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04/05: Review:
March 2005:
The aftermath
By Mike Peter

What a month.

You will, of course, have read reams of writing on what occurred during March 2005, and perhaps this column serves only to re-open wounds that are just beginning to heal. But it is my job, I'd better get on with it and hope for the best.

March, then. In truth, there is no point in analysing the games individually, but instead to view them as a coherent whole of nastiness. For the most part truly dire, it was a run that, on the 22nd March, lost Ray Lewington his job.

Form cycles. Every team in this division goes through them. QPR, for instance, started off down the bottom, then they zipped up to the play-offs, now they're around half way in between. Or Reading, currently sixth, who, until recently, hadn't won since they beat us on Boxing Day.

Going through one is never particularly pleasant. For the better teams, it's a case of chopping and changing a bit, losing the out of form players for a while, struggling through until the next win. For teams like Watford, it's utterly catastrophic. For there is no-one to replace those out of form players. For the month of March, Watford were faced with virtually every single experienced player out in some way. Sean Dyche – whose leadership skills were missed terribly – injured; Neil Cox, hideously out of form with Jay Demerit beside him, beginning to show his lack of experience; Gunnarsson, Mahon, Helguson, all forced to play with injuries... I imagine you're beginning to see my point.

Such is the way when you're forced to trim your squad every summer. Ray Lewington had to deal with an awful lot: a patched up squad, wage-cuts, no transfer budget. Yet in his time at Watford, he managed to get us to two cup semi-finals and two respectable League finishes – and he was heading for a third, despite the blip. On March 20th, following a 2-0 loss to play-off contenders Preston, I imagine Lewington was ready for a two week break, committed to getting his players out of a form slump. Instead, the board pulled the plug, leaving the team in turmoil – confused, worried and turning out at Burnley with nothing to show for the fortnight's break.

I was a vehement member of the "Lewington In" crew, comfortable in the belief that the board would never do anything so stupid as the opposition suggested. When the sacking came, I actually questioned whether I was wrong. This was a board I trusted; surely they can't be this stupid? I came up with a list of things I didn't like and it goes as follows: his side-lining of Bruce Dyer, his slightly unnerving obsession with the right-back position (before he left, negotiations were in place to bring Chris Baird back in on loan), a general lack of taking players on.

That's it. Obviously not enough to sack a manager for. Ironically, none of these reasons were used by the "Lewington Out" brigade. The reason used was that Lewington could not "motivate" the players. This had replaced "tactically naive" when it was proved that Lewington wasn't, well, tactically naοve. What is this "motivation", though? To me, it sounded like a nonsense phrase, something which no-one could actually prove and thus could be levelled at Lewington without any recriminations. If we understand it to mean that Lewington couldn't get Watford to play well, then that's incorrect. The first half against Leicester, and to lesser extent against Preston, were perfectly decent performances, before the opposition struck and an inexperienced, unconfident team went to pieces.

This brings us to the principal reason giving by Graham Simpson, the man who, two months ago, was singing Lewington's praises. Four wins in twenty-four. It's a statistic that's fairly hard to argue with: four in twenty-four is terrible. But to look at this way is very, very analytical. If you do that you ignore the fact that the majority of these games were draws, many of which we should have won. We ignore the tiring extra amount of games Watford have had to play through cup games. We ignore the limitations previously mentioned. I'm not saying that four of twenty-four is good, not by any means; more games should have been won. But fifteenth, where we were positioned when Lewington was sacked, is perfectly acceptable.

This is hardly objective, I know. The irritation regarding the whole fair dwells inside me and I still urgently want to battle the cause of a man whose sacking caused surprise amongst opposition fans and the national media. I saw Ray Lewington as a man who'd be at Watford for the long term.

In the scheme of things, the mass offloading of players could have hardly come at a worse time. With the fans still in a maelstrom of rage, disgust, worry and a downright tantrum. Justified or not, the last things one needs when your manager is sacked is to see that your squad has been thoroughly dismembered as well.

Especially when you see the man with the division's best assist total walk out of your club to a relegation rival. Whilst it had been fairly evident that Neal Ardley was going to hop off to the valleys come May, the decision to let him go at a time when goals are desperately needed and experience is paramount was completely incomprehensible. His form has been questionable since the New Year, when the downright cheeky bid from Cardiff came in, but has shown signs of improvement of late – the highlight being a thunderous volley in the 3-1 defeat at QPR. The only possible reason to let Ardley go was to save two months' wages – but then we're paying off our manager, so that's hardly a concern of ours.

The swap of Danny Webber and Danny Cullip is less clear-cut. Whilst Webber is undoubtedly talented, he is, as we know, prone to lapses of form. He may well have scored tow goals this month but his influence otherwise has been minor. In the end, it comes down to whether we took the much-needed leadership that Cullip would instil or took a risk on Webber in the hope that he might somehow regain form – unlikely in the current climate. In my view, good business has been done.

For Marcus Gayle and Scott Fitzgerald, now at Brentford, there is little debate, thank God, for there has been enough for it this month. Whilst questions have been raised as to whether Gayle's experience could have aided our run-in, it's fair to say his starting was unlikely, even if he did arrive at Griffin Park and magically declare himself fit. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, has had little future at this club since the summer.

And so, finally, onto Lewington's successor. Adrian Boothroyd, Leeds United first team coach since the summer, been on a management course, thirty-four, "young", "progressive", "combative".

What to say? I'd never heard of him. He's young, very young, and indeed one wonders whether there'll be the right amount of respect between the playing squad and their boss of the same age. And whether he has the right amount of experience for a relegation dogfight. The way he was appointed worries me too, for he didn't apply. To ignore all the candidates in favour of a completely unknown quantity seems very strange, especially when one considers Boothroyd's personal connections with Mark Ashton, our CEO of debatable qualities.

To counter this lack of experience, Watford have taken on another wage, that of Keith Burkinshaw, he of "There used to be a football club over there" fame. Whilst a considerable success at Spurs, his achievements since have been negligible, and indeed his lack of involvement in the game lately suggests a certain "past his best" quality that haunts so many formerly successful managers. Still, um, welcome aboard, Keith.

He also has David Hockaday alongside him, promoted from the Academy to the bright lights of the first team squad. This means that Terry Bullivant, who only arrived in October, has also been "relieved of his duties", a decision that has been largely ignored by Watford fans in the general uproar of things.

Now, here's an oddity for our cash strapped club. Aside from sacking a perfectly good manager, they then get rid of – and thus have to pay off - a well respected coach as well. I understand the need for a manager to work with his own people. But in that case, why not offer Bullivant the empty post at the head of Academy - the job he held at Palace, and one suitably out of the way of the running of things. He might, of course, have turned down this position; it'd be interesting to know. But if not, it shows another ludicrously poor decision by our board. We now have to pay off Bullivant and take on another new wage to fill an empty job at the Academy; all the while, our ludicrously under-funded squad struggles on.

There is, somewhat inevitably, a large degree of criticism of the board in the column, as has there been on various forms of media. Unfair? After all, these men have pumped their money into the club, saving it, basically. But this shouldn't mean that they're not accountable for their actions. After all, we invest our money too, although it is more than that – faith, belief in the club, where they are going. Simpson, the Russos, they've destroyed all that. Ironically, they've potentially destroyed their investment, for Watford are far closer to the financial oblivion that is Division Three than we ever were under Lewington.

It is important, though, not to tar Adrian Boothroyd with the same brush. Personal friend of Ashton, yes; user of the same empty, meaningless "business speak" that has suddenly become so familiar over the past few weeks, yes. But he is merely a man brought in to do a job, and criticisms already levelled at him are too harsh when we consider their context. Ray Lewington was not perfect, but we knew he was doing a good job.

Whether Adrian Boothroyd does the same remains to be seen.