Main Menu
What's New
96/97 review:
Scenario 1: A dramatic season. With the club attempting to return to the First Division at the first attempt, the pressure was on Kenny Jackett to live up to expectations raised by an encouraging end to the previous season. Lack of resources forced him to bring in exciting young home-grown talent as the team embarked on a huge unbeaten run which included healthy progress in two cup competitions. Ultimately the attempt failed but the announcement of an Elton John-led takeover and talk of new investment for next season took the edge off our disappointment.

Scenario 2: A dreadful season. With the club attempting to return to the First Division at the first attempt, the pressure was on Kenny Jackett, who knew that anything but promotion would be seen as failure. Lack of investment forced him to rely on unproven, inexperienced young players as the team struggled to score goals or play with any coherence. A cup run in the Auto Windscreen Shield is nothing to get excited about. Ultimately it was a grim bore and the announcement of an Elton John-led takeover and talk of new investment for next season is little compensation for those of us who forked out for a season ticket.

The truth is, as ever, somewhere between the two extremes. The season that began with such high hopes at Bournemouth ended with a whupping at Burnley and a finishing place in the bottom half of the table. In the middle was a bit of excitement, a bit of abject misery and a lot of extreme boredom and frustration.

No-one was pretending that the Second Division would be fun - anyone who relishes a wintry trip to Rotherham really ought to seek counselling. But quite a lot of people were expecting the class of a Watford side that included a few ex and future Premiership players to tell. The fact that the squad was desperately thin on the ground in several vital areas was swept away by the tide of optimism - I argued during the summer that the squad wasn't good enough to win promotion and, as it turned out, we didn't have any resources with which to significantly improve it. As someone who felt that we'd need to invest to gain promotion, Graham Taylor's "what you see is what we've got" comment provided a stomach-churning moment of realisation.

It took a while for Kenny Jackett to stabilise the side and the defeats against Millwall and Plymouth, horrible though they undoubtedly were, can be disregarded as a result. Eventually, we settled down and became the difficult-to-beat, unlikely-to-score side that we all grew to know and love. It's no coincidence that the most settled area of the side was the one that delivered the goods - in defence, we were able to build around a group of players that had no long-term injuries and no significant out-going transfers. Kevin Miller, Robert Page, Keith Millen and Nigel Gibbs, augmented by the likes of Steve Palmer, Darren Ward, Dominic Ludden and Paul Robinson, became the foundation of the side.

Beyond that, it was pretty chaotic. With key players missing (Gary Porter, Craig Ramage, David Connolly, Kevin Phillips) and others out of form or favour (Gary Penrice, Devon White, Ramage and Connolly again), we endlessly shuffled our attacking options without ever finding a solution to the goalscoring problem. On numerous occasions we looked completely unable to create any chances for our forwards as our creative players let us down. And, when we did get the ball into the box, we were frequently guilty of failing to hit the back of the net.

There was little that Kenny Jackett could do to change the situation. With no money to spend, the chances of bringing in new blood were not great - the signing of Stuart Slater brought fresh impetus for a while before he was injured, the signing of Keith Scott might've made a difference had the cash been made available.

Pessimist (or perhaps realist) that I am, there was only one stage of the season when I felt confident of our promotion chances. We suddenly stopped searching for a solution to the lack of goals and settled into a pattern of playing largely destructive football, culminating in a magnificent win at Millwall. It wasn't pretty but it played to our strengths - the better we got at it, the more attacking we were able to do. Ultimately, though, the dividing line between winning 1-0 and losing 1-0 proved to be too thin and we came unstuck against Bournemouth.

Kenny Jackett inherited a squad with an emphasis on defensive strength - it was a squad, after all, that still didn't have a centre forward of any note. Injuries and loss of form merely exaggerated that emphasis, lack of investment made it impossible to change the balance.

And, let's face it, much of the season was dreadful to watch. Skill levels aside, the dour stalemates that filled the unbeaten run were nigh on unbearable. A visiting team coming to Vicarage Road with any thoughts of playing attacking football was a rarity (and a cause for celebration, since we usually beat them) and, as our on-the-road form tailed off, the prospect of watching Watford stubbornly battling away from a open terrace hundreds of miles from home was hardly an appetising one.

There were positive aspects, though. Darren Bazeley's injury-time equaliser against Luton might've been a crap goal but it was an ecstatic moment; Stuart Slater did enough to suggest that he's too good for the likes of us; the youngsters made their debuts, with varying but encouraging degrees of success; Richard Johnson eventually got round to trying on Andy Hessenthaler's discarded crown.

In the end, however, the season will be remembered for the only thing that mattered - we didn't win promotion. Just as all the drab football would've been justified by a return to the First Division, so we have every right to criticise now that we know we'll have to endure another season's worth of Second Division life.

Ironically, that criticism should've been aimed not at Kenny Jackett but at the now-departed owner of the football club. I've frequently said that ploughing money into the club isn't the answer to our problems so I'm not about to suggest that we should've been given enough cash to out-spend our rivals. But Jack Petchey failed to alleviate the club's financial losses, so he left us in a state of suspended animation until a buyer came along. If this was an awful season then it was Jack Petchey's awful season, not Kenny Jackett's.

Ian Grant