The first part of our end of season review series focuses on pre-season, and the first signs of our success up front in the opening game against Bolton
It really doesn`t feel like yesterday. That old saying doesn`t fit the beginnings of this season. If this season was a whirlwind, it was the most drawn-out whirlwind the world has ever known.
For the first part of our Pozzo`s Watford: Volume Three series, which reviews the 2014/15 season via its pivotal moments and periods, we cast our thoughts back to the tail end of pre-season and the opener at home to Bolton.
First came Lloyd Dyer, then Craig Cathcart and Gabriel Tamas. Sporadic pre-season updates through the club`s social media pages at first gave us Championship experience rather than exotic names. A departure from what we had come to expect under the stewardship of Gino Pozzo and his vast network of scouts and contacts. A welcome departure for many, I suspect.
The news trickled in via panoramic shots of the area surrounding Udinese`s Stadio Friuli, with the Watford squad pictured doing drills in idyllic northern Italian countryside – their base for the first part of pre-season. We speculated, often thanks to Instagram`s lack of zoom function, as to the precise make up of the squad. Modern technology coupled with Watford`s new regime`s proclivity towards foreign mystery was a recipe for guesswork.
The new names were certainly important enough, but one name we all knew very well was the subject of the most attention in the run-up to the start of the season. Troy Deeney, captain and top goalscorer, the talisman we needed to keep hold of, was linked with a move to most clubs south of the top half of the Premier League. ‘Derisory` bids from Burnley and QPR were followed by offers that seemed absurd. If Burnley`s bid was pitiful, these new bids were contemptible. Newly-promoted Leicester were lining up an eight-figure offer, if reports were to be believed. Oh, the riches of the Premiership?
Suddenly no one cared who we were bringing in, but whether we could keep hold of such a high-value asset. What second-tier club wouldn`t be a selling club when what they had was worth so much? Twitter isn`t necessarily the best place to gauge prevailing fan opinion, but let`s entertain the idea that it is for a moment. In the days and weeks before our opening fixture you`d have thought we`d already sold our number nine. Defeatists named everyone from Mathias Ranegie to Uche Ikpeazu as our new saviour in the face of a transfer fee that eclipsed the one offered for Ashley Young when we ourselves had access to the Premiership`s riches.
Thankfully, in the end, as we all know, Troy Deeney`s value was seen to be more than financial, and the club offered him a four-year deal, putting almost all speculation to bed. This seemed to signal that Pozzo`s Watford was to be as much Troy`s project – Troy`s club – as it was Gino`s in the coming years.
I reacted to the Sky Sports News story that we had rejected a £12million offer from Leicester in a similar fashion to when Lloyd Doyley scored his first goal – despite being hundreds of miles away from the event, I clenched my fists secure in the knowledge that something very special had just happened.
And this set the foundations for this season`s most crucial position, up front.
Let`s take a few steps back from the new Deeney contract though. There was another name we all knew very well making an appearance in pre-season too. Watford`s prodigal son was returning. The Championship`s best player just 12 months previous (yet, of course, not Watford`s best player in that same season to those that knew better) was on his way back to where it all clicked for him.
Smiles, handshakes and hugs greeted Matej Vydra at the pre-season training camp in Udine. ‘Come back home,` the fans told him, after a disappointing year at West Brom. When our Matej showed up in Hornets training gear in late June, his response was, ‘I am here.`
Deeney and Vydra were back together again. The last time they played together they hit at least 20 goals apiece.
The Pozzo`s Watford series is primarily about moments, and the articulation of this feeling of optimism about our strikeforce came on day one. In the bright sunlight of an August Vicarage Road, we saw our front line connect instantly. Weeks and weeks in the making, from Udine to Bad Bleiberg, here was the first blossom of the glorious 2014/15 season.
Troy Deeney looked leaner, stronger and pacier. Bolton were powerless to his sheer bloody-mindedness. A matter of minutes had passed before Troy got his first sight of goal, and he only had to miss the target once before he hit the back of the net moments later. A beautiful goal that saw the ball smartly recovered at the back seconds before neat interplay gave Angella space to power down the wing; his perfectly-weighted diagonal cross bounced into the path of Deeney, who touched the ball over the onrushing Lonergan.
We were 17 minutes in and one goal up. A goal that was typically Deeney.
Next up to the plate was Matej Vydra. Daniel Tozser loves to arrow a long ball forward, and his new Czech teammate loves to beat an offside trap. These two propensities combined for the Hornets` second, with the former`s ball so long and the latter`s pace so lightning-fast that Vydra was actually jogging by the time he got to the by-line, with the opposition defence sprinting back in his wake. Vydra was clinical as ever in front of goal, leathering a shot hard into the ground with the side of his left boot into the corner of the Vicarage Road end goal.
This was Vydra`s bread and butter, you might say. 2-0 after 23 minutes.
At this point I started to think of our opener in the 2013/14 season. Away at Birmingham, we found ourselves 1-0 up at half time, playing some of the most attractive possession football I`d ever seen us play. Deeney and Forestieri seemed to have a telepathic connection, and half time discussions at St Andrews revolved around the question, ‘Is this the best squad we`ve ever had?` On day one, this was absolutely premature. This time around, it was hard not to hit hyperbole once again. ‘They`re back together,` we said. ‘We`re unstoppable.`
Where we had a young, unknown quantity in Marco Davide Faraoni impressing us on the right wing last time around, we had another unknown quantity in Juan Carlos Paredes impressing us on the right wing this time. Abdi was back, Angella was still here, and we`d had a north London legacy upgrade between the sticks in Heurelho Gomes, following Manuel Almunia`s farewell. Vydra was back, Deeney was even better, and we were winning at a canter.
Again we asked, ‘Is this the best squad we`ve ever had?` We all like to get carried away when the sun is shining.
Unlike in the West Midlands a year earlier though, our momentum didn`t stop in the second half. We didn`t hold on to victory this time, and we shared the goals around.
Fernando Forestieri came on for a cameo at the end and did his utmost to show that our attack was not a two-man show. (We`d of course later find out it wasn`t even a three-man show, but more on that when we assess the impact of Odion Ighalo later in the series.) Another offside trap beaten, and the finish was typically Fernando. Where Vydra`s blistering pace is machine-like and assured, Forestieri doesn`t so much run as dash. The finish was a casual poke, and the game was won. Vintage Forestieri.
This set the tone for the rest of the season. We had a side that may not have necessarily been built around its attack, but such was its potency, it could be relied on to bail us out at the drop of a hat.
The routine walk to the pub after the first game was joyous, and this time our optimism wasn`t misplaced. By the end of the season we`d have a better idea of the answer to that half time question we found ourselves asking again, but it wouldn`t exactly be straightforward.
Part 2 will follow in the coming days.
Let us know of your memories of the first game of the season in the comments section, or on Facebook or Twitter.