by Lionel Birnie
It’s been impossible not to get swept up by the wave of nostalgia after Watford’s unbeaten start to the season. It had been 31 years since Watford beat Tottenham in the league and it’s Manchester United next, which will conjure memories of Luther Blissett’s two headers at Old Trafford in 1978, or Jan Lohman pouncing at the far post to knock them out of the FA Cup three years later. Or perhaps the matches that come more readily to mind are the astonishing 5-1 victory in May 1985, or the night teenager Iwan Roberts stunned United. Of course, many more people will remember two years ago (almost to the day) when Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Troy Deeney scored twice in the final seven minutes to give us the illusion Walter Mazzarri was the architect of fast, free-flowing football.
Nostalgia comes into its own as a warming comfort blanket during the cold, bleak years of nothing. When the long wintery seasons merge into one another we see the flicker of the flames from the glory years that much more brightly in the mind’s eye.
But whatever happens from here, these are the glory days and a reminder that a football club’s present is the sum of its past. When things are going as well as this it no longer feels like the Watford Football Club of the 1980s was a different entity to the one we see today – a shimmering mirage of greatness we can see in the rear view mirror only when we squint. This is the same club. The one that topped the Football League for one week only in 1982 is the same one that was playing in a run-down three-sided ground only a few years ago and is the same one that currently has a 100% record along with Liverpool and Chelsea (and, if we look further afield to the major European leagues, with Paris Saint Germain, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid). Usually the international break is a tedious pause that drags on but these past ten days have given us the opportunity to look at the league table and enjoy the sight of Watford in third place.
Tomorrow’s nostalgia is being created in front of our eyes.
* * *
Back in the 1970s and 1980s the manager of the month award used to be sponsored by the Bell’s whisky company and each recipient was presented with a large bottle of Scotch to mark their achievement.
Graham Taylor wasn’t much of a whisky drinker – he much preferred a glass of red wine – so it took him a while to get through a whole gallon of the stuff. By the time it was empty he’d usually won another award. In more recent years one of the empty bottles – won at either Lincoln City or Watford, he couldn’t be certain which – sat in his office at home and he’d collect his loose change in it. When it was full, he’d divide the coins between his three grandchildren. He joked to me once, ‘Recently they’ve been wanting driving lessons and things so I think I’m going to have to start putting notes in!’
There’s been a lot of 1980s nostalgia around this past week or so, not least because Watford’s start to the season is the best in the club’s top flight history, eclipsing even the remarkable 1982-83 season which remains the benchmark against which all other campaigns must be judged. Back in 1982, four wins and a draw from the opening five matches were enough to put the Hornets on top of the table on goal difference. A 3-0 win over West Bromwich Albion on September 11 (36 years ago this Tuesday) meant the table looked like this…
That night, Graham Taylor and his wife Rita, and Bertie Mee and his wife Doris, went to the Royal Albert Hall for the Last Night of the Proms and he always treasured the memory of singing Rule, Britannia! Jerusalem, Auld Lang Syne and the national anthem at the top of his voice knowing his football team were top of the league.
* * *
Inevitably, any success at Vicarage Road nowadays draws comparisons with the 1980s. Victories over Brighton, Burnley, Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur (plus a League Cup win at Reading), meant Javi Gracia’s side has achieved something even Taylor’s sides could not match. A run of five consecutive victories from the start of the season. It also put Gracia in an elite group of three Watford bosses to win the manager of the month award in the top flight. Taylor is one, of course, and Quique Sanchez Flores won the prize in December 2015 after victories over Norwich City, Sunderland and Liverpool, and a draw at Chelsea.
During Watford’s opening four Premier League games a pattern has started to emerge that would be familiar to supporters of Gracia’s previous club, Málaga.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Málaga and paid a visit to their stadium, La Rosaleda – the Rose Bowl. It stands between a busy junction and the Guadalmedina river and currently hosts Second Division football after Málaga’s relegation from La Liga last season. Málaga have started well, though, winning their four opening games.
Gracia was coach at Málaga for two seasons. Appointed in the summer of 2014 to replace the German Bernd Schuster whose style of play was unpopular, particularly coming so soon after Manuel Pellegrini had steered the club into the Champions League, Gracia rejuvenated Málaga. He steered them to ninth and eighth-place finishes in La Liga and masterminded a 1-0 win over Barcelona, who had Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in their line-up, at Camp Nou in February 2015.
Gracia did it with a style of play he is replicating at Watford. After steadying the ship on arrival, he settled on a flexible 4-4-2 formation with an emphasis on closing down opponents in central positions, getting the ball wide when in possession and supplying the forwards with crosses.
Málaga would play in high-intensity bursts, choosing their moments to pressurise en masse and attacking with a fervour and pace that could not be sustained for a whole match but which could be very effective for five- or ten-minute spells. Watford’s opening four league games have all included such spells – typically one burst in each half – which have yielded goals. It was perhaps most obvious at Burnley when, after a flat period before half-time, Watford roared out of the blocks and scored twice in the opening six minutes of the half, and against Tottenham when they turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead with two goals from set-pieces that resulted from a period of play when they were well on the front foot.
Víctor Martín Molina covered Málaga for the Madrid-based sports newspaper Marca when Gracia was the coach. ‘Gracia has a reputation in Spain as a very intelligent coach and a very hard worker,’ he said. ‘In Málaga, people like to see a certain style of play – fast, attacking play with wingers. Gracia created a team that was first of all very well organised. Then he wanted to attack in a high tempo but without taking too many risks behind.’
Gracia knew that opposing teams – especially the giants of La Liga – would have chances but he wanted to reduce the quality of those chances and for his team to choose their moments to apply the pressure as a team, rather than in individual areas of the pitch.
There are signs that Watford are doing the same. Midfielders hunting in packs – as we’ve seen when Doucouré, Capoue and Hughes pressurise the opposition at once to win back the ball. But there is a method to this pressing, winning the ball is only part of the plan. The players behind them are aware that they need to at the same time stay alert in case the opposition break, but be on their toes ready to support the attack, and the wide players and forwards are ready to exploit space, especially in wide areas.
There were mumbles about Gracia towards the end of last season and on the eve of this. The failure to score a single away goal and then the perception the transfer window had been a failure meant the season began on a curiously downbeat note.
But this is the hallmark of Gracia’s approach. Work on the basics first, even if the signs of improvement are not immediately obvious, and build from there with a settled team and a shadow squad who all know what is required when they are called upon.
The winning run won’t last for ever, we know it won’t, but that shouldn’t prevent us enjoying the sight of a Watford team playing with confidence and discipline. Troy Deeney looks back to his best again, Étienne Capoue looks hungry and José Holebas seems to have been transformed into Roberto Carlos over the summer. And, like in the 1980s, there is a sense around Vicarage Road that anything is possible.