The New New New Watford?
By Matt Rowson
Tuesday evening. The regular weekly trundle around our next opponents' messageboards.
"Who do you want to go up in the play-offs, and who do you think will go up?"
"I would love to see Watford do it as it would just go to show that young managers are sometimes worth the risk!! Also, they were tipped for relegation this season, what a dream year they have had. Get the feeling Leeds will win it though."
"Watford deserve it, Palace will sneak it (as always)"
Further down, amongst the hand-wringing at QPR's current plight...
"We need a restructure of Watford proportions this summer"
It's been very easy to convince ourselves that the prevailing attitude towards the 'orns elevated status elsewhere in the division has been a combination of resentment and scorn. We're either in a flattering position, or merely demonstrating the inadequacies of the division by maintaining our lofty status. But not so, it seems (even if the glowing terms of reference weren't quite unanimous). We may even be on our way to becoming the New Charlton, inspiration to all smaller clubs gazing upwards. The New New Wimbledon. The New New New Watford.
Which kinda glosses over a few details, of course. QPR are going to do well to emulate us without a few quid to invest in rebuilding their squad for starters... both in terms of disposing of the contracted dead wood that makes up a large part of the prosecution's case against Ian Holloway, and in terms of investing in bits that need investment. Marlon was a bargain, a great punt, and Big Doris looks another good buy, less spectacular but almost a better spot for being completely unheralded. But half a million quid's still half a million quid. Or a million quid if you do it twice. Which is money that Rangers don't have.
There's all sorts going on behind the scenes, ostensibly in a fashion that would be comical if it weren't so seriously close to the bone. A cloak-and-dagger takeover by a couple of ex-agents and, bizarrely, former World Cup winning captain and former BSaD "Thing of the Week" Dunga, rumours of massive debts, winding-up orders as recently as a month ago. And then you have a look at the team...
The play-off push that was apparently promised in the summer may have looked a little optimistic from this distance (although not as optimistic as similar portents of our own success, admittedly), but none of the thirty-odd Rangers respondents to our summer survey predicted that their side would finish as low as their current twentieth. Monday's defeat at Norwich, in which a two goal lead was overturned in the final twelve minutes, constituted an improvement on recent fare (for the most part), but that really isn't saying an awful lot. Since former Rangers (and Luton) favourite Gary Waddock took over from media favourite Holloway (officially still on charge but on gardening leave) in early February his side have won two games out of twelve, and none of those in the last nine.
Waddock boldly pronounced on taking the reins that he wanted to completely alter the way the side played, discarding Holloway's rather direct approach for a passing game. This seemed an unadvisedly ambitious strategy for a caretaker manager, even with a side relatively comfortable in mid-table, and the footnote that this might be hampered by the playing resources available did not smack of great man-management, less still the public criticism of players after recent defeats. It's indisputable, however, that the Rangers squad looks to be dominated by players at either ends of their careers.
With Simon Royce at various points injured and dropped (and now injured again), last season's Vicarage Road loanee Paul Jones, 39 this week, has been rescued from Molineux and is the man in possession between the sticks. He'd been doing OK until a couple of edgy mistakes at Carrow Road on Monday. Jake Cole is likely to be on the bench.
Marcin Kus has been on loan from Polonia Warsaw since the start of the year and impressed in a rare couple of run outs recently; the usually steady but recently off-form Marcus Bignot's return to the right side of defence came as something of a surprise at Norwich. With Matthew Rose permanently in the treatment room, Italian Mauro Milanese's purple run of form at left back under Waddock has been most welcome - a lack of pace here, however, cited as a weakness.
Things look less comfortable in the centre, where the mammoth Danny Shittu's uncharacteristically wobbly form has been put down to the pressure of covering the failings of those playing alongside him. Ian Evatt has rarely convinced since his summer arrival from Chesterfield, whilst Georges Santos, occasionally linked to ourselves in the past and a veteran of the almighty scrap with Tranmere during our last run to the play-offs, is no more popular here than he was at Ipswich thanks in no small part to his tendency to jump recklessly into tackles. A-level student Jon Munday is another option; he was on the bench at Norwich, and signed his first pro contract this week. Andrew Howell was also on the bench for the first time at Norwich, whilst Dominic Shimmin is another youngster who seems to be rated but hasn't featured in the first team since September.
In central midfield, eighteen year old Stefan Bailey has started the last couple of games and impressed with some aggressive performances; he partnered Steve Lomas on Monday, who really ought to be more than 32, with other options including Richard Langley (recently linked to Watford, perhaps by his agent), Martin Rowlands and Tom Doherty, who doesn't seem to have won many friends since his summer arrival from Bristol City, all injured and Rangers fan Marc Bircham's QPR career seemingly on the wane.
Another QPR fan on the left flank, of course, whose support on the basis of moments of the quality of his fine goal at Carrow Road still just about outweighs impatience with his willingness to go to ground and occasional laziness. Gareth Ainsworth on the right flank could never be accused of that latter crime, but his lack of a final ball has perhaps led to him spending most of his career a division lower than he might otherwise have done.
Up front, a large number of not quite adequate options. Kevin Gallen is team captain and undoubtedly the side's most capable striker, but has been out with a hamstring problem. Paul Furlong, who made such a profound impact during his two years at Vicarage Road, is still an intelligent target man but at 38 has begun to struggle in front of goal, his eighteen last season dwindling to six so far this. Giant Dane Marc Nygaard, who formed a rather odd partnership with Furlong at Norwich, has conversely been able to find the net rather frequently despite an apparent lack of footballing ability or particular effort in any other respect. Dean Sturridge has played forty-four minutes since our victory over Rangers in November, and Stefan Moore is just rubbish. Another Dane, Sammy Youssouf, has had a run of games under Waddock without finding the net, whilst pacy Shabazz Baidoo and hot prospect Scott Donnelly have also had a few run outs, the latter also missing Norwich through injury.
Rangers will desperately need to finish the season with something positive to hold on to, and with a trip to the other lot that play in hoops on the last weekend will probably be looking to this game to deliver that. All the plaudits and unexpected respect in the world, however, will do us no bloody good if we don't deliver on it, and three points against a struggling Rangers side would make two wins on the hop which constitutes a "run" in my book, not to mention guaranteeing us a play-off second leg at home with Preston meeting Leeds on the final day. Bring it on.
Meanwhile, if QPR really are keen to ape our achievement, I hear that there's a Spanish left back with UEFA Cup experience looking for a club...