Go get the fatted calf, the prodigal prodigy is back. After some baiting from Troy Deeney on Tuesday, the club announced Wednesday that Matej Vydra, the lightning-haired striker, had returned to the club on a one year loan. So that’s great news… right?
ITWM duel-wielded Czechs when Matej first arrived in July 2012, back in the days when blogs were frequent and retained some sense of concision. Nobody knew much, save for a few YouTube videos here and there: a kid from deepest Bohemia with nine goals in the Czech league and a serious knee injury to his name.
Chotěboř, Jihlava, Ostrava, Udine. The backstory used to matter, but now Watford fans only have one ten month period on their minds; for since he arrived two years ago as just one of a few mysterious 20 year old foundlings looking to make an impression on these shores, both Vydra and Watford have completely transformed.
An injury meant that for most of the pre-season Vydra wasn’t in the picture, and with the likes of Chris Iwelumo and Joe Garner still knocking about, the fans weren’t exactly holding their breath waiting for success. His first action, in the final friendly against Gillingham perked interests as he scored a quick-fire brace playing amongst a completely second string side. But we still weren’t expecting much.
Look around yourself now. Have a peek on Twitter. A Czech Under-21 international, bought for over £3 million at the age of 17, scoring a couple of goals elicited at most a slightly interested eye-brow raise and nod of the head. Now we’d be up in arms that he, clearly the man who’s going to make it all click, didn’t score three.
And that, in part, is the creation of Vydra himself. You don’t need me to tell you about what happened after that Gillingham match, but the fanfare that accompanied his return on Wednesday will inform you if you’ve only just got the last of the sand out of your ears. It was a year of fabulous goals, prodigious pace and energy and exponential moments of euphoria.
But now, we are here, frustrated and on the verge of disillusion. We’ve had our year of pubescent wonder and amazement, we’ve had our bleary-eyed welcoming to the real world, and now that the boy wonder has returned from his gap year, we’re ready to finally grow up and get going.
But is that all a bit idealistic? Do the YouTube compilations and throwback Instagrams paint Vydra’s year in too perfect a light?
First the pros. Last season there was a distinct lack of pace in the side. Though Ikechi Anya gamely shuttled up and down the wing at speed, we lacked the counter-attacking explosion of that inceptive 12/13 season. Up front, Troy battled away and did his best to act as both cart and horse as he meshed together his power and touch to rustle up enough scraps for him to feed himself on. He needs a partner, and though he and Mathias Ranegie showed glimpses of a good partnership they are just too similar to become an every-week strike force. Vydra, along with Lloyd Dyer, gives us that burst of speed and provides Troy with an outlet and someone to take the pressure – both of expectation and defensive concentration – off. We moaned all year that we were missing a Vydra, now we’ve replaced him in the best possible way.
That’s on a purely attributal level. When he’s using them to full effect, Vydra is a devastating Championship striker. Not merely an athlete who uses his astonishing pace to cover up any deficiencies elsewhere in his game, he is capable of great skill and has the intelligence to make movement really count; after a few months at the club, he had also developed into a good worker who would help out in other areas of the pitch.
But there’s no looking past the fact that the Vydra that we’re really welcoming back with open arms is he of January 2013 vintage. The period between then and now, all seventeen months of it, has been one sodding big asterisk.
Nineteen league goals in twenty six games, culminating in five braces over the course of five starts and thirty four days – a feat of consistent goal-scoring that we are unlikely to see at this club again – became one in fifteen after a January during which big clubs has been alerted and rebuffed. This could have been for a number of reasons (outlined wonderfully at the time by this slice of prose heaven), but the long-and-short of it was that Vydra was simply not the same player in those months.
As that piece from March 2013 says, one of the possible causes for Vydra’s fall in production could be that teams got wise to our counter-attacking M.O. and started to hold their lines deeper, forcing us to beat them with method rather than madness. Though he’s no slouch in the box, this took away Vydra’s great strength of picking apart high lines with incisive and definitive movements. Despite our ensuing year of mediocrity, team’s haven’t reverted to underestimating us. We will again be faced more often than not by defences and midfields designed to stifle and nullify any sort of direct flow that we might have. How Vydra adapts to this will decide how effective he is this season, for last Spring, he struggled greatly with it.
He re-emerged briefly to put us on Wembley’s doorstep with a phenomenal volley and well-taken finish, only for Almunia and Troy to barge the door down and take all the credit, but a summer of non-stop bluster from his agent Onrej Chovanech – the third most famous Czech in Hertfordshire – dropped the penny that the jig was up and that Vydra had his eye on bugger things.
That was fine with me, just as Troy’s admission that if the club accepts an offer he’ll most likely be off is perfectly reasonable. To be a great sportsman you have to have ambition. It’s just that the best way of fulfilling ambition is not to be crap when everyone’s looking. Even this summer, after a year in spent idling in neutral at West Brom, Chovanech was giving it the biggun about getting a permanent move to a big club.
It’s hard to judge Matej on his West Brom ‘career’ (7 league starts, 16 substitute appearances and 3 goals, accounting for 667 minutes on the pitch, compared to 2773 with us). For a start, they were rubbish. Vydra himself gives a list of contributing factors to his lack of success in his interview on Hornets Player: a hamstring injury, being played out of position and change of coach; his main problem seemed to be lack of opportunity: ‘Sometimes I played in games, sometimes I scored, but we never played with the same two strikers twice.’
There’s no shame in not cracking the Premier League in your first go, at least there wouldn’t be if your agent hadn’t been telling all and sundry that you were too good for every realistic career path you had open to you. Now he’s back, at least temporarily, and he’ll have to go some to convince us all that his heart is actually in it. Especially since now he’s got big words to live up to and has huge expectation to fill.
There will, you feel, be no bedding in period for Vydra. The ill-will that some have felt for him since his departure has been put on the shelf, but it will only take a slow start for them to get the step ladder out.
This signing undoubtedly bolsters our squad hugely, and has given the start of pre-season a lift that the senior management will be hoping carries into the proper stuff, but it also comes with the expectation and pressure to be great that no other signing could have done. After the post-Vydral cigarette that was the 13/14 season, we’re ready to go again, and I really hope it’s as good the second time.