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04/05: Review:
Moving on
By Ian Grant

Let's begin with the absolutely bleedin' obvious. This wasn't how it was supposed to turn out.

And let's continue with the even more absolutely bleedin' obvious, unless you're new around this neck of the Interwoods. This really wasn't how we wanted it to turn out.

For a very significant chunk of the campaign, this wasn't how it was going to turn out either. That might not be quite so absolutely bleedin' obvious in years to come, and so it's probably where we ought to start in earnest. Lest we forget.

And more importantly, lest we fail to understand. There's been an awful lot of talk about "moving on" since the events of March, as if simply turning our backs on important decisions and leaving them behind means that they evaporate, taking consequence and responsibility with them. It doesn't work like that, of course. What happens in the board room and in the dressing room has a massive bearing on what happens on the pitch; the underlying strategies are vital, the foundation for everything else. Shout and cheer as much as you like...but for heaven's sake, don't lose sight of that. There's no cliché about taking each decision as it comes....

In particular, we must manage to understand our expectations before August arrives once more. Whatever they are now, it ain't what they were twelve months ago. Then, we kicked off with a squad that was self-evidently threadbare in vital positions. At a push, you can just about get away with a lack of left-wingers or right-backs or whatever, albeit at considerable cost to the poor sods given the thankless task of filling the gaps. But successive seasons of drastic cut-backs had gone far beyond that point, and left us with precious little cover in the kind of areas that simply can't be patched up by willing volunteers.

We knew that we'd struggle; we felt that survival was the only significant priority; we believed that we could achieve it. The spirit of optimism that had surrounded the club during the previous summer, when morale was boosted by exciting signings, had given way to gritty realism...but the sense of common purpose imbued it all with a singular and positive energy. We understood our expectations, even thrived upon them.

And now, it appears that the squad has even more holes than before. Much talk of new signings from all over Europe, along with a bid for Swindon's Sam Parkin using money that appears to have grown on a tree in the allotments...but, my word, there's an enormous amount of work to be done. My word. And expectations? Well, it depends who you're asking; ask the right people, and you'll be told that we'll be "challenging" next season. On what basis, exactly? Assuming that we can believe Graham Simpson when he talks about there being "no new money", it can only be on the basis that what we've achieved so far isn't a good enough use of the resources available. That we've fallen short of what's possible. That, or hot air.

There are more straightforward reasons for reflecting on the last year, though. Simply, we ought not to walk away from the one of the most complex, dramatic and compelling seasons in recent memory, just because controversy lurks within some of its stories. It deserves better than that, I think. It nearly - damn nearly - exceeded any realistic expectations, after all. It was nearly - very, very nearly - historic, not just history.

But we'll get to the famous victories. There's other business to be dealt with first, to my mind. Because, as with Ray Lewington's first campaign, this season's successes were framed by a remarkable cup run...but in much the same way, there was a lot more lurking beneath the surface. A lot more that'll be easily and quickly forgotten, if we're not careful.

The first half of the 2004/05 season was, I believe, astonishing. In a low key, unspectacular way, sure...but in context, completely astonishing. Somehow, we achieved a basic, consistent standard that has eluded Watford teams for what seems like decades and that normally eludes all but the very best at this level. There were a few poor results, sure, and there were occasions, particularly at home, when we failed to elaborate sufficiently on the solid, functional template to beat defensively-minded opponents. There were times, too, when we lacked the ruthless, clinical edge to claim our just deserts. And there were also times when we were purely and simply unlucky: how the hell did we lose at home to Reading, for pity's sake?

But throughout, there was consistency. In the basics. In commitment, effort, motivation, aggression, concentration, discipline. In being bloody hard to beat. In being so much more resilient on our travels, turning up with a belief in what we'd practised on the training ground. With a plan, with a system, with a team. We didn't always win, because you don't always win, but we didn't let ourselves down either: when it happened, as at Crewe and virtually nowhere else, it was a shocking bolt from the blue. As for the rest...well, we were probably unfortunate that such a sustained, strong run of organised and potent football didn't take us higher up the table. Realistically, a promotion challenge was beyond us, but avoiding end-of-season stress certainly wasn't....

Why didn't it last? Well, that's an easy one. Why did it happen in the first place? Because an extremely sensible, practical manager built a solid, workmanlike side around a handful of key players within the squad. During the early stages, there were all kinds of obvious contenders for the "Player of the Season" award: Brynjar Gunnarsson, Neal Ardley, Richard Lee, Danny Webber, Heidar Helguson, Neil Cox, Sean Dyche. Good players, those. Really good players...and combined into a tight-knit team, they proved to be a considerable force in the division.

And elsewhere too. The season's most remarkable story was the way that the simple, effective attributes that served us well in the league were somehow amplified into something almost unearthly in the League Cup. To use the word "victories" in relation to the games against Southampton and Portsmouth is to do them a considerable disservice. No, not victories: they were utter triumphs. On those epic nights, two top flight sides were demolished by the cumulative force of all that hard work, all that compressed energy; they weren't out-played so much as eclipsed, swallowed up entirely by something that needed the space. It was magnificent. Even if the two matches against Liverpool were ultimately anticlimactic, it was still truly magnificent.

From there, downhill. Not fast, initially...but when we followed up a defeat at Coventry with an early morning stumble at Reading, it was the first time that we hadn't reacted positively to a setback. While the departure of Terry Burton to Cardiff must've had some effect, I do feel that it's been over-emphasised in some quarters: much more significant was the impact of injuries, distractions, and loss of form and confidence on that list of "Player of the Season" candidates.

From the start, we knew that the squad was desperately lacking in cover in certain critical areas. In midfield, where any injuries or suspensions for the central pairing of Gavin Mahon and Brynjar Gunnarsson would immediately require either Jamie Hand or someone even less experienced to play a pivotal role at the heart of the side. In defence, where one of the three proven options - Marcus Gayle, alongside Neil Cox and Sean Dyche - was already injured in August and would remain so for nearly all of the campaign. And this, remember, based upon a previous season that had seen our wide-eyed flirting with relegation get as far as dragging it around to meet the parents over tea and cake. In short, we were hoping that our luck would hold. It didn't.

Gradually, that short-list became more "short" than "list", until we were left with one player - Heidar Helguson - making a clean sweep of the end-of-season awards, something that had once seemed inconceivable. Brynjar Gunnarsson tried to soldier on through injury problems, but circumstances excluded the possibility of any kind of recovery time and he was never the same authoritative, elegant player as before. The key creative component of an occasionally sterile side, Neal Ardley had his head turned, disgracefully, by a paltry offer from Cardiff just before Christmas and fell out with the club during the long-winded aftermath. Danny Webber was injured at the start of November, missing out on the cup glory and losing the chance to play his way back into goal-scoring form. Richard Lee broke his cheekbone at Coventry; Sean Dyche, the most impressive captain that the club has had for a considerable time, played his last game on New Year's Day; Neil Cox has never been at his best when asked to concentrate on someone else's game as well as his own and nose-dived towards oblivion. It ain't rocket science, you know....

Painfully, it meant that our best side - the side that trampled over Southampton and Portsmouth - wasn't able to face Liverpool for a chance of eternal glory. For a while, it looked as if that might be the worst of the damage; by the start of March, we'd just about scrapped for enough points to suggest that safety could be achieved comfortably, if not with any particular style. Given that nothing fundamental had changed with regards to expectations or priorities, that would've been a considerable achievement, decorated by the improbable adventures in the League Cup. Sure, some people would've complained...but some people always complain. The rest of us...well, we would've had contented summers, looking forward, moving on....

Instead, we had March. Jesus. When it all changed, inexplicably. When we stopped being able to defend, conceding some absolutely atrocious goals...and developing a knack of conceding them as if deliberately timed to undermine our efforts elsewhere. There was no shortage of troubles in other areas, of course, but the defence was the heart of the problem, and caused us to hang around and wait listlessly for inevitable defeat on too many occasions. One occasion, especially.

This is well-trodden ground, clearly. Looking back, however, it's immediately striking that the margins were incredibly slim, even as the collapse was in full progress. Much as the board has attempted to suggest that some kind of long-term strategy was behind Ray Lewington's sacking - and much as that might actually be the case, in ways that do them no credit at all - they were very nearly denied the opportunity to wield the axe. A positive first half against Forest, ruined by a freak goal just before the break; a two-goal lead over Leicester, blown by that bloody defence; it really didn't need much to turn it around, and there were still signs of life until that ghastly afternoon against Preston. If I sound as if I'm still clinging to long-expired hopes, then that's about right: the bottom line, even now, is that I believed in what we were trying to achieve throughout this season.

And I really struggle to believe in this, I'm afraid. You know that already, I won't labour the point. April and May were viewed through a haze of apathy, and I can muster no more enthusiasm now than I could then. Which, in a sense, offers a more detached, objective view of the football itself, in which Adrian Boothroyd's youthful side played plenty of exciting, upbeat stuff and yet managed no more than a single goal in any of the seven games. For all the hype, survival came down to two clean sheets, at Rotherham and Stoke. While the new manager would claim that the unquestionable defensive improvement was the result of a more positive, forward-thinking approach, I would suggest that it had rather more to do with the arrival of Danny Cullip, the leader that we'd desperately lacked since Sean Dyche's injury. But I would, I suppose.

I would, because that's where we've managed to end up at the curtain fall of a dramatic, spectacular, traumatic campaign. I'll cast aside my own self-pity, because we've both ploughed through enough of that for a lifetime...but I certainly can't conjure up an image of harmony and consensus from what's in front of me. I can't find that common ground, because I don't understand our expectations. I simply don't know what our priorities are any longer. I did, once. Then.

Perhaps it doesn't matter, of course. Perhaps the bitterness will gradually evaporate, replaced by that loyalty and belief once more. Perhaps we'll all live happily ever after, and look back on this kerfuffle with a chuckle. Perhaps. Then again, there really ought to be an uneasy feeling lurking in the stomach of even the most willing supporter; there's rarely anything but disaster at the end of a personal crusade, and the descending siege mentality, barely masked by an absolute barrage of one-way communication from the various club offices, does not bode well. After three years, ego has returned to Vicarage Road, and I'm already sick and tired of being lectured.

You're right about one thing, Graham: it's not your job to be popular. It is very much your job, however, to learn to distinguish between popularity and leadership. Start now. Please.