Gracia sparks rush of nostalgia

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 is presented with one of his many manager of the month awards.    Photo courtesy of the Taylor family.

Graham Taylor is presented with one of his many manager of the month awards.
Photo courtesy of the Taylor family.

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…

The top of Division One on September 11, 1982, as it would have looked on the BBC’s Grandstand graphics. Yes, really.    Image by Gold and Black.

The top of Division One on September 11, 1982, as it would have looked on the BBC’s Grandstand graphics. Yes, really.
Image by Gold and Black.

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.

Graham Taylor's diary: June 1977

by Lionel Birnie

When I was working with Graham on his autobiography, I would drive up to his house in Little Aston, not far from The Belfry golf course near Sutton Coldfield, and often we'd sit in the hexagonal summerhouse in his garden and look through the treasure trove of mementoes and souvenirs from his life in football and see what memories they threw up.

In one of the many boxes was a battered, red, hardback notebook. I opened it and started reading. It was immediately clear that this was a diary, of sorts, spanning a week in late June 1977, just as he was starting work at Watford.

The notes paint a vivid picture of the football club as Graham found it. Owned by a passionate multi-millionaire, staffed by keen and enthusiastic people, but lacking direction or a clear vision and with threadbare facilities and scant resources.

I asked Graham why he might have taken the notes in the first place. 'I was going into a new club,' he said, 'and I didn't know anyone, or anything about how it operated, and so I wanted to find out about everyone and everything as quickly as possible. I knew I would be meeting a lot of new people and finding out a great deal of information in a short space of time and I needed to be clear in my thoughts so that I could identify what changes needed to be made. I've always found that the best way to do that was to keep notes, so I would go home and sit for half an hour and write down what I had learned that day. It was a way of putting everything into some kind of order.'

I won't go as far to say Graham was a hoarder but he often joked that his wife, Rita, would have liked him to hire a skip and throw some of the stuff away, but I am very glad that he didn't because so much of the material he had kept over the years was invaluable when we came to write his book.

To sit and turn slowly through the pages of Graham's diary gave such an insight into not just the job he did at Watford but how he went about it. He was strident, decisive, fizzing with energy and ideas and prepared to upset people – although not by being deliberately obstreperous – in the process of improving the club.

We used extracts from Graham's diary in his autobiography, In His Own Words, and his diary came to mind a couple of weeks ago when I was invited by Rita to attend the unveiling of his statue outside Vicarage Road.

Tom Walley, John Ward, Luther Blissett and Rita Taylor with the statue of Graham Taylor in Vicarage Road. Walley and Blissett were two of the players Graham inherited when he took over at Watford in 1977. Ward, his friend and former team-mate from Lincoln City, came a little later. Photograph by Simon Gill.

Tom Walley, John Ward, Luther Blissett and Rita Taylor with the statue of Graham Taylor in Vicarage Road. Walley and Blissett were two of the players Graham inherited when he took over at Watford in 1977. Ward, his friend and former team-mate from Lincoln City, came a little later. Photograph by Simon Gill.

Simon Ricketts, giving directions from the bench.

Simon Ricketts, giving directions from the bench.

The crowd at the statue unveiling was so large I didn't get a chance to take a close look at the statue, or sit on the bench, so last week I took a trip to Vicarage Road with my friend Simon Ricketts. For those who don't know, Simon played a huge part in helping me finish the book after Graham died.

Simon had been helping with the book but when Graham died in January 2017, his role became even more important as he helped me find Graham's voice and complete the manuscript. I've written in some depth about that process here.

Graham Taylor's ghostwriter, Lionel Birnie.

Graham Taylor's ghostwriter, Lionel Birnie.

While we were working on the book, Simon was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he spent the first half of this year in hospital after an operation in the hope it would give him a bit more time. I was so happy that we were able to go to Vicarage Road together to see the statue this week and then take a walk into the Hornets Shop to see the book we had worked on together on the shelves.

The statue is a permanent reminder of what Graham Taylor did for Watford in his two spells at the club. It is not an exaggeration to say he built and then rebuilt the club we know today, then stepped in as chairman to provide a lead and reassurance for supporters when the club's future seemed to be in jeopardy.

With the unveiling of the statue, I thought it would be interesting to reproduce the notes Graham Taylor made in June 1977. Knowing how the story turned out, it's easy to take for granted the progress that was made, but reading his notes is a reminder of the task that lay ahead of him, Elton John and everyone at the club when he took over as manager. Some of the details he concerned himself with may seem mundane or trivial but it just shows what running a football club involved.

Graham Taylor's diary

Wednesday, June 22nd 1977

Fact-finding visit to Watford prior to signing contract on further visit on Friday to take over officially as manager on Monday, June 27.


Decided to arrive by train and took the Met Line from Euston. Pleasantly surprised on arrival to see parts of Watford I had not anticipated. Very residential area – first impression was that I could live here but would these people get ‘excited’ about their football club.

Arranged a meeting with Ron Rollitt, the general manager/secretary, and obviously a man of tremendous influence in the club. So far, over the telephone everything I had asked for had been done extremely courteously – in fact, it has been rather too good at times.

I had arranged meetings with the local press – Oliver (Oli) Phillips of the Watford Observer and Mike Green of the Watford Echo. I had wished to meet them together but appointments were kept separate at their wishes. Interesting, and would have to find out why?

Photographs at the ground with Nigel (photographer at the Echo), who gave me the indication that the Watford Observer got everything first and that too many people from the club had access to the press. Also that Echo were not really Watford orientated.

Meeting with Ron Rollitt, and chairman came down. Not really sure of general manager – he was in on final contract meeting. First impression of club was that organisation and discipline was sloppy. On seeing wage structure it was obvious that there had been no real policy.

Conscious that I am pre-judging the playing staff but I don’t think they are good enough. Come from all over and are not readily on call. Lack of lead from board who are immature and don’t really know how a football club should be run. All very nice people though and chairman is very sincere in wanting football club to be successful.

Administratively, life could be a bit difficult as my office is situated in the wrong position and Patsy Gledhill is the only member of staff. Overworked anyway and I’m sure the club suffer because of this.

At the end of the meeting – some two-and-a-half hours – I was just about as confused as I could be and still hadn’t discussed half of what I had wanted to. There’s a great deal to find out about a lot of the people and I am going to upset quite a number in order to get this club on its feet.

Mike Green – Echo
Had over an hour with him. Doesn’t travel on the team coach. seems nice enough fella – not a lot of ‘go’ about him.

Oliver Phillips – Watford Observer
Have to watch this situation – suspicion I was being taped and shall have to find out. Friday’s Observer convinced me I had been recorded as everything was word for word. Rivalry between two newspapers tends not to be all that healthy.

Friday, June 24th

Signed contract with Ray Ingram (my solicitor) present.

Board meeting
Unbelievable. Held in my office due to alterations in boardroom. No real order. Chairman doesn’t know how to conduct a meeting and Ron Rollitt directs flow. Interesting to see him get a bit upset over a vice-presidents’ issue. Club's overdraft is £90,000.

Photographs and press conference
Daily Mirror and Evening Standard and local newsmen. Chairman impressive in handling media situation.

Television interview with chairman
Up to London and then interviewed from Midlands. Not all that successful as TV people didn’t seem to be sure what was going on.

Had long conversation with chairman and Mr Smith and Mr Stratford about players. Money available and informed them about Sam Ellis, Dennis Booth and Ian Bolton.

Sunday, June 25th

Visited Mr Smith (vice-chairman) and went with him to Dacorum League presentation. Keen on selling club to public.

Dropped office literature in. No keys for desk or file and really wonder about prior organisation. John Collins’ desk and file in outer office were disorganised.

A great deal of work to do.

Had a look round dressing room block. Could really be made good and if we get things going this shouldn’t be too bad.

A lot of mess still about from the greyhounds and this is obviously going to be a problem. Evidently get £12,000 revenue p.a. from them.

Impression that David Butler is going to be an asset to me.

A lot of people about the ground due to greyhound racing.

Monday, June 27

Ron Rollitt in morning. Fixture list and he had looked through it and wanted to know my views on certain travel arrangements at Christmas. Obviously got a free hand as regards travel and there is no set policy at all. Long talk with him as regards Chairman and Board and he feels that we have to teach Chairman how to become both Director and Chairman. Had a look at accounts from AGM August 10 1977 and Elton John is committed to over £100,000. Obviously it is his club and I am more than interested to see whether he loans or gives money. Not all that sure yet about administrative side as regards organisation and am not too happy about how I shall get my letters done. However, there is no anti deeling but I have to go through Ron to get to Patsy Gledhill and consequently it will be very difficult to have confidential letters typed. Arranged for dictaphone as I think this will be necessary.

David Butler
All of three hours with David, who strikes me as a very keen man and willing to learn. However from what he had told me and from the little I saw the club is not functioning as a football club at all. Organisation is lax and generally speaking nobody is really sure of responsibilities.

Tuesday, June 28

Called in to see Johnny Hartburn, Sue Chalk and Margaret Tomkins. Commercial office. Interesting, he has been here one year but increased revenue considerably. Seems enthusiastic and has thirteen years’ previous experience at Orient and Fulham. Has increased income considerably over first year and could be an important person in future of club. Have to arrange a meeting with him.

Long day with Dave Butler again, visiting training grounds and they have so many venues that no wonder they never get down to one thing – lack of stability here but I am convinced more and more that the players are not really being given the correct lead and that some of them will be past the point of no return by now. Had a visit to the kit supply retailer and ordered more kit and tried to get better organisation here as well. Everything is rather confusing at present and the job is going to be very hard to pull it round. No chance to dictate any letters at all at present and there are now some 30-40 need answering. I must do this and see how organised one becomes there. Went through contracts and was rather surprised to find very few players had been given service bonuses although main exception Arthur Horsfield had got five and a half thousand including S.O.L. Not impressed with incentive scheme which is not related to income and can cost 35,000 at top and 5,500 with 40 points. There is no service bonus at all.

Wednesday, June 29

Dealt with approx 15 letters in over one hour. Constant interruptions and I know we shall have to get this better. Had a look at the circuit in weights room and not all that impressed as no record can be kept of improvements etc. David Butler responsibility for kit and this boy is certainly [a] hard worker.

All afternoon with Danny Blanchflower and that was some experience.

Evening met Wally Fielding and was reasonably impressed and he would take some replacing. I shall have to see him in action and carefully decide what course of action to take.

Contacted George Kerr (Lincoln) as regards Sam Ellis – offered £4,000. Spoke about 15,000 as if directors had fixed price. Oh George!

Thursday, June 30

Alan Burridge phoned – amenities and recreational manager. Offered help and arranged meeting. Ray Brown is manager of Watford Leisure Centre. Dinner with Dr Vernon Edwards (club doctor) and his wife. Obviously going to be valuable person and will be prepared to give information about players. Feels there are players who did not give their best.

Spent three days interviewing playing staff and whilst all interviews conducted on friendly basis obvious to me that changes will have to be made. Question marks for various reasons against Rankin, Garner, Horsfield, Sherwood, Joslyn, Bond. Those players who live far away will eventually have to be replaced.

After three weeks in job beginning to get some idea of club and it certainly isn't anything like I've been used to.

Theres seems to be an indiscipline about the place and no real lead at all.

So many people about the ground at times – no idea who they are. Greyhounds three times a week and trials on Thursdays, no training facilities simply makes it a place with no real football identity at all. In fact, identity is a problem all round. Players don't live in Watford – there isn't a commitment to the club at all – feeling it is being used.

Ron Rollitt (general manager / secretary) with personal secretary Patsy Gledhill. On face of it these two must earn their money as they do everything but I’m not too sure whether this is for benefit of club and some of the reception and telephone duties ought to be taken away from Mrs Gledhill. Suggested purchase a dictaphone as I can see a lot of problems getting my letters done. Not sure about their organisation at all and yet Ron Rollitt seems very concerned as regards myself. Not sure how he figures in the financial matters at all. Lunch hour – no one on the telephone when the press call.

Board of directors
Elton John – chairman. 30-year-old multi-millionaire pop star. Watford supporter all his life. Local boy made world star. Wants success for the football club but doesn’t really know how to get it. No grip of board meetings and yet has a mind of his own, good opinions and is no fool. He has a lot of advantages but also disadvantages and simply because of who he is people could want him to fail.

Geoff Smith – vice-chairman. Coach company proprietor. Club use his coaches and his brother drives them. Complaint from players that he drives the coach too slow and journeys take too long. Nice man and has lived in the area his whole life.

Muir Stratford – Articulate, enthusiastic.

John Reid – Elton John’s manager. Young man and don’t know yet about his commitment to the club.

Jim Harrowell – Ill in hospital and not expected to play an active part in club again but a strong Watford supporter and director of many years.

At present time board reads not less than five and no more than 10. To be altered to read not less than four and not more than seven.

In general the board is not stable in thought or policy at the moment and very reliant on chairman from financial point of view.

Any new directors must be prepared to work and are interested in contributing to running of the club.

Chairman must be available to be contacted, and he has to learn a great deal about the job.

Weight room, in which David Butler organises a circuit. He is very keen on body work. Apart from that there are only a few cones and absolutely nothing else at all.

£90,000 overdraft
Loss of £55,000 in 1976-77
Average 6,000 gate in 1976-77
Elton John has by far the major holding in the company and in effect one could say it is his club.

Commercial manager Johnny Hartburn with the female staff Sue Chalk and Margaret Tomkins. A former player and will be interested to see his background with regard to commercial qualifications. Introduced myself and had a three-quarters-of-an-hour chat with him. Seemed quite sharp and alert and this is one person who can help promote the club. Had four years with Orient and nine years with Fulham prior to this.

There’s the feeling you are in the makings of a stadium and yet short of atmosphere. Has greyhound track round the pitch and that is used two or three times a week. Makes for untidyness and certainly a lot of the ground needs smartening up.

Groundstaff is Les Simmons with two or three part-time helpers. He pays a lot of attention to the pitch, even to the extent of not liking the players to go on it.

No one seems to know who is in charge of it. We now have a lot to spare because a new colour scheme was introduced last season and consequently a lot of the old kit is available. Not impressed with how the kit is packed and would hazard a guess that no one really knows what we have got or not.

Medical staff are Dr Edwards, Dr Black and Dr O’Connor with the former being associated with the England party – probably this is how Dave Butler got his chance to work with the England Youth.

Dr Vernon Edwards will obviously play a leading part in the development of the club and can be an influential figure. His philosophy is the same as mine – the treatment of the injuted player should be as uncomfortable as possible!

Playing staff
Seems to lack real drive and leadership. Relatively young but with a group of older players. The’ve not been pressurised for some time and suspect there’s a lack of real discipline in certain quarters. Comments received are that there are a couple of moaners and that Alan Garner is a class above others but doesn’t always play in top gear. After interviewing 17 of the 20 pros I am more convinced than ever that some of the staff will have to be changed.

John Collins – coach

David Butler – physio

Wally Fielding – part-time trainer who seems very committed to youth set-up. Ex-Everton star. Seems to do almost everything as youth team manager. I think he may need someone to work beside him (perhaps Tom Walley?). Biggest problem is we have no pitches for youth games and a lack of facilities in general. He takes the under-18 team and Pat Malloy takes the under-17s. Feels that Pat (68) is too old.
Pat Molloy – old stager who although paid very little seems to be full-time and has a lot of duties.

Mollie Rush – tea lady, laundry lady, cleaner and landlady. Is involved on matchdays as well!

Les Simmons – groundsman who asked me to give a day or two’s notice before letting the players train on the pitch!

John Collins – is used to being in charge and seems to have been affected by me taking over. Not sure we can work together, although have been impressed by his abilities as a coach. The danger as I change players is whether he will begin to side with them?

No scouting system at all. One local scout and I think Bill McCracken is still on the stage (aged 95!). Traditional thing in football is that because of prior work people are offered a job for life.

No one watches opposition games. Have appointed four scouts but will have to look into the whole scouting system as soon as possible.

Training facilities
None at the ground and the club travel to a range of training grounds.

These are – Cassiobury Park, hills and long running and plenty of grass. Shendish – five miles out of town and the sports ground belonging to Dickinsons paper company. In pre-season lunches were provided but there’s the problem of getting pitches booked. Watford Leisure Centre – they have all-weather pitches which is good for evening training with youngsters. Woodside – where the under-18s play. It’s council-owned and has a running track round it but we struggle to get on pitches and have to give a few days’ notice. Hartspring Leisure Centre – indoor area and already booked for Mondays. Metropolitan Police Sports Ground – tried to book for regular use previously. We have got to get a ground where we can keep equipment.

Not sure if there is any set policy for away travel. Vice-chairman is coach company proprietor and we get very competitive prices. His brother is the coach driver but players complain he drives too slowly. Train is also used for some longer trips – look into day returns and group ticket schemes. Club has a good away following so must look into possibility of hiring a train for certain trips.

Youth policy
Almost non-existent. Wally Fielding seems to arrange trial matches, which is fine as long as I know what is happening. Must develop contacts with local clubs and schools and begin to strengthen youth teams. Developing young players essential for a club this size. Cannot rely on transfers. But youngsters must be identified and retained depending on potential to make it into the first team. Tom Walley is not going to play a part on the pitch but could be an asset here. Could be someone to shake-up the whole thing.

Deadline day anxiety

SSN graphic.jpg

by Lionel Birnie

So that’s it then, the transfer window has slammed shut. It always slams shut, no one ever thinks to just pull it to quietly.

A day of manufactured lunacy failed to match the preposterous heights we’ve seen previously and a look around social media this evening shows there are quite a few Watford supporters out there who are unhappy with the lack of activity on the final day.

Perception is everything. Had Watford signed Adam Masina, Ken Sema, Marc Navarro, Ben Wilmot, Ben Foster and Gerard Deulofeu over the course of the past week instead of earlier in the summer, the impression would have been of a dynamic club making strident, decisive moves to secure their targets in the nick of time, perhaps getting one ‘over the line’ at the last minute to reinforce the idea that the people doing the business had their sleeves rolled up and a bead of sweat on their brows.

The fact they had identified their targets and completed their deals before the World Cup was over is now being interpreted as some kind of failure. It doesn’t help, of course, that Watford have been linked with a dozen players in the past 48 hours lending the situation a sense of desperation that probably wasn’t there, although the rumour that West Brom's Jake Livermore was a target made me fear that someone at Vicarage Road had spent too long exposed to the blazing sunshine earlier this week and was suffering from some kind of heat-related bewilderment. (I gather Livermore was never a target, though). And so, the only arrival on the final day was a teenager from West Ham.

Of course it’s perfectly acceptable to be disappointed with the fact that the two weakest areas of the team – at the heart of defence and up front – have not been strengthened but the conclusion that Watford now face an inevitable battle against relegation does not necessarily tally. Of course, we might be in for a difficult season but history tells us that every Premier League season will be a challenge for a club of Watford’s size.

Nevertheless it’s been a funny summer. The sale of Richarlison for a gazilion pounds – each shot into the side-netting between November and May seemingly adding a million to the price – perhaps gave us the false impression that there was cash to burn.

Rumours that a striker from Barcelona, or perhaps one from Paris St Germain, were on their way fuelled the expectations and so it is barely surprising that when we look at the attacking options now and see that Troy Deeney, Andre Gray, Isaac Success and Stefano Okaka managed 11 goals between them last season we feel deflated. There’s nothing quite like the thought of seeing a new man up front on the first day of the season to stoke the enthusiasm. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say, and we know all too well what Deeney, Gray and Okaka in particular offer. What we lack, on the eve of the season, is the excitement of the unknown, the thrill of watching a forward player get the ball and not knowing what his default moves are.

However, I just can’t bring myself to join in with the chorus of dissent. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting old, and perhaps it’s because I know that being annoyed about the club’s transfer policy – something we have no control over and probably only a sketchy understanding of – is a waste of energy. As I scrolled through Twitter just now a smile crossed my face at the thought of Javi Gracia or Scott Duxbury doing the same on their sofas this evening. 'Dammit, @GoldenBoy28 has got a point! We should have bought a striker!' [@GoldenBoy28 is an invention of mine so if you are @GoldenBoy28, I mean no offence].

The thing is, we have all signed up for the new season not knowing whether we are in for a thrilling ride on the rollercoaster or a chilling trip on the ghost train, taking us past the skeletons of Dave Bassett and Devon White. Part of the joy of football is that feeling of entering the unknown, the sense of placing our emotions and trust in others and hoping for the best. Part of the joy of the start of the season is that it is all fresh again, the disappointments of the past campaign largely forgotten and our hearts made fonder by three months' absence from Vicarage Road.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of slick, superficial coverage. The pundits state their rock-solid opinions, supporters follow suit and the language of the studios seeps into the stands. 'For me, Watford needed to strengthen up front,' they say, oblivious to the fact that the ‘for me’ bit is completely superfluous. After a day of other clubs getting ‘deals over the line’ and players ‘coming through the door’ it feels like the whole thing has become simply an exercise to generate anger, anxiety and a steady stream of callers to phone-in shows. As supporters the curious dichotomy is that our opinions count for everything and yet mean almost nothing. Without the supporters and their engagement there is no circus, no £50million transfer fees, no drama, no employment for TV people willing to stand outside training grounds reporting things they’ve just read on their phones. And yet I can scream into the void until I’m blue in the face that the Pozzos have got it wrong this time and it makes not a jot of difference. Far better, surely, to accept that what will be, will be.

I am a firm believer in Graham Taylor’s Rule of Thirds when it comes to transfers anyway. That is to say that a third of the players a club signs will turn out to be a success, a third will do okay and a third will not make the grade. The arrival of Trevor Senior in 1987 taught me relatively early on not to get too carried away by a player's reputation or past performance. It’s far better to wait and see what a player does in a gold and black shirt before proclaiming them to be the panacea dressed as the messiah.

Football has changed an awful lot since 1982, but I wonder what the reaction would have been had social media existed then. That summer – also a World Cup year – Graham Taylor’s response to winning promotion to the top flight for the first time in the club’s history was to sign precisely no one. I know there were a few letters to the Watford Observer suggesting that Watford needed to bring in some experience to help them cope with the First Division but there was no serious outcry, no flashes of anger, no volleys of abuse claiming Elton John had lost the plot and didn't care about the club.

I cannot take seriously those who wail that this has been the worst transfer window ever either. Okay, so the transfer window didn’t exist in its current form in 1996 but plenty of people will remember the contrast between the feeling of excitement at England’s progress to the semi-finals of the European Championships and the news that Watford’s two key arrivals of the summer were Steve Talboys and Richard Flash (both free transfers, both hopeless).

Having said all that, I also don’t believe the Pozzos should be awarded the luxury of an unquestioning eye. The club will know that if the first half of the season is a struggle, and if the goals are hard to come by, the criticism will be swift and obvious. The failure to sign a striker will be an easily reachable stick to beat them with.

But never fear, because the transfer window re-opens in January and we can enjoy the whole carry-on again.

For me, I think Watford may need to strengthen up front and I just hope they do their business early, but not too early, and get the signings over the line before the window slams shut.

Catching up with... Nigel Gibbs

The first in a series of long-form audio interviews with people who made an impact for Watford on or off the pitch.

Nigel Gibbs at the Grove hotel, Watford, March 2018. Photograph by Simon Gill

Nigel Gibbs at the Grove hotel, Watford, March 2018. Photograph by Simon Gill

by Lionel Birnie

I've interviewed a lot of Watford players over the years but those interviews have always been for written projects. An interview that's intended for an audience to listen to is a completely different thing.

I've teamed up with the excellent From the Rookery End podcast to contribute to a series called Catching Up With...

Who better to be the first guest than a one-club man who can justifiably claim the title Mr Watford – not that he'd dream of doing so because he's too modest?

Earlier this year I met Nigel Gibbs at the Grove hotel where we chatted over coffee about the highs and lows of his Watford career, which spanned two decades and some incredible highs which sandwiched a period of decline for the club in the 1990s.

It's more a conversation than an interview and I hope you enjoy it.

iTunes /

The World Cup of Watford Shirts

Watford unveiled their 2018-19 home shirt this week and the World Cup starts tomorrow, so we thought we'd mark the two events and launch the World Cup of Watford Shirts to find out which is the best Hornets shirt of modern times.

The Twitter polls will be run on the @goldblacktees page between now and the end of next week.

Thirty-two home shirts have been drawn in eight groups of four and each winning shirt will progress to the quarter-finals. Each poll will be open for 24 hours. Group A is online now so get voting...

A big thanks to the brilliant Historical Kits for letting us use their illustrations. You can go straight to their Watford page here.


It's not how you start, it's how you finish

Two years ago, Watford faced Aston Villa at Vicarage Road and trailed the already-relegated visitors 2-1 going into injury time. Villa had been reduced to ten men with quarter of an hour left and, coming a week after a deflating FA Cup semi-final defeat against Crystal Palace, the tetchy atmosphere among the Watford supporters was not surprising.

Then Troy Deeney – disliked by Villa fans because of his well-known allegiance to Birmingham City  and a target for their abuse all afternoon – scored twice to turn the tables on the beleaguered opposition. Watford had been on the receiving end of similarly unjust outcomes during two previous spells in the Premier League so it was, to my mind, one of the high spots of that season. Five goals, a red card and a late, undeserved comeback to steal the points from a side who probably merited more.

On the walk back to the car, a fellow supporter engaged me in conversation, unprompted. ‘Awful,’ he said. ‘Awful.’

I had to wonder if he’d left early and missed the comeback.

‘Did you not see the two late goals?’ I asked.

‘Just papering over the cracks,’ he replied. ‘The football is awful. We need to get rid of this bloke.’

He was referring to the head coach, Quique Sanchez Flores.

‘I think we should be careful what we wish for,’ I said.

‘Well, it can’t get any worse.’

* * *

Last season, under Walter Mazzarri, arguably it did get worse.

Watford rarely earned plaudits for style but did enough in the first half of the season to avoid fretting about relegation at the end. They could even afford to lose the last six (failing to score in five of them). With the benefit of hindsight it’s clear the three no-frills home wins over Sunderland (1-0), West Brom (2-0) and Swansea (1-0) in April were the key to securing survival.

At least under Sanchez Flores there was a solid streak running through the side. Mazzarri, for all that his touchline antics gave the impression he was a ruthless operator, allowed a soft centre to develop. Under Sanchez Flores the goals for and against columns read 40-50. Under Mazzarri it was 40-68. This season it stands at 42-60 with three games, including trips to Tottenham and Manchester United, remaining.

One thing all three Premier League seasons have in common it’s that there has been a marked decline in the final third of each campaign. There’s an old cliché that applies here: it’s not how you start that counts, it’s how you finish, and Watford are getting into a habit of freewheeling over the line from a long way out.

Last dozen.jpg

* * *

When this season ends it may be that we look at the back-to-back 1-0 home wins over Everton and West Brom as the two results that clinched a fourth season of Premier League football. Last month a supporter at the club’s At Our Place event described these victories – tense, cagey affairs against unambitious opposition and each decided by late Deeney goals – as boring.

While it would be hard to make a case for either match being a rollercoaster of heart-stopping drama there was a certain engaging tension about both matches and the relief of breaking the deadlock and standing firm meant the final whistle was greeted with cheers and clenched fists each time. But the comment did make me wonder what it is we actually want.

When we’re grinding out results, we want free-flowing flair. When we’re playing more expansive football, as was the case against Bournemouth, and for the first half against both Burnley and Crystal Palace, but don’t win, we want the result.

But what was more ‘enjoyable’. Grinding out six points against Everton and West Brom, or collecting only two points from three matches during which the team tried to be open and offensive. What matters most, the points or the entertainment? And are they mutually-exclusive for a side destined to finish in a lower-mid-table position?

It’s a question to ponder as the season peters out and our sense of optimism is restored over the summer by a three-month absence from Vicarage Road.

When Watford played Barcelona – and the story of a shirt


by Lionel Birnie

A year or so ago, I paid an uncomfortable amount of money for a match-worn Watford shirt that was being sold on eBay. It’s a beautiful thing. Manufactured by Umbro for use in warm conditions, it’s made from an airtex cotton material punctured with little holes. The badge and Umbro logo are embroidered onto the chest, the lettering spelling out the name of the sponsor Iveco is pressed into the fabric, and a felt number eight is stitched to the back.

I started to do a bit of detective work on the provenance of the shirt and, according to a very well-informed source, it was almost certainly worn by Maurice Johnston for the opening game of the 1984-85 season against Manchester United at Old Trafford. It was also, more likely than not, worn by Johnston during the pre-season trip to Majorca, where Watford played Barcelona for the first – and so far only – time.

As an aside, I had not realised that Watford had worn a version of this cotton airtex shirt in the 1984 FA Cup final but close examination of photographs taken at Wembley show the texture clearly.

* * *

Anyway, the story of how Watford came to play Barcelona in the now-demolished Luis Sitjar Stadium in Palma in August 1984 has always amused me.

Not long after the FA Cup final, which Watford lost to Everton, Graham Taylor told John Ward, his first team coach, that he was taking a break with his wife Rita and daughters and would not be contactable for a couple of weeks. Taylor left Ward in charge with the instructions, ‘If anything comes up, handle it.’

A few days later, former Watford player Gerry Armstrong, who had joined Real Mallorca a year earlier, rang the club with a proposal. How would the Hornets like to take part in a pre-season tournament in Majorca with Barcelona, Real Mallorca and Rapid Vienna?

Ward asked Bertie Mee what he thought. Mee replied to the effect, ‘The gaffer left you in charge. What do you reckon?’

Thinking that an all-expenses trip to Majorca to check out the hotel and training facilities, hear more about the tournament and catch up with Armstrong was not a bad offer, Ward made the trip to the Balearic island.

Armstrong showed Ward round Palma. The hotel was great, the training facilities first-class, there was a good amount of money on offer for taking part, and the chance to play Barcelona was not to be sniffed at either. Ward accepted the invitation.

By the time the trip came round, things had changed a bit. Rapid Vienna had pulled out and were replaced by Universidad, a side from Chile. Watford's schedule was to play two matches on consecutive evenings – Barcelona, then Real Mallorca. The hotel and training ground Ward had been shown had been allocated to Barcelona and Watford were on the other side of town, a little too close to the tourist traps and nightspots. There was nowhere convenient to train and no swimming pool. 'The games are kicking off at 10pm because it’s so hot even in the evening and it’s what they do over there,' Ward said when I interviewed him for Enjoy the Game. 'I’d not known that. Basically, I'd got it all wrong.'

To make matters worse, Taylor's nemesis Terry Venables had been appointed manager of Barcelona and the game against Watford was to be his first fixture in charge. The two managers had spent the best part of five years sniping at one another in the press. Venables criticised the Vicarage Road slope and Watford's long-ball game, Taylor hit back with barbs about Queens Park Rangers' plastic pitch and reliance on the offside trap. It added an extra bit of needle to the match although Taylor recalled, 'I had no problem with Terry, and I don't think he had a problem with me. Yes, I made comments about the plastic pitch and I didn't like their offside trap, but there was no nastiness involved. Where I think the rivalry got stoked up was by Terry's supporters in the press.'

With the First Division campaign kicking off against Manchester United a week later it was not the ideal way to fine-tune for the season. Temperatures were so high during the day that they couldn't do much in the way of physical conditioning work. The matches were played late in the evening and it was well past midnight by the time the players got back to the hotel. By the time they'd wound down from the match it was the middle of the night.

* * *

There were around 22,000 spectators in the stadium to watch Watford play Barcelona on Friday, August 17.

Barcelona were a big club but they weren't quite the globally-admired colossus they are today. They'd not won the Spanish title in a decade and were yet to win their first European Cup.

Terry Venables was a respected coach and had just guided QPR to fifth place in the First Division but it's hard to imagine Barca making such a recruitment today. Their star player was the German midfielder Bernd Schuster and their big summer signing had been Scottish striker Steve Archibald, from Tottenham. As it turned out, they went on to win the league championship during Venables' debut season.

Taylor used the game as an opportunity to experiment with a European-style formation, although his hand was partly forced because a couple of his key defenders were not 100 per cent fit. Wilf Rostron played as a sweeper behind a back three of David Bardsley, Lee Sinnott and Kenny Jackett. Les Taylor sat just in front of them as a deep-lying midfielder. Nigel Callaghan and John Barnes played wide with Maurice Johnston, George Reilly and Luther Blissett operating as a front three, Blissett taking up a position just behind the other two.

Things got off to the worst possible start. In the first minute, Sinnott slipped in the penalty area and handled the ball. Schuster scored from the penalty spot. Rojo scored a second for Barcelona, Johnston pulled one back before half-time and the second half was seen out at little more than walking pace at times, with the score ending 2-1 to the Catalan side.

'I just remember it being so hot and humid,' said Les Taylor. 'We were a week away from the start of our season but the Spanish League didn't start until September so they didn't want a high tempo game. It was too hot anyway, we were breaking out in a sweat just jogging. Even though it was ten o'clock at night, it was still very warm and it was difficult to play in those conditions. I remember trying to mark Schuster but he would drop really deep to get the ball and then pop up on the edge of our box without us realising how he'd got there. He was always a step ahead and you could see his quality.'

* * *

The next night, Watford faced Real Mallorca and again lost 2-1. Playing in front of their home crowd – around 30,000 – Mallorca were keen to win the game and played in a more competitive, and more cynical, spirit than Barcelona had done.

At some point one of the Mallorca players spat at George Reilly as they jostled for position at a corner. Reilly reacted by administering a forearm smash. The referee approached the Watford bench and told them to substitute Reilly or have him sent off.

'The centre half spat in my face, and it smelled of garlic, I swear,' said Reilly. 'I dropped him one and the linesman hadn’t seen it. The crowd were booing me. Graham substituted me and said, "If you ever do that again you’ll never play for this club again." I said, right, so if I spit in your face now, what are you going to do? He said “What?" I said, "Smell this. It’s garlic. He spat in my face." He didn’t fine me or drop me. He knew when the provocation was too much.'

* * *

While they'd been in Majorca, stories had appeared in the press about Maurice Johnston, who was agitating for a move to Celtic.

Gerry Armstrong recalls the story. 'Maurice said to me, "I've done a story for one of the papers, it’s coming out on Sunday." Graham hated his players talking to the press. So I said, "What sort of story is it? Is it a bad one?"

'Mo said, "Well, I’ve had a bit of a go at Graham."

'I said, "Oh you haven’t. Well, you’re in trouble now. He’ll come back at you. If you want to leave, you have to play it his way and he’ll make it happen for you but he has to look out for the club’s interests so you have to do it his way. If I was you, I’d try to stop the story."

'He said he'd tried to stop the story but the paper was still running it, so I said he should have a word with Graham before it came out.'

Watford flew home from Majorca on the Sunday. Whether Taylor saw the tabloid story or not, he did recall being handed an envelope containing Johnston's formal transfer request when they got on the coach to go to the airport.

Taylor said, 'Thanks Maurice. It's Sunday and I don't work on Sundays so I shall open it tomorrow.'

* * *

On the plane, Taylor and Ward sat next to each other. Ward was wincing because the trip had been a disaster for one reason and another. Back-to-back matches in hot conditions, little time to train and prepare for the Manchester United match, and with a rumble of discontent over the players' bonus structure for the coming season.

Ward braced himself. 'Graham had been fantastic, and never said a word to me,' he said. 'I felt terrible about it. The players haven’t really kicked off but they weren’t too happy about it. No one knows I’ve planned the trip but I’ve heard the odd grumble. I’m just keeping my head down because I know what’s coming.'

Taylor buckled his seat belt, leaned over and said, 'Well, Wardy, I don't think we'll be doing that again.'

'It was so simple,' said Ward, 'but it was the biggest put down I’ve ever had. He had hated the trip but he’d put up with it because he knew he’d let me get on with [planning] it. I’d got it wrong but he hadn’t given me a hard time about it. It was the mark of the man.'

* * *

'It was a difficult summer in many ways,' said Taylor, when I asked him about the months following the 1984 FA Cup final. 'We'd had this cup run and the game at Wembley and the result had not gone for us, and more than that, the performance had not been the sort of performance we expected of ourselves.

'I was more than interested to see which way it was going to go the following season. Would we suffer a hangover from the cup final? We had this situation with Maurice as well. He had scored such a lot of goals in a short space of time that it was going to be very difficult for us to keep hold of him. I loved managing him in many ways because he kept me on my toes, but I knew I could not prevent him from going to a club like Glasgow Celtic. He was a Scottish boy and they would be playing in European competition, which we couldn't offer him at that time because we hadn't qualified.

'In a lot of ways a move to Celtic suited us because it meant he wouldn't be playing against us for another First Division club, so I wasn't unhappy about the idea of him going there but we had to do the transfer in the correct way. I had to make sure the club's interests were looked after and that meant getting the best price we could for him. And I couldn't have a player saying this, that and the other in the newspapers. But Maurice was a mischievous lad, I couldn't keep him totally under control.'

What about the suggestion that Watford's players were agitating for better bonuses.

'I do remember that after the cup final the players felt they should have been rewarded and I do remember the negotiations going on longer than was perhaps ideal. I wanted players to concentrate on the football and I didn't like discussions about money getting in the way of that.'

As Nigel Callaghan recalled: 'All through pre-season Taylor wasn’t happy because someone had questioned him and there was too much talk about money. By the time we came to the first game of the season away at Man United, GT was saying, "This was the worst pre-season we’ve ever had. If you’re not absolutely on your game they’re going to murder you, and it’s on TV and we’re going to look stupid." He wasn’t happy at all. But we drew 1-1. I got the goal in the last minute. We murdered United for most of the match, we were the best side that day and a draw was the least we deserved. We were on Match of the Day that night.'

When I asked Taylor if he remembered telling the players it had been the worst pre-season ever, he laughed. 'Quite possibly. That sounds like the sort of thing I'd say every now and then, but sometimes it was just to get the players up on their toes, especially with a game like Manchester United away on the first day. We lost heavily at Tottenham on the first day one season [1985] and we just weren't right and we paid the price, so it can happen.'

* * *

And that brings us back to the shirt. Maurice Johnston's shirt, worn in that game at Old Trafford, probably, and against Barcelona, possibly. He was my favourite player back then, and his transfer to Celtic, when it came, stung, although Luther Blissett's return from Milan eased the sense of rejection.

The shirt is neatly folded, in a box with a few other gems collected over the years. How did the shirt find its way onto eBay? I don't know, and the seller wouldn't say when asked, although he did sell No. 10 and No. 14 from the same set at around the same time. But knowing the story behind it makes it feel like much more than just a piece of memorabilia. It's a piece of airtexed history.

With thanks to Neil Dunham.

In praise of Will Hughes

In their book, Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski make a point about a ‘big English club’ that noticed its scouts who watched youth games often recommended blond-haired players – so much so that the club took the bias into account when assessing the scouting reports.

The conclusion was that blond footballers stand out because they are relatively rare and so more noticeable.

Embed from Getty Images

This thought came to me on Saturday as Watford played Bournemouth, because my eyes were so often drawn to Will Hughes that I was trying to work out whether they were being disporportionately influenced by his hair colour.

That may sound a strange thought but all supporters watch matches with years of accumulated bias distorting their view. For example, some supporters praise perceived effort more than they logically should. A player who makes a futile but obvious effort to regain possession after giving away the ball gets a round of applause whereas the one who drops back into a pragmatic defensive position and bolsters the team’s effort to win back the ball from there does not.

As supporters we want to see effort as well as skill and, as a result, style counts for a lot. I am willing to bet that if Etienne Capoue ran in short, rapid steps rather than in his languid style, or charged to close down an opponent after making a stray pass rather than waving his arms in the general direction of one of his team-mates, he’d attract an awful lot less criticism. His style of play dilutes appreciation of what he actually does in a match.

Anyway, my conclusion was that Hughes was, by some distance, the most enjoyable Watford player to watch for the 75 minutes that he was on the pitch, and that had nothing to do with the fact he has hair brighter than the sun.

It was his first start since going off injured an hour into the Manchester United home match at the end of November and it surprised me that it was only his fifth Premier League start, so vivid were my memories of how well he’d played at Goodison Park and St James’ Park last year.

Hughes is not quick. He’s not big or imposing, although he is strong – wiry, probably – and difficult to knock off the ball. The threat he poses to opposition defences is not obvious but he has an elusive quality that makes the best attacking midfielders so difficult to contain. For defenders, it must be like grappling with a bar of soap in the bath. Just when you think you’ve got a grip, it slips away.

Where exactly was Hughes playing? It was hard to say. Just behind Deeney? False nine? False ten? Drifting in from the left? Or was it from the right? He seemed to pop up everywhere, and yet was rarely out of position. His ability to float added definition to the roles of the players around him too. Abdoulaye Doucouré, in particular, seemed to benefit from not feeling he had to be in two places at once. Capoue seemed content to sit a bit deeper and Roberto Pereyra was less isolated than in recent matches because Hughes managed to get the ball to him and bring him into the play in dangerous areas, notably with a little lay-off for Watford’s second goal.

By doing very little that is immediately obvious, Hughes seems to find space where others run into traffic. Sometimes he works the ball with neat, quick footwork but just as often he uses his body, throwing the sort of shapes you see from Dads on the dancefloor at weddings, allowing the ball to roll while his body puts defenders off the scent. When he’s trying to win the ball or bring it under control he doesn’t feel the pressure to do so with one definitive touch. He’s like Doucouré in that sense. He understands that sometimes a little toe poke, or a bounce with the sole of the foot to kill the pace on the ball and take it away from an opponent is enough. Then, after two, three, four touches, he’s suddenly wriggled free and the space has opened up around him. It’s a brilliant, almost indefinable skill.

Without getting too carried away – because he is far from flawless – Hughes is a player that makes you pay attention and it was clear that Watford became more predictable when he went off. It’s always slightly disappointing when the stand-out player leaves the field, as Hughes did after 75 minutes, but after so long out injured, and after three 20-plus-minute appearances as a substitute, he’d probably done enough for the day. What was puzzling, though, was the choice of replacement. Bringing on Stefano Okaka for Hughes was hardly like-for-like. It was akin to replacing a nimble little Lambretta with a milk float or bumper car.

And, of course, Okaka gave away the free-kick which allowed Bournemouth to pump the ball forward for their equaliser. Okaka does pay an unfair price for his size and style at times, but on this occasion he led with his arm and made the decision easy for the referee.

Once the disappointment of throwing away two points so late had faded, I was left with the sense that we’d seen an open, positive, attacking game as well as the hope that Hughes can stay fit for the remainer of this season and then become the fulcrum of the team next term.

The other thing I wondered was whether Etienne Capoue had dyed his hair blond in a bid to attract the attention of any scouts watching…

* * *

It’s an unrelated point because the faux rivalry with Bournemouth is a peculiar phenomenon but it cannot be denied that the fact they are able to sing about having been champions and we are not is incredibly irritating. Watford were only a minute or so away from winning the title decider against Sheffield Wednesday in May 2015 and, in injury time, fell victim to a free kick that was put into the penalty area and the ensuing failure to clear the ball. Plus ça change.

* * *

A comment made by a supporter at Watford’s At Our Place event this week caught my eye. I didn’t go to the event but followed on Twitter and so the way it was paraphrased may have shorn it of some nuance, but the essence was that the previous two home matches – the 1-0 wins over Everton and West Bromwich Albion – were boring.

It’s an intriguing thing, this. When the team is not winning, all that matters is the points. When the team is winning, we find other things to complain about and the idea of football as entertainment takes hold again.

It’s a generalisation, but while the money rolls in, the TV figures hold up and the stadia are (more or less) full, professional football teams have no obligation to entertain. Every place in the league table equals millions of pounds and so the accumulation of points does not need to be pretty.

Which is why Saturday’s game was so refreshing. An away team came prepared to play and, as a result, we saw some attractive movement and some clever use of the angles. But, on reflection, would we have preferred a downright ugly stop-start final 40 minutes?


What else is on the site?

Three more interviews in the Enjoy the Game 1980s series

Being Graham Taylor How I ghostwrote Graham Taylor's autobiography

If you don't shoot, you don't score An insight into how Watford pre-dated Opta stats

If you don't shoot, you don't score

If you don’t shoot, you don’t score. Anyone who played for Graham Taylor will be very well aware of that phrase because it was one of the tenets that underlined his approach to the game. Another of his beliefs was that the game of football should entertain people.

I started thinking about this as Watford laboured to muster their single attempt on target in a one-sided game at Anfield on Saturday evening. It struck me that the game was not so much a sporting contest for Watford as a contractual obligation, a fixture to be fulfilled before moving on to the next one.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with Javi Gracia’s approach to these matches – which appears to be to keep things tight for as long as possible, frustrate and quieten the home crowd and hope to steal something in the second half – the plan falls down spectacularly when Watford concede early goals, as they did at Arsenal last week and Liverpool this.

Take nothing away from Mohamed Salah, he is a wonderful player and a joy to watch when he’s not filleting your own team’s defence, but Watford’s participation in the game was reduced to the role of observers for long spells and any hope of getting on terms in the second half was dashed by the killer second goal just before the break.

The memory cheats us all, of course, and while it is tempting to look back at the 1980s and assume that every one of Watford's away defeats against the top sides was a glorious, swashbuckling failure, the truth is rather more prosaic.

We can all handle the odd heavy defeat away from home too, as long as the team is perceived to have at least played a part in the game.

The Premier League, and specifically the fear of slipping out of it, has forced teams like Watford to be cautious on occasions like this but, after shipping eight goals in two games, the conclusion from supporters is that they’d rather see their team go down with a bit of a fight than succumb to the inevitable with blunt, slow unadventurous play.

It seems strange to me, in this era of Opta stats and discussions about whether possession of the ball really is nine-tenth of the law, how little premium is placed on actually creating efforts on goal. Last season there was some talk following the 1-0 win against Hull City that Watford had failed to have a single shot on target – the three points had been secured thanks to a Michael Dawson own goal. Actually shooting the football at the goal with something approaching regularity seems to have become optional for some, although it's fair to point out that Liverpool did it pretty well on Saturday night.

One of the recurring themes in the interviews I did with players from the 1980s for Enjoy the Game was how Graham Taylor designed a way of playing based on four measurable things – how many shots and headers the team had on target, how many crosses were played into the box, how many times the ball was won back from the opposition in the final third of the pitch (the equivalent of today’s high press), and the number of passes it took to get the ball into the attacking third.

In the days before computers could do the job, Taylor was using a forerunner to Opta’s statistical analysis. There’s an account in Enjoy the Game, and also in his autobiography, of how Taylor adopted some of the theories put forward by Charles Reep, a RAF wing commander-turned statistician, who had influenced Wolverhampton Wanderers’s title-winning style of play in the 1950s. Reep wrote to Taylor in the early 1980s, sensing he might find a kindred spirit and when the pair met Taylor saw there was something to be gained from applying more detailed statistical analysis to the game.

Reep's analysis showed that the majority of goals came from moves of three passes or fewer, a theory that for some led to accusations of long-ball football but which Taylor always argued was not just about the length of the pass but also the speed and intent with which the ball was moved into areas where opposition defenders would struggle to cope.

Take a look at Salah's first goal for Liverpool on Saturday. Two passes take the ball from the centre circle to Watford's penalty area where the Egyptian puts Miguel Britos on his backside and finds the net. The second goal is a classic first-time cross and finish at the far post that John Barnes and Luther Blissett would have been proud of.

While I was writing Graham Taylor's autobiography, I had access to his Aladdin's cave of memorabilia and mementoes, including ring binder folders full of copies of the typed match reports prepared for him after each first team match. Many of these were compiled by Simon Hartley but there were other people who watched Watford matches for the same purpose, one of whom was a man called Neil Lanham, who also worked for Wimbledon and later England when Taylor was the national team manager.

One misconception is that Taylor slavishly followed Reep's ideas. He didn't. He took the parts of it that resonated with him and discarded other bits. Taylor used statistical analysis as a tool, not as dogma, as he would any idea picked up at a coaching course, for example.

We had initially discussed the possibility of including an example of the statistical analysis in Graham's autobiography but in the end there wasn't space and, as you'll see below, the detail of each report is quite dry because they were compiled for a purpose other than public consumption.

But they give an amazing insight into the detailed work that was being done at the time. When Reep first came on board, he told Taylor that if Watford followed his methods they would win promotion to the First Division. According to Taylor, Reep believed in his theory so strongly that he asked for a payment (a good-sized one, admittedly) only if Watford were promoted. Taylor put it to Elton John and Elton agreed that it was a no-lose situation.

I've chosen to reproduce a ten-page report into Watford's 5-1 victory over Manchester United at Vicarage Road in May 1985. Some of the codes used take a bit of deciphering (such as the references to coloured quarters of the pitch) but the reports make for interesting reading.

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Each goal is described and then there is a breakdown of how many passes led to each shot. 'Reachers' is a shorthand term for a forward pass to a team-mate in the scoring area. Regained possessions is winning the ball back from the opposition and statics are all set-pieces.

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The detail about the type of passes and crosses may seem unnecessary when viewed in isolation but these reports were compiled after every match so that over the season patterns of success and failure could be identified.

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Attempts on goal are rated for their 'quality'. POMO stands for 'position of maximum opportunity' – to the lay-person this is when a player is in an area close to goal, in an imaginary semi-circle that runs from the edges of the six-yard box to the penalty spot.

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The conclusion is probably the most interesting section for supporters to read and it's telling that the result – 5-1 to Watford – was probably more generous than the statistics suggested they deserved. This was an incredible result, although it's probably also fair to point out that Manchester United had their eyes on the FA Cup final against Everton (which they won) five days later.

The players were not exposed to this level of detail. They weren't bored or bamboozled by the statistics. Instead, Taylor condensed the key messages and put them across in ways that were relevant to them, which is why so many of those players from the 1980s remember that the target was to try to have 20 shots at goal per match, knowing that on average it took ten efforts to score a goal and it might take more than one goal to win a match. As a result, there were some days when Watford achieved their aim and almost everything they hit on target went in – this 5-1 win against Manchester United, the 5-1 win at Tottenham that preceded it by two days, and the 8-0 win over Sunderland in 1982 spring to mind.

For Taylor the aim of the game was about taking shots at goal because he knew it would not only give his team the best chance to win the game but would also entertain them. Supporters are forgiving. They will understand when their team comes up against better opposition and falls short. But there is an important lesson for head coaches today that Quique Sanchez Flores failed to recognise in the closing months of his season and which Walter Mazzarri never grasped. While the result may be all important, supporters will always remember the manner of a defeat more keenly than the manner of victory.

What's new on the site?

It was inevitable, following Troy Deeney's comment about the size of Arsenal's cojones back in October, that karma would have a say at the Emirates Stadium.

There was an early Arsenal goal and another in the second half before Deeney had his penalty saved by Petr Cech and 20,000 invisible men, women and children in the 59,000 crowd joined in with the cheers and taunts.

Matches like this is the other side of the Premier League coin and as long as we get our fair share of heads along the way I'll take the odd occasions when we have to accept tails has come up and skulk away with them between our legs.

Here's a little run-down of what I'm up to next Monday and a summary of what's new on the site.

I've been invited by the Watford Writers group to talk about the process of working with Graham Taylor on his autobiography, a book which was completed after he passed away. It's next Monday (March 19) at Cassio Lodge, Oddfellows Hall, The Avenue, Watford. We'll be kicking off at 7.30pm and it's free to attend. I'll be talking about how I came to be the person to work with Graham on his autobiography, what it was like hearing about his life and how I turned those stories into a book. There will also be a chance to ask questions. If you're interested in Graham's life and career, or the peculiar process of ghostwriting, come along. Lionel Birnie


Enjoy the Game interviews
Simon Peat of the Watford Legends site has continued to upload my in-depth question and answer interviews with players from the 1980s. In the past two weeks a couple of my favourites have been added.

I thought Dave Bassett's account of his disastrous six months in charge was candid and, whether you accept his point of view or not, adds the other side of the story.

I could see from my meeting with the inimitable Tom Walley just what a force of nature he was and why so many young players graduated from Watford's youth ranks and made it in the professional game. This one is best read in a north Wales accent.

While it is a stretch to call Gary Plumley a Watford legend, he played a short and bizarre role in the club's history. It was perhaps one of the strangest incidents of the 1980s. The chief executive's son, who had been working in his wine bar in south Wales, was called up to keep goal in an FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham. I've spoken to everyone involved – including Graham Taylor – and I'm still not convinced there's one definitive account of this story.

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While I was interviewing the players from the 1980s, I was struck by how overwhelmingly positive they all were about their experiences. It wasn't that I was looking for hints of disharmony or dissent but I couldn't believe it was all perfect all the time. It was therefore really interesting to hear the perspective of Brian Talbot, who joined the club from Arsenal aged 32. It wasn't that Talbot was negative about his time at Watford but he had some thoughts and observations that added context.

Another three interviews will be added next week.

The 100 Greatest Watford Wins countdown continues
The countdown is into the 70s now and will continue with one match per day being added each weekday until we reach number one and the greatest Watford win of all-time (in my opinion).

New Cally's Disco T-shirt
Gold and Black have added a Cally's Disco design to the 1980s range. You can check out the whole store here. For those who are not aware, Watford's brilliantly gifted right-winger Nigel Callaghan was also pretty handy on the decks and in the early 1980s he put on a series of discos for young Watford fans.

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