Get the lowdown on the Trotters from Burnden Aces Editor, Chris Mann, ahead of tomorrow’s big match in Lancashire
Tomorrow’s match at Macron Stadium in Bolton (well, Horwich if you want to be precise…) represents an opportunity for Watford to win three games in a row, keeping up the pressure on the sides above us. What kind of challenge do the Trotters present, and what can we expect from the game? We spoke to Chris Mann, Editor of the excellent Burnden Aces, about all things White ahead of tomorrow’s clash.
Vital Watford: Since we last played you, you’ve had a managerial change. Tell us a little bit about what Neil Lennon has achieved since he replaced Dougie Freedman.
Chris Mann: When Dougie Freedman was sacked, the first name I could think of was Neil Lennon but I didn`t think for one moment that he would even consider joining a club languishing in the bottom three of the Championship.
Since his arrival at Macron Stadium, Wanderers have lost just once in 11 games at home and that was at the hands of an in-form Liverpool. Our away form is still a major disappointment, but we are performing much better than at the start of the season.
Lennon has proved he isn`t afraid of making big decisions, such as sending club captain Jay Spearing out on loan to Blackburn Rovers. Players who had previously fallen out-of-favour have been given another opportunity to impress and the majority of them have taken their chance with both hands – Darren Pratley, Josh Vela and Craig Davies to name but a few.
We`ve got a variety of different styles at present, with a combination of 3-5-2, 4-1-2-1-2, 4-2-3-1 and regular 4-4-2 formations being used. No matter which one we go with, though, we`re trying to build a team that is quick on the counter and can make use of the wings. Liam Feeney has become a key player in recent months and the debut of Saidy Janko on Tuesday night is hopefully a sign of things to come.
VW: In January you brought in a few experienced heads, with the obvious names to point out being Eidur Gudjohnsen and Emile Heskey. Which signings have turned out to be the pick of the bunch, and are you happy with your current squad?
CM: It`s difficult to comment on the impact of Eidur Gudjohnsen, as those of us who are old enough to remember still have memories of him turning out for our club as a 20-year-old. My expectations were low so I`ve been pleasantly surprised at how he`s taken to life back up north, but it`s important we get some younger legs around him to take some of the workload off his shoulders.
A hamstring injury means we`re yet to really see too much of Emile Heskey, who had added a welcome physical presence up front until he limped off at Anfield. But most of our recent signings are names that are new to us.
Saidy Janko, Rochinha, Simeon Slavchev and Filip Twardzik are new on the radar, but the signings of Barry Bannan and Adam Le Fondre are definitely the pick of the bunch. It`s too soon to say whether they will be successful with us, but both arrive with good reputations and the early signs are positive.
With a fully fit squad, I think we could have been in with an outside chance of the play-offs this season but injuries have slowed our progress in recent weeks. As things stand, I`d be more than happy with a place in the top half.
VW: You currently sit right in the middle of the division, in 13th place with 37 points. Crucially, you’re a whole 15 points behind sixth with 16 games to play. Do you think that a play-off place is completely out of the question then? Are you concerned at all with what’s over your shoulder or is your focus on pushing up the table?
CM: Expanding on my previous answer, you never know what will happen in the Championship. We were in a very similar position at this stage two years ago and missed out on a play-off place on goal difference. I do think there is too much to do this season though, and the recent injuries to key players will almost certainly cost us.
Despite that, Lennon has signed a number of young players and hasn`t hesitated in providing the likes of Josh Vela and Zach Clough with a chance at senior level. He`s clearly building for the future so hopefully we can keep our improved form going until the end of the season and make strides towards those promotion places in 12 months` time.
After our abysmal start to the campaign, just managing to stay in the division was seen as an achievement at one stage. I don`t think we`re in any danger of dropping into League One though – the mood is good in these parts again, so we`re only looking up. The only reason we`re looking over our shoulder is to figure out how long it`ll be until Wigan Athletic`s relegation is confirmed!
VW: Your recent games in the cup against Liverpool were very interesting for the neutrals. You almost got the victory in the replay, but a silly second yellow and a couple of pieces of Premiership brilliance late on meant the Reds walked out 2-1 winners. How much did these games mean to Bolton – fans and staff alike – and has playing these games affected your league form at all?
CM: After 11 years in the Premier League, it`s been difficult for some supporters to accept the reality of Championship football, and the fact that we no longer come up against the biggest and best teams on a weekly basis added a little more meaning to the tie.
We took a sold-out allocation to Anfield and earned ourselves a night under the floodlights at Macron Stadium. Despite the defeat, a sense of pride and belief that we could go on to better things will be the lasting memory of those games.
As proud as we were to be competing against a top club again, there can be no arguments about how much the two games took out of the players. Three days after we drew at Anfield, a 4-2 defeat at Rotherham United actually flattered us, while a 4-1 defeat at Derby County followed the replay. We bounced back with a very good win against Fulham in midweek though, so hopefully we can now focus on ending the season strongly and start making plans for next season.
VW: What’s your impression of Watford right now? Do you know much about our squad, and do you think of us as a team that will be difficult to beat?
CM: As Bournemouth, Derby and Middlesbrough battle it out at the top, other clubs such as Ipswich Town, Watford, Brentford and Norwich City seem to be missing out on the media attention and picking up results.
The gap between the top-eight and the rest of the division is starting to increase and even though there`s still a while to go before the season comes to an end, you`d have to imagine it`d take something drastic for the clubs already there to drop out of contention so a play-off place has to be your minimum aim between now and May.
Watford showed in the reverse fixture that they are a difficult side to beat. Perhaps there`s still a bit of work to do defensively, but you`re almost averaging two goals a game this season and keeping players such as Matej Vydra, Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo quiet is going to be a difficult task to achieve.
VW: If you could pick one player from our squad for Bolton, who would it be and why?
CM: I`m going to state the obvious here. After 36 games in all competitions this season, our leading goalscorers – Craig Davies, Matt Mills and Darren Pratley – have just five goals each.
Davies has done well to force his way back into our team this season, but struggles to complete for 90 minutes and has missed much of the last two months through hamstring injuries. He brings an aspect of strength and effort to our game that not many others can, but his goal return is the major downfall to his game.
The man I`d like to see in our team as a potential partner for Davies would be Troy Deeney, who ran the show against us back on the opening day. After he was linked with big-money moves to the Premier League last summer though, he won`t be turning up at Macron Stadium in the near future!
VW: Last time we went up to the Macron Stadium we were beaten in a pretty dour affair from our point of view, but since then we’ve beaten you pretty comfortably at home in that aforementioned first game of this season. What’ll happen this time around?
CM: We`re a very different team to the one that played in our 3-0 defeat on the opening day. At a guess, I`d say just three players who started at Vicarage Road will start on Saturday – Andy Lonergan, Tim Ream and Neil Danns.
Ignoring your loss at Bournemouth, Watford have been very impressive over the last few weeks but Wanderers are unbeaten at home in league competition since October and I fancy us to get something out of this game.
Having looked at your fixture list, you`ve gone 17 games without a draw. I think that run ends on Saturday with a 1-1 draw. Le Fondre for Bolton and Ighalo for Watford.
VW: I think my wariness about Le Fondre has been all but confirmed there. Craig, Gabriele, don’t let that boy out of your sight tomorrow. He’s a poacher, like a short version of Ighalo.
Thank you very much for speaking to us, Chris, and we hope you enjoy the match tomorrow.
You can follow Burnden Aces‘ coverage of tomorrow’s match on Twitter (@BurndenAces) and via their website.
You can find a sister article, where Chris questions Vital Watford ahead of the match, at the Burnden Aces website from noon.