The joys of the long ball game…
I’m a Watford fan. It’s not my fault. I was born two hundred yards from the Vicarage Road stadium and I had no choice. The first time I went to see them in 1968 as a seven year old I fell in love immediately. I was smitten, and as you know, the club you support is the only thing in life that you can never change. I was doomed to a life of wearing gaudy yellow shirts and malicious comments about Elton John.
In my early years as a fan Watford were managed by the dour Ken Furphy. I saw promotion to the old second division for the first time in the clubs history, an FA Cup semi-final for the first time in the clubs history, and relegation back to the old Third Division. We were not an exciting team under Ken. In fact, in our three seasons in the second division we managed to score the grand total of 106 goals in 126 games!
Following Furphy’s departure we entered the wilderness years under George Kirby and Mike Keen. We moved between Divisions three and four and looked like a club going nowhere.
Then in 1977 a miracle occurred in South West Hertfordshire. The chosen one, Graham Taylor, arrived from Lincoln City. He was a breath of fresh air, and together with new chairman Elton John, he fashioned ten years for the club that even the most passionate supporter could never have dreamed about.
Quick promotions and a brand of attacking football never before seen at Vicarage Road, led to the old First Division in 1982, Europe in 1983, and an FA cup final appearance in 1984. It was heady and exciting stuff.
Most journalists and pundits at the time were very dismissive of the way Graham Taylor got Watford playing. They accused the Hornets of being a long ball team with no other tactic than to hoof the ball forward. Whilst GT did believe in getting the ball forward quickly, and playing the game in the opposition’s final third, it was never totally fair to dismiss us as one dimensional. For two seasons running the Watford fans player of the season was central midfield player Les Taylor. This seems strange for a side that, according to the national press, entirely missed the midfield out of all their play.
GT got Watford playing to their strengths. We had the wonderful 6’3″ Ross Jenkins up front with the lightening quick and exciting Luther Blissett next to him. On the wings we had the crossing ability and shooting power of Nigel Callaghan and the exquisite brilliance of John Barnes. At the back we had Ian Bolton who had the ability to hit an accurate fifty yard pass. He did this regularly to the head of Jenkins, over the top for Blissett, or wide to Callaghan and Barnes. Teams could not live with us at that time. It was not route one, and it was not hoof ball.
I remember a game against Tottenham where an expert referred to Ian Bolton as hoofing the ball forward, yet when Glen Hoddle did the same for Spurs it was described as a wonderful long pass. I honestly believe that people were jealous of our success.
After GT left us for Aston Villa Watford rapidly fell apart as a club. A succession of managers failed to rekindle the glory days and we slipped further and further down the league. GT returned to the club in 1996 and again took us back to the now Premier League. This was a great achievement with a poor team, but not even the magician that was GT could save us from humiliation in with the big boys.
After a disastrous spell under Gianlucca Vialli, and an uneventful one under Ray Lewington, the little known Leeds coach, Adrian Boothroyd was unveiled as our new manager. After a couple of defeats he managed to turn things around at the close of the 2004-05 season, and keep us in the championship.
Against the odds, the following season he guided us to the Premier League through the play-offs. This was a wonderful achievement, but most Watford fans, although delighted with the success, were less than pleased with the style with which it was achieved. This time around Watford really were a long ball team. We got the ball behind the opposition and then tried to win it back in their defensive third. We threw big men up and hurled free kicks, corners and long throws into the mixer and hoped for the best. The goals of Marlon King were enough to get us up.
In the Premier League we hardly won a game. We persisted with the long ball game, but without the injured King, we were unable to score. Premier league defences were easily able to cope with our hopeful punts forward. Increasingly Watford fans were crying out for their team to play some decent football, but the boss never changed his plans or his tactics. It was doomed to failure from the start.
Following relegation, this season started promisingly in the Championship with Watford opening up an early eight point lead at the top. However, anyone who watched us knew that our position was false, and that teams would quickly learn to cope with our one dimensional style of play. It was not a pleasure to watch, and even in victory, I was leaving Vicarage Road with a feeling of doom and gloom.
Many Watford fans have started to call our manager Aidy Hoofroyd. If he has a plan B we are yet to see it. A run of poor results has seen us drop out of the automatic promotion places, and unless things turn around quickly we will slip away altogether.
The long ball game under Graham Taylor was targeted and exciting. The long ball game under Boothroyd is aimless and boring. There is no comparison.