Falling in Love Again
By Pete Fincham
There have been large parts of the last half-decade when I have really found so much of Watford, the team and the club, to be thoroughly distasteful. From the whole throwing away of promotion to the Premier League in 2001 when egos seemed to be more prevalent than team spirit to the following season where loathsome individuals like Hughes, Blondeau and Wilkins were constantly in my line of sight. There have been the last two years, which have been largely spent repairing the damage of those months of madness and with it there has been the uncovering of certain truths of what did go on during that season. The losses of good people on and off the pitch left a sorrowful taste in the mouth, and finally, over the summer, relief with the dispensing of many of those who I felt have just hung around for the last few years, not offering any evidence that they had anything left to prove. As a fan, you want every player to prove their worth on each and every occasion they pull on the shirt.
I feared the worst at the start of the season. After all, the defence was full of cracks at regular intervals last year, while the attack was often shot-shy and too reliant on Heidar's brute strength with little quality evident on a regular basis. I feared that the midfield, often regarded as cumbersome and inadequate, would fail to assist the strikers, limited only to winning beefy challenges and knocking the ball out for a goal kick.
While true fans will always have their team, and will in their heart of hearts know that they are Watford until they die, love for the team is a completely different thing. When players did not show they cared, I hated them. When you saw or heard about players out and about in town after a defeat, I hated them. When players left the field without giving the fans even the most token of salute - as they did in Lecco on a Tuesday night in that fateful summer of 2001 - I hated them. Because they do what we would all want to do if we had the ability. They live our dreams, and for them to not care made all of us who travel to see them week after week, year after year, feel fundamentally like mugs, as if they were laughing all the way to the bank at our expense. Rupert always asked the question, when people accused him of being negative and he in turn accuses the happy ones of being "Happy Clappy", "If a player were to shit in your mouth, would you still applaud them for being a Watford player?" He had a point.
This might appear a little extreme, but it is just the way I, and lots of those who I have been travelling with for so many years, felt. The management can only do so much, but there have been times when I've wondered what the hell Lewington was doing. There have been times when I have gone to bed and tried to sleep; but staring up at the ceiling I have had visions of Division Three (now known as League One), going to Torquay for a League match, and featuring in whatever cup the Auto-Windscreens has been replaced by. I feared bankruptcy, ground sharing and worst of all, Luton being a division above us. I felt guilt at introducing my wife, father in-law and godson to the club, people who now come as often as they can, and really have fallen in love with the place too. Even my mother in-law looks for the results as soon as the game is over, despite pretending it is of absolutely no interest to her whatsoever. I know she is lying!
But now, I'm falling in love again. Because regardless of the results, we are playing like a team. There are players that evidently care and really are fighting for not just themselves, but for the club as a whole. We went up into the higher echelons of the Division under Lewington before, won two away games in a week only seventeen months ago, and I felt the way I did. I say again, it was not about results. It was about attitude and the manifestation of that attitude in the way the team played. On Saturday morning, "the prolific Danny Webber" as Sky Sports now dub him said on Soccer AM that Sean Dyche was running the club like a General in the army. Fantastic! You can just imagine Dyche bursting into training, putting his hand on a scalding hot radiator and ignoring the burn, challenging the rest of the team to do the same. With no takers, other than Heidar obviously who is excused from carrying out the challenge on the grounds of questionable mental health, the General screams "Right you pussies, I'm in charge!". Nigel and Ray stand in the wings thanking god that it is no longer them in charge of motivation, Ray squirming with fear having told Dyche months earlier that he was being released! All teams need a leader; Sean Dyche appears to be the perfect club captain.
This was a fantastic match; don't believe the mass media's assertion that the match lacked any true quality. There was more to this than that which is regarded as "quality" by the big time commentators, as although both keepers were not regularly troubled during the ninety minutes, the real battle was in the heart of the lush New Den pitch.
The early action was limited, but on eleven minutes Mayo's cross from the left was met in powerful fashion by Brynjar Gunnarsson, but to the amazement of the Watford fans massed behind the goal, the ball hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced on the line before being hacked away. Millwall appeared to take the lead from Barry Cogan who headed home what appeared to be a good goal from a right sided corner. But not for the first time referee Taylor angered the minute home crowd by awarding a free kick to Watford for a foul on Lee. Relief in the away end, at what appeared to be a good goal from 110 yards away!
After both Dichio and Gunnarsson had each been booked for their fourth foul of the half, half time arrived and a new lucky omen. Alice had purchased, wrapped and chilled slices of cake, which were eagerly devoured by us, watching a rather large young Millwall fan try and keep out various pot shots at him, despite the fact that he actually did fill the undersized goal.
With the repugnant Dennis Wise, along with Paul Ifill, coming on at half time the second half promised to be livelier and true to form, Wise flattened Gunnarsson within thirty-five seconds of the match recommencing. Going up for a challenge, the Watford players argued, Wise had led and connected with Gunnarsson with the elbow. Taylor booked Wise for the foul, although surely it was either a red or nothing. However, it was the perfect tonic for Gunnarsson who took control of the match from that point on. Partnering Mahon in the midfield, the Watford duo won every conceivable battle, despite Mahon joining Gunnarsson in Taylor's book for clearly winning the ball with a superb tackle on Ifill.
With the home fans becoming more anxious at both the team and the referee's insistence at blowing for everything, the breakthrough came for Watford. After sixty-four minutes, Cox's cross was met at the back post by Helguson who appeared to score, but it was Webber who indeed finished the job. Stack had got a hand to the header, but Webber was on hand to tap in his ninth goal of the campaign. He will not score an easier goal, ever, but he keeps scoring like the player we hoped he would be last summer.
With the usual suspects in the home crowd starting their daily exercises of verbal hate, the game moved further away from their team when with just fifteen minutes to go Dichio clattered Mayo to earn a second booking. And with the chants of "You Wear Fake Burberry" ringing out from the jubilant away fans, Helguson grabbed his first of the season in superb fashion. Gunnarsson cleared the ball away to just inside the Millwall half, where Heidar picked the ball up and outran the home defence, before drilling a low shot beyond Stack into the bottom corner.
The last fifteen minutes saw Mahon turn on the style, as the whole team passed their way through to the end of the game. There could have been more goals but by then, the home stands were empty and the away end was jubilant. With Darren Ward forming part of an unlikely attack in the absence of Dichio, the game was completed with the hopeless Wise chasing the shadows of his younger, more professional opponents.
Another win, another great performance and while the players must be lamenting the dreadful ninety minutes against Burnley they know that if these performances are kept up, they will not only exceed the expectation of this season but start to win the hearts back. Because like it or not, there have been a lot of hearts broken by their predecessors in recent years.