Oh get on with it...
By Matt Rowson
Here we go, then.
And thank Christ for that, frankly. Because if there's one thing I'm tired of this summer, what with increasingly polarised and fruitless debates on the subject of Watford and recent decisions, it's bloody talking about football. And I bet my wife never thought I'd say that.
Actually, I say "debates", but a debate is defined in my dictionary as "a formal discussion on a particular matter". Interrogating further, a discussion is defined as "an examination by argument, written or spoken". Of which there has been precious little really... lots of firmly entrenched views, lots of energetically defending these views, next to no evaluation or consideration. Exhausting. Come Saturday when it all kicks off, you kinda expect reaction to be along the lines of "yes it was great/oh god it was awful" followed by "does anyone know what that round thing was?".
So. Actual gen-yew-ine football, at last. And a fairly stiff test for Betty's New Model Watford in the shape of Preston North End, last season's beaten play-off finallists. Tradition and custom dictate that beaten play-off finalists tend to take a little time to recover their poise, but the Lilywhites are becoming dab hands at this having already experienced play-off final defeat (to Bolton in 2001) and on several occasions lost out in semi-finals, albeit lower down the leagues. And whereas their tame capitulation to West Ham in May prompted the suspicion that their best chance for a while had been and gone, Preston start the division with strong options and competition in most areas of the team.
No less so than up front, where North End have four senior strikers vying for a starting place. Betty has intimated on more than one occasion that his ideal array of forwards would provide him with a variety of weapons to employ against different opposition; this being the case, Preston don't look bad role models.
Pacy David Nugent was the find of last season, with nine goals in sixteen starts since arriving from Bury in January and a call up to the England U21 squad into the bargain. However former Wimbledon and Gillingham striker Patrick Agyemang, another speed merchant, has apparently stood out pre-season. Richard Cresswell's belligerence is likely to win him at least a place on the bench, whilst Daniele Dichio, still only 30, made Preston his ninth club over the summer. He was red carded against the Hornets during both of our encounters with Millwall last season.
Midfield has been strengthened by some last-minute transfer activity. This seems to have at least provided an option in the one area of the team which appeared seriously lacking - left-midfield, where Eddie Lewis' Bosman move to Leeds during the close season combined with left-back Matt Hill's hamstring injury had created a selection problem down the left hand side. Lewis Neal has been brought in from Stoke City in a trade with Marlon Broomes, and he might be expected to play on Saturday.
Another midfield recruit this week has been David Jones, Manchester United's reserve team captain last season who will compete with Paul McKenna, a goalscorer in this tie last season, the aggressive Brian O'Neil and the powerful but inconsistent Dickson Etuhu in the centre of the park - McKenna and O'Neil might be the best bet as starting pair. On the right, former Rotherham winger Chris Sedgwick should start ahead of youngster Joe Anyinsah, recruited from Bristol City over the summer.
At the back, further selection options in the centre where any two of captain Chris Lucketti, cult hero Youl Mawene and Jamaican Claude Davis will start. Graham Alexander has taken root at right back - he made his three hundredth appearance for Preston last season - whilst Callum Davidson should cover for Hill on the left. With Andy Lonergan still recovering from a cruciate ligament injury sustained in February, Carlo Nash will be in goal with Gavin Ward on the bench.
Saturday also sees the "competitive debut" of our new home kit, which to my mind is one indisputably positive development over the summer. The shine, however, will somewhat be taken off by the fact that Preston are one of several clubs to have adopted the same shirt design in their own colourscheme (white shirt, dark/pale blue sash across the shoulder). I can't be the only one fed up to the back teeth of kit manufacturers trying to stamp their identities onto things that really should be above all that. Nike's performance in recent international tournaments, foisting a Nike identikit on any number of nations whose national colours really ought to be sacrosanct, remains the crassest depth plumbed so far, but one suspects there's worse to come.
Anyway. Yes. Saturday. Football. Let's get on with it...