Two years and a week since Graham Taylor’s passing, Watford returned to Vicarage Road for the first time in 2019. They’ve remained unbeaten on their travels since drawing with Newcastle on the 29th December, taking a point from Dean Court and three from Selhurst Park, whilst finding time to breeze past Woking in the FA Cup. These aren’t quite the days of August, Watford now find themselves detached from the very top of the table, but they can take comfort – and pride – in being the best of the rest.
It’s also worth dwelling on what an achievement that represents. So far, Watford’s form has held for longer than in any previous season during this Premier League stay. 2018-19 hasn’t yet produced the listless freefall which was starting to become a club signature. A signature which – maybe – some took pleasure from. The Pozzo family’s model of ownership is the cutting edge of footballing modernity, with its high-focus scouting and the many whims of its managerial hiring policy. It certainly hasn’t been difficult to draw a straight line between that transience and the side’s perceived lack of commitment and so, because of their challenge to the sport’s orthodoxies, Watford’s flaws are currency.
Too modern, too new…too smart for their own good. That was all fine when those slumps were a regular occurrence. But now, with Watford sitting happily in seventh and on the margins of European qualification, the club suddenly look the brightest and boldest of the rest.
Stability never comes from just one area, but Javi Gracia has certainly been instructive. There’s some irony to that. Prior to his arrival Gracia was a nomadic figure, Watford were his tenth senior appointment in eleven years, and yet he has been the one to foster that elusive permanence. It’s too early to make bold assessments, Gracia won’t actually celebrate a year in charge until Monday, but the progress is there to see.
It’s a mood which Vicarage Road deserves. It’s one of the few top-flight grounds in the country which, despite significant improvement over the years, retains its traditional form. It still sits in the heart of its community, right in the arteries and among small businesses and family convenience stores, and its glossy black glass is shunted up against back gardens and garages. It’s the future, but in a more gentle way.
Graham Taylor’s still here, of course, and he sits, immortalised, on a bench outside the club shop. It’s a charming statue. It’s doesn’t have the high-concept of Stanley Matthews at Stoke or the gravitas of William McGregor at Villa Park, but there’s space on his bench to sit and before kick off a steady line of local children have their picture taken by his side.
It’s important. Preaching the virtues of history can sound sanctimonious, but it’s never been more vital. Watford seem to get that. Taylor’s memory has been well-preserved and Elton John’s influence is also always within touching distance. His lyrics dance around the stadium’s internal perimeter and his career’s many faces decorate the walls of the press facilities. There was great warmth between them and Vicarage Road makes you think of that. The flamboyant rockstar, with his addictions, struggles and neuroses. And the football man. Honest, dependable and decent. Two men who couldn’t have been more different, but who found each other on that one patch of common ground.
It wasn’t a game that either would have cared for. Burnley have improved dramatically since conceding five times to Everton on Boxing Day. Sean Dyche’s side have only let in two goals since then and were rarely in danger on Saturday. Tom Heaton made two good saves at either end of the first-half, but Watford struggled to cut through a defence which is growing meaner by the week. By full-time, with the floodlights piercing the damp, cold North London gloom, both sides were as far from a goal as they had been two hours earlier. So this was one of those games which doesn’t appear in the Premier League’s marketing pitch: disjointed and inaccurate, memorable only for a warming 72nd minute applause to celebrate Taylor’s life.
When a game is drab, the mind drifts beyond what you’re seeing and focuses on where you are. Far away to the right of the press box, Vicarage Road’s Sensory Room overhangs one of the corners. A triumph of initiative, it seeks to create a safe and neutral environment within which children on the autism spectrum can enjoy live football. Football clubs rarely put aside their own interest. Think about that for a second and notice how few examples there actually are. The Sensory Room takes up almost an entire tier within its corner and, under different ownership, it would surely be another 1,000 seats or a couple of hospitality boxes. Maybe a row of bookmakers’ hatches, or a bank of consoles teasing a sponsor’s video game.
And there would be a justification for that, too: Financial Fair Play, perhaps, or the need to compete. Watford share those imperatives, but – in this instance – they’ve chosen to defer to that which doesn’t appear on their balance sheet. Yes, the way the club is run is unusual and those mechanics may quicken the pulse of traditionalists, but that’s a superfical judgement which ignores the club’s actual texture.
Watford will be fine, so will be Burnley. Javi Gracia was broadly happy and Dyche, too, seems heartened by his team’s toughening centre. Beyond that, there are few conclusions to draw. This was just another afternoon of bad football. But bad football played in a good place. Somewhere comforting. Somewhere that leaves you warm even in the biting winter cold.