2015. What a year, eh? Played 41, won 23, lost just 10. 72 goals scored, 44 conceded.
In just twelve months we’ve seen players transformed, historic promotion won (and lost), and an assault on the richest league in the world beyond our wildest dreams.
We’ve even managed to get ourselves a proper nemesis. Over the course of the best title race that the Championship will see for some years, an organic rivalry with Bournemouth has blossomed. And for once it’s not based on tenuous geography, one dodgy result or a disliked ex-manager taking charge, but is a continuation of the greatest story ever told: good versus evil. One sided that nemisisery might be but it’s far preferable to waiting for the boys down the M1 to get their act together and become relevant again.
To be honest, the year has been one of wildly varying tones. While the first half was the assault on the second Death Star, the second has more resembled one extended Ewok party, with the spectres of Gianfranco Zola, Beppe Sannino and Slavisa Jokanovic nodding sagely in approbation, as we run amok in the treehouses, unsure quite what to do with ourselves.
Summing up that promotion race is nigh on impossible. The tension before the Middlesbrough game over the Easter Weekend, which was decided, not for the last time, by an understated Troy Deeney finish and an Ighalo scoop and shoot, was unlike I’ve experienced before, even for the playoff finals. Walking through Brighton, post-Sand of God, with pockets of Watford fans preparing for jubilation, and spending the evening basking in the memories of a race well won, made me feel like a part of something of a rebirth in a club that I have known since I could first open my eyes.
Even the Sheffield Wednesday game was fantastic in the truest meaning of the word. Tossers and flares on the pitch, the waiting mob stopping a last minute corner from being taken, and the ball looping over Heurelho Gomes’ outstretched arm and into the net, simultaneously ending our Championship charge and dropping the stomach out of 19,000 spectators’ arses. At least we won’t forget it.
In the Premier League campaign, however, we have exceeded expectations to such a degree that there’s hardly any tension involved in going to a game. There’s still the joy of turning over a supposed giant or the drama of trying to hold onto a slim lead when down to ten men, but now you can rock up at half two, have a chat and enjoy what unfolds in front of you safe in the knowledge that whatever happens won’t make or break your season.
Far from being a complaint, this is liberating. Being a second or third tier side, in calibre if not always in status, for all of my time on this planet, having nothing to worry about is completely new. In those lower leagues, now left behind for ever of course, very rarely are you left with nothing to play for. Even after seven months entrenched in 12th place, a couple of wins on the bounce will ignite dreams of a Cinderella trip to the playoffs.
When you last found me spouting anything other than 140-character thoughts was my guest spot on a From The Rookery End short, when we sat in 20 degree sun and still felt like we were holidaying in the Premier League. Now, here we are, in winter, sitting in 20 degree rain and firmly entrenched among the elite of English football. We’re here, we’re doing all right, and we’re used to it.
Back then there was that tension. My fruit bowl rattled across the floor in my solitary living room celebrations after we retook the lead against Everton, tears somewhere near the surface that we were actually there and making something of a fist of it.
Then, two weeks later, still winless, I was dubious. No goals in the side, I said, Quique doesn’t know what to do with most of the squad, I said. Too defensive, I said.
I was wrong. Of sorts.
We still aren’t as good as our league position suggests. We’ve had the great fortune of having a run of games against awful teams. Sunderland, Villa, Norwich, even the Liverpool win was more down to their inability to do anything even remotely correctly than our greatness, though you wouldn’t have thought so given the media’s reaction.
The flip side of that, of course, is that we’ve actually won them all. We aren’t a top eight team, but then neither are we, quite clearly, anywhere near the bottom. One of the problems with our last campaigns up here was that we matched a lot of teams and still ended up being edged out by the odd goal. No such problem this time, points are on the board.
This may all sound a bit presumptive of avoiding a second half slog dragging us into the relegation mire. It would be very hard for the second half of this season to match the first few months, and performances will undoubtedly drop off at some point, but there are simply too many crap teams in this division for us to fall from grace so precipitously to go down. Let’s all just admit what we’re all thinking: we’re safe.
There are still no goals in the vast majority of the pitch. We don’t look like scoring from set pieces and among our midfielders only Almen Abdi is both willing and capable of shooting, but the front two seem to have got it sussed. What happens when one of them gets injured? Well, what happens when anyone gets injured?
Quique has shown time and time again that he has no faith in the squad. He’d rather pull on his own boots than entrust Steven Berghuis to grab a goal from somewhere. Obbi Oulare may be ‘coming on’, but if Troy comes down with a case of knee knack, then how can he be expected to lead the line for a few months, with a handful of under-21 games and not even a minute of senior Watford experience to his name? Our first choice thirteen (Prodl and Behrami make the cut as reserves) is doing great, but sooner or later we might have to play someone else.
And we are too defensive, but bugger if we’re not the Brazil of defending. All over the pitch, defending with childish flair, chasing down everyone who has the temerity to get on the ball, putting three men on the edge of the area for goal kicks against Spurs to force Hugo Lloris to try and kick the ball more than 30 yards. It’s glorious. Like the Brazil of old, who left the boring defending bit to a couple of losers, goalscoring is a pain that Ighalo and Deeney can do on their own time should they fancy. The rest of us will concentrate on winning the ball back thank you very much.
What happens when everyone is shattered by mid-January, with nobody to come in and take up the fight? Who knows? But this is where we are at the end of 2015, moaning about the longevity of our push for Europe. We have passed on to a better breed of complaint.
Of course, the end of the year should also be time to remember the contribution of those early-month heroes who may have been forgotten in the ensuing Premier League bacchanalia. Matthew Connolly added steel to an injury-hit defence, got promoted again and ended up at Cardiff, again; Gianni Munari did some running around; Daniel Toszer either hit the ball really hard or with such delicacy that a Christmas do at Downton could not know such elegance. Marco Motta hit the bar from WAY DOWNTOWN and Miguel Layun came, brought us all a few Twitter followers, and then went, a one-man Klout consultant.
And then there are the unforgettables. Fernando Forestieri, Daniel Pudil, Jonathan Bond, Gabriele Angella and Matej Vydra, men who need no sarcastic remark, who have helped shape the club into what it is today, and who helped to drag us out of our slumber and into this wicked waking world in which we now walk.
And Lloyd, the man who’s seen it all. After 14 years of wandering through the wilderness with us, briefly passing through both perilously rocky outcrops and verdant oases, he brought us to the land of milk and honey – or Endor, I’ve kind of lost myself in all these metaphors – and handed it onto us.
It’s hard to fathom a Watford without Lloyd, especially in a world where he is still more than capable of playing football, but I dare say we shall meet again soon. A trial at Charlton seemed to be curtailed by the chaos that follows a failed attempt to emulate the Pozzo model (a successful one has enough as it is), but I hope against hope that we get to see him lace them up again and usher the ball out for goal kicks with the best of them, as he has for all of my adult life.
To the year of our Lord two thousand and fifteen, and to Lloyd himself, we bid adieu…