Freefall

CONVENTIONAL football wisdom, which can be right sometimes, states that there is always one team in any division who go into freefall in the latter stages of the season. In the Championship, that team are Watford.

On December 7, Watford beat QPR 3-1 live on Sky to climb to sixth in the division. A tally of just 14 points from 20 games since has dropped them to 21st. They would be in the bottom three but for the 10 points Crystal Palace had deducted for going into administration in January.

When a team falls away as badly as that, it’s usually a sign that they don’t have the resources to strengthen in mid-season. Manager Malky Mackay’s January transfer activity was decidedly low-key. By and large, he has had to soldier on with what he’s got.

It’s been a testing first season in management for Mackay, the former Celtic and Norwich centre-back. He stepped into the job when Brendan Rodgers left in rather acrimonious circumstances after being poached by Reading.

With money tight, Mackay had to sell a number of players, losing Tommy Smith and Tamas Priskin, the club’s top two goalscorers last season. Defender Mike Williamson ended up at Newcastle via Portsmouth, while winger Jobi McAnuff followed Rodgers to the Madejski.

Rodgers got a hot reception from the Watford fans when their team drew 1-1 at Reading in September. There was little sympathy from Vicarage Road when the Royals sacked him shortly before Christmas.

In the meantime, the Hornets had enough troubles of their own to worry about, as the club flirted with administration. Lord Ashcroft (yes, that Lord Ashcroft), who owns more than a third of Watford’s parent company, has loaned the club a small fortune to keep them ticking over, while a rights issue designed to put them on a sounder financial footing is sorted out.

It’s not been easy for Mackay to keep the team on track amid all of this, and perhaps the results indicate that. The Scot comes across as an honest, hard-working man, doing his best to motivate a relatively inexperienced squad.

“It’s about character and belief, and to be fair, they’ve shown that in the main all season,” Mackay said of his players yesterday. “There have been maybe two or three times this season where I’ve been disappointed by what I’ve seen on the pitch. But in the main: Have they sweated blood for me this season? Yes, absolutely.

“If I analysed their performances over the year, particularly over the last six or seven weeks – in terms of the way we’ve played and the chances we’ve created – I’ve every reason to be very proud of them.”

All the same, Watford need to pick up points quickly. Yesterday’s trip to Preston came on the back of a 3-1 midweek home defeat by Crystal Palace, perhaps their main relegation rivals. Defeat at Deepdale was not an option.

It showed in a first half that bordered on the unwatchable. Preston aren’t safe from relegation themselves after a pretty limp run of results. Their lack of attacking threat in the first half gave the home fans little to get excited about. The performance was certainly nowhere near as entertaining as the match programme.

They deserve credit for their programme, do North End. It’s clear a lot of thought has gone into it, as there are a number of off-beat features that lift it above the norm. It’s not every week, for instance, that you open a programme to discover a picture of Joseph Stalin on page five opposite a photo of Mark Lawrenson.

(Stalin was part of the ‘On This Day’ feature, as it was 88 years ago this weekend that he came to power in the Soviet Union. Lawro – who last night became the first person ever to use the phrase ‘Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man’ on Match of the Day – writes a regular column in the programme.)

The best feature, though, was a wonderful two-page piece by North End striker Neil Mellor covering his thoughts on everything from the Grand National to the forthcoming General Election via the axing of The Bill, U2’s longevity and Lady Gaga’s popularity. (“She’s a strange character… but she’s an entertainer.”)

That kind of stuff makes a refreshing change from the usual “the important thing is to get the three points” guff that often fills these publications. Anyone with the most basic working knowledge of football knows that the important thing is to get the three points. Tell me something more interesting.

The game perked up a little as Watford came out of their shell. Former Birmingham defender Martin Taylor – Mackay’s most high-profile January signing – headed over a great chance from close range, before they went in front 10 minutes before half-time.

It was a well-worked goal, aided by some dozy defending, and was scored by another mid-season capture. Will Buckley swapped a League Two promotion chase with Rochdale for a Championship relegation battle. And while there is still a chance that his new club will meet his old one in League One next season, his assured finish from Heidar Helguson’s knock-down was just the sort of quality that could keep Watford up.

A team with a bit more momentum behind them would surely have gone on to win the game from there. And Watford did have chances. Henri Lansbury, on a season’s loan from Arsenal, almost scored with a free kick from out wide early in the second half. And after Callum Davidson headed Preston level, keeper Andy Lonergan made a world-class save to keep out John Eustace’s header.

“He’s made one the best saves I’ve ever seen,” said Preston manager Darren Ferguson afterwards. “I’m just expecting it to hit the net.”

Helguson’s header did hit the net late on, but was ruled out for offside. A 1-1 draw did little to ease Watford’s relegation worries. And Preston, despite getting to 50 points, can’t take it easy either.

“Everyone could see we’re getting a little bit nervy,” Ferguson said. “But it could be a good point. You never know. But we’re stumbling over the line.”

A lot of teams are stumbling towards the line. This has been a gruelling season. North End should be OK. Watford’s fate is rather less certain. It’s almost-promoted West Brom at home tomorrow. Not an easy game to try to break the fall.

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