After the struggle and ultimate relegation last season, it was hard to approach this one with a lot of confidence. When the season kicked off without fans in the stadium, it was also hard to muster much enthusiasm. I rarely watch football on television and almost never watch Watford games as there has to be a really good reason for me not to be at the match. Much as I enjoyed Hive Live, it broke my heart to see my empty seat behind Emma.
I assumed that I would get used to watching from home, but the football wasn’t enjoyable. Like many fans, I didn’t warm to Ivić. His brand of football was incredibly dull and, even though we were amassing points and in the promotion race, there was no joy in it. My abiding memory of Ivić is the photo with the manager of the Month award for November where he looks utterly miserable. There was surprise in the football world when he was let go soon after with Watford lying fifth in the table, but I think most Hornet fans were glad to see the back of him.
Towards the end of his reign, fans were allowed to return to Vicarage Road for a couple of games. The matches were a mixed bag and the thrill of being back in the ground did not prevent some from booing. I couldn’t help think that must have made the players wish that we had stayed at home. Apart from actually being at the game, it was brilliant to have a proper matchday catch up with friends and family who I had not seen for a while. Sadly, the return was short-lived and, by Christmas, we were back to watching football on TV and had a new head coach. In contrast to his predecessor, Xisco Muñoz immediately won my heart. His social media presence was engaging and he seemed to ‘get’ Watford almost immediately. This gave him an advantage as it meant that, even when things weren’t going brilliantly, I was still rooting for him
Much has been said about the Coventry game and the aftermath. That frustrating draw which followed a defeat to QPR meant that, despite our position in the play-off zone only a couple of wins off the top 2, it felt as though we were on our way down the table. It was hard to know what the issue was, as the players certainly had the ability to be winning these games, and I didn’t feel that there was a lack of effort. But there seemed to be a dearth of confidence. It was interesting to hear that it was William Troost-Ekong who had instigated the team get together. He was new to the club, but his Watford credentials were immediately established when it was revealed that his father-in-law is a season ticket holder at Vicarage Road. Whatever was said that day, it certainly seemed to change the mindset of the players. The head coach also played his part with the switch to 4-3-3 and playing Will Hughes in the middle also a factor in the improvement in performances. Will had been sorely missed and his return to the team was timely and meant that we finally had a well-functioning (and rather impressive) midfield. While the thrashing of Bristol City was not exactly a taste of things to come, it was the start of a steady rise up the table and, once we gained a position in the top 2, it never really looked as though promotion was in doubt.
The last week was incredibly stressful. The defeat to them up the road hurt badly, but you knew that they were going to do a job on us. However, that made the win against Norwich all the sweeter. That should have calmed the nerves, but I had a nightmare later in the week where I was being comforted while sobbing that they were a bunch of useless b*st*rds who always let me down (call yourself a fan, Lynn!!!). Saturday, I made sure that I had my John McClelland mug for my morning coffee (and lunchtime tea) and that I didn’t wear anything blue. In fact, I had washed the gold and black top that I wore for the Norwich game so that I was dressed for the occasion. I sat down at 2pm to watch Hive Live and really enjoyed the calm presence of Kenny Jackett, who is a long-time hero of mine. I was also impressed by Chris Stark whose contribution was that of a passionate fan. It felt as though he was representing all of us.
The game won’t live long in the memory and, by the end, I was hyper-ventilating as I watched the seconds on the clock tick down as we held on to a narrow lead. The moment that the final whistle went was very strange. I punched the air but, when I should have been at Vicarage Road jumping up and down and hugging my family, I was sobbing alone at my kitchen table. I had completely forgotten to set up the Zoom call that we usually have after games. Thankfully, the late invitation reached the others on time and we were able to meet to have a drink, but we were all wistfully watching the celebrations from the ground in the background so were rather distracted and were all so exhausted that it was a rather muted promotion party.
I still can’t quite believe that we are back in the Premier League at the first time of asking. One thing about this season that has been pleasing is that, despite us not being at the games, I have come to love this group of players. Captain Troy kept us going through the first part of the season and has been a cheer leader since his injury. Ben Foster has kept us entertained with his Cycling GK videos all season but, when he was injured, I was worried about whether Dan Bachmann was ready to step up. Thankfully, Dan has been magnificent. He is a great lad and, when he was interviewed after the game, it was so apparent how much he cares. Sierralta has been a rock playing with Troost-Ekong at the back. He is so assured that it is easy to forget that he is still so young. Kiko, whose wife has charmed us on social media with the photos of both her husband and baby in Watford gear at home, has been a joy to watch and his link up play with Sarr has allowed the youngster to shine. Ismaila has been unplayable at times and, since Xisco came in, we have found out that he can smile. Masina has done everything that was asked of him including a terrific goal and a tackle that was as good as a goal. João Pedro has alternated flashes of brilliance and flashes of temper, both rather enjoyable. Gosling, whose arrival was scorned by many, has fitted in nicely and done exactly what was needed of him. Kabasele and Cathcart had been pretty solid in defence before the injuries and Craig’s recent cameo was brilliant. King Ken has won all of our hearts. Even the much maligned Andre Gray has played his part. But the two who have delighted me most are players that have had a long history with us. Both Chalobah and Cleverley started with us as immensely talented youngsters who would surely have a great future in the game. I was thrilled when each of them signed for us on a permanent basis, but both have been plagued by injuries. Late this season, they have come back with a vengeance taking turns to wear the captain’s armband and putting in eye-catching performances. Particularly with Nate, it feels like we are finally seeing the player that we knew he could be and that makes me very happy indeed. Early in the season when we were struggling for goals, a lot of people were calling for Deeney to be dropped, but I worried that, without Troy, we lacked leadership on the pitch. Nate and Tom have now taken on that mantle and there are leaders throughout the team. The best thing is that they now look like a team, all playing for each other, which is something that we haven’t seen recently. And Xisco is just lovely. I can’t wait until I have an opportunity to give him a hug.
The club have also done a great job in keeping fans engaged. I have thoroughly enjoyed Hive Live. Emma is a great presenter and the various ex-players they have had on as guests have been good value. Tommy Mooney and Paul Robinson have been regulars and have always been a lot of fun. Two episodes that come to mind are the one when they paid tribute to GT on the anniversary of his passing. Mooney with tears in his eyes set me off. Then the lovely one recently with Nigel Gibbs and Gary Porter reminiscing about growing up together at Watford. That was very special. Jon Marks has been magnificent on the commentary and has been ably assisted by Tommy Mooney whose knowledge of the players in the Championship is very impressive. It is quite amazing how many of them seem to have played in his garden as kids.
But much as the team on the pitch and the club off the pitch has done its best to keep us engaged in these difficult times, they could never make up for us missing the matchday experience. Arriving at the West Herts early doors knowing that Don will have been there hours before the doors opened. The steady arrival of friends and family prompting hugs and getting the beers in. Glenn arriving from Norfolk shaking his head as he tells us about the traffic problems on the way before opening his magic bag and filling the table with sweets, while presenting those in his good books with crème eggs and pork scratchings. As an aside, one of the high points of the past few weeks was the arrival of an unexpected package that had a strange texture to it. Imagine my delight when I found that it contained the aforementioned egg and scratchings. I thoroughly enjoyed them. Then, being in the ground, surrounded by the usual faces and celebrating goals madly with friends and family rather than worrying what the neighbours are thinking listening to me scream. Then back to the pub to celebrate/drown our sorrows and put the world to rights. Troy and Xisco both made comments about us not having missed anything as when we stopped going to games we were in the Premier League and we will be again when we are back. They underestimate how much fun it is to go to games in the Championship. I am gutted to have missed this season, particularly as we had trips to Oxford and Newport in the cup which are both grounds that I have yet to visit. I am just keeping everything crossed that Brentford win the play-offs so that we can have a trip to their new stadium next season.
So, with promotion secured, we can enjoy the last couple of games of the season and look forward to the fixtures coming out as we keep everything crossed that we will be able to go to games both home and away next season. I will never take this for granted again.