Marco Silva’s decision to choose Watford over Hull or Croydon, a real beauty contest for the ages, prompted me to consider last week the ephemeral nature of a middling Premier League club’s existence.
I realise I’ve lost a lot of you with that lede, so we’ll try again: it’s difficult to define exactly what it is to be an average top division side. Are you challenging for Europe? Are you aiming for 17th? Do you simply long to see your team on what I still think of as the first page of the table on Teletext? And what, really, does such unquantifiable progress mean?
My lot, the sole proponents of neon yellow outfits in the Premier League, seem from the outside to be an actual fairground carousel of managers, each more brightly coloured than the last, zipping into view and then zooming away again as soon as soon as it becomes clear that riding this carousel involves relying on Younes Kaboul learning how to play in a back three.
And yet, and yet. This is clearly the best Watford team since the 1980s. The two versions that “graced” the Premier League since football was invented in 1992 have been, at best, leaden comedy acts compared to our current vintage, more of a John Bishop type – certainly not widely loved or even cared about, but very much decent enough to get the job done.
We sign players from Juventus now. Our last manager was at Inter Milan. It’s difficult to assess what it is exactly I’m seeing. Am I seeing, as my eyes suggest, a talented if inconsistent football team capable of mixing it with the big boys on their day?
Or am I seeing, as our message boards and other fans seem to suggest, a team of League One-standard mercenary chancers playing a mystery formation and squabbling with each other? Should I be happy with my lot, or should I be ever striving for more?
The crowd are just as confused. While match days now are undoubtedly more of an “event”, coming as they seem to do at the rate of about one every month and a half, a dull, combative mid-table skirmish with West Brom is enough to reduce the fellow behind me to incandescent rage, flailing his arms around as another cross zips just behind Troy Deeney’s sizeable arse.
His expectations of steamrollering a larger, more established club 5-0 without breaking sweat contrast wildly with those who remember us shipping three goals at home to Yeovil in the dying days of Zola. But it’s difficult to express nuanced opinions as loudly as people informing Moroccan international Nordin Amrabat that he is, in fact, shit.
There is nuance in what we are. We’re not good, or bad. There is no black and white in the middle of the Premier League, despite our desire to peer at grey until it resembles either. We’re much better than before but heavily flawed for the level we’re at. That doesn’t fit to the tune of any singable 1980s pop hits.
To an extent, Arsenal have a similar problem nowadays. Unable to challenge for titles over the course of a full season, they are reduced to targeting a league position which maximises their income. With six points, just two victories, separating eighth and 17th this season, the morass has never been morass-ier, and the lack of clear definition is frustrating.
We’re all instead reduced to feeling happy or sad depending on the result of the most recent game, a feeling which is forgotten or intensified a week later, before being reversed a week after that.
You can make the case that, pretty much, every side between eighth and 17th had roughly the same season. Some had appreciably more peaks and troughs than others, some sniffed 40 points and then weren’t so much on the beach as hiring a pedalo and seeing how far they could get out to sea before an interfering busybody on a jetski turns up with a megaphone. But all of them, to use Match of the Day terminology, “did okay”.
All this is to say that the lack of significant achievement inherent in the whole situation, one in which striving to maintain presence in a division rather than focused individual moments of glory, does not lend itself to easy analysis. I’ll remember beating Man United and Liverpool at home, of course, but will those days remain tattooed onto my very being in the same way two improbable play-off final victories are?
Given that I could list the full XI that beat Leeds in 2006 for you right now, while at the same time struggling to remember what Mauro Zarate looks like or if we still own Ben Watson, illustrates the crux of the matter. Survival with no hope of success, no single day of denouement except the survival itself, causes philosophical dark nights of the soul. When all you have is maintenance, can you really have progress?
I’ve started going to non-league football. I like that very much, because there are almost no opinions about it online which I feel strangely compelled to read. You know, with the right investment and planning, my local team could, in eight years, be a mid-table Premier League side. Isn’t that where we should all be aiming?