Expectation Angst: Is Promotion Now Realistic?
Let me explain. I enjoy talking about promotion. I love that I can tell my Premiership team supporting friends that we have a player or two that they've actually heard of. I love the fact Essaïd Belkalem played a blinder against Germany at the World Cup, and that our latest signing played every minute of Ecuador's World Cup campaign. People know who Vydra is these days, and despite the initial inevitable titters of laughter, Gomes is a quality 'keeper.
I find myself saying things like 'this will be our year,' and 'we have the strongest Watford squad I've ever seen.' Like Frank Smith of the Watford Observer, I openly tell my friends about the fact that I've put a bit of money on us going up this season. (NB: Betting is a mug's game.)
But when I finish talking about our squad and its promise, and after explaining the good feeling around the club, I can't help but feel a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. I know what type of fan I've somehow become, and I'm not sure I like it.
Let's look at where Hornets fans of my generation came from. My earliest memories are of a Watford traipsing through boggy pitches, power, grit and determination winning through over flair and grace (Gifton Noel Williams notwithstanding). If we did well we were over performing; promotions to the Premier League in 1999 and 2006 were never going to result in a long term future at the top. If we didn't do well we moved on and put it down to experience.
Our true achievements and the few top players we had as I grew up were flashes in the pan, but that's not to take away from them of course. Who could forget the burgeoning Ashley Young, the handful of Cup semi finals, or the one-season-wonder that was Aidy Boothroyd? These days it feels like the flashes in the pan are the bad decisions and bad players; the highs are more overarching and feel like they will go on and on.
These days, being an optimistic Watford supporter is not a plucky bit of cheeriness; brave faced nonchalance in the face of nearing administration and a squad full of talented but inexperienced local kids and hardworking-but-ultimately-average journeymen.
I may be overstating it a bit, but we used to be inoffensive plodders. By this I mean that to your average football fan, our highs were probably as shortlived and insignificant as our lows. We were seen as naïve if we expressed any kind of optimism. If you told someone 'Dyche will get us up this year,' you'd have got a chuckle at best, hysterical laughter at worst. 'Malky has the squad to take us to the top at the first time of asking,' may have warranted a pat on the head. 'Lewington might surprise a few people next season,' might have even got you sectioned.
Today our optimism is so blunt it's conspicuous. And what must we look like?
'Watford have the squad and in Beppe Sannino the head coach to deliver promotion to the Premier League.'
'Battocchio believes the Hornets can challenge for automatic promotion.'
'Vydra return could spark special season.'
Oh so Billy Big Club. But oh so logical, somehow.
We have improved the squad greatly, Nani's approach to player recruitment is changing for the better every transfer window, and I genuinely do believe next season is Watford's best chance at automatic promotion to the top tier in decades.
Abdi, Vydra, Tozser, Deeney, Forestieri, Anya, Dyer, Gomes… How can we guard against smugness reading those names? In that short list we have five full internationals, a player who won the division a matter of months ago, last year's top scorer, the year before that's top scorer, last year's Player of the Season, the year before that's Player of the Season, a recent Championship Player of the Season…
But I've seen this before. Clubs endlessly talking about promotion being 'nailed-on' and expectations being high and squads being well-rounded and so on. I've seen it year after year from some clubs.
Forest, Cardiff, Leicester, Leeds, even Brighton. I could go on. Of course, that list included sides that have been promoted recently, but these promotions were preceded by season after season of bullish convictions and the dogmatic repetition of 'this will be our year,' 'this will be our year,' 'this will be our year.'
I'm not suggesting we have all of a sudden adopted a big club mentality, but we are surely heading in that direction. The security of excellent ownership and the recent memory of a roller coaster 12/13 season have informed this change in our way of thinking, and it makes sense to be positive.
But what happens if we fall some distance short of the top six this season? What if it happens again the season after? If there is genuine anticipation around the supporters and we fail to reach the level expected of us, do we become a club supported by moaners?* Do we become another overconfident 'big club'?
We're at an important point in our history. Hope has become expectation, and how we use and articulate this en masse will shape us in years to come.
I know that most Watford fans that say things like 'backing Watford for promotion is like printing free money' have tongue firmly in cheek, but I also know that there's an element of real belief there as well. I backed Watford for promotion a few weeks ago because I genuinely believe we'll go up this season. And I'm not sure I like that confidence. I'm a Watford supporter, it doesn't come naturally to me.
Repeat after me: cautious optimism, please.