Ahead of tomorrow’s “relegation six-pointer” against Watford, I’ve been chatting with Mike Parkin from the excellent From The Rookery End podcast. We ended up being living proof that Canaries and Hornets can converse civilly and without name-calling…
As ever, before we get stuck into the nitty-gritty of Friday night, it’s always good to hear a bit about my interviewees and their footballing journey. So, why Watford? And how did the pod come about?
I was born in the North East, my dad is a Newcastle United fan, but by the time I was born, we were living a lot further south. When my brother and I started showing an interest in football, Dad quickly realised that passing on the Magpie mantle wasn’t a sensible option (either emotionally or logistically!), so we got the map out and worked out which was the nearest club to where we lived. I’ve been grateful ever since that the nearest team was Graham Taylor’s Watford!
The podcast is in its tenth year now and it has been an amazing experience. On the pitch, we’ve been through an incredible range of emotions, while off the pitch we’ve been lucky enough to meet and interview the who’s who of Watford Football Club. The podcast was created and launched by my co-presenter Jon, who wanted to use his experience in the radio industry and his passion for the Hornets to create a regular audio show. Jon reached out to me and fellow co-host Jason and the rest is history. A decade of ups and downs later, we’re still going strong!
I’m guessing you’re as enamoured with your start to the season as we are with ours? Has this been coming since your lukewarm end to last season?
With hindsight, yes. We’ve probably been spoiled for the past few years as while we’ve always ended our previous Premier League seasons in flat fashion, the Hornets have always started the following campaign in decent shape. This time round, however, Javi Gracia’s men were humiliated on the opening day and haven’t recovered since – it’s now eleven games into the season and not a single win in sight.
Reaching the FA Cup Final was a great experience, but it masked some dreadful form in the league and the final itself was a genuinely grim experience. It’s hard to tell how hard the players took that defeat, but I don’t think anyone expected this squad, which is pretty much the same one that performed so well for most of last season, to struggle so badly this time around. There has been bad luck and a lengthy list of injuries, but there isn’t really any excuse for this team to be in so much trouble.
We too have had a rotten list of injuries but, like with you guys probably, that excuse runs out of steam as the points slip away, whatever the reality.
Was it the right decision to part company with Gracia? And, also, was it right to bring in Quique Sanchez Flores? Will it work?
Watford’s last Premier League win came against Huddersfield Town (who went on to be relegated) in April, over 200 days ago. That stat starkly illustrates how long Watford have been struggling for, and while Javi Gracia remained a popular figure at Vicarage Road, the results and performances, including the humiliating FA Cup Final showing, meant that it was the right time for him to move on.
One of the major issues Watford had under Gracia was an inability to keep clean sheets. They continued to leak goals at an alarming rate at the start of this season, and I think it was this Achilles heel that encouraged the board to bring back the defensive-minded Quique Sanchez Flores. While the logic was perhaps easy to understand, Quique’s return came as a huge surprise to almost everyone.
You’ve partly answered this, but how does the overall style of football played by Sanchez Flores differ from that of Gracia? And how would you describe the Flores’ method?
Sanchez Flores is a defensively-minded head coach, who succeeded in his first stint at Watford by making the Hornets incredibly hard to beat. Last time round he was lucky enough to have Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo at their free-scoring best, so he was free to focus on the defence, safe in the knowledge that the two up top would do the business. That is far from the case this time around, with the goal-shy Hornets mustering a paltry six Premier League goals so far this season – two of them coming from the penalty spot.
Sanchez Flores has one way of playing – to keep it tight at the back and hit teams on the counter. At the moment, the first part of that plan isn’t working so it will be interesting to see if he’s able to adapt in a bid to try and steer Watford off the bottom.
We’re not exactly full of goals ourselves, so this could be interesting. Especially as we’re particularly vulnerable to sides who soak up pressure and hit us on the break. *gulp*
So, while we’re only eleven games in, I’m still interested to know who in your team has stood out so far (if anyone)? What I’m trying to say is, who should we be fearful of ahead of on Friday night? Before we even begin, I confess I’m a tad fearful of teams with big, powerful midfields.
After coming in for some criticism, Ben Foster has turned in a string of incredible performances in goal, and without him, the situation would be considerably bleaker than it already is. As you might expect from a team that is struggling so badly, no other individual is anywhere near top form, with the likes of Doucoure, Deulofeu and Pereyra all struggling to make an impact.
Sanchez Flores has been without new signings Danny Welbeck and record-singing Ismaïla Sarr, while two of the most influential members of the squad have also been missing through injury – both Etienne Capoue and Troy Deeney have been unavailable for a prolonged period. Both are nearing a return to fitness and would represent a huge boost for the team and supporters alike, but as it stands, no-one has covered themselves in glory.
I see that Deeney has returned to training and has a chance of featuring on Friday. Hhmm. We have this saying… ‘along come Norwich’ and this certainly has potential.
I know you’ve been in the Premier League since 2015/16 but do yet see yourselves as ‘regulars’ yet, or do you (like us) feel like unwelcome interlopers at a swish party?
Watford supporters are sensible enough to know that life in the Premier League is tough, and while this is our fifth year in the top flight during this stint, avoiding relegation has always been the first target of the season. Last year gave us a tantalising glimpse of what it’s like at the other end of the table; the Hornets were challenging for a European spot for most of the season, so while Watford have generally looked at home in dinging at top table, it’s a position that no-one has taken for granted.
I think the days of promoted teams being dismissed as underdogs have gone; over the years they have learned how to invest and how to play to be successful, and that’s been borne out by the number of promoted teams staying in the division. I don’t think “unwelcome” is a fair description, but it is incredibly tough and can feel thankless at times. This is certainly one of those times!
Fair comment that. I’m almost loathed to ask, but what have you made of our season so far?
It’s been hard enough to endure Watford’s woes this season, so, to be honest, I haven’t had too much energy to expend on other teams so far! I know that like Watford, Norwich have had extraordinarily bad luck with injuries and that is far from helpful. That said, the approach under Daniel Farke does mean that the Canaries should create chances and if you are doing that, you’re always in with a chance.
The Villa result stands out as a bad one, but apart from that, the home form seems to have been reasonable enough. There’s certainly nothing to suggest that the Canaries aren’t in with a shot at escaping this mess – along with Watford hopefully!
How are the Pozzos perceived by Hornets fans? … they still pumping plenty of cash into the club? Long story, but we’re talking a different route – self-funding – partly because no-one wants to invest in us!
Watford’s owners have guided the Hornets into the Premier League and delivered extensive stadium improvements, all while remaining community and family-focused. With Watford in a perilous position, there are obviously questions being asked about recruitment at the moment, but in the wider context, most supporters can’t fail to be happy with the ownership. They’ve invested sensibly and have turned Watford from a financial basket case bobbing uncertainly around the lower reaches of the Championship into a team that’s enjoyed four years in the Premier League, appearances in an FA Cup Semi-Final, an FA Cup Final and an outside shot at qualifying for Europe. It’d be a brave supporter that suggests that isn’t a track record to be proud of and thankful for.
As always there are fascinating times ahead for Watford; will the owners stick or twist with Quique? What will January transfer business look like if we’re still marooned at the bottom? Is there the appetite for another promotion tilt in the Championship if we do go down? Plenty of questions then, including some that we hope won’t have to be answered, but for now, the supporters are rightly behind Gino Pozzo.
So… to end, the *almost* standard question. I usually ask for a score prediction, but given that every single team expects to beat us, I’ve started to ask how many goals do you expect to win by. Maybe as you’re the only team below us I can ask for a straight prediction?
A Norwich fan was telling me that there hasn’t been a goalless draw between these two sides since the ’80s, so we’re long overdue a bore draw aren’t we? That wouldn’t be much good for either side though and I can’t imagine Norwich won’t be geared up to have a proper go at the beleaguered Hornets. Two nervous teams, both shorn of confidence – anything could happen, but I do think there will be goals. I have to be optimistic (even if I’m not hopeful) and so I’m going to go for a 3-2 Watford win.
Hard to contest that, to be honest… we desperately need a win but now you’ve mentioned a stinker or a bore-draw I can’t shake that thought. Or maybe it’ll be the first game in history when both teams lose!
Either way, thanks for your time, Mike – appreciated.