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19th plays 20th in the most glamorous league in the world. Fun this Premier League game isn't it? Andrew Lawn chats to Matt Rowson about life at the bottom of the top
Andy – We’re frustrated and melancholy and we expected a hard season, albeit not one in which we had an elderly defensive midfielder at centre-back (who would be around our 7th choice to play there).
The mood must be really grim in the Rookery, given the season you had last year?
Matt – Yeah, you could say that. The dizzying descent from last season’s heights – when as well as the FA Cup Final we were in pole position for what became Wolves’ Europa League place with a couple of games to go – to where we are is stunning.
Our side last season had its limitations, but was vibrant, potent and likeable. There are, you won’t be as surprised to learn, as many versions of what has gone wrong as there are people to offer them so this is merely my take, there are many others…
But fundamentally the likeable, charming Javi Gracia built a very narrow side. Problems with turning chances into goals were evident at the end of last season but this year started with an extremely narrow midfield asking full backs to be both defenders and wingers. Wing-backs, essentially, but with only two overworked and under-protected centre backs, one of whom being immediate fall guy and new signing Craig Dawson.
Two awful home defeats kicked off the campaign in which exciting attacking performances were rendered redundant by the ease with which the defensive chasms were exploited. Unable or unwilling to address this fundamental flaw, Gracia was replaced… Our board aren’t shy about such decisions as you may have noted. Back in came Quique Sanchez Flores… another likeable man but not a universally popular choice.
His first season tailed off when the side appeared to down tools once the survival objective had been achieved… A fine season nonetheless in any context, but frustrating.
The low point was our last visit to Carrow Road where we were easily dispatched by a relegated Canaries side and the majority of our side played in their flip flops and sun hats (not Troy, obvs).
He’s also first and foremost a defensive coach, and very very quickly drilled us into shape. We don’t give away goals anymore; in the last four games we’ve conceded one iffy goal at Spurs and two to a lively Chelsea who had scored an average of four per game away from home before that.
The issue is that there has been next to no threat at the other end. This in part reflects personnel – Troy, Welbeck, Ismaila Sarr and Isaac Success have all been injured and Andre Gray, a pest of a striker, has been forced to play as a target man unsuccessfully.
We’ve looked thoroughly impotent, and while any kind of goal threat would make the side look better (we survived on that with Ighalo and Deeney up front in Quique’s first season), ineffective defensive football doesn’t win many friends. Our crowd has been pretty supportive in the circumstances I think, particularly the organised and relentlessly positive 1881 group, but the usual tropes of poor sides – harping back to perceived bad decisions, identifying “The Answer” from the youth team – are increasing in frequency.
So, picking up on that, we have a side that lost all its defenders, leading to our bright vibrant attacking play losing any foundations to be built on, resulting in us shipping easy goals again and again, and on Friday we face a side who lost all their attacking players to injury. Sounds like we’re in for a treat of a tie. Do you see it as must-win already?
Every game is must win until we win one. But yes, I think so… from our point of view a side with a shaky defence that will be pressured by the circumstances to come at us is the best we could hope for.
Keeping our shape is ‘The Thing We Do Well’ (mostly). We follow the game against you with Burnley (who can’t win away) at home and Saints (who can’t win at home) away, so it’s a rather crucial period. Troy is back in training, crucially, though I suspect he’ll be on the bench at best on Friday.
But the rest will still be injured right? Our three injured centre-backs aren’t back for a few weeks, so it seems only fair your strikers are out too.
If results don’t turn quickly and given your board’s proactive decision-making, what are the chances of Quique seeing the season out?
Isaac Success was back on the bench on Saturday. Welbeck definitely out. Scant news on Sarr.
Quique seeing the season out is difficult to judge. There will always be more secure positions than Watford head coach, but the attitude is very much you bring in a man to do a job that needs doing and bring in someone else when you need something else. Hence bringing Quique back, hence getting rid of Jokanovic when he got us promoted because they didn’t think he could organise a Premier League defence. That looks a bit less daft after Fulham’s experience last season.
To answer your question… I’d go 60/40 at the moment, but that will change radically one way or another after our next three games I’d suspect.
On to Norwich, what have you made of our return to the big league?
I’m afraid that my discipline in following the Championship has wavered (perhaps at just the wrong time….) so my knowledge of your side was second hand before this season.
Based on input from ‘Those Who Know’ I was expecting more… accepting you’ve had horrible injuries and goodness knows you need to be lucky as well as good if you want to stay up.
I’ve only watched the one game ‘live’ on TV, the opener at Anfield. Heaven knows that’s not a typical marker (we’re stuffed there every season and have stayed up comfortably so far) but I thought it was significant how little Liverpool had to do to go four up. It’s not as if they were playing terribly well.
It was an unfortunate opening game for you but when your pecker’s up after promotion and, injuries or not, you concede goals so very easily the writings on the wall a bit. I feared for you then and was surprised at the positive feedback your lively attack got. It really doesn’t matter that much if you can’t keep it tight.
That said, you’ve clearly got some very good players and the City result was great of course, but playing catch up is never easy and, as I think happened last time under Alex Neil, managing a struggling side (whatever the circumstances) asks different things to managing a successful one. I’d wish you well but given the league table I wouldn’t mean it.
That’s perfectly reasonable, and given I predicted a possible Champions League qualifying campaign for you, which people have absolutely remembered and remind me of weekly, I’m not overly keen on you at the moment…
Going back to the work of the 1881 group, to improve the Vicarage Road atmosphere, what have they done, what worked what hasn’t worked etc? I have a vested interest here in that we have been doing a similar thing at Carrow Road for the last two years and we’re always looking for ideas to ‘borrow’…
They have a good relationship with the club, I think, which can only help. I’m on the outside looking in but… key to this seems to be their relentless positivity. Not that they’re sycophantically following the club line on everything but rather that the club line is rather divorced from getting behind the team on match day. That’s the key to their popularity I think.
In terms of “stuff”… flags regularly distributed (and recollected) around parts of the ground on match day, huge banners, occasional mosaic displays all of which must take a lot of manpower (and £).
Things that “haven’t worked”… they brought in some huge confetti guns at one point designed to fire bombs of the stuff into the crowd. I thought it was great, but it got caught in the rafters and would have made a distracting frame to the action to those further back.
There have also been specific events to commemorate particular occasions – these are higher risk to my mind as you’re never going to represent the gamut of opinion and prejudice in a football crowd comprehensively and so they run the risk of alienating people but they’ve been sensibly safe and well-judged with this so far.
We have some big confetti plans ourselves, so this is useful to know cheers. Has it worked? Has the atmosphere, and with it the experience of going to games, changed?
The 1881 have been going for a while now but yes. Before and after, chalk and cheese.
Have to say though that this season might be their biggest challenge – harder to get a crowd going when you’re bottom of the league.
Back to the football, how do you see Friday playing out?
Oh heaven knows.
I think there’s a good chance that First Goal Wins. The current incarnations of our attack vs your defence might be a case of the eminently resistible force versus the rather easily movable object… but if we do get ahead we’re rather well set up to protect / extend a lead. Relatively speaking.
We were genuinely unlucky not to win at Spurs in such circumstances. However, I wouldn’t fancy us coming from behind. At all.
First goal’s the winner then. Let’s finish on a specific prediction; scorers, minutes, methods etc?
I was going to resist… but of my very rare forays with the bookie my biggest success was at Carrow Road in 1996. I put a quid on David Connolly to score first in a 2-1 win at 50-1.
So, on the basis that there’s something in the Bovril at Carrow Road, I’ll go 5-0 Hornets. Isaac Success with a first half hat-trick, Andre Gray with a breakaway fourth off the bench. Ben Foster with the fifth, netting the diving header that so nearly came off in the last seconds against Chelsea.
I strongly suspect that fate can’t be manipulated this way, but at this stage I’ll try anything.
Well that makes my nervy 0-0 seem dull and drab now…
If you’d like to read more from Matt, check out his extensive collection of Watford writings on his blog; ‘BHaPPY (not BSaD))
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Punt, Lawn and Parsley are joined by ACN away day reviewer and all round good egg, Ffion Thomas. They chat through the merits of Mario, possible plummets, missing Zimbo and loads more. Also contains a factually accurate quiz for the first time ever.