Football League Division Two, 09/04/05, 3.00pm
By Mike Smart
One of my all time favourite players at Watford is Robert Page. A very good centre half, prone to mishaps certainly, but nonetheless a very reliable and likeable bloke, and the only Watford captain ever to lift a trophy at Wembley. One of Robert's many admirable qualities was his steadfast desire to play for Watford, no matter which division we were in, or what our current form. He was unceremoniously shoe-horned out of the club by Vialli, and to this day I retain the hope that he may one day pull on the yellow shirt once more. Man, could we do with some of his passion at the moment!
In days gone by, many players would spend a long time at a particular club. Nowadays, it only seems to happen at the most successful clubs. With Nigel Gibbs' failure to break Luther's appearance tally went any chance of this record going for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it's hard to see how either that or his goalscoring record will ever be broken. I had thought that Pagey might be the man - possibly not our all time leading goalscorer, but leading appearance maker certainly. But it seems that at a club like ours, something will always come up. Something will always throw a spanner in the works. Likewise, I'd hoped that Heidar Helguson might at least get close to Luther's goal tally. But it would appear that events are conspiring to force Puffin Eater #1 out of the door this summer.
Mind you, it could be worse; we could be Leeds fans. The revolving door at Elland Road is seldom out of use. Other than the many players that have had to graduate a tad early from their youth ranks, Leeds have just Radebe, Kelly, Johnson and Bakke in their squad who were there last season. Leeds' strikeforce of Ricketts, Joachim and Deane, signed in the summer, have all departed. It must be very odd being a Leeds fan at the moment; very hard to develop a bond with any players.
And yet, you don't seem to hear them whinging much. Compare and contrast with the West Ham fans, who, nearly two years on, still have not got the idea of what it means to be in this division: that any success that comes your way is to be grasped and cherished, and that being just two points from the play-offs with six games to go very definitely constitutes success.
Unlike Alan Pardew, Kevin Blackwell is not, it would seem, faced with many of calls for his head. Mind you, neither was Ray Lewington. And for that, I think the Leeds fans deserve a lot of credit. They seem to have got the idea already, and up to now are showing the necessary patience. The phrase 'big club' is used for many clubs in our division: West Ham, Derby, Forest, Leicester, Sunderland and, comically, Wolves, to name a few. But for Leeds, there is no doubt that that is what they are, and it is probably only a matter of time before they return to the top flight. How many players they will use in the process is another matter.
Researching the Leeds squad has not been easy. However, it is a fair bit easier than trying to figure out who will win Betty's "Left-Side Lottery" this weekend; Alec Chamberlain, perhaps?
Leeds will line up with Neil Sullivan in goal. They sometimes opt to forego the luxury of a substitute keeper; less surprising when you learn that their options in this regard are Kevin Pressman and Sasa Ilic, Scott Carson now continuing Jerzy Dudek's fine tradition of goalkeeping at Anfield.
The central defensive pairing has had a very settled look, with twenty-one year old Matthew Kilgallon playing alongside Paul Butler. Yes, that's right, Paul Butler. Who is a git. In fact, if you've got a moment, he is the man who single-footedly ruined the career of a kid who would surely have gone on to be one of the best strikers we've ever had. He is the reason that Gifton Noel-Williams is now an okay Division Two striker, rather than a very good First Division one. I really think Gifton would have been that good. So I don't like Paul Butler very much. Anyway, in the Sheffield United match, Neil Sullivan rendered Butler unconscious. Consequently, he will miss the Watford game. Which is a crying shame. Actually, it could be a crying shame; his likely replacement, Clarke Carlisle, is the chap who scored a late equaliser in our match at Elland Road this season. Sean Gregan, more often used as a midfielder recently, is another option, though apparently not a terribly popular one. The full back slots usually belong to Gary Kelly on the right, and either Danny Pugh or on-loan Michael Gray on the left. However, Kelly and his understudy Frazer Richardson have been missing presumed injured for the last two games, so midfielder Simon Walton has stepped into the breach. This has proved a far from satisfactory solution; Walton was substituted after thirty-nine minutes on Tuesday, and Shaun Derry moved from midfield to right-back. Stephen Crainey is out for the season, as is Lucas Radebe, although the Elland Road faithful are no doubt thrilled that he is likely to be fit for his end-of-season testimonial. Yeah, I bet he is.
The last of the O'Leary millionaires, Seth Johnson, has incredibly played some matches recently, and may well feature in midfield, particularly if Walton or Derry is required elsewhere. Since his £7million move in October 2001, Johnson has played the princely total of fifty-two games. Bargain. Aside from Johnson, Derry and Walton, Iceland international Gylfi Einarsson has played five times since he became eligible in January, and Matthew Spring (oh, it still hurts...) has started only three games. Jermaine Wright and Aaron Lennon, the youngest ever Premiership (not premier, not a ship) player, battle for a wide right role.
Up front, Blackwell has opted for a three-man attack in the last two games, with Marlon King, on loan from Forest, joining regulars David Healy and Rob Hulse. Ian Moore is another option, having joined from Burnley on deadline day.
So, the concluding paragraph. The bit where I rally the troops. Leave you all with an optimistic message, a cry for support (in a very non-Delia sense), a call to arms. I suffix the paragraph with a "Come on!", probably in italics. Except that I'm finding it very hard to muster any sort of optimism, any sort of belief in the hope that something other than the splendid efforts of Brighton can halt our relentless surge towards the drop zone. I was at Burnley and Plymouth, and my optimism, my enthusiasm, my desire to sing "Yellow Army" in a bid to get the players going, have diminished. The key questions for this game are: Can Leeds possibly be worse than us? And how will Brighton get on?