By Matt Rowson
In football terms, summer is something of a purgatory. This is particularly true during the few weeks after the season finishes when players and managers generally go on holiday, there is little chance of anything very much happening and papers, having filled more space than can strictly be justified with minority sports like cricket, spin themselves into a frustrated and ultimately pointless speculative frenzy in the absence of anything actually happening worth writing about.
Supporters, too, are trapped in this ghastly vortex. With very little new information available with which to moderate or alter opinions, positions become entrenched and debates become circular. If the new football season had never arrived, the Watford Mailing List would be debating Ray Lewington's suitability into infinity.
Whatever the balance of pro- or anti- happens to be (and I think it's fair to say that BSaD has long been firmly in the pro- camp, which is academic to this line of argument...), it's not often that a lack of broad consensus persists for very long amongst supporters as regards team management. Sometimes a manager's team will demonstrate his true worth, "get it right", and convince the doubters (Alex Ferguson, famously. Ray Lewington, maybe). If the uncertainty persists, boredom will fuel dissatisfaction and a poor run of results or injuries will see the manager on his way, rendering discussion obsolete (any Tottenham manager of the last twenty years at least, countless others). Or, of course, a consensus against a manager can build based on bad decisions and form. What's certain is that when the tide has turned unfavourably, it's not many that keep their jobs any length of time.
Which is where we find Lennie Lawrence at Cardiff. Despite presiding over the Bluebirds' promotion to and comfortable first season back in Division Two, you get the impression that Lawrence has never been universally popular. Last season, despite what can only be described as a successful campaign, City fans weren't backward in coming forward with reservations about transfer policy in particular. To be fair, Lawrence isn't the only City manager of recent times who has appeared to pay way over the odds for purchases, but it seems evident that the days of cash being splashed at Ninian Park are over, for the time being at least, placing pressure on Lawrence to deliver with what he has. Even the recent sale of Rob Earnshaw to West Brom is unlikely to release substantial transfer funds, with the revenue raised apparently destined for City's new stadium project.
Chairman Sam has already taken action, with the dismissal of Lawrence's assistant Ian Butterworth and fitness coach Clive Goodyear. Our own Terry Burton was openly touted as City's number one target as Butterworth's replacement, but it appears that this possibility has disappeared with Burton committing his future to the Hornets. Whatever your views on Lewington and Burton, it's got to be a good sign that a man in demand chooses to stay at Vicarage Road when an offer comes in. Personally I think it's fabulous news, although I'd be interested to know whether Terry's previous experience of working under Hammam was either an attraction of the position or a factor in persuading our man to stay at Watford.
It now appears that another man known to Vicarage Road, Paul Wilkinson, will take the assistant's role after a successful spell in charge of the reserve team. Chairman Sam, meanwhile, has taken a seat on the bench for the last few games, which Lawrence no doubt appreciates. City have lost their last four league matches (before Saturday's trip to similarly forlorn Nottingham Forest), and were reportedly fortunate to progress past Kidderminster in the Carling Cup after a penalty shoot-out victory at Aggborough.
Tony Warner will be in goal for City; a decent keeper, although his recruitment from Millwall in the summer raised a few eyebrows with Martyn Margetson and Neil Alexander already on the books. Alexander, touted as Scotland's best keeper by Lawrence a year ago, now looks to be on his way out the door.
City have struggled at the back early in the season, with new recruit Robert Page apparently having a tough time on his return to the land of his fathers. It's probably fair to say that our 1999 play-off captain will get a warmer reception from the travelling support than from the home fans. The central-defensive partnership in waiting this season appeared to be Danny Gabbidon and Jamie Collins, two more Welsh internationals, with Aussie Tony Vidmar moving from the centre to left back in place of Chris Barker (now on loan at Stoke). However Collins, who made a howler to gift Northern Ireland a second goal at the Millennium Stadium in midweek, has largely been confined to the bench, fuelling another frequent criticism of Lawrence - a reticence to employ younger players.
Gabbidon, meanwhile, remains the jewel in the crown although a casualness occasionally lets him down. The smart money appears to be on a Premiership move in January should City continue to struggle, a step which appears to be far from beyond him. Meanwhile with Gary Croft out with a knee injury Rhys Weston, also seen as a weak link, continues at right back.
In midfield, skipper Graham Kavanagh is the man to pull the strings although, like much of the side, he has yet to convince as yet this season. He picked up a calf injury with Ireland and is reported doubtful for Saturday's trip to Forest. If absent, and given that Richard Langley also picked up a serious knee injury in a Jamaican training session last week, Lee Bullock, a summer signing from York, should partner the energetic but limited Willie Boland in the centre. On the right is Jobi McAnuff, who looks like a decent capture from West Ham and fried our beleaguered side at Upton Park in May. On the left, John Robinson prevails although yet another Welsh international, Paul Parry, would be a popular alternative - at any rate, reports suggest that Robinson's legs rarely permit ninety minutes of involvement in any case.
Up front, in the absence of Earnshaw and the injured Peter Thorne City have been looking punchless despite the single-mindedness of Alan Lee, a rare positive from the season so far. Thorne's return to the reserves in midweek should see him in contention to replace Andy Campbell, who has not convinced since arriving from Middlesbrough for a little short of £1m two and a half years ago.
We frustrated in this fixture last season, but look better equipped to hurt a less confident City side this time around. Any points we come away with are points up on last season's tally - and more points away from the wrong end of the table.