On Sunday September the 19th, 2004, as I stood among nine hundred or so fellow Watford supporters awaiting the opening of the gate penning us in by Millwall's New Den stadium, I felt a geniune wave of optimism among Watford's faithful for the first time since the ill-fated arrival of Luca Vialli and a bunch of over-paid has-beens in the summer of 2001. Although this situation, where we had just risen into the top six for the first and I believe only time of last season by convincingly beating Millwall 2-0, was a completely different scenario from a new manager and a new set of players arriving at our club during the 2001 close season, in hindsight there are in fact numerous similarities.
The one that I wish to point out is the fact that both eventually proved to be false dawns. We assumed that good times lay ahead - cue a not-so-gradual fall from grace back into mediocrity for the remainder of both seasons I refer to. I've supported the Hornets for ten years, and I'm used to this sort of thing happening. So this begs the question, why do I remain one of seemingly very few optimists among our generally pessimistic support?
Firstly, it's down to my character traits as a person who always tries to find the silver lining to every cloud, but my optimism for the season ahead is about more than that. As far as I'm concerned, in this division it's scarcely the sides who have the most big-name players, who play the most attractive football and who have the biggest and most hard-core following who win the division or even get promoted. If this was the case then there's no doubt in my mind that Ipswich and West Ham would have run away with the league together last season. Invariably, sides who begin the season unfancied prevail - just look at three of last season's success stories, Wigan, Derby and Preston who finished second, fourth and fifth respectively.
Now, we were made second favourites to win the league by the bookmakers in July 2001, simply because we splashed the most cash on new, big name players and employed a big name manager to aid our promotion push. We finished thirteenth and Vialli's only decent signings turned out to be Gavin Mahon and Marcus Gayle, while the other six or seven completely flopped.
Fast forward to July of this year, and we're tipped to avoid the drop by a similar margin to that of last season. But I predict a better season. We may have sold our best striker in Helguson, along with letting go of the valuable services of Danny Webber in attack, and yes, we've lost valuable experience in the middle of the park by letting Gunnarsson sod off to Reading and likewise Neal Ardley to Cardiff, and we've let go of our older defenders as well. But Helguson aside, who were our best players last season? I'll tell you - it's the ones we still have. James Chambers, Jay Demerit and Lloyd Doyley for me coped exceptionally well with the pressure on the defence last season; Gavin Mahon was, along with Gunnarsson and the loanee Chris Eagles perhaps, our star midfielder, and let's face it, we were awful up front whenever Helguson or Webber were absent, and worse when neither of them were on the pitch. Add to this the fact that we've brought in two proven strikers at this level in Marlon King and Junior to compete with Bouazza and Young, pacey midfielder Martin Devaney, who along with Devlin should give opposing full backs the run-around next season, the versatile duo of Jordan Stewart and Sietes, and an experienced centre-half in Adam Griffiths, who can aid our less experienced defenders for the duration of the 2005/06 campaign.
On the face of it, it appears that we've only made those six signings, but for me signing Junior Osborne, Al Bangura, Adrian Mariappa and Toumani Diagouraga on pro contracts represent four other major signings. I once played against Osborne for my school as a thirteen or fourteen year old as we were in the same year but at different schools, and I knew even from seeing him then that he'd earn a pro contract one day. He was so good it was scary. The aforementioned four players all look immensely talented and are heralded among the best to rise from the academy in the last few years - and remember we've seen the likes of Tommy Smith, Ashley Young, LLoyd Doyley, Gifton Noel-Williams, Hameur Bouazza and Anthony McNamee roll off the procudtion line in the last few years. And the latter, little Macca, as far as I'm concerned, has a lot to offer to the side this season, and Boothroyd seems more willing to put his faith in him than Lewington was. Therefore, assuming Macca's involved more this season, I'd think of that as yet another signing. The same goes for our combative midfielder Jamie Hand, who did well on loan at Oxford United and Livingston last season. I hope to see him feature in our drive for success as well.
Finally, one more reason to be optimistic is the fact that to most of the other sides in the Championship, we're an unknown quantity - and therefore are likely to spring a few surprises this season. No-one knows what our youngsters and some of our new signings can do, and to an outsider, looking at the list of players we've let go in the last few months - Webber, Ardley, Helguson, Gunnarsson, Cox, Dyche, Dyer, Darlington, Smith, Mayo - they're going to think we've lost our biggest assets. But they know nothing of what we have left - and even if many of our fans don't believe in what we have left in terms of playing staff at Vicarage Road, I certainly do.
A quote from Alan Hansen from ten seasons ago springs to mind: 'You'll never win anything with kids'. What tosh! With our talented kids and the older heads like captain Mahon, Sietes and Devlin blending in adding the invaluable experience, I see absolutely no reason why we can't achieve a feat similar to that of Preston or Derby last season. We're unfancied, there's no pressure, we're not expected to do anything all season. Wasn't that the case when we'd just been promoted from the old Division Two in 1998? Can anyone remember what happened the following May? My money's on us being the surprise package of the season.