Two years ago, Watford faced Aston Villa at Vicarage Road and trailed the already-relegated visitors 2-1 going into injury time. Villa had been reduced to ten men with quarter of an hour left and, coming a week after a deflating FA Cup semi-final defeat against Crystal Palace, the tetchy atmosphere among the Watford supporters was not surprising.
Then Troy Deeney – disliked by Villa fans because of his well-known allegiance to Birmingham City and a target for their abuse all afternoon – scored twice to turn the tables on the beleaguered opposition. Watford had been on the receiving end of similarly unjust outcomes during two previous spells in the Premier League so it was, to my mind, one of the high spots of that season. Five goals, a red card and a late, undeserved comeback to steal the points from a side who probably merited more.
On the walk back to the car, a fellow supporter engaged me in conversation, unprompted. ‘Awful,’ he said. ‘Awful.’
I had to wonder if he’d left early and missed the comeback.
‘Did you not see the two late goals?’ I asked.
‘Just papering over the cracks,’ he replied. ‘The football is awful. We need to get rid of this bloke.’
He was referring to the head coach, Quique Sanchez Flores.
‘I think we should be careful what we wish for,’ I said.
‘Well, it can’t get any worse.’
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Last season, under Walter Mazzarri, arguably it did get worse.
Watford rarely earned plaudits for style but did enough in the first half of the season to avoid fretting about relegation at the end. They could even afford to lose the last six (failing to score in five of them). With the benefit of hindsight it’s clear the three no-frills home wins over Sunderland (1-0), West Brom (2-0) and Swansea (1-0) in April were the key to securing survival.
At least under Sanchez Flores there was a solid streak running through the side. Mazzarri, for all that his touchline antics gave the impression he was a ruthless operator, allowed a soft centre to develop. Under Sanchez Flores the goals for and against columns read 40-50. Under Mazzarri it was 40-68. This season it stands at 42-60 with three games, including trips to Tottenham and Manchester United, remaining.
One thing all three Premier League seasons have in common it’s that there has been a marked decline in the final third of each campaign. There’s an old cliché that applies here: it’s not how you start that counts, it’s how you finish, and Watford are getting into a habit of freewheeling over the line from a long way out.
* * *
When this season ends it may be that we look at the back-to-back 1-0 home wins over Everton and West Brom as the two results that clinched a fourth season of Premier League football. Last month a supporter at the club’s At Our Place event described these victories – tense, cagey affairs against unambitious opposition and each decided by late Deeney goals – as boring.
While it would be hard to make a case for either match being a rollercoaster of heart-stopping drama there was a certain engaging tension about both matches and the relief of breaking the deadlock and standing firm meant the final whistle was greeted with cheers and clenched fists each time. But the comment did make me wonder what it is we actually want.
When we’re grinding out results, we want free-flowing flair. When we’re playing more expansive football, as was the case against Bournemouth, and for the first half against both Burnley and Crystal Palace, but don’t win, we want the result.
But what was more ‘enjoyable’. Grinding out six points against Everton and West Brom, or collecting only two points from three matches during which the team tried to be open and offensive. What matters most, the points or the entertainment? And are they mutually-exclusive for a side destined to finish in a lower-mid-table position?
It’s a question to ponder as the season peters out and our sense of optimism is restored over the summer by a three-month absence from Vicarage Road.