First Team 4 days ago

Affleck’s Angle: Wake-Up Call

By Kevin Affleck

As deflating as Saturday's result was – and boy was it deflating – it's important to add a dose of realism and a sense of perspective. Please bear with me.

These results out of absolutely nowhere, the ones that you just didn't see coming, do happen, even at home. The evidence is right there.

Just last season the team were turned over 4-0 by Bournemouth on the very same patch of manicured grass. That one hurt. The season before there was the capitulation against Huddersfield. Remember that one? Ouch. The season before that there was a dreadful showing against Stoke. That was a tough watch. This columnist still remembers a going over at home to Barnsley under Aidy Boothroyd in 2007 when the Hornets were going for top spot and Barnsley had just been knocked out in the semi-final of the FA Cup.

Even the late, great Graham Taylor wasn't immune from the odd rogue result. In the riotous promotion-winning season of 1998/99, there was an anaemic 1-0 loss at The Vic to Swindon. The season before, the one that ended in that glorious day out at Fulham, the team lost 2-0 at home to Gillingham. You would have thought the footballing world was about to end in this leafy corner of south-west Hertfordshire after those two results.

Fortunately these results and performances are few and far between and, by and large, recent history suggests they happen once a season. It's just the timing was particularly lousy on Saturday. In fact, it was really lousy. 

England international Danny Welbeck and Ismaïla Sarr had just whetted everyone's appetite with a rousing unveiling on the pitch. That particular cheer had just died down, Welbeck and Sarr had just taken their seat, when the return of Z-Cars had everybody clearing their throats again, particularly in the Rookery End. The sun was out, the ground looked a picture, optimism was high and a home win looked on the cards. And then bang. The whole thing went up in smoke.

 

“It was something we didn't see coming,” said Craig Cathcart. Javi Gracia certainly didn't. “I have no doubt about that [we were ready],” he said. Neither did Ben Foster. “The prospect of a draw or a defeat didn't even enter anybody's mind,” he said in the club's new post-match offering Added Time. Even the Brighton players were caught a bit on the hop by that one. “To win by that scoreline away from home in the first game is quite unexpected,” said goalscorer Florin Andone. 

The inquest began immediately and Gracia and his coaching staff were spotted early on Sunday morning at the training ground picking over what went wrong and why. You can bet the Spaniard was up most of the night poring over the footage. He won't let this one rest. “We need to improve and maybe this is a good wake-up call for the rest of the season,” said the Head Coach. 

The big positive to cling to was the way the Head Coach, and indeed the team, responded to a similar result at home to Bournemouth. There is precedent. Gracia rallied the troops, changed one or two things tactically, left no stone unturned in the analysis of Wolves and plotted a brilliant 2-0 win at Molineux. It was the perfect response.

He will also, you suspect, get out the big stick in training and be as vocal as he was in one revealing clip posted on the club's Twitter account during the training camp in Austria.

There are likely to be one or two meaty tackles flying about. “We've got to get back to doing the basics on the training pitch and make sure everyone is accountable for their own performance,” said Foster. 

Things can change quickly in a game, let alone week to week. We saw that first hand in the FA Cup semi-final. Graham Potter, the Brighton coach who came across very well in his post-match press conference, knows this only too well.  “I bumped into Ken [Sema] and we were just laughing,” he said. “Eighteen months ago we weren't doing so well. We had just come off the Europa League run but that just goes to show what can happen in football and in life.”

That's why you wouldn't bet against the Hornets getting something at Everton. The team went there last season, if you remember, on the back of five matches without a win and came from behind to come within seconds of taking all three points at Goodison Park. It might even be the perfect follow-up game given the subplots around this fixtures these days. 

It didn't feel like it at the time, and it still doesn't feel like it now to be honest, but what happened on Saturday could serve to refocus minds and remind everyone that the Premier League is an unforgiving place and that you get diddly squat if you are even slightly off your game. It might just have been one of those afternoons. 

“It's not great to get off to a 3-0 defeat but it might be a good thing, it might ruffle a few feathers, might wake a few people up and not a case of waiting for the big players to turn it on,” said Foster. 

We should see what this group are made of on Saturday.

Under-23's 5 days ago

Under-23: Watford 5-0 Hull City

By Kevin Affleck

Academy Manager Richard Thomas was thrilled with how cohesive the new-look Under-23 side appeared in their opening Professional Development League game against Hull City this afternoon, putting five unanswered goals past the visitors at Vicarage Road.

A trialist put them on their way with a cracker, Kane Crichlow scored twice, Marvin Zeegelaar scored one and grabbed an assist and Joseph Hungbo got the other in what was a very fluid and dynamic performance from a side that featured six debutants in the starting XI and another two off the bench.

“It was a good solid start for a new group put together over the last six to eight weeks,” said Thomas, new to the club himself having joined from Notts County in May. 

“I was pleased for the boys and today was a good reflection of the time spent in pre-season. You've got to have an element of ruthlessness whatever level you play at and we had that today. They look like they've got a real understanding of the stuff Hayden [Mullins] and [Assistant Coach] Omer [Riza] have been trying to instil in pre-season and the attitude and character is the biggest positive to take.”

The club have recruited smartly to strengthen their Under-23 team with a raft of summer signings. Sam Dalby has come in from Leeds; nimble midfielder Callum Whelan was at Manchester United; Hungbo, the lively winger, has come in after nearly a decade at Crystal Palace; Jamal Balogun has made such an impression since joining from Reading that he captained the side from right-back; Crichlow trained so well in pre-season after signing from AFC Wimbledon that Javi Gracia took him to Austria while new signings Mason Barrett (ex-West Ham), Cameron Green (ex-Reading) and Henry Wise (ex-Derby) were also on the bench. Former Arsenal defender Bayli Spencer-Adams is also to be integrated.

“We've based our recruitment on attitude and character and then ability,” said Thomas. “We feel we've got a real good group of lads together with a good attitude, a good work ethic and they want to attempt to do things the right way: they want to listen and they want to learn.”

The fact Sebastian Prödl and Zeegelaar also played today for just over an hour will also do wonders for their development. Prödl talked throughout from the back, performed a nice drag back in the second half and cushioned over a cross with his right instep in a move that almost led to a goal, while Zeegelaar scored the goal of the game and created another for Crichlow.

“Both were class,” said Thomas. “They've trained with us a few times and they were exceptional in attitude and character and it gives the rest of the lads a great platform and a great example. It was like an old-school reserve team game and our boys will have learnt off those two very good pros today. Marvin scored a lovely goal and there were some great finishes. We've seen a bit of that in pre-season and bringing it into a game is exactly what we are after. It's a great start.”

HORNETS: Parkes (GK); Balogun (C), Prödl (Barrett 65), Hudson, Zeegelaar (Green 65); Trialist (Bennetts 71), Phillips, Whelan, Hungbo; Crichlow, Dalby.

Subs not used: Hoskins (GK), Barrett, Green. Wise. 


Dan Phillips (pictured above) and Jayden Bennetts have both completed the paperwork on their respective one-year professional contracts.

The Hornets hold an additional one-year option on deals for the two Under-23 players.

Phillips is an 18-year-old midfielder who was named Academy Player of the Season in 2018/19, while Bennetts (pictured above) - also 18 - is a forward who has previously trained with Nigeria's Under-20s.