Watford are in football’s shrinking sweet spot & that’s something to envy

Seb Stafford-Bloor

For many reasons, the FA Cup Final created a gloom over English football.

Despite its devaluation over the past few decades, it remains one of the great occasions on the sporting calendar and, on paper, Manchester City against Watford was an intriguing clash, in spite of its slanted odds.

The problem wasn’t that Manchester City won but that their victory came with such malignant sub-text. The game’s sensory tones were dull, evidenced by the barely-bothered cheers which greeted goals four, five and six. But the aftermath was darker still. The theme repeated in half-a-dozen Monday morning columns was depressing but very hard to avoid: what, really, was the point?

Watford entered that final with little more than a puncher’s chance. Had they won, it would have been one of the biggest surprises of the modern era. But they did have a chance; they’d beaten Tottenham at home that season and generally been very competitive against the top-six.

Manchester City may exist in a category of their own, but there was still reason to believe in Javi Gracia’s side, certainly enough to look forward to watching their attempt.

In that context, the futility was dispiriting. So many of those articles rolled their eyes because, for all intents and purposes, that game felt like a preview of the sport’s future. A scenario in which the underdog doesn’t have a puncher’s chance. In which all the variables have been removed, the threat of competition eliminated, and in which even major occasions serve as gaudy demonstrations of supremacy. Less like cup finals, more like the Cold War Soviets rolling their weaponry through Red Square. Look upon it and cower.

It was fitting that Watford were used to create that perception. It was ugly, unnecessary and uncomfortable, too, but still appropriate. They were a side who had got so much right in 2018-19 and who, after a succession of volatile seasons, had applied what they’d learnt to find a more stable trajectory.

Javi Gracia has won hearts and minds in the pressrooms and, on the pitch, his players have played the kind of attractive, ambitious football which is the hallmark of an upwardly mobile club.

So Watford were a good news story and, although they fell out of the Premier League’s top-half on its final day, they belong in that small group of clubs who, at last, are forcing the top-six to worry about more than just each other. A small sign of the division’s health, certainly, but one which was trampled mercilessly into context at Wembley.

Perspective is really important, though. Not in the ordinary sense, of recognising that Watford have come a long way and are well positioned to advance further in 2019-20. That goes without saying.

Instead, it’s an observation about the evolving nature of fandom and how, among others, the club sits in a relatively privileged position. That’s likely hard to appreciate now, there’s nothing worse than having to spend the summer dwelling on a thumping defeat, but it’s real enough.

Football’s new dynamic

The life of a supporter was once coloured as a hopelessly optimistic pursuit. You hoped for the best but expected the worst.

Increasingly, though, the clubs at the game’s summit are interfering with that dynamic. It’s no secret that there’s an attempt afoot to ring-fence the Champions League and to purge the competition of its last degree of randomness. It’s beyond dispute also that the mastic which binds the wealthiest clubs is the appetite to eliminate the risk of underperformance entirely.

Previously, super clubs looked to minimise that threat solely by guzzling football’s natural assets. Now, the consequences of falling below expectations – not winning a title, failing to qualify for continental competitions – are viewed as inconveniences which shouldn’t even have to be entertained.

The nagging suspicion is that top-level football is no longer really about being the smartest, the bravest or the best but about who can use their financial advantages to create the most formidable barriers to entry. The aim isn’t to make the game uneven but to stop the game taking place at all.

What will the effect of that be over time?

In a literal sense, that’s an easy question to answer. In the abstract, social way, it’s far harder. However it’s interpreted, though, the conclusion is roughly the same: the nature of aspiration, the definition of hope in football, will be changed forever.

Watford are relevant to this because of that FA Cup Final. Because, at the end of it and after all six goals had been scored, you still found yourself thinking that you’d prefer to be at their end of the stadium, defiantly waving a yellow and black flag.

I say that almost in envy. Over the course of a season, the memories of any match-reporting schedule blend into one other. Press boxes become interchangeable, one late night train journey is the same as the next, and dozens and dozens of hours of football are condensed down into a few memorable moments.

But my time at Vicarage Road, across just five or six games, remains vivid. The sight of Elton John celebrating with his children after that Spurs win, for instance, and John Barnes’ leading half-time karaoke during the Southampton game and then spontaneously rapping his way through World in Motion.

Or the many times Harry the Hornet lumbered into the press-room at the end of half-time, searching for a cup of tea. He was always carrying his costume’s head under one arm, like a science fiction experiment gone wrong, and was always sweating profusely.

Yes, I witnessed some wonderful moments last season, but it’s the ordinary and slightly weird stuff that I’ll remember.

Where sport is still sport

Watford were able to provide many of those because they retain the shape and feel of a football club. Their realities are defined by talk of models and, currently, the delicate process of updating the club crest has begun, but that’s a soft sort of modernity which doesn’t interfere in the relationship between supporters and team.

More importantly, theirs is football being played beneath the stratosphere, in a place which remains relatively unaffected. It’s where the sport is still the sport, where it isn’t a vehicle for something else. Increasingly, that counts for something.

Watford aren’t a content creator, they aren’t lobbying UEFA for guaranteed revenue and a permanent seeding in the Champions League and, when they sign new players, they aren’t unveiled in that awful, self- aggrandising way. No grand pianos, no vignettes shot on Hollywood budgets; the club remain on the right side of that line.

They are a football club, not a television program. You can reach out and touch them.

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READ: Watford FC: The traditional underdog well deserving of a day in the sun

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And that isn’t the case elsewhere. In fact, in the rare air above, the emphasis is very definitely on two-dimensional entertainment. To be a supporter of one of those clubs is to be recast as a soap opera fan.

That isn’t meant to denigrate those who faithfully renew their season tickets at Old Trafford or Parc des Princes or the Bernabeu, but the parallels are becoming increasingly obvious: clap at the right moments, boo the villains, and take out your credit card during the advert breaks.

That may be representative of football as a whole, of course, but some clubs are clearly more guilty than others. Within the Premier League, it also stresses the virtues of the aspirant teams immediately behind the imperialist few – those who seek to improve and achieve but stop short of full, corporate mutation. As a result, what they represent – the texture they still possess – is very precious.

In his book, State Of Play, Michael Calvin interviewed Scott Duxbury, the CEO at Vicarage Road. Duxbury is quite unapologetic in his beliefs and some of those are quite forthright. That may not be easy to warm to, but his ideas for competitive sustainability are sound: to be successful, he has always stressed, Watford must recognise their place in the food chain.

They must – simultaneously – offer an attractive home to players and coaches, but also equip themselves for the reality that their most desirable assets will likely be snatched away.

People used to sneer at that; in fact they used to distrust it deeply. In practice, though, it helped to create what exists now. A progressive club who still play in intimate surroundings. A regenerating squad replenished by one of the most comprehensive scouting networks in football. A ground infused by traditional football energies, where the aim each season is still to be brighter, smarter and better. While you can go down the pyramid to find those virtues, any higher and they become very scarce indeed.

So it’s easy to be jealous of what Watford have. Irrespective of how this season ended, they’re positioned precisely within modern football’s sweet spot, right at the intersection of all the elements which combine to nourish supporter health. That’s a rare privilege indeed.

By Seb Stafford-Bloor

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