutu and Gudjohnsen scored towards the end.

History will say that Watford got a lucky 2-2 against a poor Chelsea side on a poor pitch. They then got hammered in the replay. History will not say that Watford outplayed Chelsea at Vicarage Road and came damn close to being equal to Chelsea in the second leg. The simple fact of the matter was that whenever we went near their goal, they had world-class defenders to stop us; whenever they went near ours, they had world-class strikers to finish us off. That doesn't mean we played badly, or even went down bravely. We played fantastically, but we just didn't have the quality.

Anyway to the non-footballing matters. Firstly I'll say this - Chelsea's ground amused me somewhat as it looked exactly like a Travel Inn. Same brick colour and everything! Well, I laughed. It's also one of those incredibly annoying square grounds which when walking round you have absolutely no idea as to where the goals are, which is always helpful when trying to find the stand you're in.

Secondly, this game provoked quite a lot of controversy on the subject of standing up at football matches. Now I'm not one to stand up during games, even when they start that ridiculous chant "Stand up if you love your team." However, if the general consensus is to stand, then I'm more than happy to. As it was, the game started and no one sat down, which was fine by me, as it seemed to show some kind of unity as supporters. However, someone had to ruin it. "Sit down!" came the high-pitched scream. Some people on the back row claimed they couldn't see, which in my opinion was total rubbish, as the rest of the row were fine. But after a few confrontations, the block in front of these people at the back were forced to sit down out of general politeness. This automatically ruined the view of a lot more people, as the people around them weren't sitting down. I spent most of the second half perched on the top of my seat, attempting to get a better view of the game whilst not spoiling the view of the people behind me. Just goes to show that however much you complain about the supporters of Luton/Millwall/Cardiff etc, there are idiots in our crowd as well.

The atmosphere was for me the best part of the game though. This is not unusual as it was the highlight of most of the Premiership campaign. I'll just repeat what will probably win the Clap Quote of the Season Award - "Champions League - you're having a laugh!" (Repeat ad nauseum...)

Then came Palace. It was crap. It was awful. Watford were 3-0 down by half time with Neil Cox sent off (arguably a good thing as he was having a stinker). Although Helguson pulled one back via penalty spot, we conceded two more. 5-1. Blimey. Mind you, it was something of a minor result compared to some of the results in the League that day - 54 goals in total.

So, the question has to be asked - why is it that we can play so well against Chelsea yet so awfully against Palace? Of course no-one could expect us to play as well as we did against Chelsea, as obviously such a game gives the players huge motivation. Yet such a massive change between the passionate Watford against Chelsea to the mind-boggling awful Watford against Palace is pretty difficult to comprehend. How can a team change so much?

Anyway, in their two week gap - down to the FA Cup, where I ashamedly admit I hoped Chelsea would thump Scarborough, as I didn't want any achievement of theirs to better ours - Watford went to Portugal. This again is a touchy subject. Should the players effectively be rewarded for cocking up so badly against Palace? Or was the trip important to help rebuild morale? One can't really judge from the loss to West Brom - we always lose at the Hawthorns, and they're second.

Also, rather inevitably there has been a lot of vitriol from the "Ray Out" camp since Palace. Let me just reiterate this - Ray Lewington and Terry Burton are doing their best for a club with very little resources. They've had to lose a great number of players. I, and I'm sure the logical ones amongst us, recognise a good manager when we see one. People are saying we'll go down...well, currently there are four teams playing worse than us, so unless we actually end up in the relegation zone, there really is very little to worry about.

Still, halfway through the season (actually we're up to thirty games now...oh well) and I wonder why I, and many others, thought we had a decent chance of making the playoffs this season. What were the reasons for this? Well, firstly, we have a good management team. Secondly, we had a great pre-season. Thirdly, we have a talented squad. So where has it gone wrong? I believe the first and third points are still true.

Well, I think confidence has a lot to do with it. If a team starts off on a low they can go on like that for the rest of the season. You often see teams that are relegated suddenly performing far better - this is because there's no pressure any more. Their confidence has gone from low - due to a long relegation struggle - to high as they have fun in the league while they still can. Watford have been struggling since the beginning and this has severely affected confidence.

Also, down the bottom end of the league how ever well you play you never seem to win. Take all the late goals we let in, a mystery to all. There's also a third point - the pink patch. To me, it seems we haven't really had a period where we've picked up points. Never managed to pick up momentum. Why? I don't know. September and October were months where we really should have picked up more points than we did. I think this season's poor placing is quite freaky really - our management's good and apart from a few performances we haven't played that badly. It's just a bad season, I suppose. So there's no reason not to predict the playoffs next season. Hurrah!

So, what else this month? Well, there's been a board change obviously. Watford have two new investors in Jimmy and Vince Russo - here to pull us out of the financial mire! Forgive me if I don't cheer them just yet, though - I'm a bit wary of their "Watford as an investment" terminology, all sounds a bit Petchey. They're also Chelsea fans - although this isn't a big deal, a lot of Watford's board members support other clubs. But they're ploughing all this money into us instead of their own club, so I suppose not all non-Watford fan investors are bad people. The brothers form half of the new slimline PLC board (the other two members being Simpson and some chap called Andy Wilson) - an attempt to make the running of the club an easier task. A larger non-PLC board still contains the usual names - Haig Oudjain, Chris Norton, and all.

Also this month, Sean Dyche has been told his contract will not be renewed. I'm sure in an ideal world Lewington would want to keep Dyche, as he would have kept Glass and Nielsen. However, the simple fact of the matter is that Watford have too many central defenders on their books. Both Ifil and Brown have youth and the ability to play on the left side respectively and this means Dyche was the one that had to go. Although Sean had a good start to last season, he ended up out of the team and putting in disappointing performances when he was in it. This season his performances when he's played have been pretty good, so it's rather unfortunate that the club is unable to keep him.

Other footballing news this month has obviously seen the Premiership transfer window, the most notable of transfers being those of Louis Saha and Scott Parker, both unsettled by transfer speculation before arrogantly dumping their clubs to leave. So, should transfer bids be kept between the two clubs? Well, in my opinion, no - it would make the game less interesting. Should players like Parker and Saha be mature and not act like huge prima donnas? Yes.

You may remember that last month I closed with an anti-Blatter statement. This month is no different. Blatter has said that woman footballers should wear more provocative kits to attract a larger male audience. Well, perhaps Blatter should forget about all that sexist rubbish and remember the main reason why no-one watches women's football - well, I'll you guess....