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.