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04/05: Review:
September 2004:
By Mike Peter

“Green Wing is fantastically absurd” screeches Alison Graham in the Radio Times, “It’s shimmeringly weird” agrees another – clearly insane – colleague.

You see, there’s nothing “absurd” or “weird” about Green Wing. Far from it. It’s a conventional, run-of-the-mill, shit sitcom (or shitcom if you will). There is nothing original - or indeed funny - about slowing down footage of someone eating toast. Nor in someone playing the harp, it was done in Blackadder and it was far better. And yet, and yet…the Radio Times still blathers on about it every single week, irritating me beyond belief. Alison love, talk about something really “absurd” – Tara Palmer-Tompkinson’s existence on our screens, why another series of Eyes Down got commissioned, or (perhaps in some second tier football related TV column) Watford’s absurdly good start to this season.

My God, it’s good to be a Watford fan right now. Absurdly good. Even after such a positive pre-season I doubt many of us would have predicted we’d be in the top half in September, let alone around the play-off area!

On a shorter timescale – and being a natural optimist and buoyed by a fantastic August - I was predicting great things for September. To actually be proved right is very much a bonus. Watford have been, for the most part, excellent this month. At the end of September we have the best defence in the league - regards to Richard Lee especially who’s proving to be an excellent shop stopper. We also have the Division’s top scorer in Danny Webber – four goals this month – and a fantastic central midfield partnership of Gavin Mahon and Brynjar Gunnarsson. It makes me, and you I’m sure, so happy to see a central midfield dominated by Watford for a change, as “Boris” and Gav fly around the field. Yes, happy times.

Before I go any further I must talk of Terry Burton. It will be of little doubt that his loss will be a blow to Watford. Burton and Lewington were very much a team, and Terry will integral in building the trust most of the fans I have got in our current management. His reputation as a coach goes before him. A sad loss.

It’s a blow to see him take an identical position at a club lower in the league, but as in every profession, no-one turns down a higher wage. And although I may be reading too much into this, the chance to be Lennie Lawrence’s replacement should results not improve may have entered the minds of both Burton and Sam Hammam.

His replacement will be Terry Bullivant, who aside from having the same name and height as Burton also has a good reputation. Leaving the position of head of Palace’s Academy he seems to be from the same type of stock as Lewington, which bodes well for the formation of another successful management partnership.

It was somewhat ironic then that Watford were to play Cardiff on the night of Burton’s transfer between the two clubs. We were visiting one of the most intimidating grounds in the league, with our former coach now with the opposition and to make matters worse an injury to Paul Devlin early in the game. Clearly a tough fixture. Which made all the more pleasing to come out as the victor. Indeed it’s hugely pleasing to come out of two of the most difficult away games of the season with 6 points and 5 goals. And suddenly Millwall has become a happy hunting ground for the Hornets – that’s two victories on the trot!

A 3-0 victory at Reading has also ensured our progress into the third round of the Carling Cup. Although both sides were weakened the game goes to show that whilst we may lack strength in depth it doesn’t necessarily mean our reserves are bad players. Having players like Jay Demerit, Bruce Dyer, Jermaine Darlington and Hameur Bouazza ready to slot in when needed is immensely reassuring. Ashley Young is another example, and the youngster – now signed to Watford until 2007 - has filled in admirably in Devlin’s absence.

I’d also like to point out to those that run the Cup – should they be reading - that whilst fixing the draw is extremely immoral and wrong, it does nothing for the competition’s image when a team has to play Reading twice in a week and then is drawn away at Sheffield United. Something to think about.

Which brings us on to the less inspiring results – a 1-1 draw with Brighton at the beginning of the month and the loss to Reading at the end. As with last month, shouldn’t be dwelled upon – there being so many positives over the past thirty days. The fact that we played just as well as Reading, one of the division’s “top teams” is heartening. And Brighton just serves to show that even teams on form can have off days – the Millwall victory came only three days later.

And of course there was Wigan. 0-0 draws are classically associated with boredom but this was the best game I’ve seen in ages. Not only were Watford superb, but Wigan also had a blinder. One of the reasons I love football so much is that it can provoke many emotions from you in the course of 90 minutes. Each time Watford attacked I was getting ridiculously excited only to be peeking out from behind me hands seconds later at the ridiculously dangerous looking pair of Ellington and Roberts bear down on goal. Marvellous stuff.

Analytically, we know that we can play as well as Wigan, which is considerably better than playing as well as Reading. Whilst Wigan are powerful, fast and exciting, Reading are the football equivalent of a 200 page report on cane furniture. In a Division that is exceedingly close, it’s good to know we’re up the leaders.

A month or so ago, the Lee Cook tribunal would have invoked the greatest interest from the Watford faithful, still fuelled with rage at losing one of our best players. Now with the team performing well it seems rather trivial. A £150,000 fee has been agreed for the floppy haired maestro, not as bad as some had predicted.

The closing of the book of Cook has been made all the more easy by Neal Ardley. Something of a boo-boy last season Neal’s made our left side just as dangerous as it was before. He seems fitter this year, and whilst he’s still not the fastest player on the team it’s the willingness to take on challenges and work on his game that makes me admire him as professional. And if it wasn’t for him and his willingness to play out of position we’d have a gaping whole on our left side. Defensively he’s helping cover for Paul Mayo, who still seems to be adjusting to Division Two’s pace a bit. Again, vital – Mayo has a habit of getting caught out of position and it’s reassuring to have someone like Neal covering him. I also like his recent habit of laying off balls to Danny Webber in the D which is creating many of our chances. My player of the month.

The Cook fee also facilitated the immediate signing of James Chambers. To say £75,000 is an absolute steal is understating things somewhat, and even if we do have to pay more for him eventually I don’t mind. It’s been said before, so I won’t linger on it, but James is class. My particular favourite habit of his is the way he bombs forward all the time yet never seems to be out of position!

Furthermore the move is significant for the club, being the first transfer post-Vialli not paid for by the directors. This is yet another step to Watford being on a level financial footing and with the freehold purchase now confirmed things are looking extremely rosy on the pitch. I think for a lot of clubs the spectre of financial doom hangs over them, affecting their form. Whilst I wouldn’t like to take any credit away from Ray and the players this may have something to do with the good start.

As I stated last month, the only problem I had with Chambers signing was the potential side-lining of Lloyd Doyley, also a player I rate highly. What’s encouraging is Doyley’s skill in the centre-back position. With Sean Dyche injured Lloyd has slotted in well and he kept the Division’s best striker - Nathan Ellington – in his pocket all night. Suddenly the position of centre back, an area which I had worries about, looks solid. A future partnership of Doyley and Demerit looks like a fine pairing and the Dyche/Cox (now getting back to his old self by the look of it) is still strong.

With Danny Webber still banging them in, “H” improving in fitness – the lack of which hindered him earlier in the season – and Bouazza and Dyer looking like good support there is little room for Scott Fitzgerald. Whilst Scott scored a lot of goals last season he is probably not as good as the aforementioned. And so far in the reserves, he has produced little – in a recent game I took in he looked forlorn and not interested. I wonder whether he thought he’d made it last season and now feels out of place in the reserves. Or it could just be that his confidence is low. Whatever the reason his loan at Kenny Jackett’s high flying Swansea side will hopefully raise his morale, get him scoring again and challenging for a first team place when he gets back.

On a related note, the extension of Jamie Hand’s stay at Oxford seems to mean he’s made a good impression there. As I said about Fitzgerald, competition for places is important and if Hand can benefit from this loan and come back a better player it will certainly help our central midfield, which is still lacking in depth. He’s also scored for them (admittedly against Exeter in the LDV Vans Monotony Trophy) something he’s never done for us. Always encouraging to see a player on loan learning new things! Jason Norville, who looked nippy in the recent reserve performance, had a loan a Rushden and Diamonds fall through, a shame, as first team football would most likely benefit him.

And whilst we’re talking about the lower leagues I may as well bring up further swelling of the club’s coffers. Port Vale have sold former Watford youngster Stephen Brooker to Bristol City for an eventual £225,000 (such money in Division Three!). Whether the sell on clause is 30% or 80% - both figures have been mentioned – any unexpected money is always welcome!

Finally I must congratulate Nigel Gibbs and Ray Lewington for earning their new contracts. I hate to bring the issue up really, in case it provoke further debate, but Ray Lewington really has proven a lot of people wrong with this season (not that he needed to). Long may it continue.