What's the point?
By Tony Wallis
Hello, dear reader - welcome back to another year's study at the Watford FC University of Life. Your dissertation subject for today is 'What is the point of pre-season friendly football matches?' You have thirty minutes and not more than three sides of paper to state the pros and cons of playing a game of football that doesn't matter...
It might not matter as a game, but it's not without interest. There's been a fair amount of controversy during this pre-season, in which the Horns (for once) have played their part. Although the number of substitutions made at the Fulham game may stand as a record for some time, we can say that it contributed to changing one of the more pointless directives to come from FIFA over the past year.
Well, let's see then: I can think of some negative stuff to start with. Much was written, rightly so, on the effect of the loss of Jimmy Davis on our early season form last year. But I also feel that being completely outplayed by Chelsea in the last friendly had an effect too - up to that point, I recall, we were having a pretty good pre-season, with the form of Dyer in particular setting everyone in anticipation of a good season to come. Football's a game of confidence, we're always told.
Never mind the players, what's in it for the fans? Much has been made of seeing two teams play not especially hard, and disruptions caused by endless substitutions. I can live with that: for me, it's the chance to renew the football fix, check up on the progress of new and established players, and to visit grounds we wouldn't otherwise travel to.
Oxford United away had the added bonus of being a ground that we've not played at before. The last time we played, the game was played at the quaint, compact and ever-so-slightly shabby Manor Ground stadium in Headington. They're now at the three-sided Kassam Stadium about two miles further south east. And quite an impressive place it is too. The stadium shares a large free car park with a Bowlplex and sports bar. Indeed, the other two seemed to be attracting more custom than the football on this occasion.
Contrary to expectations, only one very wayward Mayo cross found its way into the car park all game, a disappointing return for the ball-boys stationed there, I gather. It was hard to gauge what effect the lack of a fourth stand has on the atmosphere during a game. The crowd of fewer than two thousand would have fitted twice over into the North Stand the Hornet fans were in - it had the feel of a reserve match. The level of stewarding suggested that Oxford United were expecting a bigger gate. The pitch was in superb condition. On the downside, the ground is next to the local sewage works, and there was a distinctive strong smell of freshly cut grass for most of the game, much more than I've ever noticed at a game before.
We went into the game on the back of a 2-1 loss to Colchester. Ray's comments on the official site gave the reasons for defeat as 'the teams were tired out after a hard training session the day before' and 'it was a bit hot out there', or something like that, but he was magnanimous in defeat. Oxford, however, suffered a 5-1 reverse at home to Ipswich, before having a game against Havant and Waterlooville called off to prevent 'crowd trouble' - at a pre-season friendly in daylight against a team from the lower leagues, which doesn't say much for their fans.
The game itself wasn't much of a contest. That the team playing in yellow and black wasn't Watford took a bit of getting used to, for me and the linesman alike it seemed, for there were a number of questionable offside decisions, and non-decisions, early in the game. Oxford started brightly with two wayward shots in the first five minutes, but our two quick goals in the next ten effectively killed the game off. Our team play looks far more solid than last season, with less meaningless head tennis and more variety in the forward play. Yes, we do tend to look to play the ball wide in the final third and then cross, but this was mixed with some excellent interplay with the ball on the ground through the centre and some intelligent balls over the top for forwards to run on to. We also look dangerous on the break. The defence was far more solid and the midfield uncompromising. That bit of flair might be missing, but we still can expect the unexpected from players like Devlin and Webber. We never really looked like conceding and on this evidence we will be harder to beat away from home.
In truth, Oxford weren't particularly good and were no real match for us - their Chelsea result clearly flattered to deceive. On this evidence, I wouldn't put much money on them playing in Division Three next season. Only one of their players caught the eye - and it wasn't the Moonster. He might have looked like the Moonster of old, particularly wearing the yellow and black, but his contribution to the game consisted mainly of a few neat inter-passes around the box. He had one clear chance early in the second half, when Oxford attacked down the right on the break. A good cross found him unchallenged in the eighteen-yard box, the sort of position from which he's buried so many goals for us and simpler than the one Dyer scored from in the first half. Only this time he got underneath the ball and headed it harmlessly over the top. Disappointingly, as he got the biggest cheer of the night from both sets of fans when his name was announced, there was no acknowledgment to us when he was substituted on seventy-five minutes, nor did he return to the pitch at the end. We had some good times together, Mr Mooney, didn't we? Or are we not good enough for you now?
Their most effective player was on the right of midfield, Chris Hackett. He frequently beat Mayo, or caught him out of position, to put in crosses that should have been used to better effect by their forwards. He also managed two comedy moments in the first half in appearing to dive when near the penalty box, both of which the ref ignored. On the second of these, he then decided to remain collapsed in a heap by the penalty spot, with everyone else in the middle third - bless!
So how's the Watford team shaping up so far? The players that impressed me the most were Webber, Dyer and Doyley. Lloyd has added a bit of pace on the ball and crossing ability to his armoury. He put in some telling crosses in the first half, one of which Dyer headed against the bar. He was also to be found in the opposition penalty area in open play for the first time that I can remember. By his defensive efforts, Oxford offered no threat at all down the left. One thing though, Lloyd - you don't have to keep up the 'Orns full back tradition of dodgy hairstyles. Looking the spitting image of Coolio wouldn't have been my fashion choice!
Bruce has carried on where he left off last season. The first goal on seven minutes was a confident Dyer header across the keeper from a Webber cross in a move that he'd started himself in midfield. He had three other good chances in the first half.
Danny looks sharp. His goal on twelve minutes may have owed more to good fortune, but his persistence earned it. He was quick to spot a short back pass, and the 'keeper reaching the ball first was possibly due to Danny being held. However, Tardif only succeeding in hitting Danny with the clearance and the ball ballooned towards the penalty spot. Danny's momentum took him in the same direction and he was alone to stroke the ball home. 2-0 up and from then we were in total control.
Danny had other good chances too: a shot on the volley just over, from another good Doyley cross on twenty-three minutes. But his work off the ball was the most impressive feature. Partnered with Dyer he tended to run from deep, either to meet the through ball or a flick on. His runs were positive, either direct towards goal or to deliver a good cross. In the second half, he played in more of a target role and unselfishly tried to set up his strike partner on a number of occasions.
Bruce was subbed at half time, giving Omari Coleman forty-five minutes of first team action. He looks a bit like the Portsmouth striker Yakubu, being a muscular sort with a lumbering running style, but deceptively quick. His first five minutes were all-action - he should have scored with his first chance, a good through-ball left him with only the keeper to beat but an extra touch allowed Tardif to recover and smother the ball. Scoring then could have made all the difference to him: team mates brought him into play as much as they could, he had other scoring chances that were charged down by defenders and showed some nice touches in interplay with the midfield but, overall, I got the impression that he was almost trying too hard and his game didn't really flow. On this evidence, I would rate Hameur and Fitz as better substitute strikers, but a run in the reserves may improve his confidence.
The midfield partnership of Mahon and Gunnarsson seems to be working. Both had their chances to score with runs from midfield, both were to be found breaking up opposition play. Our habit of giving the ball away cheaply in midfield didn't happen too often, despite them being often outnumbered by the opposition.
Of the rest, Ards and Devlin were quietly effective without being spectacular. Coxy and Dyche had the Oxford forward line under control for most of the game and looked solid in the air, particularly from set plays. Cox even found himself alone with a breakaway on goal towards the end of the game and elected to pass when a shot was the more obvious choice. Mayo had a poor first half but gradually came into his game. Chamberlain had only two goal-bound saves to make all game and was otherwise untroubled by anything thrown at him.
And of the merry-go-round of substitutions, Ferrell's only contribution seemed to be to gain a nosebleed from an aerial challenge - I don't think he ever kicked the ball. Blizzard, replacing Gunnarsson, hussled and bussled - but also gave away a needless free kick just outside the area shortly after coming on, which Oxford badly wasted with a tame shot over the wall. Bouazza and Young were lively in the few minutes they were given, and Smith was more often found in the opposition half than his own with some good overlapping runs.
On this evidence, we're building a team with good spirit that's working well together and is confident. It might not be pretty at times, but there's enough variety and flair in there to trouble all but the best of our expected opposition this coming season. Pre-season friendlies may have their critics, but are a good thing in my book.
Bring on the 7th August. I'm ready. Are you?