It’s been a while since last we spoke. Life, y’know? Last time round, you’ll remember, I was calling for fans to be patient, not to expect and moreover demand success, and deem anything else as failure. Sod that, let’s go and win the thing.
This Good Friday I was sitting in a holiday cottage in deepest Dorset, resplendent in assorted knick knacks, oaken beams and a severe shortage of kitchen utensils. As I nursed the first sun burn of the year, the sounds of the frantic end to Wolves’ 6-4 victory over Rotherham seeped under the wooden door of the next room. Images of pitch invasions and explosions of joy, entire novels being played out over the course of ninety minutes ignited nostalgic memories of the various dramas of last season. Millwall’s last minute equaliser last week finally put an end to the nagging threat of any undeserved glory this year, and here I sat, rubbing aftersun onto the bridge of my nose, coming to terms with my old friend mediocrity.
The positive way to approach today’s victory over a serious play-off contender and the Championship classifieds that followed the broadcast of that Wolves game yesterday is that that unbridled joy – or at least the drama that accompanies its potential – could, could, be ours in a matter of weeks.
Of course, there’s also the mind-set tinged with realism that we have all occupied for the last few months. We are a slightly above-average team being strung along by the inadequacies of our division. That we are still in the hunt is more a reflection of the pool of ordinariness that floods the bulk of the Championship. Our performances over the course of the season don’t deserve glory, and the glimmer of hope that has flitted around our marked improvement, only to vanish like a will o the wisp when confronted by yet another sloppy 95th minute equaliser, is purgatorial punishment for our flying too close to the sun over the summer when we confidently predicted a cakewalk of a campaign.
There’s nothing wrong with this approach; and God knows that the reasoning is sound, but who cares? In fact, the sheer injustice of Watford potentially creeping into the playoffs is what would make it so bloody funny.
I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but with four games left, and fixture lists and form guides being pored over during lunchbreaks, it’s a real opportunity. A game in hand against a struggling team of dirty foreign loanees (they haven’t got the heart, you know), and then two points to make up over games against a dysfunctional Midas, a side who’s position in third place may have been assured by the time we meet and a mid-table team with nothing to play for.
What’s more, there seemed to be an air of belief around the ground after our 14th win in 19 meetings with the Tractor Boys. The first goal, a classy Albert Riera sweep after great interceptive work by Tommie Hoban, was our standard opening gambit, destined to be equalised; Gabby Angella’s second, a deft header from Daniel Toszer’s deep free-kick, was a schadenfreude-laden delight after Ipswich’s overly-celebrated leveller; but when Lewis McGugan snapped in the loose ball after Toszer’s surging foray into the Ipswich box, fans and players erupted into what felt like a statement of intent.
This wasn’t a meaningless third in a dead rubber in the eyes of the players and when pressed into reflexive action by a sudden brace, the fans didn’t seem to think so either.
More importantly, when faced with the challenge of a good side, we did not crumble. Jonny Williams – a player who has put a puncture in our promotion bus before and was the focal point of Mick McCarthy’s continental formation (‘false nine, real defeat’, as they say, or if they don’t, really should) – buzzed around with a mix of energy and creativity, but was met with a stern look and an insouciant swat by our imperious back three. And after our quick-fire double had put us 3-1 up, there was no retreating to our own penalty area, and very few panicked pieces of defending.
When Stephen Hunt, the Butthead to Noel’s Beavis, arced a volley just over, Beppe flew to the edge of his technical area to tell his charges to calm down. It was hardly necessary. We never looked troubled. Virtually every Ipswich attack was snuffed out and countered with a swift move upfield, and when there the intent was to add to the lead rather than anxiously cling onto it.
Unlike last year, we have important players returning from injury as the season comes to its climax. Unlike last year, we’re coming to the crunch in good form and, if not an immunity to last minute equalisers, with a firm base that is generally hard to break down. Most of all, unlike last year, nobody thinks we can do it.
A question I’ve asked myself quite a few times over the last years is one that asks what football fans actually want. Are we merely voyeurs, spending our money to be entertained, like spectators at an open-air theatre, regardless of the outcome? Are we part of a tribe, on a quest for superiority over our rivals – with victory and domination the sole aim? Are we just paid-up members of a club who want to belong and spend time with our fellows, no matter the fare offered up before us?
It’s a question that can be addressed another time, but the present situation puts us in a bit of a pickle. Of course, last year’s denouement was an exhilarating few weeks that will be the peak of many Watford fans’ footballing lives to date. It was not so much the potential of glory, but the thrill of being in the moment of chasing it. But it was also a fitting end to nine months of football that were just lovely.
There are people who don’t want to utter the words playoffs. Perhaps they don’t want to set themselves up for disappointment, perhaps they don’t want to admit – for the sake of football’s purity – that a team with such obvious and numerous faults could succeed. But surely, we all want to win?
Surely we won’t bat away that wispy threat of a playoff berth? Won’t we hunt it down, with our worn out and meagre weapons, on the off chance that we might luck into capturing it?
Let’s not worry about what would happen if we actually won the bloody thing. Let’s embrace the stupid fact that we’re still in the race and give these next few games a good go.
But trust me on the sunscreen.