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Season review

The full story
By Ian Grant

It ended as it began, with pride, defiance and optimism. In between, we lost a helluva lot of football matches. That's the abridged version.

The full story is rather more complicated. Really, a season that involved relegation with a record-breakingly low points total ought to be easy to pass judgement on. But it's not so and, as illustrated by the general bewilderment that characterised the media coverage of our post-relegation "celebrations", the reasons are not necessarily obvious.

It's a feeling, more than anything. If you had any association with Old Watford - that is, the wonderfully open, friendly, helpful club that Graham Taylor was instrumental in creating during his first spell in charge - then you know what that feeling is like. If you had any association with Recent Watford - that is, the appallingly closed, complacent club that Jack Petchey was instrumental in creating during his ownership - then you also know what the absence of that feeling is like...and, if you can't remember, you can have a read of my season preview.

There have been many different explanations for our uncontrollable outbursts of childish happiness at the end of the season. That's because everyone had their own angle, of course. But my personal explanation is all about that feeling.

Like everyone else, I want a team that's worth supporting...and we'll get to that later. But, whatever happens on the pitch, I want more. I want a club that's worth supporting too. The distinction between the team (including the manager) and the club was painfully apparent back in August. My absolute adoration for the Wembley heroes was mirrored by utter disgust at the actions of an invisible board.

Nine months later, all that is changing. We have sensible and reasonable season ticket prices for next season, with a ground-breaking scheme to reward early renewals for the following year. We have a board that is increasingly committed to communication, the latest example being the introduction of an annual report to be sent to all supporters on the club's mailing list. We have a club that appears determined to extend the hand of friendship, where once it only seemed interested in picking pockets.

Little gestures make all the difference, attention to detail counts for a lot. It's what Graham Taylor's "family club" was founded on - it's not enough to tell people that their support is valued, you've got to make them feel it. For the best part of a decade, such basic principles have been forgotten.

So, when the club sends a specially printed "thank you" postcard to everyone who's ordered a season ticket, that shouldn't be dismissed. It's not a triviality, it's customer care. Equally, when the club gives limited edition scarves to holders of Middlesbrough ticket stubs and, rather than doing it as cheaply as possible, makes the effort to produce something that's worth owning, that's a small indication of a large change of approach. There was a time, not very long ago at all, when the club wasn't interested in anything that didn't generate immediate income.

Naturally, however, commercial interests are still playing a strong part in all this. It'd be naive to imagine otherwise. But, in a very important way, that's the most positive aspect of this whole turn-around. Watford Football Club has matured as a business in the last six months. It has developed a relationship with the real world, where continually raising prices to balance the books isn't an option and where customers respond to a good, competitively-priced product with further purchases. Although the process is far from complete, it is becoming a dynamic, imaginative, modern medium-sized business. It is ironic (bearing in mind the early season fears), and perhaps not entirely coincidental, that these changes appeared to begin with Nigel Wray's closer involvement.

So, for me, the bottom line is that our season in the Premiership was a success. Not as much of a success as we'd all have liked it to have been, granted...but a success nonetheless.

I imagine that sounds ridiculous to the majority of you, so I'll try to re-phrase it. The football club that I love, follow, and write about is more than just a set of players and a manager. Right? If not, why do we sing "Watford 'til I die" with such gusto? If you accept that, then you must also accept that its success and failure is about more than results alone. Watford Football Club lost a lot of matches during the 1999/2000 campaign...but it won back many of its supporters at the same time, this one included, and grew noticeably healthier. No season in which that happens should be dismissed as a failure or an embarrassment.

Naturally, in the same way that last summer's off-field squabbles didn't really detract from the glorious promotion memories, none of this changes the fact that the majority of the season was miserable and painful. The statistics speak for themselves - we were a side that spent nine months trying to bridge a gap and continually failing, not by much but by enough. Although a great deal of the pre-season hype about our opponents proved to be exaggerated, there was no hiding from the sheer ruthlessness of the Premiership. We were punished for our errors, again and again and again. It was not fun.

The low points were numerous. In particular, the 5-0 defeat at Selhurst Park looks even worse now than at the time, although those present on that god-awful afternoon wouldn't have believed it possible. But the occasional hammering is an occupational hazard at this level and wasn't what resulted in our relegation. More important were the countless defeats by one or two goals, points that we let slip from our grasp. It began with the crucial home game against Middlesbrough, in which we played well in a superficial kinda way and still lost, and continued for far too long. Really, the most agonising thing about this campaign was that we were not often out-classed. We simply lost too often, and that's not the same thing.

Injuries did play a part in that, unquestionably. A club of our size will never be able to afford to maintain a squad large enough, good enough or experienced enough to deal with such a full treatment room. The list of long-term casualties was quite extraordinary - only four players (Hyde, Robinson, Page and Palmer) made more than thirty league appearances, compared to ten during the previous campaign. Many significant, inspirational names made virtually (or literally) no appearances at all. For any club of limited means, survival requires a settled, confident side...and that's something we could only dream of.

Ultimately, there are no excuses. I would still argue that there were enough defeats that could and should have been turned into draws and wins. Bradford did it, we didn't. If you're so inclined, you can blame the manager and players for that. Personally, it makes me desperate for another crack at it - as was almost universally acknowledged, survival would've been a miraculous achievement...but it is clearly not one that's beyond us. There is every reason to suggest that this frustrating season will be seen as part of a growing, strengthening process when viewed with the benefit of hindsight. There is every reason for optimism.

So let's end on an upbeat note. As time goes by, the defeats will blur into one and the memories will be fond ones. Which won't be an accurate reflection of what actually happened, but who cares. We'll remember reducing Liverpool to a red-faced shambles in the last ten minutes at Anfield. Tommy Mooney against Marcel Desailly. Singing the ball into the net against Sheffield Wednesday. Xavier Gravelaine's brief stay. All the joyful madness at the Riverside. It wasn't all crap, y'know.

I'm not happy that we've been relegated. I'm happy. We've been relegated. Two different things.