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05/06: Preview: Watford
BSaD opinion
by Ian Grant

Well, then.

Erm, righty-ho.


What do you want me to say?

The problem, y'see, is that it's all been said already; that it's all been written and it's all been read. More than anything - more, even, than a summer of dramatic, disorientating change - this has been a summer of words. Lots and lots of words. And here are some more, for old times' sake.

The other problem, inevitably, is that you made up your mind about all of this long ago. Back in March, quite probably, when you decided that the sacking of Ray Lewington was either an idiotic act born of almost juvenile impatience or a long-overdue attempt to expand the club's limited horizons. Because, much as there's a great kerfuffle about moving forward, everything is still traced back to that moment, when we embarked on a new project after getting fed up of the old one. Even if it's now out of reach, part of history already, it's still the key moment, the flick of the first domino. The chances are that you haven't changed your mind since.

As the new season approaches, you might feel the usual buzz of excitement. For all I know, that buzz might even be enhanced by the knowledge that this will be a very different campaign, built upon youthful enthusiasm both on the pitch and in the dug-out. Or you might, like me, look at the squad and shudder at its apparent inadequacies in vital areas, dismayed by the failure to meet the early August deadline and concerned at the potential for youngsters to be left to drown. You might feel something else altogether, for all I know. One thing's certain, though: you've spent the whole summer thinking about it. And you don't need me to tell you where we're going to finish next season.

Perhaps, then, the start of the actual football will do us all a power of good. It's taken long enough to come around, during which time the divisions between various camps have only widened and deepened; it's hard to recall a time when the Watford support was quite so utterly polarised, when the issues at stake have been quite so fundamental. None of this, of course, has been helped by the evident desire of key people within the football club to prove their independence and to demonstrate their willingness to take tough decisions, almost to the point of showing off.

Last week's Fans' Forum was an unconvincing, to my mind, attempt to sell the new vision. Nevertheless, it was hugely welcome, and it is very noticeable that this first, vital bit of two-way communication has lifted the poisonous atmosphere surrounding the club. It was once - not very long ago - possible to have fierce, intense arguments between friends, no bitterness lingering afterwards. Somewhere, somehow, that relationship has broken down completely. It'll take an awful lot to repair it, it'll need more than a few words to bring back some of the people who've been so utterly alienated that they're not even listening any more, probably not even reading this...but it's a start, at least. Since last Wednesday, I don't feel any more positive about events, about the past or the future; importantly, though, I don't feel quite as disenfranchised as before. Not quite as distant.

And so, Saturday will be interesting. At the end of last season, watching Watford was, for me, like staring through grubby double glazing at the world passing by; it looked the same, but it felt like nothing at all. Just an awkward silence. Of all Adrian Boothroyd's somewhat blustery words at the forum, it was his commitment to winning us over that felt most welcome, as if born of some kind of understanding and sympathy. Better that than being required to conjure belief from thin air. Whatever, it's hard to imagine that even the most battle-hardened pessimist will be able to resist the romanticism of such a young Watford side, and the protective instincts are bound to kick in as soon as the crowd starts to become tetchy and impatient when things aren't going well. Nowt like a kid being bullied to make you take sides. You can leave Dom Blizzard alone, for a start.

More than ever, the manager will have to take responsibility for what happens, whatever does happen. Having spent much of the summer removing many of the experienced professionals from within the squad, there's no question where the leadership has to come from, nor where the praise and blame will eventually come to rest. This time, it ain't going to be Coxy's fault, and there's no Neal Ardley for Cardiff to distract.

The strategy, whether you bemoan its naivety or applaud its audacity, is certainly a striking one; rarely has accepted wisdom been quite so thoroughly shunned. It may work, of course. It may not. If the latter happens, it seems to me that we've left ourselves absolutely nowhere to go, having wholeheartedly followed Adrian Boothroyd's unconventional vision with no thought of compromise. There's a significant gap in the logic expressed by many optimists: certain experienced players (Cox, Dyche, Ardley) may well have let us down in a variety of ways last season, yet that does nothing to disprove the importance of experienced players. The reverse, if anything. My bed might be uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean that it's a brilliant idea to give it away and sleep on the floor....

In that respect, it's reassuring to know that the manager regards his squad as being three or four players short of what's required. What's not at all reassuring, frankly, is that we're in that position in early August. Heaven knows, it's difficult to find the players that you want, and even more difficult to persuade them to come aboard; that's precisely the reason, then, for a rather more pragmatic transfer policy in the short term. Otherwise, you simply end up promising that the international midfielder you've just shipped out to another team in the division will be replaced by someone even better...and while promises don't cost wages, they don't tackle opponents, supply passes or score goals either.

There are some urgent issues that need addressing. They've been urgent for months, though. Heavens, much as you might applaud their performances, I really do think that you should be at least slightly terrified - do it quietly, if you prefer - at the prospect of starting the season with Al Bangura and Toumani Diagouraga as the first choice midfield pairing. We could play Dominic Blizzard in there, obviously...except that we don't have enough central defenders, so he's needed there instead to partner Jay Demerit. Ouch. All of these may turn out to be wonderful players of the game, and may even fulfil some of that potential during the next nine months; I fail to see the wisdom, however, in depending on them from the very start. Then again, I fail to see the wisdom in lots of things; even when I see the reasons, the wisdom remains elusive.

For me, the whole project - this spectacular dream, based on the vision of one energetic young man - continues to seem almost surreal. It's just four years after we last allowed an individual - one person, as fallible as the rest of us - to walk into Watford Football Club with impossibly grand plans for the future; it's four years after we last let that person change absolutely everything, leaving nothing untouched. That, lest we forget, was an unmitigated disaster. We - or they, or whoever - got it wrong. All the eggs in one basket, left in the path of a steamroller. And now, after fighting so bloody hard to recover, we're chasing those dreams again.

So, another individual, as fallible as the rest of us. A very different individual, certainly, but you can't mistake the awestruck faith, terribly familiar, shown in him by his chairman. And another set of sweeping, almost obsessive, changes to all parts of the club, including those that many of us hold most precious, most untouchable. For some of you, there's a thrill in the knowledge that we're once again going for it, something that Ray Lewington never allowed amid the day-to-day practicalities of survival. A pleasure that we've denied ourselves, cup runs aside. For others, there's just despair at the willingness to throw it all up in the air again, hoping against hope that we'll get lucky.

Too many flipped coins, for me. Too many flipped coins, for the harsh, cold inevitabilities of the "real world" that people keep going on about. Too many chances taken: on the performance of youngsters, on the success of highly unpredictable signings, on the instant integration of a whole new team, on the lack of injuries and suspensions in key areas. On the new bloke being right.

It might all turn out fine, naturally. That's the thing with revolutions: sometimes, the temporary upheaval is shown to be beneficial by hindsight. Perhaps Watford Football Club really did need to be shaken out of its complacency, to be driven by ambition and ego once more. Perhaps we have been under-achieving, content with survival. Perhaps the new future will be everything that we want, and more besides...and that means more than just success on the pitch, clearly. Perhaps, while never forgiving certain things that've happened, we'll be able to shake hands and - finally, genuinely - "move on".

Perhaps they'll get away with it. If you put your mortgage on a horse, it sometimes comes in first.

Let's hope. Jesus, let's hope.