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04/05: Review:
Summer 2004:
Summer-time, and the living is easy
By Mike Peter

I love pre-season. It's the optimism. In the summer months, last season's bad memories disappear and are replaced by happy thoughts about new signings that'll revive the team and pre-season thrashings. By mid-September, that's all gone. You realise that now your new midfielder's not so hot and, yes, that Ryman League team were easy to beat. And that the relegation places are a little closer than you'd predicted.

Every football fan dreams of success and in the summer there's nothing to say you can't have it. No miniscule points total, injury crisis or indeed relegation places to provide evidence to the contrary. Sure, most people are realistic, but there's still that tiny, bright thought in the back of your head that says that this might be your year. The anticipation of another season, as yet untainted and entirely unpredictable. Who knows what the next nine months will bring?

And, yes, pre-season friendlies are exciting. When I hear reports of 4-0 victories with thousands of goal opportunities - something I can only dream about when the season starts - I get excited. I wonder whether we'll be able to continue this form, surely some sides must do it. Of course, I know friendlies are meaningless, that a 4-0 win over Northwood doesn't mean we'll get into the top half. But a good pre-season can hardly be a bad thing and this one has been.

We started it by being the team Fulham had lined up for the re-opening of Craven Cottage. Being ridiculously early into pre-season over thirty substitutions were made, as the game was abandoned at half time and played as an exhibition match thereafter, thus dodging the FIFA limit on friendly substitutions. This law was modified due to this game, something I'm strangely proud of.

The team then jetted off to Ibiza and following victories against SD Portmanay and Sheffield Wednesday, the "Copa Ibiza" was won. Something that excited the official site a lot and evoked mild indifference from the rest of us. This was followed by a victory at Northwood, a loss at Colchester (Booo! Lewington out!) due to a big workout the previous day, a win at Oxford and a 2-2 draw with Lincoln. All very encouraging.

Finally, we hosted Real Zaragoza on their hugely exciting pre-season tour of us and Bolton. The first pre-season game I've attended in ten years was truly a game of two halves. The first - a tentative performance from the firsts, naturally with it being four days away from the start of the season. The second - a far more enthusiastic display from the reserves, who actually outplayed the winners of the Copa Del Rey (none of whom I've heard of by the way). Speaking of reserves, Nigel Gibbs' side were unbeaten throughout pre-season, despite being mostly a triallist side. Out of them Omari Coleman of Dulwich Hamlet impressed, scoring a hatful.

There's also the new faces to look forward to. Icelandic international Brynjar Gunnarsson arrived in June on a free. Although reviews from previous clubs Stoke and Forest have been mixed, his pre-season has been good and he should form a combative midfield with Gavin Mahon.

The deal to sign Andy Ferrell seemed dead, following "extortionate wage demands." The former Newcastle man must have conceded, as two weeks after the original deal was annulled he signed, just as pre-season training started. Ferrell is small, but possesses a sweet left foot and is still young. He also makes Wayne Rooney look like a picture portrait.

Jermaine Darlington was meant to join at the beginning of July. However his medical paperwork must have fell off the truck on the way from Wimbledon to Milton Keynes, thus he had to wait until the middle of the month before signing. Having refused to sign a new deal at Franchise, he chose Watford over Forest. At thirty, he is experienced and exactly the sort of player a manager with a small squad signs, being able to play virtually anywhere, both in defence and midfield.

Players have left, mind. Lee Cook's prolonged flirtation with QPR that eventually resulted in his transfer stretched agonisingly from May to early July. Whilst no one can blame him for wanting to join the side he supports, his comments on the club's official site saying, "Leaving was not on the agenda" were ill advised and his departure for a rival club will result in inevitable apathy. His departure is a blow, Cook has progressed leaps and bounds defensively, his wing play was exciting and his seven goals important. Along with Hyde, we have lost the creative drive of our team. But, despite what many QPR fans have said, his departure does not mean doom. Despite his end of the season improvement, Cook could still be inconsistent and QPR may not have signed the finished article. His void is not so difficult to fill.

Jerel Ifil proved his manager's fears about him were correct at Ipswich and despite a distinct lack of defensive cover - luckless Wayne Brown made his inevitable departure to Colchester soon after - allowed him to transfer to Swindon. An interesting decision, seeing as Ifil was still rather young and had impressed at times during his stint in the first team. Watford now only have three centre backs, although impressive triallist Jay Demerit looks like he'll make it four. Meanwhile new Swansea manager Kenny Jackett proved his penchant for signing Watford players wasn't only a QPR thing by kindly taking a stagnant Gary Fisken off our wage bill.

Watford now only have a squad of twenty-six players, many of them under twenty-two, and we lack strength in depth both in defence and midfield. It could have been a lot worse, mind. Alec Chamberlain, Neal Ardley and Sean Dyche all considered their options, the latter two deep into June, before signing on the dotted line. Dyche, who was told he could leave the club in February, is also the new captain. He takes over from Neil Cox, who feels he must concentrate on football after an unimpressive season. Having heard Ray speak of Dyche's leadership credentials on many an occasion, this seems like a good move.

Micah Hyde must wonder where it all went wrong. Having been offered a larger contract elsewhere, Hyde left Vicarage Road only for the offer to disappear - if rumours are to be believed, because Palace, in the Premiership to their own surprise, didn't think he was good enough for English football's highest tier. With Watford having spent all their budget and thus stopping any kind of return, Hyde wandered round aimlessly until mid-July, subject of much rumour as to his destination, before signing for Burnley of all people. Of the others who went in May, only two have found clubs. Paolo Vernazza will try to reinvent his career at Rotherham, whilst Nathan Boothe is at Franchise.

Several former Watford players have been on the move too. David Connolly has joined what looks like the most thoroughly nasty side in the Division in Leicester. Steve Palmer and Allan Smart have moved to the farcically named MK Dons - what happened to staying linked with Merton, Winkelman? One can't really be blaming them for wanting to play football. Clint Easton has joined Wycombe having being released by Premiership superstars Norwich, Jason Lee has returned from Falkirk (too cold for pineapples...) to sign for Boston and Tommy Mooney still seems to desire to play up North, moving from Swindon to, urr, Oxford (for the money, it seems). Oh, and Charlie Miller has moved from Dundee United to Brann Bergen in Norway, presumably because the food's cheaper there.

One can't review this pre-season without mentioning Euro 2004. The Greek win, whatever Mr Blatter says, was a triumph for football. It was an embodiment of every single football fan's dream, one of winning against all odds - however unfancied your team is. Yes, it wasn't pretty - Rehagel's strategy of just being difficult was never going to produce the most exciting football. But football is only flamboyant a small percentage of the time anyway and it's refreshing to see the Premiership-obsessed media and armchair fans get a bit of a reality check as to what football's really like.

And despite the amount of press about hooliganism, there's something to like about England at national championships. It's the way the whole country is brought together. For a good few weeks, everything is England. Even those mildly interested in football take an interest. Which was why there was such a sense of general excitement going into the Portugal game. And why it was gutting when we lost. I had started the tournament quite apathetic towards England but by the end of the quarter final I was totally utterly crushed. To me, everything pointed to an England victory at Euro 2004. Several big nations were out; we were playing well; you got the sense that if ever England had a chance it was then. And then knocked out by an awful refereeing decision, dividing the country back into its petty, squabbling self once more.

There is, of course, the other tedious England affair. Whether Eriksson should have gone is a very much a matter of personal opinion. His decisions to go on the defensive in the France and Portugal games cost us dearly. But then again England have played some attractive stuff under his management. The Alam affair seems to have been used as a catalyst for those against Eriksson in the FA to get him sacked. But should England, as the Guardian put it, sack a manager for simply having sex? If the FA were going to sack him, they should have done it for football reasons a month previously.

Had he gone, he would have been the third to go for personal reasons out of the four most recent managers. Mark Palios, the FA's chief executive has gone though, whether his replacement makes the FA slightly less worse remains to be seen.

That's it, then - I'll see you at the end of August, by which time we'll all be thoroughly depressed again. Thank goodness for that.